"It never gets any easier. You just go faster." ---Greg Lemond
"Don't buy upgrades. Ride up grades." --- Eddy Merckx
"You drive like shit." ---The Car Whisperer


I Made it Last

I made it. With sun blazing down, my feet brittle and sore, and a stitch in my side, I made it to the finish.

Crossing the white line on that flat, hot road in Utica Sunday not only ended the toughest race I entered this year, it ended my first season as a bike racer. On both counts, I never dreamed it would be so hard. Had I known what I was in for, without having had yet the experience of finishing, I would have done neither. However, seeing it from the other side, I can't wait to do it all again.

It's so easy to dream of glory, to sit on the couch, drinking beer and watching The Tour. And to go buy that brand new Dura-Ace carbon fiber bike, and what the hell, throw in the case of Clif Bars, too. "Oooh, a World Championship jersey." But to actually stretch, push, and reach for glory - or even harder, your own sense of personal gain and satisfaction - in the face of pain, is another thing entirely. Can you get up at 5am on a Sunday to ride? Keep that sprint up for another 100 meters? Get back in the race with your face bloodied and your knee swollen?

And doing anything for the first time is exponentially harder because it is unanticipated pain. Unknown pain. How bad will it get? How long can you go? What if I don't make it? All questions that must be addressed if you are to do this again, so knowing that you will have answers, you move on into that gray foggy haze.

Because as I have learned this year, in my first season of competitive cycling, conquering pain is what satisfies me and drives me to do it again. It's made me a harder man and am that much better for it.

Because I've never been much of a fighter.

I was picked on a lot in school. Bullied on the playground. Pushed around. I gave up way to easily. Still do sometimes. Never took risks. Still don't many times. I never dated. In fact, I never really talked that much to girls, let alone ones I was interested in. I only sat and waited for things to come to me. And watched as they all passed me by. My success was found inwardly, through musical expression, and it was the one thing that probably saved my life. The tuba, the bass, my bands, my gigs, were all safety valves that released the pressure on my soul, and let in a sense of self-worth that at least kept me individual and unique.

But that is changing, because of the new limits I have set for myself this year. Not my individuality, of course, but my passive nature towards letting things come to me. And that is of course further defining my individuality much, much more. Seeing myself reaching and surpassing levels of physical and mental achievement this summer that in the spring only scared me has filled me with power and confidence. And that it was done pretty much on that fly, and that this winter I am going in with a plan drives me so much more I can hardly wait for it to be spring again. And for all the things, experiences, and events beyond the bike that need to be taken, not waited upon.

It was this past Sunday in Utica, IL. The ABR National Championship 4 Man Team Time Trial event. We waited at the line, joking casually. I wasn't nervous, but there had been a little voice in my head all week saying, "you know, you have never ridden this distance at full speed before." I chose to ignore it, because I had been faced with unexpected and daunting adversity many times this year and persevered, and I believed this would be no different. In one way I was right, and in the other I had no I idea what I was in for in about five minutes.

We'd agreed during our 5am team practices in the week before that Leonard and I would lead the team out from the line. Jonathan and Peter were so much stronger that in order to set a pace that all of us could ride at, the two of us would establish the opening tempo. I took a few deep breaths as the race marshal gave us two minutes, one minute, 30 seconds, 10, and then counted down from five.

We were rolling. All the talk, all the training, all the planning, it had finally come together in my last race of the season. And in about a mile, it was all falling apart.

We were trying to maintain our discussed baseline speed of 25mph but no sooner than we had passed our 2 minute men less than a couple miles into the race, I was already wheezing like Jackie Gleason on his ventilator. My breathing was terrible, my spin and economy were wasteful, I was cracking like a first-time club rider. I was missing the wheel after my pulls, couldn't accelerate, and was already going anaerobic. I was in full panic.

We continued east on the first stretch and I would just pull through and off, practically pushing whoever had just pulled before me backwards as I came off. Peter sheltered me from the wind as I rode to his right. Jon shouted for me to stay on his wheel. Leonard gave encouragement as I came of the front. And then we turned into the wind.

