Monday, September 14, 2015

Sneakers, Safety Pins, and the Inescapeable Realities of Hay in the Barn

The metal chairs were stacked and secured with a thick cable next to the locked door of the cafe. I could see the baristas bustling around inside getting ready to open. It was just a bit before 5 a.m. and they would open soon.

It was still cool before the sunrise and I still had my headlamp on over my Cabela's cap. Today would be hot, in spite of being in the middle of September, in the high 90s by late morning. The heat sticks around in southern Arizona. That would be a factor in the race.

I was going up to the Arizona State Championship for the Individual Time Trial. I was not going up with any hope of winning, but I felt compelled to do it anyway. I would be the oldest rider in my category and had little real talent as a bike racer.

I like the time trial because it is an exercise in focus and is a race against one's self. No one knows whether or not you might have pushed harder at any given point. No one knows how "honest" you are with yourself when it comes down to pushing through pain. It is the event in cycling that is the most about truth -- no drafting, tactics, team help. I am riding in the "open" Merckx category -- no time trial specific aerodynamic equipment -- and will be against riders much younger and faster than myself. There is some element of luck in terms of wind, heat, and mechanical issues, but most it's just about the clock and the effort.

The barista opens the door. I order my red-eye and hit the road up to Picacho. It's a short fast drive along the interstate. I don't listen to the radio but do visually rehearse what is coming.I put myself on the bike and anticipate the urge to sit up when the pain gets to be too much, to back off when the heart feels like it is about to burst from beating so hard, to relax the legs when the ache sets in. Yes, it is hard, not a sprint, but not far from it, and I will have to both push and pace myself to keep from blowing up too soon.

I pull off beneath Picacho Peak and make my way to the parking area. There are already about a hundred cars filling the overflow truck parking of the Picacho Travel Center. Lean men and women are spinning on stationary trainers behind their cars, their bib shorts loose at the shoulders, the suspender straps draped along their hips. They wear heart-rate monitors and glisten with sweat, even though the first rider will not go off for over an hour.

I find a spot to park and go check in. I have to show my USA Cycling ID to get my race number and safety pins. My start time is written on the back of the number  along with instructions to pin the number on the right side. On the way back to the car I stop to wish some riders from El Grupo luck on their rides, not that they need it. They are seriously trained, hardened cyclists. The program takes disadvantaged kids and gets them bikes and training in exchange for community service. It's become a top-tier youth cycling team and has sent riders into pro ranks. They are a force. Here's their web address:

One of the riders will eventually win my category today, and I couldn't be happier to see them here. Cycling is an elite sport in many ways. In order to be here, riders need the equipment (expensive), transportation, time, and the support of others. Also, cycling has tended to be a "white," male, and European sport, but that is changing. This year, for the first time, there were African teams in the Tour de France, and the peloton saw more diversity in terms of race. I am delighted to see the changes. Women too, have gained better footing in terms of pay and access to the big stages, like the TdF. The World Tour now has events in the Middle East, Asia, and South America. I hope the cycling "tent" continues to grow with participants coming from more cultures and backgrounds.

There is still a long way to go. No rest for the good guys. 

I head to the car, open the hatch, extract the bike, and set up the trainer.

The car next to me is occupied by a couple from Hermosillo Mexico. We talk some about the course and about people we know in common from Hermosillo. He and she both race regularly in Arizona. They are both young, fit, and look like real contenders.

The sound of trainers and quiet conversations mixes with the crunching gravel of new arrivals. A few sun shelters pop up. They have bright tops with logos of various teams and shops around the area: Team Aggress, Southwest Hand, Team Vitesse, Strada, and others. I see a young rider from the UA who forgot his cycling shoes. He tells me he plans to ride in his sneakers. Later I will hear that he achieved a personal best of twenty seven miles per hour. He won the state championship in his age group wearing tennies. Not bad. Sometimes you have to improvise, most times, in my case. I just work with what I've got, and today, for once, I seem to have my ducks in row. I thank the gods of cycling for having been so generous to me, so supportive in letting me fulfill an athletic dream.

