Thursday, March 4, 2010

My first bike race

In anticipation of the impending bike racing season, I figured I would share my story about my first ever bike race.

There is nothing pleasant about this moment. That infernal beeping noise wrenches me from my peaceful slumber. I can hear my three buddies unleashing various muffled curses as we struggle to gain full consciousness.
“I do not think it is natural for anybody to be up this early,” I say, half jokingly, half seriously. This draws a few snickers from the guys, who are still mostly preoccupied with their own internal battles, wrestling with the question of “why the hell do I have to get up at this ungodly hour?” It is still pitch black outside.
With a Herculean effort, I finally muster the strength to get spring into action. This is a big day, after all. It is my initiation day; my first bike race. I will be thrown right into it, with no clue what I am doing; baptized by fire.
As we exit the hotel, it becomes clear that “baptism by fire” is perhaps not the best expression to describe this situation. Scandinavian mythology describes hell as an oppressively cold place (as opposed to the more familiar ‘hot as hell’ sentiments we are used to hearing). Wheeling my bike to the car, I attempt to come to terms with what I am seeing. There is snow everywhere: on the ground, yes, but on the roads as well, and still falling from the sky. It is freezing cold, and an angry wind bites at my face. In short, Pittsburg, PA has been transformed into a scene from Norwegian hell.
The questions that had been circulating in my head begin to get louder, but one screams over all the others: “how the hell am I supposed to race my bike in the snow?” “Are we even going to have this race today?” Previously I had been apprehensive about the prospect of the competition, and learning an unfamiliar discipline on the fly. Now, I find myself even more terrified of the possibility of a crash on these treacherous roads. My teammates reassure me that “they will not have us race if it is unsafe,” quelling my anxieties (sort of).
Upon our arrival at the race site, we hear that the races have been delayed for a few hours, in hopes that the snow will melt. There might be no snow, but the roads still will be slick. This minor delay just gives me some more time to chew on my nervousness.
How did I get here? I had been a competitive runner for over five years, and had even run at the collegiate level for several seasons. I had experienced small degrees of success and improvement, but these were often few and far between, punctuated by frustrating injuries that inhibited the consistent training indispensible for true development. I had decided to dabble in bike racing as an outlet for my energies and my love for endurance sports. I had often turned to the bike for cross-training when rehabilitating running injuries, but I had never raced on the bike. Yet, here I am now, watching the snow melt, waiting to represent the University of Rochester Cycling Team in the men’s D race (for beginners).
I get a hold of myself as I begin warming up for my race. I pack on layer after layer of clothing, and I struggle mightily to pin my race numbers on my jacket (which will cause significant overheating later, not to mention the fact that it is probably the least aerodynamic garment ever designed). I grab my beautiful white bike (which will soon be covered in road spray and grime), and head toward the start line. I get some last-minute advice from my teammates: “Stay near the front, but not at the front.”
As the race starts, all of the advice goes out of the window. I immediately drop to the back of the pack (like an idiot). In a running race (what I was used to), it is best to start out at a controlled pace, and work your way up as the race goes along. I immediately learn cycling lesson number one: you have to go hard at the beginning, or you will be left behind.
As I struggle at the back of the pack, the course takes a right turn, and immediately shoots up a fantastically steep hill. Those in front take off, and, sure enough, I am left behind. I probably should have listened. Now I must enter damage-control mode. First step: get to the top of this hill. This is not exactly an easy task, due to the fact that I have no understanding of the gearing on my bike, and I am stuck in a gigantic gear. I grind my way upwards at a comically low cadence, barely staying upright on my bike, resembling some sort of Loony Toons character. Perhaps lesson one of cycling should be “understand how your bike works.” This sounds like a necessary pre-requisite to racing.
I ride the rest of the race alone. I am absolutely sure that I am in dead last (actually, I finished about mid-pack). It is a truly miserable experience. A cold rain begins to fall from dark clouds, soaking me as I attempt to haul my body over the climbs while badly overheating due to the exorbitant number of layers I have on. After what feels like all day (even though in reality it only lasted slightly over one hour), I cross the finish line feeling wet, tired, and shell-shocked.
I spend the next several hours waiting for my teammates to race in their respective races. I huddle in the car for warmth, my exercise-induced body heat having worn off. It may be the coldest I have ever been. Three layers of shirts, a sweatshirt, a winter coat, and a warm hat do nothing to quell the chattering of my teeth. This is not the sort of glamorous introduction to the sport of bike racing that I might have hoped for.
However, as I sit here, I am not thinking negatively. Perhaps it is due to my running background. I am used to taking on challenges, and pushing my body to extremes. Accomplishing goals and making improvements makes it all worth it in the end. As I reflect on the mistakes I made during the race, it builds up a great sensation inside of me. It is not one of embarrassment or anger, and I do not dwell on the failure. Rather, one question begins to permeate my consciousness: when is the next race? I am going to be a lot better next time out. I think this is the start of something great.

