Chicago Nationals | CX 2021-2022 #5
Nationals. It took me a few days to process this one. Frankly I’m so embarrassed about this race I don’t know how to talk about it. So perhaps this write up is about how not to do bike racing.
I decided two days before to attend. I picked up a flight for that next day, it left at 0600 because that’s when there were standby seats available. That was a 0400 show time and a leave the house by 0300. That meant getting up at 0230. Packing bikes until 10 doesn’t set up for quality sleep.
The longest thing I took to pack were wheels, it’s such a guessing game when conditions are changing daily. I still dragged a huge amount of luggage compared to the average traveler, between the double bike case, the trainer, and warm clothes It’s a heck of a haul. Adding backup wheels to the picture and it gets ridiculous. I rolled by some “Politie” in the airport on my way home from Belgium one year. They were staring so I offered “it’s always great to travel light!” They smiled at least. Mortified. I like to be unremarkable in public settings.
Once I arrived in Chicago and the bone chilling/wind whipping cold set in I went out to the course for practice to discover with the compressed post tornado schedule that there essentially WAS no course practice. We were left with an aggressively enforced 15 minutes of waning daylight as the night time freeze set in. Come race day the winning lap was 12 minutes long, second place was a full minute behind. Trying to commit corners and turns to memory takes more than one lap. AM I annoyed? Yes, but no one could foresee the wind shear that passed through the venue and took half the course with it, compressing that days schedule. Could the powers that be have foreseen that the 7-minute amateur course laps from earlier in the week would double in length with moisture and added distance? Perhaps (strangely this is a nationals trend item). Either way, control the controllables, getting upset about the details only takes away from what you have to give.
This leads me to the topic most prevalent in my mind.
In the world outside of sports much value is places on adapting and working with the conditions. Nothing will ever be perfectly in place so you learn to make due with the circumstances you are presented with. Compensation, adaptability, flexibility, determination; all valued traits that can make a goal focused work environment or day to day life less stressful and more productive. Something doesn’t have to be specifically so, change is okay, there is no need for panic.
To a degree this is valued in sports. Adapt and overcome. Helmet, shoes, kit, bikes, (Covid certification….) and go. Adaptability is valued especially in cross, that pit bike is there for a reason, the conditions are constantly changing, something you ran one lap will be rideable the next.
But there is another side to this, the performance side. I mean we show up to compete, to compete means to try your best. To do your best you need to have brought not just your gear but also the focus, the motivation, determination. The catch here is that those things take time. If you are rushing through all of the checklist items, the physical tasks like prepping gear or food, getting yourself to bed, on an airplane, to the race, fixing some mechanical or another, washing your bikes incessantly, and endlessly searching for a bathroom, mental focus is the first things to go out the window.
So what does this internal emotional checklist include? Firstly, convincing yourself that you are a competitor, you are worthy of this race, you are equal in ability. You must put aside the fear of injury or contact. Trusting in your ability to ride sketchy lines in proximity to another rider both of you with the potential to end the others race. To not let the physical exertion weigh heavier in your brain than it impacts your system, to believe you have the ability to push yourself beyond your own and your competitors’ capacity. To be off the front and not get distracted wondering how secure your lead is or that you have the strength to rally and come back from the rear. To trust yourself to make the right decisions mid effort, to rely on your mastery of skill and allow that to dictate your adaptability to changing conditions.
Racing is a game of tricking the brain to not regulate your effort to a place where you are conserving. It is effortless to go 150% with that finish line in sight, but what about when it’s four laps to go? How do you know when you are giving it everything you can and you will have nothing left when it is over? How to avoid the terror of being in the red zone with an entire race still in front of you? The true psychological beauty is found in close competition and marginal gains that are weighted heavily in the psychological portion of the effort.
I’m above average at adapting. But is this always a good thing? When I come into a race without that time to ruminate, to breathe and relax, I roll with the punches. Not always a technique conducive to an effort I’m proud of. Nearly anyone can show up, it’s who shows up and brings it that is in the game. So I will accept this one as a loss, further reinforcing that I know what works for me and this wasn’t it. I don’t’ regret going, it was reinforcing to see the energy that is American cross, even if this one time I wasn’t ready to receive it.