The Other Side

The Other Side


-Christopher Blevins

At an Athens airport hotel, at the end of my 2023 season, I sat on some steps that led to the shore of the Mediterranean. Suddenly, I was on the other side of the season, running through the past 7 months in my mind – all the details of each training block along the way, the high moments and rough ones, the frustrations, the travel, and the cumulative effort into the whole thing. 

But right now, I don’t want to write about the details of the whole thing. I don’t want to comb through the ups and downs of this season as a bike racer. Instead, I want to write about the feelings that hit me as I sat on those concrete stairs heading down to the Mediterranean, because I think they may say more about my experience, and these feelings are perhaps universal in a way. 

There was a sudden shift in my mood when I looked out at the sea, and realized again what was happening on the other side of the Mediterranean in Gaza & Israel. I had been reading the news over breakfast during the race week, trying to understand the complexity of the conflict as it unfolded. But I hadn’t let myself really feel it. And there, looking out over the sea, I felt beneath any attempt at understanding, how utterly awful it is. I felt something that I think we all have, something like a childlike innocence at the core, which is deeply confused at how we can spread devastation like we do and why we can’t see the obviousness of each other’s humanity. While we can chart out all the sociological and historical causes of war, we can also recognize the intelligence in our childlike innocence. So from those stairs in Athens, I felt that, and I realized that while I cannot fully comprehend the extent of people’s situations over there, as a human, I can advocate outright for peace. 

There’s an obvious ocean of difference between thoughts of my racing career and thoughts of bombs being dropped on children in Gaza and hostages far from their familes. But I guess that’s how life is. There’s something else on every shore of the world, and yet there’s a common ocean between us. When you realize that the island you’re on, that small, largely privileged life you lead, is still connected to those who are oceans away, sometimes it seems like there are only two choices… You can either choose ignorance and carry on with self-involvement, or on the flip side, see the world as an endless problem to solve and weigh your life’s value in relation to your efforts to fix that problem. I’ve been swept away by both views. I’ve wanted to stick my head in the sand and focus on my own successes at times. In other moments, especially for a while in college, I was jaded about the “selfishness” of racing, wanting to quit and join the Peace Corps or something like that. But there’s a viewpoint that transcends these extremes which I’m trying to stabilize myself. 

I’ve learned over the last few years that balance isn’t doing a whole bunch of things, as much as it’s a state of mind. You can focus on one thing, but if you remember the big picture, you can be balanced. Having a balanced perspective is knowing there’s an ocean beyond, empathizing with people on other shores, and yet, appreciating the island you’re on for what it is. Putting blinders on as a professional athlete is hard at times, but I have to recognize the focus is a conscious choice that I am fortunate to be able to make. This is what leads to appreciation.

There’s a poem I love by Jack Gilbert that says we must “risk delight” with how ruthless the world can be. We must risk believing our paths are worthy of our joy and enthusiasm, just as they are. We must leap into the pursuits that make us human, and remember that our joy, humor, grief, pain, all of it is part of a collective human experience. By giving weight to the little things that fill our lives, but not being overly serious or self-involved, we show that we’re more than the terrible things that happen on other shores of the world. And I believe that by doing this, we naturally find ourselves in positions to make other people’s lives better, and we find that we actually have the capacity to do so. 

It’s now 3 weeks after the season ended, and it’s funny how an ending can feel like a beginning and smack in the middle of it all at the same time. I guess it’s always like that, in a way. We go on and on, the reference zone of past and future shifts, but we’re always where we are. Right now, bombs are dropping on children just like they did 20 years ago in Iraq, or 80 years ago in Europe. And yet, the sun still rises out of the middle of that devastation. Seasons blend into new ones. The big event that seemed like an end is just another beginning and smack in the middle of it all. This isn’t to say that these cycles of violence are inevitable, as there is nothing more urgently important than stopping it. This is to say that the urgency is always in the right now. The choices we make in this moment are the only thing that’s important. We can only work with where we are. 

Sometimes, we find ourselves on the other side of the sea with no tangible tools to fix a problem beyond our empathy and understanding. We can only live the lives we are in, and love them for what they are. I firmly believe that peace ripples out. Collective peace will happen only if we each see that we’re responsible for peace being a continuous act, and involve it in our every step. Right now, I find myself in a consuming world as a professional athlete, and I mean it when I say I’m grateful for everything it brings me. I want to risk delight, risk caring deeply about the little things in this pursuit because this is the shore I’m on right now. And yet, just like I tried to do from the Athens airport hotel, I want to be able to lift my gaze up and remember all that’s happening over there on the other side.

To Simply Step the Path 

To Simply Step the Path 

To Simply Step the Path

– Christopher Blevins

At the finish line of the last stage of Cape Epic, my teammate Matt Beers and I had champagne-soaked jerseys, and we were met with microphones and questions about how it all felt. “Indescribable” was an appropriate word I found to sum it up then, but now that I’m back stateside and reflecting, here’s my attempt to describe the emotions we felt throughout that 8-day Odyssey in South Africa.

