Why do I still race bikes? It started back in 2001…Lance Armstrong was winning his third Tour when I was doing my first road races through the cornfields of Iowa. I’ve raced between 5 and 85 race days per year since then. It’s been an epic journey, and I have always honestly said that really every good thing in my entire life is the result, directly or indirectly, of racing bikes.
But that’s not a reason, that’s an explanation, a background…the reason I still race? Because I have experiences that I simply cannot find elsewhere in life. “Oh, good experiences?” you ask. Well, not exactly…it’s like that Facebook status: it’s complicated. Like any relationship, I have a relationship with my bike. And I leave her, and I come back, and it’s rocky, and it’s ecstatic, and it’s painful, and it’s rewarding. Often I think life would be so much easier without a bike, or even relationships for that matter. But then I keep coming back.
So what are these experiences that cannot be had elsewhere? I cannot generalize, so I’ll just say I have a great example: yesterday! It was epic. It was at 10,000’+ in a crazy old mining town that really exists now only to promote suffering via many endurance events. Pick your poison, there are many…the day after my bike race, there’s a RUN on the exact same course. Like, you don’t even get to ride a bike, you just freaking run the thing. The entire thing. Someone did it in less than seven hours, which is almost inhuman, and normal humans are coming in more like 10 hours. Normal humans, as in people who have deep-seated masochistic tendencies, but have jobs and families and mortgages and such. If you’ve seen Fight Club, you have a good analog for these folks already.
I guess I am one of these people, who need to suffer to feel alive. What if we don’t suffer, occasionally? Boredom at best, extreme depression at worst. But the suffering isn’t all peachy, it’s truly brutal while you’re between the Start and Finish. It’s wretched, vomiting, stabbing pain coursing through your body. It’s hallucinations in-between bouts of puking while almost crashing into trees and rock gardens at breakneck speeds. So it’s not an easy way to overcome boredom, but I’ve found bike racing has a ratcheting effect on me—once you go to the next level, you don’t go back, you just suffer harder until yet another level. As a great man (Greg Lemond) once said, “It doesn’t get easier, you just go faster.”
In 2014, I’ve now been “retired” for two full seasons. This is my third. Retirement, that is, from Professional bike racing. Meaning, I really just don’t care much anymore. I drink a lot of beer. I don’t ride that much. I ski a lot, because it’s amazing and I couldn’t ski when I was trying to make it racing bikes. I spend more afternoons working on the car, or the deck, or cutting down trees in the backyard. That’s retirement…but it doesn’t really ever go away, that desire to suffer. I get it in many ways, all voluntarily because that’s what we do in the First World, but none of those ways holds a candle to racing on two wheels. And that is the reason I’m still racing bikes.
Living in Breckenridge, there are fewer races to do than ever before, but those available races are more epic than ever before. Our local Summit Series attracts Olympians. It gets folks who take this insanity to a new level, their ratchet has ratcheted amazingly tightly and they’re all dealing with it by dishing out suffering to everyone else. So the extremely short summer simply makes the period of bike racing even more acute. I don’t do many races, but when I do, they’re brutal.
I have an excuse. It’s Boo Bicycles, this bike company I started…we have a killer team of guys (women: please apply, we need one!) who all ride and race bikes as well, and we beat the shit out of our products. I personally have broken a number of frames from a number of manufacturers, including Boo. If you talk to any of my former teammates, I was one of the most expensive bike riders you could ever hire! So this whole Bike Racing endeavor at least has some “reasonable” meaning in the terms of a “normal” life, money/success and all of that.
And yes, it’s an excuse, a byproduct, and symbiotic rationale that I can tell “normal” people. But you folks aren’t normal, you’re reading this! So I won’t lie to you—I race bikes to suffer, to have experiences unlike anything else in life. Yesterday was one such experience.
The Silver Rush 50 is a qualifying event for the infamous Leadville Trail 100. I’ve always been fortunate enough to race for Herbalife, a nutrition company who mainly sells meal replacement bars and shakes, but has an incredibly chemistry and R&D department that likes to make high-end racing nutrition products as well. Their excuse is to prove their products in the LT100, just like ours…but those guys race and suffer like the rest of us, that’s the real reason. So many of them do the Silver Rush, and a number of other events connected to Leadville and the Lifetime Fitness series. The head of R&D for Herbalife, John Heiss, is attempting to be a Lead Man—this is truly the pinnacle of insanity, and I won’t describe it here because you may not believe the rest of my words. So use Google and you will see.
