Well I soldiered on, of course, my heart beating wildly out of rhythm, like a toddler dropping marbles or Lincoln Logs¹ onto a toy drum, sounding more of a horse-gallop beat than a regular metronomic beat. Why am I too prideful to pull out of this race when my heart is literally -- medically -- not in it? When it makes no conceivable difference to anyone on the planet whether or not I finish? In fact staying in the race probably redounds to my discredit, not only if I expire on Telemark Road alone in a lycra costume and clown shoes, but if I do survive and finish, for anyone later scanning the results – a friend, someone who scanning the results has typically found their name somewhere near my name in a weird sort of Baader-Meinhoff² that’s actually fully explainable, because the two of us ride at roughly the same pace at two or three races each year, and we may be complete strangers, but we often find ourselves in each other’s general proximity on the computer printouts and PDFs.³ So as far as this particular race goes, one of those strangers might be mildly pleased to see that I’d fallen out of contention, but what are the chances? Pretty much zero, and this raises the interesting sort of epistemological question of : How do people use race results? Of course, they obviously wish to have the best possible finish, represented by the highest placing in the overall results as well as the secondary markets of age and division, no question about that. And the regular mid-pack racers who will never be contenders, many of them (us, me) are also spectators, observers, we take an interest in the top 100 places, say, or the top 10. We recognize the same names – I was surprised as hell that Jonny Page won the FT40 this year, that’s a great sort of consolation for his crap year in European cyclocross last year, and pleased to see that Jeff Hall nearly won but at least got second – and then running my finger further down that hallowed first page of results see the Oftedahls, the Eppens, Brian Matter, Jesrin Gaier, Marko LaLonde.4 And the truth is, we fantasize a little bit about what it must be like to be that strong, genetically gifted, underemployed, single, young. So yeah, the immortals get due deference, but it's sort of cancelled out by schadenfreude too, as I'll get to in a moment.
We each have a constellation of friends that we ride with, and in those constellations there are always one or two brighter stars and a bunch of much weaker stars – me, I’m more of a small satellite or moon that merely reflects the light of much better riders, not to be maudlin about it, but that’s a fact Jack —but that’s just the immediate guys and gals that you run with socially, and then beyond that, you can see other constellations and recognize other stars, and they don’t know you or give a shit who you are, you’re just pack filler to them. Not that they’re mean or even aloof, at least not meaner or aloofer than any other cycling scenario, you just don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. And not that they really matter in the grand scheme of things, either, because of course they don’t. Or rather, it’s all relative. It matters what your POV is, where you want to put the lever of your attention. I mean, look: there’s a pretty good chance Jonny Page, the freaking champion of the 2008 FT40, won’t even put it on his racing resume, because he’s a professional athlete who normally races World Cup CX, so not that he doesn’t get bragging rights of course, because he does, and by extension it sort of rubs off on all of his buddies locally. (Page’s a friend and occasional ride-along of the Larson guys, since his wife is from that neck of the woods, and I’ve been known to sport that LCR kit and chum around with a couple of other LCR fringers including the namesake and team sponsor himself, Mike Larson -- a great guy — and on top of that I’ve had a chance to interview Page a few times for various VeloNews magazine gigs, so those are factual situations that sort of create awareness, connections, interest). But you know it’s a point to point citizens mountain bike race, not even a USCF-endorsed event. So but what I’m saying is that we’re all the stars of our own movies, check, and occasionally one of our friends or acquaintances or even just a name that we recognize in the results, one of these folks has a cameo in the movie of our lives, so the point – and here I’m going to apologize for constantly insisting that there is a point, it sort of begs a tautological question— the point is that we (1) read the general results to see where the immortals finished, and always take a moment to indulge in some schadenfreude because you know only one person can win and therefore everyone else, even those Grand Stay and Flanders snobs, is by definition a loser just like me but more important, we (2) look for our friends in the results, and of course naturally compare times and paces and try to gauge that way whether our race was a success, whether it aligned with our expectations. And when the hard fact of our finish time is really disappointing, and can’t really be rationalized away – very slow course this year, everyone was five minutes slower than last year, crash right in front of me on 77, flatted at Martell’s Pothole, extreme cramping at mile 34, had a GI tract issue, etc. — then we say merely that we finished, that it sort of sucked, that the experience did not meet our expectations, and you know, I think I’m just going to bag it on this race, it’s a bad time of the year in my normal circadian cycle, I’m always on the backside of my conditioning anyway, blah blah blah, and yet like geese flying south every fall, or you know we find ourselves back up there in September, doing the same thing with roughly the same people for what turn out to be the same reasons. But so I often shift emotional gears so as to preserve my fragile self-image5 that I learned from the little lady, my dear non-cycling, non-racing wife who in her wisdom and decades of yoga practice, reminds me to be “good in the middle,” which sounds like maybe good dietary advice, or advice about sportsmanship in the trenches of those who will place in roughly the middle third of the entire race, but it’s actually this idea about managing your performance from an emotional point of view. I’ll try to put it simply here, if I can: It’s about riding well, not necessarily riding fast. In a race, of course, riding fast factors into riding well, and I’m not really talking about riding in a technically adroit way, but riding… just riding well and feeling good about it, especially in the toughest middle parts of a race when you’re equidistant from start and finish, when it seems like a miserable and relentless thing that you’re doing, and you maybe allow yourself to wonder why you’re doing it. Good in the middle reminds you – reminds me, a pretty much ignorable weenie on a bike, no threat to anyone at all – why I do this outwardly idiotic and irrational thing, and how the answer to that question is of course not unrelated to but at the same time isn’t entirely dependent on what my finish time is.
1. The smallest ones, about the size of Chihuahua turds
2. An interesting factoid about Baader-Meinhoff: Not exactly synchronicity, but when you learn a new word and then you see it everywhere, with seemingly paranormal frequency. The phenom got its name from a reader of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, who described having that experience when first learning about the German communist guerillas of that name. It got coined in the newspaper's reader bulletin board, a sort of potpourri of non sequitrs and anecdotes and general reader junk-drawering.
3. From photographs, I'm fairly certain that exactly the same person was skiing behind me at the Birkebeiner for about four years in a row, when I got my little package of event-endorsed photos, and I'm pretty sure the person in those photos, over my left shoulder wearing tinted glasses and a knit headband, was Greg Marr, the founder and editor of Silent Sports magazine who died tragically of a heart attack. While skiing. But not during a race.
4. Just a random list from memory. I think maybe I've met one of the Oftedahls once, and I mention Marko probably because his brother Jesse won last years FT40 on aforementioned torture machine, a singlespeed -- don't even get me started on the 29er fad -- but DNS'ed this year due to the flare up of an apparently chronic illness.
5. One might justifiably ask what purpose ego and self-image and dignity really play in an average rider in the middle of the pack. Vanity, all is vanity.
An Amusement & Diversion for The Genteel Cyclist. Daily.