2016 will mark my 25th year of racing bikes (appropriate celebrations for my silver pretend bike racing jubilee have already been scheduled, make sure to set aside time for my TED talk about the development of my number pinning technique and a live demonstration of my popular and nuanced “golden towel” maneuver, which allows a bib change, a race tactics recap and undercarriage wipe down all while maintaining constant eye contact with teammates), and at no time during my entire racing “career” have I ever thought of myself as an athlete. Certainly, I do athletic type things, I ride long distances and even ride quickly when necessary, but to me those activities have never struck me as “athletic”.
I suppose relegating myself to the un-athletic has something to do with a “ball bias” on my part. At my high school in Dubuque, Iowa, endurance athletes were never the recipients of pep rallies. They were quietly bussed off to faraway cross country meets where they sweated and toiled in anonymity. They were never memorialized under the bright Friday night lights or feted in the packed gymnasiums. Their accomplishments landed in the last paragraphs on the back page of The Gleaner (I never did like the name of our school newspaper, “glean” is such a fussy and proper verb for the title of a high school paper, and I also resented the slight agricultural implication—not everyone from Iowa is a farmer for pete’s sake—and yes, I have been this obsessive since high school), where they were dutifully typeset by some poor sophomore who would’ve rather been at home watching Till Tuesday on MTV.
But I digress. My point is that I never considered endurance to be a color band on the athletic rainbow—reflexes, strength, hand/eye coordination and the ability to shove nerds into lockers were all the primary colors of the high school athletic spectrum that I could comprehend. Endurance was mauve at best—suitable for your grandmother’s pantsuit. I was never an athlete in school, my athletic career ended after the ninth grade, when I found out I was too small for freshman basketball—and also entirely too terrible at basketball for freshman basketball. From then on, my high school athletic career was as a spectator.
After that, I moved on. I got over the death of my athletic career and got down to the business of finding out what to do with my life. I found other pursuits. And it wasn’t until the summer of 1986 that I saw the John Tesh soaked video of Greg LeMond’s win of the Tour de France that I set my sights on getting a bike—a real bike. Acquiring that bike would take two years and many many hours worked at minimum wage. Eventually, I was able to get a glorious celeste Bianchi and I began riding, but my relationship with the Bianchi was to end prematurely due to financial difficulties (it was purchased by my cousin Dale, WHO STILL OWNS IT AND REFUSES TO SELL IT BACK TO ME). I spent the remainder of my college years matriculating and collecting flannel shirts.
It was after I graduated that I finally had time to ride, and that’s when I became a racer, not an athlete, not a fitness buff—a racer. It’s an important distinction. Because I only exercise enough to be a racer. Certainly, there are times when being a racer seems athletic—but I think that “real” athletes would actually win races. I race to feel the pain, exhilaration and occasionally, fear that comes with competing in a tight pack. I race to attack and be attacked by others. I race to find out how people react under extreme physical duress. And I’m thankful for these reasons to race, because if I did it expecting a pep rally and a cheering crowd—I would’ve sold that Bianchi a long time ago.