It starts.

Cyclocross

IMG_1508It starts with the dreams.

They come flooding to me two nights before.  Ghosts in my head.  I’m all panic.  In these nightmares, I’m at the race.  Everyone is dressed up as historical actors.  They are reenacting colonial times.  They are colonial cyclocross bike racers.  I don’t have the proper clothes.  I don’t have the short pants and the tall hat. I’ve come without the right stuff.

It starts with the fear.

The night before and I’m hoping I break my leg.  I’m hoping I drink bad milk.  I’m hoping I start throwing up and can’t stop until the race is over.  Anything so I don’t have to go. 

It starts at three a.m.

With the clock on the side of my bed and how many more hours do I have before I go do this thing?  I have four more hours of peace.  Tuck me into these covers and let me exist in this quiet darkness.

It starts with seven a.m. and not finding my jersey. 

My teammate said I should specifically wear the jersey and now I don’t have it.  I haven’t worn it in so long.  I’m not really part of the team.  I never race.  I’m so far behind.  I’ll be the worst one.  I saw the list.  I saw those names.  I am not those names.  I find the jersey.  It’s tucked behind the drawer when I take it out—hiding.

It starts with East Aurora.

And, getting to the race and not having any milk in my coffee and there being a damn car show near my favorite coffee shop where I want the coffee and why did I put this honey in this homemade coffee?  This tastes terrible.  Nothing like Chow Chocolat.  I just want to be at Chow Chocolat and instagramming my coffee because that’s about all the stress I can handle right now.

It starts with the practice lap. 

It starts with that first dismount and I feel it.  Me and my bike.  I feel the smooth transition.  I can’t do the mount, yet, but I feel good about my dismount.  It’s easy and quick and I hop hop and I’m over the white boards and I stutter for a while but then I’m back on.

It starts with these turns.

These turns which are strategies in themselves, little puzzles that I decode: out in out and I’m around.  It’s a quick descent and then a fast left turn near some hay and I’m okay and I’m in the forest and my breath feels good.


It starts with the off camber turn and it’s hard but not impossible and I can do this.  I dismount and run up a bit and I’m back on and hey, okay.  Hey, okay.  This is alright.

INTERMISSION.

IMG_0465Where I sit by a tree I talk to a fellow rider and it’s calm and it’s good and I hydrate and eat a goo and it’s coffee flavored.  The espresso flavor spreads in my mouth and if I’m eighty and eating this goo, I’ll remember these years.  I’ll remember my bike.  Memory tied to food as intricately woven as your aunt’s homemade quilt.  I’ll remember the taste of espresso mixed with nerves.

It starts with me saying to my non-cyclist fiance (who I play squash with and train at the gym with), “What’s your advice?”

And he says, “Don’t negotiate with yourself.  When you’re out there.  Don’t negotiate.  You don’t negotiate to stop and you don’t think.”

And, it makes sense.

So, I’m at the starting line and I’m laughing and I’m joking and my lungs are as calm as a baby pool in May and then there are the official words and the count down and the horn and we’re off.

IMG_1514I’m in the back.  I’m in the middle of two people and I ride through and my entire goal is to finish this race and to not come in last.  That is my entire goal. 

No.  That’s wrong.  My entire goal is to find this self.  I want to find this person who knows she can do this.  I want to find this self that goes to a race on a Sunday morning and enjoys it.  My goal is to work hard, but that’s too abstract.  My goal is to ride.  My goal is to ride this race with this new self, always renewing myself, always becoming a better version of myself.  A better me through bikes.  A better me through self-inquiry.

And, I’m passing some people and I’m maintaining my line and my breath is still good and from the outside and I look like a woman on a bike but inside, I’m a concerto.  I’m an orchestra tuning and I’m riding and making this music in my mind because it’s all coming together on this race and I am controlled speed and I’m quick at moments and I’m, like, saying in my mind, “You are doing great.”  And, honestly, I’ve never said that before.  Usually I say, “Why aren’t you better?”  But, I’ve taken that voice outside to the curb, kicked her in the throat and put a big sign that says, “Free.”

IMG_1518I’m in this race and it’s fun and it’s hard and it’s so hard.  It’s always hard and my throat is so dry.  Dry as Utah’s Badlands.   And, I even take a hand up of some beer at one point, just to have something to slosh around in my mouth and then I’m so thankful for the pit who calls my name and hands me a water bottle which tastes like cool morning breezes off the Atlantic. 

