I ran my first trail race on February 2, 2021. After a lifetime of participation in various road races, I was astounded by how friendly and supportive all the runners were. In road running, the only conversations pre and post race seem to be between runners that already know one another – often clustering in exclusive little pairs, trios, and cliques of who they had travelled to the race with. Even in out-and-back style races in which you literally see the face of every runner on the course, most avoid eye contact. In contrast, during the Fort Ebey Kettle Trail Run, every time I passed another runner (or was passed) they shared words of affirmation and encouragement: “looking strong!” “wow, great job!” “have a great run!” and so on. It felt wonderful.
As I continued my nascent trail-running career over the following months, each subsequent race confirmed my first impressions. Trail racers are, for the most part, the friendliest athletes ever. Particularly at races that involved pre-race campouts and bonfires, I found myself feeling welcomed and invited to make new friends. It felt pretty great.
On June 5, 2021, I participated in my first gravel bicycle race. The night before the race, all of us that were camping out enjoyed a bonfire together. The highlight of the evening was when my terminally introverted adult daughter taught everyone a sea shanty and we all sang in terrific, beautiful, full-throated, and off-key joy. Like trail runners, this was a group of inclusive, welcoming, adventurous not-yet-but-soon-to-be-friends. It was marvelous.
After the conclusion of the June 5 Sol Grinder Gravel Race, there was another bonfire to accompany our post-race beers and hotdogs. As we stood around the fire swapping tales of misery and glory, I experienced something I hadn’t felt in thirty years, not since my sophomore year of high school when I mistakenly believed being teammates on the soccer team would translate into the cool seniors wanting me to dance with/near them at the homecoming dance.
Several racers that hadn’t camped out the night before were at the post-race fire. These were the guys with the very most expensive bikes, who showed up driving the very fanciest cars as well. One of them in particular stood out to me. He stood there in his $500 down jacket and, in response to an earnest and enthusiastic question from one of my new friends at the fire, smirked and looked him up and down in the sort of silent appraisal that rich kids from the cool lunch table master somewhere between junior high and high school. While his eventual, sardonic response was technically civil if the words would have been transcribed, his body language and tone of voice shouted “I AM SUPERIOR TO YOU AND AM TAKING GREAT PAINS TO ENDURE YOUR PRESENCE, UNDERLING!” It felt pretty crummy. An old, familiar sensation of acidic heat rose from my guts into my heart, through my caratoid arteries and into the back of my skull. I felt a nearly overwhelming compulsion to make this guy feel weak and small. I wanted to punch him square in the nose. It would have made a satisfying crunch and the hot wetness of his blood would have felt great splashed across my suddenly clenched fists.
Thankfully, I reminded myself I was a 45-year-old grown adult and I overcame the violent impulses. I dismissed the incident under the assumption that the cool-guy jerk must have been a roadie, and fretted a bit that perhaps roadies were invading the otherwise down-to-earth motley crew of friendly off road riders.
You see, roadies have a well-earned reputation for snobbery and asshattery amongst the cycling community. It’s why I was so stoked to discover the online presence of The Herd on Zwift back in December. The Herd is a collective of mostly road-riding cyclists who (like me) will wave and say hello and are, by design, inclusive and kind and welcoming: both in the virtual worlds of Zwift and in real life.
I put the post gravel race encounter with a sucky roadie into the back of my memory as I travelled with my family to a variety of trail races throughout the remainder of summer. As June became July and then August, my February first impressions of off road racing culture was strengthened with each trail race I competed in. Trail people are apparently just a better sort of human than their asphalt-loving counterparts.
Yesterday, August 28, I remembered Sucky Sol Grinder Roadie as I encountered hundreds of his brethren at the Priest Lake Triathlon. It’s been ages since I have competed in a triathlon so I had completely forgotten about the norms of the triathlon tribe. When each attempt at friendly banter as I set up my spot in the transition area was met with stoney, exasperated, minimalist responses, I remembered. The very suckiest of roadies graduate into triathletes!
So it was with great joy that after a mediocre swim I caught, passed, and dropped several of these elitist jerks during the 40km bicycle portion of the race. I took particular pleasure in the fact I was racing on an ancient and battered REI road bike I had found used for less than $200. It’s ugly but it’s light and I can make it go fast. The sucky roadies I was outriding were racing on triathlon/time trial specific bikes that cost between $5,000-$10,000. The bike race was an out-and-back affair so I had the chance to see each of the race leaders. Not one of them acknowledged my shouts of “looking strong!” and “dang you’re fast” as we passed one another, so I said to heck with it, I’m going full trail race mode. For the rest of the race every time I saw another racer, I smiled broadly and hollered affirmation and encouragement at them. The sucky roadies on expensive super bikes didn’t seem to appreciate this as I caught, passed, and dropped them. After hitting the turnaround point of the bike course, I started seeing more triathletes on modest bikes sweating their way to the halfway point I was leaving behind. Some of them were even dressed in hilariously loosely fitting running attire rather than the sleek skin suits of the elites. That’s when I started to get responses: mostly smiles, “thank you!” and “back at ya!” responses. And that’s when the first pangs of conscience hit. Because my first thought upon seeing the only friendlies on the entire race course was look how hilarious they look in those baggy clothes, or dang that guy’s cadence is slow, he is trying to push too big of a gear, or I bet I’m going to make this person’s day as I say something nice to them because I’m so much faster and cooler than they are.
I was a sucky roadie. I am a sucky roadie. In the immortal words of Pogo, We have met the enemy and he is us.
How often have I strategized at parties how to avoid interacting with people I deemed beneath the worth of my engagement and attention? How often have I avoided eye contact in the break room in the hopes that obnoxious coworker doesn’t come sit with me? How often have I approached relationships in a cynically transactional manner, opening my heart and home only to those that I find interesting, only to those that make me feel cool when I’m around them? How often have I been that sucky roadie? Undoubtably more often than I care to count.
So today it’s confession. Tomorrow, it’s mindful pursuit of improvement. Hopefully improvement towards becoming a person marked by kindness and welcoming inclusion. Towards becoming more like those awesome trail racers I’ve enjoyed meeting and less like the sucky roadie I have been too often.