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I worked for two summers as an engineering intern, so I feel qualified to say that the corporate world lacks any imminent sense of danger. My workplace today, however, offers danger at every moment from a wide range of sources. To keep coming back day after day may indicate that something is wrong with me. While I’ve proven myself to be good at pedaling, I have also developed the well-practiced skills of risk mitigation and denial of statistical probabilities.
With just a few kilometers remaining in stage 4 of the Santos Tour Down Under, I burned my last match to move Tom Dumoulin closer to the front before the sprint. We knew from our recon of the finish a week earlier that a group kick would be dangerous, as we had been cruising at 60kph, so keeping him safe at the front was a real priority.
On the next rise, I was dropped. As I rolled into the last 300 meters, I threaded my way through the stopped caravan and found the closest thing to a warzone that cycling has to offer. At nearly 80kph, in a narrowing finish chute, the peloton had become a tumbling mass of bikes and bodies. I was relieved not to see any of my teammates among the injured.
While I pedaled past racers carrying $15,000 worth of scrap carbon fiber across the finish and others being tended to by medical personnel, I was once again asking myself, “Why in the world am I doing this crazy sport?”
It’s not often that I’m forced to ask this of myself, but stage 4 was special in that it was the second time that day. Early in the stage, I watched Lawson Craddock crash — hard — in the culmination of a series of events that seemed to indicate he wasn’t supposed to be there: His visa was not approved until the day before the trip; his passport wouldn’t scan at the airport; and he was hit by a police car while training before he finally found himself out of the race, in a hospital, with his season on hold.
It’s never easy to watch someone crash. Seeing a friend hit so hard does a number on your brain. I spent the next hour trying to get my head back in the race, because that’s what we do. We shake off the frozen image of our friend’s grimace at the moment of impact and wiggle our handlebars into narrow gaps at crazy speeds, insistent that it won’t be us next. Every racer’s body is covered in scars that we disregard each time we line up, the purposefully forgotten memories of things gone wrong.
Not every day is as casualty-filled as that day, and that’s what we tell ourselves. The odds are stacked against us that we will one day donate more skin to the pavement and break more bones, but there’s no reason that it has to be today.
This sport has claimed lives. I’ve had a season ended early by a crash and endured multiple physical rehab courses. Others have had their careers ended with crashes or escaped a life-threatening injury.
Ultimately, I can only control my own actions, but not every race is a time trial. I can flee to safety by abandoning the sport that consumes my thoughts, or I can acknowledge the inherent danger and race my heart out. So I say a prayer at the start line and another of thanks at the finish, and pin my number on again the next day. The truth is that I could just as easily die in a traffic accident on my way to an office.
While I know that my racing career is finite, at the moment I’m addicted to the exhilaration of competition and the elation of success. Even after that fades away, I will never willingly let go of the ability to ride deep into the mountains and be lost in the sound of my breathing and my tires rolling along beneath me. Some risks are worth it.