This is a long story, so have a seat.
I should have known it was going to be a fucked up day. The weather was changing constantly, the course was changing constantly, and there was just weirdness in the air. When I left the hotel for the race it was 60 degrees. When I lined up for the start 3 hours later, it was below freezing. At the same time, a course that had gone from hilly, grassy, and fast, had turned to hilly, muddy, and slow, then to hilly, hard packed and screamingly fast, and then finally back to hilly, soft, but not muddy or technical, and slow. The combination of a 3-4 minute climb every lap and spongy but not slippery earth meant it was going to be a day for the watts/kilogram-gifted group, not the bike driving sprinter group. I didn’t expect much in terms of results for myself.
You have your best performances sometimes when there’s less at stake, so mentally I prepared like it was any other big race I did this year, and went to the start line relaxed. I was in the 3rd row, all the way to the right, behind Jon Baker, perhaps foreshadowing what was in store for me later. I decided to start “Euro-style,” which meant rather than staying in my tidy little American start box until the whistle blew, I crowded right up on the second row by half a bike length and used every inch available to me to get better position. Because we were on the far right side there was a little more lane to work with, and I had my holeshot fairly well laid out. I knew Baker was not quick off the line, and I should be able to get by in just a few pedal strokes.
Diane Fortini was the chief official. She walked by me with the whistle in her mouth, and blew it just as she passed. I managed to get what had to be my best start of the year. I caught my pedal perfectly as I stood up, clipped in at first contact, and blasted by the first two rows. Except something was weird about it. It was too good of a start. I looked back to see the front row just standing there confused, a couple of people starting to go, and the whole back of the field spread out on both sides. Unreal. The wind was howling pretty strongly when Diane blew the whistle, and the “New England Secret Start” was so secret that no on in the first row even heard it as the sound was carried away on the artic air rolling in.
Unfortunately I wouldn’t get to use the same trick twice to the same degree of success. Baker saw what I had done the first time, and tried to go up the same gap. I got by him, but then was pinched against the fence by the front row as they switched over and spread out. When the gap opened, I could have hit back out and won the start, but I didn’t see the point. I was about 10th wheel, I knew I’d struggle on the climb, and I had wheels to follow. Seemed perfect, and so I backed off and tried to get ready for my interval session. 4 minutes up, 2 minutes down, 10 or so times.
In one of the first few turns, Troy Wells started to pass on the inside, but botched the turn and had to put a foot down or might have even fallen. Things got single file and pretty settled within the first minute, but just as we were about to hit the first really narrow S-turn where there was only one line and room for one person, Troy reappeared, trying to pass a train of guys who had all already stopped pedaling and were just waiting respectfully for the person in front of them to make the turn before they did. Not Troy. He just came barreling into the turn as he’s fond of doing, fucking over the people he’s chopping and himself in the process. It’s a classic move for him, and I can’t decide if he’s a dick or a dumbass when he does it. By barging through, he ends up making a bad turn, chopping the person in front of him, slowing both people down, and using a huge amount of energy in the process. That’s exactly what he did here. So instead of resting through the turn and following the wheel in front of me, I end up banging elbows with Troy as he tried to blast through. We both end up gapped coming out of the turn as we paid more attention to defending against each other and trying not to crash, as opposed to carrying momentum and staying connected. As we exited the turn and battled for the next one, getting gapped at the same time, I asked him, “So, was that move worth it?”
Troy buried himself to go back across the gap he had created, while I just tried to ride steady. I knew the climb was going to be my weak spot all day, and at no point did I expect to go faster than the leaders and be able to close gaps there. Strangely, though, as I climbed for another minute, no one was passing me. I expected to go backwards immediately after the start, and get swarmed by a wave of skinny dudes with no bike handling skills as I approached the top of the climb, but it wasn’t happening. And perhaps karmically, Troy was blowing off the back of the front group in front of me near the crest, and I somehow caught him back and went by him. Weird. Maybe I was going to have a good ride on this course after all. Maybe I was going well enough that I’d be able to hang on the climb, and see what I could do in the turns on the way down. I’ve pulled it off at Philly before, why not today? Immediately I was encouraged, and my head was in the game.
At the very top of the climb, you made a right hand u-turn and started coasting down to a 90-degree left back uphill into a set of railroad ties. It was a fake set of stairs that wasn’t even a set of stairs, and not the slightest bit within the rules. On the approach to the dismount Wells came back by me, and then Baker after him. I was a little annoyed that I had just taken this big pull into the wind, and again when I was setting up for a turn people were trying to get by. I had enough room to set up, though, amazed that only two people were passing me, and happy I’d have some wheels to follow on the way down.
After the run and the little up/down u-turn section that followed, Troy was chasing back on to the leaders, Baker was chasing back on to Troy, and I was chasing back up to Baker, all of us still around 10th spot. In the first big sweeping S-turn I rolled on to Baker’s wheel with enough momentum to recover for a second and carry some speed on the exit. As we came out of the turn and set up for the next one, I remembered that it was a little more challenging and that Baker was a really bad driver, and so decided to leave a little gap going into the turn so I wouldn’t have to hit my brakes.
