Crumble: Last Tuesday, at 430am I woke to the brutish sound of my alarm clock. At 6am I had to be at my first job. I won’t get back home from work until 830pm, maybe even 9pm. My early morning routine has become exact to ensure I’m properly prepared for the long day ahead.
First, I measured my resting heart rate. I tried to savor lying in my warm bed for the couple minutes it took my Spo2 reader to flash: 39bpm. I wanted to lie there drifting in and out of lucid dreams and enjoy the quite sounds of the early morning while the world still sleeps. But, I had to get up.
At 433am, without hesitation, I crawled out of bed and climbed down the steep loft ladder into my perfectly tiny one-room cottage. I immediately set the kettle to boil. Then, before hydrating my body by chugging 1.5liters of water, I took a piss and weighed myself on the bathroom scale.
Since my off-season began, I’ve put on 10lbs of fat and muscle. It’s easy to do when I’m shoveling dirt for 6-8hours a day and eating whatever the hell I want. For this off-season—which has followed a 20month long race season—I decided it’d be in my best interest to indulge in a three-week binge where I throw most dietary inhibitions aside, as well as indulge in other things kids my age do: all within reason.
I wasn’t too worried that the scale read 185lbs when three weeks ago it had been at a lifetime low of 173.3lbs. I needed the psychological break. My body has been at less than 4% body fat for two years now. I could feel myself getting weak from it. The extra fat and muscle I gained will quickly vanish as soon as I start recording my caloric intake and begin surviving through the harsh months of training in the cold Northwest winter.
After living like a monk for those 20months of focus, I felt the need for the pendulum to swing the other way, but not for too long, and not too violently either. I’ve learned from my mistakes made in past off-seasons where I used the break to condone destructive behaviors, behaviors that become hard to escape once I needed to start training again. I’ve discovered: the more committed you are to a goal, the more confident you become in allowing yourself a break when you truly need it.
It was now 440am. I had to be out the door by 510am at the latest. On my commuter bike fully loaded with panniers filled with supplies to last me through the workday, it takes me roughly thirty minutes to bike from my home in Capital Hill to my first job, which is at CycleU in North Seattle.
This means I have about twenty minutes to make my breakfast and prepare all my meals for the day until I return home for a late dinner. Twenty minutes may sound like a long time, but it’s not. Food and nutrition is one area of my life I refuse to neglect in the name of saving time.
At 455am, still wearing sweats and a hoodie, I now had about ten minutes to drink my hot tea and to eat my delicious 2,000+ calorie breakfast: whole fat yogurt, fage, quinoa, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, pecans, tons of Cinnamon, and an assortment of seasonal fruit, usually cut up pears, bananas, & pomegranates.
During the ten minutes I have to eat I also use the time to write in my daily journal. I usually don’t have time to write any story. So, I stick to the essentials and record my sleep hours, weight, resting heart rate, and jot down a short paragraph describing the prior days workout.
Lately my off-season workouts are non-standard, for example: 2-3hrs commuting/variable riding intensity, or 6hrs hard manual labor, or 3hrs chopping wood for grandparents, or 4 x 20min all-out-run up the steep mountain trails I just built on private property in Leavenworth.
It is now 505am and I’ve yet to put on the five layers of cycling clothing necessary to pierce through the near freezing air outside. I shove spoonfuls of breakfast into my mouth while yanking on layer after layer of spandex.
My tea is still too hot so I pour some cool water in it and gulp it down. It taste nothing like coffee, which I will miss terribly. You see, yesterday was the last day of my off-season, which meant this morning was the first day of a two-week long detox I planned to do before I officially begin training.
I knew I’d be stupid to jump straight back into training sleep deprived and sick from all the crap I’ve been eating. So, for the next two weeks I’d purge out all the toxins I accumulated in those necessary three-weeks of debatable fun. On November 15th I start regimented training, and my body must be healed so I can begin ripping it apart on the bike.
To give you a rough idea of my off-season calendar. It goes something like this:
October 5th – November 1st: I returned back to Seattle after a thoroughly disappointing track National Championships. I gave myself until November 1st to not care about anything. Sleep, training, nutrition, health: they all were intentionally ignored to give my mind a break. Chronic headaches, cold sweats, jitters, wild emotional mood swings, and an upset stomach was the trade off for being able to hangout with my friends, party a bit, play in the mountains, eat shitty food, all while still working 50-60hours a week because in my particular situation the off-season also means I have to make money since I don’t get paid the big dollars to race my bike.
November 1st – November 15th: Around November 1st I couldn’t take the sludge of toxins coursing through my veins. And this is why I began detox, which consists of a lifestyle that would put a monk to shame. The weekend before the 15th I had made arrangement to head north to meet with Michael Blevins and Mark Twight of Gym Jones. They both were working in Vancouver training Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon for the new Superman movie.
