Crash and Gamble by Brooke Lyman

 

In the early 1900s, when the European training routes iced over, a group of road cyclist challenged each other to stay fit by racing to the next town, but through the fields, over the fences, and across the iced-over streams. Over a century later, this sport is known world-wide as cyclocross. There are local races, national championships, and world championships, each course featuring different challenges, terrain, and conditions. They can consist of a combination of gravel, sand, grass, mud, and dirt, and every course has obstacles that 99% of individuals cannot ride and must dismount to run through instead. If you can ride it, you are allowed to do so, but for most individuals, certain obstacles pose such great a risk for costly crashes, that it is simply not worth it. The obstacles can consist of barriers (vertical wooden boards about two feet tall), stairs, a very steep, loose hill that is not ridable (called a run-up), or sand pits. Essentially, cyclocross is the obstacle racing of the bike world, where crashing is simply part of the sport.

***

Now, in Reno, NV, I was staged in the start gate next to some of the women who would be competing at the world championships in just a few short weeks. For most of the women around me, this course was very different from what they were used to for one reason: the lack of thick mud. Being in the high desert, Reno experiences little rain and snow compared to the cyclocross heart of America in the Northeastern United States. Having done all my training in the deserts of the Southwest, this would hopefully benefit me.

As my breath fogged in front me, I rode through the course in my head, navigating every corner and obstacle with perfection. This would be my last race of the season and I wanted it to be good. Competing in my first U23 race (professionals under the age of 23), I realized I would not place well, but today was meant to be a learning experience. I had my goals, and I was poised to execute. As my tire gripped the gravel of the final turn to the finishing stretch, I was aroused from my mental race by the official giving us the one-minute warning. The music that had been energizing spectators faded to silence, and the only sounds apart from the wind whistling through the trees were those of gears spinning as riders positioned their feet into the starting position and quickly spun their back tires to create a rut for extra grip when the whistle blew. “30 seconds” announced the official. The whistle would blow at any moment.

The shrill tone pierced through the air and the venue exploded with music, cheering, the snapping of cleats onto pedals, and tires displacing gravel and dust as they spun. As I whipped my bike through the first gravel corner and onto the grassy, false-flat, the headwind became very apparent, and I tucked myself in behind the wheel of the rider in front me, searching for a draft. It was going to be a brutally challenging race, but my legs were ready, still warm from doing sprints on the trainers prior to the race. This was my fourth, and final, race of the week. It was time to water the grass with my sweat and leave everything I had out on the race course.

***

On the way to Reno, Rhys and I had road tripped together through Las Vegas, Death Valley National Park, and Eastern California. Over the past few weeks, we had spent several days camping and, thus, arrived at our hotel in Reno with an odor tagging closely along. Unsurprisingly, the hotel staff wasted no time getting us to our room where we were united with our third Arizona State University Cycling teammate, Gabe. We were exhausted from the drive but knew the upcoming race days would be well worth it.

After spending each of the following days riding bikes in a city park upon a Reno hill, my teammates and I would pedal back to the heart of the city, where bright neon lights, casinos, and glamour confronted our eyes. We were staying at Circus Circus Hotel and Casino, known in both Vegas and Reno for it’s cheap rates. As we approached the doors to the front lobby, we dismounted our bikes and hoped the men working valet parking and the bell desk would not comment on the fact that we were rolling muddy bikes across the polished white, tile floors. During most of our team’s race weekends, the majority of hotels we frequent have a tucked-away side door or a room with doors opening directly to the outdoors, as is the case at the Day’s Inn, allowing us to avoid the lobby with our bikes. Here, however, there was no such route. Inside Circus Circus, we were greeted by the tall ceilings and helpful staff who worked to create an aura of luxury. Bells, buzzers, and music echoed through the lobby from the casino just in sight off to the right. There were also people of every race and color hurrying their families through the lobby, chattering as they went. This was a stark contrast to the individuals we had encountered when passing through Las Vegas only a week before. There, almost everyone was white and dressed to the nines. Here, there was no race more prominent than another, and individuals wore oversized T-shirts and Levi jeans. A stark change in demographic. This brought us to the realization that perhaps Reno was the poor man’s Vegas. It had all the glamour, sense of luxury, and bright lights, but lacked the reputation, absurd pricing for a hotel room, and high-quality shows.

