This is the story of a very special day of my life. I remember this day with haunting clarity. I trust my recollection because I replay the events in my mind at least every week, and sometimes more often. My identity was drastically shaped on this day. I hope I can explain with due intensity. Some background is needed for context. Apologies for the length.
Part I: Background
2006 was my last year at Cornell. It was the end of a difficult academic struggle. I worked very hard to keep up with my peers. I learned quickly that my best could always be bested. Comparison was an accepted part of daily life. We were plotted, meted out, scored, and ranked, on bell curves, on exams, on finals and grade reports. The hyper-competitive part of every aspiring, driven high school student died hard in this environment. A pat-on-the-back was always 5 points away, in short supply and high demand. Such were the economics which kept the student body scrapping, for internships, for grades, for recognition of work.
I had been racing in the collegiate cycling conference throughout college. Measured by race results (admittedly, a terrible measure to use) I had little success during this time. Sometimes I was downright bad, other times I was average. My parents supported my racing habits by attending to any race I did within reasonable driving distance. They didn’t care about race results. They just wanted me to enjoy my experience. I was frequently unable to finish these races or do particularly well. I enjoyed the chance to travel to schools all over the East Coast, but I was still bothered by the absence of denouement. There was never a fitting end to my efforts on the bicycle.
I sat out my Junior year from racing because of persistent knee pain. While sidelined, I resolved that during my senior year I would put new focus into cycling. I knew that grad school might be too demanding to put the same hours into training as I could as an undergrad. I had a need to feel competitive. Long hours in the library beget average grades. Long hours on the bike beget mediocre results. Long hours off the bike did not beget a reduction in knee pain. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I was working too hard to be paid in mediocrity. I set a goal.
I would win a collegiate race my Senior year.
Part II: Training
The following winter I trained for my goal with exceptional intensity. I did five hour rides with my teammate Ryan in weather through which many Ithacans would not drive. I would come home from the library at midnight and do sprints (on foot) up Libe slope until, too weak to stand (a phrase I use without hyperbole), I would collapse into the snow and wait for my lungs to warm and the life to return.
I found a new pleasure in training when I knew others were sleeping. On winter nights, when the rest of my overachieving peers had long been to bed, I would run through deep snow in the plantation forests. These sessions grew my confidence. I learned how my body would react to the cold. I was more efficient in my academic day duties in order balance the time. The fatigue from training was offset by renewed conviction.
After training, I would force myself to do embarrassing jump squats in my dorm room. I wanted to strip the life from my legs. The whole process bore little resemblance to a Rocky training montage, or some triumphant movie scene set to a John Williams score. I could count on one hand the number of people who would understand what it meant for me to win a race. This fight was quiet and internal.
The collegiate cycling season runs from March until graduation. That year, Cornell had been chosen to host the conference championship (a.k.a “Easterns”) at the end of the season. It was an automatic decision for me to target this race. It would be on familiar roads. I would not have to travel. My friends would attend and, most importantly, my parents would attend. They too went to college here. I wanted them to see me leave a mark on my collegiate days. I wanted them to pay them back with something tangible for all their support, financial and otherwise. I wanted to create a memory of this shared place.
I had some limited success by way of top ten finishes in the early season. It was a relief that I could be competitive in the A category of the collegiate circuit (categories range from E to A, in order of slowest to fastest). Despite the long and tiring weekends of traveling to races, the semester passed quickly. I would think about Easterns when training, in class, while walking between class, while eating. I invited my friends and parents with months prior notice. Since my team had to host the race, the week leading up to Easterns was hectic. I had finished with classes. I spent most of my days riding, enjoying campus without the clouds of Finals hanging over me, and planning for the race.
Part III: Pre-Race
Two days before the weekend, my parents called with bad news. They would be unable to make it because my mom was sick.
The news made my stomach drop. It was the same weightless feeling as speeding over a bump in in a car. I accepted it as well I could. It made me angry, but not at my parents. It was strange and misplaced anger. “No moment is ever perfect,” I remember thinking. It sounds like a line from a bad Disney channel movie, but it’s what I thought.
There were three separate races over the weekend: the team time trial (four teammates try to ride as fast as possible on a closed course), the road race (80 miles over lots of hills), and the criterium (an hour long race at high speed). I wanted to win the criterium, do as well as possible in the TTT, and not try at all in the road race. The criterium was the only race on Sunday and I wanted to be fresh for it.