Stories

Here is the story I promised you that I wrote about my buddy Michael and his musical endeavors. Enjoy...

Raucous background music emanates from the overhead speakers and permeates the airwaves as I navigate my way through the sea of people, hoping to find a spot near the stage. It is not exactly elevator music, but it certainly sets the mood. Other spectators meander here and there, most of them wearing black t-shirts graced with the name of their favorite band, and many of them sporting interesting tattoos or piercings; the unofficial uniform of the “alternative” crowd.
I settle in as the band takes the stage, launching into an aggressive, driven breakdown, setting the crowd of onlookers into whirlwind of motion. Some jump, some flail their fists, some push and shove; others nod their head. Feeding on this energy, the band’s vocalist enters from stage left, letting out a loud scream that excites the crowd even more. As the song continues, the singer alternates between piercing screams and melodic tones, a fascinating duality that keeps the listener guessing. As the band members drive on, banging their heads, and as the mosh pit grows, my eyes remain focused on the band’s bassist, a powerfully-built, light-skinned black guy. His name is Michael Harold. He is 19 years old, and from Webster, NY. Seeing him in the context is very strange for me.
“A couple of years ago he was just the quiet kid who wore shorts to school every single day,” says long-time friend Ryan Simpson, 21, also of Webster.
“Mike is really in a metal band? Wow, I would not have expected that,” says Trevor Miller, 22, a fellow Webster resident.
I will admit that when news first reached me of Michael’s participation in a metal band, I was surprised as well. Having run with him for two years of high school on the cross country and track teams, I got to know him quite well. Michael is one of the most easy-going, polite, gentle, and relaxed individuals I have ever met. As a result, it is almost ironic to see him drawn to a genre of music stereotypically associated with anger, hate, and violence.
He is quick to disassociate himself and his band from such negativity. He considers his band, called 31Goings, to be “driven by passion rather than anger.” He acknowledges that many individuals who are drawn to metal music have suffered pain in the past and use the music as an emotional outlet. “There are a lot of bands that sing about violence and bring in violent crowds. I’m not into the throwing and punching the air that triggers a social stigma against the genre, but I'm not against it. I have mixed emotions on it, but I also feel like it would be arrogant to have people moving to my music and then stand still on stage as though I am better than them in some way.”
Anger is not the driving force behind the sound of 31Goings. To risk sounding completely cliché, they do it for the love of music. As Michael puts it, “we are all classically trained and motivated by music for the sake of music and I think that gives us what is, in my opinion, a more original sound.”
How does one go from playing classical music to playing metal music? For Michael, it was a gradual process. He admits that “previously I was guilty of all the stereotyping that metal and screamo is stupid music being an orchestra member (a cellist).” However, after being introduced to his now-favorite musical genre, he gained an appreciation for the technical nature that characterizes many metal songs. He also enjoys the greater demands of playing with 31Goings over playing with an orchestra. As he puts it, “we are responsible to write the music, book and promote the shows, and then perform the music with constant motion and aggressive stage presence all the while not missing notes. Not to put anyone down, but I enjoy this challenge more than sitting among 50 people, sitting still, playing music that someone else wrote.” Although he does not play classical music too often anymore, he does gain inspiration from classical songs, and his classical training has better prepared him to tackle the complicated riffs demanded by the high-octane attack 31Goings delivers in every song.
As for the apparent mismatch between his personality and his favorite music, he does admit that it might surprise some people. However, he enjoys the incredible energy of the music he plays and listens to. Using a running metaphor to explain it to me, (a fellow runner), he likens it to the energy released during the final kick at the end of race. There is power in the music that has the ability to inspire, although some simply write it off as music for delinquents and social deviants. I assure you, Michael Harold, and most of those who listen to his band and other bands like it are far from these.
As I stand watching Michael rock out on the stage with his buddies, his fingers dancing across the strings, banging his head in unison with the other band members, I can not help but smile. He is not just some angry kid who wants to be in a band to express his inner anguish; he is simply a passionate, driven young man, inspired to create intricate, technical music, and share it with the world. The crowd moves, a churning sea of energy; the band drives on. I just watch my buddy. I am proud of him.

P.S.- The website for 31Goings is http://www.myspace.com/31Goings
Even if you do not like their style of music, please support them... they are chasing their dreams just like I am.

P.P.S- Mom and Dad: You will not like the music. :)