My first and last bike race started with a clatter and ended with a whimper. I was fourteen and had entered the Illinois state road championships months before. This would be my first outing on my coveted and crinkled US Cycling Federation category-four license.
The race would mark my ascent to cycling greatness. Soon I would be among cycling legends: Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, American Greg Lemond, who had just won his second Tour de France by eight seconds that day.
In preparation for the euro racing circuit, I dressed like top pros for my premiere race, wearing my PDM jersey (then the most powerful cycling team in the world) and a “hairnet,” a leather and soft-foam head covering that offers about as much protection as its food-service namesake.
My older brother, who also had an interest in cycling, drove me to the event in his beat up 83’ Toyota Celica. My race started at 8:30 in Bloomington, a Podunk town two and a half hour drive from our place in the south suburbs of Chicago. We arrived around 8:25.My first race seemed to be going pretty bad before it even started. My brother parked, I tore my bike off the roof-rack, got dressed in my red, blue and green jersey, strapped on my hairnet, and sprinted through the already dank July air to the start-line. I arrived at the line right before the gun, my lungs convulsing and my gangly body hemorrhaging sweat.
There were about fifteen other kids, all of whom looked like miniature versions of the racers who just completed the Tour de France. They all had tricked-out bicycles—the ones I lusted after, but couldn’t afford because my equipment budget was financed by a seven-dollar-a-week allowance. They all had jerseys with teams I had never heard of. I took this to mean they were on the those teams, not just fans.
This was not the beginning I envisioned in the weeks leading up to the race. I envisioned racing a good, hard race. There would be a sprint a the end. I might win, but I might get second or third. I would definitely reach the podium. After the race, I’d probably meet a cute girl who saw me during the race. We would start a romance, seeing each other at races, going on training rides, maybe one day we would get married. Greg Lemond would probably be my best man.
Instead of that narrative playing out, an official came up to me notifying me that I couldn’t wear a jersey of a team I didn’t belong to. I suggested that nobody would mistake me as a team member of the world’s most dominant cycling team, but he was adamant. He also said I needed a real helmet. If I couldn’t get those things, I couldn’t race. They delayed the start five minutes so I could get my shit together.
I bolted to my brother’s car to get his helmet and then, having no better idea, turned my jersey inside out so no one could see the PDM team graphics. I returned with an oversized helmet on my head, an inside-out jersey on my back, more out of breath than before, glazed with sweat.
Crack! And we were off.
I kept up with the main group for about a hundred feet. I then began my steady retreat backwards. Within a minute or so, all the other riders were out of site.
Only twelve miles to go.
I struggled to go slow. Since ours was one of the first races of the day, few people were lined on the roadside. I was alone, sipping in what bits of air my heaving chest permitted. I was simultaneously overheated on the inside and chilled from the air against my sweaty skin. My mouth was parched from dehydration, but I hadn’t packed a water bottle, figuring the race was so short.
I was lapped twice by the main group before dropping out.
After the race, I sat relieved in the sun. I feigned glory and talked shop with a bunch of spectators. I watched the other races go by. I found satisfaction in the pretense of being a racer.
I made subconsciously made a few decisions that day:
- Don’t do things you can’t win.
- Never look or seem unprepared.
- Watching people do things is a sufficient substitute for being a watched person.
I had expectations—the glory, the trophy, the girl—all of which were unrealized. The consequent decisions were ways to ensure I would never be so let down.
These are sensible decisions to make based on the interpretations of a scared, humiliated fourteen-year-old. But there were a host of other possible interpretations. For example, it was my first bike race and my unpreparedness and naivete were to be expected. I had never entered a race before. How could I have known what to expect? This was not the interpretation I chose.
I never entered another race. My interpretation informed my decisions long after I pulled out of that race. I started bike touring, a competition-free form of cycling. I ended up working in a bike shop rather than continuing to race. Outside of cycling, I only went to turnabout dances where girls asked out the guy, too scared to be rejected. Later in life, most of the women I ended up with were ones I knew were into me. Most of the jobs I took were ones I knew I would get.
On the outside I looked like an adult, but on the inside my decisions were being made by an anaerobic fourteen-year-old. Much of my life has been focused on not losing and being comfortable rather than winning and doing what I wanted.
I know I’m not alone. Many of us do the same thing. Something happens like showing up unprepared to a bike race. It doesn’t mean anything. In this case, it just meant that I was unprepared. We interpret the situation. We give it meaning. I didn’t come unprepared (what happened), I was unprepared (what it meant). I didn’t fail to win the race (what happened), I was a failure (what it meant). We conflate what happened and the interpretation, and the interpretation becomes what happened. These interpretations become truth, and since truth is what is real, reality becomes one big interpretation.
If you think you’re different, take someplace you lack freedom—you can’t talk to men or women, you can’t make money, you can’t complete a project/piece of art, whatever. Look through your history. I guarantee you something happened where you made a disempowering interpretation. This interpretation may have been imposed upon you. You may have had a parent who said something was impossible or been influenced by a TV show or some other outside force. It doesn’t matter.
Sometimes what happened seems positive. Perhaps on that race-day the winner was pretty stoked to beat me. He may have created the interpretation, “I am a winner.” From then on he lost the ability to be anything but a winner. Number two would never do again.
Everything becomes limited when framed by interpretations, whether that interpretation concerns our own behavior or someone else’s. We stop observing and responding and start judging and isolating.
This is why affirmations don’t work. We go from one interpretation like, “Nobody likes me,” to another “People like me.” Why should our behavior be governed by whether people like us or not? Liked and un-liked are both interpretations. What if we could be ourselves regardless of whether people liked us or not?
I’ve poured a lot of energy disentangling interpretations from what happened. At a certain point, I wanted my fourteenth year to be over. It was bad enough when it happened. It’s nice knowing I can ask out the chick who wasn’t desperate for my attention. I can enter the race without knowing whether I’ll win or not. And if she said yes or no, whether I won or dropped out of the race, it doesn’t mean anything. In this state, life is like dancing—fun, rhythmic, without reason.