I don’t get to golf the Masters because I’m a clown.
I can’t pitch for the Cardinals on account of I don’t know how to pitch.
I’m currently not allowed to skate at Joe Louis Arena, nor am I welcome to kick at Soldier Field.
These doors remain closed to you and me thanks to some crap theory about professional sport being a meritocracy. You must be stunningly good to run with the stunningly good.
Well, sorry, Bud Selig, but you’re not the boss of me.
Bud Selig won’t let me play…(photo, alchetron.com)
I’m part of a sport that thinks differently about the divide between its elite and its everybody else. I’m a gravel cyclist.
Now, the gulf in performance between me and folks at the tippy top of gravel cycling is as wide as the one separating rec-league pitchers from Jake Arrieta. But I can, and do, sign up for some of the same races—big events that draw pros and duffers from all over the country. And we line up together.
Imagine Wimbeldon is about to start. You stretch your legs, roll your head side to side, then reach over and chuck Serena Williams on the shoulder. Wish her luck. In gravel cycling, this happens.
I don’t do it, because it’s crowded and I’d feel like a tool. But I could. Gravel cycling allows it. Its size and nature and culture all embrace it.
Amanda the Panda Nauman, Yuri Hauswald, Neil Shirley, Rebecca Rusch—these names might not mean much to you, but they belong to our sport just like LeBron and Crosby and Odell belong to theirs. But by this weird quirk of culture and circumstance, I’m allowed inside their Super Bowl (in Emporia, Kansas, of all places). I can meet them and ask questions and even share a race course with them.
These elite racers don’t scoff at riders like me because they haven’t forgotten that the sport they love needs more riders who will love it back. They’re glad I’m there. They hope I race out of my mind—that I succeed as I measure success—and that I bring more friends with me next time.
Now, they will race on a whole different level. Once the action begins, I will not see them again. But the same hills, the same conditions, the same mental grind, the same finish line, all those things await us all.
The specialness of that is something I’ve struggled to capture. I tell some friends I’m heading back to Emporia for my second Dirty Kanza 200, and they’d shake their heads. Why on Earth?
But it’s one of the strangest golden tickets in sport. It’s like an open invitation to play Augusta, a hole or two behind Arnold Palmer. The door’s open. The meritocracy’s gone. If you think you can finish the course, you’re welcome to try, right alongside the country’s best. The only thing you need is grit enough to just go do it.