This past weekend saw us load up the team van and make the drive down to the velodrome in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania; the starting, and Rouxbaix-style finishing point, for this year’s northeast edition of Rapha’s annual Gentlemen’s Race.
This is an unsanctioned, team oriented affair, that represents all that is good about our crazy love affair with bicycles. Teams of six depart in a staggered time format based on self-declared skill level, and follow a course designed for maximum joy and suffering (I know, those two are stark opposites, but this being Rapha and all, it is about enduring a “suffer-fest” that will be declared “epic” once the post ride beer flows and the pain subsides).
This year’s 214 kilometer course (gotta use kilometers because it sounds more Euro-pro) was cooked up by Bill Strickland and his evil minions at Bicycling Magazine, possessors of all the local road beta given their offices in nearby Emmaus.
What’s special about this event is that it is a race without being a race, a group ride without being a group ride, and a general celebration of all that is good about the little corner of the business and sporting world that we play in. Your team time only counts if all six finish. No Thunderdome here, all six enter, and all six must finish.
The 21 teams that participated this year represented all facets of our sport. There were the serious contenders who treat this as a real race, and there are the teams that acknowledge up front their lack of contention and aim to have fun and compete within themselves (visualize the team on tandems).
We fell somewhere in between. Therein lies my personal dilemma, and the missive that follows.
Obviously the key to this type of race/ride, which is essentially a team time trial, is to strike the right balance between the strengths and weaknesses within the team, and work together to get the best net result out of the collective.
It’s more complex than “you’re not going any faster than the slowest person”, but more about how do you get the slowest person to go faster than they otherwise could on their own. It’s also about getting the fastest people on the team to be selfless and ride in support of the team as a whole.
My experience in last year’s edition of this race, held in beautiful Northwest Connecticut, was, in a word, awful. The “team” was a total failure from the get go, complete with the “slow person with bad attitude”, to the “fast person riding off the front” (and making wrong turns), culminating with an individual that had been off the back all day, riding off on his own to the finish and denying us the final dignity of at least riding across the finish line as a complete team.
So, needless to say, I put together a new team this year with a bit of trepidation, and found myself looking for excuses to not do the ride as the date approached. Aside from last year’s poor team dynamic, I was also pretty certain that this year I would be the slowest person on the team.
We’ve all been there, and no one enjoys it. We call it the slow-man’s curse. You catch up to the waiting group and they are ready to roll, tired of waiting, but you need a break. The cumulative physical effect of this scenario begins to further break you down, but is not nearly as destructive as the mental toll of riding solo off the back, left with nothing but your own thoughts of what a burden you are to your team.
And so it was, that we lined up on Saturday morning at our prescribed start time. Alongside me were Brian and Ron from our shop, and three dealers. Nathan and Colin from Wheelworks in Boston, and Scott all the way from StudioVelo in California. Ironically, Scott was the only one that I’d ever ridden with before.
We set off, and quickly settled into a nice rhythm. The weather was perfect, the scenery sublime, and the team dynamic was fantastic. It was clear from the start that this crew, despite never having ridden together before, all knew how to ride in a tight pace line and make the best use of the team as a whole.
A new twist to this year’s race was the lack of prominent marking on the course, and the sheer volume of turns, placing a real premium on effective navigation. Our team fell into a nice balance of folks watching for markers and folks calling out directions from the queue sheets and monitoring mileage.
We were making steady progress, managing to pass two teams that had started ahead of us and only making two minor navigational errors in the first twenty or so miles. A few steep climbs in those early miles also let it settle in that this would be a very long day in the saddle and the key would be a steady pace and attention to hydration and nutrition.
As we settled into the first steep, sustained climb of the day, my stressing about being the slow man was realized when Scott pulled up behind me and began to push me by the small of my back. At first I was embarrassed, and a bit indignant to myself about needing to be pushed this early in the game to keep the team together on the long climbs, but it made me pedal harder, and I also realized that I’d be able to make my contribution to the team effort by pulling on the more gentle rollers.
Before we departed, the race organizers had warned us of an abrupt T-intersection at the bottom of a very steep descent about 25 miles in, so as that mileage approached, we reminded ourselves to be a bit more cautious. No sooner had someone called out such a warning as we were bombing the descent did I find myself coming into a sharp right hander a bit too hot and too high. My rear wheel lost grip on the wet pavement and began to slide out from under me.
This is where it gets surreal. Time does indeed slow down. Your built in defense mechanisms kick in, and you become incredibly focused on the simple act of surviving whatever threat is in front of you. So focused in my case, that I did not even hear my own tire blow, yet all of my team mates did along with a lady working in her yard who heard it and came running.
Micro-seconds turned into virtual minutes in my brain, and all I really recall is an intense calm taking over… an involuntary relaxation in a moment of pure panic. The next thing I know I am on the ground, not really having felt the actual impact. I remained in my own head long enough to realize that I was in fact alive, and that all major components seemed to be functional.
As I came outside of my own thoughts and my brain was trying to spool back up to real time, I couldn’t process everything. A woman in an SUV pulled up alongside me in the road and asked if I needed help. It seems ungracious now, but I don’t think that I responded. I was trying to assess my physical damage and could vaguely make out someone walking down a driveway to my left and asking if we needed a pump or any tools. All I wanted to do was try and stand up, and as soon as I did, all I wanted to do was sit down.
