I’ve noticed that cycling and writing have definitely taken a downward turn over the last few weeks. Sometimes life just throws too many things at you and something has to give way to accommodate. Whatever it is, both the time (to cycle) and the inclination (to write) have definitely been lacking.
It’s also the start of that winter apathy that sets in when the warm, friendly summer air heads south leaving chilly dampness that doesn’t dissipate and a working day that begins and ends in darkness.
In an attempt to stave off those winter blues I decided to enter my first mountain bike cross country race.
Now, I tend not to enter too many races after having discovered over the years that a highly competitive nature, coupled with a distinct lack of speed inevitably leads to sulking and childish behaviour when I don’t perform as well as I’d like.
Laughably, often the person I’m most competitive against is myself. To go further, faster, longer, to not be left behind or come last……but amongst this, endurance, not speed is definitely my forte.
So, with this in mind I set off early one dry, cold Sunday to the first in a series of 5 MTB winter race meetings.
I’d expected a small, local turnout with other novices such as myself but was dismayed on arrival to find the car park packed full of serious looking men and machines methodically warming up and looking focused.
Things only got worse when one of the pro-mountain bike team vans pulled alongside my battered old car disgorging men and women in full matching kit with some stunningly sleek bicycles.
Not to be deterred I adjusted my skirt, pulled up my knee socks and headed for the starting line. Thundering off amidst a cloud of racing lycra and the screech of tyres on gravel we headed out for the first of 2, five-mile laps (3 for men).
Immediately pushing up a long hill, after only a few minutes lungs and muscles were seriously complaining following those previous weeks of sloth-like lassitude.
Worse was to come though when suddenly my saddle started to move on its own….
With a jolt, the front began to lurch upwards towards the sky. Alarmed,
I sat down heavily on the back trying to counteract this whilst still pedalling hard uphill.
Another pothole and again the saddle nose tilts further upwards.
Cresting the hill the trail turns into wooded single track is now carpeted with roots and stones. At each corresponding jolt the saddle responds by nosing evermore towards the sky, coming to rest at an angle of approximately 45 degrees.
Now I have several choices…
To ride the rest of the course, 9 miles or so standing on the pedals up out the saddle.
To try sitting on what is now a near vertical seat – and eye wateringly painful.
To retire from the race.
I’m proud to say I’ve never, ever pulled out of a race in my life, always hanging on to the bitter end, with this in mind my pride spurred me on.
Mile 2 and there are still people behind me as we tear up to a turning.
“Go left” the marshal is yelling frantically. So I do. Bumping across a rutted field, the saddle hitting parts of my body that were just not designed for bashing, I can see the racers behind the tree line.
Worryingly however there is now no one following? Just eerie silence.
Confused I stop and look around. I’d assumed the paths would join up but the very solid bramble hedge which lines the route allows frustrating glimpses of the other racers but no access.
More oddly I’m completely on my own. In a field. With an increasingly sore behind.
Retracing my steps both the marshal and I were rather nonplussed to discover my erroneous detour.
Truly disheartened now, I was pretty sure I’d realised my worst fear in a race, being last.
I know someone has too, but I never, ever want it to be me.
Very much on my own, I plow on.
By now I’m roundly cursing myself, the bike, the marshal and the universe in its entirety. It’s now a grim battle to the end of the first lap. For the next half an hour there follows a strange, solitary ride of pain.
Perpetual tree roots and rock gardens line the route, each jolt making me wince and cry out from a seat chaffed raw. Hills are tackled out of the saddle my lungs and leg muscles begging for relief.
Amazingly I pass a few stragglers, people like me who looked as if they were wondering how they had gotten sucked into this hellish universe of pain.
Prior to starting I’d scoffed at a little 10 mile ride. Why I’d even considered doing 3 laps like the lads, just to prove I could.
As I finally neared the checkpoint marking the end of lap 1 I made the decision I never thought I’d make.
I stopped. Limping up to the marshals at the finish I inelegantly pointed to my now vertical seat, indicated I was pulling out and then desolately trailed back to the car, petulant, lower lip wobbling, pride severely dented and saddle sore beyond sanity.
In true British fashion a cup of tea and some cake did much to restore my spirits. But beyond that it has been both a lesson and a learning experience.
Despite the huge annoyance of not finishing, deep down I’m proud of myself that (for once) I’ve made a sensible decision.
They’ll be more races – it’s a series after all – and they’ll be far more enjoyable without sitting on the pointy end of the saddle. Biking, sport, life can all too often be about pushing through the pain but there are also limits and proportionality, and just sometimes knowing when to stop is just as relevant.
I mention this as, like many fellow cyclists and bloggers I’m prone to taking things to extremes. Taking on a tall challenges, then making them bigger, then making them scarier and hairier with huge pointy teeth into a monster of an ordeal (eg cycling across Canada/the US – why ride 50 miles when you can ride 5000).
I’m learning though that sometimes the challenge is not about pushing yourself into the ground but stopping, stepping back, knowing when to bow out gracefully and wait for another chance. When to put competition and ego aside for the sake of health (and heinies!), for the sake of enjoyment and just because it’s the sane, responsible thing to do.
I’m also learning that dropping behind, sometimes, isn’t the end of the world. That coming up from the back can create an even greater sense of achievement than always pushing to hang on nearer the front.
Maybe, it’s just about realising that when competing with yourself, you will always win no matter what position you finish in.