by Alexis David
This ends with an embrace.
Buffalo in the fall in Delaware Park is some kind of heaven. To be on a bicycle in the early morning with the crunch of ground under your cycling shoes nearly breaks your heart in two. The air smells like bacon, coffee and anticipation. It nearly guts you whole; you are just so happy to be part of this.
This was the fourth cyclocross race of my life. I don’t race nearly enough. I always need to do more, but I am not a professional cyclist. I am a teacher and an aspiring writer. I started last year and I’m working my way through. Sometimes I am very serious. Sometimes I am home writing on my computer. This is how it goes. I do this sport because it’s good exercise, because I like the culture, because I like the challenge. I don’t do it to win. I do it for a different kind of victory.
We have this race in Buffalo once a year put on by one of the local shops: Campus Wheelworks (the shop that got me into cycling last year). It’s called Cross in the Park and it’s a damn good race and if you ever come to Buffalo, sign up for it.
I arrived to a long line of racers. I signed in, got my number, got my nice tulip pint glass and hopped on my bike for a preview. I felt good. My eyes felt clear; my stomach whole. I was ready to race. I was fed and I was warm and I was ready. I was focused.
At the starting line under the big Red Blow blow up arch, we started behind the men. Our names were called. I got to go in front—lovely to have good positioning. I felt the feeling again: confidence. I said to myself, “Start well. Start well.”
My foot clipped in, my foot pressed down, my muscles were in motion and the start was counted down from ten. The sound of the horn and I was off. Hot breath, good legs and I was there up in front. “I’m going to survive this.” I thought. Someday it might be to podium, but now, it’s survival. I was up in front. I remember: in cross the sprint is in the beginning. It’s something I like about the sport.
Up and around the turns and I’m good and I’m there but then it hits: the critic in the three piece suit. The critic in my mind who invites himself to tea and cigarette in mouth, ashes falling into Earl Grey, very quietly whispers, “Don’t think you’re going to do well in this one, my dear. Don’t think for one moment you’re going to do well.”
And I feel the women beating me. I feel them going faster than me. Don’t slow down. Don’t do it, but I do. I try body position, I try faster turns, but I still get beat.
However, I don’t fall. I do not fall.
And I see my cycling heroine go down the concrete steps in front of me on her bike, and I make a quick decision: stay on the bike. I go down the steps. One, two, three, four, five and I made it. I’ve never gone down steps on a bike. Not that kind of kid. Not that kind of adult.
Then, there were the hills and the leaves and the leaves in my cleat and the fact that I still can’t easily get on my bike and I couldn’t clip in and I’m flying around these turns and I start to get scared and I still haven’t mastered the mount and it’s so damn frustrating. Why can’t I just be innately good at this? I’m off and back on and I’m around and then I’m being gently heckled by a friend and it’s funny and it’s okay but it sucks because I want to be better. I always want to be better.
And then it’s another lap and I’m feeling my flow and it’s fun and I can feel how much better my bike handling has gotten and I’m okay. I’m okay.
Then, I get to finish line and I think I have one more lap but a man stands in front of me and I’m being pulled. I get pulled with four other women. I think I have finished second to last. What a shame. It isn’t until the next morning at work that I check and I see that I finished eighteenth out of twenty-one and this is the best I have done so far. I finished better than I ever have before.
But, it is not about any of this. None of what you just read matters. It should matter to me, but it doesn’t. It’s not that I’m not competitive; I am. It’s just that this isn’t why I’m doing this sport.
What matters is my friend who I know because of cycling. I was friends with her husband first but now I’ve found her and she’s like the prize in the cereal box: a smart woman with a good worldview and a voice that just floats up in the air and makes everything better. You can ask her about bikes or love and she’ll give you equally good advice on either. She comes up to me and we embrace: a real hug: a long, real, “we really did this” hug. We hug in the middle of a crowd of women who are all hugging one another.
You look around and you see. You see the men are not doing this. Not like this anyway. The men are wonderful and good and talented and cool but they are not hugging each other at this moment. We are. We are because this is our sport because this is new to so many of us and this is our time and this is us out here on these trails and these are our bikes and our calves and thighs and hips and our minds and our spirits and our fucking breath out here panting in this morning.
It is ours.
And there is no podium for that kind of victory.