While the LT100 has the infamy, those who’ve participated in the mass group suffering of the SR50 know the truth: they’re equivalent, if not in favor of the SR50, in terms of total suffering, agony, horror, and treachery. I found this out two years ago, and documented it in a post.
Many folks ask me, since this is a big qualifying event to gain entry to the LT100, what the SR50 is like. Is it hard/technical/rough/climby/etc? And I describe it thusly: “Imagine a very big mountain with steep approaches on all sides, and few trees if any. Then imagine God created a sandy beach on the sides of this mountain. And then He dumped millions of fist-sized rocks, many of them sharp, on top of said beach.” I speak slowly, because this person, the uninitiated, must take time to process this image. The reaction my description causes is often comically disbelieving, but then as they realize I’m being utterly serious, their facial expression tightens, their skin pales, and a look of pure horror takes over. This is why they are called uninitiated, they simply haven’t been There and Back yet.
But isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing twice and expecting a different outcome? I guess I do this race and trick myself into believing it will be different somehow, like I know what I am in for. But every time mid-July comes around, it’s like I go back, uninitiated yet again. I pay lip service to the course’s difficulty, relishing in the terror I create. But I don’t really believe it myself.
And then 9AM rolls around, and all 600-800 of us stare up a 40 degree slope of rocks and nasty weeds as a shotgun blast perforates our eardrums and, like a whipped horse, we gallop and claw our ways up the Dutch Henry Hill towards the starting line of the race. Yes, they don’t even count this portion as a section of the race, but if you decide not to “race” it then good luck trying to pass the massive swarms of bodies all scrambling up a mountain with a beach on it, filled with rocks.
With that swift kick in the crotch taken by all, we frantically hop on our bikes, already seeing stars, and attempt to navigate relatively tight, rocky, twisty doubletrack while jockeying for position leading into a 2000’+ climb. In this section, you cannot win the race, but you can surely lose it. You can be calm and collected, but who does that? My third time in the race, I still haven’t figured out how to properly ride a bike after that sprint up a wall at 9AM. So I bashed around, almost crashed a few times, came close to hugging some trees, and probably made everyone else even more nervous. Sorry.
I survived myself long enough to roll into the Climb. Or at least the First Climb. This sucker is one of four main climbs, but it’s horrible in its own way…probably because it comes first. I was rotating through fifth and seventh places for most of the first section, doing my best to “pace” myself. But who knows what the hell this “pacing” is, anyway?! I assume others know, so I just try to ride with them. But then I blow, or they blow, and then I guess they or I didn’t pace themselves properly? Please explain. Until then, I just go really hard trying to catch someone, or really hard trying not to be caught by someone, or just because. Really hard is based on nothing scientific—it’s just the effort that makes me feel like I’m being stabbed in the kidneys.
So I was going really hard for that whole climb. And I was pretty stoked to be in a solid position, and to finally be done with that mother and COASTING! Imagine coasting after almost an hour of pure agony, every muscle, every organ, squealing like little pigs at the slaughter. So I coasted really hard. It was glorious, and then I got a bottle of some new Herbalife potion that isn’t out yet but seems to answer all of my dreams, and then it was even more glorious. And then I got to descend some flowing, somewhat-gnar doubletrack, and I was just smiling and laughing and yelling and having a good time.
But then came the Second Climb, and I wasn’t smiling. I honestly don’t know what face I was making. If you’ve ever seen runners in a marathon, I don’t think they know what faces they’re making, either. If they did, surely they would change them. But when you’re in the Pain Cave, the Hurt Locker, Suffer Mode, or any of those other places that are all actually the same place, you don’t worry about things like vanity.
This beast is actually probably the easiest of the four climbs. You start out smiling, so that’s good, and I don’t think it’s actually that long…like not even 2000’! FYI that’s a “medium” climb here, anything under 2000’. On an elevation profile, you’ll see this—it really doesn’t look like much. So when you race and you’re on this climb, you go in thinking that, and then something seems wrong. Maybe they didn’t leave the GPS on the whole time? Maybe it got funky with barometric pressure or something? Whatever happened, it’s definitely wrong. Because this thing is a bear, a beast, a ragingwhoredog of a climb. You think it’s over, and then the trail turns, and then you see it’s not over, it just gets steeper and windier and rockier and hotter. The sun beats down on all appendages, an oppressive heat that isn’t even that hot—maybe 75 degrees at the maximum—but you can just reach up and touch that massive ball of fire above your head. It beats you down and melts your legs, your hands, your face. They melt onto the cranks and handlebars, oozing like Dali’s The Persistence of Memory and ceasing to function.
