Random Start – A Love Letter to Cycling, Pt. 1

Or, How a 43-Year-Old Woman Took Up BMX Racing

This epic tale requires a little bit of background.  Please bear with me while I set the stage for one of the most important events of my life.

I learned to ride a bike when I was six years old on a trusty steel steed with “Spirit of ‘76” stenciled on the side, probably ordered from the Sears catalog.  It had a banana seat, training wheels, and a very patriotic paint job.  I remember my terror at teetering what seemed like 6 feet above the ground, the play in the training wheels allowing me to list dangerously to either side without quite tipping over.

I also remember the act of courage it took to believe that I could pedal without the training wheels.  It’s the first time I recall throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to reap what I perceived to be great glory.  What I remember most clearly, though, is the feeling of freedom that came with moving at speed under my own power; the suburbs of northern California were suddenly my oyster.

Not long after I became my own person on a bike, my family moved to a small mountain town in Colorado.  The hills were steep, the winters snowy, and my bike went into the basement and gathered dust, shunned in favor of the local swim team, skis, horses and, most importantly, a quiver of snowboards that fueled a love that has lasted 35 years. There were long stretches of time in which I went without cycling altogether.

In 1995 I followed a boyfriend to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a tumultuous experience that ended in an acrimonious breakup several months later.  I was within 40 minutes of Ski Santa Fe but was no longer in a mental or financial position to be able to snowboard regularly, which broke my heart worse than the boy. I met my best friend and longest partner the following year, and voluntarily eschewed many of the things that I loved in favor of a solid and relatively drama-free life. Over the years, the narrative in my head consistently picked security and practicality over activities that once excited me.  I rarely tried new things.  I stopped listening to music and going to see live bands.  I stopped drawing and painting. I put snowboarding on a back burner, to drag out as a novelty once or twice a year.  I allowed graduate school to sap the last dregs of my confidence away and started a federal job that became a mildly soul-sucking routine.

And then my life was turned on its head.

In 2014 my partner, a former BMX racer, decided to take up the sport again after a 20-year hiatus.  The change in him was profound, and I saw a glimmer of something I recognized: deep and fervent joy. After about two months of watching him happily practice and race, I became restless and wanted to try BMX racing for myself. The prospect was terrifying.  I was worried about balancing on the gate, the steep, high turns, and making it even halfway up any of the steeper obstacles.  Practicing with the whole track cohort seemed inconceivable.  So, I gathered up all of my courage and asked one of the track elites if I could come to his novice practice.

I showed up the following Monday evening on a 24” SE Floval Flyer, and shared that beginner practice with a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old.  I was 43.

Track pro Kalvin Davis rolled around the track with me for the first time, kindly offering encouragement and advice while I thought my heart would escape my chest and I shook until my teeth chattered.  I slipped a pedal at one point but my adrenaline was so high I didn’t notice until the end of practice that my shoe was full of blood.  Panting and sweating at the end of one of my first laps around the track, the 6-year-old passed me just before the finish line, reached out to give me a fist bump, and said in a voice wise beyond his years: “You look like you need a drink of water.”

BMX was love at first chastisement by a 6-year-old.  It was love at first shin bite and adrenaline overload.  I was absolutely hooked.

Early in my racing days I would get on the gate every time there was a break between motos to practice balancing.  I took on professional BMX racer and Grand National champion Kenth Fallen as a personal trainer. I set myself up for as much success in the sport as possible. I cross-trained vigorously. I graduated from novice practice to intermediate/expert practice with another track pro, Tomas Fernandez, whose passing skills were second to none.  He ran a two-to-three-hour killer workout most Saturdays that found me going over backward in a parking lot trying to manual and bending down my handlebar with my thigh when I crashed in the rhythm section.  Once, Tomas told me to give my partner a little bump in the first turn in an effort to improve my comfort level at racing closely with other people.  My partner dutifully held his line while I barely tapped his elbow and went down like a sack of potatoes, sliding all the way to the bottom of the turn.

I’m not fast, and I don’t often win, but I work my very hardest to get better.

BMX taught me an invaluable lesson about fighting yourself and your medium that applies in almost all aspects of life: the more you fight the track or manhandle your bike, the more likely you are to fail.  It’s best to quiet the brain and let the body be guided by the heart and root chakras, because those whisper how to lean and how to flow.  Executed with vigor, but couched in flexibility and acceptance, riding around a BMX track is a deep meditation that blocks out absolutely everything else.  I am never more at peace with myself and my body than when I am driving myself to my edge around a track.  I am never more utterly present and still than before and during the cadence that precedes the gate drop: “OK riders, random start.  Riders ready, watch the gate…”

Then the gate falls, a switch flips in my brain, and I suddenly have no friends.  This character-divergent snap-change always surprises me.  I never have a competitive streak until that moment, and I love it.

Join the conversation
  1. trabri says

    Great read! Thanks.

  2. albanybenn says

    I too started racing BMX in my 40’s. I was always amazed at how clam and quiet it was once the gate dropped, even as chaos happened all around you. Sound only returned after the finish line, then mostly ragged breathing. I struggled with the gate the first couple of years. I spent hours practicing static balancing with the front wheel of my cruiser against the back yard picnic table. What joy the first time I got the start right…

    Cyclocross came next, then fat bikes, but every now and then as I drive past the local track I think about just one more race.

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