Note from the Underground
A Day at the Races
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
I went down fast, but I sprung up fast too. I only skidded for a little, but it was for enough time for me to realize that I had in fact fallen, though not with much of a thud, and I was back on my feet and clipped in before I fulled assessed whether there was anything wrong with me and the bike. No time for that. I was falling behind. I think.
Stock markets crash for the same reasons bicyclists do. An asset becomes overvalued relative to its intrinsic worth. You get comfortable thinking that things can only go up. And then the bottom drops out. And you end up on the bottom. Recovery can come quick, but there are always lagging indicators.
When I fell I was maybe a few laps in. I had done the course a couple of times and was reasonably well acquainted with the layout of the underground parking garage that served as the setting for the fourth in the series of four Cystal City Wednesday Night Spins, a production put on by the Crosshairs Cycling Team and the Crystal City Business Improvement District. I had attended the first one, but only as a spectated. I spectated and speculated that I should return and after a two week absence, I came back, this time intending to race. It would be the first time in my adult life that I would pin a bib to myself with the aim of competing. My goal was to not brake any bones. At least, none of my own bones.
I handed over twenty bones to the registration table about 2 minutes before the race would start. Andrew Jackson- kill the bank, Trail of Tears. I didn't register in advance, so the process of signing up with frenetic, mostly because I hemmed and hawed when I got there, unsure of whether I'd actually muster the facsimile of courage and extroversion needed to actually go through with it. When the B race ended, and the course was opened, I took a few practice spins. I took them slowly. They seemed ok or at least ok enough for me to go through with what I had set out to go through with, competing in the C race (categories 4/5, novice, children, commuters, bike advice columnists). I frantically filled out the registration form/waiver and my handwriting proved even more illegible than normal. But they typed my name in the computer and they give me a bib and one of the guys there helped me with the safety pins. Safety first.
I use the term 'competing' loosely. I certainly didn't set out to win anything or really to beat anyone. That's for the best because I didn't win and I'm not entirely sure I beat anyone either. I don't think I'm an especially fast bicyclist, nor an athlete who really trains for things. By virtue of bike commuting, I do benefit from spending a lot of time on the bike, so I had that going for me. I wasn't looking to break any records and even surpass any personal goals. But I did race and it went something like this:
pedal, pedal, pedal, brake, turn, pedal, brake, brake brake BRAKE, pedal, pedal, breathe, breathe, pedal PEDAL PEDAL repeat
The falling down part was extra. The course had at least two long straightaways, one by the start line and one by the finish line. I wiped out when turning (or trying) to turn onto the finish line straightaway. But then I popped back up. Recovery. But I could tell I bumped my knee some and there was at least some road rash, if not blood. I didn't look down to see if there was any blood. There wasn't any blood. There's only a little bump and not even any bruising, so all things considered, I would recommend that if you must crash in an underground parking garage criterium style bike race, to do it that way.
The rest of the course, aside from the straightaways, were a series of turns, demarcated by the concrete support poles and red tape. Red tape is very Washington. These were the parts that gave me the most worry, as my bike handing lacks the level of confidence you need to really whip through these parts on a smart line. Over the course of the 20 laps or so, I tried to take inside lines and I tried to take outside lines and I tried different approaches and I tried pedaling through and I tried braking and I tried pedaling and braking simultaneously. I shifted my weight, as I could, or left it alone- really, whatever seemed right. I wished I had kept a notebook of my various approaches. I don't know how long the circuit was or how long each lap took. A few minutes? Time is a construct.
There was a level of self-preserving conviviality on the course. Racers would call out 'inside' or 'outside' depending on how they planned to pass. I appreciated that and I mimicked it. Imitation is the sincerest form of the flattery.
There were spectators. They cheered and loudly. There was some cowbell. There was exactly as much cowbell as there should have been. Calls for excess cowbell would have been rebuffed. Some spectators, those who knew me, would scream 'SHAAAAARRRRRROOOOOWWS!" as I rode by. I appreciated that. It is no small thing to be associated with the world's least effect bike markings.
I wore bib number 33. That's Larry Bird's number. The Hick from French Lick. He was sycamore and I'm equally wooden. Before the start of the race, when Taylor was adjusting my bib, I expressed to him my desire to not die. He assured me that I wouldn't die. Before the race, I had thought of Dante and his descent. Dante went down seven circles in the Inferno. I went down four levels in a parking garage and rode twenty circles. He had Virgil. I had a Surly Cross Check.
There were other racers on the course that I remember and many more that I don't, either because our encounters were so fleeting or because I was thinking of other things, like staying upright and pedaling with aplomb. I think everyone had fun, or at least I hope they did. I'm not sure the results of posted yet, but I don't think that really matters to anyone, or at least I don't they don't.
There were photographers. Grit your teeth before the flash. Give him the action shot he's looking for. Snap. Look. Delete. Probably.
I think if I had to do it again, I would. I don't know if I'm committed to the idea of signing up for more bicycle races, either in underground parking garages or outside of them, but I can definitely see the allure, even if your goal isn't really to win or even prove your fortitude, physical, mental or otherwise. A race is a closed system and there's not much really going on outside of it. What matters most is hitting that turn or sticking to the wheel of rider in front of you or turning over the pedals with as much ferocity of you can muster and time truncates to a series of segments. One segment done, move to the next. Next one done, do one more. Keep it up until they let you stop. There is not outside beyond the segments. There's especially no outside when you're not outside. The interiority is the draw. And this, for me, is diametrically the opposite of how I normally approach bicycling. As a commuter and a sometimes flaneur (french for someone who wears flannel), for me, riding a bicycle is primarily a tool for engaging with the world around me- its novelties, its quirks, its changes. During the race, the bicycle became the means of tuning it out. That has a certain kind of appeal.
I didn't sleep great last night because my legs hurt. Not from falling, but from excessive use. I still rode to work this morning, taking again the bike that served me well last night. I plan to put the fenders back on tonight. I don't want the bike to get any ideas.
I would like to reiterate my gratitude to those who made this series of races possible. The bike guys and the parking garage buys and the guys who were there selling wine and the guys who were there selling pie and all of the people who raced and all the people who watched. Robert Putnam may say that we're all bowling alone, but I don't think he's ever been to a bike race in an underground parking garage in Crystal City. Unless he was that old guy who passed me that one time. Not going to rule that possibility out.