by Lee Waldman
We all have heroes in our lives. Those men and women who we look up to. They set the standards we strive to meet.
My father was, and still is my hero, modeling how to live life honestly and with integrity. He had his faults. We all do and heroes are no different. But he set the standard by which I’ve gauged most everything I do in life.
I have my cyclocross hero as well. Like many of you, mine happens to be Mattheu van der Poel. His father Adrie was also one for me back in the day. I so admired the way that he never gave up on his quest to become world champion. He was also one of the riders like Zdenek Stybar and Lars Boom who have competed successfully both on and off-road, not ever giving short shrift to either. I tried to emulate that until moving into my 50s and 60s made it impossible. At that point I had to chose, and I chose cyclocross.
It’s All About Having Fun
Matthew models something else that I admire and have made attempts to incorporate into my training and racing. Fun!
It doesn’t take an expert in cyclocross to see how much Van der Poel enjoys riding his bike. Just watch the videos circulating on YouTube showing just that. There he is “training” (i.e. playing) in the sand, riding wheelies on the boardwalk, hopping the bike while balanced on the rear wheel and, of course, bunny hopping. Then there are the tail whips that we see him throw as he comes off of a flyover after having gapped the field.
Following that devastating loss at Worlds last year, I’ve been overjoyed to see him dominate this season. He is the class of the ’cross peloton. Yes, there are other strong, capable riders out there, Aerts, Sweeck and Van Aert come to mind as well as Worlds second-place finisher Vanthourenhout. None of the riders who challenge Matthew for the holeshot each week can hold a candle to his ability to lay down the power, model technical skills and still appear to be enjoying himself.
What does that mean for you and me?
Winning is important. We all race with visions of crossing the finish line our hands in the air. On the other hand, riding up to our potential is equally as important. I gauge my success more often with an honest evaluation of how committed I was to the effort.
But neither can fulfill us if we aren’t enjoying ourselves. My primary goal for the off season and for next year, is to learn to play on the bike.
Riding a ’cross bike well means that we need to be comfortable with those sensations we avoided at all cost when riding and racing on the road. When a road bike begins to slide sideways, we can predict the result. It’s usually pretty ugly. On the other hand, when our ’cross bike does the same thing, it’s s our invitation to throw a leg out to the side and skid the turn.
That, my friends, is playing on the bike. As is bouncing through whoop-de-dos, carving turns, bunny hopping barriers and Belgian stairs (for you young guys), riding sand, mud and even jumping on and off the bike. Those exact things we did for fun when we were young, and the things road riders are taught to avoid.
For us as ’cross racers, they are the games we can and should be playing on our bikes every time we go for a ride. Yep even during “serious” interval training. The more seriously we take ourselves, the quicker we’ll lose the joy of riding.
Keeping It Fun, Within Reason
I remember one of the first bike rides my wife and I took when we were first married. She was on her road bike. I was on my ’cross bike. I drove her crazy on that ride, spending most of the ride hopping between the sidewalk and the dirt shoulder and mounting and dismounting. More or less, from her perspective, being dangerous.
She’d never seen a ’cross race at that time so my “antics” confused her, made her nervous and almost ended our bike riding as a couple. I was just playing, but she didn’t understand, nor appreciate it and she let me know. We still ride together. I just know that it’s better for our time together if I do my “playing” when I’m by myself.
I also try to bring that same spirit, of playing on the bike, to my racing. Look at Van der Poel again. His face may belie it while he’s racing — but he’s totally focused on the job at hand — but if you take a step back and watch the way he rides, there’s a certain joy there that you simply don’t see in the other riders. He’s all in, and we know he’s suffering, but it doesn’t show.
When you look at Van Aert, his face tells a completely different story. Maybe it’s frustration, who knows. I’d be frustrated if I were him. On the other hand, maybe he just needs to find the joy in what he’s doing.
We can argue about what Van der Poel’s dominance (30 wins this season!) means for the entertainment value of men’s cyclocross, but there is no question he has shown that riding a ’cross bike can be a blast. We cannot ride like Van der Poel, but I think there is something to be learned from the joy he derives from riding his bike.
My advice is this, if you’re out riding, remind yourself, no matter how old you are, bikes are toys. What do we do with toys? We play with them!
I’m going out to play on my bike now. No time like now to remember it’s all about having fun.
Lee Waldman lives and races in Colorado and is a regular contributor to Cyclocross Magazine. You can read his past columns in our archive.