7 Nights in Beijing: An Essay on Chinese Cyclocross Racing in Seven Edible Parts
Arriving at the Beijing airport for the first time, I see the moon through the fog outside only it isn't fog. It’s something that’s always there, reminding us of the ways in which we consume and emit. I discard the barely utilized plastic utensils and styrofoam cup and wet wipes placed on my tray table, without permission, during the long flight over. As if I wouldn’t have survived the pressurized cabin, broken seat recliner, or time changes without them.
One minute I’m arriving and I’m bloodshot sandy-eyed, dragging bags from claim #7 through customs and out a muggy exit. The next I’m suited in lavender spandex and a gunshot is piercing our thick hush of thick-gammed racers from all over the everywhere. In other words: the transition is quick and we’re off into the heat and the cicada thrum of a scrubby Beijing sidehill that’s been mowed through with precision. It’s hot. It’s a blur. It’s early-season cyclocross racing and we’re hanging on by small gold threads, some more adeptly than others, sucking in oxygen through flimsy plastic straws.
The taped-off course is slick in peculiar places, bumpy and like old coffee grounds in others. An agitation of camera lenses lines its edges, their massive onyx eyes opening and closing at 1/1000th of a second and faster. Behind the peering lenses, a tide of locals hovers, taking in the spectacle by way of periscope, aperture, ISO. A depth of field of a field depth spreading itself out over time, slowed down and sped up in the same instant.
Shutters shutter, over and over and over. Then the race is over, for different people at different times. Sprint finishes and calculated gaps gel at the front. What had begun to splinter a lap or two prior now trickles across the white line, flushed and fully salted. Near the back, fevered swashbuckling dissolves into the final pushes just ahead of the 80% rule.
For lack of a better or more encompassing word, the front is always fun. And sometimes we’re there. Or right there. Or we’re just off the mark and watching the front take off like teenage love. Other times we’re out of focus inside a hot cave, somewhere off the back and seeing cats. Either way, a race is a race is a race. No matter how our bodies or our minds or our minutes uncurl. Salt-sweat still plummets to our top tubes. Things still hurt. We still find our reasons, any reasons, to not bow out.
For lack of a better or more encompassing word, the front is always fun. And sometimes we’re there. Or right there. Or we’re just off the mark and watching the front take off like teenage love.
Back at the hotel, before and after and between the races, I roam hallways lined with bike bags and cardboard boxes. My body wants sleep but my curiosity craves a 3D experience of all the things, all the people, all the places I can fit into seven nights in Beijing. I forgo sleep and push on. Others do the same.
At various points throughout the Beijing stay, assorted stages of fatigue settle into our small inlet of racers. While different individuals fade in different ways, the occurrence of these multihued shifts is distinct. Kind of like what happens in a race, only here I get to watch it all unravel as both observer and participant.
At dinner and during breakfast. On the bus speeding towards the Great Wall. Mid-conversation on the elevator. In a flighty side street running the length of the Forbidden City. On the subway. Exhaustion does not discriminate on the where or the who. It takes its victims swiftly and without discernment.
One by one, on day one or day six or hour forty-two, individuals brighten and fade into a foreground that does not cease. Eyes get smaller and slit themselves. Yawns spread, people zone out, people excuse themselves. People stand up slowly during lunch, retreat to bed without words. The long stare, inevitably, overtakes us all.
Stay tuned for part 4 coming next week. Like what you read? Get in touch with Laura Winberry