You may have noticed that my blog has developed something of a theme in the last few months- I repeatedly go out, ride really hard, then race like crap and whine about it. I’ve faced the existential crisis of “bike racer-dom,” asked why I even ride a bike at all, asked what I’m literally incapable of doing, and straight-up bemoaned my body’s apparent inability to recover or sustain any kind of effort. I suddenly realized that this is exhausting (for me) to write and boring (for you) to read, so I’m not going to do it anymore.
No, these things haven’t stopped happening to me- in fact I’m still riding very much like a geriatric and I still feel horrible about it- but I am going to stop bitching. A friend of mine, in an attempt to make me feel better, reminded me that this life is still simple and good- and he’s right, it is. So for now I’m going to (try to) focus on just the simpleness and goodness.
Luckily there’s a lot of it here in Kirchzarten to focus on. My days, like they did last year, have boiled down to the bare essentials; I simply eat, sleep, and ride. In the states I’m so compelled to wring the most out of every moment that it was physically uncomfortable for me to be silent or still when I was over here last year. Not so this year- I no longer feel like I’m wasting any time spent quietly. I don’t feel the compulsion to be reaching out or improving or tweaking anything- suddenly I’m good with just being.
It might just be because I was expecting the blank spaces. In fact, this whole trip feels exponentially easier and simpler purely because I knew what was coming. I brought way less stuff, packed my bike in under thirty minutes, and didn’t even bother with “going out” clothes. I was expecting ten days of bike-monk-hood, and just knowing that helped calm me down. I don’t feel like I need to be cramming in as much Germany as I can fit into a day, and relaxing here finally feels truly relaxing. I probably even fit more Germany in as a result- I feel like I’m getting a real feel for this place instead of the frenzied, tourist-flavored power-pack version of last year. Just being present where you are is good for that.
Of course, the spaces between these meditative off-times are equally more intense. I’m starting to think that the lamest possible bike-monk lifestyle is necessary to put the body through what it goes through in race-mode here. Every course is the gnarliest course of my life. Every field is the gnarliest field. Every finish seems equally unattainable. Racing here is the hardest hard thing I’ve ever tried to do, just like relaxing here is the hardest easy thing I’ve ever tried to do. And I guess that’s the main difference between life here and the states; the swinging from opposite extremes.
Last weekend’s race in Bern, of course, was no exception. It was The Gnarliest Race Ever. I knew it was going to be the Gnarliest Race Ever when Kay broke her arm preriding. We’d ridden the tram to the start with a Swiss dude who’d said, with a smile, that the course was “a little technical,” which we should have considered to be a dire warning (coming, as it was, from a Swiss dude) but after 2k of mild, off camber grass-riding, we were beginning to feel (dangerously) confident.
Our only warning was a white sign with three black arrows pointing down, positioned at one darkened transition from field to woods. This innocuous sign essentially marked a gateway into the most vicious, nonstop descent of root balls, drops and switchbacks I’ve ever experienced. I went from enjoying a sunny day in the nice Swiss field to sitting so far back on my bike that my rear tire was threatening to burn a hole in my shorts. I was fiercely grateful that it wasn’t raining. At one point, between maintaining a deathgrip on my bars and trying to spot the next hazard, I became dimly aware of a crash and some groaning from above. I hollered something (that may or may not have been actual words) to check in with Kay but received no response, so I stashed my bike and climbed (with hands and feet) back up the trail to find out what had happened.
I found Kay surrounded with trail marshals and medics, the chief of whom was pointing to her wrist and saying something to the effect of “ah yes, her ankle is quite injured.” While I tried to navigate through the language barrier to get in touch with our team, the medic laid Kay on the ground and poked a needle in her arm. I was like “woah woah woah, what are you giving her?” to which he responded “vhat is legal?” which was disconcerting. Kay broke in, “I’m allergic to Amoxycillin- please just make this stop hurting.” Eventually we got word out that Key Sher was injured and that Matt should prepare for a hospital trip. Once she was adequately pain-killered-up and I’d made sure someone would get her bike back to the van, I had to turn back to my preride, which suddenly seemed infinitely more intimidating.
It was pretty much nonstop gnar after that- nothing about that course was mellow, and I found myself fending off stairs, tire-hungry rock gardens, random jumps (in case we were getting bored) and the grand finale; a 20 foot near-vertical drop into an immediate 180 degree turn, followed by a root-climb. There were two taped-off lines, neither of which looked remotely rideable to me. I prudently tried to walk one and ended up basically sliding down on my ass, much to the smug amusement of the officials. One of them jerked his thumb at me and said “course closed,” thus ending my inspection.
I was feeling horrible. In the space of one lap I’d found multiple course features that scared me, encountered one I couldn’t even walk down, and seen a teammate off to a dubious Swiss-German-speaking hospital. I had three hours to stew before start time, spent mechanically eating cardboard-flavored food and watching my competition which, as it turns out, wasn’t just the usual bloodthirsty euro-women, but Irina Kalentieva and the German, Swiss and Italian National Champions. It was not a confidence-inspiring three hours.
Yet somehow the start rolled around, as starts tend to do. For distraction there was what I’m beginning to recognize as the typical techno-flavored “start song,” in addition to a row of dudes ringing gigantic (3ft tall) traditional cowbells. The start chute was lined with enthusiastic drunk spectators. The whole atmosphere was very thrilling, yet, as has happened with every start this season, the race soon rode away from me. I rode with stragglers for a while, and apparently there were even a few girls behind me (who never finished) but I was essentially the caboose of the race.
Here’s where I focus on the positive: I had a clean day. I rode everything (even the drop) without losing my shit for each of the three laps I managed to complete before Irina came around. During the first go-round I watched a girl break her collarbone on the big drop (I took the other line, amidst the screaming) and I later had to stop my bike so an ambulance could get through the course- the race became a sort of bloodbath, and I’m glad I didn’t get too psyched out by the carnage. I was sure that as I started to get tired and anaerobic I’d start to make some pretty dire mistakes, but I guess I held it together.
Apparently just finishing was good enough for 19th place, (7th in the U23’s) which should get me some UCI points. It’s a strange feeling to be disappointed with my personal ride yet somehow come away from it with a result that doesn’t match the suckiness I feel. I guess I’ll just take it as the experience and (as always) work for better next time.
The next Gnarliest Race Ever: Flims, this Saturday. Some nice German down-time and ice cream till then. Thanks for reading!