It has rained for a week.
On Saturday night I lay in the attic and listen to the raindrops hitting the roof. It has been raining forever. Our gutters are full and the downspouts filter water down the side of our house. In two years our house will be one hundred years old. I hope my downspouts still work when I am 100 years old.
I have a long way to go. I am 29 years old and rain makes me smile.
I sleep on Saturday nights dreaming of mud and puddles. I am as terrified of a cyclocross course as I am intrigued. I dream of mud spattered shins and gritty teeth. As I dream my Pinarello jersey sits peacefully in my gear bag, waiting. Some crazy Italian cyclist wore that shirt once but now it’s mine. It’s full of stories that I’ve yet to shake out of it. Lips are sealed. I can only engage in conjecture.
In my mind I am a crazy, Italian cyclist and it has been raining for months. The puddles are fantastic. There is grass lodged in my front, right lever, as always.
I always fall to the right.
Barton Park is an inspired course. Deadly on the backstretch with run-up after run-up and massive concrete barriers at the top of wicked hills. You have to step on top of them dragging your bike with you as you go. We weren’t meant to do this. We weren’t meant to ride our bikes up and over and around this.
But we do for some reason. We keep coming back. Again and again and again. Until we tear our shoulders or break a collar bone or until the season ends.
It’s a short season – treat it like a descent. Just hold on and point the bike. Follow it. The bike will find the right line. Trust it.
Hold on and point the bike. The season is over faster than you knew it began.
Sam has chosen to move up and race with the Master B Group. They explode out of the gate and you can see the whites of my eyes. No more mister nice guy, Sammy. These boys are racing at a different level. I am proud of him for moving up.
“You can race master’s C and keep placing top 15,” I told him, “Or you can race with the B’s and get faster.”
“What’s right is right.” he said, with a Sicilian inflection. “What’s right is right – I’m racing with the B’s.”
I watch two laps before I head back to the car to change my clothes. My stomach feels sick, as usual, and I’m terrified again. I feel underprepared and under-qualified. Just.
I change in the car behind steamy windows. Out of the snowboarding parka, out of the hooded sweatshirt, out of the patagonia silk-weight baselayer. The Pinarello jersey goes over a sports bra that I’ve had since I was 16. You can’t take the superstition out of me – that’s for sure.
I pile my wet clothes into a garbage bag that we have designated for the task. Getting my racing tights on is the hardest part and I dig my elbows into the backrest and thrust my hips forward to get the wooly knickers over my ass.
I am uncomfortable.
And so begins my ritual. A ritual involving fear, escape, rationalization, silence and then determination.
Sherry comes by the car to check on my and I warn her that I may not race. I’m not sure. I’m scared. I don’t make excuses for myself. I’m fucking afraid. That’s it, that’s all. I’m scared. I am an honest coward.
“Oh be quiet. You have to race.” she says. She is laughing because I’m being ridiculous.
In the meantime I am still trying to convince myself that I am being serious. I set up the trainer and put on a rain cape. Sam and I have rigged an umbrella to the workstand to provide shelter while we spin to warm up. I jump on and make my legs go in circles.
“Are you ready legs?”
“No, we’re afraid.”
“Who asked you, anyway!?”
Sam finishes and returns to the car and I inform him that I might not race.
“It’s ok.” he says calmly, “You don’t have to race if you don’t want to.”
It’s like I handed him a script before we left the house today. He has figured me out so he says his lines and moves on with disrobing. He’s covered in mud from head to toe. Soaked down to the bone.
I’m sitting on the trainer doing 90 RPM’s talking about bailing on the race. It is as ridiculous as it sounds but I am not without reason.
For the first time I’m racing with the women. I have had to wait all day long for the 1:00pm start. I have been at this goddammed muddy hell-hole since 8:30 in the morning. I’m pent up and nervous. I have been staring at that finishing run-up and straight-away drop for way, way, way, way too long. Even though I haven’t ridden the course, I know that I’ll be able to ride that drop if there is no one in front of me but I might not be able to if people are there. Either way, riding or running I plan to get down it fast.
