The siren song of cycling

I pre-registered to race this Saturday. I know that isn’t the “thing to do.” Most people wait until the day of the race to fork out the cash. There is only so much of that green stuff to go around and if the day turns out to be awful… well, is it really worth it? I have my reasons for going in early.

My first objective of this race is just to show up. That is actually a concern. I’ve been out of racing for so long, I’m kind of hesitant to return. I know what it feels like to be out of shape and struggling just to hang on. Is that for what I’m paying $30? So, pre-registering was my way to say to myself, “Yes, you are going to get out of that warm bed on Saturday morning and drag your out-of-shape carcass out to race in the cold.” If I don’t, I’ll definitely be out of my cash!

Still, not all of my memories are ones of suffering. I was reminded of this as I looked back to one of the last times I raced. It was a post entitled, “A Racer At Heart.” I’m republishing it here.

I remember years ago heading out on the first Upstate Winter Bicycle League of the season. Steve Sperry came up beside me as we headed out of town. As time has passed, I can’t remember all that he said to me, but one thing I do remember. It was something like, “Great job with your win. Enjoy it. There aren’t many of these guys out here who can say they’ve crossed the finish line first.”

Jonathan Pait and Billy White

It was the end of my second year racing as a category 5 rider. Actually, I believe it was around my fourth official race ever. It was a criterium in downtown Greenville. I had crashed out and dislocated my finger in that very race the year before. This time I pulled away from the field and even lapped a rider. Coming out of the corner, I was all alone and I coasted over the finish.

I tell that story now because of yesterday’s blog post. In it I asked myself why I do this. What makes me get out there and race? Well, a big part of it is I remember that feeling… not the feeling of suffering in the back. I remember the feeling of that win.

Yes, I never won again. It was my first and only time to cross the stripe first. However, with that win, I moved up into the category 4 field. I figured I would be there for the rest of my racing “career.”

That changed in the second year of my category 4 experience. Though I never won that season, I was “the man.” In nearly every category 4 race I entered I got a podium finish.

Of those races, there are two that stick out in my mind. The first was the SC 2009 Criterium Championships. It was probably one of the smarter races I’ve ever raced… until the finial kilometer. I went too early and got run down on a sprint. However, there is a jersey hanging on the wall in my home office. It has a medal hanging with it showing I stood on the podium with a bronze.

The second that comes to mind was probably my most dominating race. However, it wasn’t one I won. It was the Spartanburg Classic — another criterium — and I was racing in the field with my friend and teammate, Matt Tebbetts.

Matt went in a break early and I played the dutiful teammate by covering nearly every attempt to bridge up to him. When a chase tried to organize, I would get in it and disrupt the pace.  Matt just did what Matt does and kept stretching the distance. He crossed the line alone.

As I entered the final lap, I decided it was time to ride for myself. I accelerated on the back straight away, completed the two final turns and when I looked back as I neared the finish, I could see the field just coming through the final turn. It was definitely a 1-2 punch from the category 4 crew of the POA Cycling Team. The feeling of that day was very close to that of my only win.

My category 4 days ended with that race. Back as a category 5 racer, I looked at the cat 3 riders as being in a position I would never obtain. Yet, here I was waiting for the start of my first category 3 race in June of 2010. No matter what happened, I would always be able to say I made it to this level. I had graduated from the “Category 4-ever.”

That race ended with me in the hospital with a broken neck — among other things. Half of the victory for me now is lining up to race at all. One thing is for sure, I’ve never come back to race with the same form. However, I do know what it feels like.

Maybe that is what drives me to keep at it. Those words Sperry said to me those years ago mean even more to me now. I realize that that win will most likely be my only win. Yet, that is more wins than a lot of other racers have had. I was given a gift to experience it. I was given a gift to know what it is like to be the rider everyone is gunning for. I know what it is like to ride at the front.

I guess I just don’t want to let that go. It isn’t the win I want so much as it is the knowledge that though once broken, I have come back to strength. I want to be a part again of “the field.”

Maybe, someday, I will ride myself out of it. The time may come when I will say goodbye to competition. It is not this day.

Maybe that is what I am looking for. I’m waiting for the race to tell me it is done with me. I don’t want to tell the race that I am done with it.

I’m a racer at heart.