By Zanne Blair
Racing relationships sometimes fall apart.
Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.
“I thought we would be there by now,” I was feeling anxious. This was my fourth Cyclocross race. Ever. It was nearly 4 hours outside of New York City on a farm in the Berkshires. “I think we should have come up last night.”
“Tara, you will be fine. We should be there in a few minutes, haven’t you seen the cars mounted with bikes and gear along the way?” Jason put his hand on my knee and gave me a slight squeeze.
I met Jason six years ago. He convinced me to ride with him to Nyack. I had only ever been around the park, but I agreed, since it was a date and I liked him. I did better than I had thought riding over 100 miles that day, Jason was impressed too, a year later he moved in. Two years ago he started cross, and most weekends were spent driving to races in the country. He was really, really good at it. When he would have to hop off his bike, it was as if the bike was his dance partner and he was the lead. It always amazed me. I think that’s why he was so good at it, riding and running were always such a smooth transition, he never skipped a beat, so he would either hit the ground running, or power his bike with the first pedal stroke.
At first, I was nervous for him. I was not familiar with riding on dirt trails. I never went mountain biking, I didn’t like the trees or rocks, natural objects getting in my way. I liked the smooth, paved surfaces in my favorite park in Brooklyn, where the only thing that would usually jump out at me would be toddlers not being watched by their parents or the warrior moms talking on their phones, sipping coffees, chatting while pushing strollers that would hold all three of their kids.
He told me once that it was like floating over the ground. The fat tires would glide and bounce, going downhill was electrifying, especially in the mud around obstacles. He went down only a few times that I could recall. After his first year, he upgraded two categories and continued to place at the top. Sponsors had contacted him, all amazed at his natural talent, he signed with a team in the city.
We had donated the top shelf of books to make room for his medals and trophies. He never gloated about them, didn’t mention them when we had guests over, he was always so modest about his success. He never fussed over the shelf and would just push a medal out of the way to make room for the next one. I’d always give him a big squeeze after placing, he’d wrap an arm around my shoulder while his teammates and opponents would pass by to congratulate him.
Then it happened, we spent a week in New Hampshire and he asked me to join him on one of his training rides. I brought my bike, we didn’t travel anywhere without at least one bike for him and one for me. It was what we did.
Gregoire, his sponsor, had arranged for us to head to the horse farm about a mile away from the house on the lake we had rented for the next two weeks. I packed snacks and a book, planning to find a shady tree and read while he ran the course, then rode it. But that wasn’t what Jason had in mind. “Run it with me.” Jason squeezed my hand. I loved him like a mad woman, I could not say no.
Thankfully, I was fit, or I would have died after running the first hill. Jason was fast and good on his feet, he stayed by my side pointing out the technical details important to managing the course. “Make sure you lift your knees, lean forward so the weight of the bike doesn’t knock you over.” He continued for the next forty minutes as we ran the course. When we returned to our bikes I planned on sitting out the ride through the course, but Jason smiled and I was having fun, I rode the course with him.
We rode over the course three or four times. I was totally, and completely hooked. I could now understand why he loved it so much. Even though we had been over that course again and again, each time it was new, and I would have to navigate it differently. I too floated over it. I felt strong, and I was excited.
That was last summer. Now it was spring, the rains had added just enough mud to courses, and I joined a women’s cross team. It was competitive, but the women on my team were incredibly supportive. Comparing my women’s team to Jason’s team, I realized guys are more competitive than supportive. In their nature I guess, but at least I did have Jason’s support. He loved that I rode cross. I could hear him tell his racing buddies about my progress, and I always caught him with a smile on his face.
We had reached the Smith Farm outside of Pittsfield. The drive was loaded with cyclists, I hopped out of the car and ran for the portable toilet. It was hot and it wreaked, but nervousness always made me go.
Jason was racing too. When I found where he had parked, he had set up both of our bikes, “Let’s ride the course.” He smiled at me, putting his arm around my shoulder, pulling me into him.
“Do we have time? Don’t we have to get ready?” My stomach was flipping.
“The race doesn’t start for another two hours. We’ll be back here in thirty minutes, tops.” He kissed my forehead.
I saw the rest of my team, waved at the other women competing, all who smiled, some eyed Jason, and gave the usual acknowledgement of a head nod.
Fifteen minutes before the race started, Jason and I had layered up. The weather was beautiful, the spring air had warmed up considerably since we had arrived. Gregoire came over and after saying something to Jason I couldn’t hear, Jason turned to me, “I’ll be right back, stay warm and remember to drink water.”
Someone from the team had come and put Jason’s racing wheels on his bike, while I put my own on. I looked around, wondering where Jason was, he was nowhere in sight. The mechanic handling his bike told me he would take it to the start, Jason would probably meet him there. I hoped Jason was okay, things started running through my head. I had always wished him luck before a race, now I would just have to think it.
The men lined up first. The women’s teams would race once the men had finished. I found my team, and we watched from our spot on the side. I kept an eye out for Jason, I saw him slip up the side to meet the front, I wanted him to find me in the crowd, but he didn’t glance away from the start. He looked more serious and focused than I had ever seen before, something had changed.
