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.