Lee Waldman considers how to take his 'cross skills off the bike © Annette Hayden, MountainMoon

This week, Masters racer and Cyclocross Magazine columnist Lee Waldman takes some time to take off the helmet and put on the philosopher’s hat – but not for long. If you missed it, be sure to check out Lee’s previous column on Masters Worlds.

First the disclaimer:  This column includes a fair amount of philosophizing.  So you have my permission (as if you need it) to move on now …

Still here? Then let me begin with some reflections on my year in my real job as a middle school teacher. I work in a low-performing middle school in one of the western suburbs of Denver. As a matter-of-fact, we are the lowest performing middle school in our district. In spite of how hard it can be, I love it there! I’ve always told myself that the most challenged kids need the most dedicated and the best teachers. And I like to think of myself as one of them – a logical extension of the lessons I’ve learned as a ’cross racer. But I digress.

After working  in a number of low-performing schools, it seems that there are two unfortunate issues present in most of them – anger and intolerance. It worries me to see what life has done to these kids at such a young age. They bully each other, they are disrespectful  to their peers, to their teachers, to the administrators and to the institution that I respect so much, the school.

For the past 15 years I’ve been privileged to know a gentleman named Jack Adler. Jack is an Auschwitz survivor. He’s spoken at every school where I’ve taught. His story, like the stories of all survivors, is simultaneously gut-wrenching and inspiring. It touches my heart and luckily it touches the hearts of all of my students. He speaks about The Holocaust, yes, but his message runs so much deeper. Hate, intolerance, and ignorance – such a caustic mix – leads to death, despair and destruction of lives and cultures. Jack leaves his audiences with one very clear message: It must NEVER happen again, and we are the vehicle to make sure that it doesn’t.

So, you’re wondering what IS the connection between my rant and cyclocross racing? I was thinking about Jack today as I rode out to my ’cross practice course. Sport in general, and cyclocross specifically, levels the playing field. Respect and tolerance are the watchwords. After all, anyone courageous enough to race cyclocross deserves respect. Our sport taxes mind and body in ways that many other sports don’t. I don’t want to ever equate a cyclocross race with surviving the horror of Auschwitz, but I do want to make the connection between Jack Adler’s message of “do unto others” with the spirit of competition that hopefully we all hold dear as athletes.

I’ve all but given up racing on the road. I may do one or two over the course of the summer just to remind myself of what it feels like to go fast in a group, to listen to the whir of the cassettes as we roll into a corner, to struggle to stay on the wheel in front of me or to close the gap before it gets too wide.  For the most part though, my racing now is in the dirt – short track and endurance mountain bike races and then, of course, cyclocross.

What’s brought me there besides the fact that my body can’t do an entire road season and then be competitive in cyclocross is exactly what Jack Adler talked with my kids about. Respect for my fellow athlete, tolerance of the different ability levels and above all, the absence of intolerance in the off-road community.

Racing a bicycle, like all competitive sport, is about winning. We all understand – no, we all thrive – on the desire to cross the line first. But for the most part, we do it fairly and honestly. In the true spirit of competition we also support and respect each other as athletes. There is no bullying in cyclocross. There is pushing and shoving.  There is  fighting for the hole shot. We are racing after all! There’s the rare occasion when you step on another rider, or on that rider’s bike if you just can’t help it. But it’s not intentional, it’s a logical result of how physically demanding cyclocross is. I’ve even been known to grab a rider’s wheel and move him out of the way if I’m traversing a barrier section faster than he is. But it’s done in the spirit of competition, not cruelty, not indifference and certainly not disrespect. And there’s also the apology afterward.

There’s true caring in the ’cross community. I remember a race at the Boulder Reservoir two years ago where I dumped it – hard – in a corner. As I was scrambling to pick up the pieces and find everything that was scattered over about 20 square yards, each rider who passed asked if I was okay. That happens a lot in ’cross and in mountain bike racing. Does it happen in the rest of our world? Not often.

We’ve all heard the stories on the news of people walking away from a fellow human being who is clearly in distress. We may have done something similar at some point for some reason that, at the time, made sense. But, if we can use the lessons we learn on the ’cross course, of respect and tolerance, maybe they can begin to transform how we, and our fellow human beings, make it through life.

Okay, enough philosophizing. Go ride your bikes.