‘You don’t have to go, you know. You could go home. Chill.’
I am never more the child than when I step over the threshold of my parents’ house. I’ve been helping celebrate my mum’s birthday and I’m leaving to take part in a mountain bike race. But, desperately seeking encouragement, before I go I want to articulate my anxiety about competing. Instead I get this:
‘Read a book.’
‘Wash the floor.’
My mum tosses these suggestions out, head in the sink or a cupboard and they connect straight to the negativity inside me – I should just quit. And at once, all doubt is trodden under foot. I don’t want to be a quitter. I don’t want to hide in my house. I’m doing it. So, I guess I got what I wanted in the end.
I drive there with my foot jammed on the accelerator. The desire to turn around comes over me in waves. Each time my heart quickens with fear I push a little harder and lock my arms against the wheel. If I don’t turn around, anything could happen. I could fall off. I could end up in hospital, alone. In any event I might not make the start line, people will look at me and know I am not a competitor. This is a national event for God’s sake. And I might have to accept that I am not a REAL competitor. And that will hurt, more than most of the tumbles I have taken in the last two years. These fears wriggle inside me, fighting for a voice. I turn up the music and dip the accelerator just that little bit further, so that I can feel the momentum of the car press me into the driver’s seat.
The wind has teeth. We’re waiting in a clearing at the back of the grid. Men chatter and clatter cleats against SPDs ahead of us. Me and the sole competitor in my class stick together. When we roll closer to the start line she mutters, ‘oddly, I am still nervous.’ What she means is that she is nervous even though she knows she is going to win. She is an elite rider. Only, she forgot to get her entry in to her class, she explains. So, here she is, competing in the open class. I know she has this. But I am still ready, poised for the pistol, because that is all that matters now, whoever crosses the line first. It’s the course I’m up against.
On the drive home my soul is dancing. Leaping, pirouetting right out of my chest it bounces around the car. I put on up-beat music to keep up. It ricochets time and again off the oil stained ceiling. I didn’t win. But I rode the best race I could when all I wanted to do was turn for home and seek safety. I ground up the hills, each muscle pleading to stop. I rolled the downs, careful, precise through the narrow, rocky descent that loomed on each lap. The world did not change but I stood up to all the voices inside me that said I should not bother. That’s a great win.
Just for this elated ride home, and perhaps into the evening (if I am luck), I will be free from doubt. This is what it means to believe in myself.
Some people might think I’m mad. Going through all the tension and anxiety just to come out the other side, cradling fragile self-belief like a newborn. I should know I am fine as I am. We all are. But I don’t and it seems I have to keep showing myself. I need this.
And I don’t think I’m not the only one. There’s a rider poised for the start of our club ride. His sea salt eyes are unsettled, rocking between the group and the floor. This is not just a social thing for him. When the ride leader leaves the forecourt, he’s off, torso stretched over his carbon bike frame, heels pushing mercilessly down, down, down with each revolution. I watch him pull away, chasing the leader. I don’t want to be too close. His lines are snatched hastily as he rides the rear wheel of the bike in front. He won’t be left behind. He’s doing more than riding a bike here. I imagine, each time he goes out, he’s fighting events and voices that span decades.
Her feet are tucked beneath her and there is a wine glass nearby. We haven’t seen each other for months. Team mates and occasional ride partners. We’re the same age, unmarried and without children, an endangered species. But I think our strongest bond is as rivals. A slurry of unspoken words and feelings ooze between us. I feel sad when I wonder whether this has prevented us from being better friends. But then I have to accept that is who we are, striving for something we’re missing, competing against each other in an unspoken duel.
‘Dave, Aidan, Matt, Kevin, Pete, Mike…’; my name’s in there somewhere. One by one we’re called to perform an exercise, ranging from the simple to the scary. Every Tuesday evening, I rate myself against this pack. My class mates are the people I learn from. I hesitate to type that these guys are the competition, but I have to admit that they are. In carrying out each exercise I strive to equal or better them, although I rarely succeed. But I know this approach is flawed because we are all different riders with our own strengths and focusing on them means I am not focusing on me.
Often, after a race, I will catch a photograph of me taking part. I stare for a long time, wondering if I could ever look as convincing as the serious XC riders with their matching race outfits and elastic limbs. In many of the photographs my conflict is written all over me; clenched jaw, flushed cheeks and arms that seem too rigid. I try to place these images into a meaningful representation of why I take part. Mostly, I can’t. But, each time I grit my teeth on a wind-whipped field, or put in the next pedal stroke when every sinew is pleading with me to stop, or I actually hear and respond to that quiet voice that says, ‘you can do this,’ I win. No matter what happens on the finish line. And each time I am a tiny bit stronger and have a tiny bit more belief in what I can do.