December 16, 2010

The Cross

There was a knock on the bedroom door that woke me from an adolescent’s deep sleep. “Time to get up,” my mother said, as she placed a cup of tea and biscuits on the bedside table. The room remained dark after I rolled up the blind. It was still pitch black outside.  The click of the light switch blinded me and I plunged my head back into the pillow to allow my eyes more time to adjust.  At the end of the bed there was a duffle bag, still open but full with my racing kit. Studded cyclocross shoes sat beside the duffle. Polished and clean, they were ready for the race.

After a few sips of tea and a biscuit I pulled on my jeans and sweater. From my room, I could hear the clink of the plates and chatter of voices as my mother prepared breakfast. With cup and saucer in hand I made my way downstairs. Chris, my good friend, was in the kitchen chatting. Dressed in his cycling gear, his cheeks flush from the cold air and the ride across the city, he sipped on tea as my mother spooned out the porridge. My father came down. Still somewhat asleep, we ate quietly. Finished with breakfast, the frozen air bit my skin as I stepped outside to load up the van. Two other club mates, Mike and Joe, arrived sweaty and out of breath from racing to make it to the house by 6:45 a.m.

We piled the bikes along with stakes, arrows and tape to mark the course into the back of the van while my father scraped the frost from its windows. Ready to go, the engine started and the music was playing. The weight of the race could be felt behind the frosted windows. It was the same nervous atmosphere I still sense on the lavish team buses that now drive me to the ProTour races.  The goal, the assured suffering, the finish line, the odds for and against;  all create a tension which we share but rarely speak about.

Under the rising sun, we neared the expressway and the conversation picked up over Creedence Clearwater Revival blasting from the stereo.

As we pulled into the conservation area where the race would be held there was one other car waiting.  Seeing our van, Jim shut off his engine and with Lisa, his wife, began unloading the car. Wearing rain jackets and boots we began marking a course through the woods and across the fields. We came alive with the day. We conversed, joked and laughed as the circuit took shape. We marked out challenges that we would have to face. During the upcoming hour of racing, we would switch from being friends to rivals.

Cyclocross in Ontario during the ‘80s and ‘90s was a fringe sport. In the 1960s my father, who raced the cross in England, organized the first North American events. The community remained tight and small for several decades. Few had specific cross bikes. Most people rode in sneakers and used converted road bikes for the autumn events. The races lacked the competitive, elitist edge that pervaded the road scene. The cross community transcended the competitive. In the 90’s, when elitism drove a wedge between mountain bikers and road cyclists, cyclocross remained the event where we reunited.

The picture on the left is of my friend Chris Mathias (in the blue and white) followed by Jim Sciberas. Pic on the right is of Chris Mathias, Brian Pedersen (National CX Champion) and Gary Timmons (in red). Brian’s Dad Jorn is wearing the black hat.

The faces on the start line were familiar. We all knew our strengths and weaknesses. The “runners” would love the muddy unrideable bits and the steep hills while the “riders” would excel across the frozen farm fields. We each knew where we would push hard to hold on and where we might be able strike the blow to open a gap. Everyone, regardless of their ability, had rivals. The veterans and neophytes raced each other at the back of the group while the near-professionals, who might even race the European events we had only read about, sailed away and lapped everyone.

Groups of bundled-up parents and friends walked the course. Their cheers of encouragement created clouds of vapor in the cold air. The frigid air seared our lungs with the intense effort. It lasted an hour, thank god, and not a minute longer. We finished soaked with sweat. Our toes were frozen from the icy water crossings and the sticky, deep mud.

As others finished we cheered them on and then entered the warmth of the van to clean up and change. Riders mingled around the parking lot like a congregation after Sunday mass. The course tear down was easy as half of the peloton helped out. As we walked the course, taking down the arrows and rolling up the tape, we discussed where we might meet for lunch on the way back to the city. Someone always knew a good spot where we could warm up, eat and lengthen the race day by another hour or two.

As the sun set, we dozed in and out as my father drove. The tension of the race had been replaced by the elation of the endorphin surge every cyclist knows. We were content. The cassette tape spun in the deck, the music was loud, and all seemed right.