January 30, 2017: A Race Where I Got Spanked By Gravity

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Is it possible to achieve terminal velocity when falling off a bike? Are there places on the earth where gravity is noticeably stronger than normal, like, perhaps in an icy corner on a golf course that, coincidently, has a bike race on it? Would it be really weird to wear super-padded underwear under cycling spandex so that when you continually land on unforgiving frozen ground on the same side, your hip doesn’t start looking like a rotten moldy tomato that has been half eaten by a wolverine? Is there ever a time in a bike race when just giving up and walking back to your car is justified? These are some of the thoughts that I was having between 9 and 10:15 a.m. this past Saturday.

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Luck plays a big role in our lives. All the preparation in the world can’t cover every possible scenario. I’m not claiming that my awful race at the USA Cycling Fat Bike National Championship on Saturday in Grand Rapids, Michigan was just bad luck. I could have anticipated that course conditions might have changed significantly from the time I pre-rode the course at 8 am to one hour later when my race started. I could have realized that the speed you ride in warm-up and the speed at race pace might make some of the slippery sections even slipperier. I should know this from the 218 cyclocross races I’ve done in my life. I could have realized that if I crashed at a certain place on the course on the first lap that perhaps I shouldn’t take that same line on the second lap and expect a different result. In retrospect, there were a lot of things that I should have done differently. After the fourth bone jarring crash in the first two laps of a four lap race and finding myself so far in last place that abandoning seemed like the right decision, I had to remind myself how much I hate seeing a “DNF “ next to my name in the results.

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I had a few friends at this race taking pictures. Somehow, they all show me upright, happily racing my fat bike. Luckily, none of them were within sight of me lying face down after each crash trying to get the birdies flying around my head to go away. Luckily, about a quarter of the way through the first lap when I was racing around a fast sweeping icy turn to stay with the leading pack of racers and went down so hard that my rear derailleur got jam packed with ice and grass and I had to spend about a minute struggling to get my chain back on, I didn’t take any of the racers out coming from behind me. Luckily when I was lying in a half frozen puddle after my third crash and was staring up at the clouds wondering about life and what the first sip of a Manhattan was going to taste like that night and why I might consider doing a fat bike race under these conditions to be “fun” and two women pushing a baby stroller came running over to see if I needed medical help, I was able to get up and continue “racing” for another 25 yards before crashing again. This was the second time in the race that I really begin questioning my sanity. I guess, all things considered, I was pretty lucky. Gravity, however, was not particularly kind to me and again, showed me that it is the ultimate force in the universe.

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November 4, 2016: The Gray Zone of Heckling

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For the record, I bear only the slightest of resemblances to Willie Nelson. If you were to see us standing next to each other, you might think I look more like George Carlin or Charles Manson. I do not wear my long hair in pigtails very often like he does. I do, however, have a grey beard and my wrinkled and weathered face is starting to look more like his with each passing season. And I have absolutely no musical talent unless I’m by myself in my car and Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful happens to come on the radio. Then, I’m amazing and even half-upset that she didn’t ask me to sing background.

One of the spectator traditions of cyclocross is heckling. Heckling can come in many different forms and can be hurled with different intents. Helpful, constructive, encouraging, witty and funny heckling is awesome. When someone in the crowd yells out my name or tells me how far ahead I am of my closest competitor or tells me that I’m absolutely killing it; this is fantastic and makes me want to go faster. I also try to thank them if I’m able to get a word out through my hyperventilating and lightheadedness.

Heckling that I consider more borderline might make an astute observation about my physical appearance. I don’t mind these much but it sometimes is a little weird. I’ve heard things like “Go Ponytail!” “Oooh, you’re pretty!” (mostly guys), “Go Sexy Man!” (again, mostly guys), “Hey Blondie, whatcha doin’ later?” (guys again), and “What’s a girl doing in a Master’s race?” All of this heckling, of course, makes me want to go faster.

However, some heckling is just downright mean. When someone says that this is a bike race not an ice cream social or that I was just passed by a pregnant woman on a fat bike or that I might want to check to see if my brake is rubbing or that I should consider taking up golf or put some meat on those bones for cryin’ out loud, it just makes me want to go faster.

