Back in the late 90s and early 00s, there used to be a mountain bike race at Hickory Hills during the Cherry Festival. My brother and I signed up to race, and trained all spring and summer for that one event. Countless hours behind the State Hospital and mad dashes to Suttons Bay and back on the then-dirt Leelanau Trail later, I really felt prepared to take on the race at Hickory.
Naturally, I couldn’t sleep a wink the night before the race. I remember Cody and I tossing and turning in our bunk bed all night, completely unable to shut off our brains; scenes of first place medals and the adulation of our dad and hundreds (well, maybe tens) of bystanders stuck in our heads.
To put it mildly, we got waxed. I was fourth, and Cody was third. Doesn’t sound too bad, but there were only four kids in our class, and the two dudes that finished ahead of us were miles ahead by the end of the race. I applauded meekly while the winners got their ribbons. Cody went up to collect his third place ribbon and promptly threw it in a garbage can, in clear view of everyone. Cody hasn’t changed an iota since then.
That was the first of many lessons of failure that mountain biking has taught me over the last 25 or so years. If there’s a better way to prepare kids for real life than youth mountain biking, I haven’t heard of it. If I had to summarize all the life-long lessons into a few bullets points it’d look something like this:
If you work hard, you can achieve anything.
Nope, that’s a total myth. The reality is that some people are born with a genetic code that allows them to piss excellence, shit gold, eat meat lovers pizza and drink beer every day without gaining weight and have the ability to mercilessly kick your ass on bicycles. Work as hard as you want – they piss excellence. And that’s ok. Winning isn’t everything. Bike racing isn’t The Hunger Games and you’re not Jennifer Lawrence. Just keep working at it, and you’ll improve and things tend to line up how they should.
People will recognize and appreciate your hard work.
Working hard for recognition is a pretty fantastic way to set yourself up to be disappointed. It’s better to work hard for yourself, because it’s the right thing to do, and be proud of yourself for your effort. Pats on the back don’t make the rounds in this world as often as they should. So focus on the work, and you’ll find your own reward.
We all have a level playing field.
Life isn’t fair, fam. In bikes, Person A works 70 hour weeks and gets to ride twice, if they’re lucky. Person B works six hours a day and gets to train as much as they’d like, plus they have a coach and a trainer and a retired Russian gymnast to follow them around and swat cookies of their hands. Is that fair? No. Person A doesn’t have a chance in hell. But they can still work really hard and get just as much, or more, out of mountain bike racing than Person B. The world isn’t fair. But you get to determine what success means to you.
I’ve been thinking a lot about failure recently, and I’m so lucky to have had mountain biking around when I was a kid to help me learn some hard truths about the world. The ability to be happy with yourself in a social media-centric society where everyone is richer, more attractive, and way more interesting (Instagram!) than you is something I really hope younger people are learning right now.
Not only are we putting immense pressure on ourselves to worker harder, look better, be more present and helpful partners and parents, our world is making it easier to perceive that we’re falling short of the bar being set by someone just that bit better than us at everything. I can’t imagine what that’d be doing to my head if I hadn’t gotten beat, repeatedly and spectacularly, in my favorite sport for the last two decades-plus.
As my brother pointed out on Twitter, my cousin was recently named Engineer of the Year at Boeing. There are over 4,500 engineers at Boeing, one of the most advanced companies on the planet. It’s quite a shadow to live under, because Cody tweets for a living and I just left a job selling the exciting medium of print marketing – beading edge, that is not. But while comparing yourself to others and coming to the conclusion that you’re a failure is pretty easy to do these days, it’s also not an accurate assessment.
The last takeaway I have from all the failing I’ve done in bike racing as a kid and as an adult (and professionally and personally) is that failure, just like success, is only in the eye of the beholder. We have the ability to determine not only what success looks like, but also what failing means. After all the bike riding I’ve gotten to do, I refuse to classify any bike race in which I gave my all, hung out with my friends, and ended the race healthy and in one piece as failure. Similarly, any professional endeavor in which I dedicated myself completely, tried my best, and learned new things isn’t a failure as much as it was an extremely valuable learning experience.
Bikes, man. They have taught me and continue to teach me so many formative life lessons. Let’s get the next generation on two wheels so they can learn them, too.
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