I finally picked up Tim Krabbe’s The Rider. In the past I’ve balked at the $12 price tag for a thin paperback. However, on Sunday evening at Powell’s, I picked it up and started reading. I was enthralled within a few pages and had to take it home. Just past the midpoint, Krabbe talks about fun. Racing isn’t fun, he says, until it’s over. Then one can look back and regal in the experience. Back in my rock climbing days, my buddies and I talked about climbs being retrospectively pleasurable. They are hard and scary until they are done. I find that cyclocross racing — and bike racing in general — is much the same way.

After one of my less successful races, a friend asked me how it went. I told him about my woes and he responded, “But you had fun, right?” Of course I didn’t have fun. Racing isn’t fun. But I felt a little guilty about saying as much since I might just be taking this racing stuff too seriously. So I told him, ” Sure, it was fun.” I knew that it was a lie then and I still believe it is a lie now. If you’re having fun in the moment, you just aren’t racing.

Let me tell you a little story. I’ve written a race report that contained this incident but I’ll drill down a little deeper into my psyche.

I’d come up on Diviney a few laps previous and he latched on to my wheel. We are working well together, trading off, and are pulling along Juenger. Mitchem had hung for a moment but we’d just dropped him after he crashed on a rutted corner. The leaders, perhaps ten guys in a loose bunch, are a minute or two up the road and there are some chasers a minute or so behind us. We keep on putting time into the riders behind.

Riding with Diviney suited my purpose. The two of us are pushing each other and I hope that we might overtake some stragglers falling off the lead group. If the three of us stay together long enough, I plan on attacking just prior to the bell. Diviney might be able to stay with me but I’m pretty sure than Juenger would drop

After the second run up, Diviney takes the front and drives down into the depression and leads us up the easy rise to the top of the course. Just prior to leveling out, the grade steepens for ten meters. I’m on Diviney’s wheel and plan on taking the front once we hit the flats. Going up the rise, Diviney slows. I’ve got momentum I don’t want to lose but I’m focused on staying on his wheel. I’m not able to parse the two conflicting desires. Instead my front wheel inches up the right side of Diviney’s rear wheel. I stare in terror as he stands on his pedals. Rock, rock, rock and bang into my front wheel. I push hard and for a moment I think I might stay upright.

The fingers on my right hand are crushed between my bar and the gravel as I hit the ground. Diviney says something. Perhaps “Sorry.” Juenger avoids me. I get up quickly and assess the bike. Turned bars, twisted shifters. Chain still on. I stand a moment and watch the two of them disappear. Mitchem goes by. I say out loud, “I’m done” and start to walk along the course.

I realize how foolish I am to quit and straddle my front wheel and turn the bars round to the front. I bang my hand on the shifter until it turns enough to be serviceable. I get on my bike and turn the pedals. At first it’s hard. There is no rhythm. I can see Diviney and Juenger up the course a long way. Mitchem has joined them. Are there riders behind me? I can’t see anyone close. My right hand is gray with dust and red with blood. My fingers are sticky with the paste as I shift and brake.

The riding is impossible. I try to go hard but I can’t. I run the cobbled hill. A man rings a cowbell and screams encouragement. I’m in the middle of nowhere. My old friends are ahead of me and the gap seems insurmountable. I still can’t seen anyone behind me. I have lost my will. On the paved out and backs, I see how close the chasers are to me. I’ve got to stay in front of them. Race not to lose position.

A lap floats by without purpose. Oh, there’s Diviney by the course, crashed. He looks hurt. He must have been up nearly a minute, thirty seconds at least, and he’s still on the ground. There are people there. One less rider in front of me.

The lead A riders lap me and I latch onto their wheels. Maybe I can ride this surge and get back to Juenger and Mitchem. I hang on until they gap me through a slightly technical section. I wish I had been able to stay with them.

Finally, it’s the bell lap and I can see Voldengen getting closer behind me. I’ve cracked. Mentally, I’m done. How can I keep going? Somehow I stay in front of him. On the final 200 meters before the finish, I look back and see I have a big gap. I sit up and pedal to the finish, my race done. Voldengen is on my shoulder as I cross the line.

8 Responses to “Is this fun?”

  1. Brian J says:

    “If you’re having fun, you’re not racing.”

    I don’t know. I’m in the B’s. Every race I have fun — in the moment — unless some jerk spoils it for me. Maybe they’re actually racing and I’m not. But I just don’t push as hard when I’m up in Forest Park or out on my favorite country loop. I don’t push until I feel like barfing and then keep pushing. In the races– I do. So judging by my effort alone I must be racing.

    I feel that the “fun” is the sheer animal joy of physical activity. Of chasing something. The bursts of adrenaline and endorphins. Just going. Sure it’s not fun like towing my son on the trailer bike or a sunny afternoon picnic with my family. But it’s fun like the dog that scratches at the door finally being let out to run run run.

  2. erikv says:

    You know, when I’m racing, I am in my happy place! I love it. I can honestly say after almost every race “I had fun.” Exceptions might include races I drop out from due to a crash, flat tire, or whatever…in which case I was having fun up until I had to quit! I must be screwed up in the head.

  3. MtMann says:

    Man, going after the motivational “why” is poking the hornets nest with a big sharp stick, isn’t it? I too finally just picked up Krabbe’s book after hearing about it for so long. Library copy :) I’m at “Kilometer 91” right now. Good stuff.
    For more on the pain being the reward, see this: http://www.rapha.cc/index.php?page=131

  4. Brian E says:

    It’s a different kind of fun. The kind you can’t get anywhere else except in competition. The tighter the race the more fun it is. The tougher the race the more fun it is. Maybe crashing or sucking durring the race just makes it a tougher race. I’ll try to tell myself that next time I’m out and things aren’t going like I want.

  5. GeWilli says:

    I think it is more about the bonds made with your competitors in cross than the ‘fun’ side of things. Having the purpose given to us by an upcoming race is the ‘fun’ knowing you will see the regulars at the race – that is the fun part. Recounting the week, the race, a ride with fellow competitors is fun. Getting the hole shot can be fun but crashing certainly isn’t.

    There’s a bigger reason why cyclocross is so compelling than ‘it is fun.’

  6. GeWilli says:

    oh and side that with “this is cool” (and timely)

    check that feature out…

  7. stevef says:

    Nice thoughts. I guess people race for different reasons. Winning probably requires sacrificing fun most of the time, but I myself would rather have fun than win. However, having fun necessitates that I do well in a race, but doesn’t necessarily mean I have to win. If I find at some point in the season that I’m not having fun, I simply skip some racing and back off on my training until I’m enthusiastic again.

  8. Dave says:

    “Racing is retrospectively fun.”

    I’m with you 100%. In the moment cyclocross racing is pain and intense concentration and head games to get yourself to give the most you can. Sometimes the fun part will be immediate- either right at the line or even when I can look back and see that I can take it easy to the finish line. If I crashed or lost the race within a race it might be less fun or it might take a while but by the time I get some food and appreciate the soreness in my legs I can at least say I’m glad I went out and raced today. Good topic! Thank you for posting this.

    P.S. Right now I’m grateful that while my teammates who have the road season as top priority are out racing in the wind and rain this weekend, I get to enjoy a few more weeks of less structured training. There are only so many weekends in the year one can give it their all and I know I’m saving quite a few of those for cyclocross!

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