A quick glance at the 2017 SoCal road race calendar confirms what anyone who has bothered to race in the last decade knows: Bike racers here don’t like to race.
In addition to the loss of Vlees Huis Road Race, the promoters of Boulevard RR have also folded. There go two of the very best races on the calendar, if by “best” you mean “challenging courses that take everything you have just to finish.” Forget winning. These races are nails-and-broken-glass tests of your physical and mental fiber.
These departures leave UCLA Devil’s Punchbowl race, Tuttle Creek RR, and maybe, if we’re really lucky, the Castaic beatdown as the only three events left on the calendar that are anything more than a parade followed by a sprint. Because the fact is that there’s no comparison to winning a 45-minute crit and finishing–yes, finishing–a grueling 60-mile road race with over 6,000 feet of climbing.
The one requires timing, intelligence, teamwork, speed, and fearlessness. The other requires that you go so deeply into the world of pain and tenacity that you come out the other end a different person. One is fun. The other is transformational. One is thrilling. The other is the essence of sport, distilled to performance and desire.
Why has the SoCal calendar become a series of crits and boring circuit races that anyone can finish? Why have the toughest, most challenging races in an already grueling sport fallen by the wayside?
Well, I hate to break the news to you, but it’s because most bike racers, otherwise known as customers, are too emotionally fragile to stand the shattering reality of getting crushed on a hilly course. It’s not that they can’t complete, it’s that they can’t compete. They equate last place with failure, getting shelled with failure, being ground up and spit out with failure. No one bothered to teach them that doing your best in a tough situation is what matters in life.
And of course, failure is the one thing that Americans are uniquely unequipped to handle. Everyone’s a winner, and if they can’t be a winner, they’re going to stay home.
That’s weird because the most epic physical and mental feats I’ve ever witnessed happened in road races and were the product of people who had zero chance of winning. I still remember Harold Martinez burning up the first two laps of Vlees Huis in service of his teammates, only to fade and stagger across the line by himself almost three hours later. Harold, the sprinter.
I’ll never forget watching Charon Smith toe the line at Boulevard and give it 100% helping his teammates fight for a podium, even though he was done after two laps.
And of course I’ll never forget the countless times I’ve been dropped, beaten at the line for 20th place, punctured while off the front in a potentially winning, last-minute move, the humiliation of throwing in the towel, or the grim satisfaction of having punched it through to the very end of a freezing day at Boulevard, one of the very last riders to make it in before the sun completely set. Frozen to the bone. Wet. Drained. Destroyed. Happy.
There were never very many people willing to sign up for the guaranteed defeat of tough road racing, and nowadays there isn’t even the tiny number that there once was. The old riders are tired of hard racing that ends miserably, and the young riders are afraid of it. Better to sprint for 15th in a crit and preen before and after than to straggle in, your face covered in sheet snot, legs cramping, bottles empty, twenty minutes down on the winner.
But the sad thing is that people who’ve made the investment in all that fancy equipment, who’ve bought all those pretty kits, who have logged all those miles, who have amassed all those trinkets, who’ve subsidized all that coaching, and who are uniquely positioned to go out and enjoy the real beauty of bike racing, are afraid to go exploring in the wilderness of pain and human limits.
They’ve gone to the brink of paradise and pulled back because their only conception of winning is being first. No one ever taught them that if you want to win, you have to fail.
Adios, bike racing. It was nice knowing you.
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