January 16th. My birthday. I had turned 33 years old eight hours earlier and I’m going to celebrate by winning a NORBA sanctioned mountain bike race at Manchester State Forest near Sumter, SC. Amy and I left the warm confines of our home at six am so she could watch me bang wheels with a bunch of guys that are averaging five or six years younger than me. I’ve ridden this trail several times and I know it well. My bike, a gold Kona Kula tricked out with Shimano XTR, feels so sweet this morning. I’ve got the right tires and air pressure to suit the slightly sandy terrain, my Marzocchi shock is set, my chain is freshly lubed and my body is tense. Too bad it’s 24 degrees in the sunshine. I don’t want to shed clothes during the race so I leave off the jacket even though Amy fusses. She commiserates with a girlfriend, no doubt they’re both wondering what the hell they’re doing here.
It’s time to line up for the start. This is a four plus mile loop, three times around, about 14 miles, a demanding distance for a mountain bike race in rolling hills with lots of single track. I count 35 riders, including myself and I look for my competition. Some of them look like it’s their first real race, they’re nervous and unsteady as if questioning their decision. I offer advice to a couple of these guys. Others are experienced riders that are fast and capable but don’t have the desire to win, only compete. I trade jibes and smiles with that group. That leaves about seven or eight guys like myself that are determined to win, you can see it in their eyes. I don’t smile or joke with this group, only nod or wink.
The race starts on a fire road, a gravel road wide enough for a jeep and it’s an uphill start, about 300 yards to the top then a hard left hand turn into the forest onto a path wide enough for one bike, a single track with little opportunity for passing. The course winds and loops through the forest then rushes through a field of tall grass before dropping back down, shadowing then crossing a chilly stream before heading towards the fire road, whips past the spectator area full of shivering and disgruntled wives and girlfriends then heads back up the hill. I pick a spot on the far right even though the first turn is on my left but I plan to be carrying a lot of speed so I want some room for that first corner, plus I know my competition will be piled up on the left side of the start and I want some distance from them. I’m the strongest climber here and everyone knows it.
“One minute” yells the starter. Deep breath. I look at the polyethylene straw from my Camel-Bak, basically a big water bottle that you wear like a back pack. I grab a quick gulp of water then realize I should have taken it off. At 24 degrees it won’t be long before the water in the line freezes and I’ll be left with useless weight. Too late now.
I clip my left foot to the pedal, squeeze the brakes hard, twist the handle bars a bit to the left, stand up and lean slightly forward into a track stand. The starter raises his gun and I push down hard on the pedals, squeeze harder on the brakes, glance at the turn at the top of the climb then turn my attention to the starter’s right forefinger as it wraps around the trigger. His finger flexes to pull the trigger and I’m off the brakes.
I’m already gone, pushing hard on the pedals, focused on the turn, I know I’ve taken a small lead and I’m certain I’ll have the lead at the top. Then the ground rushes up and clobbers me. I hit my head and right shoulder hard on the road then I’m joined by two other bikes and two other riders. Jake was slightly behind me, just on my left and was hit by one of the new guys and all three of us are in the gravel and his chain ring has dug into my left calf. The guy on the top gets up quickly but Jake and I both have to clip out of our pedals and right ourselves. I grab my bike and run with it then jump on the saddle and take off, get to the top, bend into the left corner and I hear Jake coming up behind me. I’m in 34th place. Damnit!
Passing the first group of 10 or so is easier than I thought. Some of them give me room when I yell “ON YOUR LEFT!” They know Jake and I are coming up fast. Two of these guys are fast but when they hit the bumps and both wheels leave the ground they whoop with delight, sit too high and yank their handlebars back and forth. Sorry, that may look cool but it’s the slow way around. Once airborne you’re fighting gravity and your wheels aren’t in contact so you’re just slowing down with style. As I catch air I force the bike back down, pushing with my whole body and I pass these two while their wheels are off the ground. I bang elbows with one of them and he yells at me to “Be Careful!” Seriously? Be careful?
