Collegiate Nationals through the eyes of a burnout
I’ve always admired a burn out. A successful bike racer that was able to check their heart rate, look out from the paceline and realize that there’s more than bike racing. I secretly envied their tenacity, especially if they left behind a successful career. Because success in this sport requires a dive so deep some never come back up for air.
I burnt out last year after racing the Tour of Americas Dairylands. It was somewhere riding through the Wisconsin cornfields I began to stomach questions I had always run from. The monotony was crushing and the allure of crit racing had dried with the blood soaking the torn remains of a borrowed skinsuit. What am I doing here?
So I wrestled with these questions over the last few months. I rode motorcycles and surfed. I rock climbed and bike-toured and studied harder in class and didn’t miss waking up to TrainingPeaks emails, eating healthy, and rolling my legs out three times a week. But the team needed a fourth. So I left a budding relationship at home and flew to Georgia for my last ever Collegiate Road Nationals.
The Collegiate Nationals weekend had been the highlight of my season the past three years of racing. I loved the chaos that came from collegiate disorganization and the glory promised to a select few. Two years ago I rode a gruppetto in the varsity men's road race in Grand Junction. We were far out the back two hours into the race, and turned into another one of that course’s distinct, endless drags. Kids were sprawled along the road and far out of contention. Some continued to fight, some gave in and sat up. A racer rode next to me and looked up at the sight. “There’s a lot of shattered dreams up that road”
We all dream of that jersey. That dream is the only reason kids take time off school to come from Vermont, Washington, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, California… This year, traveling with the UCLA team, we dreamt too. Duncan had been racing strong all year and won the WCCC omnium. And despite the health issues I’d been battling for months, I secretly dreamt of besting my third place in the crit the year prior. We put together a fundraising campaign, and showed up to registration blind, disorganized, and frayed.
We had never done a TTT together. We didn’t know where the fitness discrepancies lie, a rotation order, or how we would ride together. But the year prior we showed up blind and it worked perfectly. That ride in Grand Junction was special- Time lost linearity. We were smooth, rotated in synch, and as the finish line came into view we all fell deep, teeth grit as we spiralled through the rabbit hole. We were four brothers that trip. Racing was instinctual and we were all at our peak. It was one of the most amazing weekends of my life.
But that’s the thing with bike racing. It’s not simple, static, repetitive. And it’s definitely not easy. Expecting another miracle was foolish, but we did it anyways. We rode far from a miracle. 7th hurt. 7th hurt really bad actually.
Rupert and I rolled back to the finish line to watch the teams come across. Rupert talks with Stanford’s coach as their team flies across the line to take an eventual third. Snot covers the faces of the visible riders and they’re elated as they finish. One kid comes over to celebrate and yells as he rides away. “He had an exam yesterday and then flew straight here. We got in at 3am. He’s riding straight off Red Bull right now” the coach laughs. I love and admire that mentality- the do anything to study and ride mentality. It perfectly embodies the demanding essence of balancing racing collegiate and being collegiate. I consider staying but ride back to the car irritated. Everyone hates Stanford. Fuck Stanford.
We eat fried chicken to celebrate our mediocre performance and go back to the motel. Rupert and I go to tour the hilariously large Walmart and begin a long talk about our tandemed cynicism for the sport. Rupert began burning out two years prior. He trained long and hard to sit on the sidelines at the Cascade Classic and started stomaching the questions I faced last year in Wisconsin. Why do I do this to myself?
Back at the motel, Frank is sitting alone doing homework. Duncan is on the phone with his girlfriend. It’s her birthday this weekend and he’s on the other side of the country reading the card she gave him.
We go bowling and I do donuts in the rental car late that night. We’re getting at least something out of this trip.
There’s one lady at the breakfast buffet in the motel the next morning. She’s old, white, frail and her skin folds with age along her face. She’s buzzing with energy and invites us to the bar that night. She exclaims “I’ll dance naked!” and mentions something about skinny dipping in the pool later. She hands me the legal pad clutched with her leathery, ringless left hand. “I wrote a letter to our president! I’m gonna send it right now!” Her southern accent is strong. A gardener walks in and she yells hola! to him. “I’m from Texas so I speak Spanish!”
What the fuck is going on.
The letter is long, and luckily the details have mostly escaped my mind, but in it she complains about pornography and states how it’s causing more youth pregnancy. She’s surprisingly eloquent, and ends it by asking “Mr. Trump, as a local police officer what can I do to protect our youth from today’s pornography? With love, …”
Duncan grabs his share of cheap eggo waffles and Rupert and I decide to eat somewhere else.
