There are Only So Many Matches (Banana Belt 3 Race Report)
Does anyone remember the story of the Little Match Girl?
The tale is often edited (as many of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales are) into Disney-esque happiness because we can’t bear to expose our children to the reality that sometimes little, poor girls freeze to death in the middle of winter.
If you missed the real version of this classic tale, here is roughly how it plays:
A little girl who sells matches to earn money for her family finds herself outside on a cold, New Years Eve. She has bare feet (one slipper lost, one stolen). She has sold no matches, and knows her father will beat her if she returns home with no money.
Instead of facing him, she sits down against a wall out of the wind, and dares to light one of her matches to try to warm her fingers. She sees wonderful visions in the match and lights another. Then another. In the third match, she sees her grandmother calling to her. She strikes an entire bundle to keep her Grandmother from going away.
They find here there in the morning, frozen to death "with rosy cheeks and a smile on her face". (Don’t ask me why I remember that particular detail so clearly – I was kind of a macabre child. I read the entire Hans Christian Andersen book from cover to cover many times over.)
I didn’t freeze to death today, but I did die a few tiny deaths.
I did not have a smile on my face but I can tell you that judging from the rate at which blood was pumping through my body, my cheeks were probably rosy.
The morning was crisp. The coffee was set with a timer and brewed obediently at 4:45am. We get up early on race days, it’s just what we do.
On Wednesday I had weathered my first cycling-related emotional breakdown. After pre-riding the course on a day when my body just wasn’t in good form, I had doubted my ability to compete.
I made calls to several important people who talked me off the ledge.
I regrouped by running a 7 mile run on Thursday during which I lectured myself on the purity of riding for riding’s sake. I lectured myself on the purity of my intention. I reminded myself why I was doing this. I reminded myself that everything that has been done cannot be undone, and everything that has been left undone cannot be made up.
Everything that I have done to this point is exactly what it is: no more, no less. I can’t change it. I have to take this fitness, and this training, and go race my bike and trust myself to perform. That’s it.
On Saturday I opened my legs with a moderately fast 1.5 hour workout. I left with the sun in my eyes and returned with the rain on my back. When the clouds moved in and cracked opened, I smiled.
The rain is my companion.
I was calm on Saturday night. Calmer than before any ‘cross race. Calmer than normal for me. Serene, almost. It was eerie. It was good. We made tacos and went to bed early.
I dreamed of racing. Breakaways, chase groups, climbing, suffering. The dreams raged on all night long.
I wake up at 4:45am.
I can smell the coffee.
The bags have been packed. The gear is ready. The bikes go in the truck. The streets are dark and empty as we roll out in the truck.
At 7:00am Hagg Lake is 38 degrees cold. Register, chat, change, embrocate, trainer. It has taken me too long to learn that I need a long warmup. I sit on the trainer and drip sweat. I do not listen to music. I watch the sweat dripping from the tip of my nose onto the Pinarello logo below and I talk to the bike:
You are my bike. I have known you for 7 years and we have never raced together. Are you ready to race?
The bike thinks it is ready but at the last moment, as Sal is pumping up my tires, he spots a reflection from the tire.
Tires are made of rubber. Rubber does not reflect light. Staples do.
We frantically attempt to extract the staple which is lodged parallel to the tire tread (the only thing that has saved me from a flat thus far). Sal is kneeling down, squeezing the sides of the tire with his hands and trying to tug the staple out with his teeth.
"Oh Sal! Your teeth! Don’t do that!"
The staple comes out. The tire is replaced. The tube is reinflated. Disaster very narrowly averted. It is 5 minutes to Sal’s start time. He rolls off to the start line, my knight in shining spandex.
I take a few more laps and then line up. I know a few people. I say hi. The official says things that I do not process and we’re off!
We’re off! I am racing! In a road race!
The pace is moderate to start. I’m comfortable. I’m braking. We’re all braking. I take stock. The girl to my right in all-gray is a little too squirrelly for my taste. The Poplollies have … how many? 4 riders? 5? Gunderson and Joanna are riding on the front: separate teams but aligned goals. Both fast. Dangerous.
Road racing is a chess match and I am trying to see five moves ahead.
My ambition in this effort can hardly be called ambition. If I don’t flat or get shelled off the back in the first two laps then I have won.
I take up residence next to a Veloshop rider on a white Sweetpea bicycle. We are riding on the back, which is not necessarily part of my long-term plan. Every time the field surges, we have to surge three times as hard as we accordion off the back of the field.
I know better than to ride this far back in the pack but I cut myself slack and remind myself that it’s my first road race. It’s ok to find my footing. It’s ok to feel it out for a while.
About 3 or 4 miles in, my teammate, Kristin, goes off the front. It’s early for an attack, but the past two races in this series have been frustratingly slow and no one wants a repeat. I am not in position (physically or strategically) to go with her so I watch her pedal away.
The pace increases as the front of the group pulls her back. Someone behind me says, "They’re starting early today."
The attack is eventually pulled back and Kristin rejoins the group. One match burned for Kristin. Lucky for her, I am pretty sure she brought a big bundle with her today.
Lap two is faster. I move up and ride in the top ten for a while. It’s harder and easier at once. Less pace fluctuation to manage but a higher consistent intensity.
I am starting to feel my legs. I reach back into my right-hand pocket and fish out a shot-block. I think of Krabbe and his figs.
I wish I had a fig.
No. I wish I was Krabbe. I wish I had good legs.
