How to Lose a Bike Race
It’s Saturday, November 20, 2010 and I want to win the Oregon Cyclocross State Championships.
I figure I have an outsider’s chance in hell, so why not go for it. Rumor has it the course is hilly, which doesn’t exactly suit my strengths, but if I’ve learned anything racing cyclocross it’s that anything can happen. And usually will.
Before this year, I have never actually truly cared about a race result. I go as hard as I can every time I throw my leg over the bike and line up. Whatever happens, I let myself be ok with it.
This is like the “everyone wins” approach to little league softball.
I never played on an everyone-wins-no-keeping-score softball team. Thank god.
Never actually go for it and you never risk being disappointed and hurt. You never have to deal with failure.
This is life. You’re going to fail. Man the fuck up. That’s all I’m saying.
On some morning in October, I wake up and realize that I want to win the OBRA Cyclocross State Championship. It’s scary. I write “target race” on my calendar and close the laptop.
Then I do the work. Aside from crashing my bike at high speed during a training ride, things go according to plan.
Here is what I love about Cyclocross:
One million factors converge on any given race day. Many of them are out of your control.
Out of the things that are in your control, you decide how many you can handle. It’s a detail sport.
The pre-race sequence of events can be planned down to the minute. Nutrition, hydration, pre-ride, warm-up, energy gels, equipment check, tire pressure decisions, last-minute adjustments, spikes or no spikes?, glove selection, clothing layering decisions, warm-up music.
I can handle lots of these details. I like them. I do understand that you can show up all casual-like and hit the line and have a great time pedaling in the race. Shit, if you’re talented you’ll probably even beat me – it’s not that hard to do – I’m sadly lacking in the talent department.
I appreciate the accessibility of cyclocross. I appreciate the fun vibe. But I don’t want to ride around in circles anymore. Every weekend, I want to see how much closer I can get to having everything just right.
The fitness is what it is at this point. I keep training just to keep it rolling along. I keep the weight down. I still do skills workouts because it’s one more thing I can control. I cannot change the level of my talent, but I can definitely be faster through the fucking barriers.
On the morning of the Championship race I wake up and tell myself what I always tell myself: “The work is done.”
It makes me calm to remember that I’ve done everything I could do up until this point. Now I just show up, follow the race day plan, roll to the line and ride my guts out.
Between me and the race is a winter wonderland mountain pass.
Over in Salem, the mud on the course is getting slippery and technical. This works in my favor. For the first time ever, I’m going to pit bikes. Do I feel a little silly pitting bikes in the B category? Maybe. But I’ve destroyed two derailleurs, bent two frames and had to have two rear wheels repaired and reglued this season. As much as I love my Local Bike Shop, I am not interested in handing them any more of my hard-earned cash. If I have to pit bikes to keep from breaking things, I’ll do it.
Pre-race goes according to plan except for one thing – my trainer fails. I spend too much time trying to fix it and find myself much colder than I’d like when I hit the start line.
Here’s a guarantee: something will always go wrong.
I remind myself of this and tell myself that I it won’t matter.
It’s going to matter. Of course it’s going to matter. It’s freezing out, it’s a short race and you’re not warm. What a jerk. How could you screw up the warm up like that?
It’s a muddy start with a set of wide hairpin turns that you can either ride wide or run tight. I go for the inside, put a foot down and whip my bike around to head directly for the next turn. I watched one of the faster men do this in an earlier race and it seemed like a good tactic. It works well enough and I’m third wheel when we make the first transition from pavement to a slippery off-camber mud section.
Eryn Barker is up and to my right and she hits the transition at mach speed. I recall her mentioning that she hadn’t done a pre-ride and wonder how that fast approach is going to pan out.
She hits the deck so fast and so hard that she hits her head on the fence that flanks the right side of the course as she goes down. It’s a nasty crash – one that actually scares me. I slow down, ask her if she is alright and wait until I hear a response. “I’m fine! Keep going!!!”