For the passed three years I’ve wanted to meet Mark Twight and pick his brain. Serendipity, synchronicity, and patience lead to an invitation to spend the weekend with them so they could teach me how to properly lift weights and assess my overall training plan through the lens of their hard-earned expertise on fitness, both physiologically and psychologically.
November 15th – Race Season: The hours I was working in my off-season was/is not sustainable. It is impossible to train effectively working 50-60hours a week on 5-7hours a sleep a night. Hell, it is impossible to be a functional human doing that. Since I had been working my ass off for almost four weeks straight now, I was at a point where I could work less, train more, and recover more effectively.
My goal is to put in 25-30 hours of training in while working 25-30hours a week while sleeping at least 10hours a night. This leaves only a couple hours in the day to work on my personal projects and hobbies (writing/art/building cool shit/moving into a new home). Therefore: my days will be calculated to the very minute. Obsession to achieve actualization. This type of commitment no longer is a burden. I crave it.
I checked the clock: 509am. Since I had been too absorbed in writing in my journal, I didn’t have time to finish breakfast. I refuse to inhale food. No point in shoving down un-chewed food that is going to rip apart my stomach. So, I hastily tossed the remains into a metal—I hate plastic, can we ever escape it?—to go container.
At 513am I am finally on my bike. I’m going to be late. Sure, it takes ten minutes to drive to work at 5am in the morning, but I have principles: I refuse to drive my old truck since I have two legs that work perfectly well.
I’ll be really late unless I haul ass. I’m supposed to be riding as easy as possible. My body is wrecked from all the racing I’ve done this year. Most full-time cyclists take an entire three-five weeks COMPLETELY off the bike. I don’t have this luxury. Two nearly maxed out credits cards I used to get myself to the level of racing I’m now at (bike racing is not for the broke. Read: From There to Here) give incentive for my work ethic.
I got to CycleU at 539am sweating like a madman. Even though I’m technically nine minutes late, I’m usually the first one there, well before any clients arrive. For these early morning classes I’m the one who opens up the shop, turns on the lights, and gets everything ready for the indoor cycling classes.
But, today my boss showed up. I could tell he noticed I was late because he had already done all the set-up I’m supposed to do.
Goddamn it. I muttered to myself. Today was the first day I’d been late all month. Being on time is a necessity to accomplish everything I desire to achieve. I shirk it off. I consider my boss a close friend. He has seen my ups and downs over the past five years. But, he’s still my boss, and this is still a job I must hold myself accountable for.
I’m here at CycleU to lead an hour-long indoor cycling class that starts at 6am. Coaching these classes is rewarding because I’m positively affecting numerous people who come in ambitious to improve their fitness. But, ultimately, the classes are draining.
There is the obvious reason: having to wake early. And there is the not so obvious reason: having to be riding my bike in a way that falls outside my training plan. When you have to ride your bike around 25hours each week, every minute on the bike must be used effectively.
I’m not here for the workout. I’m here because the job pays well, and it is one of the only consistent jobs I can hold during the off-season because of the nomadic nature of being a full-time bike racer. I’m here to provide inspiration to a class-full of people. Yet, this can be difficult when I’m exhausted and desperately seeking inspiration myself. But, my job is to teach a kick-ass class, and I’m 100% committed to do this.
So, I got creative and found a solid compromise. Instead of following the workout the class does (there’s no way I can hold a threshold interval while shouting into a headset-microphone) I ride my track bike on rollers at a steady Z2 pace, which is what my body needs at this time of the year. When I found this solution, I could more fully enjoy the classes, which are actually really fun since I get to blare loud music and workout with highly motivated people before the sun even rises.
The class ends at 7am. I’m never out the door until at least 730am because I take pleasure in hanging around to answer questions about training. In my cycling history I’ve learned the hard way, and it is one of my true delights to give advice to other aspiring cyclists to help them avoid all the fuck-ups and mistakes I’ve made.
Luckily today it is gorgeously sunny outside. Autumn in the Northwest is my favorite. Absolute favorite. There is no place in the world I’d rather be. The air is a drug. The colors and movements and energy are intoxicating. Unfortunately I won’t be able to indulge because I need to buy groceries before biking to my second job, which starts at 9am.
On my black, rattle-canned commuter bike (a Frankenstein bike I created from my first race bike) I trucked it over to the supermarket to buy fresh produce and food. I won’t have time to go grocery shopping after work, so I buy my food now and then drag it around with me on my bike the rest of the day until I can cook it up when I get home.
I packed up my groceries onto my bike and begin the 8mph bike ride to my second job. I creep along, trying to give my legs a break while they tow 50lbs of food and work supplies up and down the unavoidably steep hills of Seattle.
I showed up at 915am. Fifteen minutes late, but it’s cool because I’m doing freelance carpentry for the parents of a close friend. Over the years I’ve accumulated a large bank of handy-man knowledge wrought from my curiosity on how to fix things, my obsession with knowing how to build structures, and my passion for using my hands. For a cyclist, this knowledge directly translates to a weird unstable-stability where I can usually pick-up part-time work from people in my close network of Seattle friends, their parents, and their/my neighbors.
