This is uncomfortable to talk about.
I don’t want to be “that guy”, no one does, right? But the fact is that I am, sometimes. You probably are, too. Who’s that? Well, you know…don’t make me say it, it’s embarrassing. Oh alright, I’m talking about the guy yelling during the bike race.
Oooooh, that is uncomfortable. Told you.
I’m not sure when I first “arrived” and found myself in a pissing contest with another rider during a race, but at some point I graduated to occasionally carrying the spat across the finish line and really giving ‘er a good go on the cooldown lap. On one recent occasion, this indefensible and juvenile behavior lead to me being heavily body-checked—while rolling—by a guy I later found out has a reputation for being legitimately “bad news”. And me, always with the sharp tongue, inviting him to go ahead and get his racing license suspended for taking a swing at me. As if that’s all that was at stake. This experience provided me with one of those “what the hell are you doing?” kind of moments of clarity. You know, the kind that you get when you try to move a 200+ pound piece of furniture by yourself, and you get to that point where you have the thing balanced on your head, and you’re losing control of the too-small hand dolly you’re using, and you can’t really move, and in this moment you might start hearing your father’s voice saying, “you just have to learn to look before you leap.”
I love racing my bike, I love the people I have gotten connected to through the sport, and at this point in my life, frankly I can’t imagine where I would be without it. I was raised more-or-less Quaker, I hug people readily, and I cry at movies. That doesn’t mean I can’t throw down, though.
At my very first race, after my field had finished, I hung out near the finish line, riding the euphoria of a legitimate kind-of-near-the-front pack finish, having discovered that I seemed actually to belong in the race, high on newly formed thoughts about becoming an athlete. I remember watching the breakaway roll in from the P 1/2/3 event—man, there was a breakaway—and looking closely at the legs of those guys. What was in them that made them have magical superpowers of Cat 1-ness? So, so pro.
My buddy Jamie and my dad had come to hang out and watch the race. They were socializing, being involved, soaking up my ridiculous and all-consuming enthusiasm for bikes and bike racing; just generally grooving in the March sunshine. So we’re talking after the race, and we’re collectively marveling at the ability of mere mortals—Quebecois, even—to roll an efficient paceline at an average speed of 25mph for nearly 50 miles. I mean who does that, right? Apparently while standing at the side of the road timing laps, digging the scene, doing everything short of setting up a team tent, my dad and Jamie had heard the fast guys in the break roll by in classic mid-race bickering mode. Someone wasn’t pulling, someone was pulling off in the wrong direction, someone was guttering everyone else in the crosswinds, someone’s teammate wasn’t coming through hard enough, someone else was surging. You know: bike race shit, the kind of stuff you yell at guys for in races. That is to say, you yell about it if you know about it. Silly, right? At a March training race, of all places. But that superhuman Cat 1-ness? It comes from caring about bike racing—caring a lot. Too much, maybe.
So that scene is awhile ago now, and I don’t know why it stands out in my memory, other than the fact that I have a bit of a mouth on me, and coupled with some years of experience racing bikes, well, I’m often that guy, bitching at the kid who isn’t pulling, encouraging the guy who’s trying but struggling, shaming the guy who just attacked pointlessly only to disrupt our collective rhythm. I absorbed this tendency from some of my older, wiser, and more experienced peers, and I can’t count the number of times I “got told” when I was doing dumb stuff in a breakaway or chase group. That’s how you learn, in a macho, crawling-up-the-totem-pole sort of way, and it’s effective. The respect of one’s peer group is worth a lot, to most folks.
There are exceptions, I suppose, but for the most part, the people who find themselves at the pointy end of pro/am bike races have sacrificed a lot to be there. That can feel good when you win, make the break, have a personal breakthrough, or have the opportunity to go toe-to-toe against a personal hero—those moments tend to make it all seem worthwhile. There are other moments, though, usually between the middle of June and some later date when it’s too hot to care, when all the sacrifice, all the training and packing the car, all the disappointing your significant other, and putting yet another hotel room and another tank of gas on an already bleeding credit card just doesn’t seem to be adding up anymore. Those are the races where the compromises come thick and fast, and the long-dark-night-of-the-soul feeling can show up unbidden.
The internal dialog might go something like this:
“Gotta make the break.”
“Can’t make it, not my day. Be patient, make the chase group.”
“Chase group is slacking, nobody pulling, money up the road, don’t want to go home empty-handed.”
“Not having fun.”
“Win the sprint, just focus and win the sprint,”
“Who cares about the stupid sprint for 6th place? Again.”
“I’m done, taking a month off. Doing community service, maybe church.”
“Shut up and focus! Move up, outside, take that spot, lean on that guy, no brakes.”
“I want my mommy.”
Moments like this are when grown men fight about bike pedaling contests.
What can I say? Share the love, bring good energy with you into the world, be a beacon of whatever positive stuff you believe in. I mean, yes: do these things. But really? One of the things I love about bike racers—sometimes—is that we care a lot, if arbitrarily, about something. The world we inhabit is increasingly sterilized, and our actions can very easily seem to us to be increasingly without consequence. So if the bike race is the place where we can feel those primal, procuring-fire-and-hunting-mastodons-with-a-spear kinds of feelings, well shit. Better we should feel that way somewhere, right? I would like to think there is value in that, at least I hope so.
I have heroes in this sport, and some of them don’t go fast anymore. There’s a look in the eyes of the guys I respect the most—ex pro’s, local legends, lifetime hardmen—that calls to mind the 1000-yard stare of the seasoned alpinist. This is a look that has seen true beauty and pure athleticism, and it is a look that has seen nearly unimaginable disappointment. Mostly, it’s a look that says that nothing that can possibly happen in a local pro-am criterium with a few hundred bucks on the line is worth getting het up about. It’s humbling to need to be reminded of that.
*Image courtesy of Jon Safka, Cyclingphotos.ca