But you keep pushing, because these other racers, who all need this to prevent boredom, are pushing. So you don’t want to be that dude who just gives up, who stops and takes a deep breath, admires the gorgeous scenery and wildflowers. Many people spend lots of money to come out here just to glimpse the view that I’m missing as my eyeballs melt onto my stem.
And then, the top! It’s right there. It’s maybe 100 feet ahead. But there are people, with cowbells and beer, heckling us from above like sadistic, masochistic angels who’ve crossed over to the Dark Side poking at us with fiery pitchforks. Why are they all the way up here? It must have taken them hours, planes trains and automobiles, for what? To watch us attempt an ascent of what I’ll deem Sisyphus’ Steep. I like that because it brings to mind the torture of attempting something that looks so possible, but really isn’t. It’s so close…yet so far. You try your hardest, pushing your melting appendages to their limits, hoping their fibers assemble into some collective mass that can power a light bulb, in order to turn cranks that pull a chain turning a wheel locked to a piece of circular rubber contacting this beach on the side of a mountain with rocks on top of it.
If you fell, you might just ooze back to the Start. Thoughts like that cross one’s mind in these situations.
Just like that, the Relationship changes. I clawed my way to the top of Sisyphus’ Steep and actually rode the entire thing. The ooze was more powerful that I’d thought! And the descent begins, almost so rapidly that one is liable to high-center their two-wheeled rig on the apex of this 12,000’ pass. I was not ready for that one, just like in 2013 and in 2012. Last year, some guy face planted in a bed of rocks and a helicopter took him back to the Start. So no, you don’t ooze back to the Start.
I sliced and diced and scrambled down this goat path rocky beach on the side of some mountain. The lines were ugly, the Boo was sideways more than half of the time. The bike’s handling is nearly telepathic, unlike anything I have ever thrown a leg over…but my mental capacities are so severely diminished I wanted the Boo to just drive itself. I needed autopilot, but we haven’t figured that one out yet, so Nick just pulled together his 14 neurons that still fired and put seven of them to work braking and another seven steering. It was barely enough, but it was enough.
At this point in the SR50, every rider has been through something terrific, horrible, glorious, terrifying, frustrating, epic, unmentionable. And then they turn around, and go back.
Also at this point in the SR50, every rider learns or re-learns what “pacing” is. It seemed complex, unclear, ambiguous—but not now. “Pacing” is apparent when those folks you were way ahead of miraculously appear behind you again, and then next to you, like they might help you through this tribulation. But then they just ride away, and then you don’t see them again. Those folks were “pacing” themselves. And you were not.
I don’t think I really met these folks, per-say. I made the acquaintance of their bikes, their jerseys, their helmet. And then they vanished, as I pushed my rig up the climb I’d just risked life and limb to descend. The rig that weighs under 20 pounds, and costs more than my car, and feels even heavier than my car. How is this person passing me on foot while we both push our machines up this horrid hill, the Third Climb? Because he was “pacing” himself.
Well, I’ll show them! I’m just going to suffer and survive up this thing, the Third Climb, and then they’ll see. They think it’s hot under this sun? Well I will soon be setting the trail on fire as I blow by them in a storm of rocks, sand, dust, and destruction as I scorch the descent. They think they can walk fast up a hill? That’s fine, but I can shred rubber on rocks like few XC’ers can dream!
So that’s my plan. I’m just going to shred the gnar, bro. I hope the bamboo doesn’t catch fire.
Smile: check. Neurons: check. Hoots: check. Hollers: check. Maelstrom of rocks, fire, death and destruction behind me: check.
I passed those suckers who were “pacing” themselves, I never said hi and they didn’t either. This is war, we’re all bleeding like stuck pigs slathering on the ground in the trenches with gunfire overhead. I don’t know your name and I don’t care. But then, it’s over, and I’m looking uphill again. This thing is just incessant!
Time to settle in, just get a groove and go into Damage Control Mode. Those neurons are slowly dying, and that’s really awesome because I don’t want them anymore, they remind me of Reality and I really don’t like Reality right now. I want Fantasy! I’m actually skiing down an epic mountain right now, powder hitting me in the face and choking me as I laugh. I’m not riding a bike, and I’m not here.
But I do know there are folks behind and in front of me, all going skiing or whatever they’re doing, and I’m still going to beat them. Or get beat, who knows. I’m going to find out. The Fourth Climb isn’t technical, and it’s not even that steep. It is a gravel road that your mom’s Civic doesn’t have trouble ascending. She might not even balk at the idea, just looking at this road. But right now, 38 miles into this Attempt to Prevent Boredom, I’m just soaking in my own sweat and tears, dripping onto the gravel and boiling into steam. I remind myself that I might be going really slow, but everyone else might be going really slow, too. This is my only solace.