(On one lap, I did throw the water bottle nearly into another rider who was a good sport about it, but I felt pretty bad, but it was also kind of hilarious.)

I’m turning and I’m turning and I’m turning and of course I get passed but it’s okay.  I transcend it.  I’m here and I’m racing this and I’m not last.

And, then there’s one more lap, I think and I ask another rider and she says, “Yes” and I go down the steep turn and I almost make it up, but I dismount.

And, so I finish the race, with a choking, “Am I done?” and the BBC men are so nice and “yes!” they yell and so it starts.

So, these moments start of me replaying the race in my head and this one moment where I am all alone in the Knox Farm field and I see the yellow course tape, flapping, just flapping in the wind and it almost sounds like its clapping for me.

If I listen just right, I can hear its applause.    IMG_0464

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A Lighter World: Racing Cyclocross for Fun

Cyclocross

(video by Matt Dunning at Campus Wheelworks)

Hey.

It’s been a while.

But, I’m back again.

Why am I back on this site about biking when I don’t bike nearly as much as I used to?  Why am I continuing this?  Why haven’t I just moved on and done something that doesn’t make me feel scared and tired and hungry?

Because one part of one’s life feeds another.  That’s why.

Ready for some bragging?

Here we go:

My other blog, Le Poisson Nage (about French), recently got chosen by this lovely WordPress Editor and now I have 281 followers.  A day ago, I had about 30 followers.  This is amazing.  I get updates of who is reading this blog and my favorite part is seeing that it’s in all these countries: from France to Ireland to New Zealand to Brazil.   I also noticed that some of these people who found my French blog, now have found my bike blog (hi there!).  Anyway, I started to feel like, you know what, maybe people are actually reading this?  Maybe I should actually keep writing.

And, so here I am, writing.  But the thing about writing is you have to live your life or else you have nothing to write about.

So, I’ve also been biking casually.  I have this women’s cycling club in Buffalo called Athena Cycle and while I was riding and talking to someone who I think is an extremely can-do type of person (she fixes bikes; she races bikes; she tries new things all the time–for example, she is starting flying lessons soon), I said, “I don’t know about biking.  I just think there is this moment when you have to realize what you are actually good at.”

And she said something to the effect of, “Racing for a year and not doing as well as you’d like doesn’t actually mean you are not good at that.”

She essentially said, “Why are you forming this judgment of yourself now?”

And, I thought about that.  I thought about that a lot.  And, ultimately I thought: I like biking.  I like going to races because I like the element of “this isn’t really work; this is us playing around.”  I like this about bikes.  When people get on bikes, they tend to joke around.  The world lightens when I am on a bike.

IMG_0206So, I have registered for a race on Sunday.  The first cyclocross race of the year.  For me, this race is not, as always, about winning.  It is about trying.  This has been a constant theme for me.  It’s also about finding my relationship with this sport.  I like it but I find it hard.  I love that feeling when I am impressing myself, when I feel like–wow, a few years ago I didn’t even own a road bike.  Damn, man.

This relationship is about finding calmness.  It’s about breathing in a relaxed way.  It’s also about pushing my body on a Sunday morning just as the summer is going to sleep and fall is awakening.

Ultimately, this Sunday’s race is about me playing.  I’ve been working really hard.  I’m in an MFA program and it’s demanding.  I’m reading and writing and analyzing all the time, but I realized, I’m not playing.  And. I. Want. To. Play.  Cut loose.  Get on a bike and see how fast I can go without falling over.  This is essentially the main point.

So, Sunday morning, I’m driving out to a beautiful part of New York and I’m going to watch the men’s races and the Cat 1-3 women’s race.  I’m going to take photos because that’s fun too and I am going to race.  I want to exist in a world that feels just a little bit lighter, with people who support and challenge me–who when I fall over, when I am the last one, will give me a high five because I’m there.  I’ve showed up.

Finally, I’ve included at the top of this blog, a video from the talented (filmmaker, cyclist and I’ve heard musician) Matt Dunning who works for Campus Wheelworks (the shop that got me into this crazy sport).  I like this video because it’s like bike ballet.  It shows a bunch of adults playing.  And, sometimes, that’s what it’s all about.

