Sink to the Level

My favorite flavor of Kool-Aid is Husker. And let me tell you, I drink the Kool-Aid all summer long in order to be good and ready come football season.

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Flavor: Husker red (Image, koolaid.com)

With no football to write about, the Journal Star’s Husker beat writers spent their summer covering a subject even nearer a gravel racer’s heart: training and conditioning. Until footballs fly, NU’s strength and conditioning coach has been the main character. And if what my Kool-Aid tells me is correct, this Zach Duval character is The Guy.

Beat writers, gravel cyclists and football fans all love a good motivational maxim. So all were happy as clams when Duval & Co. busted out this one:

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Athletes don’t rise to the occasion. They sink to the level of their training. (Photo, Julia Nagy, Omaha World-Herald)

Nowhere is this truer than on a bicycle, where the only things you can accomplish on the physical side are those things you have conditioned yourself to accomplish. And the appearance of a racer rising is most often just his or her settling onto a foundation of fitness built up a little bit higher.

From a competitive standpoint, this “sink to the level of your training” stuff doesn’t reassure me. I train hard, sure. But just about everybody who’s handed me my backside at local races this year trains more than I do. That’s not a reality I can change in this last week before Gravel Worlds. Nor is it a reality I can change in the longer term if I’m still to meet my responsibilities at home and work, where the stakes are more important.

You can always make tweaks to your training, but what I’m doing now is pretty much all I can do. And at these races with local draws, “all I can do” has generally pegged me as “Just Off the Podium Guy.” (Oh, fourth place, go eat tar.)

But in every other sense of this sport, there’s nowhere I’d rather sink than into my training. Training is where my best friendships are.

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Like this one. (Gravel Worlds, 2016)

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And this one. (Cornhusker State Games, 2017)

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And these right here. (Cornhusker State Games, 2018)

Training is where my sunrises are.

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Like this one here. (Independence Day, 2018)

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And this one.

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And this one.

Hell, it’s even where my ghosts are.

I rode out to Milford this week to finally lay eyes on the little tree Thornridge Golf Course planted in my dad’s memory. (It’s just northeast of the ninth tee, if you’re ever out that way.) I think if I had driven out to see it, I’d have been underwhelmed. It’s just a little thing, an unmarked Norway spruce still in its Charlie Brown phase. But riding out there 40 miles on gravel roads—my heart beating, then beating open—I’d already sunk into its meaningfulness.

I sat down next to it and imagined all the times my dad had teed off right there on the par five—his arthritic drives never much for length, but damn straight. Machinist straight. I looked around from the tree’s perspective and realized, if this tree makes it, it’ll grow tall enough to look south over the creek bed to the acreage where Dad raised my brothers and me.

It’s got a good shot, this tree, in no small part because one of my dad’s good friends lives just off this tee box. Close enough that he carries a bucket out here every now and again and gives it extra drinks. I thought of all the hot rides I’ve survived thanks only to an extra drink or two from friends. I pulled a bottle from my bike and gave the little thing a squeeze of Tailwind for good measure. I watched it sink in. Tree’s got friends. Tree’s gonna make it.

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Meet Backes, protector of the Billy tree. (Photo, Ginny Backes)

Dad’s not the only ghost I visit with on these rides. On my way out there, I stumbled on Council Oaks Road, a remote, tilted little pathway that hugs the Big Blue’s east bank south of Milford. With the sun rising, my shadow wiped across a bank of wildflowers and up the woods along the river. And I had the most vivid memory of regaining the Randy Gibson group and racing down this gorgeous gravel road. The Pirate Cycling League skull on his kit was never a symbol of death so much as of a rip-roaring life on the bike. Marty and I pulled ourselves back onto Randy’s wheel exactly here, and we raced on. It’s a small, wordless memory, but I’m grateful to have it.

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The PCL logo and designer in action… (Photo, Christy Gibson)

Outside Grover, I passed through a tunnel where the graffiti mixes the Christian and the lewd, then turned into Milford proper. I tooled around town and passed the childhood homes of a good many friends who’ve lost parents . That’s the age we are now.

I took the long way home to Lincoln. In Emerald, the gates flashed and sank for a train that never appeared, then lifted again to let me pass. I thought the thought: Ghost train.

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(Photo, Tracy Murray Hoffman)

I stopped at Dad’s cemetery for a look-see behind the collapsing church. And I had a brief collapse of my own. The cut roses Tonja left at his burial were still there, cooked now to a pale tan. The petals were stippled interestingly in a black mildew that I liked, and I did not move them.

Behind them was a fistful of yellow, punching daisies. At the burial, my mom said a little something with these flowers in her hands. Then she said, flatly, “Maybe these’ll take.” And she sank the cut ends into the earth with a swift strength through the hands that kind of surprised me. Forty years removed from her preschool teaching days, her hands’ movements still taught. “Look, sons. This is how you sink flowers into the earth.”

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I gave those flowers little chance. Less than a solo breakaway’s. Approximately zero. And here I was, weeks later, feeling their sunny punch. I wept above them. Big cries, like laughter. Nonsensical breakaways—they stick sometimes.

I pinched open the valve on my CamelBak and spilled water on those breakaway daisies. I snapped my helmet on again. I smiled and sank back into the level of my training.


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