Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in
Some relationships last for life, while others crash and burn in short order. For every octogenarian couple holding hands on a park bench, there are probably 100 who will break up by the time their server comes back to recite the dessert special. And then there are those relationships that seem to endure despite our best attempts to sever them.
My own relationship with bike racing falls into that last category, and for years I’ve asked myself: What makes people do this? On the face of it, bike racing is thankless, inconvenient, and expensive. So why not just buy a used Saab instead? At least you get to sleep in that way.
I’ve been trying to go fast on bikes for as long as I could ride one, but I officially started racing them in middle school. Freestyle BMX was at its pastel-hued, mag-wheeled zenith, and I pored over magazines featuring photos of pro riders blasting big air in the Southern California sunshine. There were no ramps or empty pools where I lived in New York, and my attempts at flatland trickery mostly involved injuring my crotch in failed cherrypicker attempts. But we did have a BMX track within striking distance, and so for the sake of my reproductive organs, I pivoted to racing.
The fast, flowy nature of BMX turned out to be the perfect alternative to the painstakingly technical character of freestyle riding, and to my surprise I was pretty good at it—until I broke my arm one day when I overshot the landing on the crucial set of doubles before the finish line. Once it healed I came back, but I’d lost my nerve, and it turns out you can’t afford to be cautious in a race that lasts a total of maybe nine seconds. The results dried up, and eventually I found other ways to break my limbs. (Stagediving works pretty well.) For awhile, that was it for bike racing.
I returned to racing in my early 20s. There’s lots of bike racing in New York City, and you can easily do it every weekend, all season long. Despite the passage of time, and as different as road racing was from BMX, the speed, split-second decision-making, and sheer aerobic distress were all immediately familiar and oddly comforting. As my peers were dragging themselves home from last call after long, debaucherous nights, I was avoiding their vomit puddles on the way to Central Park for 5:30 A.M. starts. That’s not to say I lived the clean, disciplined life of an athlete; it’s just that when it came to flogging myself stupid I was on a slightly different schedule than they were, and I was doing it with a bike instead of overpriced cocktails. Anyway, I still managed to drink more than my fair share, and as such I can claim no moral high ground. Ultimately there’s little difference between partying all weekend and waking up at 4 to ride your bike around in circles, because you’re a wreck at work on Monday either way.
I never won a single bike race as an adult, but I did eke out enough points to upgrade to Cat 3, after which I never saw the front of the pack again. I spent a solid decade as pack fill, and I logged lots of double- and even triple-digit placings in mountain biking and cylocross, too. Then I had kids. For awhile, that was it for bike racing. Again.
Now, in middle age, I’ve returned to racing once more. While there were any number of catalysts, it’s become clear to me that they were merely incidental, and that this is just something I just have to do. As much as I enjoyed the break, I also never escaped the feeling that I was sleeping in while the rest of the congregation was out racing. It wasn’t a bad feeling—if anything I kind of reveled in it—but the very fact that I found not racing so delightfully naughty made it obvious waking up early and flagellating myself is indeed my default mode.
Certainly one reason I can’t seem to quit racing is that I love bikes, and I love riding bikes, and therefore using a bike in a race is satisfying in the same way that a good wine pairing is satisfying to an oenophile, or that a dog agility contest is satisfying to a terrier owner. Then there’s the fact that I can experience that tired-yet-elated feeling we all crave and still be home early enough to spend the entire day with the family, which doesn’t work quite as well if you’re into, say, bikepacking. (Unless you’re an entire family of bikepackers of course, which we are emphatically not.)
But far more satifying than any of those things is how beautifully and efficiently bike racing distills the absurd nature of my own life down to its very essence. It reminds me that I’m just another powerless schmuck adrift in the space-time continuum, and I love it for that. As unseen agents dictate the agenda at the front, I immerse myself in the roiling of the pack, riding the lulls and surges like a piece of driftwood. Some are out there to win. For me, it’s an act of surrender to the universe. If you crave the transcendent sensation of ego death yet don’t have the eight hours to spare for an acid trip, you can’t beat hanging onto the tail end of a bike race.
Racing, like life, doesn’t hand you victories. Indeed, more likely than not, you may never “win.” But if you love what you do, sometimes just hanging in there is its own reward.