I gladly accept the final call-up for the road race. The energy at the back is much different than at the front before the start. I remember how quiet and tense it always felt on the start line, anxious to get to the front as fast as possible. Now I look around and laugh with the other guys starting in place 97, 98, and 99. A kid from UVM has pink hair, a kid from Texas next to me has a princess stickered on his top tube. Two kids from Colorado laugh and say how they’re father and son. The announcer calls it out and they erupt in laughter.
I’m deep in conversation with some friends on the sidelines when they blow the whistle. Oh shit, there’s a bike race going on?
I race up the gutter and immediately get to the front. Rupert starts the attacks and I get ready to counter him. We start the fast descent and I start to remember why I used to love this so much. The chaos and the whir of freehubs falls behind the sound of the wind and motions of the peloton. We dance around each other and I find myself exposed to the wind pushing to the front. We’re flying as a unit and flowing in tranquility. Nothing in this world exists right now but us- I soften my death grip and let out a long gentle breath.
An overlapped 30 mile an hour wheel right next to me, three wheels deep into a pack of 100 riders. Chainsaws, meat grinders, jackhammers. Death grip, focus, hold straight. The sound continues as we roll away. It won’t quit. Hail on a tin roof, dynamite and a drum kit. The sheer momentum of the pack means even the ones at the back won’t slow in time. Carbon breaks, kids hit the deck. The remnants of us are quickly away from it and the racers at the front are waving us down to neutralize it. A Stanford rider comes flying up the side “Keep racing! Keep racing!” 50 guys are down at least and you just want to keep racing?
The moto-refs stop the race and I look around for my teammates. Rupert rolls up, then Frank. “Where’s Duncan?!” We scramble and roll back to the site.
Bottles are strewn around the ground. Around them lie Garmins and pairs of sunglasses. A kid lies off the road clutching his shoulder moaning. 10+ riders are just now getting off the ground. We find Duncan among them.
His plucky British accent is a steadfast. “Yeah I’m fine” he lies to us. His knees, shoulder, hip and elbows are bleeding. His handlebars are completely turned sideways and rear wheel is somehow off. He goes to neutral to get a new bike, but has to stand in line. There are too many people here already and some kids won’t get one. A fork lies broken off on the ground, held to the frame by a sole brake cable. Guys call out for tools. The ambulance’s siren sounds in the distance. I begin rolling around asking people if they need help, food, or water.
The kid in the gutter is from Indiana University. He’s new to the sport, and just received his Cat 3. It’s his first ever Collegiate Nationals, and as the paramedics load him on the stretcher and into the ambulance I ask him if he’ll ever ride again.
“I’ll be back on the bike Tuesday!”
Rupert is tending to a kid racing for the US Military Academy. His wrist is tender, and as a medic wraps it he cries in pain. Rupert tells him not to ride, and that it’s not safe. He picks a bottle off the ground and rolls back to where the other racers are stopped and neutralized.
A ref orders us back as well. I clip in and roll up with Rupert laughing at the absurdity of it all. We get back and the damage is everywhere. Kids are bleeding through shredded kits. Some are bandaged but most aren’t. A kid from the University of North Texas next to me is covered in road rash. His kit is shredded and he rides a borrowed neutral bike. His helmet is destroyed too. The front is scraped and dented, and the tensioning piece in the back is broken off and dangling. ‘Dude you really shouldn’t be riding’ I say. “Nahhh bro I’m good. It’s totally fine.” He pushes on and eventually finishes a lap down in 76th place.
We were sternly told at the beginning of the race that there will be “absolutely no public urination tolerated”. The road race was held on a military base, and they were strict about the rules. The pack begins hollering as a moto judge walks into the nearby forest to pee. The reflective “Judge” letters shine nicely in the sun with his back towards us.
They blow the whistle and the race resumes after roughly half an hour of stagnation. We begin the rolling section of the course and start descending. I sit a ways off the back, but as the road turns up and the pace once again lifts, I find myself wrestling deep with those same questions. What is the deal with bike racing? Why do we keep doing this?
I sit up and wave goodbye to Rupert as they roll away. I pedal alone and take in the surprisingly lush sites from the race course.
A racer from Oklahoma rides up to me. He’s breathing hard, and obviously is still trying to catch back on. “You ok man?” He fits between breaths.
‘Haha yeah, just having a little existential crisis.”
“Fuck dude bad time for one of those, what’s going on?”
