Traveling 7,000 miles from home just to go to a bicycle race might seem like a rather crazy thing to many people. But when put in context of all the passion and devotion that goes into pursuing the adventure that is bike racing, a trip half way around the globe for the World Cup of mountain bike racing begins to sound half way rational. Four short years ago I finished my first spring World Cup campaign as a first-year rider for Kona, drawn to the challenge of international competition and a dark horse (try dark donkey, even) campaign for the US Olympic team. Using up all my vacation time, traveling with my bike and set of wrenches on a personal global safari, I became hooked to the pursuit, all despite being punched in the face, or getting consistently shat out the back of the field finishing 2 or 3 laps down and one of the last Americans in the race. I hung on to the notion that if I came back four years later, I might still be a dark horse, but I would be in the race like I belonged there…maybe not the winner of the world, but ‘in it’, leaders lap, top American, top-30, top-20, leaving an mark.
Thus, Cairns, Australia is over 7,000 miles from home and I traveled there for the opening round of the 2016 Mountain Bike World Cup, in the running for the US Olympic Team, and thrilled to be pursuing the craft that I love most at the kind of race that tests it the hardest. Perhaps I suffer from some competitors’ version of Stockholm Syndrome, or other delusion toward the World Cup. It is such merciless, fast racing, all compressed into such a short time where so much more can go wrong that right. In four years, I’ve improved much about my game, except for my position on the starting grid. For several reasons, I’ve failed to amass the “compatieconomic” status that would earn me a starting position near the front of the race. (Read “more UCI points”) When the gun goes off, I’m clamoring from the pauperous trenches and charging headstrong toward the proverbial castle wall. Winning the race is like capturing the throne at the top of the tallest turret. To have any chance of that, you’ve got to be standing at the bottom of the spiral staircase with sword drawn when the gun goes off. In my situation…I still need to cross the moat full of crocodiles.
I didn’t see any of the famed crocodiles of the Gold Coast, but the analogous “crocodiles” I dealt with were the violent crashes and dust-filled air as the pack of some 87 riders hurtled down the start-straight at a breakneck, 1,200-watt sprint. Sprinting and throwing shoulders for every inch in the back, then stopping like a herd of delirious wildabeast at the first sharp turn, back into a dogged sprint up to the top of the hill, stop, go, stop, some riders going so hard they turn into Mr. Gumby on the bike as soon as we hit the first technical section of trail, bikes flipping over and hurtling through the air down the first descent as riders loose control…there’s no chance of capturing the throne from here…but somehow there’s still some beauty in navigating this melee and making your race happen. Eventually it did happen for me on Sunday, in a version that few can appreciate. I finished assertively on the leaders lap and 2nd for the U.S. But only 54th next to my name on the results sheet, a result that says so much, yet so little at the same time. It’s not a good result, but it wasn’t a bad race. That’s the World Cup, and round 2 is in Germany in four weeks. There’s room for improvement, the quest for Rio is not yet a fantasy, and I’m hungry for more. Maybe by that time I’ll be starting just from the base of the castle wall.