Try your Damnedest

Illustration by Christine “New Girl” Gregory

No one really “wins” the game of life. We all start out with grand notions. A few of us realize these notions; Most of us don’t. (Reality has a habit of seeing to that.) Then, eventually, we all cross the finish line and, no matter what happened along the way, we’re done. “Game over, man,” as a wise soldier once said.

That’s why it’s mission critical to make hay while the sun shines, to try your damnedest to get the most out of this short time. Who cares if it didn’t play out like you planned? It’s not about winning. It’s about trying.

To me, road racing is the ultimate metaphor illustrating why the human journey—your human journey—can be absolutely epic even if you don’t come close to winning.

Epic battles for everyone!

To the outsider, a typical bike race may seem like a bunch of people in spandex riding bikes super hard for a while, then one person crosses the finish line first and “Yay!” for that person! But it’s so much more than that. Every race is packed with so much drama, personal struggle, inner demons, tense dialog, epic battles, and the rest of human existence writ large happening in Technicolor, 3-D, IMAX, and Smell-o-Vision.

The number of high-stakes, thrilling tales happening within a bike race is directly proportional to the number of riders in that race, minus the participants riding quietly in the back of the peloton, living unexamined lives, and claiming “today is a training day.” They don’t count.

Sure, most of us want to finish 1st, 2nd, or 3rd so that we can climb up that podium–and when we do, it’s kinda fabulous. But most of us also know that we’re probably not going to win. But, seriously, so what?

A few weeks back, I joined my Big Orange Cycling teammates to spend fifty minutes riding around in circles at the California Bicycle Racing (CBR) Criterium. Specifically, I signed up to race the Masters 50+ (1-3). This means three things: I’m not new to racing, I’m old, and I’m stuck racing against guys who are a crapload faster than I’ll ever be.

The CBR folks had decided on the “circuit” course for that day, so instead of the usual, soothing square-shape we typically rode around, the course had a lollypop-with-a-broken-stick-shape. It took a right after the first turn; then another right; then a long stretch; then a narrow hairpin turn that brought the peloton to a near halt; then, if you were unlucky enough to be towards the back, a full-gas effort to get back into the group.

Better to be shattered than to be a sheep

Road bike races are much more complex than they look. First off, they’re a team event, rife with tactics. Second, riders tend to have specialties and temperaments.

Some are sprinters.

Some have amazing endurance.

Some ride hyper-strategically.

Some are magical thinkers who hide in the peloton for most of the race, hoping the Universe will grant them a top-ten finish. You generally don’t notice these folks during a race.

Others, like legendary French pro-cyclist Jacky Durand, throw themselves mindlessly out in front of the pack repeatedly, attacking the field over and over until they have nothing left. These guys, you notice.

“It astonishes me that most riders are followers, even sheep… I couldn’t do the job like that,” Durand once said in an interview for the French sports journal L’Equipe. “They finish the Tour without having attacked once, maybe the whole season, even the whole of their career. I’d rather finish shattered and last having attacked 100 times than finish 25th without having tried.”

Most of the time, the crowd cheers for these foolhardy souls the same way they might cheer for a streaker at a soccer match, groaning as the poor saps eventually blow themselves up and fade back into the group. But every once-in-a-while, an attack sticks. They come hammering around the final turn of the last lap, their faces twisted in agony as the peloton thunders seconds behind them, and against all odds and laws of human physiology, they win.

And the crowd cheers way louder.

I fall into the Durand camp (sans the Tour de France stage wins), hammering out the front of races I have no chance of winning without logic or fear—but today, I wasn’t feeling it since I hadn’t raced much since the pandemic and, well, you know, [insert additional excuses here]. I started the race firmly mid-peloton, content to stay there with the unexamining pack fodder I ridiculed a few paragraphs ago. We hadn’t done two laps and already I was winded, although I couldn’t tell if it was a genuine fitness issue or just nerves from being back in the saddle.

Twenty minutes came and went. I worked my way to the front a few times, where there was no shortage of action, but then I faded back. And my mind would drift. My wife, Marilyne, was in France, so she missed the race, but she’d ask about it. She’d be happy if I did well, but she’d be just as happy if I tried and failed, since that would mean I had a good story for her, like the first time I did the Santa Barbara Road Race.

The Santa Barbara Road Race Story (short version)

Back then, I was a Cat 5 (beginner) bozo with power to spare, so halfway through the first lap, when a small group broke away, I exploded out the front to bridge the gap and catch them. A few riders grabbed my wheel and about halfway across, I realized I wasn’t going to make it. I threw an elbow to indicate that the guy behind me should take over, but he didn’t. I glanced over my shoulder in desperation. He just shook his head and mouthed, “No.”

I blew up; my bridge attempt sputtered out. I dropped back to rest. We hooked a right and there was a hill—like, the kind of hill you can’t really rest on while ascending. I had nothing left. My legs were fried. The peloton dropped me like an empty bidon and I time-trialed the rest of the race.

I beat myself up for a week or so until my team captain, Greg “G3” Seyranian, intervened. He listened to my tale of woe and shrugged. “Did you try your damnedest?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I admitted.

“Would it have been awesome had you succeeded?”

“Well, duh.”

“And did you learn something?”

I guess so.”

“Then you tried your damnedest and you learned something,” he said, bringing it all together. “So, you’re good.”

I’ve told this story countless times over the years, usually in a longer way, depending on my blood alcohol level. G3’s advice completely cemented the type of racer I would become. Marilyne knows the story—and the way I ride—well, so when she asks how my race went, she fully expects an inspiring tale of effort at any cost.

Doing it for the wife

Yet, here I was, forty minutes into a fifty-minute CBR, seriously doubting I’d do anything even vaguely awesome. I’d barked at a guy for cutting me off and narrowly avoided a crash that happened a few feet in front of me, but those sorts of thing happen to most Angelinos on their daily work commute on the 405 freeway.

Then, with three laps to go, a pack of three guys attacked hard. No one saw it coming. A fourth guy went after them. I had no legs and no inspiration, but life’s opportunities aren’t always opportune, and I needed to tell my wife something, so I went after them too.

The guy in front of me caught the other guys quickly. It took me a bit longer. Luckily, the action took place on the stretch in front of the crowd and commentators, so I got to be micro-famous for about twenty seconds as “the Big Orange guy chasing the break.” I caught them right before they hit that first righthand turn to the button hook. I looked over my shoulder. The peloton hadn’t made the previous turn yet. If we could assemble and organize, we all had a legitimate chance of winning.

One guy was out in front, but the other three seemed to be arguing. Either they all wanted the other ones to do more work or one of them was sandbagging since he had a team captain back in the peloton he wanted to win.

I was fairly ruined upon arrival, but if I could sit behind the group for a quarter lap, I’d be ready to contribute. The fact that three out of the four members of the group were darting all over the road, quibbling like sugared-up middle school kids, made this impossible.

With my last match, I passed the debate club and hopped on the front guy’s wheel. Unfortunately, he was also gassed at this point, so we had nothing to offer each other. The peloton descended upon us just after the hairpin.

I held on to the group for the last two laps, but my race was done. I no longer had the legs to help my sprinter teammates advance to the front, so I sat up as we made the final turn, finishing in the back of the pack. But that didn’t really matter. I’d tried my damnedest at something awesome—and that’s all anyone can really ask for in life.