I kept wondering where this story was going to go, then as I wrote along I went ahead and put the puking in there even though I hadn’t planned to and figured I’d cut it when I revised. Somewhere in there, I decided the puking was what the story was in some way about.
The problem, there in the car that day, was that at age 10, Natalie could still be anything — she might become the world’s greatest ex-oboe clarinetist, or a midfielder who redefines passing, or an artist who makes Picasso a footnote — and at age 44 and hauling around my mongrel bunch of priorities, Cat 3 was as good as I was ever going to get.
It makes sense to me, sometimes, that I want to be a better writer than I am a bike rider, and that I want to be a better father than I am a writer but that, also, within the limitations I have imposed on my cycling ambition I want to be the damndest, coolest, wisest, deepest Cat 3 around. (I will never be the fastest, though I aim to beat the fastest.) I want to, you know, be great without being one of those whacknuts who get so lost in training that they end up down the rabbit hole — forgetting that amateur originated from the word love and not from to become boring to everyone but myself, or to ignore my family for months and still expect them to show up to watch me compete, or taking myself so seriously I blog my training plan.
“I’m just going to try to finish,” I said, looking over my shoulder at Nat in the back seat. She was wearing her Socceroos jersey, had already peeled her shoes and socks and shin guards off and was holding some book she was in the middle of. We were talking about the Thursday Night Crit I was going to do in a couple days.
“No points?” she said. Every three laps there’s a sprint for points, 5-3-2-1.
“No way,” I said. “It’s going to take everything I have just to hang on.”
I drove for a while, and I could hear her flipping pages and drinking water out of her sports bottle, and somewhere before we got home she said, “So you’re not trying to get points?”
“I’m trying to stick around for all 30 laps,” I said. “That’s all I want.”
“So when it comes to points,” she said, “You’re not trying.”
Maybe because I’ve never been good enough to speak much about winning, Nat and I over the years have ended up talking a lot more about tenacity, and sort of what truly constitutes a full effort and how sometimes that can not only mitigate but bring something like honor to a loss, a DNF, even an abandonment. Last year, trying to learn the oboe, the kid was struggling so much she was getting embarrassed in music class, hated practicing, was having no fun at all. Midway through the school year, she asked if she could drop out of music. I made her a deal: If she practiced at least five times a week for a month, she could quit; but if she missed just one week she’d have to play the entire year. She wanted to quit so bad she put more into the oboe than she had all year, and of course she became one of the best in the class and no longer wanted to stop. At the end of the school term she switched to clarinet, but she loves music now, gets it in a way she never would have — and plays a killer “Mexican Jumping Beans.”
She said, “You tell me not to be a quitter.”
And I never could think of how to explain it all in a way a 10-year-old would understand, how the fathering writing racing soccer-coaching rabbit-hole-avoiding tenacity-lecturing Cat 3 could come to be happy to hang onto a pack.
I never could think of a way to explain it to myself, either. I didn’t say much on the way home. I might not have said anything at all.
Sometimes in a race you feel the way a single drop of water must feel in a stream, rising and falling to a rhythm dictated by all of you but controlled completely by none of you, and in the ripples and banks and odd unexpected jetties and narrowing rushes you circulate forward then back then forward then back all while you relentlessly flow onward, and there is something stronger than inevitability about your motion, stronger than immersion. You are not in the race; you are the race the way the water is the stream.
That lasts for like a lap. Then you feel like a log in a fire. Jack Simes, the great old legend was there, and I rode beside him and behind him until he was gone somewhere ahead and behind and back beside me then ahead and behind again. Torch was there and I followed him until I couldn’t, then Jorge and Wes, the kid who a year ago called me Mr. Strickland and thought I was fast, and each left me and came back and left, and bells rang. There were sprints happening.
The sprints stretched us thin and with a single wheel in front of me instead of an entire pack I wanted to quit, but knew I could want to quit at 33 mph for just long enough to not have to quit. And I knew that if I wasn’t going to quit I had to ride hard enough to want to quit, and I would think about this stupid and cruel paradox of bike racing until there were two wheels in front of me, then three, then the full wide backs of racers sitting up. We rolled by the officials and the lap counter told us there were 8 to go, and I knew then I could finish. That was all that I wanted.
But I still could not explain why that could be enough, not to a 10-year-old, and not to myself.
And the race rolled on and the bell rang and we were on a points lap, and when I saw Plunkett attack in the turns before the little hill — you could not miss him, he was in all white — and the Animal bridge and the pack let them go I felt like a quitter. In my mind cursing 10-year-olds and oboes and myself for ever thinking a race was anything at all like a stream I got out of the saddle and pulled my pedals around and up and pushed back at them and leaned out over my bar and rode to the break.
Plunkett swung off the front and the Animal scrabbled up and over the hill and accelerated and swung off and I took a dig and another and started falling apart and looked back to see not twenty feet behind us Iggy Silva and Justin Williams from Rock Racing, and the huge superhero Olympian Gideon Massie and some of the crazy Kiwis who’d been here all summer and I slalomed to the right and with my head waved them through and stuck my wheel back in there and fell apart more and got maybe 15th in the sprint. Maybe 20th. Maybe worse.
And I guess we rode six more laps. The race was over and everyone was taking a cool-down lap and I drifted out of the banter until I was alone. At the top of the hill I coasted and turned my face to the right and threw up a little onto the grass.
I thought that I’d gotten something bad out of my system. I thought that I could go home and, not making a big deal out of it, just say, “Hey, I tried for some points.”
Originally published in the August 28, 2009 Sitting In