Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why We Race

Having just survived an extremely dangerous, exciting, and ultimately frustrating bike race, I walk up the stairs to my room at the host house. I slump down on my pink, pony-covered, four-post bed, and place my fingers on my neck. THUMP-thump. THUMP-thump. THUMP-thump. I'm still alive. Good. As I lie there, staring up at the pink canopy of tulle, my mind reflects.

Our culture is confusing and misleading. What does it really mean to be human? Some people care more about their online avatars in Second Life than they do about their own flesh and blood existence. Others lead a life of such monotonous repetition that it's difficult to determine where the factory machinery ends and the human being begins. I eat food I neither grew nor caught. Much of my time is spent staring at a metal rectangle filled with tiny lights, and pushing buttons to make the lights change. Very few things we do bares any resemblance to the lives led by our ancestors. I envy cavemen — their sense of purpose was much more clear (though I doubt cavemen worried about things like their "purpose").

We are increasingly disconnected from the animal component our existence, the part that spent hundreds of millions of years evolving to do some pretty simple things: gather food, rear children, run from predators, run after prey. In short: survive. I suppose it's a good thing that modern society renders these primitive instincts and impulses nearly useless. Law and order, science and technology, art and culture — these things serve me well. I'm glad I don't have to fight off saber-toothed tigers, or don armor and try to kill the men in the neighboring village with spears — but my brain is still capable of producing some very high-grade endorphins designed to help me survive such situations, and it would be a shame and a loss to miss out on them.

Every race provides a delightful, unique melange of emotions, often in rapid sequence: fear, excitement, disappointment, hope, euphoria, relief, more fear, more excitement, and on and on. Fight and flight are somehow mixed into one, where either reaction yields the same response: PEDAL FASTER. Lap after lap, my nerves are checked and rechecked. My rear tire skids for a moment. I clip a pedal. I bump someone's hip with my handlebars. Two guys in front of me cross wheels. The key is to just keep racing. 

Successful racers neither dwell on the past, nor project into the future. A racer who spends too much time replaying the crash he just saw, or daydreaming about the myriad of ways he could crash, probably isn't going as fast as the racer who's simply focused on the apex, and then the exit, of the upcoming corner. It's almost meditative; other thoughts come and go, but a racer must constantly return his focus to the moment. Failure to do so often results in missing the move, losing your position, or worse. I'm getting brakechecked and have to swerve to avoid a rear wheel. I'm accelerating around a racer who's imploding on the hill. I hear carnage up ahead, and bystanders start yelling "rider down." I'm getting chopped into a corner by some asshole. I'm chopping said asshole right back. I'm witnessing another crash, this time directly in front  of me (nice work getting around that one Lang!). 

What speed! What a thrill! And what insane trust we place in the grip of our tires! I'm bumping elbows with a surly pro who yells at me, despite the fact that he took a bad line through the corner. I'm hitting a nasty pothole and feeling the shape of my rim deform. I'm going to the pit to get a neutral wheel. I'm focusing on what I can do while waiting for the pack to come around again (breath, take a sip of my bottle, shift into a better gear, keep breathing, clip in with both feet, here comes the moto, here comes the breakaway, here comes the field, here I go). I'm merging back into the field. I'm swerving around yet another crash! Shit! Now I'm chasing, badly gapped off. Shit! I'm starting to slow down, and my chase-mates are ready to call it quits. I'm resigning myself to getting pulled. I'm out of the race. I'm pissed as hell because I want to be back out there, and I'm not ready to be done racing, and I hate watching the end of the race from the sidelines. But I'm very very glad I race bicycles. I don't need to put my fingers on my neck; I can feel my heart beating right through my chest. 

When I'm racing I know I'm mortal, and I know I'm alive. It keeps me in touch with the fact that despite our crazy, confusing culture, I'm still just an animal fighting for survival, hoping that my legs, my lungs, and my instincts can give me that advantage — just that shred of an advantage I need to outrun, outlast, or outthink the rest of the herd. That's why I bike race. Because it's how I experience my animalness.


Martin Criminale said...

Just an animal fighting for survival on a $7,000 machine that is... That's a sign of the times for sure.

Perhaps a Parrot said...

They're strange times indeed Martin -- but would you rather be fighting for your actual survival? Personally I'm pretty content with cycling as a surrogate.

Martin Criminale said...

For position in a race - yes. For actual survival - no. Point taken. :)

Adrian Hegyvary said...

whoa that shit was crazy to read on the pain drugs. but not as crazy as that pink elephant over there!

Mandel said...

nice, couldn't agree more

Mandel said...

dude couldn't agree more with all this, although you probably know this

dharm said...

Your a damn good writer, Sam. Thanks for the intensity. You animal.