Two years ago, I raced all of the Tour of America’s Dairyland including the Fond du Lac criterium. I raced well and crossed the line in first at the start of the last lap trying to maintain good position. Unfortunately, I managed to get passed by 20 people during the last lap to finish just out of the money. I was quite distraught after the race having blown such good position to end up outside of the top 20. I was hoping to redeem that performance with a top 20 finish this year, but with huge thunderstorms and rain showers all across the sky and approaching Fond du Lac before the start I was not very optimistic. We managed to start the first few laps dry, but then it started to rain, and I drifted to the back, off the back, and then expecting to be pulled was told that I could continue to race. I am never going to willingly pull out of a race again after a disasterous race in West Virginia in 1996, so I raced for another 20 minutes or so getting lapped 3 or 4 more times by the field. I used the opportunity to continue racing to work on my rainy cornering skills, as I have had several recent rainy slideouts losing a lot of confidence in the rain.
It was barely halfway through the race by the time that the officials decided I had raced enough and pulled me from the race. I just checked the results, and I was rewarded for my efforts by being placed in the results instead of a DNF — 59th out of 105 starters. Afterwards, wanting to get some kind of training in, I started wandering towards the hills, first looking for some good climbs, and then seeing windmills in the distance riding to try to get a good picture. The windmills are huge so that they appear closer than they really are. And then even when you start to get close to one, you find that the road is gated off or unrideable in the mud or the windmill you were heading towards was actually on a different ridge beside a different road. Eventually, as it was getting dark and as I was getting farther and farther away from Fond du Lac, I started to feel like Don Quixote chasing windmills, and I began to suspect that somehow for many people including me such is the lot of the bike racer. Finally, I found a cool valley with a bunch of windmills with a farm gravel road that was not only rideable but also quite pictureesque. It was amazing to be standing underneath something so gigantic and hearing the whoosh of the three blades as the passed overhead. Standing directly underneath it as the blades headed towards you was a bit disconcerting as you wondered unreasonably that you might have misjudged the length of the the blade and it would suddenly hit you standing there on the ground.
So, anyway, even as I was chasing the windmills I thought of Don Quixote. I don’t know the story all that well, but I believe the basic idea is that poor Don thought that the windmills he was chasing and trying to defeat were actual enemies that needed to be defeated. He continued to pursue these windmills never realizing that they were unbeatable. Comparing this to bicycle racing, the idea is that we as bike racers try so hard to win or at least do as well as possible romanticizing that one good result to the point that it lures us back for more even after a series of really bad results. Often the level of competition is so far above and beyond our own capability that it is truly like Don Quixote chasing windmills – an impossible and illogical vain pursuit.
Again, I don’t know the story all that well, but Don Quixote must have been fulfilled, fully alive, full of purpose as he chased after those windmills even if it made no sense to anyone else. The danger though is the damage that Don was doing to those around him as he sought after those windmills even as he tried to do good and help/rescue/save the world. I am fortunate that my family is supportive of my windmill chasing, and I do everything I can to turn bike races into family trips and family experiences, and I think the good far outweighs the bad, but the very real danger is pursuing too far without putting everything into context.
As I was trying to find a windmill I could ride right up to and set my bike against on my 10 year anniversary with my wife 100 miles away camping with her family in Door County, I realized both the beauty and the danger of bike racing. I had spent the night before camping with them and the morning of our anniversay was awesome with a nice trail run/ride with Kristine and the kids finding a cool boat landing and then a climb up to a tower overlooking Sturgeon Bay and the entrance to Green Bay followed by a little bit of caving with Josiah and then more trail riding and finally capped off joining Kristine’s dad as he finished 1100 miles of hiking the entire Ice Age trail which ends at the tower we had found earlier in the day. All of this before leaving my family to go get dropped in a bike race, but then finding beautiful rolling hills, picturesque farms with barns, cows, and fields of corn, big sky with clouds from various storms on all sides aglow with lightning and the setting sun — surreal, almost perfect, forgetting that an hour or so earlier I had just gotten dropped and pulled from a bike race – I was content realizing that bike racing in the context of life is so small, but in the moment if you look in the right places you can still find something worth pursuing even if it looks like windmills to everyone else.
Pictures from earlier in the day camping with Kristine and the kids –