‘Terrified’ by definition is “cause to feel extreme fear.” ‘Bucket List’ by definition is “a list of things to accomplish before one’s death.” How do these two things come into play for one race? Take a seat and I’ll tell you a story!
First, I’ll start with the Bucket List. My list is as long, if not longer, than Santa’s ‘naughty or nice’ list. Even if I lived until I was 100 years old and fulfilled one each day, there still wouldn’t be enough time. One item that has been haunting me since I got back to racing is a very popular, local road race called Good Friday. Yes, I said road race (insert furrowed brow here!). One of the first road races of the season and an Ontario Cup, I have heard numerous stories of twitchy, crazed-squirrel like riding. And, in true form for a road race, there is always the carnage. Hmmmm….so why would I want to do it when it doesn’t involve fatter tires, suspension and dirt? The answer is simple…I wanted to face my fears and do something I’ve never done.
Terrified is exactly what I felt the morning of the race. I almost required the ‘bucket’ part of the bucket list. My desire to puke was nearing erupting volcano proportions. The images of me becoming road pizza were beyond nauseating. The regurgitation of my breakfast made it clear I was really scared and I may have to race on an empty stomach! Let it be clear…this a real road race…not exactly Tour de France but you get the idea. I’m not a road racer, no matter how far you stretch the imagination. Road riding was strictly for training. This voluntary venture to tick off another one from my bucket list was becoming epic before the race even started.
You could hear a pin drop in the car as we drove to the venue. My incredibly supportive husband could see the fear in my face and remained silent. The only sound I could hear was my heart thumping like congo drums playing at warp speed! My hands were dripping with sweat (no I wasn’t having a hot flash!) and my breathing, at best, was laboured.
Getting out of the car, I told Steven I wanted to puke…not just a wee puke…a serious, I drank too much when I was in my 20’s kinda puke. His quick thinking came up with a few encouraging thoughts, …”don’t worry honey, you’ll be fine! Ride by yourself if you have to. You’re smart, you’ll make the right decisions!” All very sweet words but it wasn’t helping. The high speed slideshow in my head seem to come up with a thousand images of shredded lycra, raspberry-coloured road rash and mangled bikes. I didn’t even know I had that many pictures in my head and in full colour! Most of all, I dreaded the thought that some silly crash, even one that wasn’t my doing, could end my season before it really started. Nothing like a bit of imaginary drama before a race!
Getting dressed for the race, I zipped up my Erace Cancer Cycling Team jersey that I am so incredibly proud to wear. All the while, I repeatedly belched coffee flavoured oatmeal, and tried to settle my mind and my volcanic stomach by chanting, ‘blah, blah, blah…” Yes, that really was my chant. It was a lame attempt to distract my mind from my mental, this film may contain violence and coarse language, movie production that was playing over and over in my wee brain. It wasn’t helping. The vortex of terror was picking up speed and sucking me into the black hole of despair. Even the presence of familiar, friendly faces didn’t matter.
My nostrils were flaring and I took the ‘all the way to my toes deep breath.’ I pulled out my final addition to my racing kit…a googly-eyed, antennae clad, lady bug helmet cover. Not even remotely aerodynamic racing attire nor is it anything close to what road cyclists would like to be seen in, it was my signature head warmer for the cold weather season. Onto my helmet it went. A quick glimpse of myself in the car window made me giggle. I was as ready as I could be! Everyone will now know to stay away from the rider with the goofy helmet!
There wasn’t much time left so I scooted off to the road for a mild warmup. It became blatantly clear in less than five minutes that my helmet/head warmer was frowned upon. A few scathing looks from some male cyclists were confirmation of that. I smiled at each of them, gave the thumbs up and kept riding! I’m pretty thick skinned and their looks of disapproval were humorous. I didn’t care what they thought. I wasn’t there for them. Besides, if I was seeking approval, I wouldn’t be putting on anything that belonged on a Sesame Street show. It does nothing for blending in with the crowd! Was I making a statement with my childlike attire…absolutely! I was being…well me! I race for fun and the love of it! I don’t have to fit the stereotype and, most of all, I was racing for kids with cancer. They would love this helmet cover and that’s all that matters!
