Thursday, May 24, 2012

Mid-Pack Attack

This is the story I wrote late last December for Bike Monkey Magazine, which appeared in Issue 15. If you don't already have a subscription, or didn't find it at Barnes and Noble or the iTunes storehere it is.

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I don’t remember it completely; only small vignettes.  Brimming with nerves as I thoughtlessly fumble through gear in the back of the car.  Apologetic as I steamroll a rider who wrecked in front of me on a tiny headwall.  Hopelessly bogging down in the soggy grass; the scrape of metal studs as I suitcase those stone steps, the tin of cowbells, the smell of damp loamy roots, lap after lap of the overcautious approach into a greasy footbridge.  The final panicking surge through that muddy, rutted right-hander to the finish.  Tachycardia.  Recovery.  Reflection.  Relief.  Indelible pieces of that bleary-eyed, suffer-packed morning in September.  It was 2008.  I raced cyclocross for the first time.  

I had little to no idea what I was doing, but the thing is, I was under no illusion that I knew what I was doing. And this bit of self-awareness and humility is what keeps one going, week after week, lining up to get decimated.  There were so many factors involved in the equation that relegated me to the back of Cat 4 that season, and I accepted and embraced them all as incidental, temporary conditions that befall anyone who does anything for the first time.

The simple fact that I was new to the discipline.  The reality that, in spite of sometimes believing otherwise, I had no idea how to fuel for an event.  And that I was doing this on a singlespeed - and not a particularly svelte one at that.  And that I hadn't figured out the right gearing yet.  And that I was borderline burned out from training all year for other events.  And that I only started riding again two years ago.  I knew that in time, after this freshman season, these things would sort themselves out, and I would improve.  I wouldn't be terrible forever.  I mean, who the hell would bother if they thought otherwise!  

In spite of riding at the metaphorical top step of the cellar stairs, those first races were laced with magical moments.  Learning that whipping through the sweeping grass turns at Gloucester, before the morning dew burns off, is a recipe for an awesome concussion.  And that just because your chain only has one gear to wrap, that doesn’t mean it still can’t derail in a turn on the biggest race of the year.  Winding up like a hero and winning a sprint against a geared bike.  For 50th place.  Defusing a guy who gets off his bike and insists on fighting because you bumped his wheel on a warmup lap.  Navigating through a massive wreck at the start of a race that, due to the ensuing 41 DNFs, would yield a personal best finish.  “Divine Salmoning”, that one.

With these antics in the bank, fast forward four years and 40 some-odd races later.  I should be pretty damn good by now.  At least, that's what 2008 me would have thought.  I should be crushing it.  And I'm a fairly modest person when it comes to this stuff, so "crushing it" really means "mid-pack finishing".  The dividends of suffering should be paying out large; hell, at least paying something after all that work.  Four years of autumn campaigns - such a seemingly long period of time when you say it like that.  You gotta come out of that with something more than you started with.  Right?

I mean, there's no way I'm still...

Oh Jesus...am I still as bad as I was four years ago?

I don't want to look.  

But I have to.  2008 me is like "TELL ME THIS WASN'T FOR NOTHING."  

Since Crossresults point payouts vary year-to-year for the same event, the only consistent metric for accomplishment is percentage of riders beaten.  And all this time, moving from 1 gear, to 9, to 18, to 20; a steel tank of a frame, to a tragically undersized scandium one, to an aluminum/carbon machine that actually fits; clinchers to tubulars; Shimano; Campy; Shimano; the skinsuits; the teams; the heavy shoes, the light shoes, the fancy shoes; the thousands of dollars; the category upgrade; straight 4s, straight 3s, 3/4s; Masters, No Masters.  Nothing.  Nothing has changed.  By the numbers, I still suck.

2008 me is seriously, seriously not impressed.  

2009 me chimes right in. "WHY DID WE SPEND THIS MONEY YOU JACKASS."

2010 offers simply "I HATE YOU."

Relax guys.  We may be okay.

A lot has changed in these past four years.  So many more people have become interested in this little piece of hell on wheels.  Whatever sort of barrier to acceptability that existed before, certainly it's gone now.  Cross is the real deal.  People get it.  Even singlespeed cyclocross, previously only a fringe discipline here in the East, now has it's own sponsored series.  Every Fast Eddie on any other kind of bike is joining the fray.  And they're finding that, even coming in without the technical aptitude, watts take you pretty far while you figure it out.   Fields are getting deeper, and it's just like Reese told Ricky.  If you ain't first, yer last.  Even if by his own admission he was high when he said that, it's still true.

It speaks to how truly good you are if you're improving in this sport right now, and how, even if you're holding your ground, it hardly warrants dismissal.  Neither of which I'm doing mind you.  I was supposed to be mid-packing heat by now.  But this gets somewhat complicated, as I upgraded out of 4 after two seasons, and entered the wholly faster and fancier world of Cat 3 well before I really should have.

I had one respectable race this year - in a 3/4 field - where I started and finished exactly in the middle.  After these years of getting shelled, it told me what I so hoped would be true: the fact that I'm a slow 3 aside, I'm probably a good 4.  As it turns out, if I had stayed in 4, I'd be right where I wanted to be, 2008 me.  But what you didn't know back then was that I would want more than that.  I knew it would get better, and I wanted to push.  For some reason, I hate not suffering over my head.  I need the contentment of brutal difficulty.  It's a genetic disposition I can't get away from, no matter what I do.  It's why I signed up for this and kept coming back in the first place.

The thing that 2008 me didn't really understand, that 2011 me now does, is that results are just metrics.  They don't convey the camaraderie you feel when you line up with people you know.  Or tell you how it felt to make new friends that day.  It doesn't factor in the rabid fools at the top of a runup screaming your number through a bullhorn, or the spark of energy you get from a faceless voice yelling your name, or the fervently intoxicated pleading with you to give in and take a handup from the other side of a snow fence.  Your placing alone will never convey to others how hard you worked to come back from a flat, or a wreck, or a jammed up shifter, or how you dug in and wrung your guts out just to finish on the lead lap in a field loaded with super fast dudes.  Or how, after living through a year of loss that felt so turned upside down, and left you questioning every minute you’ve ever invested in the sport, you were lucky to have even gotten out to race in the first place.  

The final weekend of this past season brought it all together for me.  I worked like an animal that Saturday to finish on the lead lap in a singlespeed race against super fast dudes.  I mortgaged everything I had that day, and then had to absolutely dig a crater on Sunday just to finish where I did the year before.  I felt so damn good about those efforts; how I had really worked to make something out of nothing.  The results and resulting points were in no way telling that story, but I couldn’t possibly let that define what had happened for me.  What I had done, given the context of what I had gone through emotionally and having such an erratic base of fitness, was so much more than “only beating 4 people” or “shitty points”.  

It's why, in spite of finishing my final weekend of the season with those two bad-looking results, that on the surface convey that I'm no better than I was four years ago, I take away so much.  I get it now.  This is what people mean when they say things like "go out there and have fun".  If you keep looking at the results, you won't find a number for that.  Fun isn't really about where you finish.  It's about how you get there.  I have no doubt I’ll get better on paper.  Where it matters, though, I know I’m way ahead of four years ago.  I’m crushing it.  Mid-pack finish.


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