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Fearing Foolishness

Three years ago a friend invited me to join a cycling team. This friend is a professional pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and safety advocate, and at the time, he was a committed amateur bike racer. He wanted to create a cycling team that was less flash and testosterone and bravado and more community-minded and inclusive and fun. So, he approached me to join the team with the ever-so-flattering enticement of “we could use an old guy like you.”

While I have been on bikes nearly my whole life, I had never competed beyond racing the neighborhood kids up and down the street when I was a kid myself. I never got into bike racing as a fan, nor did I know too much about the various disciplines. But, I liked the idea of being on a team, and when he told me the names of the other team members, I knew that I would be joining a group of really good folks. And that is how at the tender age of 51, I became a bike racing rookie.

I had no problem with the non-racing aspects of team membership. Volunteering for trail maintenance and ride marshaling and community events was already in my wheelhouse. Actually racing though? That was terrifying. I had seen crashes in the training road races at a local park, and the thought of my middle-aged bones slamming onto the unyielding pavement and my skin dragging across the road with nothing but a thin layer of Lycra as protection was very scary. Road racing was out. I had some experience riding the local single track and had the scars to show for it. There was no way I was going to try racing on those trails.

A voice in my head said, “Why not race cyclocross?” Why not indeed! So I went through the list.

“You will crash and get hurt,” my brain told me.

“Speeds are generally slow in ‘cross, and when you fall, it is usually on nice soft grass,” I replied.

“You don’t have the right gear.”

“You can race all but the top-tier events on pretty much any kind of bike. Plus, who doesn’t like an excuse to buy more bikes?”

“You don’t have the skills.”

“I now have many skills that I didn’t always have. I can work at acquiring the skills needed, which is pretty fun to do.”

“You’re too old to look like a fool.”

This one got to me. How embarrassing would it be flail around the course looking like some sort of newb! I would be competing against people with 30 years experience! Everyone will know that I am a kook and a fake and have no business being there! I was really torn because I wanted so badly to join the team at the same time as being so fearful of looking like a fool.

There was one remaining cyclocross race on the Virginia Cyclocross (VACX) calendar, so I decided I would give it a try before committing to the team. The race was in a park very near my house, so I hopped on my old mountain bike and signed up for the newbie race – Men’s Cat 4/5.

Navigating the hurdles in my first race. I am number 37. Photo by John Emmanuel

At the start of the race I lined up in the last row behind all of the other racers. This is not a good way to start something that is supposed to end with finishing ahead of all of the others, but I wanted to be polite and not block all of those people whom I figured would be passing me anyway.

The race started and twenty racers set off to do five laps around a snow-covered course. I found myself passing riders on the straight section that followed the starting line and then I slid out at the first turn and many of those whom I had just passed buzzed by me as I hopped back onto my bike. Straight sections where I passed others were followed by technical sections where others passed me. This went on for thirty minutes, and at the end I found that I not only had an amazingly fun time floofing about in the snow, but I had finished before eight other racers.

I joined the team with cyclocross as my chosen discipline. I spent time practicing mounting and dismounting my bicycle, running with my bike, climbing and descending short-but-steep hills, hopping obstacles as well as the other skills needed to successfully navigate a ‘cross course. I spent time with my experienced teammates, and took their advice to heart and put it into practice. I watched professional races, read cyclocross-oriented magazines and followed cyclocross-oriented social media.

The next season, I was committed to representing myself and my team well. I entered the VACX races in the Masters category even though I had only one race to my credit. This means that I raced against other 50+ men like myself, but unlike me, these guys had been racing for years. My first race of the season I placed 8th out of 23. The next race I placed 7th out of 19. The next race 6th and then some 4ths and then by sixth race of the season I found myself with a place on the podium with a 2nd place finish. More podium finishes followed, and at the end of the season I was fourth overall in VACX Men’s 50+.

How did a rookie like me go from basically nothing to amongst the leaders? First, I overcame my fear of looking like a fool. Second, I sought out and followed expert advice. Third, I copied the actions of those who were doing well. And lastly, I put in the work.

In my cyclocross career, there are five people whom I have raced against multiple times and never beat. These are the guys that have been racing for years and have stayed very fit over the years. I may be just as fit as they are (maybe not), but I definitely do not have the expert skills that they have. There are many racers whom I have beaten who have the expert skills but have lost their former fitness. It is extremely rare for any of those fellows to beat me in a cyclocross race.

As I finish this account, it occurs to me that while this was not written as a metaphor, it certainly can be taken as one and applied to other scenarios. As I consider my other endeavors, the successful ones all had the following factors:

Overcoming fear of looking foolish.

Seeking out and following expert advice.

Relying on the experience of the team.

Copying the actions of those successful in similar endeavors.

Putting in the work.

It is not a recipe that work 100% of the time, but it sure is good one.

The last podium appearance before COVID-19 cleared my race schedule. Photo by Mark North.


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