I spent the Friday before the weekend alone. I cleaned my bike and had it tuned up at the shop. I inspected my tires for glass and made sure the tubes were seated properly. I rode to the course where the criterium would happen. It was on a small loop in Stewart Park on the edge of Cayuga lake. I spent hours at the park that Friday. I rode hundreds of practice laps, until I knew every curb, pothole, piece of gravel and turn. Afterwards I sat at a picnic table and thought about the race would go, and the last four years of college, my parents, my girlfriend, and the long hours of selfish toil that had brought me to this place. I hung up on the selfishness of my goal. All the hours I spent training were for me. Who else benefits from my lung capacity and mitochondrial density? What did I hope to get out of a cycling race? I thought about what it would mean to win without my parents there. I tried to understand, without success, why this all meant so much to me.
Part IV: The Race
The events on Saturday ran smoothly. Thanks to my extremely fast teammate Ryan, we were able to take third in the TTT. I dropped out of the road race after one lap and spent the rest of the day marshaling the course. That night, I gave my legs a massage and listened to Ralph Vaughn William’s Lark Ascending. I used to listen to this every night after dinner as I sat at my desk doing homework. Tonight I listened to bring my mind to a familiar place. My heart beat fast as I recollected the work it took to put me in this place.
Sunday morning I had reluctantly accepted an invitation to go out to breakfast with Ryan and his parents. We met at the park, where Ryan told me we had to go grocery shopping first to get supplies for a fundraising BBQ at the race. The math flew through my head. I added up the time it would take to shop, find a restaurant, be seated, get served and wait for our check. “No.” It wasn’t going to work. I probably came off as neurotic and rude. I was in no mood to be polite. I needed to get to my race early, compulsively early. I wanted enough time to change five flat tires, if that’s what it took to get to the starting line.
I hurried back to the dining hall on campus and ate breakfast alone. I was nervous enough to have no appetite. Pancakes, fruit and coffee tasted like nervous energy. I calmed myself and forced well-chewed bites down one at a time.
I returned to the park immediately after breakfast. I watched the other categories race from a spot in the shade. The weather was perfect: sunny and warm, with just a little wind. With an hour until my start time, I dressed and got on my trainer to warm up. I wore my headphones and put on my well-worn “Race” playlist. A few invited friends showed. I was polite as possible in telling them that I needed to warm up alone. A staff photographer for the campus paper came over and asked to shoot photos of me. He had a fish eye lens that required he shoot awkwardly close. I tried to ignore the camera, its clicking shutter inches from my face.
My plan was to control the race, alone. If there was a break (a break, or breakaway, is when a smaller group of riders escapes from the main group) I would cover it. I would not rely on support from anybody, not for a leadout in a sprint, not to chase down a break, not to keep me in good position in the pack. Other people introduced confounding factors into my precise endeavor. How could I know that a teammate would want this as badly as I did? How could I trust somebody who wasn’t riding all winter, who didn’t do thousands of jump squats in their small dorm room?
I looked around at my competition, now warming up on trainers all around the course. Rage welled up inside me. Uptempo music pounded loudly in my headphones. All season these guys had been beating me. No, for five years these guys had been beating me. What gives them the right? My anger grew in automatic, uncontrolled bursts. Instead of the positive visualizations or self affirmations, I focused on a singular feeling of inferiority.
Part V: Criterium
We were called to the starting line and, as is customary for the “home team” in cycling, I took a place at the front of the group. The top riders over the season were also called to the front. With the other categories of the ECCC lining the course to watch, the ref blew the whistle to send us off.
The first laps of the race were predictably fast. I stayed at the front and cranked hard to maintain the 30mph pace the rest of the field seemed keen to ride. A Dartmouth rider put in a blistering attack and gained about 20 meters on the pack. In uncharacteristic manner, I shot off the front and pulled the field back into contact, leading us around the turns at tire-skidding pace. When we caught him I sat up and took self inventory. It was here, about 5 laps into the race, where it hit me.
I wasn’t feeling pain.
There was no pain in my legs. It was a sensation I’d never had before and haven’t had since. By some primal, mental override, rage displaced the burning fatigue I would normally experience at this point. I looked under my arm and noticed the faces behind me grimacing. My elbows extended. I crouched low on my bike at the front of the race. I intentionally pushed the pace to see if I could hurt them more. My lungs soon maxed out and my legs reached a numb limit, beyond which they refused to spin any faster.
