by Justin Lindine
Taste that? That sort of metallic dry taste on the roof of your mouth? Feel the beat of your heart quicken as you try to deep-breathe away the restless anticipation? Sweat appears on my palms and forehead, and I have to stop quickly and think of something else just to calm down. All of this is happening at 11:30 PM as I lie in bed on the eve of my first race at camp. Not just any race either, the World Cup in Namur – nothing like jumping off the deep end of the pool. Namur is not a race I’d done the last time that I was here in Belgium, but I knew enough from watching the highlights from last year that it would be a muddy day with some ridiculously steep ups and downs. But there is only so much you can get from watching a video, and it turns out the experience of racing around a citadel, on the side of a cliff, comes up short on YouTube.
When Jim, the team’s soigneur, and I get to the venue, it is hard to take in the scope of where this race is. Like something out of a James Bond movie, the place sits perched on the side of a fairly vertical mount, and the entrance involves a lot of steeply cobbled switch-backs and archways. There are people everywhere, and the smell of cigar and cigarette and frying foods all hang in the damp and heavy air. Because I’m running late, I quickly change and jump on the course, so intent on “finding the lines” that I lose sense of my surroundings and how amazing this is. I find myself plunging down 20 meter slopes sliding sideways, one foot out before I realize that all around me are perfectly manicured grounds and stone work that date back to some amazing time when people spent years of their lives devoted to the craft of making something beautiful that would last forever.
The thing is, we are making the place a mess. The course is a scar of mud and ruts and running water, and the pit literally resides in what seems to me to be the courtyard of this palatial spread. Can this even really be happening? Who lets this take place on their priceless estate?
People with a deep and ingrained love of this crazy and brutal sport, people who like to see the look of suffering on the faces of each and every rider, from the seemingly invincible and ageless Sven Nys, to those of us trying to fight for our own personal victories somewhere closer to the back.
There are a lot of words I could devote to the race, but in hindsight they seem almost trivial. I had moments where I felt like I knew what I was doing, like I had things under control. And I also had moments of complete self-pity and a wonder of why this is something I choose to do. After the frantic first lap chaos, which I had managed – since the last time I was here – to somehow decrease the severity of in my mind, I settled into a fairly good place, but still minutes behind and somehow light-years away from where I wanted to be.
I am truly hoping for better rides as the week progresses, knowing that my legs were not quite 100% today. But I would be lying if I didn’t claim to feeling a little bit defeated after all that. I am buoyed though by the circus of it all, the spectacle, by being part of the show. There is an amazing feeling to knowing that I stood on the same start line as the best in the world. Does it make losing any better? No, not really. But the way the crowds part when you need to ride through, the way fans cheer you through terrible minute-long runs, the way it feels to be a part of something bigger than yourself, if even just for a moment … really does. So for tonight, a quieter heart rate and a quieter mind will hopefully make for some more restful sleep, and the knowledge that Wednesday will be here pretty quickly, with another chance to test myself in a World Cup race.
Here’s to getting Christmas wishes.