Through the firing line

*WORDS:* “Collyn Ahart”:  

In road racing, they say the finish line is everything. Every race is won or lost on the finish line, where a matter of inches throws a girl into the depths of depression, soul searching and swearing off every future agony. For most people, and at most races, the finish line is where a race is lost. In those last few hundred meters of excruciating pain, every pedal stroke is matched by the girl next to you, every inch and every heartbeat replicated a thousand times across the line. This is the best and worst place on earth to be, and it shreds your soul.

15 months ago, I was told I wouldn’t be fast enough… but there were possibly a few old men I could ride with. For the time, I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the women. The truth twists the knife. Only a few months on the raw side of a divorce, living 10,000 miles from my family, post-marital-failure friends scattered to the wind… and here I was being told the truth: no matter how many miles I’d ridden, no matter how far I’d come, road racing wasn’t for me. My cheeks burned and that all too-familiar lump rose in my throat as I read the words. You’re not fast enough.

It’s at these moments when the voices of all the women in your life start to ring in your ears. Every condescension, every love, every laugh, every criticism, every praise… their firing squad echoes down the halls of self-doubt. It’s also at these moments when you have to find a riding partner; because when you’re on a bike, hers is the voice that drowns out the rest.

Just ride. That’s what matters now. The speed will come.

The speed will come.

In February 2010, Sarah and I set out on our first sportive, a cold 45-mile, hilly, windy, rainy, and otherwise appropriate way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. By the 35-mile mark, my calves had frozen, numb to each attempt at revitalization and every minor ripple in the road sent needles through my feet. With each ascent, my legs locked up and my lungs refused to play ball. By the time we reached Whitedown, the final hill a dark beacon on the horizon, there was nothing more I could ask of my legs and the voices pounded through. You’re not strong enough.

And so I walked.

Another thing they tell you is there’s an incredibly sharp learning curve when you start cycling. Now, I’ve been on a bike as long as I’ve been able to stand up straight, but that was more luck of birthright (my dad’s a mechanic) than determination. And I can still feel, quite viscerally, those first pedal strokes on my pink banana seat bike with iridescent handlebar tassels and clackity-clack spoke reflectors when the training wheels came off, my dad let go of the seat and I was off! Only two wheels! Well, it’s the same feeling when you look back and realize, after 150 miles of full-gas pedaling, you’re pulling a long line of 20-something men up a hill and you still have the lungs to talk and the legs to accelerate. I’d been cycling my whole life, but it took me just six months to become a cyclist.

By July I’d found my legs, and by the following Christmas, the speed came too.

Now, what they don’t tell you about road racing is there is no finish line. A few races in, and of all the breaks, the skin-tingling descents and sprinting across the gap, there’s not a single finish line that doesn’t disappear as soon as it’s been crossed.

I wish I could find some big metaphor to describe how I got into road racing. I know I’m still not fast enough and I might never be. There’s nothing particularly grand or incredible about coming 8th in a circuit race of 25 women. But what I do know is when the finish line disappears, the firing squad falls silent too.