To ‘cross or not to ‘cross

By K. Bellon

Mark Twain once supposedly said that golf is little more than “a good walk spoiled”. As an avid cycling fan, I started watching bike races when I as only four years old, and as an adult, have traveled the world covering bike races. And yet, when it comes to me being the person actually doing the racing, I feel that Twain’s quote holds true. Bike racing is a good ride spoiled. That’s because I find riding a bike to be a wonderful, and calming endeavor. But racing, I’ve always thought, would simply get in the way of the inherent fun of bike riding. It would strip away the good and leave only the bad.

But after a year and a half in different levels of lockdown due to the pandemic, my personal views started to shift. As bike races near me started to happen once again, I suddenly started to wonder if I should give racing a try. It would be a nice way to see people (even before the pandemic, I worked from home and could often go weeks without much human interaction). It would also force me to ride a bit more. Racing a crit was out of the question. Contrary to popular belief, the most frightening and dangerous place on earth is not inside an active volcano, in a swimming pool during a lightning storm, or napping on railroad tracks. In reality, the most dangerous place on earth is a bike race made up of cyclists whose bike handling skills are as shoddy as mine. But as summer ended, and morning temperatures started to drop, I figured that cyclocross might be worth a shot. I knew that, with my scant level of fitness and speed, I would likely get my proverbial clock cleaned in a ‘cross race. But I also secretly hoped that I would somehow, miraculously, be really, really, good at cyclocross.

In the lead up to my first race, I tried to ride a bit more than usual. I attended practice sessions and learned how to properly dismount and remount along with many preteens interested in racing for the first time. I learned how to properly run over barriers and handle off-camber turns. I even made some barriers for myself, which I took to a local park to practice a bit more before the race. I was quietly confident I as I lined up at my first race with other fellow beginners. My top-secret race strategy was to ride a good, steady tempo, and not follow wheels. In the last lap, I would go all out and hope for a good result.

The race started and I quickly found myself in a small lead group. I started to feel increasingly confident as I cleared barriers and rode over muddy sections of the course with relative ease. Then came a steep climb that required getting off the bike. I ran up with others and tried to remount at the top. My left foot wouldn’t clip in. I got off the bike and tried to clean my pedal and cleat to no avail. As I did this, almost every other person in the race passed me. When I remounted and got going, I was unceremoniously passed by the remaining riders, and found myself unable to keep up with them. Did I have a flat tire? Were my brakes rubbing? No. I had wasted every ounce of energy I had riding with the lead group, when I had no business being there. Had my inability to clip-in made matters worse? Not really. I would have been dropped quickly thereafter, as shown by the fact that I was never able to catch anyone from my race and was, in fact, lapped by several of them. That I had even semi-seriously planned a top-secret race strategy suddenly seemed ridiculous.

I crossed the finish line disheartened. When I checked the race results later that day, I swear I heard a sad trombone sound effect as the page loaded. I had finished second to last. I angrily thought about how my adaptation of the Twain quote was in fact true. A bike race is little more than “a good ride ruined”. I was, to put it simply, bummed. How had it all gone so wrong? I swore I would never race again, as I indignantly replayed every moment of the race in my mind. I felt I should have been better at racing - how could I not be? As it turned out, I was no different than all the people who expect to magically be able to play Van Halen’s “Eruption” the moment they pick up a guitar for the first time. 

But as the days passed, my outlook changed. I started to realize that I could try to race again, if I didn’t improve at all, the outcome should not keep me from enjoying myself. Who cares if end up in second to last place, or maybe actually last? Does it really matter all that much? I now find myself looking at the race calendar, eagerly awaiting my chance to try it again. I will have no race strategy or secret plan this time. My only goal will be to enjoy myself. Maybe racing a bike is in fact “a good ride ruined.” Maybe I’ll never get better at it either. But right now, all I want is another chance at ruining what would otherwise be a perfectly good ride.