I stayed near the front and methodically shut down any breakaway attempt. My painless, angry state persisted without conscious effort. I pedaled as though mediocrity itself were riding a bike next to me. I thought about my parents and how badly I wanted them to be here. That they couldn’t attend fueled my indiscriminate fits of power to hurt the riders around me. On straightaways I would lower my head and mentally run up Libe Slope, feeling the brutal effort but not the associated cold or pain.
The winner of a cycling sprint is usually determined from some combination of factors. It is the person who has saved their energy, is able to sprint, and picks a smart or lucky position in the last kilometers. I refused to accept that any part of the race conclusion would be luck.
A few laps remained. I was at the front and in good position. I held on to my hypoxic state of pain-free aggression. I cut into turns without a thought to the consequences. Each time we passed the screaming hordes of UVM, UNH and PSU on the sideline, I would miss the sound of my dad’s voice and push even deeper into the red. My breathing lost all rhythm. My lungs slammed open and shut in involuntary fits. It was nearly impossible to move around the large pack on the tight course. We turned huge gears as the pace worked its way past 30 mph.
Frantic riders started to make crude attempts to advance up the sides. The speed was now too high for them to gain position before the next turn arrived, pinching them off at the curb. Nick Bennette, the Princeton rider who that year was the sprinter to beat, punctured a tire on the third straightaway. The gunshot sound of the tire deflating sent my mind reeling. I felt a pang of empathy for him; to come this far and have to drop out was too much. I couldn’t afford getting a flat at this stage. Not today.
We passed the starting line for two laps to go and I still held my ground up front. A brief moment of disorganization surfaced. The pace slowed on the backstretch. My heart rate, already an unspeakable number, jumped as a sizable group of riders squeezed up the left side. I wanted to react to protect my position. I watched with surreal disconnect as I dropped from the top five wheels to the top twenty. My legs felt like they were going to snap my chain and everybody else’s chain in a twenty foot radius. I tried moving outside of the spent riders who were blocking me, but was soon pinched against the curb entering turn four.
I frantically sprinted on the homestretch. We heard the bell for one lap to go. I braked hard on turn one of the final lap to shave off some of my speed and avoid the wall of riders in front of me. The tight turns and narrow course gave no leeway at these speeds. I managed to pass a handful of riders by sprinting on each straight section. We made the final turn and I was now around 15th wheel. The homestretch was short. I came out of the final turn and accelerated hard. I put my head down and torqued my bike with extreme force. I passed several riders in a nervous, final bout of aggression. In any other race, I would have felt an excruciating burn for asking my legs to sprint so violently. On this tiny course in Stewart park on this day, my legs answered with quiet obedience.
The sprint happened quickly. A stabbing shot of adrenaline coursed through my torso. It was too late.
I roll across the line, still passing people, in 10th place. The air is full of screams from the sidelines. I slouch over with my helmet on my handlebars. The screams fade into the background and I fight to conceal tears behind my sunglasses. I feel helpless and energetic. That one moment, where I lingered up against the curb with nowhere to go, runs over and over in my head. I want to ride more laps. I want to be on that course riding until everyone but me cracks. I want the jump squats and the intervals and the frostbite to mean something. Instead of feeling tired from an hour of maximal effort, I feel the restless urge to go on.
After the race, the rest of the ECCC piled into vans and cars and returned to respective schools to study for finals and finish neglected work. The team cleaned up the course and I thanked my friends for coming. My friends asked a lot of questions about the race and complimented me for “winning” most of the time (It is a common misconception to non cyclists that the person at the front of the race is winning. In reality, the winner can come from anywhere in the field.) I stayed at the park after everyone had gone home. I sat at the water’s edge and enjoyed the view as dusk came over Cayuga lake. There was a contentedness in this moment. College was finished. The collegiate season was finished. A tenth place against professional-caliber riders in a championship race in the largest cycling conference in country? It wasn’t worth beating myself up for falling short of a goal.
I loaded my bike in the trunk of my car. My legs had now come off their analgesic kick. I flopped into the driver’s seat and started the engine. The short drive home was all I needed to make the decision. The demons were still in the closet. This wasn’t an end.
I could be so much more than this.