As a kid I was one of those weirdos who  followed the Tour de France, who dreamed of riding high into the knife-edged snow-caps of the Alps, rolling through fields of sunflowers, and rocking the bike in a bunch sprint down a narrow avenue in a French village. Nobody in my small Wisconsin high school even knew what the Tour de France was or who Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinaut, or Eddy Merckx were. I wore black wool shorts and rode a skinny tired bike while the other kids watched the Green Bay Packers and drove burly four wheel drive pick-up trucks. When I finally got a nice bike, it cost more than some of their cars. That's another story.

After enough time on the trainer to work up a sweat I decide to take a spin out on the road. I set my jersey on a day pack and pin on my number. I usually glue it on with spray adhesive, but I don't have that today, so have to do the best I can. The safety pins remind me of changing diapers. That was not such a long time ago. Life is like a race in many ways. You have only yourself to answer to ultimately. Did you do what you could or not?

Out on the road it's quiet. The two lane highway is a lightly traveled frontage road along I-10. The view of Picacho Peak in the rising sun is spectacular. The air is still cool, but has warmed up into the 80s. A breeze has picked up out of the south. That means I'll be fighting wind for twelve and a half miles before turning to return with the wind at my back.

I feel a rush of adrenaline as I imagine the start.

Then I am there. I clip in while a holder steadies the bike. I hear the five second count -- four, three, two, one -- and I am off. The road is rough and dips in and out of arroyos. I don't see much as I settle in to a hard effort. I ride at about ninety or so percent of my maximum heart rate. Into the wind, this is about twenty miles per hour. I have to be careful not to go out too "hot," and blow up from the excitement of the start and the adrenaline.

I feel good and pace the intensity. I settle in and listen to the dramas of the mind. I hear the voice of aversion to pain that begins to whisper "slow down, take it easy" and the reality czar with "you are the oldest in your category; you are not going to win, so what's the use?" and the others who take their turns. I hear too the coach reminding me to be smart. "Ride hard, but settle in. Feel the zone, the paradox of calm in the heat of battle." It encourages relaxing while working hard, the way to sustain over an hour of hard effort.

Almost never do I sustain my heart rate this high for so long. I don't know if I can do it, but I let the body take over. It either will or it won't. Either I have trained well or I haven't. The "hay is in the barn" or it isn't. This is the hard and inescapable truth: you can't spend what you have not earned.

And the truth is that the El Grupo rider, who started behind me, comes around fast, way faster than I could even dream of going, and pulls ahead slowly, inevitably. He recedes like a fading galaxy into to distance, a shining light dimming in an indifferent universe. 

I see another rider who started a minute before me up ahead and close the gap as we cover ground. Three miles, seven, ten, and I pass him. He is still behind me at the turn-around and a race official penalizes him for pacing and drafting. He gets mad and passes me. On the return trip I see him struggling. He is no longer smooth but is bobbing and tightening up. I can see that he is bonking.

I am the bug and the windshield for whatever that is worth. 

I pass him again with about three miles to go. He falls back. The body doesn't lie. I have been lucky today and the long rides up Mount Lemmon have paid off.

I see the finish though a tunnel of oxygen debt. My body is tingling from lack of blood, ears pounding with my pulse. I manage to stand and sprint across the finish. That sends me into the red zone, and I have to coast for a long way to get my breath back.

It was a good effort. I did not win, not even close. I was minutes slower than the El Grupo rider. No state champion jersey for me.

I still have some coffee left for the drive back home. The cafe has been open now for hours and the sun has taken on the intensity of Arizona in late summer. I have done it, met some of my demons, and come out satisfied with the outcome. I have the rest of the day to enjoy the fruits and euphoria of having chased a dream no matter the result.

I hang the bike on its hook and staple the race number to the wall above my tool bench. The bike and number stand ready to testify that I joined the race, that I was lucky enough feel the heat of the fray, the place where no one can hide.


  1. My heart pounds just hearing the race day narrative. I miss racing, and group rides. I'm renewing my appreciation for the solo ride. But how I miss the sharing that happens between riders...nothing compares.

    1. C'est tres vrais, madame. Tres vrais.

  2. You capture the love/hate blend of competition and personal affirmation for knowing you put out all you had once again.