I don’t really know how to race a bike, but I do know how to suffer.
Yesterday I proved that:
At 5:00 in the morning an alarm goes off on the other side of the bed and I lay perfectly still. There are rules in this household and one of those rules is that the The Princess doesn’t move on the weekends until a warm cup of coffee is placed in her hands. I consider this my just desserts after a full week of waking up at 4:30am. Luckily, I have a boyfriend who agrees with me.
My coffee arrives at 5:15am and so begins what we now refer to as another “Cyclocross Sunday”. Gear in the truck. Nutrition supplies double and triple checked. Pre-race clothing donned, raingear packed, warm-up kit on the ready, race kit tucked into a nice pile with gloves, glasses, and cap. Headphones packed and ready to deliver my weekly dose of warm-up music: NWA, Eminem, Ice Cube, JayZ, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Junior Mafia, and the Westside Connection.
We roll out in the debt of the morning among neighborhood streets shrouded in thick fog. Heading west on the Ross Island Bridge we can hardly see the sign for our exit.
I’m quiet and tired. I crank my seat-warmer to the “Leave grill marks on my ass” setting and snuggle in.
I’m more nervous than I’ve been for the past two races and the only explanation is that this course and I have a history. Horning’s Hideout was my first cyclocross race ever last year and, not only did I cry on the start line, I also DNFed after crashing hard and sustaining substantial injury to bike and body.
So, I have some unfinished business to take care of and it’s weighing on me as we drive down, down, down the gravely driveway. We’re among the first to arrive and the place is eerily quiet. Fog is giving way to an immaculate sunrise and we have a good 10-15 minutes to enjoy the peace before the other cyclocrossers start to arrive in earnest.
Now I have 6 hours to kill before I can even start warming up for the race. This part kills me. The waiting drives me insane.
I walk the course.
Then I ride the course.
I carry my camera with me but cannot muster the motivation to really shoot it.
I talk myself off of on nervous ledge and then another.
At 11:00am I have the pleasure of watching my teammate, Steve Brown, blow the Masters B field apart with an absolutely crushing performance on his mountain bike. This is his third ‘cross race ever. He kills.
In the same race another teammate, Ben Johnson, battles for an impressive 20th place finish all while smiling and making funny faces at me during the race as I screamed after him, berating him to move up and pick people off.
For those that are unaware, I am hugely loud. To the point of being obnoxious. If I am cheering for you in a cyclocross race, you will know it.
Sal is also in this race and he’s looking good in the first lap. Riding strong, looking comfortable and in control. He’s 3 places behind Ben when he passes me and then, suddenly, he’s dropped 30 places the next time I see him.
“That has got to be a mechanical.” I say to Sherry.
Indeed, minutes later we see him in the pit, throwing his bike down in disgust. After dropping his chain three times, he was finally unable to fix it as it was hopelessly jammed down between his bash gaurd and bike.
So much for that.
After 9 years I know that the only way to deal with a pissed off Sally is to leave a pissed off Sally alone, so I make haste back to the team tent to get some carbs down and change into my racing kit so I can warm up.
Eminem cranks in the headphones. Some of my all-time favorite lyrics:
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready….
No more games, I’ma change what you call rage, tear this mother-fucking roof off, like two dogs, caged.
I was playing in the beginning, but the mood all changed…
Success is my only mother fucking option, failures not…
Feet fail me not, this may be the only opportunity that I got.
Fast forward to the start line. Girls on bikes. Everywhere. Girls who look fast. Girls who looks slow. Girls who probably don’t take kindly to being called girls.
I find a girl I know. The start-line chatting is the only thing that keeps me from going completely out of my skin with nerves. Heather Gunderson is racing B’s today and nervous about it. I don’t think she has anything to worry about and I tell her as much.
Before the day is over I’ll be proven right.
Two minutes before the gun goes off I realize I am running the same tire pressure that I’ve been commuting on and I’m about to go take on the bumpiest meadow that I’ve ever seen in my life. I take the pressure down to something that feels about 35psi and replace the caps.
30 seconds later the whistle blows.
I find the pedals right away and punch it. It’s an uphill start that bottlenecks into a left-hand turn and I don’t feel like trying to find my way around people. Start at the front and make people pull you back, that’s the idea. Unbeknown to me, getting off the front also allows me to avoid a massive 6 person pile-up. Just one more good reason to get to the line early and get a good start position.
I go into the left-hand turn in 10th and pass a few more people to get into 6th position going into the first single-track section.
I’m holding my position until the first big right-hand turn into the meadow, which I overshoot by a mile, nearly taking me completely off course. This simple mistake costs me four positions and suddenly I’m in 10th instead of 6th.
