“Which of you was the lucky guy in the break yesterday?”
Amiel points to me.
“Nice! That was lucky!”
We were sitting on the patio outside a café before the stage two criterium at the Tour of Walla Walla, one of the Pacific North West’s early season stage races.
Amiel and I looked at each other. I didn’t like what that guy had said, but this was one of my first times being around Amiel, so I didn’t want to make something out of nothing, unsure of whether he would feel the same way. I thought to myself: Luck? Is that what did it on yesterday’s stage?
The previous morning’s stage was a time trial, which did not suit my junior gears and landed me somewhere around 25th. That afternoon we had a road stage, and my goal was to get in the break and move up on GC. Jacob Rathe of Jelly Belly was present, and although I hadn’t heard of him until I had seen the time trial results sheet, I figured he was the only pro present. He’d be a good guy to watch. I learned later that he had raced for the Garmin-Barracuda (now EF Education First-Drapac) world tour team in 2012/13.
As we climbed the finish hill to complete the first lap, a few guys started attacking. I followed the wheel of whoever was setting pace, until they blew up. Then I’d follow the next guy. Eventually, I saw Jacob who had been doing the same thing, decide to set pace himself. I, along with one other rider, followed his wheel and crested the climb.
I yelled at my two breakaway companions who wanted me to pull through on the decent that followed that I couldn’t pull unless it was flat, or we were going uphill. I had junior gears, which meant I was working hard in their draft just to keep up. The previous year I would have been too timid to take a stand, but I knew I couldn’t mess around with a guy like Rathe as my competition.
We rode for the next couple hours, taking turns pulling. I’d spin as I held on for dear life on the descents, and pull on the climbs and flats. I made sure I ate and drank, and positioned myself behind Rathe as we started the final climb. I wasn’t going to risk having the other rider lose his wheel, and take me with him as he got dropped. Sure enough, as Rathe picked up the pace, it was only him and I left. I followed his attacks as best I could, but with 1 km to I couldn’t match his final attack, and I settled for second. I was now second on GC.
The next day at the crit I finished 7th. I’m not particularly good at crits. But I wanted to defend my position, and I was strong. I finished fifth the following day on the queen stage. After losing all of my team mates to flats or getting dropped, I had to fight tooth and nail to protect my GC position. I spent a lot of time chasing. I got dropped with 20 km to go but dug deep to catch back up to the lead group. Upon rejoining, I turned to Rathe in his yellow jersey, and told him we should work together to neutralize any attacks. He had guys on other teams helping him a bit, but he had entered the race solo, and really we were both without team mates. He nodded. I wasn’t a threat. I just wanted to lose to him and no one else.
My junior gears were again unkind to me on the downhill tail wind sprint, so I had to watch riders sprint away from me as I spun at 130 rpm and went nowhere.
In 2015, the year earlier, I did the same race. I finished 102nd, 45 minutes back on the second stage. I barely held on to the back of the peloton in the crit. On the last stage race I was dropped after 30 km and quit. I knew what I would be facing in 2016, and I did not want a repeat of my 2015 experience. I had my ass handed to me for the weeks following Walla Walla in 2015 as I continued to try my hand at races of that level, until a concussion put me out of commission. Once I was able to ride again, I kicked my own ass. I trained hard. I did a camp the following spring before the race. I chose who to follow during the race. I paid attention. I suffered. I suffered like a fucking dog.
But here was this guy, a dude I don’t know from a club in Vancouver, telling me that I was lucky to have ‘gotten in the break’ the day before. And there I was, wondering if it really did come down to luck.
The week after Walla Walla 2016, I got in the break both days at Race the Ridge. I finished second in the road race, fifth in the crit, and third overall. Two weeks later I got in the break at Tour de Bloom on stage 1, finished seventh in the downhill sprint with my junior gears, and then rode solo to win the following hill climb stage. I finished seventh in the crit again, and got in the break on the last day to finish third on the stage and second overall. For three big stage races, not a stage went by with a breakaway that I wasn’t in. How lucky could a guy be?
The reason I’m writing this is not to boast. I don’t want to be that guy who’s stuck bragging about winning races back in the day. But terms such as lucky, gifted, or natural talent have their time and place. When used thoughtlessly, people can find them be degrading.
I’m a self conscious athlete, and I know I’m not the only one. I can’t tell you how many races I’ve driven away from thinking ‘there’s no way I could do that again’ or, ‘that was just luck.’ The year I won Junior ‘Cross Nationals I told so many people that it was just a fluke. Having someone else say the same sort of thing really takes away from an athlete’s accomplishments. If you boil it down to luck or a gift, then I’ve accomplished nothing. My work, my suffering, and my reading of the race are totally discredited.
I appreciate that I am lucky in many ways to be where I am, racing where I am. I was fortunate to be born into a family that could support me at the beginning, in a first world country. I’m very fortunate to have so many people in my life who support me, and help me make opportunities for myself.
But in terms of racing, for the number of breakaways I’ve missed, teams that have rejected me, injuries I’ve had, flat tires I’ve suffered, trips I’ve been unable to afford, I’d like to think that there’s more to what I achieve than just dumb luck.