My wife’s family has a couple holiday traditions. The first is the annual ornament exchange. The majority of these ornaments are homemade, or “artisinal” in hipster parlance. The ornaments are intended to commemorate something memorable from your year. Most of them are sentimental, celebrating a new house, a promotion, a new baby, or some other memorable event. But not all memorable events are positive, so some of the ornaments are intended to mock your lesser moments from the year. Some people are known to have a wickedly sharp tongue, but my in-laws are known to have a wickedly sharp glue gun. No one is safe from their ridicule. My mother-in-law is particularly lethal.
The construction of each ornament is half the fun. Inevitably we end up enlisting other family members to help execute an idea or locate a missing piece. Then they break out into various parts of the home to do their crafting. My in-law’s basement looks like Santa’s clandestine workshop – glue guns, Dremel tools, paints and various figurines all scattered about. Fabrication continues late into the evening, and laughter can be heard from all corners of the home.
As fun as the ornament exchange is, the true value of each ornament is realized years later when you unwrap them while decorating your tree. Each one brings back happy memories that make you smile and sometimes even laugh out loud. In that way, our Christmas tree becomes a photo album that documents the story of our time together. But you not only reflect on the distant past, you also pause to reflect on the current year and how it may be caricatured by your in-laws. Did you have a major accomplishment? Was there a milestone event? Did you make any colossal blunders?
The other family tradition is the annual Boxing Day Cyclocross Race, which is held just around the corner from my in-law’s home. My father-in-law, now 72 (72!), is a life-long cyclist and has been racing ‘cross for the past seven years. My mother-in-law is on the city’s bike friendly committee, and has established a relationship with the owner of the shop that co-sponsors the race. So there’s an open invitation to the entire family to participate, but so far I’m the only one to do it more than once. The rest of the family is happy to spectate, cheer, and occasionally heckle. But the two traditions go hand in hand, so they’re also there on the lookout for any calamity that might become ornament fodder. In that way cyclocross can be either very generous or very cruel. It’s just a matter of which side of the tape you’re on.
My father-in-law raced first, finishing 3rd in the 65+ Master’s category. Just another “podium finish”. That’s a term that he uses frequently to describe his race results. Even at 72, my father-in-law is still a very strong cyclist. His palmares includes numerous podium finishes in cyclocross and time trial events around the Midwest. But one might suggest that his results are a little over-inflated due to the limited field he competes in. By virtue of his age he’s on the podium nearly by default. All he has to do is show up. To be fair though, he did have to beat one other rider to earn his spot on the podium yesterday. But nevertheless, his results have set the bar very high for me as a bicycle racer. The family simply expects podium finishes. Anything less would make me unworthy of his daughter.
This year was my fourth time competing in the Boxing Day race. It’s the only ‘cross race I’ve ever done, so I really don’t consider myself a ‘cross racer. But my results have improved each year. Last year I achieved my first ever podium in any cycling discipline, placing 3rd out of 19 in Category 5. So this year I decided to upgrade to Category 4. There’s no reasonable argument for or against this. On the one hand I have very little ‘cross experience. On the other, I had some really strong road results this year as a Cat 5 and even one as a Cat 4. So I don’t want to be a sand-bagger and race the 5s, but I may not have the skills necessary to be competitive in the 4s. But it’s all for fun, right? And we all know my view on doing things for fun: winning is fun. So naturally, I take this happy little race very seriously.
But my quest for the podium was doomed from the start. Some jack-wagon got sideways as we were lining up, literally perpendicular to the start line. I was directly behind him, so he blocked me from moving up to the start line, allowing others to swarm in from each side. He finally straightened himself out and then helped himself to the last remaining spot on the line. So now I’m starting in the second row. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but they were also starting the 5s at the same time, so there was going to be a considerable amount of traffic to negotiate heading into the first turn. Strike 1.
The raced started off and I was fighting for position. I settled into 7th or 8th with the leader in site. Predictably, a gap opened and a group of 4 had separation. I didn’t panic and just began to work my way up. I had visions of making a surge on one of the long straight-aways to bridge up to the lead group. But it was never meant to be. I dropped my chain hopping a barrier. Strike 2. I was able to get it back on reasonably fast, but it cost me several spots. I fought myself back up to roughly the same spot, and then I dropped my chain again. Strike 3. The stalker who had been on my wheel for half a lap passed me, and now I would become the stalker. I had to fight and claw to get back up to his wheel, but in the end I was never able to pass him. I finished 6th. My hopes for a podium and family glory had been dashed.
The silver lining is that I didn’t do anything to embarrass myself or provide any ammunition for an ornament. If anything, I earned some of their respect. I appreciated them being there and yelling for me each time I went by. My own parents were there, as was some of Kate’s extended family. And by the time I got back to the house, more family had arrived and had already heard tale of my “triumph”. You would have thought that I had won. In many ways I have.
Best wishes to you and yours this holiday season.