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This Land of Strange

Buffalo, Cyclocross, Race report

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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.

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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.
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Mud and Blood: The Courage of Cross

Cyclocross

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(before I got hurt)

Right now, I’m drinking Typhoo tea, eating rice pudding, watching a TED talk about vulnerability in relationships and all I can think about is my relationship with cyclocross.

The presenter, Brené Brown, is talking about courage. She is saying that it is different from bravery in that it is about telling the whole story of who you are with your heart. It is about telling your imperfections; these imperfections are part of who you are.

Now, two days later and I’m riding on grass. I’m “one, two, three” jumping onto my bike. Do it. Jump. Lift off.

But, I can’t. I’m stunted motion. Before cyclocross practice, I’m talking with a friend and we are listing our goals of the season. Mine: to mount my bike in the proper cross fashion. It is a kind of delicate hop. When done properly, it is beauty on a bike. It is smooth, fluid motion. It is that delicious crème of espresso. It shows you know what the hell you’re doing out there on the course.

For me, cyclocross is transitions. It is literally being on the bike and then hopping off of it. It is transition from summer to fall. It is road to indoor training. I know others who cyclocross is the whole burrito. It’s the reason they bike, but for me, it’s more like a little dessert at the end of a hard, trying, but ultimately satisfying road season.

Cross is also about vulnerability. It is five o’clock on a Thursday coming to a tree filled field by a lake. It is about going there without much ego. It is putting myself out there. It is getting on the bike and just trying. It also falling, getting hurt; it is often, mud and blood.

At this Thursday’s practice, there is this moment when I am in the peanut (a small course set up to practice turns) and I am pure reaction. I am finding the apex, finding the right line. I am trying to go fast and turning and not being scared. I have transcended the fear of last year’s season. After this much riding in the summer, I am more comfortable on my bike and with these new wheels and tires, I have so much control and my fitness level has improved. I can turn and be alright. I realize I am just one big smile across my face because I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job.

Then, the group of us, maybe fifty people, line up in a mass start. It’s the mock race around the park. I am one of these fifty: one tiny star in a galaxy. I don’t mind. I come here to learn. I don’t come here to win. Not yet anyway. We are off and it is tight at first. We are nearly knocking into one another’s wheels.

I am trying to pass my teammate. It’s funny to ride like this. Usually I’m trying to be on her wheel, not overtake her. I want to beat her though. I really want to beat her. That’s what I like about this teammate, we can compete with or against each other and at the end of the day, we’re still going to have that beer together. I’m behind her and I pass her and I see my other friend speed up on the inside and I’m trying to create some room. I feel good on the rollers. I’m moving along. Then, I get to the stairs and I know she’s going to beat me here. I’m fine with the dismount and the run up the six steps, but then getting back on, I’m molasses and she beats me here. Then I’m on and hop over the brick, and I think I can beat her on the descent. I nearly crash on her back wheel, but I don’t and I’m okay and then I pass her on the turn and we joke because on the straight away she flies by me. Then we get to the barriers and this thing happens. I get scared. I’m coming in fast and I’ve unclipped one leg but then I feel my center break and I’m falling onto my bike. I’m descending down, smashing into. I’m gears into leg, chain ripping through skin.

I get up and hear my breathing as I pick up my bike. It’s asthmatic. It’s choppy. I wonder if I’m okay. I look down and I see blood and grease and the outline off a chain in my thigh. I am not okay and then it’s blood and tears on my gloves and the consoling words of my fellow cyclists.

And now, it’s the next morning and I’m at work wearing a skirt with this massive bruise and a two inch line of scabbing blood showing. I still have grease stains on my legs. I couldn’t wipe them off this morning, so I go into the college looking like a hooligan. I wonder if people think street fighting is my outside of academics hobby. It’s not a bad look, but not the most professional.

Cyclocross is hard. It’s brutal at times, at least for me. However, to crash sometimes is to show your vulnerability. I am human and I fall. To be courageous is to dare to try to be the person you admire, your best self. Cyclocross is scary and rough, but I am learning. This fall I want to ride cross and to live my life, quite proudly, with the notion that I must try and not give up. This is and has always been the story of my heart.

 

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