Touching Enlightenment With A World Champion
"Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware you are alive - that you can touch the miracle of being alive - then that is a kind of enlightenment."
~Thich Nhat Hanh
Racing bicycles is painful. Very painful. And although it can also be elating, meditative and exciting beyond words and freeing, it always remains painful. This is guaranteed. Exploring one's mental and physical limits within this sport is a process which constantly expands and contracts. Just when you experience a dimension of pain and/or liberation, another moment will reveal a new facet of such states of pain and liberation. This occurred vividly and profoundly on a sunny, windy, early June morning in Colorado Springs, Colorado while I was competing with eventual multi-Olympian and World Champion, Mike McCarthy, during the US national cycling team's selection trials for the Jr. World Cycling Championships.
When I first started racing bicycles, Mike McCarthy was a god of junior cycling in both the United States and the rest of the world in 1986. Now he is legendary all around the world after his colorful and extraordinary amateur and professional careers as a competitive cyclist. His ability to sustain high speeds for both short and long distances set him apart from other athletes. He resembled a combination of a metronome, a freight train and Ferrari Testarosa, which allowed him to simply pull away from many other riders again and again and again. Mike remained and continues to remain in a class of his own. Along with Scot Mckinley, Davis Phinney, Miguel Indurain, Craig Schommer and Eddy Merckx, Mike remains one of my cycling heroes and great inspirations. Not only is he an athlete of the highest caliber, but has always been down to earth and simply an all-around cool cat.
So how did it happen that I was paired with him for a two man team time trial on that early June morning? I was a nobody from the remote northwestern corner of the United States. Having been training and racing for less than two years. I approached the trials with great humility. Terrified of making a fool of myself, I trained very hard during the previous year. I allowed myself to set lofty goals despite living with chronic self doubt. Riding a bike always felt more familiar than throwing a baseball or kicking a soccer ball. The more I did it, the better I became, revealing that after 17-plus years I had finally found my sport. And as it eventually turned out, I also found my people.
Bike racers are a very motley and eccentric group. I heard Lance Armstrong once say that people who choose to race a bike are usually running from something, some inner demon. I cannot say this applies to everyone, but it certainly resonated with me and seemed to be the experience of other riders I met. No one ever went into graphic detail about running from anything, but there was clearly some kind of deep inspiration to explore pain and its many layers. Many cyclists, though, are more like horses, as bicyclists simply love to go fast, be outside in the elements and experience that unique freedom. Bicycling is the closest thing I have had to what it might feel like to fly.
I was paired with Mike McCarthy for the two man team time trial because I had placed second to him in the individual time trial two days earlier. The system for selecting a four man team time trial (an Olympic event until 1992, in which each player is timed from crossing the start line to the finish line, and the one with the fastest time wins) was to pair the first and second, third and fourth fastest riders and so on from their individual time trials. Then the eight fastest riders in two man team time trials would be assembled into two four man teams and compete against one another. Coaches take this time to move riders from team to team in order to find out which combination had the best rhythm, chemistry and speed.
Riding with Mike in the two man team time trial was an enlightening experience which shattered any previous encounter I had had with racing a bicycle. I kept telling myself prior to the event, "Do not get dropped. Do not get dropped," (hoping that I wouldn't be completely left behind). We warmed up together and even during the warm up I was suffering unlike I ever had before. My vision started to blur, and I was having to desperately search for the energy simply to stay on his wheel. We eventually made our way to the starting line where coaches were checking off riders and and holding stop watches. Mike and I lined up next to each other, a cycling celebrity beside an unknown. I was clear that even the coaches were curious to see what was going to happen, Mike McCarthy would reveal the truth about my ability as a potential teammate for the Junior World Championships. The time trial event is called "the race of truth" for a reason, for one's abilities and weaknesses are quickly revealed because there is nowhere to hide. There was, however, an excitement during those few moments prior to the start because I was about to compete with one of the most talented cyclists in the world for our age, but there was also a great deal of fear knowing I was about to suffer unlike at any other time in my life.
Once the coaches counted down the last few seconds to our start, we ventured into the dry, brown Colorado Springs landscape, and the picture of my team mate quickly started to become abstract. For the following half hour Mike McCarthy was a pair of black Maressi cycling shoes and white Descente socks pumping like pistons with unrelenting consistency. Eventually even these images began to blur as pain began to inhabit every cell of body unlike it ever had before. Even my earlobes and hair were in pain. With my body cramping and vision fading, all I could do throughout the race was to go through the motions and call upon a way of breathing and moving which was beyond any form of thinking. But despite the extreme discomfort, I felt incredibly alive and present. As do all great gurus and spiritual masters, Mike McCarthy helped me wake up.
The race finally ended after battling severe head winds, thin air and Colorado's heat. We finished together without being dropped by this eventual Olympian and world champion. I was even able equally share the effort by spending equal time in the lead and allowing Mike to rest in my slip stream (like he needed to rest). However, I am pretty confident that he was not as hypnotized by my matching black Maressi shoes or the red chain stays on my De Rosa road bike as I was his. He eventually said that he suffered too during that ride. It may seem twisted, but letting someone know that they suffered during a ride in the bike racing world is a very high compliment. Perhaps he was just being nice, I don't think so, as Mike is incredibly honest and direct. His personality is much like his talents as a cyclist.
Mike and I eventually competed together along with Scott McKinley and Clark Sheehan (two other cycling heroes of mine) in the team time trial event at the Junior World Cycling Championships in Casablanca Morocco later that summer. It was an enlightening experience in so many ways. Having only been as far as Canada, experiencing Morocco was an exhilarating sensory shock. One of my favorite memories from Casablanca came at the staging area for the Team Time Trial. After a lunch of goat meat and couscous (which made all of us feel rather ill), we were made to wait for the start in a tent made of dark red and black carpets and filled with enormous pillows where Clark Sheehan and Ted Kirkbride (the team's back up rider) had a heated pillow fight, bopping one another so hard that they fell down. Even the ever chill Craig Campbell, our coach, barked at them to knock it off fearing Clark would get hurt minutes before our race. Also, being able to compete with other cyclists from around the world allowed life to open in ways it never had. Trading jerseys with Soviet athletes while being able to hear their voices and look into their eyes shattered any anti Soviet propaganda which was so pervasive in American culture throughout my first seventeen years of life.
A very wise cycling friend recently told me that for him, life is about the experiences you have and the connections you make. This certainly was the case for me during my brief cycling career. Connecting with Mike McCarthy and everyone else I met during that time, opened my world up in so many ways and helped me touch the miracle of what it is to be alive.