Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Gravity Nationals, Broken Bicycles and Ted The Magical Unicorn.

The USAC Gravity National Championships in Angel Fire, NM were a big deal. Not because I won (I didn't), or because everything was perfect (it wasn't) or even because the entire event, getting there and racing went off without a hitch (far from it). It was a big deal because I met myself again through the eyes of a few very special people and was reminded of who I am, why I ride my bike and what the hell I'm doing racing all over the world chasing a career of riding bikes.

I suppose I should start from the chaos with the rental car company that nearly kept me from going to Nationals at all, but I really don't care to rehash it in detail. Basically, race preparations and changes in schedule kept me from picking the rental car up on time and Hertz decided they wouldn't honor the dates or pricing I had reserved, so I was left without a very-necessary rental car the morning I needed to begin the drive from Salt Lake City to Angel Fire, NM (My '87 Saab, Greta, broke down a couple of weeks ago and has been a pain in the arse to repair; more on that later - okay, probably not).

I was crushed and, of course, tears ensued. However, I was determined to get to New Mexico whether by thumb or hitch-riding, so I ran home and jumped online to check out flights into Albuquerque. Holy shit! I'm definitely not a millionaire, so buying a ticket was out. However, having just enough Delta frequent flier miles leftover and a couple of friends (read: near-strangers) flying into town on Wednesday, I was able to snag a flight (and a ride) to race in Angel Fire. One problem down, two billion to go!

**Actually, the rental car wasn't the start of the chaos -- I lied. Lola was. The weekend before nationals, I decided to go race in Pomerelle to gain my confidence back (which I did, thanks to my Go-Ride teammates Mike G and Noah) and happened to explode my headset and destroy my derailleur, amongst other injuries to my beloved Lola. So. Monday and Tuesday were spent packing and rebuilding the broken pieces of my lovely girl, only to have hell rain down on Tuesday morning. However, it all worked out... Ish.**

So. Back to the flight. Lola, finally fixed by my hero/mechanic Krispy at Go-Ride? Check. Flight into ABQ? Check. Ride to Angel Fire with the two most interesting (if not comical) men in America? Check, check and check. Perfect. After selling some personal affects, a piece of my liver and the rights to my soul, I had some pocket change, a working race rig, a flight and a ride. I was GOING!!!

Cue Wednesday morning: me, frantically trying to smash 500 lbs. of race/camping/rain/life gear into a 10 lb. bag and get to the airport before 8:30. BV, just trying to get my into the damn car. The guy at the airport, racking up fees because GUESS WHAT?!?! My bag was over the limit by 9 lbs. With Delta, 9 lbs. over equals $90 in overweight charges that they'll slap on your card without even giving you the chance to move some stuff around. So... A special item charge + overweight charges + baggage handling fees all equalled out to a lovely number of $325. Yeah. Whoops. Not awesome! But the bags got checked, my bike was on its way, and I finally managed to get en route to the race.

What else is this post supposed to be about?? Oh, yeah. A race. I think there was a race in there somewhere...

Flash forward to Thursday morning following dinner, Lola's rebuild, getting the best nights' sleep I would get all weekend and awaking to the MadKats crew (Jarad, Jordan, Brian and Isaac), fresh off of a straight 26-hour drive from the East Coast. Okay, maybe 'fresh' is the wrong word to use... Comatose? Nearly-dead? And I thought I had it rough!

After setting up the pit and getting semi-organized, breakfast was a welcome break. It also included the largest burrito this side of the Rio Grande. Maybe the whole world. Like Texas, everything seems bigger in New Mexico, where they take the word 'grande' seriously. If you ever decide to order the 'Grande Breakfast Burrito' from the Ridge Cafe, expect to be eating all weekend. It's THAT big. It's big enough that our lovely hostess came out to ask me how I was holding up and laughed when she saw I'd only managed to consume about a third of the ten pound behemoth. Yes. I was THAT full. However, it provided ample fuel for the insane riding that was about to happen.

USAC is a very interesting organization. Loved by few, appreciated by some and despised by many, I can't exactly say I don't see the logic in such emotions; the weekend was a poorly-organized disaster, to say the least. From number plates not being available at registration and packet pickup to race time for the pros initially being set at about 5 hours total for the weekend, it wasn't exactly a clean operation. However, they are the singular racing federation in the US, and it's nice to have someone who will take the responsibility of corralling hundreds of rowdy downhillers into a semi-composed group of athletes out of the goodness of their hearts and not in the best interest of their pocketbooks. Oh, wait. That doesn't actually happen.