After only receiving a few glances from the bell desk employees and having successfully made our way across the lobby, we entered the elevators and let out a sigh of relief. The day was over and we finally had a moment of silence as our elevator whisked us up to the 7th floor. When the doors opened, another reminder of our location starred back at us. A black and white photo of a round, overweight clown dancing with a woman outside of a circus tent in the early 1900s hung on the adjacent wall. And, alas, the bedroom was no exception. Photos of the city’s bright lights and neon signs were plastered across the walls above the headboards.

After cleaning ourselves and acquiring clean clothes, we ventured out into the hotel and squeezed our way through the crowded hallways, crossing casino after casino with men smoking cigarettes as they played the slots. Eventually, we realized we had no idea where we were and had not seen an exit sign since leaving the hotel lobby. Rhys turned to me and said, “This is why casinos creep out. They are a labyrinth designed to make you feel like you are outside with no exits easily accessible, allowing them to keep in guests and entice them to spend more money as they pass through.” We eventually found an exit after another 20 minutes of searching and decided to get an Uber to a restaurant somewhere away from the loud and maddening downtown Reno.

***

Throughout the week, we each raced in a variety of races. Me, individually, in the non-championship 19 – 29, collegiate women, and U23 women races. The one race we all had in common, however, was the collegiate team relay. This was the race that would determine the overall placings of the teams.

My heart was pounding, my legs smoothly pedaling backwards as my teammate held my bike upright. I was sitting in the starting gate, waiting anxiously for a glimpse of a white ASU jersey with black, gold, and maroon bands across the chest coming through the final turn of the course. University of Arizona’s rider had come through seconds before with no one in sight behind him. Did Rhys crash? Did he get a flat? He had taken the first lap of the team relay at the USA Cycling Collegiate Cyclocross National Championships, and I was next, ready to go for lap 2. After what seemed like ages, I saw him making the final turn. He was in second place. I needed to hold that. I started sprinting down the start straight, getting my speed up, but being very careful not to cross the finish line before my teammate. University of Vermont was hot on my tail. Adrenaline pumped through my veins as I made the first turn of my lap, fighting against the headwind as I approached the first obstacle: a set of concrete stairs. Next would be a creek jump, sand pit, a second set of stairs, and two barriers before reaching the most technical part of the course: a steep run-up with an even steeper off-camber descent.

At each turn, I could hear the racer behind me. Exhausted, I watched as University of Vermont’s bike inched past me. In my mental haze, my gaze fixed itself on the rider’s rear tire directly in front of me. With each pedal turn, my only thought was to stay within inches of the wheel. Slowly, however, the rider left me in his dust. I finished the lap as strong as I possibly could and exited the course as Gabe sped off down the start straight. Rhys met me at the line, provided me with water as I gasped for air and prepped me for my final lap of the relay. As I waited for Gabe to come flying out of the dinosaur park, a section of the course just before the finish that passes by life-size statues of the prehistoric creatures, I realized we had dropped into fourth place and were nearly tied with fifth. For my final lap, I knew my goal needed to just be to give it everything I had left.

We ended up finishing fifth in the team relay and, after rinsing the dirt off our bikes, found ourselves standing on the podium with a glimmering medal around our necks. Such an award meant that we would be celebrating before preparing for our professional races, and the perfect event to do so was the Mechanics National Championship event that night. This was the one ‘race’ of the week that did not occur on the cold, muddy racecourse perched upon a hill in a city park. Instead, it brought together cyclists amidst the maze of casinos, restaurants, and tourists in Circus Circus Hotel and Casino, the venue at which we were staying. My teammates and I were preparing to cheer on a former collegiate racer, Doug, from the University of New Mexico who had narrowly lost the competition the previous year.

Having arrived at the busy Mexican cuisine and sushi joint located in the heart of all the bustle, we decided sit down for dinner and await the madness that was soon to come. Doug joined us, dressed in a clean mechanics shirt embroidered with the names of his sponsors, including Specialized and Shimano. Despite his nerves, he sat calmly next to me and ordered a burrito.

Flashing lights and the booming voice of the announcer declared the start of the competition. The restaurant was packed, both with excited cyclists and curious tourists of all ethnicities and ages. Cheers exploded from the mouths of the onlookers and we joined in, leaving our table and finding a place to stand among the rowdy crowd. The junior competition served as the warm-up for the main event by highlighting several young mechanics who were challenged to perform comical tasks such as tying their shoes while blindfolded with downhilling goggles.