‘I hate this so much man. Why are we here? Why are you doing this right now?’
“Because it’s beautiful bro! You get to push yourself and get better and you win races!”
‘Are we winning races today?’
“No, but you train and get better and then you win races”
‘And then what?’
“You get better!”
His foot keeps flying off his pedal as we ride along. I notice he uses the same pedals and decide he’s better off with my shoe than I am. We swap cleats at the side of the road and I pedal to the finish one legged with a shoe three sizes too small.
Should I feel a level of guilt for quitting this race? Probably, but rolling back to the car and grabbing my camera that feeling evades me. Even more so as I hear of another crash two laps later.
Riders come flying through the climb I position myself at. The grimaces I expect don’t show themselves. Everyone looks at ease climbing at 500+ watts. Stragglers come through for the next ten minutes. They ride hard and lean deep into the corner after the climb. They chase hard, but won’t catch back on all day. What are you ultimately chasing if it’s not victory?
Teams are flying through bottles. It’s hot out, and the southern humidity proves reliable once more. The pack comes through and they hand out ice socks and bottles fervently for two minutes, then quickly return to the shade and their conversations once it’s over. The injured and the dropped file through slowly. Some watch grimacing, but most don’t. The race is cut short due to thunder and lightning.
Evan Bausbacher won our race. He had a strong sprint and all the skin he started with. His chest is raised and arms go high and wide. He punches the air and yells- a proper victory salute. He’s the only one in that field of 100 to feel that elation. Second and third put their heads down.
I remember how disappointing third felt last year. I felt so pathetic as Imeh rode away on the last stretch and put his arms up. The feeling of begging for more, anything more from my legs and having nothing left to give broke me. I high fived Imeh immediately after the finish line and cried in Rupert's arms a minute later. I had worked so hard to get there. I broke my neck and had to relearn how to fucking walk eight months prior to only come this close? Winning would’ve been the perfect ending to a very long chapter in my life. But that’s bike racing. It’s not simple, static, repetitive. It’s not cliche or predictable. It’s a menacing bitch that encapsulates your dreams and your life and your identity and breaks them all. It will give you everything and leave you with nothing.
C’est la fucking vie.
The scene after the finish is amazing. Riders band together and start telling war stories laughing about the crash now. I meet the kid that started it- he’s apologetic and in relatively good shape. Some are worse off. The line for medical is long, and I watch as Duncan grimaces through getting his wounds cleaned. Teams huddle around and have meetings. CU Boulder sings happy birthday to a teammate. Rupert sits on the ground destroyed staring blankly at his phone. Frank remembers he’s missing his mother’s birthday to race. He walks off and calls her. I return to the same questions. What have we all given up to do this?
We go eat at Waffle House to celebrate. Rupert and I steal mugs for souvenirs and return to the hotel to do homework. Duncan yells cleaning his wounds in the shower and bleeds through his sheets that night.
I sit alone in the Denny's the next morning reading Walden in a booth. The waitress is boisterous. She’s at least 6’4 and 300 pounds, black and wearing a cheap wig. “What can I get you sugah?” she says with a deep southern drawl. We talk about books and I try to explain how Walden is launching me even further into an identity crisis. “All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be” Thoreau would argue through two eggs over easy and hashbrowns. She keeps my mug full and I tip her heavily. What has bike racing contributed to my identity?
The rain clouds roll in as I walk back to the motel. The crit goes off in three hours and we have a 30 minute spin to get to the course. I dig out a rain jacket and we ride a highway in the rain to get to downtown Augusta.
The city’s filled with classic southern antebellum architecture. Large murals cover the brick walls depicting jazz musicians, clubs, and old artwork. Frank parks next to a large pillar in a park. It’s a confederate war memorial “GENEROUSLY DONATED BY THE WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION OF AUGUSTA” On the pillar it reads “IN MEMORIAM- NO NATION ROSE SO WHITE AND FAIR. NONE FELL SO PURE OF CRIME”
The women’s field is neutralized when we show up. Apparently it had been like that for 30 minutes due to a crash that sent a girl to the hospital. The girls ride through slowly, but as the racing starts back up they’re forced to forget what they just witnessed. We walk the course and end up in the final corner watching the girls fly through. It’s wet out with the rain coming and going. From the entrance to the exit of the corner are seven manhole covers. The promoters place griptape on one, but the other six and the wet raised paint are all left to negotiate. Classic USAC.
