In his last column, Colorado-based Masters racer Lee Waldman looked back on a lifetime of racing and returning to the start line at the age of 65. Today he gives us a good reminder about what is really important when racing ‘cross.
by Lee Waldman
‘Cross season is full tilt here in Colorado. Since late August we’ve been racing which means my focus has now shifted from training to racing. During the summer my thinking and my preparation doesn’t hone in on the racing per se. The little things that make up my cyclocross life take on added importance when the weather turns hot here. I’ve explored new ways to approach training (this has helped) and resting (this would help if I was better at it). During the past 18 months, I’ve struggled alternatively with fitness, continual injury and the necessity of retaining my self-confidence.
I’m now eight races into the new season and I’ve made some discoveries. In some sense many of them have been re-discoveries, things that I may have realized in the past but forgotten or ignored. They may not be new to you, but they have been to me. Maybe some will strike a chord with you. I’m one of those people who learns best through visualizing and through carefully and honestly analyzing my past performances. When I’m not riding particularly well I’m forced to reexamine what I’ve done and what I should be doing. Inevitably that leads to changes. My career has been all about change.
I rode my first cyclocross race at 35. That was old to learn the intricacies of the sport but it drew me in and I committed myself to mastering it. I’m 66 now and still racing, proving that I’m either stubborn or really dumb. Nevertheless, I have some history with ‘cross. Back then, “real” cyclocross bikes were difficult, almost impossible, to find. The sport hadn’t begun to ascend the tremendous growth curve that we’ve seen over the last few years. Information about cyclocross, training, technique and equipment was scarce. This was way before Simon Burney’s Cyclocross book, which became our bible. YouTube hadn’t been invented, so there was no way to watch European ‘cross. There were some DVDs and I consumed them voraciously, watching Daniele Pontoni and Adri Van der Poel (father of 2015 World Champ Mathieu) do things on a bike that I could never imagine myself doing. I learned by watching and by asking questions. If I got better at all, it was through closely observing better riders and then attempting to mimic what I saw. That’s still my basic approach.
When I’m having a bad day, I switch focus from what I’m doing wrong to what other riders are doing right and then try to incorporate that into my riding. Many times just sitting on the wheel of a faster rider and observing will show me that I can push through a corner faster than I had originally thought I could. I lean towards caution, a trait that gets in the way of my racing more often than not. My advice to you: Don’t be cautious! When you think you’re at your limit, shove the accelerator pedal just a bit closer to the floor. If you think you can’t ride through a particularly challenging section, follow someone who can.
As I’ve gotten older and hopefully smarter, I’ve learned the most valuable lesson that any sport has to teach us. Ready? We’re not all destined to be winners! Sad, but so true. It’s a rare person who is blessed with the genetics and determination to stand on the top step of the podium on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean that: 1) we can’t get there on occasion; 2) that there is something inherently wrong with us; or 3) we should give up. What it does mean is that there are things that we can learn about ourselves and the way we navigate our lives. Cyclocross seems to be the medium that I’ve chosen to help me learn them.
We’re not all destined to be winners! Sad, but so true.
When I was younger, I defined myself by how well I raced. I’d even been known to throw a tantrum or two if the race didn’t turn out the way that I expected, once almost taking out my mother-in-law with a thrown bike after a particularly bad day, and in the process, behaving like a tantrum-throwing pro. I was misdirected, not really willing to admit that hard work and a positive mindset wasn’t going to ever get me to that elusive top step. I also wasn’t willing to look at the things I’d learned and the accomplishments I’d made as holding any value. If I couldn’t win, I simply wasn’t “good” enough, as an athlete or a person. The problem was that I just simply wasn’t good enough to win consistently. It took me many years, many losses, some sporadic wins and lots of frustration to finally come to the realization that guess what; there were others who were always going to be better. A humbling realization no doubt, but nevertheless, an honest one. In the long run it’s let me relax and truly enjoy the experience of racing my bike.
I’ve learned to let myself have fun racing my cyclocross bike, to laugh at myself and my mistakes and to shake them off so that they not only don’t ruin my race, they don’t ruin my day.
These days I concentrate on the things that matter, both on and off the bike. I have four beautiful grandchildren. They think that I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread. I know they will soon grow up and have less and less patience for me every year. I’ve decided that a day at the zoo or a trip to see Thomas the Engine, is more important than that ‘cross race I’ve already ridden two dozen times. Not only that, I’ve come to the realization that merely showing up at a race and putting my heart and soul into it lets me feel comfortable with my result, whatever it might be. I actually think that’s freed me up to race more aggressively since I’m not worrying constantly about making that key mistake that will cost me the win. I am able to ride more spontaneously, to attack more often and to take the kinds of risks that make bike racing fun again. I guess when you get down to the core, (another possible pull quote here) I’ve learned to let myself have fun racing my cyclocross bike, to laugh at myself and my mistakes and to shake them off so that they not only don’t ruin my race, they don’t ruin my day.
So what’s the lesson here? Smile. Remember why we race. Enjoy the experience. Go ride your bike.
Read more of Lee Waldman’s insights and stories here.