I can see three riders up the road. They’re so close, I might be able to hit one with a water bottle. But I can’t throw, and my appendages are ooze, and I need all the drops I can get. But surely, they’re just ahead of me…and then, there are three behind me! Where did those guys come from? I thought I was at peace on this lonely road, able to slog my way upwards until that last sharp right hander and the glorious gnar descent after. Do they think taking my eighth place is going to make them that much happier? Or losing their seventh place is going to be the end of the world? Actually, I feel that way, so yeah they probably do. I pedal harder.
The Fourth Climb is finally over. I cut that last turn so hard, I basically jumped through a sage bush to save myself from one more foot of vertical gain. Now it’s time to set this sucker ablaze. I’m sorry folks, but the party is over, and I’m out. Maybe I’ll have a beer for you at the Finish, or maybe I’ll just drink yours for you. But it’s time to shake and bake.
The Boo is just loving it. I’m floating on a layer of cloud over these sharp rocks threatening my soft sidewalls. The front wheel flicks just millimeters around obstacles in split seconds, tracking like a bloodhound. I can feel the legs, the back, the traps…all of them are really shaky now, not even screaming, just breathing their dying breaths. But there is only a few more miles of descending, still with a smile, left to go. I’m solidly defending my eighth place, two better than last year, and even more stoked to put up a good time as part of my great buddy’s bike shop team who won the overall in 2013. I can only imagine how many margaritas will be downed tonight, once I’m able to walk again!
THEN—pliers, hundreds of pliers, diving deep into my hamstring, grabbing and squeezing and ripping fibers apart. I grab handfuls of brakes, screeching to a halt and falling to my side, lying prostrate on the ground. I’m not screaming, because there’s no one around. The 14 neurons, they don’t really know what to do about this. It is the most griping, debilitating, acute pain I’ve experienced during a sport in my entire life.
The hamstring is strung like a banjo, about to snap, pulling itself through all the other ooze and rising to the surface. I can feel it, but I’m not in control—I don’t know who or what is.
Brian Jensen, who was hot on my heels on the Fourth Climb, blows by—acknowledges the particular level of Dante’s Inferno that I’m praying to, prostrate on the ground, and knows he cannot save me. He just hopes he isn’t visiting it anytime soon. Two more go by, the same thing…this is one of the perils of avoiding boredom.
The puppet master in control of my hammy slowly releases, but then grabs my vastus medialis and turns it into a chiseled stone like David. He just won’t quit! But then clarity—I reach for my bottle of Herbalife, Popeye’s magical spinach, and take the last two swigs of the stuff. The puppet master recoils in horror, his grip on my leg melting away, oozing back to the grave.
I mount my steed, having been passed now by five fellow masochists all facing their own demons, and pedal furiously. I’m enraged, I’m out for blood. Now it’s time for the trail to suffer as my rubber cuts it deep, makes it pay for the pain I’ve felt. I’m wiggling my legs again and I’m going to rampage.
The rest is not as eventful. It’s almost anticlimactic. At one point, lying on the ground, I thought I might not be able to stand up, or walk. I thought it was curtains for this bike racer. It was a great effort, but you came up short, and now you’re going to be staying here overnight. Maybe some good Samaritan will carry you away on a stretcher, but more likely you’ll be coyote dinner. And with the magic Herbalife spinach, these thoughts disappeared and I just rode my bike like a banshee, but there was not enough trail left. Today, I would not redeem myself.
I caught up with many like-minded friends, fellow worshipers at the Altar of Suffering, at the finish. I had a beer, and another beer, and a massage, and shared war stories. I saw folks I’ve known since I was 17 years old, my only connection to them this crazy sport. But it’s a deep connection, and has its own language that we all speak. We spend most of our lives wandering through Reality meeting Normal people, and we’re the Abnormal people. We have learned to communicate, to translate our craziness into a digestible form that won’t get us locked up. But at these gatherings like the SR50, the translation ends, and we all speak our true language. We have discussions about mistakes, incredible suffering and feats, do-overs and Next Time.
And this is probably the biggest reason I still race bikes: Next Time. Next Time is different than This Time, it’s full of possibility, of goals and improvement, of progress and such. I love that, it motivates me and fuels me through the difficult periods when it seems like I may never reach Next Time.
I know that, with me and bike racing, there will always be a Next Time.