Back from the warmup, I got into the line-up and positioned myself as far as you can go and still be in the race. I wasn’t there to win it…although the thought did cross my mind for about a second. Fantasies are allowed, you know! If I finished unscathed, it was another life experience complete. My ego was non-existent and I was pretty sure my helmet cover was shouting that out on its own!
3, 2, 1….GO! Survival of the fittest had begun. The start of the course was over the bumpiest, loose gravel, eyeball bouncing, teeth chattering, off-road style landscape just to get to the real pavement. Maybe that was just me vibrating, but it was pretty crappy terrain. It became immediately clear that I was out of my element bouncing around on the loose crap on a skinny-wheeled machine. It was beyond sad. Tip-toeing through the tulips is faster. I barely managed to hold onto the peleton (a main group of cyclists for all the non-cyclist readers) as we made our way onto the blissfulness of modern concrete!
Suddenly the peleton surged ahead. “Oh boy, here we go,” I thought. Then, as quickly as it picked up, the paced slowed down and rapid breaking began to occur. A few women skidded and I just about needed a change in shorts! Again, the group began to accelerate quickly and again, another deceleration. It was nothing short of feeling like an accordion. My nose was beginning to drain fluids but I had to stay completely focused and letting go of the handlebar to clear the cling-on was not an option. Ignoring the goopy, spiderweb strong string that was dangling from my nasal region, another whiplash took place. There was nowhere else to go for the flexible, responsive mucous except across my face and glasses. I couldn’t help but laugh at what just happened. Without missing a beat, I had to share my experience with Sandy riding beside me. “Hey Sandy, I have snot flying everywhere!” She laughed and seem to take my bodily fluid warning in stride. A few more accordion episodes with a few uncontrollable verbal “Yikes!” and I had to ask Sandy, “is this normal, this whiplash, yo yo thing?” She gave me the answer I didn’t want to hear…”yup, it’s road racing!” It was there and then that I had a punch in the face confirmation that I was a MOUNTAIN BIKER! And yes, those words were capitalized in my brain when I thought it!
The first lap continued like an accordion playing at a Polish wedding. The only saving grace was the actual racing in the peleton felt easy. The pace was casual and I could ride the speed for hours. Nearing the end of the first lap, my group was forced to stop. Up ahead was one of my nightmares come to life…a road full of carnage. A group of male cyclists were scattered across the road like pepperoni on a pizza. Dazed riders standing in the ditches, some remained sitting. Somewhere, something had gone terribly wrong. Some had crashed and then were crashed upon. My movie production of all things evil between cycling and pavement became very real. Ripped clothing exposed the consequences of skin cheese-grating over pavement. Their mangled bikes and tacoed wheels were strewn from one side of the road to the other. You could almost see the dollars spent on the prized machines floating up into the air like soap bubbles, quickly going poof and disappearing into the atmosphere. A lone rider lie in a starfish position, motionless, surrounded by paramedics.
My brain was screaming, “bail, bail,” as we slowly passed through the front line of the war zone. The realities of road racing were in full magnification. Raspberry-coloured road rash, beaten up bodies and bikes are the nature of the sport if you don’t keep the rubber side down.
Heading into the second lap I had a chat with my shoulder gremlins that frequently appear during moments of great challenge. One gremlin is my weakness companion with a big mouth, called “Bail.” Clad in black with a greater than human size megaphone, she appears when my confidence meter begins sinking faster than the DropZone circus ride that plummets you to the ground at what feels like the speed of sound. The other gremlin is called, “Never Surrender” and dressed in bright pink with a gentle, fairy-like voice. Yeh, I know….bright pink and fairy-like you say…it’s a breast cancer thing and there is strength in the colour pink! Now back to regular programming! Bail was screaming at me to quit! I could barely hear the sweet, gentle voice of Never Surrender telling me to keep going. I already knew, without the help of my gremlin companions, that quitting was the easy way out. I’ve never taken the easy way out. The guilt of quitting always seemed like a weight to heavy to bear and it lasted FOREVER! That was not an option for someone as determined as me! A shrug of my shoulder and Bail flew out of sight. All I could hear was the Tinkerbell-like voice saying, “never surrender, you can do this Jany!” I knew I was okay being a workhorse. I was definitely okay riding against the wind alone, if I had to. I was most certainly capable of riding 65 km, so I ran out of pitiful excuses and sucked it up.