I spent the next 6.5hours hours in a basement of a gorgeous mansion working on remodeling a dusty, old storage room. The work is hard: lifting heavy objects, painting intricate pipe covered walls with a ventilator-mask strapped to my face, sawing and hammering through old wood and metal. Yet, the work is rewarding: I constantly see daily improvements in this two-week long gig (I began this gig immediately after the three-weeks spent building an alpine trail system in the Cascade Mountains on private property).
Each day I walk into the storage room and revel in the hard work performed the day before. The paint is dry, the concrete is sealed, and today I’d install all the shelves: solid, visible markers of progress—something bike racing rarely offers. And, most importantly, I get to set my own hours, and I get paid in cash at the end of the day. Seeing my credit card debt decrease gives me squeals of delight.
Every couple of hours I ripped off the ventilator and stepped outside into the crisp, autumn air that sends shivers down my spine like the quivering hands of a lover. I slowly chewed on a hummus and honey sprouted bread sandwich and watched the clouds drift by.
I work alone. I have no manager, no supervisor, so it is up to my honesty and work ethic to promptly end my five-minute break and get back to work. Today my hips were particularly tight. The long workweek leaves little time for stretching, foam rollers, or Epsom salt baths. Yet, I must work this much. There’s only a short window of time in the year when I’m not racing and training. No time to breath.
At 330pm, I just finished the final coat of paint on the floor. Sanding down the white wash took longer than I expected. Building the shelves would have to wait until tomorrow. I had to be back at CycleU at 415pm to get ready to teach two more classes at 445pm and 630pm. Somehow I managed to clean up all the paint supplies in record time, which left me with 40min to bike the 30min commute back to CycleU.
On the way, I used the extra 10min to stop by a small, hidden park overlooking the Mountlake cut. I watched rowers glide by on the glass-like water and reminisced about my former days as a UW rower. I think to myself, what would my life be like if I didn’t quit rowing? A lot of people don’t know that my rowing career had more potential than my cycling career. But, my self-destructive ways dropped me out of college, and off the rowing team, and when I returned to the world of academia I had solidified the switch to bike racing.
My thoughts overwhelmed me and I lost track of time. The exhaustion was taking a toll. I had actually fallen asleep slightly while sitting on the park bench. I jumped up. It was 400pm and I still had a few miles to bike with my 50lbs of food and gear. I showed up to CycleU at 430pm, fifteen minutes late, and my boss, who is usually never there at this time of the day, was there again!
Shit!!! I said to myself. That’s two for two in one day. I can’t be late!
For the next three hours straight it’s back to coaching indoor cycling and riding my track bike on the rollers. I summon positive thoughts, crank up the music, and try to hyper-focus on my own legs while still leading an engaging and intense class.
At 830pm I’m back on my commuter bike and make the arduous climb up Capitol Hill to my little cottage next to Volunteer Park. With the weight of groceries and supplies, I’m spinning 50rpms in my 39x23. It is the off-season and today I rode my bike for 6hours, worked manual labor for 6.5hours, all after waking at 430am. You do the math.
I get home and still need to eat. By the time I heat up my stew, sit down to enjoy it, then shower, floss, and brush my teeth, the time is tipping towards 945pm. Finally, after a long day, I crawl back into bed at 10pm.
I lay there for a few moments noticing the fatigue in my body I ignored all day. I slide my hand over to the empty space next to me on the bed. I wish there was a sweaty girl breathing next to me. I linger on this enticing thought, remembering the sensation of hips and lips, and then I close my eyes because the very thought of it exhausts me with frustration. I have to wake back up at 445am again tomorrow (I get 15min of extra sleep on Wednesday mornings) to teach a 630am class. The memories of skin and sweat vanishes.
Collapse: Throughout the night I didn’t sleep well. Even while sleeping, in the back of my head I knew I gotta get up in 6hours. Sure, this may sound like a lot of sleep for many, but for a cyclist who’s aspiring to race his bike for a living there’s no way my body can fully recover with 6hours. Normally, in the race season I try to get 9-11hours every night. Every night.
The next morning I wake up to an odd sensation. I usually have a habit of waking up before my alarm. This morning I feel peculiarly rested, which excites me. Perhaps my body is adapting to my early morning schedule. I reach my arm over the bed and pick up my iphone. It reads: 629am. Fuck. 629am.
Last night, in my tired state I idiotically forgot to turn my ringer back on. You see, throughout the day I don’t really have time to talk to people on the phone, and I also hate the sound of phones ringing at awkward times, so I leave my phone on silent. I also use my phone as my alarm clock. Alarm clocks don’t work well without ringers.
I threw on shoes, grabbed my keys, and I flew out my door without a thought. I hopped in my pick-up truck and cranked her alive. She moaned in protest. I felt horrible for waking her 40-year-old engine up and I ignored the damage I must be inflicting for stepping on the gas of her cold, sleepy engine.