Glancing around the room, I could see some of the top professional riders who I had looked up to from the start of my riding career. One team specifically stood out to me. Their mechanic was competing as the reigning national champion from 2017. Watching him, he seemed cool and relaxed, just as Doug did in the far corner.

As the junior competition wrapped up, I felt my stomach growl despite having just eaten and turned to the busy bartenders behind me, requesting some chips and queso to share with the team, bringing a bit of the Southwest to the room for Doug’s performance. As last, stomach satisfied and the crowd riled up, having attracted the attention from nearly every ignorant passerby, the show was about to begin. With the energetic music pulsating through the floorboards and servers and bartenders frantically attempting to please both the spectators and the hungry families awaiting their dinners, the contending mechanics were called up to the makeshift stage where they were greeted by a wall of cheerful noise. As the first task was announced, I held up an oversized cardboard cut out of the head of one of our teammates and began a chant of, “Doug! Doug! Doug!”

As sweat dripped from the greasy hands of the competitors, tubes were being ripped out of wheels and multi-tools made minute adjustments to several aspects of the competition bikes. It was a timed race. First to finish won the round and moved on to the next stage. Within only a couple of seconds, the leading three mechanics completed their tasks. Unfortunately, Doug, frustrated and saddened, did not win and would have to wait until the next year to try and prove himself once more. He stood and silently left the restaurant, disappearing amidst excited children, tired parents, and flashing lights from game machines located in every direction.

***

After three laps of my U23 race, the official pulled me and several others from the course because we had fallen 80% of the course behind the leader who was holding a massive gap over second place. My race was over, but my journey into elite racing had only just begun and I was still heading home with a heavy USA Cycling medal for our team’s placing in the collegiate races.

At the end of that last day of racing, Rhys and I packed our belongings and snapped our cleats onto our pedals for the final ride back to the downtown strip. The ride back took us through the quiet neighborhoods just out of earshot of the main attractions of the city. From this view, one could really be almost anywhere. Nearly any city could provide the simplistic view of cars parked along the streets and trash cans pulled to the curb. Such fantasies of a quiet, small town were just that, however, when the towering, illuminated lights of Circus-Circus Hotel and Casino became visible upon reaching the end of the street. It was Sunday, and over the course of the past few days, we had witnessed an explosion in the number of tourists at our hotel. We had been away from that crowd for the day and were unsure if the chaos had died down with Monday was quickly approaching.

Unsurprisingly, however, our arrival back at the hotel was greeted by the dinging of slot machines and the mesh of conversations creating a wall of noise. Hungry, sweaty, and exhausted, we reached our hotel room and plopped ourselves onto the beds. There wasn’t much that we wanted more than showers and a relaxing dinner. Following Google’s suggestion, we decided to wander away from the strip, a direction in which few individuals who aren’t locals venture. A small re-purposed home stood on the corner with a tattered sign out front reading “Laughing Planet.” Only a few people, mostly University students, gathered around the tables inside. This was it. Finally, something calm and not egregiously over-priced. The small restaurant, though a chain, managed to capture a different side of Reno that we hadn’t yet experienced. It showed the youthful energy of the students who attended the University of Nevada – Reno, located only a few blocks from the mix of cultures and tourists trapped within the casinos and shows of the “Biggest Little City in the World.”

We spent the dinner contently recounting the events of our race season and voicing our aspirations for the next. We had finished 5th overall out of 22 teams, and our friends from the University of Arizona had taken home the National Champion jerseys. Despite being part of one of the smaller conferences in the country, and definitely the least ‘classic cyclocross’ friendly due simply to weather and climate conditions, we had made a strong showing on the podium.

At our table sat a toy dinosaur, a brachiosaurus perhaps, undoubtedly placed there by a bored college kid employed by the eatery, that served as a friendly reminder of our time in Reno. Part of the course had weaved us through a children’s playground full of large dinosaur statues just before the finish line. In a way, it seemed rather appropriate. The course had shown us difficulties, crashes and chaos, but the dinosaurs served as a reminder that we were really only there to have fun and not take ourselves too seriously. Similarly, the city had shocked us with its flashy lights, gaudy designs, and crowds, but the dinosaur at the Laughing Planet reminded us that the city was more than the image seen by most visitors. Perhaps it too, like racing for us, gave individuals a reprieve from the all-too-serious, working world.

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