Stupid, Cruel and Terrible: Cyclocross Love Affair Re-ignited
Lede photo courtesy of Mr. Craig Ruy
I should be running.
That’s the first thought that comes into my mind as my knees hit the hard wood of the footbridge.
.018 seconds ago I’d been in motion and now I am stopped. I warned Peithman about this fucking bridge. I warned her that it was slippery, to watch her footing, to use caution. Wasn’t I listening?
There is a girl behind me, chasing, and she is still moving forward.
That is the second thought that comes into my mind. I get up, shoulder the bike and huff it up the run up in front of me. As I remount at the top I finally have time to think about the fact that I just slammed my knees onto a hard, wooden bridge. That probably should have hurt.
My lungs hurt and my quads hurt, but my knees definitely do not hurt. They are only joints, transferring power from my ass and legs into my feet into my pedals into my crank into my bike. They are mechanical and lazy. The ass and quads and hamstrings do all the real work – even the feet know this. The knees? They are along for the ride. They need only to keep lubed and smooth and flowing. Let them take a beating now and then – it will do them good. Toughen them up.
The girl behind me is named Amber Clark. I like her – but not right now. She’s still bearing down and frankly I feel hunted.
Down through swooping, tacky single track. Gingerly pass a lapped beginner rider on the left. Wheeze, “Good job.” as I go by. We do this for each other. We speak encouragement and support with air that hardly exists. We do it because we’re not professionals and we can. We do it because we’re brave enough to take ourselves seriously without going overboard. We do it because the suffering is unifying and what good is there in fighting it?
When I climb the jabbing hill after the run-up I can feel the pain in my ears.
In my ears!
Faces and people and yelling and too much blood in my brain, smashing. Everything inside me is about to explode and I am simultaneously calm and breathing as deeply as mucked-up lungs will allow. So the shouting around me seems silent and there is a crystal moment of quiet followed by a familiar voice:
“Stand up and accelerate!”
That seems stupid and cruel and terrible but I do it anyway, like a well-trained animal. My body is a machine taking orders and if I’m not giving the right ones, then I might as well accept external proposals.
On the deep grass there is only breathing and power so you just put your head down.
The long stretch of green reminds me that the girl is still behind me. I sneak a look back through a tight turn to check the gap. Holding steady. Time to hit it.
I’m getting sloppy in the turns. I’m getting dangerous. Second to the last lap and I’m losing my edge.
I fly into a set of barriers and clear them at speed, which makes me feel giddy until I hit the saddle on the remount. I swear to god that thing is getting taller as the race goes on. Who is moving my saddle while I ride? Stop that shit!
My thigh kisses the seat just so. It really wants to wrap around and swing me up into a power position, right foot clipping in clean-style, accelerating out of the obstacle. Of course, that’s not what happens.
What happens is I can’t quite finish what I started and the bike sends me to the ground. Dismissed. Come back later when your skills are better, baby.
The crash lodges a sharp piece of gravel into the fleshy part of my knee, something I don’t realize until later. I spring up like I’m made of rubber, take three quick steps and get back on the bike.
Pedal. Think. Focus.
When the body flails, go to your brain. Promise it oxygen later if it will just keep you clean and steady for a few more laps. Ask to work harder for less pay. Bribe it with performance bonuses. You can make good on this later. Or not. No one said the world is fair.
At the top of the long run-up I can hear Amber Clark being cheered on behind me. I accelerate and decide to take a few risks to make sure I hold her off.
I look down and see a thick stream of blackish-red blood coming from a hole in my knee. Blood already – and it’s just the first race of the season! Well done, Swift, you asshole. Why don’t you just stay on your bike for Chrissake?
The blood is an aesthetic detail unrelated and completely detached from all feeling. It will hurt later. It doesn’t hurt now.
Maybe this is why I’m here. Maybe this is why I do this. This complete detachment and agonizing tranquility. Rocket around in a vortex of pain. Spin up a gear until all the blood in your body is in your legs and your stomach folds three times before knotting. Run uphill with a bike on your shoulder. Choke back the gag reflex.
Everything in life reduced to 45 focused minutes. All bullshit, drama, challenges, decisions and difficult moments vanish. Become a fleshy, muscular athlete filled with oxygen and blood. You are only that and there is only this.
This run-up. This long, flat power section. This off-camber 180 degree turn. This corner to sprint out of.
Your brain is a laser and then – for the final few laps – a light show. Casting patterns black and bright onto far wall in the empty shell of your skull. The pain is stinging and burning and purifying. Like fire.
Set yourself alight. Reduce yourself to cinders. Cross the line and rise from the ashes. Train all week and then do it again. Every seven days a new revelation, a cleansing.
Amber Clark doesn’t catch me so I escape narrowly with a 4th place finish. Numbers are unimportant this early in the season. The point is to go out and make the pedaling motions, reacquaint yourself with the bike and the pain. Figure out where you are so you can see where to go.
After the finishing tape I place my bike down on the ground carefully and lay down next to it. There is a water bottle in my hand and I stare at it for several minutes trying to figure out how it got there. I make good on that promise to my brain and breathe deeply until the world holds still again.
Later in the medical tent I look away as the tech uses a small brush to remove dirt and rocks from my little gash. She decides that I just barely don’t need stitches, closes things up with a few butterfly-shaped faux “sutures” and wraps the whole thing in a pretty white package that promptly turns red.
Back at home I stagger up the steps dragging trainers and bikes and spare wheels and portable grills. The basement is an explosion of gear and mud and chaos. In the shower, rivulets of blood and mud streak red and brown against the white porcelain.
I put on pajamas, sit down on the couch, close my eyes and realize that my knee really fucking hurts.
Stand up. Re-pack race bags. Pass out in recovery tights at 8:30pm. Bleeding or no, I plan to squeeze one more race out of these raggedy-assed legs this weekend and the morning will come quickly.