In the O: The Meaning of Sport
Today’s column in the Oregonian is the last piece to reference my recent time in Tucson. It details an interaction I had with two women during one of our final rides – a poignant yet ordinary moment that stuck with me.
In Tucson, I got home from that ride and wrote this piece immediately. I’d written it without a mind for audience or publication – I just needed to get it off my chest. When I was done, I liked what was there (a fairly rare occurrence for those cathartic kinds of writing sessions) so I sent it to my editor to see what she thought.
My editor at the O, by the way, is a godsend. (Trust me – a good editor is hard to find.) She “gets” my work but always encourages me to push the writing.
We decided to go forward with “The Meaning of Sport” and then worked on it together to refine it (and remove my trademark expletives) for publication. The link in the previous section will take you to the newspaper version. Below is the “Director’s Cut” version – the first draft I wrote in Tucson.
The Meaning of Sport – Director’s Cut
It’s a three mile slog up a slight grade to get to Old Spanish Trail. Freeman rises just enough so that the first time you ride it, you don’t even notice you’re climbing. You just think you have shitty legs 0r maybe there’s some kind of covert headwind. It’s not until the return trip when you’re soft-pedaling at 30 miles per hour that you realize how that little section of road deceives.
I don’t let it fool me anymore.
It’s the start to 50% of the rides we do here and it delivers a cruel warm-up. The eventual arrival at the stop sign at the top means the ride has officially started, things might actually get fun and you’ve got a chance in hell at enjoying yourself.
We were climbing that final pitch when I saw them. Two figures, one stopped at the intersection, the other still crawling up the climb. Behind them, clouds were gathering in the south.
As we drew closer, I could see that the stopped figure was holding an arm straight up in the air, as if to signal a car – only there were no cars in sight. I wondered if there was a problem.
The pedaling figure came into focus. A large woman, easily 50 pounds overweight. As she reached the crest, she stopped and slumped over her handlebars, heaving.
The raised arm had been a waiting high five. And though the slumped rider ignored it, I imagine the gesture was not lost on her.
“That was great!” the high-five woman said, “You did great. Just slow your breathing down now. Just focus on breathing. You’ll be fine. You did great!”
Greeting them silently, we continued on making the left on Old Spanish Trail to head out into the wind.
It was not a nice day for riding bikes. It was dark and brooding with 35mph headwinds. My SRAM front derailleur threw in the towel halfway through our ride, locking me into the big ring. Gusting winds moved us around like toys. We rode in silence and made it home just before a heavy rain fell.
I could not stop thinking of the woman on the hill. The fantastic courage it must have taken her to put on that spandex and climb onto the seat of a bicycle with her friend. The tenacity with which she forced her way to the top. The absolute fireworks that must have been happening in her lungs. So many emotions tied up in one stupid, 3-mile climb.
It’s hard to ride when you’re choked up, so I kept my shit together, but the image was a reminder.
All of this? All of these shiny toys and fast boys and masturbatory wattage discussions?
This is not what cycling is about. This is not what sport is about.
Don’t get me wrong. I love pro cyclists.
They’re lean and hungry and superhuman. They propel to feats of greatness and inspire us with the sheer impossibility of their performances. They’re made of muscles and lungs and talent and suffering. They’re heroic, for sure.
But at the end of the day? It’s not the pros who inspire me the most.
It’s regular people climbing on bikes when no one thinks they can or should.
It’s the woman who made it to the top and then collapsed, but it’s also the woman at the stop sign with her hand in the air, waiting for a high-five that her friend is too tired to give. It’s patience in doses as she coaches through the hardest moments – the willingness to standby and hold another human being up, encourage a friend to greater things, motivate others to do things they may have never considered possible.
Sport is not about gold medals and glory and fame. It’s not about Tour victories or winning the local road race or hitting a new 20-minute max power record.
Sport is – when its at its best – about emotion, compassion, gratitude, and the human experience.
As in life, some people get this and most people don’t. The women on the hill?
They don’t just get it – they embody it.