That's bike racing? Really?
That's bike racing.
In cycling, this is the phrase we use to shrug off the complexities and challenges of our sport. Got a flat tire in a really important race? Break your collarbone after overlapping wheels with a competitor? Lose your water bottles after running over a nasty pothole?
That's bike racing.
I rather dislike this phrase. The annoying accuracy and honesty robs me of the chance to wallow in misery when something goes wrong. Granted, I've never been one to wallow, but I find it far more effective for my mental health to verbally release the momentary frustration of a tough race situation. When we stub our toe on a chair leg, it's normal to let loose an expletive or two. I've never heard anyone cry out, "Well, that's furniture."
And so, under the banner of all that is good and bad in bike racing, here's how my week at the UCI Energiewacht Tour in Holland went. Starting with how I got there, but my bike did not.
Upon returning from the previous stage race in El Salvador, I got a last-minute invitation to join a Dutch team called Water, Land & Dijken for the prestigious UCI event in Northern Holland, where I would have six stages and five days to chase those elusive Olympic qualification points. Because I had a stop-over in St. Kitts and Nevis on the way back from El Salvador (with a lot of connecting flights, potential baggage fees and delayed luggage hazards), it made more sense to ship my bike home via FedEx so it would be there in time for me to dash off to Holland. This was all well and good, until the call came from my husband, George:
"Honey, FedEx can't find your bike. Or your wheel box. They have no record of either."
As much as I would have loved to say, "Well, that's FedEx!" and let the whole thing go, that wasn't an option. Not with an Olympic dream hanging in the balance. Instead, we delegated tasks. George dealt with FedEx and the nagging fact that $10,000 worth of sports equipment had vanished. I dealt with how I was going to race without a bike.
There were two options: a) Don't go to Holland; or b) Don't be an idiot; my Olympic dream is at stake, so borrow a bike and go to Holland. Everything's gonna be fine.
Trying to find a bike to borrow in 48 hours isn't easy. For one, most people don't have high-end spare bikes lying around that they eagerly give out to others. Second, I also needed a bike case, which was also lost. So I did what I usually do in times of emergency and need: I logged onto Facebook and Twitter. Remarkably, within three hours, two possible solutions came through. My friend, Chris Jeffrey, a pro triathlete who was out for a few weeks with a broken collarbone, had a road bike and a travel case for me. Then, a seemingly even better offer came through! A bike store in Holland had a top-of-the-line bike they'd lend me for the race.
"You won't have to fly with your bike, just come on over!" they said. Amazing. They asked for my measurements. I sent them over. We were all set.
Upon arriving in Holland, where the incredibly lovely Kessler family took me in and shuttled me to the race (a 2 1/2-hour drive from the airport), I had about 24 hours until the first stage (time trial). I used Chris's bike case to bring my TT bike to Holland, and it served me well. On the cold, gray, windy day in Appingedam, I felt amazingly strong in a very specific manner I refer to as the Keavy Effect.
My friend, Keavy McMinn, let me use her airline miles to upgrade to business class on the way to Holland. I had one of those nifty seat-turned-into-bed arrangements, not usually found in my back-of-the-plane, middle-seat travel budget. This luxury is no small potatoes; dealing with a last-minute flight, jet lag and a race within 24 hours is very hard. Being able to lie down for most of the journey gave me a very good race result.
I placed 57th out of 150 women in the time trial. While most people would wince that I used "57th" and "very good" in the same breath, bike racing isn't like most sports. While there are rarely 57 marathoners, triathletes and race-walkers that cross the line in the course of a minute, cycling is different. In this race, less than 90 seconds separated the first one-third of the competitors from the top 10 to the top 60. For me, it was further proof that I am getting better and faster. I feel pretty darn good about that. Man, this Olympic dream really is such a great fairy tale in the making! I couldn't wait for the road race.
That's where the fairy tale turned from Disney to Grimm.
I knew something was a little off when I picked up the borrowed road bike. Beautiful as the snazzy carbon steed was, the handlebars looked a bit big. So did the bike length. Flicking out my nerdy travel tape measurer, my suspicions were confirmed. "Not quite" in cycling measurements is not a good thing. It's like giving a runner the wrong size shoes at the start of a marathon. Yet under the circumstances, it didn't bother me. I was there. I could race. That's all that mattered. So what if I needed to be about a foot taller for this particular bike? There were 16 hours until the first road race. I could grow. I've always had an excellent ability to use positive(ly unrealistic) rationalization when necessary. Besides, it wasn't like the bike was going to fall apart or anything.
The temperature in Papenburg at the start of the road race was 35 degrees, and the women in the peloton shook with cold. The howling wind and fierce competition should have been my main competitors. Instead, my nemesis became a 65-cent seat-post bolt that quietly began to cry mutiny, slowly unwinding its dedication to my dream. After a section of rough cobblestones, the seat post fell five centimeters. My knees bowed out, and so did all my power. My road bike had become as powerful as a tricycle. I began falling back from the pack ... back, back, back until I saw an old friend. Hello, broom wagon, how nice to see you again.
The mechanical difficulties left me "time cut," which meant I was no longer allowed to complete any upcoming stages in the race. My six-stage race and week in Holland stopped at just the second day. The 10-hour flight, the 20-minute time trial, the jet lag, the borrowed bike, the poor results, the disappointment ... I was surrounded by strangers and teammates and had to play the maturity card.
"That's bike racing," I offered, staving off tears.
But my heart had stubbed its toe and gave a silent temper tantrum only I could hear:
Sometimes I really hate this sport. It really sucks. I hate FedEx. I hate it when stuff doesn't turn out the way I want. I worked really hard. Good things to happen to me because I say so. I hate that a half-inch piece of metal has any say in my dreams. I hate being polite. Polite sucks. I don't want to sit down and relax, I want to throw this stinkin' chair across the flippin' race course. I hate the word "flippin'." Only polite people say that. My hips hurt from that damn seat-post disaster. I hate that I had to say thank you to the guy who lent me the bike when I really wanted to curse him out for it falling apart because I am angry and blame helps right now. I'm tired and I'm hungry and the peanut butter in Holland tastes like $!@%#! and I'm still mad at that girl in eighth grade who stole my summer camp boyfriend and I miss my childhood dog and ...
Whoa, OK. Maybe "That's bike racing" isn't such a bad phrase after all. Best to dam that kind of flood. Mostly, though, I dislike the phrase because it's only applied to the negative things we encounter in racing. Yes, indeed, bad stuff happens in bike racing like it does in any sport. Still, I'd rather the phrase be used for helping us remember the benefits of our sport, especially when times get tough.
Flying business class to Europe for a chance to chase my dreams. Having friends lend me their equipment, money, time and energy because they believe in me. A family of strangers taking me into their home. A foreign team letting me race for them. A time trial with promise and potential. The chilling cold on race day reminding me I'm alive. The seat-post screw reminding me that effort and circumstance might not always align, but showing up to try still counts for something. Doing something -- anything -- with our life is the gift of sport, regardless of the result. Still having a shot at your goals, picking yourself up, trying again (and again and again) and getting back on the bike ...
Now that's bike racing.
Kathryn Bertine is the author of two sports memoirs, "All The Sundays Yet To Come" and "As Good As Gold." You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynbertine, or check out her latest endeavor to help women's cycling.