Note to self: you still need to work on your handling skills, homegirl.
The bumpy meadow section is an exercise in survival. I employ the strategy Heather and I discussed just before the start: get in the drops and pedal pedal pedal. I have no intention of dropping my chain today.
I get passed mostly on downhill or grassy sections in the middle and then spend time back in the woods making up positions on the runups. Women are walking up run-up sections that have no viable passing lane so I just come charging through calling out my position. The short, steep climbs through the woods challenge my lowest gear (42-26) and my legs. I muscle up them in the first lap, making sketchy passes as people pop and stop to run in front of me.
My friend Gregg is in the woods, cheering me through these sections. He’s an amazing and extremely competitive mountain-bike and ‘cross racer and hearing the excitement in his voice as I power through the searing pain in my legs is incredibly motivating. At the top of the final climb in the woods my legs are throbbing and my lungs are on fire. I can feel my heart smashing into the front of my body.
There is only a short downhill section for recovery and it leads to the longest climb of the race – a steady grind on gravel. Shooting down off the trail into the start of the climb I am thinking, “Fuck – I am so overgeared.” I hit my lever one more time just to make sure I can’t get one more goddam gear out of my bike.
I know it’s not there, but I hit the lever anyway, praying for some kind of cyclocross miracle.
No dice. It’s me and the 42-26 and this hill that looks impossible. It’s the only gear left so I am sure as hell going to make it work.
The only trick is that I have no idea how.
And this is when I start to hear them. A gaggle of my teammates at the top of the hill. A few friends who made the drive out to the country to see me race. A chorus of voices screaming for me to move my ass. A group of people that I absolutely cannot let down. No matter what.
I channel their voices and dig.
Gregg appears to my left (how did he get out here so fast?) and screams, “GO INTO YOUR PAIN CAVE!!! Get in there nowww!”
Little does he know that I am already in every pain cave that I have access to: mine, Steve Brown’s, Sal’s, Ben Johnson’s. I am crashing pain caves left and right. I am a veritable pain-cave couch surfer.
I put my little, blue hammer down and start climbing. I pass people. I make the right hand turn and climb a few more yards. I can feel my life pulsing in my ears. I can see every doubt I ever had about myself in front of me and I am crushing them.
I want to die and puke and fall over and stop.
But I don’t.
I keep pedaling. For three more laps.
I laugh as I hear Sherry behind me on the course, cheering my name at the top of her little Sherry lungs. I laugh internally, choking back a dry heave, and wish that I could return the favor. I want to tell her, “Thank you!! Now stop yelling and race!!!”
I don’t. Instead I hit the god-forsaken Meadow of One Thousand Lumps, grab the drops, and pray. There is a guy that I don’t know standing in the middle of the meadow, cheering for everyone. I love him.
On the final lap I turn the dial up and hit every section as hard as I possibly can. Coming out of the woods for the final climb, I see a group of riders ahead of me and put my head down.
Mike Kender’s voice comes barreling at me through the end of a cone-turned-megaphone. I catch the group ahead of me at the very top of the hill, right in front of all of my cheering teammates. I gut out the pass, swinging wide on the left-hand side to take all 5 riders at once. The crowd at the corner goes crazy and their volume is enough to propel me to the finish without getting caught.
Coming into the barriers I am flying. I suitcase my 23 pound Poprad and leap over them, taking one more position and then shouldering my bike, at a sprint, through the finish line.
Then I find a patch of grass big enough for me and my bike and I lay down.
I know it’s the wrong thing to do. I know I should stay upright. But I can’t.
Sal and my other teammates find me a few minutes later. Steve Brown is ecstatic and we are reliving my last-push pass at the top of the hill.
The endorphins start to hit me. Oxygen starts to course through me in normal amounts again. Gregg shows up and shoots a post-race picture that is probably horrific. I am disgusting and sweaty and ass-kicked and elated.
Later I’ll get the results and find out that I placed 11th in a field of forty-something.
I’m a nobody. I’m 11th place in the beginner women’s category. But I raced my guts out and that’s all I ever ask of myself. It’s all I ever ask of anyone. It’s everything I’ve always loved about watching the Portland Velo boys race. Go for it. Every time. No matter what.
I left it all there and earned the respect of a team that carries me and loves me for everything that I am, and everything I’m not.
Portland Velo forever,
Steve Brown warms up before crushing the Master B field.
PV cyclist ass that shall remain unidentified.
This photo is the result of a special request by Iride.
Sherry picks up her winnings from last week’s race. Mmm… Beer.
Start line of the Mens C Category.
Gregg. He took fourth in the Master B’s.
Horning’s at dawn. Deceivingly peaceful in appearance. 🙂