As I sit at my desk browsing race wheels on ebay, putting a race calendar together and writing down goals for the coming cyclocross season, I’m feeling a weird mix of excitement and a hint of annoyance. Excitement because, simply, cyclocross season. Call it crazy, but I start bouncing in my seat just thinking of an hour of racing a single speed cross-bred of a bike on caution-taped courses of sand, grass and mud, in between drunken, cowbell ringing, heckling fans. Annoyance because all of the goals I wrote down look familiar. Aka, goals that I didn’t achieve over the last few seasons. I’ve done this long enough that the improvement from year to year has tapered off, and the same goals are appearing for the next season. And it irks my need to improve and rather competitive self.
And then I remember a particular race from last year. It was the Kingswood Park UCI (pro) race, part of the Cincy3 Cyclocross Festival. It’s one of the biggest cross races in the US, held under the lights in a park walking distance from the house I lived in when in high school.
Since my high school days, I’ve gone on to attend school at Virginia Tech, and my family has moved on to Raleigh, NC, and none of us get back to Cincinnati often. Despite the fact that it had been on the list of races to hit the last few years, I wasn’t able to do it for various reasons. Last year was different, as I was taking a semester off of school to work a co-op, in no other place than Cincinnati. Honestly, I was more excited to spend another fall racing bikes in one of the biggest cyclocross towns in the country, catching up with the great people and families that I knew from racing and working at the local shop in high school than I was about the job.
And I was no more excited than the first weekend of November for the Cincy3. It had been a dream for the last few years to get up to Ohio for this race. Three days of racing with the biggest names in the states, with one of them being under the lights, and another being the first ever Pan-American Cyclocross Championships. And to make it that much better, my family was coming up from Raleigh for it, my grandparents were coming down from the Toledo, OH area, and there was bound to be plenty of friends to run into.
Saturday morning brought chilling air and the short lived snow flakes added to the excitement. The day’s races were filled with a bunny hopping fest by my brother and fellow BRO athlete, a non-exciting single speed race on my end, and plenty of hectic-ness to get ready for races. In between races brought on some great spectating, catching up with neighbors and friends, as well as some heckling and cowbell ringing.
As the afternoon drew on, I started to think about and prepare for the UCI race in the evening. It would be my first UCI race, and I was racing much more to say that I raced with the big boys than to do well. Heck, my plan was to go balls to the wall just to see how long before I got lapped and pulled.
Walking back to the van, I realized that I had lost my numbers. In the chaos of the day, I must have put them down in a nook in the van or dropped them in the porta potty. Despite desperate search attempts by my mom and I, they were nowhere to be found. So we walked back up to registration, me feeling like a dog with its tail between its legs. What an idiot, I thought. “Sooooo, my son lost his number for the elite men’s race, any chance he could get another one?” My mom asked, as I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
“Well, let’s see. Looks like you’re in luck. We’ve got just one left, 99.” The official at registration checking in told us as he handed me a fresh set of numbers.
I chuckled a sigh of relief, “Thanks a bunch!” As I handed the new set of numbers to my mom “Maybe you should hang on to these until I pin them up…”
“Yeah, no kidding,” and turning to another official, smiling, she asked caringly “Long day?” Both of the officials nodded their head slowly. They had been here since seven in the morning, and wouldn’t likely get out until midnight. “Can I bring you back a cup of coffee or something?” They reassured my mom they were fine and had plenty of caffeine through the day.
Walking back to car, my mom and I decided to head to Panera for a rather traditional pre-race coffee instead of a sit-down Italian restaurant that the rest of the family and grandparents were off to. As good as some pasta sounded, two hours out I wanted little more than a banana, a bite of a bagel, and as much coffee as I could down without shaking while warming up.
As I sat in Panera with Momma, pinning numbers to my skinsuit and chugging Hazelnut coffee, I couldn’t help but feel a little selfish. Here I was, getting ready for a race I had been dying to hit for years. My family and grandparents had come to my temporary hometown, and I had opted go caffeinate my tired self instead of spending time with them. As we headed out, my Mom paid for another coffee to go. “Who’s that for?”
“The official at registration.” I nodded, not surprised that she actually followed through on her offer.
Back at the race course, I stayed in the van to stay warm, procrastinate actually warming up, and blasted music to try to get into the race mindset, while my mom went on a coffee delivery. Five minutes later she came back, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone more excited for a cup of coffee. The official just stood up and gave me a big hug and said thank you, while the other official gave me the thumbs up. Something different at every race.”
In that moment, I couldn’t help but turn down my music, look her in the eye, and just smile ear to ear. No words. Just a smile. I don’t know what of. Gratitude, inspiration, understanding maybe? In that moment, that Saturday evening wasn’t just about bike racing. It was about much, much more. It was about friends, it was about family, it was about dreams and it was about making a difference in a stranger’s day. Bike racing had just happened to be the means by which it was all happening.
The next fifteen minutes entailed quite the heart to heart conversation about the purpose of racing, really the purpose of pursuing anything that we have a passion for. It’s not about necessarily being the best, rising through the ranks, getting sponsored, going pro, or even meeting goals. It’s about giving your best no matter how good you are, and most importantly, using your God-given gifts and passions as a means to reach out and make a difference, even if that is as seemingly small as a cup of coffee.
Kitted up, I got myself out into the cold, grabbed my bike off the rack after a quick lookover, and rolled over to the side of the course to simultaneously warm up and watch the end of the pro women’s race. As I rolled into the starting grid, my mom handed me my phone so that I could see an inspiration good-luck text from Becca, my girlfriend who was back in Blacksburg, Virginia. If I wasn’t already on a caffeinated, emotional and spiritual high, I was now.
Wearing the 99 number, starting on the very last row, the gun finally went off. That race was the fastest I had ever entered, by a long shot. It was a night of cowbell filled, hand-up taken, adrenaline pumping cross racing. There were more cheers for me than people I thought I knew in Cincinnati. I made up little ground out of the gate, botched a bunny-hop, tripped over the barriers the next lap, crashed on a straight away, and ultimately ended up getting lapped and pulled barely half way through the race. And Sunday’s race, while I lasted until the last lap before being pulled, wasn’t much to write home about either.
But that wasn’t the point. The point was that it was a fantastic weekend that brought friends, family and complete strangers together over a shared passion. It was a weekend of pursuing dreams, heart to heart conversations, and making differences.
So instead of a list of goals taped to my door, something else is there. The 99 bib number from that night in Cincinnati. For motivation, yes, but more to serve as a reminder of what I can use Cyclocross as. It’s a reminder that there’s more to it than training to reach such and such goal. Just like any sport, any passion for that matter, it is a great means to spend quality time with family and friends, reach out to someone who has the same passion, and hopefully make a difference in someone’s day, even if it is as seemingly small as a cup of coffee on a cold Cincinnati night.