Real Life and the Search for Unicorns

By: Nathaniel Ward Feb 20

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Today I love being an amateur, and I love my fellow amateurs, and I have something positive to say. I qualify what follows that way because I do tend to wax a bit darkly, and once upon a time I shared some not-altogether-cheerful musings here on the nature of racing as an amateur in the deep end of the pool at national level professional races. My feelings on the subject are fairly love/hate, and I am not alone in this. If this is hard to understand, consider the following scenario:

It’s one thing to build birdhouses as a hobby, right? And heck, if you spend a lot of time building them, you might even get good at it, you might even be a whole lot better than all of your birdhouse building buddies. Maybe your joinery is particularly good, or maybe you paint really neat lines or something. But if there were, say, a trade union of birdhouse building professionals, and if you happened to crash one of their top level competitions, you just might find yourself covered in glue and sawdust with your fancy tools in one hand and your pride in the other, wondering why the hell you didn’t stay home. That’s what it feels like to be a good-but-not-outstanding amateur bike racer in a serious professional race. It’s an experience worth having, and I know some guys who live for it. But for me, and my teammates, and most of they guys I have been competing with for long enough that they feel like friends and colleagues, this is not the experience that keeps us riding our bikes. No, we keep racing for the love of the doable, winnable, maybe even the Podunk, races. The rush of the crowd and the motorbikes with TV cameras are cool, but all of that sometimes pales in comparison to the rush of a 30-rider field where you know that there are only 3 or 4 riders there who can hope to contest the race with you.

Or maybe none.

Maybe, just maybe—and this scenario is rare and highly coveted, a bit of a Unicorn, actually—you show up to race, you look around, and you know with near absolute certainty that barring a wild animal attack or untimely crash, you will win the race. A scenario like that at even the lowest level, like a local race with 150 riders present and 15 riders in the “elite” field, represents literally thousands of hours of saddle time. This, you think to yourself, must be what it feels like to be Mark Cavendish in a field sprint…only you have to carry extra bottles in your jersey pockets and the team equipment order was late so there are no spare wheels for the wheel van. But other than that: complete, total, top-of-the-totem-pole, big dog, special happy jock feelings. Even for me, and my Quaker parents discouraged all that sort of stuff.

See it takes a lot of work even just to be an average category 1 rider. Hell it takes a lot of work to be an average cat 2, for that matter. No, your local cat 2 Tuesday Night Hero doesn’t train like Lance, no matter what he tells you, and yes, I am always quick to stress the differences between amateurs and professionals, in my column here, and elsewhere. But the fact of the matter is that if you ride a bike, and think about the consequences of said bike riding, in excess of 15 hours a week—occasionally more than 20 hours a week—you’re serious about what you do, by definition. You may race like a knucklehead, and the finer points of race strategy may be lost on you; or you might be an idiot and dope to win early morning races in NYC’s Central Park, and you might be completely delusional about your talent and prospects for future success. But no doubt you care about it, and I guaran-damn-tee you that you spend more time riding, racing, fixing and cleaning bikes, and thinking about your tan lines than you do focusing on a number of other, objectively more interesting things. And you know what? I like it!

Using a word like “excellence” to describe what elite amateur bicycle racers do is probably hyperbolic, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that what I love and respect about the guys I race and train with—friends and enemies alike—is that they put in their time, and they care about being better than average, care about pursuing excellence. Life is so awfully full of average, and we settle for it all the time. Average jobs, average responsibilities, average children, average credit scores, and for the most part that’s fine. It isn’t worth worrying about everything, right? Right. But everybody needs something, at least one thing, where they aren’t willing to settle, and where they are willing to push harder, humble themselves more, sacrifice, suffer frustration, and hang in there until something resembling success materializes. Relationships are a good area in which to exercise these qualities in pursuit of excellence, and what the hell, so is bike racing. And today, my special love and respect is for the guys and gals who manage grown-up responsibilities like full time jobs, car payments, graduate school, babies, teenagers, custody battles, aging parents, sickness, stress, and sleep deprivation, and still choose to toe the line in the hardest races they can find, waiting patiently for those occasional opportunities when nobody better than you bothers to show up.

It’s easy to look around the parking lot at a race—and we all do this, don’t lie—and start quitting before you even have your numbers pinned on. That guy was in Tucson all winter, and that guy is 21 and lives at home with his parents and sleeps 14 hours a day, and that guy is a genetic freak, and on and on. Excuses are easy to come by. But you know something? If you were in Tucson all winter, and if you do live with mom and dad and sleep half the day, if you are actually a professional, or if you have any of the other trappings of the full-time training, half-time stress lifestyle, then to you I say this: you just better win. Because, me? I slept 6 hours last night, I might be working my way up to an ugly custody battle for my daughter, I didn’t train at all this winter, I have wide swaths of gray hair in my beard, and I’m overweight. So remember this as a message from me and all of my underfit, overstressed brethren and sistren of the elite amateur ranks, who are trying to juggle racing and real life: if we’re close enough to you that you can hear our labored breathing, we have already kicked your skinny ass.



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