Race Matters

By Beacon Staff

I’ve extensively chronicled my illustrious adult amateur athletic career in the Beacon before. You may recall my misadventures on a B-league Stumptown Ice Den hockey team with cursed jerseys. I’ve also written about our office’s embarrassingly ill-fated foray into recreational dodgeball. But while team sports allow you to dilute your humiliation among several people, for my pathetic, panting performance in a mountain bike race last weekend, I have only myself to blame.

Participating in the Granja del Cerdo race at the Pig Farm in Whitefish last weekend, I knew going in I would suffer. But the race, an excellent event sponsored by Great Northern Cycles and Farm-to-Market Pork, appeared to target people who like bacon just as much as they like cycling. Plus, having ridden at Pig Farm a fair bit, I knew it lacked any huge hills.

But I was mistaken in thinking it would keep out the serious racers, and pulling into the parking lot my stomach sank as I saw women warming up next to their trailers on loud, whining stationary bicycles: They did not look like people who consume sausage or ham on a regular basis.

So I signed up for the beginner division, which seemed like an appropriate category for me, until I lined up at the start alongside a bunch of twelve-year-olds and their parents. “Is your son racing?” asked one nice guy from Missoula, who was participating in the race with his son. I don’t have kids, and what was a mellow bonding experience for this father and son was actually physically daunting to me.

As someone who rarely dons spandex shorts in public, I was already feeling pretty sensitive and this didn’t help. I sheepishly explained that this was my second mountain bike race ever, and the first I’ve ridden in five years. I also joked that after the start, which involved the racers running from the starting line to pick up their bikes and begin, I was going to tackle some of the kids. I think he got it.

When the race began I quickly fell to the rear of the five or six adults riding two laps, and settled into a slow, solitary pace. Though I shouldn’t be, I’m always surprised at how woefully slow I am, and the reality of a mountain bike race set in quickly. Unlike other races, you can never put your brain on autopilot in a mountain bike race. You are constantly adjusting to descents and climbs, roots and rocks, fast turns and long, bumpy ascents along fire roads. There is no coasting.

If I was grateful for anything, it was that I was so far behind that I didn’t have to deal with racers trying to pass me on narrow singletrack, screaming at me to get out of the way, which is about the only experience I remember from my first race. When a nice white haired lady passed me, we were on a fire road, so I didn’t hold her up at all.

I muddled through my two laps: slowly, deliberately, but safely and relatively in control. It occurred to me that I will never be a good mountain bike racer. I think I like taking breaks too much. In every sport I’ve ever played – tennis, ice hockey, skiing, soccer – brief periods of intensity are almost always followed by a stoppage in play, or a shift change, or a moment to walk while the ball is downfield. But the sustained effort of racing, in any form, is something utterly unfamiliar to me. While I love mountain biking, it is a kind of meditation for me, and I often savor long, slow climbs to look around and let my mind wander before a steep descent, or cruising rolling, forested hills where I can pause and watch an animal or take in a view. It’s almost the opposite of bicycle racing.

As I approached the finish line, I pulled within a few feet of the other racers and we finished together. I felt, for a moment, respectable, until I learned that the other riders had somehow gotten off-course. They made a wrong turn and rode extra terrain, yet still rolled in ahead of me. Were I a racer, such an outcome might be embarrassing, but it didn’t bother me. I just focused on heading back to my car and getting out of my spandex.

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