Under the curved, stone bridge fourteen women stand over fourteen bikes with fourteen mouths breathing cold morning air. I am one of these fourteen women. I am standing in the first row.
I look behind me as a biking friend puts her hands up on my shoulders; she smiles at me and the light glistens in her eyes.
A loud sound and the lean and graceful men are thunderous in their start. The women move up to the line.
“Fifteen seconds,” the man with the stopwatch calls.
I can’t clip in. My hands are shaking. The chocolate covered espresso beans and coconut water have left a dull and terrible ache in my stomach. Maybe I will throw up. A guy says this wouldn’t be so bad. I think this would be terrible.
The horn blows and we are riding. Up and around. Down and over. I’m off and I’m on. I’m up and I’m down. I’m out of breath. I’m tired. I’m tired so quickly, so quickly, so quickly . . .how did I get this tired this quickly?
“Compare yourself to who you were, not who you want to be,” my biking mentor told me a week ago. I think of the woman who showed up to Tuesday Night Bike Riding with an old bike and just looking for a way to be outside in the sun. I smile at this thought as I make a quick turn up a hill and do not wipe out. I hear people cheer my name.
Then, I am struggling to keep up. Two people are behind me, but I am dragging. They will easily pass me. I am heavy with thought, with pain, with fear. My wheels won’t move. My legs are clenched. This is not for me. I am not these people. I am not this. I am weak. I am worried. I am weary.
I push my bike up a hill and I hear my friend from South Korea call my name. She is the first person I became friends with through biking. She has come to cheer me. I smile at her as I push by, embarrassed that I am going so slow.
I get on my bike and no one is around. I am happy to be by myself. This is my own race. Take it your own way, I think. Just get through this mud.
Then I get on and I’m riding and I’m going too fast and I go down a descent and I see the roots and the white paint on the ground and I go right into it and I go over my handlebars. I crash. I fall. My bike lands next to me.
Sitting, panting on the ground, I hear a guy behind me call “You alright?” and I nod and I wave my hand above my head and my shoulder stings as if someone has worn away my skin with sandpaper.
I look at my bike and it doesn’t even make sense. It’s perpendicular. I pick it up and I cut the course and I’m done. I have failed. My goal was to finish and I didn’t even do that. This is not lacrosse. This is not soccer. This is a sport that doesn’t make sense to me. This is racing and I have never raced (besides swimming which felt different).
On the way to my car, I see my South Korean friend. I tell her what happened and she looks at me in the eye; she puts her hand up to my face, wiping off some mud, “Alexis. You are tough and I am proud of you.”
My leg kills. My shoulder hurts. My clothes are ripped in places, but my heart is warm.