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Road Culture

A Case for Suffering: The iron lollipop

There’s a swelling, pounding, throbbing block of meat inside my skull. Am I going to die, or is this just cyclocross?

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The blood leaches from the folds of my palate, collecting at the rear of the throat. Have I just licked a lollipop made from fine iron shards?

The searing fire of rapidly repeated hot inhalations brings lashes upon the lungs. There’s a swelling, pounding, throbbing block of meat inside my skull. Am I going to die, or is this just cyclocross?

Yup, this is just cyclocross.

This … is torture.

Hard is the only way I know how to race ’cross — I’m not one to look for a beer hand-up or a costume contest victory. Even if you’re not so serious, you know the drill. White heat goes into your temples, out the stem of your brain, down your spine, into you psoas, right through to your phalanges … if you’re doing it right.

But, first, there’s the anxiety of it all.

“Thirty seconds to start.”

Nice, deep breaths. Nice, deep breathes. Rise to the saddle, release the brakes, open the eyes, and the lungs, and be free.


An uncoiling spool of a launching harpoon, I’m heaved through space by fury, click-click-clicking through the gearbox powered solely by the Ferrari in my mind. How the brain absorbs all that information — tires, elbows, dirt, brake noise, butt cheeks, corners, knees, cheers — is impossible to know, but a miracle that most often plays out without catastrophe. I brake, I turn, I choose a line and part the seas, I shift and churn, and the group falls into some semblance of harmony. There’s the sheer chaos; then there’s symbiotic discipline. The two whirl together like the twisted chromosomes of ’cross.

Now I must settle, assess the damage I’ve done — or that has been done to me — in the first three minutes of violence. Still, no rest for the weary.

The noise in Boulder for the national championships never stopped. Neither did the pain. With my primary race out of the way on Saturday (which came with some copper-colored hardware), the elite race was for the experience, the sheer joy of pain, fury, and sound. That’s right, I paid good money to thrash myself inside a chamber of clatter.

There were moments when I was on the verge of surrendering; they were as fleeting as my chances of victory. Around every corner, it wasn’t just cheers that kept me sifting for oxygen in the dusty air. It was my very name — “Goooooo Chris!” — echoing through the cavities of my mind, coming to me in flashes of recognition through the raucous din of a community of cyclists. All of Boulder was frenzied, and the energy gushed through my cells. People were ferociously cheering for little old me. Can’t stop, won’t stop.

Amidst such chaos, I hadn’t the time to feel. Well, I was feeling strong, so I wasn’t feeling much. For those who didn’t have the legs, or the heart, or the fire, they were likely in a loud cauldron of hurt.

The former, I pressed on, raging and ragged.

Bleary eyed and frothing on the course’s longest climb, I had barely a moment to collect myself before slicing down a hard-pack, off-camber, rutted slope, precarious under the best of mental conditions. But here I was — behind and ahead of like-minded rivals — slurping through a thin straw for a teaspoon of focus. It was all just flashes.

Rattling down. Left turn, easy on the accelerator up the chalky slick incline, then everything into the pedals over a wicked ramp. Again, up a staircase made for giants, into a plunge on rubble and ruts.

But, really, the details of the course, the topography and the technicality, were irrelevant. I was wide open for as long as my frazzled body would allow it. And then I went some more. Then again. Then one final time, until. …

We came around the corner into the start/finish straight, ready to charge into the gale winds scratching our skin. But we saw waving arms and had to screech to a halt.

The officials waved me, and two fellow competitors, aside. In a battle for the top 25, we couldn’t quite believe we were being pulled off course with two laps to go. Damn that Jeremy Powers; he’s too fast today.

Suddenly, calm. The cheering churned on, but no longer for me. I noticed my heaving chest, felt my face again, looked around and saw thousands of rabid fans loving excitement, skill, power, finesse.

And then the pain was present. Searing. Hot. Ferrous. But a tad sweet, too.

Editor’s note: Velo managing editor Chris Case has spent enough time racing parking lot criteriums to know there are far more enjoyable ways to spend time racing and riding a bike. In his quest to find pain and pleasure in equal measure, he has sought out the most unique, challenging, and captivating competitions to test his mind, body, and equipment. Follow along with his experiment to ride the best and most difficult courses, the iconic and the emerging, the most punishing and most promising, on- and off-road. Live vicariously through him, poke fun at him, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @leicacase. Questions or concerns for his well-being? Send him a note at

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