As those first few post crash moments passed, I was overwhelmed by the sense that I had let my team down. It was clear to me that something was broken in my right hand or wrist, my wheel was tacoed, and there was no way that I was continuing to ride. Just 25 miles in and I was careless enough to over-cook a corner on a steep descent that we had been warned about.
The call was made for help, and all I could do was walk down the rest of the hill and try to act stoic. When we got to the bottom of the hill, teams that were behind us were now coming through, and a photographer for the event had pulled up. I desperately wanted to sit down, but there was no place that seemed appropriate. Brian, you’ve got to love him, had straightened out my wheel against a tree and replaced the tire. He suggested that, although far from true, it would work in the wider clearance of his CX bike, and that if I wanted to continue we could swap wheels.
I must have seemed less shattered than I was, because there was no way that I was capable of riding a bike. I told the team to carry on without me and apologized for being so careless.
Soon enough a volunteer driven van was dispatched to fetch me and my bike. Jed, the driver, was from Philly and a most gracious guy. As I got in his minivan and tried to avoid getting blood on his seat, I took my helmet off. When I did, a bunch of debris fell out of it all over the interior of his van. I apologized and did my best to clean it up, and then it occurred to me that I had hit my head in the crash.
I turned the helmet over and sure enough, it had a deep compression on the right side and broken ribs inside. I then flipped down the van’s visor and looked in the mirror to find bruises on my head from the impact of the helmet. It’s hard to say for sure, but it appears that I did a head plant, and then flipped onto my right side and back.
Either way, and all cliches aside, my helmet certainly saved me from far more serious injuries. Its not worth the electrons on the web to even debate the merit of wearing a helmet. There’s nothing “pro” or cool about riding without one.
Jed dropped me off back at the velodrome, and helped me load my bike into my van. I stumbled into the showers and proceeded to inflict massive amounts of self-torture as I cleaned out all of my road rash in the hot shower. The good thing is that the pain of that act masked all of the other damage that I’d have the joy of discovering later.
When I got out of the shower I asked a few folks sitting in the courtyard of the track for directions to the hospital. A little boy on his bike pulled up and was staring at my bleeding arm and leg. When I looked down at him he wasn’t wearing a helmet. I asked him where his parents were, and he said they were on the track. I then asked him where his helmet was, and he said that he forgot it. My present context aside, it’s just hard to fathom that his parents would think that its OK for him to ride around the concrete courtyard without a helmet while they got in their track time.
I drove myself to the hospital, and won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that the folks at the Lehigh Valley Medical Center were very nice, and the physician’s assistant that treated me, Marci, happened to be a biker, so she understood.
Understood that it is part of the game. It is going to happen eventually. It is not a matter of if, but only a matter of when.
If you are like me, and you’ve been fortunate enough to ride many years and many miles without going down at speed, then you get to the point where you think that it only happens to the pros on TV, or folks who are not the gifted bike handler that you begin to think that you are.
All it takes is one small lapse of attention and in the blink of an eye you are down. There are a million little things that could cause it… stressing about being the slow man, the lack of sleep the night before, the cool car in the driveway that catches your eye… the list is endless. All it does is underscore the fine line that separates the joy of our sport from the reality of how fragile you are sitting atop a lightweight machine in what amounts to little more than underwear at speeds normally reserved for internal combustion.
Hemingway once said “there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games”. Macho crap aside, if his common denominator was the high probability of real bodily injury, or even death, then he left out cycling.
So what of it? I’ve had plenty of time these past few days to reflect on it all. All of my initial stress about letting my team down was for naught. We never really had much of a chance for the “win”, and they all rode on to the finish and had a great day. Scott even made it back to Philly in time for his grand-mother’s 90th birthday party. My crash saved me, and them, from being the slow man.
My cuts and bruises are already healing, but the fractured hand will keep me off the bike for six weeks or so. The worst is the badly bruised ass. Trust me, you don’t want a damaged ass. It’s connected to more than you realize, and walking around like an old man carrying a pillow to sit on makes you feel… well, like an old man.
I guess on some level I am old, a thought that has weighed heavy on me of late. I had at least a decade on everyone on my team, and most likely on just about everyone else in the event. Add to age the familiar litany of excuses about the demands of fatherhood, home, multiple business ownership, etc., and it becomes too easy to rationalize away the need to stay on the edge.
To the notion of giving in to age and so-called “adult” responsibilities, I say, “screw that”.
In my career in the outdoor and bike industries I’ve observed two types of folks: those that are in the space, and those that are of the space. Those that are in the space are there because at one point they may have been active participants in the sport, or they may have just been intrigued by the equipment or allure of the sport overall, but for these folks it is just the way that they make their living, not the way that they live their life.
Those that are truly of the space are a different breed, and I would argue more successful for it. They are there because it is the way they choose to live their life, and the making a living part is a gift with purchase… the marriage of passion with purpose.
I may have reached the point where more often than not I am going to be the slow man, but I refuse to give up and just be in the space. If I don’t actively participate, meaning if I don’t actually ride, and try to ride as hard as I can, then I am not truly of the space. My purpose will lack passion, and I might as well go do something more lucrative.
And so, I will get back on the bike as soon as I can, albeit with a new helmet, and still unwilling to accept my role as the slow man.