But I digress.

I have to say that the Nationals course at Angel Fire this last weekend is one of my top-ten fast trails of all time. Yes, you read that right. The builders and imaginers at Angel Fire pulled off the longest, craziest, funnest trail possible that had a little bit of everything and challenged each rider individually. Thursday and Friday's practice laps contained some of the best riding I've done this summer... It was just that awesome (aside from the dust-shoveling I decided to do with my face/helmet/chest after a particularly speedy section of trail where I swallowed a bug and proceeded to cough my way into the ground and over my fork. Mud-filled teeth? YUM).

The company wasn't too shabby, either, thanks to my new friend Brian (and his insane amount of talent) as well as Jordy and Isaac. With high fives and grins emitting sunshine and stoke, it was tough to call it a day on Friday, even as dark clouds threatened to open up on us.

But open those clouds did, and the resulting storm overnight on Friday left the track in a completely different state for Saturday's qualifier/seeding. Water erosion of the newly built sections left rocky, rooty technical spots where it had been smooth sailing; fast, flowy turns became braked-out, holey nightmares that sucked in front tires and blew riders off the track. The entire weekend suddenly became a test of strength, agility, focus and stamina that would pop spokes, snap wheels and break bodies if one failed to adapt. It was insanely fun. With the speed and the length of the race course, conservative riding would only serve to exhaust me while careless hellraising ended in injuries. The best riding was a mixture of attitude, loose control, constant focus and the knowledge that at some point, the trail would end and my bike would come to a stop.

The seeding runs on Saturday proved to be a valuable asset, especially followed by a short bit of riding/hiking/previewing the course and its rapidly changing textures with Mike G and Noah. Lines appeared out of thin air and hope was restored that Sunday would bring a new sense of reason and sanity. After taking a very mellow seeding run where I overtook the gal ahead of me, I ended up with a respectable 6:51 in qualifying and a bit of confidence, despite the various injuries that popped up. Comfortable with a little bit of timing lag and a strong performance, I fell asleep after watching a lightning show (courtesy of mother nature) that outshone any gunpowder-fueled, human-imagined fireworks spectacle. Off to the land of ZZZZZZZZZ.

Disclaimer: This next part is going to sound unreasonably insane. However, it was awesome. And I loved being part of such an adventure. And, in the spirit of semi-full disclosure, I can't exactly say that it didn't affect my outcome on Sunday. So... Here goes. Hang on.

Sunday morning shone bright and lovely after another night of fairly consistent rainfall that left the dirt at the top of the course slick and undependable. After a heartbreakingly stupid mistake at the top of the trail that left me sore, disappointed and confused, I decided to limit practice to a single run and instead, meet a new friend who would, in a roundabout sort of way, lead me back to a great place.

Said awesome friend and I met online.

Yup -- you read that right. Online through an app.

"Why on earth is she trolling online?" you may be asking. Trolling isn't quite the right word for it... Okay, maybe trolling is a great word for what I do when I'm bored and icing some various broken body part or suffering through cardio at the gym. There's a rather amusing app that's a brilliant time-waster named 'Tinder'. If you haven't heard of it, you should go look it up then come back to this. If you have, you obviously need no explanation as to why I find it so hilarious and so addicting. So. That's how aforementioned friend and I met. It's kind of a long, interesting story full of truths that sound like lies, so I won't get into it, but he's awesome. And he's a magical unicorn sort of person in the sense that someone like him comes along so rarely, they may as well be extinct. Like a magical unicorn. He's on his own amazing adventure atop a motorbike (which you can find out more about here) and was in Utah for a few days visiting friends when we connected and started talking amidst my race prep chaos. However, we never had a chance to fully meet before I left Utah for the race and he was on his way back east and decided he wanted to watch some crazy folks huck themselves down a mountainside at some point, so we planned a day and time to catch up.