I ride past the corner on my way to the start and watch a lap. Five girls go down hard sliding into the metal barriers. One girl gets up and begins walking away. “I’m fine” she calls out to a concerned onlooker. Her coach runs up and she buckles over- breaking down into tears in his arms. He holds her tight avoiding the blood. I look away. We line up in five minutes.
My nerves are unwarranted at this point. I have no true expectations, and ultimately no fitness either. So to sit on the start line and hope, pray and shake like my first Collegiate Nationals four years prior felt unnatural. Maybe I’m nervous for a result. But I’m really just nervous for the carnage. We all are. Some kids make jokes, some dart their eyes. Like always, I close my eyes as the announcer calls out a minute to start. Sound goes soft, the rain is all I feel. Five...Four...Three. Eyes open, find your breath.
We’re five wide into the first corner. Navigate three wet manhole covers. I’m in the gutter and by the first minute I’ve moved up thirty spots. Hard on the pedals. Run it up the inside. Shit. Maybe I still got it?
As we hit the second lap I try and find a groove. Rubbing elbows in the rain. 25mm tires. Carbon wheels, no brakes. We hit the menacing final corner. Five wheels up is a huge pileup. I see Duncan hit the deck again. I shoot inside and sprint back to the pack. Go.
Flow through a corner. Inches from a guard rail. Watch your front tire. A guy shoots inside. Find a line. Final corner again. Another crash. Shoot inside. Sprint back to the pack.
Ride the nose of the saddle. Catch back on. A break goes up the road. Holy shit this hurts. I used to like this?
Final corner. Two guys go down. Shoot inside. Sit up and quit pedaling. What are we doing?
I’ll go take a free lap from neutral. I redo my rear skewer and pull up a bib to make it look like something has happened. The other kids in neutral are focused. They’re horses in the starting gates pawing at the asphalt anxious to get racing to slide across it once more.
We get back in, Duncan is with me. We rotate together in a group off the back just a ways. The main group is just agonizingly ahead. Duncan is bleeding even more now. He’s missing a large chunk from his left knee. The medics will later say he needs stitches. He keeps racing.
Big dig. Pull off. Head down. Try and breathe. Final corner. A guy just in front of me goes down.
I sit up and go home.
Rupert’s old friend summed it up perfectly with his Strava title. “The collegiate clownshow: USAC’s inability to design a course that doesn’t send dozens to the medical tent year after year is pathetic” And he’s right. USACycling and the Collegiate Nationals promoters have a responsibility to keep the athletes safe. And the courses they design year in and year out are simply not safe. My first year racing the Nationals crit in Asheville we would hit 40mph on a descent, then grab the brakes hard to turn ~300 degrees and go back up a hill. It was brutal. But the brutality wasn’t negligent, that’s inherent in bike racing. The dozens of kids that would crash that weekend and slide into those hay bales at the bottom defined the recurring negligence. Like the concrete, off-cambered, decreasing radius corner in the crit the last two years in Grand Junction. I’ve seen ten riders go down there at least. Yes they want to make the racing interesting, and I do not see a CBR warehouse crit as a better option, but USACycling needs to work better with the host cities to design both safe and interesting race courses. Apparently in Asheville the city cancelled the permits for the original race course the week the race was supposed to be held leaving the promoters scrambling. That is unacceptable, especially if what they end up with is as reckless as the course they fell into.
I don’t find the crash(es) in the road race due to the promoters though. The course was well laid out and plenty wide, but overlapped wheels at 30mph is also inexcusable. Ignorance is acceptable, but absolutely not when 50 kids have to pay for that one person’s incompetence in a pack situation. That raises the question of should Cat 3’s be allowed at Collegiate Nationals. U23 nationals is only P12 and was a much safer pack to be in. I never felt in danger and don’t remember any crashes. The racing was plenty aggressive, but we all kept our skin.
And it also seems like, but maybe this is just due to more publicity, that crashing is becoming too romanticized. Crit videos that show lead out trains sweeping wheels and putting riders in gutters, videos of world tour riders finishing and being heralded as a hero for being covered in blood. The cliche “you’re not a real bike racer until you break a collarbone!” and the desire to belong in the community. People are more comfortable crashing than they should be. After my first big wreck at ToAD last year I ran to the pits to get a new pedal and jump back in the race. Half of my ass was still lying on the back straight, but “Momma didn’t raise no quitter” was all that ran through my head. I had no chance of winning. And even less 20 minutes later when we came back around and some riders right in front of me rode into those coming back in from neutral. My dad ran over as I lie on the ground bleeding and holding the arm I took a chainring to. I looked up laughing.