Baker was desperately trying to get back to Troy’s wheel, and the last time I followed the two of them together they both ended up on the ground and Baker with a broken collarbone. It was at Warwick last year. Troy and Jon kept sprinting each other to be first for every section of sand or technical section, and I would just follow them and leave a little room for myself. In each turn they’d go through side by side, bumping each other, trying not to crash, but not backing down. I’d just ride steady, not touch my brakes, and roll back on to them while they were scrubbing off all that speed from their fucked up, ego-fueled game of chicken. When they finally went down I rode between them as they lay on the ground, telling them what jackasses they were. Baker never got up. He’d been in Europe all fall, taken a leave of absence from his job, moved his whole family over there, and had only come back to the US for Nationals. Now he was in a pile on the ground with Troy, season over. I actually felt badly for him at the time.
I had that crash on my mind as we entered that next turn. Because of the mud from the days before, the turn had developed these three clear lines – big, wide, banked grooves so that once you picked one, you were committed until the turn was over. Baker and I both picked the inside line, but with the gap I had left on the entrance, I knew he could fuck the turn up and I’d exit on his wheel, saving a few matches and holding my spot. Except Baker didn’t just fuck the turn up, he botched it so badly it was like he rode over a landmine that exploded underneath him. He had way more speed than he could handle, overturned at the tightest part of the curve, and yard saled across the lane in front of me.
I was on the brakes immediately, but it was too late. He was spread out like a fishing net on the ground. I couldn’t go inside of him because I was already at my own top speed for making the turn in the radius I had set up for, and I was in such a deep grove that trying to leave it would guarantee I was going down, too. I couldn’t go around him to the outside for the same reason, and because he was taking up so much of the lane as he slid out, there was just no place to go but straight. I t-boned him, half went over the bars, and landed on my hands and feet in a pile on top of him.
At that moment it was like someone had knocked the spiritual wind out of me. I was so happy I had made it over the climb so close to the front, and I was excited for what might be possible for the rest of the day. I felt like I had taken proper precautions in setting up for the turn based on who was in front of me, and as we were going through the few sections of the course where I was good and technique actually mattered, I was hopeful I could take a little time back and see where it left me going into the second lap. In an instant it was all gone. No matter how quickly I got back on my bike it was a mistake I could not correct. I needed every ounce of form I had just to stay connected to the leaders. It wasn’t like I was going to get up and ride back across to Trebon and Page on the climb.
Naturally, I was pissed. I immediately started swearing, muttering to myself as much as I was yelling at Baker while I was trying to untangle our bikes. I was angry because he had taken me out of the race, and done so in a way that was typical for him. I was angry at myself for putting myself in a situation where he could even take me out in the first place. And I was just generally angry at an opportunity for a good result lost in an instant.
I absolutely told Baker he was an asshole. I'm pretty sure I told him he was a fucking idiot, too. His response to me was that I was also an asshole, or something to that effect, for crashing into him while he was on the ground. Duh! When Baker jumped up, his rear wheel was hooked in my handlebars. He kept pulling his bike away and pulling my bike with him while I was trying to get my bars out of his wheel, and that's where much of the yelling was happening. I finally had to grab his wheel and pull it back to unhook us, but he was also still pulling the other way. When I got our bikes apart and let go of his wheel, he took a step backwards with his bike, and at that point I was focused on getting back on mine and limiting my losses.
I was putting my bike down on the ground and getting ready to get back on when instead of doing the same, he dropped his bike, took a few steps toward me winding up, and punched me in the head as I was turning away from him to remount.
If you’ve ever been punched, you know how much goes through your mind in that instant. It’s this swirling mix of instinct and intellect where you immediately want to run or kill, but you’re also trying to make sense of what’s happening, recognizing that another human, one allegedly with reason and communication ability, has put those aside and acted or reacted in an animalistic way. For me, where I grew up, how I grew up, what’s buried inside me, I want to kill. That’s my first reaction. When his fist hit my head the first thing I feel is excitement. Someone’s done it. Someone’s broken the seal, opened the door for me to punch them back, to unload everything in me, all my hate and dissatisfaction and disappointment and anger – just unload all of it on to them justifiably. They invited it, they asked for it, and they don’t know what’s in store for them next. They’re going to find out how much I hate the world underneath it all, how much it’s done to me, what it means to be from Brockton.
I get flashbacks to all the fights I’ve ever been in when I find myself in this spot. Waiting for a kid after school who’d been bullying me for weeks, bigger than me, and has let everyone know that that Friday was the day he was finally going to fuck me up. Sneaking out of dismissal early, waiting for him to walk through the doors, and then smashing him in the side of his head as soon as he appears. The blood that ran out of his ear for the rest of the fight was enough to earn me respect for years to come, from him and the rest of the kids from the project next to my school. I think about the kid I wrestled to the ground and managed to get on top of, his arms pinned under my knees as I smashed his face until the blood came again, until my own mother had to be the one who pulled me off of him. I think about the four kids who got off the bus with me another day, the one kid, a really light-skinned black kid with freckles, obviously the one who gets the most shit from his friends, calling me “bitch” over and over again for weeks trying to prove himself. I think about how many punches I took that day, never going down, but never punching back, knowing the minute I started to win the fight three other sets of fists and feet would join in to make sure I lost. Does Baker know any of this when he punches me? Does he know what’s under there? Does he know anything about me? How stupid he is for punching people he doesn’t know anything about? How badly I’m going to destroy him now?
