by Lee Waldman
Last Saturday, promptly at 6 a.m., the blast from a shotgun signaled the start of my first hundred mile mountain bike race, the Bailey Hundo. A few years ago, in the middle of a 24-hour race, my friend Natalie said in passing, “You should ride the Hundo, you’d like it.” Being a glutton for punishment, I immediately put the idea at the top of my bucket list. This year, the Hundo seemed like a great retirement present to myself.
Less than a week before the race, I found myself sitting at our kitchen counter, drinking coffee with the phrase be careful what you wish for cycling through my head. I had to admit to myself, the event scared me. I’ve ridden 100 miles on the road before, but off-road? That’s another animal completely.
Why, you might ask, would the Hundo cause such trepidation? First of all, I’m a horrible descender. 1) I’m old; 2) I have no depth perception.; and 3) I have this propensity towards caution. My teeth have cost much too much since my first attempt to knock them all out in a crit over 25 years ago. For what I’ve spent on them, I could have bought a really nice Porsche, maybe two.
Nevertheless, Saturday, June 15, I was as ready as a night on a friend’s waterbed and a 4 a.m. breakfast could leave me. The Hundo is a cool event. Starting with the aforementioned shotgun blast, everyone shouts “Hundo” as they clip in and roll out. After seven miles of undulating dirt road meant to stretch out the 230 plus riders, we hit the first section of single track climbing. Since I love to climb on the mountain bike, I was immediately in my element. My heart rate was where I planned to keep it, and I was comfortable. Then the trail turned down. Now, I’ve been working on my descending and I thought I was going fast, at least fast for me, until I heard the telltale sound of tires grinding dirt behind me. Being a good, polite rule follower, I pulled over and sat, and sat, and sat as a steady line of more accomplished technical riders streamed by me. I knew I was in trouble when the little kid on the strider bike passed me.
The longer I rode, the more convinced I became that “Hey, I can do this.” Confidence sometimes breeds inattention though. On a longish, relatively easy section of single track, I relaxed long enough so that my front wheel could slide out. Just a bit of road rash, I thought. Until, a little at a time, at first imperceptible, I started to hear the whine of my front disc rubbing. Initially, I thought it was just dirt on the rotor.
I grabbed a bottle at the next aid station and set out again. The next long 10 mile section was all uphill and although I was still easily passing riders, my legs were beginning to feel heavy. I pulled into the next aid station really needing water and a bathroom break. Just for fun, before I headed out again, I “turned” the front wheel. It wasn’t moving! Turned out my crash had bent the front rotor so badly it was binding on the brake pads. That’s how I had ridden the last 10 miles. I talked the mechanic into bending it back enough so that I could ride it, and he did. I have to admit that it slowed me down a bit after that, worrying that I might damage it even more as I rode.
Now, you’re not reading this column to follow each and every detail of my Hundo ride, and I’m not writing it for that reason. You know me; I try to come away from every ride with new knowledge. Sometimes I get it right away, other times I need to process for a while. Heading out the door on Wednesday morning, I was still feeling the effects of the Hundo. My legs were blocked, my tank felt empty. But, the longer I pedaled, the better I felt and when I was finished with my interval session, my head was clear. And that’s when it finally hit me. The lesson.
We all have our own reasons for racing our bikes. For some of us it’s the joy we feel when we are victorious. Crossing the line with our hands in the air gives us that sense of elation. For others, and I count myself among them, the simple pleasure of stretching our limits is enough. I love to train equally as much as I love to race. Some of us thrive on the camaraderie, the family atmosphere of off-road racing. For me it’s probably a bit of all of those.
But there’s something else that brings me back to racing and that’s the sense of accomplishment and self-confidence that I feel after I’ve challenged myself, and met the challenge. That’s what last Saturday was for me. I was scared at the start. Not of the course. I knew that there would be technical sections that I’d be challenged by. But at 63, I’m not above walking if and when I have to. Not about the distance. I’ve ridden my bike for long enough now to know that if nothing else, my basic stubbornness will get me to the finish. My fear was of not performing up to my expectations and my potential.
It’s interesting. For as long as I’ve raced my bike, I’ve never had the confidence in myself that I should have. I’ve had people tell me how good my technique is. I even had one guy call me the “Godfather” of ’cross in Colorado (thanks, Carlos). But no matter how many times we hear compliments from outside, it’s not until we can truly compliment ourselves that they become effective. Crossing that line in Bailey last Saturday was a turning point for me. When I got off the bike, I knew that I’d accomplished something important. I’d set a challenge, one that I wasn’t completely sure I could meet, and then I met it. It’s hard to really quantify the change since then, but I’ve noticed since, that when I get on the bike now, I’m quietly confident. I like it. I hope it stays around not only to make me a better racer, but a better person. Because when I feel good about myself I’m better as a father, partner and friend.
’Cross nationals are in Boulder this year, a stone’s throw from my house. Nationals were held in Colorado twice before, and were both disasters for me! The first time, at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, was the coldest I’ve ever been at a ’cross race. With temperatures hovering around the 0 mark all day, the course was a skating rink. One particular corner, a descent after the Armory, became my nemesis as it unceremoniously slammed me to the ground each and every lap.
My time for the Hundo was 9:39. My goal was under 10 hours, so I met it. I also figured, using my incredibly accurate estimation skills, that without the mechanical problems I might have sliced of another 20 minutes. That would have put me near nine hours, an incredibly respectable time for an old guy like me. Who knows, maybe next year. I think I’ve become addicted to endurance racing. Let’s face it, 45 minutes of ’cross will seem pretty tame after over nine hours in the dirt.
One last thing. Since my last column, I became a grandfather! On June 12, my first grandchild was born. A “little” boy. Actually not so little: 9 pounds, 21 inches! My son-in-law is a big guy and it looks like his son has gotten his size. Who knows, maybe he’ll be another cyclocrosser in the making.
I’m done for now and I’m going out for a ride. You should do the same thing. Go ride your bike!