Yeah, there’s only one winner — I’ve never believed that we’re all winners — but there’s also only one last-place. Try it sometime.

Not to brag, but out at the big Bear Creek Cyclocross Race that kicked off the muddy season here in the Lehigh Valley, I was the man — the last man. Absolute DFL.

I couldn’t make the start time for the C category, down where I belong, because my morning was dedicated to my daughter’s U-10 Travel Soccer and Jonas Brothers Appreciation Team. And because the promoter is all hung up on gender issues he wouldn’t let me into the women’s B class, where I could have, probably, come in second or third to last if I’d gotten a good start and there were no sandbaggers.

So there I was lined up for Masters A. These guys had warmed up and figured out which tires to use and everything, but other than that they seemed just like me, decent middle-aged fellows lying through their teeth about how little they’d ridden and greeting each other with circa ‘80s down-low handslaps and all the usual stuff. Then, right before the start, as the officials were explaining the arcane rules of cyclocross — don’t cut the course — some guy came coasting up on the other side of the tape and lifted it and slotted right into the front of the group. I recognized him. In an open master’s race a couple seasons ago, when I was flailing about in the middle of the pack, he’d ridden by on the way to a win and given me some helpful advice: “Get out of the !&?#*!?!ing way you dirty $#!?$#ing stupid ?%&*!?!er!”

I was broken out of my reverie by the start.

Then I was broken by the start. Within 3.7 pedal strokes, I realized that when it came to A racing I was going to get an F. It was as if we’d skipped the entire middle portion of the competition and somehow found ourselves already stringing it out for the final sprint.

The whole race — leaders, followers, fans with cowbells, everyone — pulled away from me on the first dinky paved rise. By the time I got to the big mud-puddle about 100 yards in, there weren’t even any ripples left to show that a pack had gone by.

There are all these sayings in cycling that sound unbelievable when you first hear them, but turn out to be true. For instance, though it sounds like complete rubbish when you’re mired in the back of the pack, riding at the front of a road race really is easier than sitting in the rear — once you’re fit enough to get to the front. And, also, you really do have to ride slow to become fast. One of the most amazing to me has been: No one is ever last.

What that means, someone explained to me once, is that no matter how bad you do, there’s always someone behind you who does worse — and, furthermore, it’s never anyone you know. There’s always a last-place racer but it’s never you or your friends. It might be someone who someone you know knows because someone who knows his cousin used to race with someone who knows him, but that’s as corporeal as the DFL ever gets.

Up the ski slope in the distance, far off in the twisty lanes of the yellow-taped chicanes, I could see a lone rider fifty feet and falling fast off the back of the big clump of red and blue and pink jerseys that bobbed like one against the green of the grass. He was looking back at me, over his shoulder, pedaling like hell with his head screwed around in some kind of doubletake paralysis, as if to make sure I really existed.

That’s when I got my first understanding that divine forces were at work — I’d been sent to the A race to set that poor soul free. He was, obviously, the perennial DFL, doomed to ride his heart out at every local A race then vanish before he had a chance to sit around with the guys and drink a Duvel and talk about who in their right mind would put a barrier in the middle of a mud pit and wasn’t it great.

“Drink up,” I said.

My friends Andy and Keith and, I think, Ryan, as well as everyone I’ve ever known or met or thought about in my whole life, were spectating at the first run-up. When I dismounted my bike by falling off it, they completely went to pieces, as if they were watching a Judd Apatow movie ride a bicycle. “DFL!” screamed Andy between guffaws. And I had a lot of time to hear the guffaws.

My daughter was out there somewhere beyond the tape, and she said, “Daddy, you look great,” which is going to be worth whatever that college education costs.

And somewhere in there I looked back and realized the leader, the cut-the-start guy, was about to lap me. I prepared to accept his advice on how to improve my racing, wondering whether he thought it best for me to work on getting out of the !&?#*!?!ing or the $#!?$#ing way.

His tires crunched the grass beside me. “Nice job, A,” he said.

A minute later, the second-place racer came past and said, “Hang in there, now.”

In the 1800s and perhaps earlier, the sin-eater was an unclean, reviled human who nonetheless was also revered by society for his ability to come when called and take into himself all the wrongs committed by someone who had recently died — thus freeing the deceased into a happy afterlife.

In Leviticus, the scapegoat, one of the two ruminants necessary for cleansing sin, was loosed into the wilderness to carry away everyone’s rotten deeds. (The other was sacrificed.)

In the Bear Creek Cyclocross Race, everyone who passed me treated me with honor and dignity that no racer in the middle ever gets. On some primal level, I think, we understand that the DFL carries all of our sins — all of the overeating we’ve done, and all those last beers we never should’ve had, and that time we skipped the training ride, and the night we stayed up late to watch the Roadhouse marathon on TNT. Even the routine maintenance those master A racers had failed to do was heaped upon me then absolved through the squealing of my brakes.

I sucked so that the race could go faster — and I sucked plenty so they must have gone plenty fast. I know this because no one was around when I finally finished. But somehow I felt like I’d won something — certainly not the race, but, maybe, I don’t know, respect.

The next day I was out there again, back in the C race, somewhere deep in the middle of the pack by the time the bell rang, safely away from last place but feeling like nothing more than a $#!?$#ing loser.


Originally published in the Sept. 19, 2008 Sitting In