I was supposed to be racing in cat 2/3. I was supposed to be able to keep up to Willem Boersma. I was supposed to impress. I was 14.
Dairyland is a weeklong series of criteriums and road races in Wisconsin that takes place at the end of June. The series is a staple on the calendar for Team Manitoba, as it offers the best bang for your buck in terms of quality and quantity of racing. It was also the best way to end the school year.
As a junior, Dairyland made June so much more bearable. Generally, exams are a drag, but with Dairyland happening so soon afterward, I found I was able to focus more on my studies as procrastination would mean that I’d miss a training ride. Many of my team mates and would concentrate our exams over a shorter period as well, so that we’d finish up early and make the trip.
The 16 hour drive with the team was always a blast. Mary would make me a couple thousand cookies to help me achieve crit weight, and I would claim the back bench as it was the widest - the only bench with four seats. We watched “8 Mile” every trip and listened to Dr. Dre’s Chronic 2001 album to really get in touch with our roots. Willem, Ari and I would spend the final 3 hours of the drive wrestling in the backseat, obviously aware that our time in such smelly, close proximity was limited and would soon come to an end.
I was excited on this particular trip, as I would be racing cat 2/3. I had just been upgraded to cat 3, but there wasn’t a cat 3 only category in Dairlyland, so they combined the two. The cat 2 racers always had the option to race pro-1/2, but some would go down to 2/3 to win some prize money. We called them sandbaggers.
The first three races of that week were pretty rough. I couldn’t keep up with the high pace, and was dropped on all three days. It was my first ever real experience of simply not being able to hold a wheel. Watching the gap between your front tire and the back tire of the rider in front of you increase from 3 inches to 1 foot, to 10 feet, and then for a while it would stay, not growing and not shrinking. Eventually, the wheel would disappear from sight. It was tough and demoralizing. I wasn’t used to it. I hated it.
After the third race we went out for dinner. My coach, Jay, asked if I wanted to race a category down in 4/5. He gave me the choice to continue getting my ass handed to me, or go race with the less experienced guys on our team and try and help them out. As my eyes started to tear up at the table, he gently said I could go to the washroom and think about it. He knew how sensitive of a rider I was (still am), and knew how I felt. If I tried to talk I would start to cry, but if I kept my mouth shut I could hold it back. To save me from the humiliation of crying in front of my team in the middle of the restaurant, he excused me from the table.
I gathered myself, went back to the table, and said that I’d race cat 4/5 the following day.
My first race with the 4/5 guys had potential. I felt that since I wasn’t really a cat 4 anymore, it would be inappropriate of me to try and win. I’d be stealing a result from the guys that were, in my mind, supposed to be there and therefore deserved to win. I tried my best to help out and provide a lead-out for Kurt on the last lap. Coming through the final corner there were crashes everywhere. The finishing arch had blown down so the race was neutralized. We lined up again and were given two more laps of chaos. Kurt managed a third place.
The next day was our final race of the trip. Going into it, I was determined to get a result. I gathered the 4/5 boys before the start; Graham, Sebastian, Danick and Kurt. “Today we are going to win. I don’t care who it is, as long as it’s Team Manitoba. We’re getting every single prime, and as many of us on the podium as possible. Follow my lead, and ride the front” I told them. I’d never taken charge like that, or been that confident in my life. I lined up for the start of the race, and knew that I would win.
We did exactly what I said we’d do. I stayed in the top three wheels the entire race. I took the first prime, Danick took the second, and on the third I yelled to Graham: “This one’s yours! Go!” Leading into the finish, I yelled at Danick to get on my wheel. We rounded the last corner in second and third, and I took the inside around the race leader. Danick followed and we sprinted to first and second. We absolutely dominated the race taking all the primes and the top two steps on the podium. The team worked flawlessly together. A group of kids dominated the men’s field.
I took charge that day. I was confident and led the team. In my eyes, that was my best performance as a rider. It’s the one that I’m most proud of - not winning cross nationals or getting my first pro-1/2 victory – but winning a race in the lowest category as a young kid. It was the most fun I’ve had in a race. I instilled in myself a confidence I’d never felt before. It also marked the start of a great and enduring friendship for me. Danick and I went on to dominate many races in a 1-2 fashion over the next couple of years.
It’s important to be aware of the pressure we put on ourselves. To me, I was supposed to race cat 2/3. I was supposed to be as fast as my peers. I wasn’t supposed to race cat 4/5. I had put myself under such pressure that going down a category and racing with team mates my age for a couple of days seemed like the end of the world. I saw it as a step backward. In hindsight, however, it was a gargantuan leap forward. Winning a race gives you confidence. Once you win one, especially after a dry spell, you’re hungry for more, and you know you can do it. I also learned that I could be a leader.
Jay put it best for me the evening that I decided to race a category down. “You don’t have to be here. You want to be. You aren’t ‘supposed’ to be at any level. These are expectations set by yourself and pressures that you put on yourself. Do you want to get dropped because that’s where you’re ‘supposed’ to be, or would you rather have some fun and lead the team?”
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Sometimes those pressures undermine us and make the unimportant appear important and the important less so. A lot of the time, we imagine the ‘important’ pressures. They are neither real nor necessary. Sometimes we move further forward when we step back in the right direction. Jay put it all into perspective for me. I need reminding, periodically.