I am sitting on the trainer staring up at that drop and I don’t say anything else about not racing. Sherry and Sam walk me to the line and take my rain cape when we start to line up. I stay toward the back and keep my mouth shut. A few of the ladies around me are racing for the first time and it calms my nerves to hear them say it.
The whistle blows for the A’s and then the B’s. They take off in a pack with mud spraying out behind them. I am wishing that I’d worn my clear glasses but it’s too late.
Everything becomes quiet.
There are only 20 women in my field.
And we are all quiet.
Everyone waiting on the sideline is also quiet. I close my eyes.
With the whistle we’re off and we shoot down the gravel road in a bunch. I’ve buried myself so I am eating mud off the riders in front of me. With a right-hand turn the race begins in earnest and we descend into mud so thick that it stops your bike dead. We dismount for a hairpin turn that no one is going to manage in the saddle.
My remount is sloppy and needs work and I lose positions every time I have to try to get back on. Then I sit down and hammer up sloppy hillsides to make up places. Back and forth, back and forth. I am cursing myself for not practicing my remount more.
It’s killing me.
On the first lap I play every obstacle safe – dismounting for the sharp drops and corners. I can run faster than I can get through this mush, I am thinking. I am running through mud so thick that it is up to my ankles. I can feel it between my toes when I remount and start pedaling.
Everything is earthy and brown – the rain is coming now in sheets.
On a drop in the back on the second lap a spectator calls out to me as I dismount: “You’re better off riding this!”
Everyone around me has been running it but I’m willing to try anything so on the next lap I ride it through, nearly eating my handlebars as my bike trips through the ditch at the bottom. I spin hard coming out of the rut and find a line that takes me through the soft mud ahead. Coming around a right-hand turn I decide to ride another drop that I ran last time through.
What the hell.
I shift my weight back over my back wheel and modulate with my rear brake which is working great until a rider who is running in front of me shifts to the right despite the fact that I’ve been calling out my position in the most gutteral voice I have.
There’s a 3 inch chance of me making it down the drop on my bike and I miss it. I’m just not that good yet. Instead I go straight over the handlebars and land in a puddle that is at least 16 inches deep. The cold is a shock and sends a wave through my body.
I jump up and run the bike through the soft muck until I can remount. When I am back on and pedaling I notice that my right lever is lodged with mud.
I always fall to the right.
On the way into my third and final lap I approach the crest of the biggest, steepest drop of the course and resolve to go down it on my bike. I’d run it both times prior.
There are fans everwhere. This position is right next to the finish and the top of this drop is lined with people rining cowbells. CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG. A man on the right notices my face change when I decide to ride it and he screams, “You got it! You got it! Do it!”
It’s not very hard to stay upright even though the hill is only mud and presses sharply to the left at the bottom. I am probably too heavy on my rear brake but I can correct for the tire slip and I stay upright. I handle the ending corner with ease and find myself smiling as I move onto the gravel and gracefull through a mud-puddle that is roughly 45 feet wide and probably 14 inches deep in the center.
Sam is there on the side screaming and I turn my pedals over quickly, gliding along the milky, brown water like it was something that I did every day. The water is so deep that my feet submerge fully when they reach the bottom of my pedal stroke.
Just keep pedaling.
Later he would tell me that he was impressed with the way I rode that section. I will smile silently and tell him what I am thinking – that I was too.
“Every time you come around I get so fucking proud,” he says. “I know how hard this is for you. I know how scared you get of this. I see you out there and I know you’re dealing with so much all in just one ride. I love to see you out there. I am so glad you are doing this.”
I finish exactly in the middle of my pack. I have an off-kilter right lever and three nasty bruises on my left leg. My knee is only slightly pulverized and I have just ingested the best macaroni and cheese in town.
I am insanely tired.
My body hates me.
My bike is battered.
Our car is trashed.
The washing machine doesn’t know what it has coming.
There are shoes drying on four separate heater vents throughout the house.
It’s still raining.