A few weeks ago I participated in the Leesville Gap Road Race. It was my hardest race of the season: 64 miles, horrible roads, climbing, headwinds, with temperatures near 38 Celsius. (That is 100 Farenheit. One thing I learned this year is that to be a cool cyclist, everything has to be Euro.) I almost didn’t finish due to the heat and dehydration, despite drinking over 3 liters of fluid and consuming 1000 calories while riding. After the race my Mom asked me, “Why are you doing this? What are you trying to prove?” I’ve been thinking a lot about that question.
I started cycling with the UCLA cycling team last fall. I joined them to have a group of people to ride with. I never thought I would race. I don’t remember what changed my mind, but I wanted to race. It’s been an amazing year, where I thought I’d stop racing at least twice. Yet I continued on and finished my last (13th) race of the year yesterday.
I sacrificed a lot this year: Thousands of dollars in bike equipment, sports massages, and energy foods; not skiing at all this year so I could keep up with my training and racing (despite a great snow season); weekends with my friends and girlfriend; and SLEEP (especially on those mornings I wanted to stay in bed).
So why sacrifice all this?
Maybe it was all the friends I was making in the cycling community. Maybe it was that I like gear, and cycling has a lot of it. Maybe it was I just wanted a regular way to stay active and in shape.
But I could have been in good shape just riding my bike a few times a week, and not pushing myself with an aggressive training plan. I could have trained for charity/century rides. I could have just exercised on my bike and not taken the risks of racing, which sometimes includes crashes and broken bones. (I’ve been in a few of them this year, but got out with only a few scrapes.)
So why race?
I like winning.
Whether it is in academics, sports, or a debate over some issue, I like to win. There is no winner in exercising. There is no winner in charity rides. (Not that I think charity rides are a bad idea. I may do one this fall.) I know life isn’t all about winning. But winning is what propels humans. It gives us a sense of our ability and purpose.
I just finished watching the Tour de France, which I believe is one of the hardest sporting events in the world to win. (Maybe only second to the Stanley Cup.) If you look a the faces on the winners as they cross the finish line, you will see the excitement in bike racing. While I haven’t won a race, nor done heroin, I think the two probably give a similar feeling.
I almost won a race. I was in the #6 position at the Stanford Road Race with 200 meters to go. But there was a crash from the front and I didn’t get the chance. But that feeling of almost winning is still with me. It was so close and felt so good.
But, as I started in my first non-collegiate races, I realized that winning would be tough. While I still believed, I wasn’t sure I’d win one in my first season. Still, I wanted to race, despite the pain of pushing my legs to their limit in 2-3 hour races. Why?
What else would I be doing? Spending time on facebook? Cleaning my apartment? Watching TV? Reading? Writing a research grant? So many people just sit on their bums all day. Our bodies are not built for that. Pushing myself hard on a bike reminds me what my body was built for: to push, to endure, to work hard.
As Peter Flax said, “We spend our so-called modern lives coddled-breezing through airports on people movers, accepting meeting requests nestled in Aeron chairs, engaging in cruise control to avoid the demands of the gas pedal. Our amazing muscles and capillaries and neural pathways are built to do something far more profound if we put them to the test.” My day job requires me to test my mind. Bike racing allows me to test my body and forget about my day job for a few hours.
There is something primal about racing. One human against another, with a prize at the end. Humans were meant to battle and to pursue speed. Cycling combines the two.
I feel alive on my bike. And I’m having fun. What I’ve described above may not sound like fun to some of you. But, remember that first time you were able to ride a bike? Remember the freedom to push your body into the wind? Remember racing your friend down the street? Remember the feeling of triumph?
Bike racing is fun. I don’t think I need another reason to continue. Except for the fact that I still want to win.
(This post is dedicated to all my team members and my Koach who pushed me beyond my limits this year. I’ll wait for you all at the top of Latigo.)