I’ve done some difficult bike races. 5 solo 24s. 3 Kokopelli Trail Races. 3 Wasatch Classics. 2 Park City Point 2 Points. The E100. The Vapor Trail 125. The Moab Rim Ride. The Dixie Lite. And so on. Each of those lasted at least 9 hours. Some of them more than 15, and the Dixie Lite, over 36 hours. And each of them left me haggard and sore. Blinkered and exhausted. But none left me feeling quite like 45 minutes of ‘cross racing did Saturday at the Utah Cyclocross series opener.
Everything hurts. Even my beard hurts.
But I’m grinning. And I can’t wait to race again.
The B flight was big. Around 30 riders. Knowing just exactly my place in the pecking order, I lined up in the back of the pack. With a long pavement climb leading off the race, I knew I’d have a chance to move up through the field if the legs and lungs were willing. When we were unleashed into the world, I realized quickly how fast and chaotic these starts really are. I’d been told. I’d watched videos. I’d even seen the other flights during the day. But none of that compared to actually being there, jostling for position with elbows wide. I felt like Russell Crowe in the opening scene of The Gladiator—hold your lines!
The pack started to thin a little as the pavement hill got longer, and longer. I popped outside and went for it. Whatever “it” was, remained to be seen. But the legs and lungs were more than willing. And so off I went. And that’s when the culture shock set in with a fierce acuity. This was not a 2 hour mountain bike race wherein I can get off to a flighty start, only to settle into a more comfortable pace. Attrition, at least of the variety I know, was not going to be factor on this day. No, the eyes were going to bleed today.
“Pedal Dammit” just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
Pedal harder dammit. And then harder still.
After 2 laps I was starting to look for the “1 lap to go” signal. Which was—to say the least—somewhat premature. But then something unexpected, although very welcome started to happen. I adapted. The searing pain and the blinding heat faded into the fantastical joy of the race. I started to feel comfortable on the slippery singletrack and on the dusty, loose gravel. I hammered the pavement when others soft pedaled. I closed a gap or two. In fact, when the bell lap finally did come around, I was mildly disappointed. Just as I had started to figure out how the game was played, it was already coming to an end.
I sprinted across the pavement one last time. A sprint finish for 11th place. Which frankly, was nothing if not familiar. I’ve spent a lifetime sprinting for mid-pack bragging rights. But nonetheless, it hurt. A lot. The blurred vision, the rising vomit, and the burnishing pain of 195 beats per minute greeted me at the finish. I heard my name over the speaker:
“A nice debut for Adam. That’s a solid finish in this strong field. Well done!”
I was flattered. But the juxtaposition was telling.
There I was, head between my knees trying in vain to keep the bile and the pain and the hurt inside.
I spent the rest of the day amazed at how completely tuckered I was. I only raced for 45 minutes, and yet I used every last bit of energy and muscle and power that I had. Everything that everyone has ever said about cyclocross came to pass in those short, excruciating minutes. It really does hurt with remarkable severity. But I loved it. I really did.
The pain is not the tedious, mind numbing pain of an all-day epic. There is no boredom or motivational caverns. There is no overwhelming sense of distance or time. There are no mountain passes to climb or vast deserts to cross.
There is only the blur and the speed and the sheer terror and panic of right now. From the gun, to the fin it’s a simple matter of now-or-never urgency and immediacy. A moment of hesitation or recovery can mean the difference between the podium and the pack. The racing is aggressive and intense and blistering, despite the simultaneous and undeniable fact that it’s also rather absurd, comical and grin-spiking enjoyable.
But the pain sticks around. And in a way that only a masochist and a cyclist (but I repeat myself) could possibly understand, I am already craving the next fix. Badly.
(Pictures from Jason White)