4 Degrees and Racing
It never occurs to me not to race.
Even when the dude on the line says, “It’s four degrees out ladies!”
Even when the rest of the field lets out a collective shout while I force my numb brain to try to remember if I’ve ever done anything in weather this cold. Ever.
What does occur me was that this is maybe the only time I might have a chance to race in completely inhuman conditions. Four degrees? I’m not even sure how to put my head around that. Four degrees warmer than zero. Twenty-eight degrees colder than freezing. Will I sweat? Will my tears of pain freeze to my eyelashes? Will my lungs fill with ice crystals? Will I cross the line a blue and white cyclocross nationals Snow Queen of Suffering?
What the fuck does four degrees mean? I can tell you this: it hurts like a bitch.
I didn’t grow up in Alaska or the midwest so I’m not accustomed to such winter brutality. I can do rain with the best of them, but lung-freezing temperatures?
I’m soft. I admit it. So pardon me a little melodrama. And you east coasties? You midwesternies? You Alaskanies?
I know you’re way more core than I am. Got it. Check. So hold your tongue and let a girl have her arctic moment, ok?
At 5:30 in the morning the temperature has something to do with the word “negative”. I text my teammate: “Fuck this shit.” I think she thinks I am joking, but I mean it. Really? It’s gonna be like this?
It hurts to breathe. And that’s not an expression. It’s a real-life, first-person physical description.
I rush through the most poorly-planned race morning of my illustrious mid-pack B career which includs a 15 minute trainer spin in the basement of my host house. A minute into it I am breathing like a woman in labor and I realize that this whole thing is going to be a little tricky. Thin air up in them mountains.
We get lost on the way to the venue and I arrive on course 15 minutes before the gun is supposed to go off.
Brad Ross looks nervous.
“Tell me about the course, Brad.”
“You should go for a spin.”
“I’ll miss the start, yeah?”
“We won’t start without you.”
I take this to be code for “we’re running a little late” and head off in the direction of the opening turn. Pavement to snow transition, left-hand turn, one good line, lots of chop, a couple baby drop-ins.
White. Ice, snow, frozen grass. This is going to be fun. I cut my pre-ride short and wager that I can sort the second half of the course out on my first lap. It wouldn’t be the first time.
On the line I begin to realize that I might be underdressed. Sal looks concerned. It didn’t occur to me to wear a jacket or a vest. I’m wearing my summer-weight skinsuit with a long-sleeved Ibex Woolies Baselayer underneath. Descente Wombat gloves on my hands. DeFeet wool knickers pulled down as low as they will go. One pair of socks and one small-assed pair of old cycling shoes.
My entire body is embrocated with Northwest KneeWarmers medium-hot. This is an un-tested technique which is not recommended for race day, but it is a risk that I am willing to take. I’m hot and slimy and orange all over. Sexy.
Sal offers me booties.
Booties? You don’t race in booties, right? (My brain apparently doesn’t work in subzero temps) Besides, yours are too big for me. No booties. In my defense, Sal’s booties are too big for me and they interfere with my clipless pedals. They would have been a disaster.
There are hand-warmers in my gloves and imperceptible toes in my shoes. A random call-up that puts me on the second row. Laughter, excitement, anticipation, doubt, resolve. Breath in clouds like race horses.
A head full of questions. “Why did I wait all year to wear this paper-thin skinsuit?” “Why didn’t I take the booties.” “Why is this girl in front of me smiling so much?” “Who is that man with the gun?”
Maybe he’ll shoot me before I have to deal with this?
Gun. Pow. Pedal.
First lap makes me adrenaline-fueled snow-bike avenger. Second lap is crashing reality – literally. The frozen air is like a Slurpee attack on the brain. Cerebral pain! Hands become flippers and I am an involuntary single speed thinking of everything but the next line. Chris Rock is up there above my head screamin’ “They spinnin’ they spinnin’ they spinnin’!” He’s talking about my little legs and he makes me giggle.
I eat shit in a corner and a green-kitted friend goes around me. Goddamn you, Chris Rock!
I’m looking for Chase. If I am going to die out here then I am going down with a teammate. Wait, this girl in front of me appears to be wearing my kit. But why is she wearing winter tights? Does she think it’s cold outside?
It’s Chase! I’m chasing Chase. I giggle again and eat shit in another corner.
This time it hurts. A lot.
Ok, Swift. Time to keep your mother-fucking bike upright. Dig?
Laps three through five have to do more with grit than giggling. A tall Swede points a camera at me and screams, “You’re our hero!” which is beautiful and absurd and perfect because I’m in mid to mid-last place and there is a large nearly-frozen gob of green snot hanging from my nose. It looks thick and sluggish and is resistant to let go of my face and go crashing to it’s frozen death.
I am the anti-hero-green-snot-mid-pack-snow-queen being yelled at by a warm-looking Swedish man in a good, classic sweater.
I stack it on a slippery off-camber section and am amazed to find that my previously injured right side does not offer any pain. It doesn’t offer anything at all. I am invincible! I feel nothing! I am numb!
Later the finish line crosses me and I find Sal waiting with a jacket and a hug. I want to smile, but I cannot move my face. I want to talk but I cannot stop dry-heaving.
It’s all over. The whole season. The best part of my year. The cold and wet and mud and crashing and spandex-knobby-tired glory. Finished. Through. Done.
In the truck I set the seat-warmer to “defrost”, fold over my knees with my hands down by the hot air vent and pry my frozen-solid feet out of the too-small shoes. Later when they start to thaw the pain is so great that I want to take and ice pick and drive it straight into my temporal lobe. Instead I pound my fist against the dashboard and squeeze my face into a monster mask shape.
I prescribe myself two towering “Man-mosas” with breakfast to dull the throb.
Five days later back in Portland the nice lady at Urgent Care will tell my I have mild frostbite and a little nerve damage. No big deal, really. Someday I’ll be able to feel the tips of my toes again for sure. I should probably keep them nice and warm in the meantime. “You’re not planning to do any skiing this year are you?”
“I am moving to Arizona for two months.”
It is the best thing my toenails have ever heard.
Sal’s race happens after mine as the sun goes down. A slightly thawed course turns to sheet ice and the result is a spectacle that is something like the worst, most uncoordinated bicycle-based ice capades ever. I stand at the top of a steep hill with my camera watching 40+ B men reinterpret Benny Hill again and again and again.
Sal takes his turn on the ground, flats a tubie, pits to replace his rear wheel, and generally kills it without killing himself. One swollen leg bruise later and we’re back at the host-house snuggled up with the two raddest dogs on the face of the earth.
Bend is full of art and photographs and friends and deliciousness so we eat and drink and celebrate.
In the morning I wake up and go to work making stories and photos about people who are faster, fitter, stronger and more compelling.
The media is rabid.
A commentator from the Cycling Dirt live race coverage film crew repeatedly steps on me and “accidentally” bumps into me (for the record, enduring this may have been worth it – it’s pretty cool to have complete, live race video coverage of cyclocross. If you haven’t seen it, there’s some on JPow’s blog here.). A tall man with three cameras that look more like artillery politely moves me out of his way as I raise my own lens to make a photo of Compton. (It’s polite if they say “excuse me please” while moving into space you specifically waited for and physically pushing you to the side with one arm, right?)
The media scrum around Danny Summerhill is mob-tastic and although CyclingNews’ Kristen Robbins is the smallest one among us, she takes control like a true professional.
Scrapping through the elbows to lean in and record sound-bytes from normal people who happen to ride bikes really fast is an interesting sociological experience.
But watching Compton take icy corners at speed makes it all worth while.