A Race of Mistaken Identity

Of course it would be 2020—gravel racing’s lost year—that the Lincoln Abes would find a racer like Clark Jackson. 

“You gotta meet him,” Mike told me. “He’s young—only started riding this year. But he’s all in. And he’s good.”

Mike put his friend on a trainer and watched him tap out watts normal cyclists spend years not reaching. “That’s where he’s starting,” Mike said.

But 2020 was also where Clark was starting. After a couple group rides, I told him maybe the lost race season was a blessing. Forget expectations. Just go ride your bike. Then take a bigger base into races next year.

That’s a nice concept. But July’s Cornhusker State Games weren’t canceled. And does an excited new racer really want to spend all summer on the bench?

The only thing longer than race season is a season of not racing. (Photo, Josh Ebbers)

Clark entered the 50-miler. Mike was on call at the hospital, and couldn’t join him. So I set aside my COVID worries and signed up, too.

It was exciting to think about helping him—this nice guy who just happened to be so gifted he could very well win after just a couple months of riding. Clark told me to pump the brakes on that talk. He’s just trying to figure things out, he said. And as a nurse anesthetist, dealing with people’s lives, he didn’t exactly need more pressure.

That’s the great thing about these races, I told him. Yeah, when my mom’s in surgery, you better not screw up. But on Saturday? Shoot. Foul it up all you want. Then foul up some more. It does. Not. Matter.

Now, an average teacher would simply say this to the new guy and stop. But a gifted teacher does more to show him (over and over) exactly how fouling up works. And by this measure, gravel fans, I am a gifted teacher. Let me tell you what I did.

***

I began my folly, as most fools do, by acting super-duper smart.

I looked at the course and told Clark how I thought the race might play out. It’d be two miles before we got to a road any dictionary would recognize. And I knew the eight miles after that would be hilly, loose and slow. A nest of bad lines.

If you’re nervous about pacing, I told Clark, just sit on my wheel and I’ll try to set us something steady. 

Knowing how rough those first 10 miles were, I guessed our racing cousins of the pavement persuasion might find themselves on the back foot. So if Clark was happy on my wheel, I thought it might be good for us to push the issue a little bit. Dig while the gravel’s loose, you know? 

If we made the lead group and earned a gap, we could recover once we turned north—where the roads would flatten and grow a nice bushy tailwind. 

And friends, that’s exactly how it unfolded. (See how very super smart I am?)

Racing west with the early sun behind us, I could easily identify Clark’s shadow stretching up beside me. And in front, we had the wicked-athletic single-speed racer, Matt Copeland.

Matt would scorch up a hill on his hot-pink Specialized and scratch out a small lead—only to spin out on the descent, allowing Clark and me to yoyo back. And pretty soon, the three of us earned a decent gap.

How do you like that, Clark? You, me and a guy who isn’t even in our category are 1-2-3 on the road!

Then Clark’s shadow came slowly around me on my left. And I discovered that Clark’s shadow had somehow attached itself to a stranger in a black and grey jersey. I hadn’t pulled my teammate into prime position. I had gapped him. And this different man’s shadow continued stretching up the road ahead of me.

My first thought was, Well, go get Clark! But the Misidentified Man was pulling away at a steady clip. If I went back for Real Clark now, we might not ever reel him in.

I decided to hunker down where I was. I watched the new leader disappear in front of me as Matt’s single-speed forced him to peel off behind. Above, the sun began thumping its chest on the summer’s hottest day.

My super-smart best guess went like this:

Misidentified Man was making a mistake. Misidentified Man was gonna cook. 

Then came my next misidentification.

See? See him up there? You’re reeling him back already. And fast!

Only this captured rider wasn’t the Misidentified Man. He was Somebody Else.

Hold the phone. How did “Somebody Else” wind up between first and second?

I’ll tell you. The 100-mile racers started some 15 minutes before we did. And this gentleman up ahead wasn’t the first-place 50-miler. He was the last-place 100-miler. And I realized I couldn’t take any of the riders ahead of me for my marked man until my sweat-bleary eyes could make out his black and grey jersey up close.

It wasn’t the next guy up the road. Nor the guy after that. Nor the next. But I didn’t worry. Being super-extra smart, I already knew where I’d catch my Misidentified Man: at mile 27—at the checkpoint in Bee.

Given the stifling heat (and his stifling pace), he’d surely need to stop there to cool and refuel. But me? To save checkpoint volunteers from my potentially virulent snot, I’d gone full water buffalo, lugging enough fluid to feed my torrential sweat rate for the entire 52 miles. I planned to keep my social distance, holler my number on the way by, and roll merrily on.

Racing self portrait I. (Photo, flowcomm)

And I’d have bet a dirty penny that I’d spot my guy in a black and grey jersey chugging Gatorade as I rolled through. I was wrong, though. He was chugging a Coca-Cola instead. And he looked gassed.

I let rip from there, figuring my Misidentified Man would muster whatever he had left in hot pursuit.

A dozen miles ticked by. He didn’t reappear behind me. Nor did Matt. Nor did Clark. And I slowly grew comfortable with the knowledge that I was in first place—that I, lovable, furry old Grover, was going to win this thing.

Racing self portrait II. (Photo, Sesame Street)

I kept pushing, but slowly allowed myself to feel all the feels. To enjoy it.

I told myself that I had two racing modes: Win or Learn. I spent 99.8% of my time riding in Learn Mode. And I was grateful for every lesson. But, Eric, over these last four miles, we’re not in Learn Mode anymore. We’re going to Win. And it’s OK for that to feel amazing. You’ve worked and worked. Come so close so many times, and fallen just short.

Now, enough of that. Go win, baby! Cheers!

I flew on fumes back into Pawnee State Park and let my tires roll thunkety-thunk over the electronic finish line. There, I saw another man in a black and grey jersey relaxing beside his bike in the shade of a maple tree. And I saw Jason Cyboron, the race director, walking toward me, offering a golden smile and a decidedly grey medal. I smiled back and shook my head.

I smiled also at the Misidentified Man—the real winner, perfectly uncooked, in black and grey with a little gold around the neck.

And I smiled at my luck. Here I got all the feelings of winning. And I got to learn, too.

Misidentified Man = Steven Stephens of Wichita, Kansas. (Photo, Cornhusker State Games)
Happy at the finish.


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