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Notes from the Scrum: The pursuit of perfection

TELLURIDE, Colo. (VN) — All I wanted was to be perfect.

Maybe it’s in all the ways things are flawed that made me think of it so often, this nightmarish climb in the San Juan Mountains, this maddening chance at perfection amid a life full of imperfections.

I’ve written of Eider Creek before, my pursuit to make the climb without a bobble, a desperate lean against a tree in anaerobic ruin. I’ve tried for seven or so years on six different bikes over the course of various states of genuine happiness in life, or angst, or sadness. As a rider, this was my measuring stick, the thing I reached for the most. As a person, it was both playground and refuge.

On a recent morning, I passed the meadow I had to stop in all the time as I learned to ride, my lungs and heart at odds with one another. I still had a few gears left where I normally have none. I felt good.

I knew someone who always said perfection was impossible, that it was a blank space thanks to the universe’s algorithm of practicality, particles, mass, and human beings.

We could be perfect, I always said, in moments. It would never be traded in bulk, but it was a shining thread stitching together our otherwise normal lives. One we could hope for and one fine day hold briefly before it left our hands.

Twenty minutes in, the post Leadville 100 legs were good and the heart was doing its job without too much of a fuss. I leaned low over the bars through a steep section after a rooty right turn sprinkled with rocks. I had made the three difficult parts down below, too, but that’s been going on for years.

The trail still held the memory of the rain a few days prior. It wouldn’t be this good for a while, and neither would I. I was leaving Telluride that morning for Aspen to cover the USA Pro Challenge, and then headed to Europe after a few days of working for a cycling trip in the Dolomites with my family. Two more nearly impossible sections left, and then the tricky roots and rocks at the top when you’re tired. They always beat me, one of them.

Over the years, I have imagined my tires have deepened this trail half an inch, and that the rubber will find its way back there when I wobble, like water making its way through something, year after year. The natural line, the one I’d always ridden.

Thoughts pass only in frames and short movies up here, the same as the slivers of light through the aspens.

A wobble in a steep right turn with roots before the really brutal stuff. Front tire off to the left. Stall. Standstill, sweat falling to the top tube. Wet-faced. A slow correction, a burst up three off-camber switchbacks. Ten seconds to recover before the second issue. Another burst, then air touching the darkest corners of my lungs like the beam of an unwanted flashlight. Through it.

To go faster or harder wouldn’t be the solution. It would have to be to pedal with more grace. To attempt to clean a shipwreck like this one isn’t to beat it down, but to talk to it and make concessions.

With concentration, the rest would only be a formality, however taxing on the legs and heart. It had been done before — all my tires had to do was stay the course. My head was gone now, knowing what had eluded for so long was finally within my grasp. I stopped at the top to heave and cough and tap the trail sign, same as I always do.

At last. At long last.

The same fabric that makes a bike ride special is the same cloth that runs through most things worth our time: It was flawed, it wasn’t perfect, it was at the torn edge of ability. So seldom are we virtuosic; more often we’re grinders, all of us, even the most gifted. But it’s those perfect seconds we’ll remember.

I flung open my door and held my arms in the air, muddy-faced and beaming. My girlfriend looked at me and went back to making French toast. I would like to pretend there was a hero’s welcome. There was French toast.

I haven’t had the chance to return yet and defend my brief perfection. It may never happen again. A friend sent me a text after I told him. All it said was, “What’s left?”

Forty more perfect minutes was all I could think of. No matter where it is.

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