When I coined the term “red kite prayer,” it started almost as a joke, as a way to acknowledge the efforts that come at the end of the day, when the personal idiot light has been on for at least an hour and wide-open efforts run the risk of not just not working, but reducing the rider to leg-seizing cramps. I loved watching pros look straight down at the road, knowing full well that staring at the asphalt could mean only one thing: the spoon was at the bottom of the bowl.
It was a delicate balance, finding those events that would take me near my limit, but leave just enough in reserve that I might reach the finish just as I burned the last of my gas, much like all those times I threw my car into neutral and coasted into the gas station. Ah, youth.
What I tired of in racing was that too often I got to the line with plenty in reserve, with my engine revved but not spent because I simply wasn’t strong enough to do any damage—to anyone other than myself—if I made it to the front. Spending a day following wheels while keeping all you can in reserve is bike racing 101. It is precisely what you do when you want to win.
That’s when I realized that winning wasn’t my primary concern.
I got to a point where I had surprised myself in as many ways as I could under short efforts. For every rider I might beat in a sprint, there were several hundred within an hour of that race course who could drop me before, during or after I’d reached my top speed. And the guy I beat? Maybe he wasn’t having a great day. Maybe the fastest guys to register that day got sick or called into work. I began to wonder just what winning a race taught me.
Sure, racing taught me a great many lessons about self esteem, about the social contract, about just what I am capable of. But the pursuit of the win taught me way more than winning itself. Winning, to my less-than-expert eye, taught me mostly how to win more. The most interesting lessons, the lessons that taught me something useful about life, came when I lost.
Getting in an early breakaway that got pulled back half-way into the district championship one year taught me not to overestimate my form, and never to underestimate just how violent a counterattack can be. Similarly, getting third in an important road race taught me not to wait for everyone else to do something about the breakaway, and that I can win the field sprint. Don’t be proud. Don’t brag. Take initiative. Be patient.
At the final crit of the season one year I was supposed to lead out a teammate to give him his final upgrade points. We got to five to go and he dropped to the back of the pack. I went back and told him to get on my wheel; it was then that he told me he didn’t have the legs. I argued with him. Why, I no longer know. Faced with the prospect of our team having no one on the podium, I went back to the front, surfed the best legs and got the low step on the podium. Listen. Be flexible.
When I started doing the Grasshoppers, they gave me the canvas for exploring the recesses I couldn’t access in a three-hour excursion. They were long enough that there was no way I could be “on” for the entire distance. Full gas would get me two hours, maybe three, on courses of such difficulty. The long day forces me to choose, to choose where I will deliver the big efforts. On a flat century, it’s possible to ride for hours and hours at 75 percent. But on a course that climbs more than 100 feet per mile, I have to select the stretches where I turn myself inside out, where I go so hard I can’t think of my own name.
There are the questions that come when the rider with whom you hoped to trade pulls rides away. Am I not as fit as I thought? Is age catching up? And once doubt wedges its way into the present, I can talk myself out of anything. Doubt can ceiling my efforts, providing a leash to keep my efforts from running amok. It can make me reach for the brake levers where a smile would have let the bike run.
That I have a choice was one of the biggest epiphanies I experienced. How hard I dig is something only I can choose. And where I put that effort is up to no one but me. Not everything out there is worth my deepest effort. And some challenges—and some people—are worth all the dig I have. Whether or not the finish line is around the corner, or 20 miles away, there are those times when the consequences for not hitting the rev limiter is too great a risk. I’ve lived those moments when now is way more important than the finish, especially when I look at the arc of a lifetime.
Image: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal