Saturday morning. A dreary little breakfast room in a hotel that seemed to be somewhere south of Seattle, or possibly beneath Niagara Falls. Outside, aggressively bad weather hammered at the walls. Inside, I stared at my bowl of cereal in silent calculation of how much more caffeine it would take to get me out the door into the endless, unforgiving darkness.
A lot, it turned out. A lot of caffeine.
Our group of five Steed teammates (Owen, Mark, Natalia, Corey, and me) and one Devo representative (Cody) had driven south the previous day, across Peace Arch, past the foggy hills of Bellingham and the crowded outlet mall of Tulalip, through Seattle traffic purgatory and the Land of the Airport and $15 Minimum Wage, deep into the heart of suburbia. Our objective was the Subaru Cyclo Cup, a double header UCI/USAC event hosted by Seattle MFG. A couple of us had prepared for this expedition by stocking up on US cash, and delighted in waving fistfuls of dollar bills (so, about $11 total, or $209 Canadian) in the others’ faces. Which, it turns out, never gets old.
Upon arriving at Fort Steilacoom State Park and parking in a newly formed lake/wetland habitat, we dragged gear over to the tent. A few racers were out pre-riding, looking from a distance like soggy pieces of confetti. We immediately discovered that the porta-potty across from the tent was in the unusual condition of being freshly cleaned. I paused for a moment before opening the door, reveling in the dream that it was my own personal VIP porta-potty, and perhaps there would be sprigs of fresh lavender tucked in between the toilet paper rolls and a tasteful IKEA print hanging on the door. Like so many dreams, this one was swiftly and cruelly shattered.
Cody and Mark were the first off for the day, both making strong starts in brutal weather. Meanwhile the rest of us tried not to drown. Cody made the win look easy, and Mark powered to top ten in a huge field. Natalia, Corey, and Owen were next off. Natalia took control at the start and held the lead the whole race. Corey snagged holeshot off the line and hung in tenaciously despite a bad cold. Owen’s strong technical skills gave him a distinct edge on this exceptionally difficult mudpit of a course, and he finished just outside of top ten.
Finally there was no one left to go but me. I drank one final latte while warming up and watching the elite men suffer their way through approximately eight thousand laps. I suspected most of them were drenched in equal parts tears, slobber, and rain, which definitely made me feel like racing and not at all like hopping in a taxi to the airport and catching a flight to absolutely anywhere else.
Suddenly I was on the line, rain dripping off my helmet, mascara streaming down my face, everything in front of me a blur of legs and lycra, 30 seconds and GO. A glorious, suspended instant as thirty-one women reacted – the spark firing from mind to muscle – and then we surged forward. We all leaned together through the first turns, simultaneously holding each other up and shouldering into the best lines. Then we slammed into the run-up to end all run-ups: a three-tiered wedding cake of mud, lined with screaming spectators and a chihuahua named Bosco. The air was sharp with the scent of soil and roots chopped up by our feet. Back on the bike and a climb, heart rate redlined, before a series of 180s through an old orchard, downhill into a field and a sandpit, and through the chute for the next lap. For 45 minutes, the entire world fell away.
Sunday morning. Sun started to break through the clouds as Cody cruised to another podium finish and Mark edged further into the top ten. A similar course, but no run-up and slightly drier conditions. Corey’s cold had become worse, and he made the tough decision to sit out the race, instead throwing himself into the role of official mechanic/photographer. Owen demolished most of his field and snagged sixth place. Natalia upgraded to elite women and joined me on the start line in the early afternoon.
Right away I got a bit too friendly with the course tape, as I am wont to do, and by the time I extracted my handlebars from its grasp I was sitting in last place. I was annoyed about this, so I started chasing like there was a raging grizzly bear behind me. On the third lap or so, Natalia and I joined forces and started picking off spots. Existence seemed distilled to its purest form: full awareness of the moment, the sense of self subsumed by this new purpose, every breath and every motion fresh and raw and instinctive. We finished in golden afternoon light, diving into the warm jackets our teammates held out for us.
On the way back we stopped for BBQ and lively dissection of the weekend’s events, then continued home lugging our bags of muddy clothes. Meanwhile, in Squamish, frost crystallized on quiet grass at the Logger Sports Grounds, with two weeks’ calm before the storm of BC Provincial Championships…