We started things off with a win in the prologue, and Matt and I both felt a huge relief in knowing that we were indeed on track after the months of training for this moment created our high expectations for it. We were wearing yellow jerseys for stage one and planning on keeping them for the next 7 days. But as the surprisingly profound Mike Tyson quote goes, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”, and I caught a haymaker 2:30 hours into stage 1 when I was faced with the worst leg cramps of my life, paired with a stomach bug I was fighting off. The day ended with me holding onto Matt’s jersey, unable to push too hard without cramping during the last hour. All the while, the helicopter circled us to film things as we unraveled. The day was nearly a mirror image of stage one in 2022, it was just that Matt was the one fighting stomach issues then as we bled time in the yellow jerseys. Because of last year’s race, Matt knew exactly how I was feeling and exactly what to say. At the top of the last climb above the finish line, we rolled along a ridge overlooking the ocean, and Matt simply said “still a beautiful day for a bike ride, isn’t it?” And it still was. 

After the terrible stage 1, we were 8 minutes down. I was physically wrecked and somewhat disoriented by how quickly things went south. But throughout the afternoon I made a shift that planted the seed for the biggest lesson I took away from Cape Epic – the lesson on the sheer importance of simply stepping the path the best you can. Even though everything had changed on the results sheet, I knew that nothing could really change with the orientation I had for the race. Each day of the Cape Epic asks you to give everything you have, so the focus had to remain that simple and direct. All you can do is simply all you can do.

So I stayed the course and did everything I could to recover for stage 2. While I may have spent a little extra time on the massage table for the hamstring cramps, I basically went through the usual routine with the team in the afternoon. But it’s the inner commitment that was most important for me. Because I could’ve gone through the outer motions while I skipped out on myself internally. I know when things get really hard, it’s tempting to shield yourself from the challenge and stop yourself short of handing over your full heart. I had been there before, but part of my personal reason for doing this insane race was to put myself in a position to experience vulnerability and grow from it. So that night, before we woke up at 4:45 am for stage 2, I resolved to embrace this week and give my full attention and care to each moment. Even if the days all turned as bad as stage 1, I had to try my best to love this crazy thing I was doing.

It turns out my body was ready for the challenge. I kicked the stomach bug and the cramps, and we went on to win the next 4 of the next 5 stages. Every single day, we would race like the stage would be over in an hour and a half, basically daring each other to blow up before we were to the halfway point. But somehow, we all just kept digging, and we ended up racing the 4-hour stages at nearly the same pace as an hour long cross country race.

The dynamic of competition is pretty amazing at this level. Having another team willing to walk through the fire is all the confidence you need to do it yourself. There’s no doubt we all brought the best out of each other, which builds a deep sense of respect and camaraderie. It’s a good thing when we get fiery with competitiveness, we should just remember that it can be a source of inspiration and a shared pursuit of our potential as well. We had plenty of that throughout 26 hours of attacking each other.

We had definitely faced an Odyssey by the time we got to the last stage, and somehow it had all shaken out to give us a golden opportunity. We were sitting in 2nd, with only 92 seconds separating us from the win. That stage was one of those moments you dream about as an athlete. All you can really ask for is to have a chance, and we were just really grateful to get one as good as this. Everyone knew it would be a 30-minute race to the top of the first climb, with the Speed Company team and us trying to distance Scott SRAM from the jump. We had one of those days where things just clicked, and we rode our plan to a tee. Matt and I hammered all the way into Val Di Vie, and after 1:32 seconds passed, we had won the Cape Epic.

Winning a race like Cape Epic takes a huge team effort, and everyone in the Specialized crew went above and beyond. My mechanic Leo replaced every single bearing on the bike multiple times and had it in perfect condition every day. The kitchen staff barely slept but had us eating well all week. The soigneurs and staff jumped at everything that helped us recover. And Matt and I found a flow, trusted, and leaned on each other.

After the medal ceremony, we shared the podium with the kids from Songo, which is a program based in the Kayamandi township, giving kids a community, support for their education, and mixing it all with the bike. I had a little extra motivation during the Epic, as I donated all my prize money to the organization. Our visit to the Songo clubhouse before the Epic, where I rode the BMX track with kids like I did growing up, really made the trip whole. I’m so glad I learned more about South Africa from the people I met who share the love for bikes.

April 3rd 2023

What Still Speaks?

What Still Speaks?

What Still Speaks?  

In a world littered with noise, we listen for the stories that truly speak to us. 

When delivered through art and creativity, they find a way to carry on through what we do. Sometimes it’s not the biggest voice in the room we hear, but the one that speaks through stillness. Other times, a good story is blaring and bold as it shakes a part of us free. Through stories, we recognize someone else’s journey as a mirror of our own, and we stumble into wonder, change perspectives, and learn to relate. While the world brims with shouts that pull us apart, stories are like music pulling us towards common ground. A good story always happens to take us there, as we enter into the landscapes that cover ourselves and our world. They take us towards connection, towards conversation, and into a place where we haven’t been. It’s those places just beyond ourselves where we confront difficulty and grow from the experience. It’s there where stories are crafted, where their contents are welded with wisdom, and that wisdom starts to speak. So turn your ear towards what is real, because at the end of the day, we’ll forget the chatter, but we’ll remember the stories that still spoke. 

Today, we’re excited to begin unveiling more of Stilspoke. This project has morphed and evolved and will continue to do so as we let creativity stretch us. The journey to this point began with many, many ideas and conversations that eventually flooded towards where we are today. We’re a group of new and old friends building a creative platform to inspire the sense of community we’ve felt in our lives spent outdoors. We believe art is greater than content, that stories can enter into deeper experiences, and that change happens right where we are. Stilspoke is a vessel to bring these beliefs to light, and we can’t wait to do that alongside you all.

March 3rd 2022

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