I got three blocks away and realized I can’t see shit. I’m legally blind without contacts or glasses. I almost turned around to get my glasses, but that would’ve taken too much time, so I push on squinting through the foggy windshield.
I’m praying to the gods that my boss showed up again this morning. He usually is not there in the morning. But, he was yesterday. So maybe he’s there today teaching the class for me in lieu in of my unacceptable tardiness.
At 641am I roared into CycleU’s parking lot 41minutes late. My hopes were dashed. The parking lot was completely empty. No one waited around in the cold. I completely missed the class. The gods laughed with glee.
Instead of going home I opened up the shop and immediately wrote my boss an apology. I then sat there for a moment in shock. I stared at the wall and proceeded to mentally beat myself into a pulp. I envisioned punching a brick wall until the skin on my knuckles folded off in blood (luckily I no longer actually punch brick walls in self-hatred as was my tendency five years ago). I have a propensity for holding myself to unrealistic standards. The curse of a perfectionist. The rage of ambition.
I got up and walked to the coaches’ platform and sat down. There’s a large mirror that runs across the whole wall. I looked into the mirror and noticed the bags under my eyes. I looked at my hands, worn and cut up from the long hours of manual labor. I took a deep breath and then something snapped inside me.
I buried my face in my hands and I cried. I cried hard. Sobbing and shaking and heaving. I wasn’t crying because I was late. I wasn’t crying because I was tired. I was crying because at this moment something unexplainable cracked inside me. My entire existence as a human was being ripped apart.
The point: I use writing as a way to try and articulate feelings I can’t understand. This means you, dear reader, are about to glimpse into my attempt. The following honesty may be a bit much for some of you, but I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world who has felt the confused emotions I need to express.
For the past two years I’ve been struggling to get back on my feet after quitting the sport. I’ve been struggling to obtain a long-time dream of being a professional cyclist with Olympic ambitions. Being late was a hot knife thrust into a world of inadequacies and insecurities, which I’m very good at avoiding.
That morning, Pandora’s box exploded open: Why the fuck am I doing this? Why the fuck am I working so hard to be a professional cyclist?
But. Let’s stop here. I’m getting carried away. I need to stress a very important point. This point will eventually—I hope—explain the very reason why I broke down.
As I sat there alone in the giant warehouse of CycleU, I knew my feelings of sadness and despair did not originate from me feeling sorry for myself. Feeling sorry for one’s self is a form of narcissism. There was no noise of the ego in the sound of my sobs. Over the years, I’ve attempted as best as possible to avoid feeling sorry for myself. But, this was not always the case.
In my nihilistic teenage years the easy answer to all my problems was too: blame everyone but myself. With this mentality, every hardship I met was not my fault, it was the whole world’s fault.
This self-inflicted victimization became ugly. From the ages of about 17-23ish I constantly struggled with a tendency to direct my rage towards the outside world instead of realizing this rage should be directed at myself, at my shortcomings and my limitations. Luckily, I’ve been given the gift of introspection, and have worked hard at releasing the shackles of self-inflicted victimization.
Quite frankly, I have absolutely nothing to feel sorry about. My life as it stands is a constant adventure filled with endless opportunities. I’m no longer an infant. At this stage: I choose my life. And I’m conscious of my choices. Thus, I’m aware that most hardships I encounter are often by-products of my choices. Knowing this to be true further emphasized that there was something more to my tears than a simple moment of, “Gosh, I’ve had a hard day.”
So, what inside me produced this un-predicted crack in composure? What caused the physical manifestation of tears? My answer is simple: They were spawned from a sudden rush of my own humanity. And humans are weak.
Too much of my identity is invested in my ego. I know I just said I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. Yet, this is only true to a certain point. Because part of the problem is that I constantly compare myself to others, and this is a form of narcissism: the very thing I’m trying to avoid.
But, my sadness did not originate from this narcissism; rather, my despondency was merely being filtered through the upper layer of my ego as it bubbled up from a much deeper source. This source we need to explore further. And we will.
A life stage: Around my age people usually find their life calling. I’m a lucky bastard because the majority of my friends (a small circle) are highly successful. Not only are they successful, they are passionate about what they do. Two of them, Sam and Adrian, started cycling around the same time as me. They are now Professionals. And I am an amateur. My ego sees this and tells me: Dan, they are better than you.
Another close friend, Andy, just opened the largest indoor bouldering gym in the world (The Seattle Bouldering Project). He is one of my most laid-back friends, yet he is somehow also a wickedly good businessman. And then I have other friends who are juggling PhD programs while being pro athletes. I have friends revolutionizing fields in neuroscience and industrial organizational psychology. I know famous musicians, big-time athletes, movie stars, accomplished social reformers, published writers, and the list goes on.
And I look at myself and see an amateur cyclist who is constantly falling short of his goals. The ego. It can destroy you. It will cut you up into smaller and smaller pieces.
The ego tells me: “Dan, you set a goal of the 2012 Olympics and failed. You aren’t going to the Olympics. You are worthless.”
