|High Art – Mullet and Roses
So, I wrote a story for Dirt Rag magazine’s 2015 annual literature contest. Actually, I didn’t so much write a story as cobble together a couple blog posts with a little new material.
Still, I thought it was pretty good. But the folks at Dirt Rag thought otherwise. Not that I’m bitter or anything. They gave the award to someone else. Bummer.
Ennyhoo, II’m positing it here and I hope you enjoy it. It’s about my first mountain bike race and why doing your best is not good enough. Story of my life.
This is timely, because it looks like I may be joining a team this year and competing in at least 5 OMBC races. More on that to follow. In the meantime, enjoy:
I am not a racer. But I am highly suggestible. So, when someone tells me “try it, you’ll have fun,” that’s generally all the encouragement I need, even though this approach has produced mixed results for me in the past. (My dad is somewhere nodding his head right now.)
Anyway, two of my friends, James and Paul, independently suggested that I try racing. More specifically, they suggested racing mountain bikes in the local amateur series.
Paul brought up racing while we were chatting after a meeting of our local mountain biking organization. Paul has been riding mountain bikes since the advent of the sport, when mountain bikers were more akin to skaters than triathletes, poaching trails and riding in cutoffs.
|Paul is ready to ride
James made the same suggestion one night over beers. James is serious about his racing and his training plans include marker boards and scientific-sounding words like “watts,” “VO2Max,” and “lactate threshold heart rate.”
|James gets tagged in
At first, I tried to deflect their suggestions. I protested that I’m too old, fat and slow to race. The truth is I am old (40) fat (5’11” and 210 pounds) and slow (no Strava account). But deeper still, I was afraid that my three seasons of mountain biking were not enough and that I lacked the skills and fitness to do anything other than embarrass, and possibly injure, myself. Still, secretly I was intrigued by the prospect of racing, and I was buoyed that these two friends thought I could do it.
The response to my protestations from James and Paul, independent of each other was: “Don’t worry about that. The important part is that you just have fun.”
“Just have fun.” Yeah, right. I’m calling bullshit.
When someone tells me that the important thing is to “just have fun,” my eyebrows involuntarily furrow. It throws me back to my childhood. See, I was on the cusp of the “everybody gets an award generation.” If grew up in America in the last 40 years, you have probably received your share of “participation awards” too. It recalls memories of times when I would give my all to a game, really put my heart into it, wanting a win or, at least, the satisfaction of a game well played. But, instead, I’d end up in the same line as everyone else—winners and losers—receiving the same paper certificate or plastic trophy, boldly congratulating me for having participated. And it didn’t matter how hard I tried, or how badly I wanted to win, I got the same award. Just do your best, or try, or just show up, or hell, don’t show up – you’re all winners!
“Just have fun.” My ass. Surely, that’s not what James or Paul meant by “just have fun.” It can’t be.
James and Paul are full-throttle competitors. They both have fire in them—they want to win. More importantly, they are both going to throw everything they’ve got at a race (or anything else they do). So, for them, “fun” does not mean just showing up for an easy lap on a sunny day. No, the fun they’re tapping into is something deeper and more fundamental. Let me explain.
When I was a kid, I was drawn to other kids who liked to do things that would give our parents grey hairs. For instance, if someone had a bunch of clover in their backyard, then it was time to go “barefoot bee stomping.” Or, if you had some firewood stacked behind your house, we’d go practice throwing knives and hatchets. Have a low roof? We’d jump off – with or without homemade “parachutes.”
Needless to say, it wasn’t enough just to do these things, but you had to be the best. Who could stomp the most bees or jump from the highest tree? Everything was a competition.
And racing—forget about it! Everything was a race! As soon as you found out that you could roll in a trashcan down a hill, then you got two trashcans to see who could get to the bottom faster. Ramps were loosely constructed, obstacle courses created, and teams chosen.
Here’s the thing—there was no “reason” for these races. There was no medal, no certificate. But you fought like hell to win. You would push yourself past your limits, hurt yourself, and the winner would ultimately collapse at the finish, gasping for air. And grinning. Then, you’d slap backs and, depending on the hour, do it again or go home.
That’s what Paul and James have tapped into. And that’s how I understood it when they said “the important thing is that you have fun.” Fun indeed.
So, I have taken Paul and James up on their suggestion. I have been entering races.
My first “official” race was the “Race to the Hills” at Lake Hope State Park in Ohio’s Hocking Hills region. Lake Hope is a 3,000 acre state park. It lies in the valley of a river run, rich with ridges and dales, ideal for mountain biking. The area is thick with oak trees that shed massive leaves and maple trees that explode in oranges, yellows, and reds during the fall. There are 23 miles of singletrack at Lake Hope. Along the trails, you encounter remnants of the iron-producing community that once existed here, including a towering 19th-century stone furnace.
It is a roughly 90 minute drive from my house, so I had only ridden Lake Hope a handful of times. Still, it is probably my favorite trail system in Ohio and I thought it would be a good place for a first race.
My race started at registration at the Ohio Mountain Bike Championship table. I asked, but they didn’t have a “fat, old, and slow” category, so I chose “novice” instead. My age group (40-49) is called “masters.” Cute. So, I entered the race as a Novice Master, which is also the title given to the monk at a Catholic monastery whose job it is to oversee the training of the new monks, which it seemed to me to be a good omen. But whatever divine grace was bestowed on me by virtue of my status as Novice Master was quickly destroyed by my race number.
