Saturday, December 14, 2013

Bike Racing and Winning

I am hijacking this topic from a dear friend and fellow MABRA racer because he got me thinking about it a couple of weeks ago. 

A story circulated on Facebook months ago describing a certain subset of Generation Y-ers, Millenials and basically most younger people in America as lacking competitiveness.  Specifically this targeted those people who engage in mass participation running events like Spartan runs or color runs or zombie runs or whatever they are called.  The message passed around was simple, these events are merely participatory, i.e., the goal is not to win but rather to just do it, and their popularity spells doom for America. I've always been confused by these events because of their lack of "winning" but since I had no desire to do I spent little time pondering their significance.  

The last race I won was in 2009. It was my final season as a Cat 3. The euphoria I felt in winning that race was incredible. It's a feeling I hope to have again some day. In fact, I want to feel it so much that I have invested money and countless hours of my life into equipment, coaching, nutrition and training. I go to bed early and pass on social opportunities (but honestly, does anything good really happen after 2AM in Adams Morgan?) with friends who do not understand the impulse to succeed at amateur athletics. I have a nearly medical attention to the food I eat (yes hamburgers count as health food if you put lettuce, tomato and mustard on) and track my weight daily. The idea of taking a day off the bike is enough to cause a mild panic attack; until of course someone talks me down off that ledge and reminds of my grandfather's logic that everything should be done in moderation...including moderation.  

Despite all of that, it has still been nearly four years since I stood on the top of the podium. And, I regret none of it, even in the slightest. In bike racing we have this fascination with winning. It's as if getting second place, as Ricky Bobby's father mistakenly made him believe, "is the first loser."  Is it really?  Or is our obsession with winning an unhealthy fixation that belittles the myriad of achievements that participation itself offers?  

This is not a discussion of the distorted phraseology from a youthful endeavor of my own where "everybody swims, everybody wins."  That phrase never made much sense to me; but it did conveniently fit onto a wrist band that lasted in chlorinated water just long enough to survive a week of YMCA nationals.  There is something between participation and winning, it's the vast scope of most people's involvment in bike racing.  There are many people who upon paying $35-60 for a race, jump in it, never get near the front, never take a shot at winning and finish in the pack and call it a success.  For me that's a very expensive group ride.  Then there is the guy or girl who pays the same $35-60, gets in the race, goes off the front, rides the break, takes the shot at winning, pulls back the move for a teammate or just does something but still doesn't win.  

By some people's logic those persons are in the same position. Neither of them won so both of them lost. However, sitting here in a hotel in Houston I cannot accept that as correct. Some of the races I remember the most, the ones that I relive with either a smile or sometimes a chokingly to realistic feel of the joy of shared suffering are the ones where I got dropped because I took a shot. Or other races where I struggled to finish with the pack because I had tried to fight the pack all day long. Likewise, some of the tales of fellow racers' efforts that I most often retell are not the solo breakaway that went wire to wire for the win. Rather they are the desperate chases to bring back the dangerous move we missed or the guy who dangled 5 or 6 seconds off the front in a crit for 10 laps before being dragged back with 1 to go.  

We can certainly celebrate the winners of any race; but the list of people we celebrate shouldn't stop there. It needs to include those people who make the race great. It needs to include the person who tries and fails; otherwise what's the point? We have enough people in the pack who are too timid to try to do something because they believe they can win and therefore sit in for the sprint which for them never comes. If we celebrate both the winner and the guy or girl who makes the effort to become one then maybe, just maybe we will encourage better and more vibrant racing. We will get people to come out of the shadows of obscurity so that it isn't always the same 10 or 20 people on the podium every time. In the end maybe backing off of the obsession of winning will make more winners.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Return to Illinois

It takes on average 30-60 seconds of a conversation for me to tell new people that I am originally from Chicago.  It's a fact I take a great deal of pride in relaying.  There are purist who will remind me that I have never lived within the city limits; but for most, my identification as a Chicagoan, even though I grew up in a suburb, is appropriate.  So when, as in September, I had the chance to return to Chicago for work and bring my bike it was a happy occasion.

Heading north of Peoria through endless fields ready for the
harvest and tall enough to block a little wind
I've never identified myself as from Illinois.  The remainder of the state never laid claim to me, much like the fact that I never even thought of attending the University of Illinois.  Growing up my identification was always with Chicago, its majestic spires, and probably Notre Dame.  The remainder of the state seemed as distant a location as California or the moon.  So on this recent trip when my travels took me away from the strict confines of the city and put me on the open roads hundreds of miles from the towers that dominate the shoreline, I felt like I was discovering a new world.

