I believe in competition.

Competition, as in a larger sense than simply competing for a win.

Mostly I believe in pushing myself beyond what I think are my limits. I believe in reaching for the gold ring, for giving 110%, for smiling while I do.

I don’t believe in accepting mediocrity, ever. On the other hand, I do believe in accepting limitations. Understanding, and then accepting our limitations, be they physical, age-related, or any other reason, does not mean giving up on that elusive and challenging pursuit of excellence. I’ve learned the hard way that my 110% may still not be enough to get me to the top step of the podium. Occasionally it may not even get me to the finish line. That’s not really important any longer. When I was younger, maybe, but age brings a modicum of wisdom. What drives me now is the commitment to fulfilling my potential. Therein lies my love of competition, and of cyclocross specifically.

Lee Waldman has his sights set on cyclocross. © Annette Hayden

Lee Waldman has his sights set on cyclocross. © Annette Hayden

I dislike time trials. It’s not even a love/hate relationship for me, just hate. Not because of the time spent in the pain cave. That’s where I live during any ’cross race. The difference for me lies in the basic nature of the racing cyclocross. It’s unique in its ever-changing nature, setting it apart from time trials and most other forms of bike racing. I don’t need to spend 20 to 60 minutes listening to my breathing, watching my output, and staring at nothing but a white line. In cyclocross, the world is in a constant state of flux. The course changes every lap. Weather changes throw in yet another challenge. Cyclocross demands not only my focus but my total flexibility, coupled with that same acceptance of suffering that a time trial requires.

The inherent commonality that’s present in every type of bike racing is that the best riders aren’t willing to give in, ever. Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Sven Nys: they have something in common. Win or lose, they are “in it” for the duration. Losing doesn’t mean they didn’t give their all. It simply means that it wasn’t their day. Tomorrow, well that’s an entirely different story.

This piece began early in the summer before traveling to Scottsbluff, NE to ride the 100 mile Robidoux Quick and Dirty gravel race. I hadn’t been there since the first year of the event. Injuries, weather, mechanicals, and COVID019 prevented me from going back until this year. First of all, if you’ve never been to this event, you should go. The course was “fun” in the way that 100 miles of gravel can be fun. Promotion is first class. Everything from packet pick-up to results, beginning to end, was done smoothly and efficiently. They’ve gone out of their way to developing this into a truly, in my humble opinion, first-class event.

But I’m not writing about Robidoux to merely shout its praises. Racing it confirmed exactly what I began this column talking about. At 71, I no longer entertain illusions of competing for overall placings. What I always plan on though, is leaving it all on the course. But, it’s one thing to talk about it, another to actually do it. From the gun, l was all in. I spent the first 90 minutes of the race floating between threshold and VO2 max, something I wasn’t sure was even possible. By the time we reached the second feed station, I was beginning to feel the effort. There was no way I could continue to race, and actually, finish if I kept up that level of effort. That didn’t mean that I gave in or gave up. I just realized that from 50 miles to 100, my 110% commitment might produce a different set of numbers.

Nebraska, for those of you who haven’t ridden there, is windy. Over the course of a 100-mile day, I’d estimate that 70 miles was either directly into the wind or fighting a crosswind. So, my competition became my mental state; and it became the incessant wind. I’d like to say that it was fun, but it really wasn’t. What it was though, was a test of my belief in giving my all. I’m happy to say that I passed that grueling test.

I began the day hoping to finish in under 7 hours. I was close. 7 hours 17 minutes and I was 3rd in the 60+ age group, the only rider in that group over 70. What does that prove? That commitment and a steadfast refusal to accept anything less than my best is, for me at least, the best way to live without regrets.

A few weeks ago I rode another gravel event, SBT GRVL, doing the 64-mile Red Course. Again, don’t miss it! Great town, great promotion, incredible course. I managed to place 28th out of the 300 riders, most being decades younger, and was the second rider over 60 in the entire men’s field. It gave me yet another opportunity to practice what I’ve been preaching. I think gravel events, because of the terrain and the length loan themselves to that commitment to 110%. Steamboat was that for me. I suffered, but I smiled, and at the end of the day I was successful in that battle the I have with myself. The one that pushed me to choose between backing off, or facing the challenge right there just past my front tire. I never gave up, never gave in. That encapsulates my belief in the power of competition. It’s partly the riders I line up against, but mainly it’s me creating the challenge. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m going to go ride my bike. Come join me, on the gravel road, or the cyclocross course.