Those of us who are driven to ride, driven to race, to put our abilities to the test against others, all share a passion that comes from seeking challenge. I‘ve had this quality looked upon in different ways throughout my life, from distain and scorn to admiration and respect. But regardless of how others perceive me, the desire has remained and I’ve continued to pursue whatever is just out of my reach.
I had not planned to go to Spain but my travels are flexible and the thoughts of supplementing the now routine squish of mud and start line shivers with mild weather and sunshine didn’t take much persuasion. The driving would be long and tedious but I appreciate that device-free and unparalleled excuse for self-reflection operating a motor vehicle provides you; a bonus to truly getting a feel for the evolution of a new landscape as you press further into it.
After crossing through the abruptness and beauty of Switzerland with its penchant for making the most of available space by building infrastructure on terrain more severe than I could imagine, crossing Italy with it’s gorgeous turquoise rivers, endless roundabouts, and grapevines as far as the eye can see, I passed through South France and Pyrenees mountains - tracing a coastline overlooked by remnants of cultures that we barely have historical records of.
As the terrain opened up and the grapevines and olive trees morphed into expanses of orange groves and rice paddies, the sun peaked out from behind a cloud front with an intensity I usually associate with the summer months. I felt a relief at that light, an urge to roll down the window of the truck and hang my head out in an effort to absorb it all. I had made the right decision to venture further south even if it was just for this moment of bliss. I may be in a land I know nothing about but cyclocross was cyclocross and the familiarity of a race weekend gave me a plan and a purpose enough to make me feel a smidge of ease.
I made my way to both of the weekends courses Friday, knowing where to park and what to expect helps me to focus on what matters come race day. Sundays site was first and the ultra urban setting along a waterway in a section of freshly leveled dirt was underwhelming at best. The surroundings featured high-rise office buildings under construction and a sad and neglected pedestrian bridge earmarked with graffiti and drooping paneling that led into the oblivion of an urban nowhere, chain-linked fence lined with windblown food wrappers.
I spent all of five minutes looking around, bikes never leaving the truck, before calling it good and heading to the Saturday course. Akin to having stepped out of a portal into an alternate dimension, I rallied my tiny truck up the slick cobbles of winding single lane roads. There was barely space to pass pedestrians frequenting the narrow passages I was traversing between the sheer house fronts. All of this was made more problematic to navigate by grades preventing a clear view over the hood of the truck.
Set in the shadow of a 9th century castle, the course climbed off the start line on the only road available, exceeding a 15% grade in locations within a quarter mile to climb over a hundred feet. As I crested the top of the climb for my first lap I looked at the course poles in front of me disappearing from site below the road surface just feet after the departure from the pavement. At the risk of putting my fears on open display for anyone around I figuratively tiptoed over and glanced down.
It was cringe-worthy but doable and one drop led to another, mostly on dusty and blind awkward corners peppered with small, tire eating, loose rocks. I was relieved to have the chance to find my flow without a crowd. The steepest descent took me a solid ten minutes to commit to, I knew the rules; no brakes, no looking down. A few hot laps and increased tire pressure later and I was immersed, fear no longer a player and feeling much like a kid on a merry go round with giggles and “AGAIN!” echoing in my mind.
Cyclocross is one of those sports that is pretty near impossible to do on your own. If the weather is cooperative it’s a possibility, still it’s not probable that smashing a highly engineered and finely tuned piece of equipment around on a bunch of sharp rocks and curbs will set your race timeline of self-reliance up for success. I was fortunate to get those pre-ride laps in the day before as the condensed race setting on the mountain top made for chaos once the event was taking place. There was nearly no opportunity to jump out on the track come race day and my warmup was cut short by a mechanical. I was wholly thankful that the pit was located near the start line so I could drop my other bike off without the full fledged panic that comes with the worry of missing a start.
Pure joy at the challenges a course presents can set you up for a reliably good race. No matter what the results read after it’s over, you will still have had fun ripping around on the bike. The game plan for the Saturday event was pretty straight forward: throw down everything you had to time trial up the climb and rally the heck out of the downhill. With the sun shining and arms bare for the first time in months, it would have been difficult to not have a good day out there.
Navigating a new country, with unfamiliar customs, sights, terrain, foods, in various languages you have very little comprehension of presents its own challenge. Trying to determine which areas are sketchy or safe, if it’s okay to leave a vehicle with bike inside, if you have to pay to use the bathrooms when you stop, how the gas pumps work, if that narrow road truly is two directional, or how you get your car out of a dead end alleyway you are double parked and blocked into. The race itself becomes a familiar relief amongst the newness: fall back into your routine, show up at the start line, and wait to hear go.
There’s a satisfaction that comes from driving home after a day of racing, having gained confidence successfully navigating the intricacies of it all and a comfort knowing you get to do it all over the next day. The Spanish crowd is warm and welcoming, being on my own makes me a bit more approachable, much of that out of necessity as folks witness me trying to manage both bikes through the narrow maze of people and course tape. It’s fascinating to have whole conversations talked to you with no comprehension: it isn’t apparent I don’t speak the language if don’t open my mouth. The few who I did interact with stuck around to shout the few English words they knew at me, which would result in a glance and a grin despite my effort or focus.
Sunday was the dirt crit I had guessed it would be, the rugged course I finally got out on to pre-ride proved challenging in the balance of roughness and need for traction. My weakness is staying engaged on non-technical courses, I tend to loose sight of my excitement, my motivation, and consequently forget to go hard. I am a very intrinsically motivated rider, I derive satisfaction first and foremost from pride in my effort and races like this one tend to leave me underwhelmed at my performance. Perhaps due in part to the sunshine and knowledge of my capacity to have a decent result based on the day before, I managed to stay engaged during this race, taking each corner after the one before it trying to best my balance and speed.
I rolled over the second finish line for that weekend 45 minutes later satisfied I had pushed my limits but more so that I ventured into this unknown scene and walked out as a player, not just a participant. The fact that I can navigate my way through the complexities of competing with an open mind and minimal stress may not always set me up for my best performance, but it does allow me to leave with new friends and a feeling of accomplishment that can be as much of a reward as winning the race itself.