When I walked up to get my number plate, which was a thick plastic cutout in the shape of Ohio with a green rim and green numbers, they were at number 664. In tribute to my blogging hero and all around role model Stevil Kinevil of All Hail the Black Market fame, I asked them to skip ahead a few plates for me. Wouldn’t you do the same?
There was a $5 deposit for plate number 666. A bargain, if you ask me. I can continue to use this number for the remainder of the race series and maybe even next year too.
With my new coat-of-arms proudly zip-tied to my handlebars, I felt properly clad to head out into the woods with the other novice masters.
Lots of people had showed up for the race – almost 200 riders in all, including kids. James and Paul were there, too. Paul had arrived early, helping set up a campsite with bike stands, tools, folding chairs, Gatorade, gels and goodies for the members of his race team (the COMBO Race Team). He generously offered me a share of the wealth and a place to hang out. James had driven in from his last day of family vacation some nine hours away, with two young kids in the car. He looked bleary but his game face left no doubt about why he was there.
Read Jame’s excellent writeup of the same event here.
It was an amazing Ohio summer day, sunny and around 80 degrees. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. The atmosphere was festive as everyone lined up in their starting shoals. Groups would head out in two-minute waves, with the experts—the fastest riders going the longest distance—starting first. The novice route was a nine-mile loop with a few gradual climbs and swoopy descents. It followed the Copperhead and Bobcat trails, with a couple of quick segments on gravel and asphalt.
Riders greeted acquaintances and chatted nervously while sitting on the top tubes of their bikes or resting on a pedal, waiting for their wave to start. Everyone was looking left and right furtively sizing up the competition. As the groups rolled out in succession, my category crept closer and closer to the starting line. I passed the time by talking to a competitor in a bright red jersey. It turned out, as is often the case with mountain bikers, that we had met previously on local trails. I knew him to be a fast rider and I began to question whether I could keep up.
But then it was time to go.
The race started on a gravel road uphill. I was unsure that I could set the pace, so I hung back and let the other 14 riders lead out. But I’m a pretty good climber (for a Novice Master), so by the time we reached the top of the gravel road and entered the bottleneck to the wooded singletrack, I had advanced to fourth position. In third position, just ahead of me, was the rider with the bright red jersey. My confidence rose as I held on to fourth position for a mile or two, racing my legs off. I thought to myself: “Just so long as I can keep that red jersey in my line of sight, I am fine.” The downhill sections came up quickly, with their dips, twists, and roots, but still I held on.
Then I went down in a turn. Hard. Not sure what I hit exactly, probably a root, but my front wheel washed out and my torso hit the ground with a solid thud. Then I slid on my left side for a while, my feet still clipped into the pedals. My left leg was abraded by the hard, gravelly soil and looked like it had been lightly run over by a cheese grater from knee to socks.
I have crashed many times on my bike. So often, that I can sort of categorize the spills and their accompanying side effects. This was the sort of wreck that happens quickly enough that you don’t have time to think about crashing, you just are. When it’s over, you are dazed and your head is a little disconnected from your body until the adrenaline wave passes. In the aftermath it’s not really possible to just jump back on the bike, at least for me. It takes a few minutes to let the world settle back down into focus.
While I was picking myself up and putting my bike and body back in order, several riders passed me. So I got back on the bike. Pedaling helped, but I was still a little rattled and too nervous, overthinking my lines and movements. Losing more time. Another 10 minutes of addled pedaling later, I was back to normal.
There was a good uphill somewhere in the middle of the course. As previously mentioned, I’m a good climber (for a Novice Master), so I pulled back a couple riders there.
The last racer I passed (named Jeff) yelled “Didn’t I already pass you? You’re not allowed to pass me.” But he was smiling as he said this. I had never met Jeff before, but I shouted back that he would certainly catch me later, on the downhill sections where I was weaker. He laughed. Then, on the next downhill, he caught me. Dammit. We laughed some more, but it was on. We were now only racing each other. We traded positions at least four more times, me catching him on the climbs, and him passing me on the downhill.
The last climb out of the woods was a steep rooty staircase. I saw Jeff ahead of me and I turned myself inside out to pass him. I spun up to the top of the roots, standing on the pedals for the last few yards, torqued-out. I had done it, I had passed Jeff, but I was spent, anaerobic, fried. Then I saw that the climb wasn’t over. Shit. Instead, the hill veered left and continued on. If I had pre-ridden the race course, I would have known this, but I didn’t. We still had another quarter mile to go, uphill on asphalt to the finish.
But I was done. It was all I could do to shift to the lowest gear and keep the legs spinning. Jeff recovered faster and passed me again. I could only drop my head and let him go. At the finish, Jeff came in seven seconds ahead of me. Afterwards, we laughed, bumped fists, and Jeff and I rode our separate ways.
Overall, I finished right in the middle. Eighth of 15 riders. Seven and a half minutes behind the winner of my class and eleven and a half minutes ahead of the last finisher in my class.
So, you may ask, did I have “fun” in my first race? Ask me next season when I get on the podium.