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The best thing that I’ve seen a spectator do at a cyclocross race wasn’t heckling but more like entertainment. It was at Roger Williams Park in Providence, Rhode Island and this woman appeared on one of the hillsides, made into a run-up because of several barriers. She had on a grass skirt, a coconut shell bra, a lei and serenaded everyone by singing Hawaiian songs while strumming her ukulele. It somehow seemed like the most perfect thing to do and I watched her for a long time after my morning race.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07:  Willie Nelson signs copies of his book "It's A Long Story: My Life" at Barnes & Noble Union Square on May 7, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

This brings us back to Willie Nelson. For the past 3 years, there are a few guys who show up at most of the New England races. They must be cat 4 or 5 racers because they always seem to do the early race and must begin drinking by the time that my Master’s race begins later in the morning. I don’t yet know their names but they have near-megaphone quality voices. They’ve been calling me Willie Nelson from day one – either during warm-up, the race or even if we cross paths later. They’re persistent and I find it quite amusing. Usually they just yell out “WILLIE NELSON!!!” when I come past them each lap, sitting in their cozy tent canopy set up along the course. However, sometimes they’re more creative and heckle things like: “HEY WILLIE, PAY YOUR TAXES!!!” or “WILLIE, ON THE ROAD AGAIN!!!” or “YOU’D RACE FASTER IF YOU LAID OFF THE WEED!!!” or their latest, coined at the Gran Prix of Gloucester this year, “WHEELIE NELSON!!!” I love these guys. They make me want to go faster.

August 29, 2016: Racing with Juniors – A New Cyclocross Season Begins

 

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The 2016 New England cyclocross season began for me (and a lot of my other racing buddies) yesterday in Springfield, Massachusetts. If you like flat courses with about 3 feet of elevation change per lap (and that 3 foot hill was not rideable by most people when we were out there on the next-to-last race of the day), if you like breathing in several pounds of dust, if you like roots, roots and even more roots that would guarantee a flat if your tire pressure was at a normal level, if you like about a hundred deep, sandy 180 degree turns that threaten to devour your front wheel at any given moment and send you flying off the course, if you like starting the race mixed in with about 20 kamikaze-crazed kids that seem to have no fear of crashing or respect for their elders, if you are at least 55 years old and if you like sunny, hot 90+ degree temps, then this was the race for you!

I’ve always enjoyed this early season contest that the Cyclonauts Racers put on each August at Blunt Park. It’s a good test of equipment, body, heart and soul. It’s also a good reality check to remind you what aspect of racing might need some attention before the bigger races coming up just around the corner. Equally important, it also gives you an idea of where your competition is at in their quest to beat you senseless over the next 5 months. But most of all, it’s a great opportunity to hang out with my cyclocross friends. I haven’t seen most of them for more than half a year.

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This community is unique in a lot of ways. Yes, of course we all try to beat each other every race and will do almost anything to accomplish that. However, we’ll hang out before and after the event, catching up on each other’s lives, injuries, work, retirement, equipment changes, training, vacations, whatever, but once the whistle blows, none of that matters. It’s a huge motivation to beat someone who races at my level or above and devastating when someone beats me that is ranked below. So many things can happen during the race to change that dynamic – crashes, flats, dropped chains, getting stung, stopping for a beer handup or a selfie – that there is usually nothing entirely predictable about how the final results will shake out when all is said and done.

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The other fantastic thing about the cyclocross scene is that it includes men, women, girls and boys of all ages and abilities, usually separated into their own field (except for this race). I know entire families that do various races over the course of one long day. In how many other sports do you see this other than perhaps bowling? Yesterday, one of those kamikaze juniors was in my race. Jaden Wise is a 13 or 14-year-old boy who probably weighs about 75 pounds covered in dirt and sweat. I’ve had the pleasure to watch him in many of his 45 races over the last 4 years. Cheering him on were his mother (raced in the last race), father (raced in the first race), sister (watched), grandmother (watched) and a few other family members. This kid beat me to the hole shot, refused to give an inch and managed to stay ahead of me for the first half of the race. Meanwhile, I’m getting heckled by some of my “friends” for letting a junior beat me. Hats, or shall I say, helmets off to you Jaden. I think I see my future and I’m not sure that I particularly like it.