There is something incredible about seeing humans perform at the height of their ability. A quilter creating a beautiful heirloom. A painter painting a masterpiece. A mathematician solving a problem generations old. When a person pushes themselves to master a craft as best as they can, there is magic afoot. For me, the most magical of all is the athlete hitting their form, when all of their trained grace, power and mental fortitude collides into the moment of performance and they take flight. This doesn’t require one to be a national level athlete, just someone demanding of themselves to perform at their current limit. A determination you can see in their eyes.
I’ll be the first to confess that historically I haven’t been much of a road rider. It just hasn’t been a form of riding that has interested me in the past. Yes, it develops fitness for mountain biking. Yes, it develops power and endurance. And yes, I understand that these things could only help me become a faster, and consequently happier mountain biker. But that just hasn’t been enough of a reason to get me to strap on my lacy bib shorts and head out into traffic, threatened by drivers gawking at the mountains (or checking out my calves) or opening the doors of their parked cars at unfortunate times. I have had a number of friends try to convince me that I would enjoy road riding – I keep questionable company -, trying to drag me out to RMCC Rubber Mallet nights or join them on the slog up Highwood Pass, but habitually I declined. “It’s all nonsense,” I would say.
And then along came a Crit race. Damn!
Crit racing (short for Criterium), for those who don’t know, is a race among peers generally through city streets at stupidly high speeds. Weaving through town, the races consist of multiple laps on short courses, providing spectators with ample opportunity to take in all of the action; the tight peletons floating along like a flock of swallows, the panting, the sweat, the almost silent hum of wheels spinning along on asphalt. This past weekend, as part of the Canmore Bike Festival, Rundle Mountain Cycling Club hosted one of these races smack dab in downtown Canmore, and what a rush it was.
But aside from the adrenaline and the speed, there was something else to it, something I’ve written about before. You see, these races are dangerous. At any given point you can find yourself travelling above 30 km/h surrounded by any number of other cyclists. Sometimes the distances between riders is negligible, elbows and shoulders brushing against those of your neighbour, your front tire mere centimetres from the rear of the rider in front of you. In the case of a crash, your only protection is your helmet and a thin layer of spandex that would surely vaporize upon high speed contact with the tarmac, and it certainly wouldn’t do anything to protect against any other riders or their bicycles colliding with your body.
And this is where the magic comes in. The degree of focus is so pinpoint, but expansive at the same time. It isn’t enough to focus just on your breathing, or just on your pace. If a rider did drill their attention to just these things they would be trundling along the road in rag doll fashion in no time. These athletes need to focus on those aforementioned things, but also the immediate and constant change in the nuances of the experience, acting and reacting to the subtle movements around them while still maintaining their internal pressures. The number of calculations and recalculations that must occur in a race of this speed and difficulty is astounding. Focus on the race and only the race is paramount; shedding the monkey chatter of their lives outside of this moment a necessity.
That’s what I like. An immediacy of attention that nothing else matters. Nothing else can matter, the senses so fully engaged that not even the anticipation of a post race beer is present…until the beer is present of course.