Tuesday, October 16, 2007

It's Beautiful Man

A little motivation for when it really starts to hurt at your next cyclocross race.....

"It's beautiful, man."

A stranger turned and said that to me some years ago. We were standing in
the pit area watching the elite men's field come through after the first lap, their faces already splattered with mud and twisted with effort. I nodded, without really understanding. After several years of bike racing,though, I think I know what he was talking about: it was beautiful because they were giving their all.

Racing began for me on a Trek 1000 courtesy of the Bikeman; ages, toe straps et al. I did BAK and thought, how hard could it be? I'll never forget someone telling me on the first Wed nite to shift into the big ring as we were heading west under the underpass. "This ain't so fast, why do I need to be in the big ring?", I quietly mused. Pretty f'ing hard I rapidly learned. Soon, though, I was hooked, certainly on the speed, the competition, and the intensity, but also on the drama of the sport-- the rich pageant of bicycle racing and events like "Rich the deer slayer" and whether you walked on Bobcat. I immersed myself in cycling history and lore, and after reading accounts of hundreds of races and the biographies of many of the great riders, I began to realize that the essence of racing is not tactics and strength and chance, but great efforts made; and that the finest moments in cycling come when circumstances allow or cause a rider to give absolutely everything.

So, I figured that all I needed to do in order to succeed in cycling was to give it my all. Well, it turns out that it's not so simple-- getting to the point where you can give everything is a long process.

First, of course, you have to train a lot. Even if cycle racing is mostly mental, there's no getting
around the enormous physical component of our sport-- you can't go hard if you're not fit. Also,
knowing that you've done everything possible to prepare helps you to convince yourself that you
deserve to succeed, and this is an important part of the process for many of us. Then, you need to develop the mental discipline and physical toughness necessary to hold yourself at your absolute limit for the duration of a sprint, a climb, an attack, or a whole race. When the body is pushed to the maximum, the self-preservation mechanisms revolt against the assault, and they send to the mind urgent, convincing messages to back off; these pleas for mercy must be filtered out, and attention paid to the important data coming from the lungs, the legs, the rest of the body...are you really about to blow, or could you go even harder? "Push through that shit", I heard one of the few times I was ever off the front of a race. If you guess wrong and go too hard, you'll explode and get spit out the back. If you error in the other direction, you'll finish with the frustration of knowing that you didn't leave it all out on the course. Learning how to interpret your body's signals and finding your true limits can take years.

For me, cyclocross is the ideal venue for giving all. On the road, it's easy to sit in and let others do the work. My mediocre bike-handling skills limit my output in mountain bike races. 12 miles of Hell proved that, right Dan! But a good 'cross course offers no respite from lung-searing, leg-burning effort. I really love cross racing. I love the run-ups, the barriers, the turf, the mud. I'm learning to focus through the pain; I'm getting to the point where I can suffer like a dog for the whole race. Throw in a little snow, wind and icy pavement into the mix and you've done something few others ever will!

Which begs the question we've all heard from our friends and loved ones at some point: if bike racing is so grueling, then why do we do it? What's your favorite answer?

A training partner insists that cyclists are poorly evolved, and that in the absence of mammoths and saber-tooth tigers, we still need to chase and be chased... The great mountaineer Dougal Haston said that he climbed to overcome, and to watch others overcoming... my wife says that without cyclocross, life would just be too easy...

I believe we race, at least partly, because we elevate ourselves as human beings by doing our best; and by making great efforts, we celebrate our existence. The philosopher and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said that life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it; to this I'll add that life is 10% circumstances and 90% how hard we try. Most of us don't give 100% to our jobs, our training, our relationships, our families... nor should we; life needn't be a ordeal. But for one hour each week during 'cross season, we give absolutely everything.

And it's beautiful, man.

Sentimental blather or stone cold truth? Only 3 cycling events have made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Having Lance give me the elbow, meeting the god himself; Eddy Merkcx and hearing the drums beat in Portland while Trebon rode through the soup when everyone else ran.

Race cyclocross 2007 and find out for yourself!

Bret Sehorn
Seattle, WA

Cycling is built on volunteerism, have you done your part?

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