I rode the last lap of this, or maybe the last two — I can’t remember now and couldn’t remember ten minutes after we finished — with my friend, Taylor. He’d done most of the work late so we both knew he ought to finish ahead of me, and that’s how I gave up my chance to podium at a state championship. Without a regret then or since. With him and Yozell in here, I realize now that this is really a story about friends. I don’t know what I’d do, where I’d be, who and how I’d be, without my riding friends.

I was getting taken apart every time we turned left off the gravel parking lot and onto the grassy sidehill climb that during the pre-rides had felt like it was flat.

The grass was thick and matted, no longer mowed this late into the fall, and it should have been brittle with the temp down in the thirties but it lay thick against my wheels, heavy and clingy with frost. It chopped at me like tiny whitecapping waves, pushing me sideways when I tried to go forward, and back when I tried to go sideways. It was here that this race was going to drown me.

I’d come to the Pennsylvania state cross championship – category C for clueless – with no idea of how I’d do. I’d started the cross season going DFL two out of three races. Rode a couple near top-tens. Drowned in the mud just two weeks earlier and finished in the fifties. Then the week before, a day past the flu, on a snowy grass course with four sets of barriers, I’d podiumed. I’d taken to wearing shorts no matter what the weather so I could slather my legs with Mad Alchemy embrocation — not only because it works but because the name felt talismanic to me. Racing had become a mad alchemy — an illogical and unpredictable transmutation of my form and my hope and my ambition based not on science but magic. I would throw everything I had into a race. I never knew what I would emerge from it with.

On the start line, the floral blast-furnace aroma of my legs rose around me, strange because it was comforting, and comforting because it was strange. My hands shivered on the bar. They were not cold. The whistle blew, and we sprinted up the pavement slope and I went third into the first corner. We attacked, sprinted, stretched our lead then somewhere deep into the lap sat up for a second or two or three, and I wondered how it was that with so much air blowing into my face I could not find enough for one good breath.

We ate into each other’s lines in the corners, and surged less for tactics at this point than to start chipping away at one another’s anaerobic reserves, and we sat second, third, fourth, swapping wheels and falling back before clawing back. People shouted at us, and in this way we learned each other’s names, then forgot them as the race burned us clean of thought, creating space for the knowledge to come into us again when other spectators screamed.

Somewhere near the barriers, Natalie shouted, “Daddy!” No instruction, just that one word, which to her is more my name than my name, and though I share it and its duties with so many people it feels unique, to her and to me, and I suppose it is, just as it is to everyone — and by the time I was done working my way through that thought I had also worked my way around the corners at the bottom of the course and was back up the road and through the gravel and onto the grass that was slow only for me, and I dropped my head.

“Keep your head up!”

It was Mike. Elite racer. Age-group champ. Owner of a stars-and-stripes jersey. Standing there outside the tape, yelling at me.

I looked up. Not at him, but forward. I did not have the energy or will to turn my head to see him. The corner was up there where I happened to be looking, the end of this section, and behind it a bunch of people stood, talking, not even watching the race. I dropped my head and looked at the grass. I was going so slow it was not blurred. I could see individual blades.

“Head up!” Yozell again. I looked up. Pro Jamie was in front of me, had passed me, had taken third.

He’s called Pro Jamie because one night at an underground cross race we tried to fix his dislocated shoulder by duct-taping a propane tank to his arm. Ray claimed the dangling weight would fatigue the muscles around the shoulder socket then everything would pop back together. Jamie, who put in a good forty minutes before asking if someone would take him to a hospital, became Propane Jamie after that, then Pro.

I had his wheel. We went up through the chicane in the pines then around and down and he rode away from me in the power sections and I caught him in the corners and at the barriers, and Natalie yelled, and other people yelled, and we climbed the pavement and turned onto the gravel and back into the grass and he pedaled away from me.

I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined I could breath. I thought, “spin,” but my legs would only march. I shifted to an easier gear, but still there was no spin. This day’s mad alchemy was that grass had become fatal, that I had become a midpacker again, that I had grown heavy and dense and would sink far down into the depths of the race.

“Keep your head up!”

I shook my head, and when I raised it I was laughing a little. I hadn’t even known my head was down. I looked forward, into the corner, and there was Pro just exiting it, and I shifted back to the gear I started in and scooped at the pedals until I was spinning, and I chased instead of being chased.

Keep your head up. It sounds like a trite self-help golly-gee affirmation, but it’s pure alchemy. When I looked up, I was just as dead as I was when I looked down, but I felt alive. With my head down, I was praying. With my head up, I was preying.

Even so, I dropped my head every time I went through that section, all five laps, and all five laps Yozell yelled at me. And when he did, I lifted my face from the grass and I sped up and I was a bike racer.

Then I would forget again. And he would remind me.

I kept my head up just enough to finish fourth. I rolled outside the tape after the race, and people told me I looked good, strong, smooth. I kept my head up while they told me this. I wanted to never forget what I’d learned, but I knew I would, because I had all day. I looked down at the grass as I straddled my bike, feet unclipped, forearms on the top of the bar, snot stringing earthward from my nose, and I told myself this was the last time, the last look, and because the rest of your life is a long time to keep a promise to yourself I kept looking down, putting off as long as I could the mad alchemy of the moment when I would raise my head and bring myself closer to breaking the vow I’d just made.


Originally published in the December 5, 2008 Sitting In