Fear. If you want to see it in its natural state, gaze along the starting ranks of any Cat 5 men’s race or Cat 4 women’s race. You’ll spot the one or two faces that are frozen with it, the most horrible of all human emotions.
I have a friend whose head is harder than a block of concrete. It is impermeable to reason and utterly advice-resistant when it has to do with anything related to cycling. “You need to do more group rides so that you won’t kill everyone with your terrible bike handling,” I told her after she had almost killed everyone with her terrible bike handling. So she did more solo rides.
“If you want to not get dropped on the NPR you need to do fast flat rides more. Like, say, the NPR.” She went out and did hills for a month.
Most dreadful of all was when she asked me to be her coach. “Why?” I asked. “I know nothing and you listen to no one. What a colossal waste of time.”
But she insisted, so I drew up a training plan for her. It went like this:
Monday: Don’t ride your bike.
Tuesday: Ride your bike.
Wednesday: Ride your bike.
Thursday: Ride your bike.
Friday: Ride your bike.
Saturday: Ride your bike.
Sunday: Ride your bike.
“That’s bullshit!” she said. “That’s not a training plan.”
“Of course it is,” I said. “You just don’t like it.”
“That’s dumb,” she said, and promptly went off and rode three times a week, ran four times a week, and made sure that she was so exhausted that she eventually got sick and had to stay home for ten days straight.
“You need a bike fit,” I told her.
“It’s a thing where someone sets up your bike so that your ass gets closer to your hands.”
“Okay,” she said, “where should I go to do that?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never had one. That’s why my position is so bad.”
“You fucking hypocrite,” she said.
“Yes,” I agreed.
Then one day she said, “I want to do a race.”
“Fine,” I said. “Do one.”
“Which one should I do?”
“CBR. First one of the season.”
“What is it?”
“A flat, four-corner crit, 40 minutes long and a ten-minute drive from home.”
“I hate flats,” she said, so so she signed up for Tuttle Creek, a mountainous, horrible, challenging road race located 5 hours away in the Sierras and subject to high wind, snow, and freezing rain.
Yesterday morning I raced CBR and she was there spectating with her kids. She was fuming. “What’s up?” I said.
“This race,” she said. “I can’t stand it.”
“Can’t stand what?”
“Watching. I hate watching.”
“So pin on a fucking number,” I said. She spun on her heel and went over to the registration desk.
An hour later she was standing in the staging area with her number pinned on. She was deathly pale and clenched up tighter than an oyster. Her lips were frozen in place and she was punching out sharp, stuttering breaths. I walked over. “Hey,” I said. “Relax.” I put my arm on her shoulder. She is slim but incredibly muscular, and it was like touching Charon’s thigh or a boulder, rock hard. Not that I’ve ever touched Charon’s thigh, but you can tell by looking.
“I’m so fucking scared,” she said.
“I know. You look like someone just told you that Santa Claus is coming down the chimney.”
“With an axe and a bag full of human heads.”
She laughed, a little. “I’m so fucking scared.”
“Look,” I said. “Relax. Just now. For ten seconds. Then you can tense all up again because the other women are going to beat your ass. Or you can quit.”
The thing about my friend I forgot to tell you is that she hates to lose and that she is a former champion figure skater and that she is the single most competitive person I have ever met, ever. “What did you say?”
“Quit. Just walk away. It’s a stupid bike race. There’s nothing wrong with being a give-up chicken quitter who is so easily intimidated that you can’t even start a wanker-filled Cat 4 women’s bike race in an empty parking lot. Lots of people are chicken that way.”
“You are such an asshole.” But my hand was still on her shoulder and I felt it relax like butter, and her eyes flashed.
“Just trying to help.”
She clipped in and rode to the start. The gun went off and she was nowhere to be seen for the entire race, hanging at the back and trying not to fall off her bicycle as she navigated turns that were wide enough to drive a space shuttle through.
Then on the last lap coming out the last turn, where she was dead last and 500 yards from the line, she jumped out of her saddle, passed the entire field one-by-one, and got fourth. It was like watching Secretariat without the midget and the whip.
I came up to her after the race. “That was awesome!” I said.
She looked at me defiantly, and she wasn’t afraid anymore. “I could have won.” And yes, her eyes were flashing.