06 February 2006

Countdown to Hillsboro

Kelly Sparks helped make me who I am today.

He may not know it. In fact, probably doesn't. And any of you who know Kelly, and know me, may be really surprised to hear it. Really surprised.

But next time I'm chasing you down on the 'cross course, or coming after you on the roads of Hillsboro, thank Kelly. Or blame him, if I manage to catch you!

Here's what happened: Last August, Track Nationals for Masters (30-and-over) were in Indianapolis. I was suffering from some pretty severe road burnout, but against my better judgment decided to try to compete anyway. I had been dealing with family issues 2 years before in Kenosha, and I wanted to at least do better than that down in Hoosierland.

I got down to Indy on Tuesday afternoon to take advantage of open track time. My first event, the 3km Individual Pursuit, was at 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning. I hung out in the entry way of the stadium, waiting for the officials to arrive, before finally getting my credentials and heading inside. I put my stuff down, got on my bike …

… and almost crapped my pants. I have never -- and I mean never -- been so scared on a bicycle. The banked, concrete track is set up exactly like Kenosha, except that Kenosha is asphalt and has smooth transitions. Indy is wavy, a bit rough, and the transition to the apron is a dramatic drop with a nice drainage culvert running around it. I rolled around for an hour, and called Kim from the parking lot in tears. I was that freaked out, only 17 hours before I was supposed to compete.

She talked me down from the ledge, and I was able to relax enough to hang out with my teammate Jaime, who was putting me up for the night. J-Lo and I found a great place to eat, and he was super-cool about me crashing at his place -- I have to admit, having a friendly face to talk to made a huge difference -- if I had been on my own, I would have come home.

Anyway, I decided that since I had paid the entry fee (see: Is Your Life Worth $40?), I might as well race. I got to the stadium early, got set up, and hopped on the bike.

This is where Kelly comes in. I was rolling around, feeling very nervous (but better than Tuesday), and just generally trying to get my bearings straight. Kelly, on the other hand, was in heaven -- he'd been preparing for that week his whole year (heck, his whole cycling career). He rides up next to me with a big smile:

"It's Christmas!"

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"Today is Christmas Day for me!" And he rode off.

In that instant, I understood what it means to peak for an event mentally. What it means to be so focused on one race that nothing else can compare. What it means to focus all your energy into ONE THING, and one thing only.

And in that instant, I decided to retire from track racing.

See, as Kelly was celebrating being there, finally competing in "his" event, I was hating every second I spent on the track. I was still scared out of my mind, I couldn't hold a line to save my life, and that culvert beckoned my front wheel in a sort of sick siren song of promised pain. He was in paradise, I was in purgatory.

And it occurred to me: I don't like racing on the track. Never really have. It's always just been an "extra" to me -- a long, long Tuesday night at Kenosha (which is a fun place to race, I'll admit), or racing in the political minefield that is Thursday at Northbrook. I don't like short events. I don't like hanging around. I don't like waiting to race. I just want to get out there and do it!

Racing on the track would never be Christmas for me. I was done.

On the drive home that afternoon, I thought long and hard about what I really do care about in bike racing. I care about working with my teammates to get a result. I care about pushing myself to the highest level I possibly can. I care about exploring my own limits, and seeing whether they stack up. And I do care about certain events.

Hillsboro-Roubaix is Christmas to me. One of the happiest days of my year comes on the day they release the schedule for it (which happened late last week). The Wisconsin State 'Cross Championship is Christmas to me. Heck, after this year, even Montrose may be Christmas to me. (Proctor is sort of Christmas Eve -- a lot of fun, a lot of anticipation, but not quite the real deal.) It doesn't matter that they're not National Championship races -- what matters is that, deep down, I will do whatever it takes to have a good ride at each of those events. Year in and year out, I was fooling myself when I called other races my "A" events. Because, truly, none of the rest mattered as much to me as these do.

(Even when I swore up and down that I would never race 'cross again after the fiasco in Carpentersville, somewhere deep inside me I was scheming to have a good ride in Sun Prairie.)

So next time you see Kelly, thank him for me. Let him know that as he plans his Christmas Day for 2006 with his new team, he inadvertently helped me figure out what really matters to me in this sport. And when I line up at Hillsboro in April, Sun Prairie in November, and Providence in December, I'll be thanking him too.


(By the way, props given where props due. Kelly took the Bronze Metal in the IP before storming off the front of the Points Race on Thursday night for the National Championship victory and the accompanying Stars-and-Stripes jersey. As for me? I was 11 seconds slower in the IP and finished second-last [3 seconds slower than in Kenosha 2003], our Team Pursuit squad never really got a groove going, and I was out of my league in the Madison. Oh, and I finally discovered a deep passion for Cyclocross! Thanks Kelly!)


David Johnsen said...

Too bad you didn't figure out track racing wasn't your thing before that awful crash you had a couple years ago!

And if anybody wants to see Chris preparing to celebrate Christmas, check out this photo from my web page about last year's Hillsboro-Roubaix.

Chris said...

Oooooh ... Dave you're evil! Although it's a good memory when it's 22 degrees outside!