On Lee Hill I can feel my legs inside me burning. They are burning up a match. Or three. I have not been climbing much and these power rollers are starting to take their toll. I stay in the top quarter of the group and find myself blocked out of a paceline after we crest the hill.
I ride in the wind for a good while – the tenth wheel in the peloton – hung out to dry and suffering. I see Kristin up ahead in fourth position and I find a big gear to reach her. She looks over: "Hey."
"Can I come in?" I say.
She probably senses the desperation in my voice and opens up a gap just big enough for me to slide into. I grab the wheel in front of me and crank. We are coming out of a sweeping descent at a good clip and my bones are telling me that something is about to happen.
The road turns up. I dig.
I am losing my stuff and I know it, but there is something critical going down so I hang on and grit my teeth. Then I see the two lead riders look at each other. We are heading into a long-ish climb. They are climbers.
I look over at Kristin, who is now slightly behind me and to my left. "Kristin! That’s the break! You have to be in that break! Go!"
She goes and I am impressed. As she passes me she screams, "C’mon c’mon c’mon!" I want to be in the break with her so I punch it for a few pedal strokes but the legs are not having it. The break pulls away and I watch as they get smaller. The peloton comes around me in a wave and watch the match fizzle out.
I am starting to hallucinate.
I drop back a bit and find myself buried in the field coming down a fast descent into a sharp right-hand turn. The mid-pack riders in front of me brake hard so I must as well.
Coming out of the turn a gap is forming as the top half of the group accelerates out of the turn. I stand up and bring them back to me.
Another match. They’re going quickly now.
Like Hans Christian Andersen’s little match girl, my matches are about survival, not glory. Such is my lot.
The second lap is taking forever. I want it to be the third lap. Where the hell is the third lap?
It is around the bend, up a couple of climbs, that’s where it is.
I move up in the field.
The peloton is still together after covering several attacks. The race will happen in the third lap. I need to have a good position. I need to be able to mark what is going on.
Riding from the back is like peering over a wall at a party you would like to join. Even if they decided to give you an invitation, you wouldn’t be able to accept it.
At the very least, you have to stand at the gate.
I go to the gate.
Lap three is a waiting game. The race has been fast and we are looking left and right, trying to figure out who’s got what. We climb at a good clip. There are a few attempted breaks that don’t stick.
At some point I realize that it is the third lap and I am not dropped. In fact, I’ve put up a good fight. I’ve done a few favors and closed a few gaps.
I feel like a bike racer. I feel like a roadie.
I ride forward in the field on legs that protest. Kristin is there and I say: "We need to be at the front of the group going into the dam."
I don’t need to tell her this. She knows it.
And when it comes, we are. I am the sixth wheel to make the turn. We are carrying 26 or 27 mph as we accelerate out of the corner and then suddenly I’m hitting the brakes.
I’m not sure why, but we’re slowing. The field, which had strung out, comes back to us. A few riders come around me.
"What the hell?" the one to my left wonders.
"I thought that was the race right there." I comment back.
"The climbers are toying with me." I say and smile.
All that is left of this race is Lee Hill, followed by a few more small rises. There are climbers on the front who are going to blow that shit to pieces. I look down at my legs and wonder where they are storing the extra matches.
"We are going to need a few." I say outoud.
"Huh?" The girl next to me is looking over.
The road turns up and the field blows to pieces. Ten or eleven riders go off the front up the hill. Kristin is among them.
I am going backward.
Four girls come around me. I catch a wheel and stand up. Where are my matches!? Where are my fucking matches!?
There are explosions in my legs. I pull one of the girls back. I pull another one back.
If I had any matches left, then they are all burning white hot. Was that a whiff of sulfur I caught?
An official’s car pulls up alongside me. "What’s your number?"
I look over. It appears that there are human beings there, moving in some sort of vehicle which does not require matches in order to get over this hill. They look happy and warm.
He repeats the question.
"What?" I am aware that there is an impressive volume of snot coming out of both nostrils. The hand volunteers to remedy the situation but the legs scream out, "NO! That is our energy! DO NOT TOUCH THE SNOT?"
The official repeats the question again.
He wants my number. The thoughts are coming to me slowly now. I am starting to understand the nature of this interaction.
I look down. My heartrate is 179. The number that he wants is plastered to the right side of my body. I have had this number for three weeks. I have looked at it twice. This is my first race ever.
"I don’t know."
I am so proud of myself for coming up with this sentence.
"Nice." he replies. It is possible that he is being a smart-ass. I make a mental note to assess this later.
"I don’t know my number," I continue, "But my heart rate is 179."
I am talking through the snot.
He is laughing when he finally speeds away.
I look up. One more rider. She is wearing black and I want her. She is all I know. She is everything in this moment. Her back wheel is all I can see. The world is speeding by me and the big ring has taken on a life of its own. I hate everything. I hate the snot. I hate the number. I hate the official.
I pull her back and hold her off as we cross the line. The finish is unremarkable. No one screams. There is no cheering. The spectators are bored, having already seen the real finish. The white line passes me rather than the other way around.
I sit up and my legs allow my arm to wipe the snot away.
No one on the side of the road knows me. No one cares about my story. No one knows it is my first road race. No one has any idea how many matches I burned to pull down that unremarkable and unglorious finish.
It doesn’t matter.
Only my heart in my chest, still beating hard. My lungs processing oxygen. My brain frantically filing information away for later use.
I roll back to the car to find friends and marvel in the extent to which we can evolve – the vast impossibilities that we can make real.
Hans Christian Andersen used his words to make stories about little girls who burned all their matches and then died.
I will use mine to write stories about little girls who burn all their matches and survive.