I then yell at the ego, “But! There are so many stipulations! USA cycling isn’t even sending a team pursuit squad. No team pursuiter is even going to the Olympics.”
The ego replies: “People don’t know this. They will hear you aren’t going to the Olympics and know you’re a failure. How could an amateur like you ever go to the Olympics?”
“I was professional last year! I signed my first professional contract!”
“And you lost it,” the ego casually quips.
“Everyone lost their contract. The stupid team folded. The owner of the team was a madman drug addict! He took a baseball bat to his own house!” I scream while throwing my hands in the air. “How in the hell was I supposed to perform to my potential when the entire team was exploding around me?”
“It doesn’t matter,” the ego taunts. “Look at you now. An amateur.”
A friend: The other day I was digging three holes in the ground, each 4ft deep and 10ft wide. I was planting three nearly full-grown maple trees for Andy’s sister. A prime example of the many jobs I hustle for cash to make ends meet. And, despite this being a job of mindless manual labor, Andy was right there alongside me shoveling dirt.
His work ethic is contagious, because he does everything calmly, without frenzy, without complaint or grimace. He wasn’t getting paid to help. He was just there to help even though I’m sure he had plenty other more important duties to accomplish.
After an hour of digging mostly in silence I looked over at Andy and said, “I have to be honest with you. Sometimes I feel like a loser. Here I am digging a hole in the ground to pay the bills and you’ve started a goddamn bouldering gym.”
“Dan,” he quipped, “You’re a professional cyclist.”
I fiercely cut him off, “No! I am not a professional cyclist.”
He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. Instead of arguing the point, he said, “Dan, out of all my friends, you’re the biggest outcast. That’s something most would kill for. Do you realize how many people are jealous of your ability to defy the norm to follow your dream?”
I looked at him and shook my head in disbelief. Leave it to Andy to shoot me down with one of the best compliments I could ever receive. I continued digging in the dirt, making sure this was the best damn hole that was ever dug.
A memory: I spent the majority of 3rd grade alone. Because of my ‘tendency’ to disturb the class, I routinely was directed to sit at the time-out desk that faced into the corner farthest away from the other students. To ‘direct’ my mind I was forced to do multiplication tables for many, many hours.
Later, in my junior year of high school, after a particular extravagant suicide scare, my shrink told me I had been a gifted child. Fuck that, I wasn’t gifted.
I was a kid who couldn’t understand why in the hell I had to sit down for hours a day when all my body wanted to do was run outside and play and explore and climb trees and look at the clouds and bugs and hillsides and all the other mysteries inviting the curiosity of a young child.
I got so angry and threw fits because my nine-year-old mind knew there was something fundamentally wrong with these adults forcing me to sit-still. But, a nine-year-old can’t articulate this, and even if he/she could, adults wouldn’t listen because most adults are too saturated in the fallacies of our culture. My nine-year-old mind was living in a paradigm completely inaccessible to all the countless adults who’ve been over-steeped in a culture of complacency and lethargy.
And so what happened? I spent 3rd grade sitting in a corner daydreaming and stealing glances at the clouds dancing by the small, barred windows.
A rant: When people asked me to explain why I’m so passionate about cycling I used to say, “Well, you must understand, there are very little extrinsic rewards in cycling.” I would then attempt to describe how the motivation to race must be intrinsic—this internal silent knowledge that you are pushing yourself for no rewards.
I still stand strong by this explanation of internal motivation, yet I now realize there are actually numerous extrinsic rewards. The reason I did not see these rewards for so long is because of the cultural blindfold duct-taped over my eyes beginning at birth.
As a ‘privileged American, western middle-class kid who grew up internationally and received a good education’ I’ve been conditioned to believe in certain truths. These truths, from a very young age, began to dissolve in a viscous acid of some unexplainable rage inside me. I don’t know if I was born with this rage, or if it was a product of some very difficult moments growing up. Regardless, the more these “truths” dissolve, the more I understand what it is to truly find fulfillment in life.
Everywhere around me I see people violently struggling to find fulfillment in over-consumption, in over-indulgence, in cheap-sex and drugs and miles of unnecessary freeway systems, in dead-end religions and far-fetched ideals. They’re struggling to find fulfillment and will never succeed because the paradigm they live within does not contain fulfillment. No object or relationship will fill the void.
We must exit this paradigm, see the chinks in the wall, and begin picking at the cracks to break out from the chains humanity has ignorantly created. How do we do this? I don’t know.
My only guess is: we must continue looking for the flaws in our thoughts and actions plastered on billboards and TV commercials; in the incessant waste of resources; in the hours of our lives wasted sitting in traffic and working long hours to buy crap we don’t need; in chronic obesity, diabetes, cancer, global starvation, over population. Yes, this long list goes on.