Eryn Barker is a competitor if ever there was one and I appreciate the fact that she’s pissed off that I am thinking bout her instead of racing. I recall a high school cross-country race when my best friend Sarah went down during a physical mass start on a red cinder track. I stopped and put my hand out to pull her up and she screamed, “Are you crazy? RUNNNN!!!” I thought she was going to kill me. I like women like that.
Three or four riders have gone around me. I head off to bring them back and the real racing starts. First place is a far away speck and my legs are cold.
It takes me a couple laps to move up, but I think I still might have time to find the front. My legs are finally feeling good and I’m getting faster as I go along. The course is both technical and physically challenging. The fastest way through certain mud sections is simply to ride the line that doesn’t throw you off your bike. Then there’s a long slogging climb – half dirt, half pavement. On the second to the last lap, I catch a Sunnyside racer that I’ve been reeling in. I stand up to go around her on the climb and she surges so I can’t move past.
No problem. I sit back down, latch on to her rear wheel, and let her drag me up the remainder of the grade. Then we hit the treacherous off-camber S-turn and I take the high line while she goes low. I run the second half of that section because in the pre-ride I decided that it was smarter to run than to risk a slip up. Sliding out down the hill would put the drivetrain side of the bike into the muck. No good.
I tend to always play it conservative in these types of situations. I don’t understand the compulsion many people have to ride everything. This isn’t mountain biking and it’s not always faster to ride, especially if you risk a crash by doing so. Crashing is never fast.
At the Cross Crusade race at PIR last month I watched as the leading Men’s A rider dismounted every lap for a hairpin turn. It was easy enough to ride, but he was so much faster off the bike taking the tight inside line where the traction was better that he opened up an incredible gap every time through.
The whole art of ‘cross racing is careful risk calculation, in-the-moment analysis, and the execution of oxygen-deprived strategy.
I huff it up the run-up, hit the gas into a pavement section and finally shake the Sunnyside rider as we head into a muddy drop and into more off-camber. I never see her again.
I’m in second.
Now where the fuck is the leader.
My tires aren’t shedding mud so I take a fresh bike from the pit crew and head out for the last lap with a mission. To ride the fastest lap of my life.
You came here to win this race, Swift. You have one lap to do it. Make some fucking magic.
I haven’t seen her all race and I can’t see her now, so I can only ride on faith and stupidity. It’s hard to chase something you can’t see but, by god, I’m going to do it.
Where are you?
I’m looking ahead for her, taking my best line yet through the mud where Barker went down when I hear Remy behind me. We’re riding at the very edge of the course, face first through pine trees, clinging to the last bits of traction.
“We don’t care about you, stupid trees!!” Remy shouts. She’s laughing. “We’ll ride right through you!!”
She might be the cutest cross racer ever. I’m thinking about this when I hit a rut and go down.
“Let’s go, you!!” she shouts as she goes by. “Let’s do this!”
I love her even as she opens up a gap while I get back on my bike. Crashing is never fast.
Two seconds ago I was chasing gold and now I’m trying to pull back silver. Fuckfuckfuckfuck.
I have 3/4 of a lap to close the gap and I can’t do it. Nevermind bringing back whoever is crushing us at the front of this race. goddamit.
I cross the finish line and join the post-race scrum down the way. Check in with some roadie teammates and friends to find out how everybody fared. I’m looking for Remy but can’t find her.
Ladies Auxiliary’s Tori Bortman hands me a jacket. Which is when I realize that it’s really cold.
Later, we stand around in ski jackets and wool hats waiting for the podium ceremony. I am the second loser on the third step but it doesn’t matter. Part of the beauty of letting yourself really want something is getting to practice going easy on yourself when you fail. Part of the beauty of laying it all on the line, is digging deep to cherish what you eventually end up with, even if it wasn’t what you planned. I’m bronze. It’s good. I’m happy.
We raise our arms for a few photos and when I step off the box, two of my favorite tiny girlfriends hug-tackle me with monster truck force.
I wanted to win this bike race but I didn’t.
I’m wrapped in arms and smiles.
I wanted to win this bike race but I didn’t.
And it doesn’t matter.