Round and round the course we went, all the while, the accordion kept on playing. Heading into the fourth lap, I was relieved that there was only one more lap to survive. Through the unrelenting, torturous starting terrain, I was psyched beyond words to reach the bend and the buttery smoothness of pavement. My skills for cornering are pitiful, at best, but I am skilled enough to recognize when I am in the trajectory of someone cutting a corner too tight. Backing off was the only option to avoid a collision, so I obliged. It was the worst timing ever since the peleton immediately accelerated and instantly there was a gap created between the stealth bombers and a few of us.
My eyes flew wide open. “Oh shit,” was the best I could come up with. Accelerating to try and bridge the gap, it donned on me that I may be getting what I wished for and it only took about 1.5 hours to happen. Suddenly I was riding alone. Alone with a headwind. Funny how I didn’t like that option, after all. I only liked it if it was my choice…how arrogant of me! So with sheer determination I went into my drops (the lower part of the handlebars for all the non-cyclists). Changing my body position to become an aerodynamic queen….I was ready for a time trial no matter how much it hurt. I was going to catch that group of blips in the distance or die trying….well sort of.
I caught up to my friend Lori who also lost the pack. “Grab on girl, we’ll catch them together,” I shouted as I pulled in front of her. I was hoping she could draft and if we worked together we could catch the group. I guess my drive was more than hers and she became a spot in the distance behind me. “You can catch them alone! You’ve trained for this damn it! Just put your head down and do it!” I told myself. I know how to try so hard it will make me puke…this was one of those times. The suffering was only going to be 20 minutes long. The one thing that I’ve learned from having cancer; when you know suffering is temporary, it’s really easy to take!
The peleton remained deceptively attainable for half of the course. Certain I could catch them, I pushed on. I kept trying to apply some suggestions I had been told previously. Increase your cadence with easier gears to improve efficiency. It wasn’t working. I’m a masher….I like harder gears but I figured, what do I know…I’m a MOUNTAIN BIKER! The gap was steadily growing with every surge created by the lead riders. Somehow, I wasn’t willing to accept that I couldn’t catch them. I forged on, against the wind, by myself, one pedal stroke at a time!
It became a peaceful time although accompanied with burning lungs and legs! My thoughts bounced around to the images of the kids at Camp Ooch and I wasn’t about to complain that my body hurt. Then, as always, when a hint of whining arose, reinforcement appears that the ‘woe is me’ is unacceptable. I caught a glimpse of a man in a wheelchair cheering at the side of the road. I’ve spent my share of time in wheelchairs and understand the pain felt wanting to do what others were getting to enjoy…like riding a bike! Since they can’t…if we don’t want to keep pushing for ourselves, push for those that would give anything to be able to! So I kept pushing.
The finish line was drawing near and I gave it some extra umpf! Safely taking the last bend, I put in a little sprint to the finish. Nothing spectacular but I still had to sprint. Every fibre of my body was exploding with joy as I crossed the finish line. It was truly a feeling beyond words. Adrenaline surged through my veins like the rush of caffeine from downing five extra large coffees back to back. I was jacked. Speaking a full sentence wasn’t possible and uncontrollable laughter consumed me. I had survived and remained unharmed except for any self-inflicted mental bashing. The race was finished and ticked off my list! My incredible husband had a smile from ear to ear at the finish line for me. Something I had waited two hours to see. Man, I have an incredible life!
The final result… I came in 5th. I deserved no other place. One more life experience I will not forget and was privileged to have.
It was a well organized event and certainly worth doing regardless of the stories of human cheese grating contributions to the concrete gods. Will I do it again? Not sure. I’m not convinced that road racing is fun. That being said, I may have to try one more, somewhere else, just for good measure!
My next race…the famous Paris to Ancaster. This time it will be done on a real cyclocross bike. Will there be a story to tell….without a doubt!