Understanding: So what are the extrinsic rewards of bike racing I discovered? At first glance, it does not seem like there are many at my level of racing. There is no money, and there is no stability for an amateur cyclist who’s teetering on the edge of being an actual career professional. Therefore, by the truths of our culture’s paradigm: I am a dead-beat. Or maybe, if you’re diplomatic, you’d say: I’m a young idealist who hasn’t grown up and gotten a real job.
Real job? Well, what about Quality of Life? My quality of life by far surpasses some of the wealthiest and most successful kids my age whom I know. Sure, I don’t get paid to race my bike. But, at the level I’ve reached I do have sponsorship support large enough to fly around the world to race my bike. Let me repeat this: I fly around the world to race my bike.
In order to do this, and still make ends meet, I’ve become resourceful, a logistical genius, and, ultimately, a hard worker who unwaveringly sticks to principles and goals leading towards: fulfillment. Real job? Fuck you. I work harder than you and I don’t get paid.
I’m sticking to the plan. I’m progressing, getting closer. So, why the hell was I crying? Yeah, sure, maybe I have to work long hours of manual labor in the off-season. Maybe I have to wake up at 430am overworked and undersexed. Maybe I have to burn the candle at both ends to juggle all the tasks necessary to achieve my goals and still pay the bills.
But, these hardships are trivial when I think about all the opportunities cycling has (and continues to) opened up for me. As of late, I’ve become more aware how most opportunities in my life directly stem from my dedication and passion to a sport with “little rewards.”
I travel to places I could never afford; I live an active life of health and vigor; a family has opened up their home to me and I haven’t paid rent in three years; companies give me their products for free; coaches, mentors, and businesspeople freely give me advice for which they normally would charge beaucoup bucks; I’m introduced to people who are so massively inspiring I get jitters when I hear their stories; and most importantly, I develop relationships with these people that are meaningful, fulfilling and help me lead a life where I can pursue my dream. (Oh, I forgot: And I have a six-pack and legs that make girls both jealous and…)
I don’t take handouts from parents, family, or friends. I don’t collect unemployment so I can race my bike (though it’d sure be nice to have socialized health care). Instead, I wake up at 430am and work all day, knowing that life has given me so much (just look at the above paragraph), so it is my duty to make ends meet in order to achieve my goals.
After writing all this, I still don’t get why I cried.
An equal(=)s sign: There must something deeper inside me that’s the cause. There’s something beyond the social status given to athletes; something beyond the economical privilege given to middle-class westerners (after all, the hardships of being a broke bike racer could easily be fixed by quitting racing to work a steady 9-5 job); something even deeper than the relationships I’ve been gifted with purely because people want to support my dream.
I believe my tears welled up from a mysterious place inside me connected to everyone. A common link we all share. My human mind—though it is selfish, narrow-minded, hyper-focused, and egocentric—is still linked to something beyond itself. The catalyst that most effectively accesses this mysterious place of humanity that connects us all together is: Struggle.
Athletes in niche sports explore a realm of their humanity most would never dare. I believe the reason so many people support me, give me third, fourth, and even fifth chances, is because I have chosen to pursue a goal that goes beyond the place in this world I was born into. This reminds me of a story I once wrote:
How far: “I’ve a theory,” he hollered at me over the sound of wind roaring through the rolled down windows. The summer air was warm as we twisted down some nameless mountain pass on the Oregon Interstate. Chuck’s breath smelt like stale beer. He reached back and fished his hand into the half empty 24-pack stashed behind the driver’s seat he sat in. He offered me a can; I politely declined.
He cracked one open, finished it in a few gulps, threw it out the window, and repeated, “I’ve a theory.”
Chuck stared at me real hard before looking back at the road we were flying down at 80mph. In his thick drawl he said, “It doesn’t matter how high up ya’re. What matters is how far ya went. Ain’t no big deal if a ‘elicopter plopped ya down a ‘undred feet near the top. I’ll give ya more respect if ya get half way up some mountain but started hikin’ three valleys back.”
I was nineteen years old at the time and this was my second adventure biking and hitchhiking around the enchanting Northwest—my impromptu form of escape from the walls of academia and the confusing boundaries of my childhood.
“How far have you gone?” I asked him.
“Well now,” he said in a far away tone of regretful memories, “I haven’t gone nowhere.”
From the insecurities of curious youth I didn’t have the courage to respond to his desperate answer. As I peeked out the corner of my eye at his leathery cheeks and creased forehead I thought to myself, Chuck, that’s a very, very long way to go.
An unrelated anecdote: The night before Andy’s wedding day, he and I were walking back alone from the pre-wedding party held in the wondrous town of Jackson, Wyoming. The Teton Mountains loomed behind us invisible in the darkness. A thick layer of stars and celestial beauty seemed close and heavy.
Our words drifted into the parts of our lives not often explored in casual conversation. After a moment of serene silence, Andy, with a tone that to this day I cannot describe, asked me,
“Dan, do you think you’ll ever get married?”
The question hit me hard. I thought silently for a moment and said firmly, “No. I don’t think I ever will.”
