The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental health—Abraham Maslow
During my final season of racing, there was a weekend in which my ambition got the better of me. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to be standing on the podium, but I dreamt I would be getting stronger, still uncovering simmering potential, the way you lift the lid to taste the marinara once the basil is stirred in. I had planned to do four crits in less than 48 hours. Two Saturday, two Sunday, between seniors and masters.
I’ll just cut to the chase: by the time we were a three laps into the fourth race, I was so fatigued I couldn’t maintain the pace and either dropped out or got dropped, depending on how you like to tell stories of humbling miscalculation.
It was on the following Tuesday’s ride that I heard how all my friends who weren’t racing industrial-park crits had been up in Malibu scaling the canyon roads of the Santa Monica Mountains. And that’s when I knew I’d lost the plot to my own life. What they’d been doing was, by any measure I cared about, far more fun than what I’d been doing. I needed to make a change.
Bike riding started as fun. I hadn’t needed to prove anything and I was no longer sure what I was meant to prove, or why. I’d already gotten far more fit than I’d ever expected I could, so I was chasing something increasingly fleeting or appreciable. But riding up and down hills, especially on roads that twisted and turned in ways that made you appreciate the terrain and engaged your senses more completely than an amusement park ride, well the appeal of that never faded.
So when I lined up near the back of the group on Bohemian Highway in Occidental, Calif., on a recent Saturday, I did so with the conviction that nothing for which I’ve ever pinned a number has asked more of me as a rider. Old Caz is the first of the year’s Grasshopper Adventure Series races and it demands a full suite of cycling skills and fitness. To ride the 52 miles in less than four hours—which doesn’t seem like a tall order—you’ve got to have the ability to climb, to descend steep and unpaved terrain, to feed yourself on roads that are rarely flat and straight, to summon power while simultaneously threading your way down roads that look more like mine fields.
It was, in short, my idea of fun. However, one doesn’t need to register for a race to ride such roads, or do you? As I’m new to Sonoma County, I do need a guide; I’d never find half this stuff and there’s a fair chance that what I’d find on my own would lead straight into the heart of private, and with that a reasonable opportunity for armed enforcement of my imminent backtrack. It can get like that ’round here.
A compare/contrast between an industrial park crit and a gravel event reveals as many surprises as it does expecteds. It’s easy to focus on the topographic differences, but they are rather alike in that they both take place in the middle of nowhere. A business complex on a Sunday morning is quieter than church. Same goes for the dirt roads I encountered at Old Caz. But they are different enough that you need different bikes. Sure, they both demand all the fitness you can muster, but at root, a crit is more about you beating other competitors than overcoming a course. It’s that difference that is key to making the gravel events I’ve done much more enjoyable than the traditional bike race. When I arrived at the top of Willow Creek, the climb that finishes off Old Caz, I didn’t much care that the guy I’d been chatting with, Phil, finished a minute or two before I did. I didn’t care that a person or two had caught me in the time that lapsed since he dropped me. What I cared about was that when I crossed the finish line I’d dug as deep as I was able. I wasn’t there to beat anyone else. I was there to take as many minutes off of my previous year’s time as possible.
Competition has always been more interesting to me when viewed as a matter not of digging more than you, but of finding more than I thought I had. That’s why I find the late-race attack far more engaging than the finish line sprint. It’s those unplumbed depths that taught me the best lessons. So when I cross the finish line, I do so knowing that everyone has had to dig in the same way I did at the course’s most crucial junctions; in that, we’ve shared something, so the feeling of camaraderie runs high. Honestly, I like cycling better when it brings us together.
Exploring unfamiliar roads in a mixed terrain event is a chance to see something new, to sample a slice of the world that isn’t a part of daily routine. I may not look around much if I’m sitting in a paceline doing 28, but I do look around. I may only pass this place once. That reminder is helpful for me. It brings me back to what I thought was the point of the bike in the first place—to grab the world by the shoulders and give it a big bear hug.
Let the bike take you someplace and look around. You may only pass this place once.