I get into a rut sometimes.  It's an insistence on doing the same routes, the same workouts and no originality.  You wake up and get ready to face the day; but the eagerness to ride is a bit dulled because it has all become too routine.  The same can be said of a lot of things- from work to personal lives. Molds need breaking and repetition needs changing.
This year's winner of the most passionate Halloween
decorations contest.  I little too passionate for me

Rolling through endless fields of corn and soy and corn and soy I can get lost.  However, given the strict confines of the grid system of roads it's really not that hard to figure your way back to the nearest Hampton Inn.  When I let go of the confines of what I "must do" and where I "can go" in my riding I can find myself in some off the wall places.  These are definitely the places that I am not sure how I get to but I am glad that I have gone to.  For instance, among the farmland north of Peoria is a small town called Princeville.  Within that town, there was one house that was passionate about Halloween.  Ghoulish decorations from property line to property line, many of which were life-sized and quite life-like, some were disturbingly animatronic.

West of Naperville, just shy of redemption
The largeness of these decorations was matched only by the size of the smile on the homeowner's face when he saw me spin around and break out my GoPro to snap a few pictures.  If I thought his decorations were peculiar, I can only imagine what he must have thought about this spandex-clad titan who felt the need to roll by his house half a dozen times.  Then again, joy comes to me just in doing what others don't expect that I will do.  Behaving predictably is quite uninteresting.

Then there was the scene in Gridley north of Normal, which I swear are real places.  It was close to sunset when I spun through the town in the middle of an interval.  I could have blinked and the town would have passed by in-between breaths. I bumped across a railroad spur that linked an old warehouse to the main track line. In a split second I saw a flash of light from the corner of my eye and quickly twisted my head to see what I presume was a senior picture photo shoot with a young brunette.  Living in DC you probably wouldn't dream of the sitting-on-the-tracks-with-the-sunset-and-farmland image as picturesque, much less senior picture worthy or safe. However, growing up in the Midwest the image is highly sought after and undoubtedly is replicated hundreds and thousands of times this year.  

In either case, it's a slice of Americana that I forget about or, even worse, take for granted.  Of course, that's something that I cannot let myself do anymore.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Accountability and Training

It takes a moment of bravery to start anything and putting yourself out for critique requires a degree of ambivalence to consequences. I started this journal years ago without a purpose. Slowly a purpose evolved and then its importance to me faded. The desire to tell my story never vanished; more or less it simply faded into the background of those things that were otherwise deemed important at the time.

Took a big leap of faith and brought a bike with me to
Rio and discovered I could ride with monkeys there.
As I sit here on a cloudy and somewhat damp Fall day in Washington, D.C., I am looking at a forced day or so of training zone zero.  An illness stemming from the reality that one can only survive on adrenaline and espressos from Filter Coffeehouse & Espresso Bar for so long before stress, training fatigue and lack of sleep catch up to you.  Time off does not come easy to most type-A personalities but it hits me particularly hard.  I've been a competitive endurance athlete since I was 6-years old when my parents first tossed me into the deep end of a pool and said go swim.  In the nearly 3 decades since then I have had my share of victory and tasted the bitter pill of defeat.  What has remained constant during those 30 years has been the desire to wake up and attack what drives-- the thrill of competition.  Time off gives you the ability to think about that desire and to find a quiet moment of introspection that is often missing in my otherwise hurried existence.  I, like many others, need to slow down and relax.  I've been told I'll live longer that way.

We care the most about the things six inches in front of our nose.  Those things that were right there in front of me grabbed my attention and over time the desire to write and to record my history just didn't seem important. A short time ago I met a fellow American when we were in Brazil.  He told me of a new company he had started called Before-I, the idea of which resonated with me. While this was not necessarily the message he intended to leave me with; what I took away from our conversation was a renewed sense of self-accountability.

Riding in a legitimate rain forest in Rio.  Something as a
cat 5 in Kansas 10 years ago I never dreamed I would do.
There are an incredibly few people that you will meet in life that will make you be exceptional. In fact, few people in this world will make you strive for mediocrity. The drive for exceptional stems from within. This journal has always been about one aspect of my life- bike racing.  I've endeavored to leave the other parts of my existence free from public view; but that's not fair and frankly it can be rather uninteresting.

One of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever
seen from the heights overlooking Ipanema.
As such, from now on out, my ambition is public, my success is public and so is my failure.  A full accounting of these affairs is what I owe to myself.  There is no motivation quite so powerful as self-accounting.  This is of course quite different from self-doubt which kills motivation and strips the mirth from many a passionate endeavor.  The knowledge that you must be able to face yourself in the mirror and in viewing that image recognize it for all its characteristics-- it's perfections and imperfections.

At times I will rant and at times I will rave; but on these pages I will lay bare this story and not because I crave anything.  Rather because I seek that peace which comes from stopping for a moment and taking a deep breath to take in the occasional sunset or dramatic vista before diving into a harrowing descent or lining up for a twilight criterium.