The next day—and many days after—I could not shrug off his question. Why did I answer this way? What made me so sure?
I think my answer was exploring a deeper implication. My fear of labels. For example: if I don’t marry, does this mean I will never fall in love? Does this mean that I will never live in the same house with a partner, or raise children? Does this mean I won’t be with one person my whole life? Do I need to be with one person my whole life? Humans change, so why wouldn’t relationships?
In my opinion, marriage is simply a safe, socially acceptable invented box people default too when attempting to reconcile an unexplainable bond between two humans. This isn’t an issue concerning my ability to commit. I often fear I have too much commitment. It’s the easiness of labels that I’m avoiding. I’m interested in exploring the unknowns and this is why marriage does not seem likely.
Bike racing is also an unknown. Typical social rules and traditional values are not applicable. Many people can’t comprehend how I live a lifestyle of instability, of hustling to get from race to race. In contrast, I look at my goals and see the only way to live is outside the prescribed protocol for life.
To see a flaw: Despite teetering on the edge of making it into the big leagues, in 2008 I quit bike racing. I won’t waste your time with the explanation. Let’s just say I had a lot of sharp knives in my back pocket I was dying to test out on my own life.
That year, to save up for a grand adventure I’d been dreaming about, I worked full time. In the spring of 2009 I was hired by the Cascade Bicycle Club to be the lead instructor for a first-year start-up non-profit undertaking called, The Major Taylor Project.
My role was to lead after-school bike rides and activities at high schools in White Center, Seatac, and South Seattle. Along with teaching bike safety and basic riding skills, I was also there to spread the larger message of: Bicycles are the Future.
Most of the teens I worked with didn’t have the means to afford their own bikes. Many had parents struggling just to survive in the lowest income areas of Seattle. I won’t say it was an eye opening experience. My childhood was not sheltered. Growing up I saw a lot of brutal things, which in many ways helped me relate to the confused emotions these teens had to navigate through during the difficulties of high school.
On one Friday afternoon, the Principle of Global Connections high school in Seatac arranged a fieldtrip for the Major Taylor teens to come watch me race at the local velodrome. It was just a local race, maybe one of four races that I did that whole year. My legs were hairy. I wasn’t a bike racer anymore but I wanted to show these teens what racing was all about.
From residual fitness and my aim to put on a good show, I won the first race. All the teens stood up and started screaming their hearts out with glee. As I cooled-down their cheers affected me strangely. I looked over at their excited, youthful faces and became disgusted with myself. This was not the reaction I expected.
The reason is simple: Most these teens would never have the opportunity to race their bikes, let alone be given the opportunity to make bike racing into a career. I had spent hours with these kids throughout that spring and summer. I caught glimpses of the hardships in their lives. I saw the limited opportunities given to them. For some of them, a simple two-hour bike ride on a misty Wednesday afternoon was the best thing they had to look forward to all week.
As they chanted, Go, Dan! Go, Dan! I felt fake. I felt angry. I felt utterly repulsed at myself for quitting bike racing. The disgust I felt that day at the velodrome was the first catalyst in my return to the sport. The ability to race my bike is an opportunity.
The fact is: my life is not hard. I make my life hard. I choose the hard route. I haven’t had to see my family slashed apart by a machete. I haven’t had to hold my child as they died from starvation. I haven’t had to experience my legs getting blown off from a landmine. Any complaint I utter is absolute bullshit.
A flaw may heal: Bike racing is fundamentally a selfish goal. I cut myself off from relationships; I constantly put my routines above the emotions and wants of others. I cut out any fat in my life and put on blinders to any distractions. Often, this means I am not the best of friends, or the most reliable individual to count on emotionally. I am irritable. Often vicious. And rarely step away from the direction I want to take.
Yet, the older I get the more aware I become of growing desire inside me to benefit the world in a positive way. The most significant impact an individual can have on the world is by: a contribution that helps humans collectively and individually reach their potential. Often people who are deeply connected with their own humanity do this. We can reach our potential by better understanding our human condition.
As selfish as it may be, this is why I pursue bike racing. It allows me to further explore myself. And the more I explore myself, the more whole I become. And as I become more whole, my individual actions make a larger impact.
The more I dedicate myself to cycling, and the higher I get in the sport, the more social influence I will have to instigate the social changes I wish to see in this world. The Bicycle will help end this unsustainable paradigm humans have created. The Bicycle is my destiny. And I will only find out my destiny by focusing on my current task at hand: race my bike as hard as possible.
The past: In 2007 I was 23-years-old and it was my second year of racing, I was supposedly known as the Northwest’s new up-and-coming talent. My best friend at the time—who was also an up-and-comer—was Adrian Hegyvary (don’t worry, we still are best-ies).
As amateurs, he and I were getting noticed. We’d reached a point where we could race full-time at a national level. During the long hours spent together traveling from race to race we had many a conversation about racing, about our dreams. He was the first to articulate a frustration I now feel often.
“I hate it when people ask me what I do,” he said to me.
