At Monsters of the Midway, nice guys finish last

To get an insider’s understanding of the University of Chicago Velo Club’s annual bike race, a casual cycling fan eight years removed from actually riding a bike takes to the Midway.

By Jake Walerius

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anybody else remains to be seen, but what I do know is that whoever decides should probably not dwell too much on the events of last Saturday afternoon. I spent the afternoon competing in the 22nd annual Monsters of the Midway bike race, hosted by the University of Chicago Velo Club (UCVC). I lost.

When the Maroon was contacted by the UCVC about coverage of the event, it seemed like a great idea for me to compete. A little insider perspective never hurt anybody, right? Well, maybe wrong. It would probably be inaccurate to call mine an insider’s perspective given how far behind in the race I was, but Saturday was the culmination, for me, of a long and unlikely relationship with the sport of cycling, and, despite the abject competitive failure it was, I will remember it well.

My history as a competitive cyclist consists, more or less, of the time I fell off my bike in the park as a 10-year-old. That was the last time I rode a bike in anger, and I think I accepted that my career as a cyclist was over that day. As I picked the gravel out of my leg, I can imagine imagining that I was done. How could I go on after something like that? I didn’t stop riding completely, but somehow it wasn’t as fun as it used to be. The thrill that I used to get from moving my legs really fast in a circle wasn’t quite as thrilling.

Slowly, bikes faded away. My bike was moved to the basement, and I’m not sure I took it out again until I gave it away last year. During the pre-global-warming-is-an-issue era, before cycling had undergone its eco-friendly renaissance, I don’t think I gave it a single thought. It seemed my cycling days were well and truly behind me.

I watched the Tour de France for the first time in 2009, as Spain’s Alberto Contador won his second yellow jersey and my bike was still gathering dust in the basement. I don’t know why I ended up watching the Tour that year. My brother asked me the same thing. “It’s boring,” he said, “It’s just a bunch of people riding in a straight line for hours.”

That isn’t really inaccurate. Any bike race is essentially just a lot of guys riding their bikes around for hours—but then, any sport sounds boring when you reduce it to its component parts. Soccer’s just a bunch of guys kicking a ball, football’s just a bunch of guys jumping on each other, basketball’s just a bunch of guys throwing a ball at a hoop. The entertainment is in the detail, and the difference between cycling and those other sports is that its details aren’t as obvious to an uneducated observer.

It’s easy to applaud a good pass or a good shot because there is a very immediate understanding of the skill involved. These actions have clear purposes, the fulfillment of which provides a sense of satisfaction that doesn’t necessarily hinge on the larger context of the game. However, in cycling, context is everything, and if you aren’t aware of the bigger picture, it is very difficult to appreciate the difficulty and skill involved in the more immediate tactical maneuvers. The goal in cycling is separated from the build-up by such a distance that people who are unfamiliar with the sport often lose interest. As I watched the Tour in 2009, I started to realize this. And I kept going back, day after day, for three weeks, to watch the cycling. I did the same the next year, and the year after that. After all that time, I had finally been converted back to cycling.

When I got the offer to compete in Monsters of the Midway, I accepted without a second thought. I didn’t own a bike. I hadn’t even ridden one for nearly eight years. But I was going to do it anyway. I managed to borrow a secondhand bike from a friend. It wasn’t exactly a racing bike, but it was all I had to work with, so I took it. I was racing in the men’s Cat 4/5, which, as I would learn, placed me somewhere at the beginner/intermediate level. “Okay,” I thought, blissfully ignorant as I was back then, “I should be fine.”

I arrived on Saturday just in time to see the start of the Cat 4 men’s race. About 50 guys were lined up on the start line, all decked out in spandex shorts and cycling jerseys. I looked down at my noticeably baggy attire. Rarely concerned as I am with wearing skintight clothing, I didn’t think too much of it, but I was beginning to get the sense that I was a little out of place.

Anyway, I signed up for my race and took up a nice position by the finish line to watch the Cat 4. At the time I didn’t know what level the race was, but they were moving pretty fast. “It must be Cat 1,” I told myself. “Two laps left of the men’s Cat 4,” the race announcer told me. Uh-oh. If these guys were Cat 4, and I was Cat 4/5, then why were they moving so quickly? “That’s a good question,” I thought, “that’s a very good question.” It turned out to have a very good answer too. It’s because, in reality, my level was probably somewhere in the mid–Cat 100s. But it was too late; the Cat 4 had finished and it was my turn. I took up my position on the starting line right at the back of the field. The whistle blew. The race had started.

It didn’t dawn on me right away how far out of my depth I was, but it couldn’t have been more than four or five seconds. I think I stayed with the main group for about 50m. Then they were gone and I was all alone with my slightly-too-small secondhand bike. I kept on pedaling away though. It was kind of nice to be out there riding a bike again. The main pack was a distant memory, but I still had 30 minutes of cycling to get through, and I was determined to finish. I thought of those guys in the Tour de France. Riding around the Midway for half an hour is nothing compared to that, I reassured myself. Unfortunately, everything is relative. I’m very confident any one of the riders in the Tour could have won the race on Saturday, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with me, does it?

The pack was well on its way to lapping me a second time when I gave up on the Tour de France approach. It was time for something different, something I look back on fondly and remember as the denial approach. Of course they were faster than me. They had better bikes and more streamlined clothing and nicer shoes and better hair, but that didn’t make them better than me. They just had multiple unfair (by which I mean fair) advantages. I picked up the pace. So did they, probably, wherever they were. I didn’t know, I hadn’t seen them for about five days. I hoped they were doing well. In reality, the pack was actually just coming up behind me again.

Denial gave way to anger. In fact, I think I experienced all five stages of grief at some point during that race, and some more than once. But I kept on going. My wildly fluctuating mental state became commendably bullish as the finish line came into view. No one else cared at this point. They were all probably walking up stairs somewhere toning their ridiculously-sized quadriceps. But I came into the final turn feeling good. I’d done it. I’d reached the finish.

After the race I spoke to a few of the spectators and cyclists around the finish line. “Don’t worry,” they told me, “everyone gets dropped in their first race.” Maybe, or maybe they were just being polite. Either way, I couldn’t help but smile. I can only imagine how ridiculous I looked. I was like a kid running alongside a car trying to keep up with it, except I wasn’t a kid, and no one was driving a car. Lance Armstrong was probably crying somewhere.

It might have been the worst I’d ever done in anything, but for once I really didn’t care. I wanted to do it again. I wanted to get up the next morning and go for another ride. I might even be back next year with my own bike. Maybe I wasn’t the hero on Saturday. (That’s not really in doubt. I was not the hero on Saturday.) But I might be a cyclist yet.