Lee is starting the season strong in the Masters field. Photo courtesy of Lee Waldman

Life and bike racing: the philosophies are ultimately the same. Photo courtesy of Lee Waldman

Last week, Masters racer and Cyclocross Magazine columnist Lee Waldman philosophized a bit about how we are always “becoming,” as both people and bike racers. This week, he’s reflecting more on some life lessons and how they transfer into cyclocross.

by Lee Waldman

’Cross, like almost everything in life that’s worth doing, requires almost singular focus, dedication and hard, hard work. I’ve been lucky. Two men taught me the life lessons that allowed me to keep going when the barriers seem too high, the mud too thick, the run-ups too steep. Dang, it sounds like I’m writing about life here, doesn’t it? I guess I am. In so many ways, we all are painfully aware that life throws up the same obstacles that any good cyclocross race does.

First and foremost of the two men is my father: forever my teacher, my role model and my hero.  I’m honored to have been able to write that last sentence since the more I learn about life, the more I’m struck by how influential he has been. There’s a great song by Jim Croce (I think) where, in the conclusion, the father realizes, with pride, that his son has grown up just like him.  I can only hope! My dad is a WWII veteran, having walked from Normandy to the Rhine and fought in every major battle of the European campaign. Like so many other men of his age, my father defines the term “Greatest Generation.”

I could spend the next 100,000 words talking about him, but I won’t. I will say that his quiet ability to simply put one foot in front of the other, every day, without complaints, without apparent doubt, with a smile on his face — most of the time – is what I think about and  try to emulate, both on and off the bike.

The second man is my Uncle Jack. I believe he turned 90 this year and like all of us, is a little worse for the wear. But he did something for me way back when I was 16 that turned my thinking about life inside out. To use an often overused phrase, he rocked my world. You may have an Uncle Jack in your life as well. I hope that you do.

At 16, I got my first “real” job, working on a loading dock for a local plumbing supply house, J.A. McGrew Plumbing Supply.  Uncle Jack, my grandfather’s youngest brother, secured the job for me. I had no understanding yet of what it meant to be a responsible employee. But, I needed a summer job, I asked Uncle Jack for help, and he came through  And so, about a week into the job, I was taking my morning break, sitting on the loading dock, enjoying the early summer sun and eating a donut. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, really. Everyone else who worked there was on break as well, doing substantially the same thing that I was.

I look up and who should be driving down the street but, you guessed it, Uncle Jack. Naturally I was happy to see him and assuming that he’d be happy to see me as well, I waved. He pulled over. I got up. Fully expecting to have a pleasant conversation, I waited for him to cross the street. But, no! For the next 10 minutes, Uncle Jack read me the riot act. He lectured me up one side and down the other. How could I dare, he told me, represent our family by displaying such a lackadaisical attitude towards work. I’m sure my jaw dropped. No matter how hard I tried to explain the situation, he was having none of it. After thoroughly devastating me, he got into his truck and drove off. I was stunned. I had no idea that I was doing anything wrong! Apparently, in his opinion, I was.

But what I did learn from that less-than-comfortable conversation was … there is no room in life for mediocrity. At least, in my family, you proved yourself by working longer and harder than everyone else. No ifs, ands or buts. I was embarrassed. I promised myself that I would never let myself be put in the position again where someone looked at me as a slacker.

Great story, you’re thinking, but what does it have to do with ’cross? Simple, really. There are the select few riders out there who picked the right set of parents. You know the ones I’m talking about. They are the ones who seem to always be “on.” No matter how they train, or don’t train, when crunch time comes in the races, they’re the ones with the big engine and the technical skills to simply ride away from us mortals, leaving us shaking our heads wondering what else we can do to get on terms with them.

I count myself in as a proud member of that portion of the ’cross community who has to toil at the sport in order to feel competent. We are the ones who read the articles on training, save our money to pay for coaching, wake up religiously every day, look at the day’s training and get to it. We’ve found a way to discipline ourselves to the point where we can almost willingly accept the physical and the mental discomfort that accompanies cyclocross. We are not the ones to whom success comes naturally. We have to work at it. And why? Why do we work?

Because  somewhere in our past each one of us has a father who had to overcome tremendous odds just to be here with us. We have an Uncle Jack who made sure that we understood the difference between working hard and hardly working. We may curse them at times because of the legacy of guilt that comes with not meeting their expectations. Guilt that sticks with us even when they’re no longer in our presence. But we thank them as well, because without them as soon as the mud got thick, the snow deep the temperatures below 30, we’d probably take up bowling.

My friend Billy reminds regularly that to be good at ’cross, you have to be a warrior. And I believe him. But what does it mean?  Aggression is part of it, without a doubt. Focus also is part of the mix. Dedication, for sure. Courage, fearlessness, the ability to handle discomfort. There’s also that portion of being a warrior that is simply composed of what I learned from my father and my Uncle Jack. In simplest terms, just getting to it and never, ever accepting less than your best.

Enough for now,

Say a mental thanks to the person who taught you those lessons and,

Go ride.