My first big cyclocross race was the 2012 USGP in Louisville. I was a fresh cat 4 with very little fitness and even fewer technical skills. The course was unlike anything I had ever seen. Racing at Eva Bandman was the perfect way to spend my 32nd birthday weekend. I was desperately in love with cyclocross, and couldn’t believe I had lived my entire life without it.
I can’t remember how I placed that weekend, but I do remember being nearly dead last. I am fairly certain I spent too much time running rather than riding. I was about 25 pounds heavier, riding a borrowed bike, and I had no idea how to get myself through the course. I gave it everything I had. When the race was over I dressed up in butterfly wings and made people laugh. I started an amazing collection of friendships and acquaintances that weekend, and felt like I had finally found my place in the strange land of adulthood.
A few weeks later, I found out the 2013 Cyclocross World Championships would be held on US soil. After the amazing experience I had racing in Louisville, I was elated to hear I could potentially see the world’s best racers compete in my own back yard. We immediately orchestrated a plan, reserved a hotel room, and made costume arrangements for our return to the place that stole my heart.
We arrived in Louisville a few days before the big race. My friends and I participated in the Raleigh Single Speed Derby, where I had the pleasure of learning what it was like to push a 42 x 16 and run through flaming barriers. The special events were only the tip of the iceberg. Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming sensation that followed as we walked into the park on race day.
Growing up in the SEC provided me with many opportunities to experience the emotion of competitive sports. Aside from my own athletic endeavors, being amidst a fiery crowd at a ballgame was nothing short of a religious experience. Walking into Eva Bandman pulled at my heart strings and ignited old memories. You could hear vuvuzelas and cowbells everywhere. The air was frigid as the baby snowflakes fell into the fresh mud from the rain the night before. I was wearing a Captain America costume and a blue wig. The vibes in that place could have easily been felt on the moon. I thought my heart would explode.
The European fans were delightful. You could see Americans posing for photos with Belgians. I saw a group from Switzerland dancing with Canadians. This place knew no barriers. We all had this eloquent example of bravery in common, and no political agenda could break those bonds. I remember two gentlemen from Belgium asking my group to pose for a photo with them. We were all dressed up for what seemed to be the world’s biggest Halloween party, and they didn’t speak a lick of English. I remember not being concerned and somehow connecting with them on a different level. We hugged and high-fived. Bicycles can do that, you know?
I distinctly recall the light bulb going off that day. What had started as a way to be competitive in adulthood just four months earlier, became a new way to see the world. Bicycles had inspired me in a way no basketball or volleyball ever could. The seed of passion had been planted, and what would follow changed the trajectory of my life forever.
As I pedaled out onto the Louisville course in November of 2015, I thought back to my first big race in 2012. I noticed a stark difference in my abilities on both a physical and mental level. I was faster than ever. My technical skills surpassed anything I ever thought to accomplish in Louisville, and I had developed a robust mental toughness. I celebrated my 35th birthday with a top 10 that weekend; my best race to date. My connection to Eva Bandman continued, and my love for the sport of cyclocross flourished.
2016 has been an intense and challenging year. I’ve learned more about life and myself in the last 9.5 months than I have in the past 36 years. I now truly understand just how short our time on this earth is. I know people don’t always stick by your side like they say they will. I have learned that success is measured in many different ways, and your success isn’t necessarily someone else’s. Do what makes you happy, but more importantly, do what makes you great.
The seed planted at the World Championships virtually saved me. I was in a place both personally and professionally that I didn’t like. I wasn’t happy with my job(s) and I couldn’t imagine making a career out of any of them. I had high hopes for my success, but no real path to follow. I wasn’t getting any younger and I felt like the world and her opportunities were passing me by. Bicycles came into my life at the most appropriate time, and I think Worlds was simply the medium that allowed me to catch a glimpse of the bigger picture. I took it to heart.
I’m coming up on my 36th birthday next month, which puts me closer to 40 if you look at my racing age. I still feel immature. I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of experiences, even though my life resume seems shiny and full. I’ve passed up opportunities because of fear, because let’s face it, failure is a hard pill to swallow. But you know what? A life worth living to the fullest doesn’t work like that. Bravery has many faces, and you can’t let a fear of failure keep you from reaching your potential. Pretty heavy stuff for a Sunday afternoon, but epiphanies wait for no man.
I made a spirited decision this weekend. I decided to embrace my fears and experience the thing responsible for getting me into the business of bikes. I sold my mountain bike last week, with intentions of replacing it with something bigger and better in the coming months. Having felt the need to check things off my bucket list, I opted for a more ballsy choice. I wanted to get back to where it all began, but I knew the same old thing wouldn’t do. So, I bought a plane ticket to Luxembourg for the 2017 Cyclocross World Championships.
Charlie Day, producer of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, gave an amazing speech at Merrimack College in 2014. He said, “Don’t wait for your break. Make your break. Go make it happen for yourself”. Cycling and bike racing have taught me this lesson more than anything else in my life. You don’t get results without the work, and success doesn’t just fall into your lap. You have to make your own way. He ended his speech with this:
You cannot let a fear of failure, or a fear of comparison, or a fear of judgement stop you from doing what’s going to make you great. You cannot succeed without this risk of failure. You cannot have a voice without the risk of criticism. And you cannot love without the risk of loss. You must go out and take these risks. None of it comes easy. And people will tell you to do what makes you happy, but a lot of this has been hard work. And I’m not always happy. And I don’t think you should do just what makes you happy. Do what’s uncomfortable and scary and hard, but pays off in the long run. Be willing to fail. Let yourself fail. Fail in the way you would want to fail. Fail, pick yourself up, and fail again. Because without this struggle, what is your success anyway? Look, as best we know it, we have one life. In it, you have to trust your own voice, your own ideas, your honesty, your vulnerability, and through this you will find your way. You do not have to be fearless, just don’t let fear stop you. Live like this as best you can, and I guarantee you will look back on a life well lived. You are capable of greatness in your profession, and more importantly, in your quality of self. Stay hungry. Stay young at heart. Take those risks. You are going to change the world around you in big ways and in small.
I think Charlie was on to something.