May 10, 2012

Lucky Socks

In the hospital bed, I tried to recount the crash. Images ran like a film through my head but then suddenly cut as if moments key to putting the sequence together had been edited out. I replayed it countless times, unable to recreate the lost moment. Frustrated, I reached for some more stale cake, trying to satiate my sadness with gluttony. As I devoured the pile of cakes and croissants then slugged down water to wash it all down, my mind shifted away from the challenge. The pain throughout my body faded with the sugar and medicine.  Crumbs tumbled to the floor landing on the pile of torn, salt crusted, blood stained races clothes.  At the top of the dirty pile were crumpled race numbers. I had been wearing number 13.

Superstition creeps into every athlete’s mind as we try to control millions of variables, pressures and fears. Some turn their worries in prayer while others wear lucky bits of clothing, chain a crucifix to their necks, tattoo a saying on their arm, or perform odd rituals. Few riders speak of their superstitions. But in the hotel room, in the bus, on the start line and in the peloton they are ever present. We all try to trick our minds into believing we are not ultimately responsible for our destinies.

Perhaps I could have shifted fate had I only pinned on my unlucky number 13 upside down like so many other riders often do. Considering that, I began recounting everything I had done prior to the start. I had been determined not to believe in chance, that my destiny could not be moved by a number but by my actions. But lying in bed broken and burned, without answers or reason as to why, I suggested to myself, that perhaps I was foolish not to believe in luck.
As a boy, I had a lucky pair of florescent yellow Assos race socks. Their powers related to the fact that I had won a few races while wearing them. The lucky socks soon wore out, were replaced with new ones and I continued to win.  I no longer believed in lucky socks, or charms.  I was in control.

Then when I was 14 and at a criterium in downtown Toronto, I heard a few pros chatting about their superstitions on the start line while standing behind the barriers. A florescent clad Suburu-Montgomery rider on a pristine Merlin, said he had gone out for a spin around the block the night before at 11:00 p.m. because the mechanic had put a fresh roll of handlebar tape on his bike. To him, new tape was bad luck so he had to break it in with a ride before the race. An hour into the race, he was off the front, winning prime after prime then nearly snatching the victory from the sprinters. My faith in luck returned.

In 1996, a few months before the Olympic Games in Atlanta, a good friend gave me a four leaf clover that I carefully sealed in a tiny Ziploc bag. Then a young underdog few expected to make the team, I kept the clover in my race bag, determined it would help me get selected. With consistent performances I was on the team. And then in the Olympic Road Race, I rode beyond expectations.  A year later, the clover had degraded, losing leaf after leaf until I was left with a stem and a tiny bag of dark green dust. Despite the degradation of my lucky charm, my life continued to progress. It wasn’t the clover but my determination and faith that made the difference.

Over the years, I’ve developed superstitions and with time, experience or maturity, my charms or beliefs changed. Crashes happened with or without lucky socks and I won even when I pinned on my numbers the night before a race. Good things happened, bad things happened. But, even with a lifetime of racing experience I still try to control what I can’t comprehend or fear with the irrational.

In hospital, I continued to question why I had crashed. Of the 128 riders in the race, why was I behind the guy who lost control of his bike? On the way to the start in the team car that morning, the directeur sportif and the team coach had chatted about injuries in races, medical support, and evacuation. Cyclists rarely talk about the crashing and when they do they’ll look for some wood to touch, in the hopes that it will erase their fears. In the car, we spoke frankly and I didn’t touch any wood. A fateful error? Perhaps, the words that were spoken had subconsciously affected the outcome of my race.

As the risks increase, we look for more guidance and control. Without clairvoyance and under ever-present pressure to perform, we grasp at luck to control our futures.

But, as Pierre Trudeau, the long time Canadian Prime Minister said, “Luck—that’s when preparation and opportunity meet.” Whether we place false hope in an old piece of clothing or a rock to deceive ourselves in an attempt to comfort our swirling minds, through each of our actions we are truly in control of our destiny.