Thetford Mines, June 2015. Canadian Masters, 40–49 category. The racers are going hard and fast. Any breakaway attempt is quickly stifled. I’m hurting. An attempt at a ravito sabotaged by another racer just cost me a useless effort and, in front, the heavyweights keep relaying each other to maintain a pace that will soon achieve its goal of wearing out the weaker racers and those who do not take cover enough in the back. The peloton is a long, thin, ribbon. And the ones in the back are suffering. A lot.
Luckily, we are in a better position than those poor souls: three team members are in the same age category. I’m the designated runner. The one the team has ut in charge, or at least their hope, of winning the race. The course is a hellish winter-and-neglect pock-marked asphalt road. And then, there is this descent that reacquaints you with your death impulse just a few clicks before the finish line. Four sinister curves that the peloton struggles to hurtle down in the front, while in the rear it’s all about speed management. Plus, in the front, there’s much less risk of falling victim of a crash.
Charles and Mario pass on their observations to me. They are cunning and know much better than I do the subtleties of this type of race, and even more so the powers that be today. They know how to read the race. I’m still learning. I’m not illiterate, but I’m still far from being an erudite.
Lucky for me, the further we get into the race, the better I feel. A race, however, is not just about sensations.
“Watch that one out, Charles tells me, he’s likely to try to breakaway over that long bump. Stay close to him in order to follow in case he decides to go. After that, towards the finish, you can jump ahead a good number of people in the short slope and hold on until the finish line.”
I answer with a grunt that Charles knows is full of victory’s fatal enemy: doubt.
“And why don’t you start but stopping to think it can’t be done.”
A race is like a burn.
The burn of failure, the burn of the breakaway that doesn’t work, the burn of a sprint where hours and weeks of preparation become nothing but a tunnel vision of the line ahead of you, the sound of your own breathing becoming one with that of the tires on the asphalt and the hum of the carbon wheels.
That moment when something inside breaks just as somebody races to victory. Those few centimetres of road turn into kilometres of doubt and questions that keep us awake that night: What could I have done differently to win? Did I really give everything I had?
A race is a hunt that fails. The racers we let get away. The error in judgment that made you miss that opportunity. There are a thousand ways to lose, but only one to win.
It’s a learning curve that gets easier once you’ve learned to deal with that burn as a connoisseur, knowing full well that the variety of a defeat’s bitter flavours is best appreciated slowly, with a stiff upper lip, precisely because it is the promise of so much learning.
To me, being open to this type of learning through competition comes with age. I was a late-comer to racing, in my thirties. I had a good life, nothing to prove, but spurred on by this desire to win, as in everything I undertake. I understood a long time ago that all success is built on a complex underground architecture of failures and hard work. Talent is never enough. Therefore, I chose patience. But, above all, everything the team had to bring to me.
That team gave me all that I was missing. The most important of which was the culture: reading the race and how to react in all circumstances. It offered me support and a desire to sacrifice myself for the others, with just enough camaraderie that egos merge into a common will instead of an amalgamation of individual wills.
That day, it felt like someone had unshackled my brain. The toxic voice inside that kept saying “Those guys are better, you can’t beat them” had been put to rest.
The peloton stayed united until the very end.
Then, in the last curves of the descent, I dove. Then, at the tope of the slope, a few hundred metres from the finish line, I was in 12th position. All that was left were three intersections and 500 metres of flat ground. In the last curve, I attacked and gained five positions. Except I didn’t see the two guys that passed everyone from the left. The guy I was following jumped in their tracks and I did the same. Five seconds of pure intensity, of energy spent with all my might. But it was not despair. It was exactly the opposite.
In the end, I was disappointed to have failed. I’d finished fourth. At the foot of the podium. I spent two sleepless nights reliving the end of the race, jumping in their tracks earlier, starting to sprint just a 100 meters sooner. The next races would demonstrate to me that I had indeed learned something. I was getting closer to victory. Thanks to my team.
A text by David Desjardins. ed