Being there is a victory
According to my friend Felicia, I am the 2012 road cycling world champion. Felicia cheered me on in Limburg, Holland, in my time trial and road races in September, and since then she has referred to me as champion of the world.
"Where shall we go for lunch, world champion?" she asked, to which I quickly responded, "If I'm world champion, what do you call the 39 women who finished ahead of me in the time trial and the 80-plus competitors in the road race?"
"They're world champions, too," she said, intonating duh.
"And Judith Arndt and Marianne Vos, the actual world champions in the time trial and road race?" I asked.
"They're the extra-special world champions," Felicia assured me. Oh, I see. Well then, I'm sure they don't mind sharing the title with me.
"Don't you get it?" Felicia said. "You were there. You were at the world championships. That's amazing."
In some ways it is amazing. Taking into account the details of getting to world championships for the past five years, I too have been downright dumbfounded that I've reached the starting line of some of these events. Given the foreign language barriers, homestay dynamics, registration protocols and mechanical issues with my bike -- all of which I've often had to navigate solo -- the race itself is usually the easiest part of the trip. The wickedly strong legs and unsmiling game faces of the greatest European cyclists have no physical or emotional effect on me, but trying to find a postrace sandwich has often brought me to tears. Worlds man, it ain't easy.
The day after the road race in Holland, I opened an email from an anonymous sender who didn't exactly share Felicia's opinion that I should be allotted any sense of world championshipism. Since I'd finished 40th in the time trial and been broomwagoned on the sixth of eight laps in the road race (I was hardly alone -- only 80 of 132 finished the race), the author of the email felt compelled to articulate my unworthiness. I was a complete loser. I was an embarrassment to my country. I was undeserving of being there at the world championships. Before sending the email into the trash, I had three gut reactions. My first thought was about the unknown writer: Have we dated? My second was about the ridiculousness of it all: One must be incredibly bored or angry to send such a message. My third thought lingered on the words "being there." Even if a competitor is highly unlikely to win the world championships, does she truly deserve to be there?
I believe the answer is yes.
It is no secret that sports fans and athletes usually come in two varieties: those who believe that winning isn't everything and that participation is the true beauty of sports, and those who follow the Ricky Bobby philosophy of, "If you ain't first, you're last!".
Yet in a sport like cycling, where there are often 200 competitors in the elite fields, "being there" is just how it's gonna go for 199 of us. Not coming in first doesn't make a cyclist a loser, it makes her the majority.
On a personal level, the first time I went to the world championships, in 2008 for St. Kitts and Nevis (for whom I still proudly race as a dual citizen), was about seeing how I stacked up to the best in the world. I learned I had enough talent to be there, but likely not enough to be a contender. Then, over the past few years as I gained political and social awareness of the subculture of professional women's cycling, I came to understand that "being there" at world championships meant a lot more than winning or losing.
Right now, women's cycling is in a tough spot. Development programs are popping up across the world, but few if any are geared toward women and girls. While we celebrate Title IX's 40th birthday in the U.S., it's important to remember there are a lot of sports worldwide that still suffer inequality. So now, more than ever, it imperative that every country granted a berth to world championships (or any race, for that matter) should show up -- to keep our numbers strong, to stay visual, to battle stereotypes -- even if we may not win the race. We can, in time, win the war.
This year in Holland, there were only four nations that sent individual members (i.e., not a full team of six women). Most of us were there via personal funds, accumulated airline miles, homestays and handouts, as the cycling federations of smaller nations can't always supply such means. As athletes, we're physically trained to give everything we have. In my red, green, black and yellow national-team kit, which I'd proudly designed and purchased myself, I hovered in the back of the peloton with Guam, Israel and San Marino, where we are called to the start line last.
Sometimes people notice change, no matter how small. I got a little TV coverage in Holland, as many wondered where in the world St. Kitts and Nevis is, and what the cycling culture is like. A few days later, I got a new Twitter follower, a girl from St. Kitts who wants to start riding a bike. The greatest thing about "being there" is you never know who you might affect. I may not have won worlds, but for a couple seconds before I hit the barrier, I sure felt like I did.
For the first time in my cycling career, I took a true risk in the time trial. I entered a high-speed hairpin corner at a ridiculous speed of 30-plus mph, at the base of the famed 6 percent gradient of Cauberg Hill. I didn't cut the tangent correctly and subsequently fishtailed out of control and hit the metal barrier. Uninjured, I remounted the bike and started the climb from a dead stop, with multiple Dutch spectators (mostly male) using this opportunity to literally push my butt up the hill. My time, henceforth, was not impressive. But, oh! The rush of almostness was permeable and undeniable. Nothing says "being there" more literally than hitting something with your bike and body.
I had tried something new and the risk was worth the error, especially in this field of the best women in the world. I was there! The risk marked an improvement in my tactics, a betterment in my career.
As a competitive athlete, the question of how much faster and better I can get gnaws at me. Trying to find the answer is the other reason I keep going back to worlds -- I'm still getting better. I may not ever be an "extra-special world champion", but who knows? Someday there will be a cyclist from a small nation who will win worlds, so in the meantime, I'll keep showing up to let her know that being there is possible.
And I'll find her a sandwich after the race.