Earlier this summer, I stood under the sweltering Tulsa sun, bathed in a mixture of salty sweat and stale beer and the dampness of the Oklahoma air. My shirt was clinging to my body, and I could feel beads of sweat form at the nape of my neck and roll slowly down the curve of my spine. I reached inside my car and fished out a bottle of lukewarm water littered between Power Bar wrappers and spare tubes, bike tools and equipment. It was the last day of Tulsa Tough, and I had finished 13th after winding my way up an epic party on Cry Baby Hill.
Just one night earlier, I managed a 12th place finish in the Brady Arts District, and found myself eating potato and black bean empenadas from a food truck outside of the Soundpony, where the bartenders were slinging ice cold cans of Prairie State beer to a long line of race spectators. A crowd of riders from Colorado had made their way to a restaurant on the periphery of the course where, just two years earlier, I had pulled up a barstool and sat down with my teammates and Bob Roll. That night, there were no celebrities or legends of the sport. It was just a handful of us, swapping stories and laughing, watching bikes glide across the asphalt and recalling our favorite moments with one another. It was something we could have done any night after any race back home but, on the road, we were without the pressures of time and family and work and responsibilities.
In fact, we developed something of a ritual in Tulsa. We would get up before the oppressive heat, ride our bikes from our host house on the hill down to Doubleshot for an espresso and a thick slab of coffee cake and, most importantly, the company of other lycra-clad cyclists. Doubleshot would replay the races from the prior night on a blank wall in the back of the café, and riders from Texas Roadhouse and Papa Johns, Rally and KHS, Stages and Attaque and every other team would congregate and recount the most spectacular moments of each race. We spent time catching up on all the things we’d missed form one another’s lives, and take long, slow swills of hot coffee.
Between the moments of laugher and camaraderie were moments of real suffering. There were seconds in every race when I thought I might disappear in the struggle. Bike racing is hard. Some of the toughest moments of my life have come on the bike. I have raced in conditions where most people wouldn’t walk their dog. I have crashed, lost so much skin I nearly required grafts, suffered a concussion so serious it resulted in bleeding at the base of my skull, finished dead last more than once. I have performed so badly in races that I have been embarrassed, and the shame of failure has felt so isolating and lonely and I have been tempted to just walk away from the sport altogether.
Sometimes, the very thing that keeps us from connecting can be the one thing that brings us back into connection.
The thing about bike racing is that it tends to bring out our best selves while we are working together, taking care of one another and supporting each other. Every time I crested the climb on Cry Baby Hill, I saw my friends Troy and Wyatt, shirtless and screaming at me to keep the pace. I heard people calling my name, banging on barriers, encouraging me at every turn on the course. In the middle of the race, I found myself working with a woman from Allison Power’s Alps Cycling team, each of us taking inventory of the other’s suffering as we traded pulls through the haze of midday humidity.
In the days leading up to Tulsa, the news was filled with stories about the respective suicide deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Such losses remind us of the fragility of the human condition, and how we can never really move inside the sphere of another’s mental space. We know only as much as they allow us to see, and we can only fill the spaces they let us enter. That there might be an unfathomable suffering locked inside someone near us is something we seem to ignore, even if we accept that pain is the price of being human with a heart.
Under the searing heat of the Tulsa sky, gasping for fresh air up as I spiraled up Cry Baby Hill with my legs on fire and my lungs burning, I found the strength to dig a little deeper as I passed friends and competitors on the sidelines, yelling my name and imbuing me to keep cranking the pedals. I wondered, “What if every part of life were like this? What if it were all a bicycle race, where people in their worst and weakest moments were buoyed by the hopes and the encouragement of others around them? What if, instead of passing harsh judgments destined to make hypocrites of us all, we instead rallied around the person who has fallen off pace and helped them to fight their way back to the field? And then, afterward, no matter the outcome, we would throw an arm around their shoulders and tell them that they should be proud. How different would life be, and would it be enough to rescue those who need to be pulled back in?”
I took a long drink of the warm, stale water in the bottle, and casually tossed it in the passenger seat. I was staring at the messy interior of the car when I heard the sound of fragmenting carbon and screaming wheels behind me. There had been a crash in the Men’s Cat 4 race. Without thinking, my friends Evan and Peter rushed forward to help riders off the cement. Evan plucked a bicycle from the middle of the road and began working to make it rideable. A man was wincing on the curb as blood crawled down his arm. He attempted to stand, only to fall back over on his side. My friend Tanya realized instantly that his hip was dislocated, and she put pressure on his leg and refused to let him move as another man pressed the weight of his back against the injured rider, supporting him as he tried to sit up. Peter kept assuring the man on the curb that his bicycle was undamaged.
My teammate Clark was piecing together a bicycle that belonged to a young boy, probably about 11 or 12. The boy looked at Clark and said, “I have no idea what to do. Where do I go? My coach isn’t here and I can’t find my parents.” Clark gently helped the boy on his bicycle and pointed to the pit at the base of the hill. “I’m going to give you a little push and you’re going to coast in there. They will check over your bike and get you back in the race. You’ve only got one lap to do it, though, so let’s go.” Clark gave the boy a shove and then, to reassure him, hopped on his own bike and rode down to the pit alongside the kid. I watched the boy look up at Clark with absolute adoration.
We are all in this together and, at our core, we’re all pretty good. All of us are going to suffer up some climbs, so maybe we should focus more on the comfort of having someone to sit and climb alongside. Maybe we could all worry less about fixing what is wrong, and instead just offer to be with others in their hardest moments, to dry their tears and offer some words of encouragement. And no matter the outcome of their struggle, we could reassure them that they are doing great things. Maybe we could make the race of life a bit more like racing bicycles.