“Because I want to tell them I’m a professional cyclist, but it’s so complicated.”
“Man, you can’t say that. We’re amateurs. You just gotta say you race bikes.”
“But that doesn’t capture what we really do. I mean, my entire life is focused on racing. It is my occupation.”
“We don’t get paid.”
“What about our coaching jobs? Working at CycleU? Everything we do is directed towards supporting our racing.”
Our conversation went on for quite some time as we talked like schoolgirls into the late hours of the night. By the time we finally fell asleep, Adrian came to a resolution: he was going to tell people he was a professional cyclist.
Fast-forward four years, Adrian races on United Healthcare. In the history of Northwest cycling there are only a handful of other cyclists who’ve reached a higher level.
Adrian planted a seed of confidence inside himself. By saying he was a professional cyclist he wasn’t compensating for an insecurity of the ego. He truly believed he was good enough to be a pro, and had the foresight to label himself accordingly.
Full circle: To this day I still have the same doubts about, what I do. I also hate the question: what do you do?
Sure, I could use the excuse that I hate it because it reflects all these cultural norms I detest. But, if you look deeper, I think the real reason I detest it so much is because every time someone asks me that question I’m reminded how I’m not where I want to be.
Can you take a guess? The ego is talking again. After all, how can I be anywhere else than where I am right now? If I was truly confident in my goals, then a simple question would not tick me off so much.
To become more aware of this insecurity I began to play with it. Now, when people ask me, “What do you do?” I change my emotions and become excited and say, “I race my bike for a living.”
Usually this answer captures the other person’s interest and I use it as an opportunity to explain the beautiful nuances of a very complex sport, a sport that happens to be my life passion.
And, in the back of my mind, to quell the venomous voice of the ego, I remind myself of something Sundt—a long-time veteran pro—once said to me, it doesn’t matter how old you are. If you’re fast on a bike, you’ll get contract.
Sundt didn’t sign his first contract until he was 29. Like me, after his first year racing professionally he lost his contract. And he didn’t quit. At 31 he signed his second contract. For the next five years he raced as a domestic professional. At the age of 36 he retired from the sport. He raced because he loved racing.
To end into the future: After five minutes of solid crying on the coaches’ platform I suddenly stopped. The release of emotions is what my body needed. I jumped back into my pick-up truck to drive home and get ready for my next job
On the way, I passed by one of my favorite lookout points that gazes over lake Union. A thick fog covered the water. The rising sun laced fire into the mist.
Despite needing to get to my next job, I yanked the steering wheel right. I pulled over, sat on the hood of my truck, and stared into the beautiful expanse of fog that drifted like an ancient mystical fire-breathing beast devouring the land and water with it’s fluid movements and ways.
I then hopped back in my pick-up truck, parked it at home, put in some contacts so I could see where the hell I was going, got on my bike, and pedaled to my second job remodeling the basement. Meltdown or no meltdown I had to work. You see, I have this goal I’m chasing.
That night I returned home after working a long day spent building shelves in the basement. You know the drill. I had enough time to make a stew. It was almost 10pm and tomorrow I would again have to wake up at 430am, this time for a 6am class.
While taking a shower my mind drifted back to the morning. The memory of the emotions released triggered a relapse.
As an athlete, I have cultivated a deep awareness of my body. Constantly I search to become more connected between my mind and body. This intuitive connection bleeds into other connections.
When I am tired, I sleep. When I am hungry, I eat. Emotions are no different. But our culture has us so disconnected from our bodies we’ve lost the ability to properly interpret and honor the feelings and sensations that our body both experiences and generates. When I feel an emotion inside me, I need to explore it and react to it the same way I would a hip injury.
In the shower the same peculiar feeling from that morning crept into my stomach. Earlier, I had to shut that feeling off in order to get on with my day to work. But now I was alone in my home with no time constraints besides the amount of sleep my body needed.
With only the hours of night ahead of me, I could let down my guard and allow my body to process these rare emotions. I sat down on the floor of the shower and let the warm water drape its caressing fingers over my body. And I cried and cried.
In many ways these tears are just as important—and just as moving—as the moments when I sit blissfully at a dinner table with all my friends and loved ones. These tears are no different from the exultation of winning a race, or the silent moments on the peak of craggy mountain as I stare into the incomprehensible vastness of wilderness, or the feeling of total freedom as I take my first step into a new adventure, or the witnessing of a act of humanity that defies comprehension: broken world records, Nobel Peace prizes, the Dalai Lamas inner calm, the emancipation of slavery, the will to survive against all odds.
Sitting slumped over in my shower crying in the fetal position was a sign that I’m aware of my weaknesses, of the horrors and beauties of life. These tears weren’t from sadness. They were from a deep awareness that I’m nothing but a human. A human struggling just like all the rest.
And the reason I stopped crying, toweled off, and went to bed determined to push onwards with my long-term goals is because: if those tears had a voice they would’ve said to me, “Dan, you will never stop.”