That’s not what happens, though. I’m not that person anymore, and I haven’t been for a long time. Hitting another person destroys me, not them, and I won’t go back there ever again, no matter how gorgeous and attractive and beautiful and powerful it would be to feel the force of his face against my fist. Instead I think about everything cycling means to me. I’m not just a bike racer. I think about the UCI organizers meeting I had run two nights before. I think about the ‘cross commission, about being a coach, about Cycle-Smart. I think about everything I have to lose in that moment, and everything I stand for philosophically, and instead, I don’t punch him back. Instead, I swallow it.
I simply respond with "Are you crazy? You're going to get suspended!" I know perfectly well that punching someone at a bike race gets you a one-year suspension. Doing so in front of a huge crowd of people on the first lap of 'cross nationals, well, that's just plain old dumb. I knew just riding away was my best option. He had already done sufficient damage to himself, I could just let it stand, and honestly, I really just wanted to race my bike.
So, I got back on and rode away. Allegedly Baker got back on, dropped his chain, got off his bike, and immediately got heckled by the crowd. I never saw him again, but I might as well have been riding with him on my back for the next hour. I had lost about 20 places in the 30 seconds it took for the whole incident to take place, and instead of racing for top 15, I was now back in 30th, where I stayed for most of the day. From that point on, I was never really racing. My race was over, and it was all I could do not to quit. Other than my hands going completely numb from the cold, my real struggle was simple staying in the race. I rode tempo, debated whether I should just stop, and kept hoping I’d get lapped so I could end my race without having actually quit.
There were so many people cheering for me, so many supporters – hell, the Rutgers crew alone was enough for me to keep riding. I couldn’t disrespect them or the race by stopping. I plodded on and somehow, riding tempo, half in the van already, I didn’t get lapped. I eventually hooked up with Justin Robinson and Brandon Dwight, my legs felt pretty good, my hands came back, and those guys gave me enough motivation and distraction to stay in the race. When we got to 1 lap to go I honestly couldn’t believe it. I realized I must really have been on a good day if I could just ride steady on such a hilly course and still manage to stay on the lead lap. I didn’t have the head to race for the final placings, though, and let anyone who wanted to ride hard the last lap just roll away, finally finishing in 32nd.
I eventually got back to my hotel, sat on the incident for a little while, and then decided to call Tom Vinson, national events coordinator for USAC and a long-time friend, to ask him for some advice about what to do and whether to pursue it. Tom filled me in that Diane Fortini had heard about it already, and had been looking for me to talk. I called Diane, who told me a number of spectators immediately reported what they saw to officials while we were still racing, and riders reported it post-race as well. I had no idea. Enough people witnessed it that I didn't need to report it or file any kind of complaint. My story matched what Diane had been told, and she had already included it in her report. USAC would take it up on their own, and I heard even Gully and Proctor were standing right there when it happened.
Bike racing is just a stupid little game we play as a way to make our lives mean more than the drudgery of day-to-day existence. Our lives really aren’t that hard, just boring. Work, shopping, eating, cleaning – those things are tedious and monotonous and unfulfilling for most of us. We need our lives to be difficult for them to have meaning, and bike racing, like most games or sports, is a way to set up an artificial, safe, inconsequential construct that lets us experience a struggle that feels real, feels meaningful and emotional, but has no actual consequences. No actual consequences, that is, until one person punches another over something that happens in the game.
Ultimately, it’s up to USAC to decide what happens from here. No one’s contacted me since nationals (including Baker), and I haven’t had to file any kind of formal complaint, as I said. The bigger issue for me is what Baker’s motivation and thought process could possibly be. This guy was leaving to race in Europe two days later, taking his wife and two kids with him. He’s signed up for World Cups, and is hoping to make the Worlds team. He’s got a sponsor to represent, as well as his family, and has put so much of his life on the line for bike racing. How do you risk all of that by punching someone who calls you an asshole for crashing him, and do it in the middle of a really important race, in front of hundreds of spectators including the national team coach and national cyclo-cross director?
There’s a good chance Baker’s going to get suspended for this, possibly for a year. USAC isn’t really fond of people punching other people at bike races. It’s bad for all of us when it happens, as exciting as it may be for Cyclingnews and Velonews to get to report on it. What if he gets suspended while he’s in Europe, or gets a full year and can’t race next year’s nationals? Whatever price it turns out to be, it can’t possibly turn out to have been worth it on his end. Unless, unless – unless he realizes that the few moments of self-righteous fury he felt when he decided to punch me, the gorgeous and attractive and beautiful power that comes from physically expressing your ego onto the body of another person - unless he realizes how empty and evil it is in the end specifically because it’s not a game, maybe the price will be worth paying. The games we play are supposed to make us more human. Perhaps not getting to play this game for a year will serve that same effect for Baker.