In this land of strange, the gifts are small.
This land. This land. This woman clipped into her bike. This woman falling into the mud. The unclipping of the chain. All is lost. All is lost.
I am a thousand dreams at the starting line. I am picking my lines. I am clear eyes and clear thoughts. I am in my first cyclocross race of the year and my heart is beating strong. My legs feel good. My stomach, heart, mind: full.
And then the count down and we are off and I am there. I am so there. You should have seen it. You really should have seen it.
I’m up the hill and I’m picking a line and I can feel how powerful I am. I am not anything but power at this moment, out here, in this strange land of trails and tape and sport and beer.
And, I am up past my teammate. I am past her. She is the line I was planning to follow. I was going to catch her the whole time, but now I am past her and it’s so odd to be ahead. And I am following the lead woman, maybe one or two behind, but I am there. And, I keep thinking, “Maintain this. Maintain this.”
But, I do not maintain. My breath gets the better of me. I feel it, like a child on the verge of a tantrum, it will gut me of my poise. I hear it heavy in my throat and I am in the forest of the race and I’m also in the forest of my thoughts. Smell the wood. Smell this day. The spirit and vigor of racing has left me, “This is just too hard. This is just too hard.”
And I am passed by my teammate and I feel it: a tidal wave that pulls at my feet. The women start to pass me and I am up and around and down and over, hop, over, hop, over the barriers and then down, left and up and back through the forest around. Then I am up the curve and there it is. There it really is.
I have fallen.
I am in the mud and my chain is off.
And the chain of my mind, the gentle click, click, clicking of my thoughts has released as well.
My cycling heroine tells me to keep your head above water. She says, “You must redefine winning. You must leave this race with your legs trembling and if they are trembling, then you have won.”
Carry on, you legs. You have a foolish, no good captain, but carry on your work. My dentist friend from the cycling community slips my chain back on and I am dazed, but so happy he has helped me. He has crossed under the tape to do this. I am back in the race, but I can feel the wind of these women passing me. They are cheering for me and I am smiling at them, trying to, but I don’t feel like smiling. I feel like keeling over. My fitness level is stronger, but not strong enough. I was in it for the first lap, but now my breath has been taken. I am a stranger in this strange land. I am racing against myself now. I pick someone and think: she just passed you and now you must pass her.
And, I do, but I can feel that my place has slipped quite considerably and I fall twice more. I feel it on my hip in the ground. It is soft though and is not any real pain. It is what I expect when I ride my bike in the middle of a field at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning with this wild lot of cyclists in this wild plot of land.
I hear my name being called from the sidelines. A man dressed as a beer can tries to hand me a beer, but I don’t want it. I can’t risk it and I don’t want it. I don’t even realize until later who he is: one of the owners of Nickel City Cycles, the team for which I race.
I have no idea how many laps this race will be, I think, “Six more?” Then I see the lap counter and it delightfully, smiles “Two.” I am happy. I can do it.
I gain some momentum, but someone calls out, “Your bike is broken.” I can feel it. A spoke maybe. The derailleur. Something. Don’t give in to defeat. “You’re finishing this race. Do not DNF. Do not do it.” Keep on. Keep on.
If I shift this way, it is alright. If I shift that way, it is not. Shift this way, then.
Half a lap left and I am third to last. I started third to first and I have sunk like a quarter in a pond.
Push you goddamn legs.
And, I do. I push and I push and I hear my heavy breath and feel my sinking heart and once again propel myself one rotation after another.
This is what it is. This is what it means. One must always push on. In third place or in third to last, it is about the carrying on. Even if your gift is small, a tiny morsel, crumb of a thing: you finished and you didn’t finish last. It is a small gift, but it is something. This is what it means to be human. This is what it means to be in a bike race. We finish the race. We receive the small gift. We bow our heads, say our thanks. We have carried through.