I count riders as I pass and halfway through the first lap I think I’m in 15th place. I’m gripping the bars hard, the Kona talks to me, invites me to go just a bit faster. I’m breathing hard as the trail straightens out and brace myself for the creek crossing. I stand up then lean back a bit, coast across the creek so I don’t get thrown by a moss covered rock. Damn it’s cold. I pass a discarded water bottle. Climb a slight ridge line then burst out of the forest and turn hard left down the fire road towards the spectator area. I can hear cheering but don’t see the lead group but I know I’ve closed the gap. As I pass the wives, Amy shrugs her shoulders and throws her hands up as if to say “Where’ve you been?” I just shake my head, as I pass she sees the blood on my right elbow. Left turn, back up the fire road and I catch two more guys before bending into the single track.
“My effing water’s frozen up dude!” I hear one of them say as he shakes his bottle. Really? A 15 mile per hour breeze in 24 degree weather; hey pal, none of us have any water. Now I’ve caught up to the group of leaders. I count five guys and one of them yells “Malik’s here!” We’re all flying, gliding through the woods, rushing through the narrow trail. Jimmy’s in front of me and he runs wide through a left hand corner and I’m past, the next guy is a little harder but I carry a bit more speed towards the stream and this time pedal all the way across. We splash across and he yields as we climb out of the stream bed. I tuck in behind the other guys and plan to take them at the fire road. We burst into the sunshine and slide onto the fire road and spray dust and gravel onto a group of cheering spectators. I bang handlebars with one guy and he curses, neither of us yielding yet we manage not to crash. Downhill now. I tuck in, put my head down, pedaling hard and I’m slightly more aerodynamic than the other guys who are staying upright. I take the lead at the bottom of the fire road, rush towards the spectators then I see Amy smile and hold up three fingers and she’s yelling at me.
I’m in third place? Damn! I round the corner and look up the hill and see dust at the top of the hill, right where the course bends into the forest. Damnit. Third place. I look under my left armpit just before diving into the single track. I’ve got a good five seconds on the next closest guy. Hard left. I get into a rhythm and focus as far ahead as possible. The faster you go, the further ahead you look. I’m catching flashes of color ahead of me, a red jersey, a silver helmet, a glint of metal as the sunlight briefly catches a bit of polished aluminum. They hit the stream and I hear one of them yell. I’m close. Across the stream, then momentarily out into the open and there they are. I’m pushing now, harder. I’m desperately thirsty and close to cramping. The guy in second place steals a glance over his shoulder and sees me and damn if he doesn’t pick up the pace. Back into the forest and I’m maybe ten seconds back. Eyes up, feet moving, shoulders bobbing as I’m grabbed and scratched by the outstretched branches. I’m gliding and slicing through the forest, focused on the two in front of me, matching their moves but I’m not gaining. They launch onto the fire road and head for the finish and I’m just behind them, maybe five seconds off. I hit the fire road, stand up on the pedals, twist the bike for all I’m worth yet it’s not enough. I cross the line in third place. First and second place exchange high fives with me and we coast to a stop. I’m bleeding, thirsty and cold.
“Damn dude, I thought you were gonna catch us for sure, dude you were flying!”
Then I take off my helmet and he sees my grey hair. I started going grey in college so I’ve always looked older than I am.
“Shit bro! How old are you?”
I laugh, run my hand through my hair then look at the blood on my calf then examine my elbow. Amy’s gonna be mad. We high-five one another again then make our way back to our wives and girlfriends. Amy hugs and kisses me as I overhear the winner tell his girl “That old guy about mowed me down for first place.” One more lap and I damn sure would have…dude.
Today I’m slowly pedaling through my neighborhood. My left knee, damaged by a work-related accident last summer is destined for another visit from a surgeon’s scope. It swells from the slightest amount of movement such as a flight of stairs or a casual walk with Amy. Sometimes it’s so stiff I flinch when I walk and at the end of a nine-hour shift I’ll drive home with a Ziploc bag of ice in place and limp to my bottle of hydrocodone. I pray that this time the surgery provides me some relief. If not, I’ll have to take comfort in my memories of a time when younger men gave their all… just to stay five seconds ahead of me.