I’m covered in dust, sweat and I feel sort of hollow. The UCI official unceremoniously motions me off course and a voulnteer cuts the timing transponder off my fork leg. There are still raucous announcements over the speakers, someone is still racing, I should still be racing. This is definitely not how it was supposed to go.
Racing the World Cup in my hometown is sort of like the almost-fruition of my life’s goals. I dreamt about this kind of thing since I was 15 or 16. Last year, when I got to compete it was nerve racking and the buildup to the race had me stressed to a level that couldn’t really help but hinder my performance. When my fork seal blew that year on the very first time up the climb, it was almost surreal and in a strange way relieving. My race became a battle to finish despite that setback. Not to finish well, but just to prove something to myself, my friends and my family about grit.
But this year was going to be different- I was on a new bike, that fit like a glove and I knew was well suited to the fast, full throttle nature of the course. I was fitter than I’d ever been and I was slightly more relaxed albeit not the perfect example of "zen", but and least not suffering from insomnia and pre-race jitters. Once again, I was lined up in the back, 90th out of just under 100 riders. A victim of my lack of UCI points, I knew that the race would depend on a good start, and a willingness to ride out of my head in order to move up as many spots as possible before the gaps got too wide and the UCI officials began their cruel tabulations of the 80% rule. The start this year left from the center of town, and while technical it was going to make the start harder (more climbing before even getting to the course) than last year, this was something I thought could work out well for me, allowing me the chance to move up more before the first woods section. I accepted my fate at the back of the field and had even taken the strategy of starting a few yards off the back knowing that I would be better able to see the "lines" through the mass of bodies in front of me and build up a head of steam if I had a few extra feet to start rolling in. When the gun went off I began the execution of all my planning from the days and minutes and seconds before. First corner, move up ten spots. Sit in, second corner, take it wide and move up five spots. Dust. The dirt road was immediately a clout of red clay dust as we turned onto the access road and I could feel it coating my lungs already anaerobic and hyperventilating. Straight away, move up as many spots as possible….sprint!
Despite the extra start distance there was still a bottleneck at the first technical section but I was already in better position than I was last year and I was only briefly delayed. I was cross eyed and drooling and already covered with a thick layer of the talcum powder-like dust that could have led you to believe that the East Coast was somewhere that was always dry instead of the muddy, slippery way I knew this course in so many other years.
I was gaining spots in almost every section and by the start of the second lap I guessed myself to be in the 40’s somewhere and gaining spots once again as we climbed. I started the descent pushing to open up the gap on the group I had just ridden through and felt out of body. I was nailing lines, I had ridden this course so many times over the years, I could do this. And then, just like that, as I took a leaned-over turn on a bundle of roots recently exposed in the dust I saw the nub of a sawed off branch even before I heard the hissing from my tire. Really? Really? Just seal, just please, please seal! But sidewall slices are impervious to the pleadings of heartbroken cyclists and I quickly realized I would have to stop and put a tube in. And so the people started flying by, the sounds of their chains rattling on their stays and the thud-thud-skid of tires searching for traction were like the ticking of a clock in some cheesy action movie where someone has to disarm a bomb under pressure. After what felt like an eternity, and was in reality probably less than 3 minutes, I was underway and chasing people I had already burned so many matches to get by in the first place. I knew that once again I was in a race where it would be less about the result, and more a stubborn show of persistence- but it was getting harder and harder to swallow the life-learning lesson that I was supposed to be seeing in the big picture here. I was back in the 70’s again and behind the eight-ball in terms of making the 80% cutoff for the lead lap. With the leaders turning 16-ish minute lap times there wasn’t much margin for error and I knew it was a long shot to make it back up there again. I could have pulled out, a lot of people would. I could have ridden home before the race was even over and showered and had a beer. But I’m nothing if not too stubborn for that, and so I put my head down and chased my way back through groups and ever-widening gaps before, coming into the last lap, I saw the waving hands of the UCI commissar and knew that it was over. I would never have gotten lapped, but that’s not how the rules work. And so, in living this lifelong dream, I was pulled and placed and scored as 59th out of 96 riders. I washed my face in the bathroom sink, filled my bottle in the water fountain, and rode the 30 minutes home. There is always another race.
The next morning at 8 AM there was a joint Root 66 / NY State MTB series Pro/am race, and with a chip on my shoulder and an hour and a half of World Cup Racing already in my legs, I toed the start line again looking to the lap timer over my head to prove something that yesterday did not…namely that I can have a good race. I didn’t waste a lot of time riding tactically, and I didn’t desire to have a drag race with anyone late in the race so the brute force of my effort happened early. After that, I rode the course, that I know in a way that could let me recount every rock and minor defect of the earths surface to you in great detail if I wanted, like a clinical bike racer. I rode fast, taking very few chances, and I won by a healthy margin. When I crossed the finish line I looked at the time and knew that it would have put me well within the top 40 of yesterdays Elite field…even after racing the day prior and without the additional drive of constantly having to fight with another rider for my position. I don’t know if that proves something to anyone but myself, but I was proud none-the-less to wear my new Redline Jersey on that podium in front of my hometown friends…it might not be "thedream", but it’s still pretty awesome. Thanks-