But I digress. Again. So Ted the magical unicorn and I made plans to get pancakes the morning of the race, mostly out of sheer dare and mutual curiosity. However, when he got in touch with me Sunday morning about meeting up, I had just totaled my LCL during a shit practice run and wasn't feeling superb about myself, my direction, meeting someone new or even being at the race. But we met. And we got coffee. And we talked. We talked for about two hours about me, about his writing, about me, about him writing a piece on me and what I'm doing and then we talked about me a little bit more. Yes, I cried while we chatted.

But more than the awful self-pitying tears or the amount of self-involvement displayed by me during our conversation, we reached one immensely clear conclusion: I need to race.

I need to ride my bike.

It's in my blood, my heart, my soul. Without biking, without that self-expression or the joy I take from it,  I wouldn't be who I'm supposed to be.

Without biking, I wouldn't have ever found parts of me I thought didn't exist. Without biking, I doubt I'd ever have learned the lessons of failure, progression, passion, strength. There just wouldn't be a full, happy Amanda.

And I rediscovered this because of Ted, who put up with a whole lot of nonsense.

And suddenly, I was okay. Not because I had someone who told me what I needed to hear, but because someone had wanted to listen to what I needed to say. I was calm, I was quiet and I was happy. Sitting here now and reflecting on the events of the weekend and the string of emotions that ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other, I can't honestly say that I had my shit under control. I didn't. I don't think anyone ever does, but especially not the people who seem like they have everything under control. I had allowed the residual stress and mental garbage pileup from my shoulder injury, a repeatedly broken bike, racing pressure, gender politics, financial stress, nationals stress and on and on and on to accumulate into something larger than my dreams and my goals and what's really important. And it finally took its toll.

I was a wreck. Even with the support of my friends around me, the friends and family back at home, everyone... I was still a complete wreck. Until the talk with the magical unicorn. And then it was time to suit up and race and, in a quiet place inside of myself, I knew I was going to be fine. Whatever the outcome, I would persevere and adapt. And I was and I did.

And then I almost died.

Okay, not really. But... It was a unique, crazy kind of sketchy that I've never experienced and I hope to never face again. During my race run, my rear wheel rim exploded in a rock garden and compromised my rear axle and hub, which left my entire rear wheel freely spinning, rubbing and rotating inside of the swingarm, my chain between the cog and the frame, and my pedals and cranks useless. I realized I had no pedaling power about halfway down the course but was too involved in the moment to understand the ramifications or to recognize the cause. I simply wanted to get to the bottom as fast as possible.

I'd make a great racer if I wasn't an idiot.

So I pumped. And I pushed and I hucked and pumped and tried a few pedal strokes and shifting and more pumping the rest of the way down the course. And when I could finally send the finish section over some roots, I realized something was loose... But I thought it was just some loose dirt, not my bike. So I railed into the G-turn, over the rollers and into the next fast berm. Too loose, but too slow. I pumped into the long table top and sent it over the last jump, landing awkwardly and feeling something wobble, but blamed it on a dropped chain, a failed drivetrain. Frustrated and out of breath, I pumped across the finish line, furiously banging away at my bike. And then, when I had gathered myself enough to stop and walk to the spectator area where the other women were sitting, I heard someone say, "Yo, your rear axle is out."

I shook my head and instantly dismissed it, but when he insisted again that it was out, I turned around. He was right. Lo and behold... Lola had broken. Her one mechanical cost me my pedal power, but I was still alive. I had somehow landed on a totally broken wheel with a compromised, unthreaded axle and a damaged hub multiple times over and lived to cross that finish line -- in fourth.

How I escaped that final sprint and the mad dash to the bottom without careening into the trees or exploding my bike, I'll never know. But over a beer with Ted, I talked about the possibilities of such a thing and began to understand the ramifications of what that would have meant for my health, my career and my future. I'll never know the cause of the failure or why that bike held together for as long as it did, but it did, and that's as much as I need to know.

I'm here, I'm home and I'm moving forwards. I can't call it anything else besides a win.

To everyone involved in my success this weekend, I thank you. I can't thank you all individually, but please know that I know who you are and that I hold you very close to my heart. From Rob and Steve to Jarad and company, you made it happen. To Ronny, who always has the right words, and Brian S, who gave up his practice time to work with me and coach my through my lines, and Mike G and Noah who, once again, gave me the confidence to just handle it, thank you. To my sponsors who believe in me and what I'm doing, Thank you... may I help you as much as you have helped me. To the women whom I raced against and who continually inspire and push me: I love you girls!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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