“UCI practice only.” A stone faced official in a blue UCI parka said firmly, gesturing for me to halt.
I’d just arrived to the 2019 Cyclocross National Championships in Lakewood, Washington, and was merging onto the racetrack to take advantage of a 30 minute practice window as the sun was setting.
After a moment’s hesitation, I blurted out “Yep” and offered an awkward half-smile. Lowering his open hand as I rode past, his eyes betrayed a flash of contrition.
He could be forgiven for not thinking I was a UCI racer—a pro. It was an easy mistake to make, because I was wearing a beard.
Aaaand my beard has become very white over the last few years. It looks terrible, actually, but it does keep me warm, and I do like telling women who say it looks nice (liars) that I find Santa Claus fetishists disgusting.
So I looked really old. And I meant to. And that guileless UCI official was reasonable to intuit that I didn’t belong on the course practicing with the rest of the pros. This funny four-word conversation was the foot that I’d start off on in Washington.
To have CX Nats in the Pacific Northwest is a special treat for me and for many other PNW riders. In a year where no other UCI races were within a 1000 mile radius of my home in Bend, the promise of loading bikes onto a bike rack instead of onto a Boeing to head to the biggest race of the year is a sweetheart deal. A deal good enough to justify staying on form into the Holidays–a terrible time of year to be a cyclist up here near the 45th parallel.
Early beta on the course, (thanks Team Booger for the preview video) showed a monster of a course, ready to swallow tired and lackadaisical late-season racers whole. There were long and steep run-ups in deep, black mud, and perilous downhill chutes lined by unforgiving trees. There would be no “sitting in”, no faking it at Nationals. So, in November, I started running hill repeats up the side of Pilot Butte, and I reluctantly swore off eggnog for six more weeks. Six weeks of an already too-short 8-week eggnog season–sacrificed for one hour in December. If you know me well, you know what this meant: I was serious.
Despite my preparation, practice laps on Friday and Saturday weren’t very confidence inspiring. After a couple of snowy weeks spent on the trainer, I felt stiff and unsettled on my bike. The downhills looked sketchy. And despite my knowledge that this particular mud—a gritty batter of glacial till—is deceptively grippy, my eyes were quite sure they were not being deceived. Maybe my rustiness was due to the fact I hadn’t ridden in mud all season too. The riding indoors and a lack of slippery races were decent excuses, sure—but the underlying truth was this: I just felt old.
I turned 44 in June of this year, and this year more than any, has seemed to foreshadow things to come. My eyes are not what they were in February. My balance, my power, my ability to recover—though not in free-fall—have all taken a perceptible step backward. A tiny step that most 44 year olds would not even notice. But professional bike racers, are not like most people. The struggle to ride well in the Washington mud gave me a feeling of foreboding. Ten years ago I’d have figured this surface and this track out in two laps. Did I even belong here anymore? Was this the last Elite National Championships I’d do? There were a couple times over the weekend that I felt a tear welling up in my eye. It wasn’t while I was struggling on the bike. I’ve won too many races after struggling in practice to lose sleep over that. But seeing familiar faces in the pits, and being surrounded by so much effort and focus and trial and tribulation, the buzz around big races like this one—I would miss being a part of this.
I never meant to be the Old Man of the field. 20 years ago, I remember racing with the late Steve Tilford. He was the salty elder statesman Pro at the time. And though he was younger than I now am, he seemed ancient to me then. He could still win any fat tire crit on earth, but he seemed outdated to my 24 year old self— a relic. It wasn’t until I began reading his blog years later (stevetilford.com) that I grasped the incredible depth of his experience and character. Something that was earned over decades of racing. He was a bridge back to my idols from the 1980s and 1990s. I’ve slowly changed from almost resenting his being there then, to wishing he were still here now.
I didn’t see myself holding on for this long— because hardly anybody does. It’s often not injury or old age, but life’s slowly compounding responsibilities that pull people from racing—and I’ve always been a realist. At age 30, when asked how much longer I might keep racing, I’d respond with “At least a year or two more. I’ll know to stop when it’s not fun anymore.” I probably even said “I don’t want to be that guy out there still holding on at age 40, but I’ll race at least another couple of years.” Actually, I know I said that. Several times.
But it hasn’t stopped being fun. And on occasional good days, I can still ride the hell out of a bicycle. So there I was, in Washington.
My Giant teammate, Stephan and I would be starting toward the back, as neither of us had traveled out of state to chase UCI points this season. We were informed that there were 57 entrants, so it was funny when I picked up my race number and saw that it was 58. Perfect. Nowhere to go but forward. The gnarlier a course is, the less your start position matters anyways.
From the gun, I didn’t feel bad. The run-ups were epic and awful, but my running practice and abstinence from eggnog seemed to be working. If not light on my feet, I was at least holding my own on the ups. And as is often the case, the simple act of competing loosened me up on my Giant TCX coming down. The crowds out in the woods were DEAFENING. I don’t think I’ve ever been cheered on by so many. Most knew my name, but many did not. With crisp, white Speedtrap glasses complementing my white beard, I stood out among the other Elite men. Shouts of “Old guys rule!” and “Show these youngsters how it’s done!” Could be heard from those less familiar. The energy out there was palpable, and that was for us mid-pack riders. The pointy end must have been somehow even crazier.
I didn’t set the World on fire, but I did ride convincingly at times. By the final lap, I had clawed my way up to riders that weren’t so easy to drop, and I’d eventually finish 25th. Stephan would ride up to 19th, perhaps earning the title of “Most Improved” among the starting line back markers. Gage Hecht, age 21 won. Sellwood Cycles rider Clara Honsinger, age 22 took home the Elite Women’s victory. Two amazing talents that— sometime next year—will have a combined age the same as mine.
At the finish line, I was happy with the day and the effort. The setting sun dropped below long-lingering clouds to shine on us in an adjacent grass field as we exchanged stories, high fives, pats on the back. For a day or two I had been considering that maybe that UCI official had been right on some level. That I didn’t belong here. But out on the course, and here in the sun, I was glad to be free of that feeling.
It had been ages since the last big Post-Nats house party, so when we received an invite from the Squid Squad to a “J-Pows Bubble Party” at their place, Stephan, Tina, and I were excited to go. Once at their AirBnb, there were no bubbles. But there were a shitload of people. A tattoo artist was inking people on the couch, and Powers was at work on the Ones and Twos. After a decade of privately questioning the veracity of his DJ credentials, I was duly impressed. The place was banging. So much so, that the police came to shut us down around midnight. Since I was the most distinguished looking person in attendance, I was tapped to talk to the police. So Pete and I opened the door, briefly letting out the sound, and the hot, sweaty, smoke-machine thickened air, and walked outside to talk.
The cops were cool and we were cool. And they humored an animated and drunken explanation about what cyclocross is, and why it was cool, before bidding us goodnight. We turned down the music and things started to quiet down as people left to catch a few hours sleep before Monday morning flights. At 1:20 or so a few guys that had been downstairs spilled into the kitchen where the remnants of the party were largely gathered. One of the guys—I don’t know who—upon seeing me said “Holy shit—Decker’s still here” to one of the others. I was involved in another conversation, with another party goer there in the kitchen, but deviated long enough to think to myself: “You’re damned right, kid.”
At least for another year or two.