There was no way I was going to make it.

I was getting gapped each time I tried to get back on the line. Peter came by once and said, "Dont feel bad, man. It happens. You're doing your best." But our speed was slowing and I could sense everyone else's frustration with me as I thought, Goddamnit. All this training, all this excitement, and I'm going to go home the goat. Dropped before we even got moving.

Gapped again and a whooshing gust of wind past my ears. "Go!" I shouted. "Go on, leave me!"

But I kept pedaling, embarrassed, and hoping against the inevitable odds of biology I could pull my shit together. And the team ahead refused to let me falter.

"No!" Jon shouted. "Get your ass on my wheel!"

I focused on belly breathing, gave it the gas, and willed myself back up to the group. I was on again, amazingly, and Jon began barking out orders. "Three man rotation guys. Brian, stay at the back and recover." And my teammates brought me back.

After about 3 or 4 rotations, my heart rate finally came down below 165 and when Peter asked me how I was doing, I was able to respond in a steady voice that I was doing good. I focused on my breathing - deep breaths of water from the pit of my belly and rising up to my chest. And then: "Phhew!" and inhaling again. But then Leonard came to the fore, and I heard him say he wasn't going to last. He pulled long, and there was a miscommunication between him and Jon that was a close call, but everyone stayed upright, and then he was gone.

"Leonard's off!" Jon said. And whatever had happened with Leonard must have been bad, because he had sat up and was coasting, his silhouette growing smaller behind us. And then it was galvanized like iron in my brain. "No more fucking off, no more mental lapses, Brian. These guys are depending on you. Ride smart. Let's go."

And 40 minutes later I found ourselves cruising at 27mph, working hard, but certainly not the panting mess I was before at a much slower speed. Once I missed a turn after pulling us to the corner, I was so focused on deep breathing. I nearly flipped over my handlebars trying to get the bike around as Jon screamed, "Left! Left!"

"Sorry, guys, I'm a fucking moron." Peter just laughed and said, "your other left!"

We really had a groove on from then to the end. With the wind at our backs we were hitting 30+, and even with the cross winds we maintained a steady 26-27mph pace. It wasn't without cost however. The last five miles of race I wanted to quit with every pedal stroke. I thought I felt blisters forming on my feet. And any minute my calves were going to seize up in protest. But Jon drove us on, shouting out the miles we had left to go, and I felt my will growing stronger as he called the numbers off. At one mile to go, I smiled through the agony at how everything had turned out.

I saw the finish line and stopped focusing on my breathing and literally tried to rip my crank arms off with the last fumes I had in the tank. And it was over. A 7th place finish, averaging just under 25mph. Timeless. I could've been out for 90 minutes or 90 seconds. I ecstatic and let out a whoop. We'd looked over the edge of failure, regained my balance on it's precipice, and hawked a giant loogie into it's chasm before walking away. I'd made it to the end - a place I wouldn't have found myself going alone, or with teammates who put themselves first.

And I've made it to the end of my first season. I haven't accomplished much by many standards, but by mine own, I have reached heights of success I would never have imagined I'd ever attain in this sport. Having looked pain and failure in the eye - sometimes it got the better of me, other times it didn't - and coming out on the other side wanting to do it all over again is all I could have ever asked for.

Jon, Myself, Peter, and Leonard:


Seth said...

Hey, great job in the TTT, man. Results are on the interweb now. Congrats on finishing off your first full season too (no Fall Fling?)! Best part is: Next year will only be better!

The Car Whisperer said...

Thanks, Seth! It was beyond anything I could've hoped for. Alas, no fall fling. I am also a gigging musician, who now has many fellow bandmates tapping their feet and wanting some consecutive rehearsals and weekend gigs. We head to Cleveland and Columbus that weekend for a couple shows anyways...(including the House of Blues for an afterparty for Fishbone! Ha!)

Anonymous said...

Great report Brian. You've come a hell of a long way during your short first season and since you first race. Well done! As Seth said, "Next year will only be better!" I'm looking forward to racing and riding with you more.