The gun went off and a moment later the guys had dismounted and were running up the hill. Tape zig zagged up the steep course designed to string out the group, I watched as it thinned out half way up the hill.
The course flattened then turned right and the field disappeared around the trees. We wouldn’t see them again until they rounded down the bottom and finished on the far side of the barn. When the crowd was quiet enough we could hear the field, guys were passing each other, someone went down, nothing but the usual stuff.
We moved over to the finish line. I positioned myself with my bike, right at the finish. I was sure Jason would finish in first place, he had been feeling good about this course.
The first rider turned the last bend into the finish. It wasn’t Jason. The second rider wasn’t far behind, and then we waited. I started to panic. Something had to be wrong. Maybe it was Jason that went down, even so, he would be alright, he would be coming any minute.
Most of the field had crossed the finish, I didn’t see Jason, I tried not to make a big deal out of it, tried not to show my concern, but I asked if anyone else had seen him. No one had seen Jason cross the finish. Guys were still rolling in, but we had to get over to the start, the women’s race was starting in a few minutes.
I sat in back, a few women from the line. I liked racing, but I wasn’t doing it to win, or beat any of the other women, I just liked the pace and the technical adventure each course would lay out for me. I kept looking around for Jason, but as soon as our start gun went off, I focused on the course.
It was really muddy. The guys had torn it up, mud found its way onto my face and into my mouth, I wiped it away as I moved steadily up the hill, running over the small logs like hurdles with my bike over my shoulder. I left most of those in front of me, behind me now. I slid onto my bike, not missing a step or a stroke and powered into the course around the trees. The course snaked through groves of trees, we had to dismount to jump through downed trees. I could hear Jason in the back of my head, “Lift your knees!”
I rode through the rest of the course, looping on the top of the hill, then began my descent. I took a deep breath, it was open in front of me, I rode down the hill swiftly but carefully, I popped my left foot out of the cleat as I took the final corner, and at the right time, clipped it back in to power through to the finish.
Everything was slow as I approached the finish. Usually I finish with a field, many in front of me, pedalling just to make sure I don’t slow the person down behind me.
I was alone this time, I looked under my arm, I was totally alone, the field had not caught up with me. I wondered where they were, maybe I finished last. As I looked up, I crossed the finish, the crowd acknowledged my finish loudly.
Someone ran over and helped me off my bike, it wasn’t Jason. I looked around. “Where’s the field?”
It was one of the marshalls, “You finished first, there was a bad crash, wiped out most of the field. There should be a few more crossing soon, but everyone else had to either walk out or be carried.”
I looked behind my shoulder, waiting for the field. Jason’s mechanic came over, I switched my focus, “Have you seen Jason? Is he alright?” I could hear my voice waver, I was a ball of adrenalin and emotions, and I was still trying to catch my breath.
“He had to drop out, he watched you finish, he told me to tell you he had to leave, ” the mechanic looked down at his muddy feet, “he said you would have to find a ride back to Brooklyn.” I stood there not hearing him.
“What?” My ears were buzzing, my heart was pounding.
“Tara! Come take your place for the awards!” It was a different official, she grabbed my arm and pulled me away from Jason’s mechanic. “Congratulations Tara, you won first place!”
I stood there and accepted my award. I’m sure I smiled, but I was sick wondering if Jason was okay. I found Gregoire after the awards, “Where is Jason?”
“He left. You placed and he couldn’t handle it. I told him to leave you as soon as you decided to race. He waited until you finished, and you placed.” Gregoire crossed his arms over his chest, looking down his nose at me.
“I never raced to be better than him and won because of the crash. I don’t care about winning these races and Jason knows that about me. I am proud of his racing. Where did he go, is he alright? I didn’t see him finish. Did he go down?”
Gregoire huffed, turned and walked away. My coach was standing behind me as I turned around. “Tara, Jason asked me to give you a ride back to Brooklyn, I have plenty of room, we’ll put your bike on top of the van. He gave me your bag, do you want to change?”
I stared at her. Surely this was not all real. I came here with Jason, he raced, I raced. I placed and he disappears?
“Where is Jason?” I glared at her, her expression betrayed her, she clearly knew why Jason had left.
“I told him he should tell you this, but he left,” she looked down at her hands, “Jason is leaving you. Gregoire doesn’t want Jason to be with someone who is better than him on the bike. I’m sorry Tara, you really deserve to hear this from him, but you probably won’t ever see him again. I probably should have told you this when I met you, but I thought maybe Jason had changed.”
I stared at her. This was not real. Jason and I were going to get married, we had talked about spending the rest of our lives together, growing old together. He had been the one to get me into cycling, I had no interest in it before he invited me along.
My coach put my bike on top of the team van and drove me back to Brooklyn. She parked and helped me back into my apartment. There was no note, nothing. His favorite mug was still on the kitchen table, his sweatshirt on the back of the chair, but the shelf of Jason’s medals was empty.
Ed note: Zanne Blair doesn’t like it when her bike or her bike shoes get dirty. Her husband has never put the bike first, but listens when she tells him to just go out and ride. She can’t remember the last time she has ridden on soft ground, and really does miss the Prospect Park Loop. She lives in Seattle and writes at zannestars.com
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