Coming To Terms With 35
by dean adams
Monday, December 09, 2013

Pondering a new direction in six races time or for sure riding four more years? Welcome to the conflicted life of Valentino Rossi.
image by Soup Army Guy

Never open the door for a lesser evil." -- Baltasar Graci, Jesuit, 1651

When you're 21, few things are more incomprehensible than someone who is 35. Especially if you're a rider.

Twenty-one year old riders don't need sleep, don't train out of necessity, can eat whatever they want and don't even consider crashes as legitimate crashes unless they incur an injury. Seeing Jesus as a brake marker, as the popular phrase extols? When you're 21, Jesus isn't a brake marker. Jesus is a corner worker, well before the braking markers—if you see him on the run in to the apex, that just means you have at least a couple more thousandths of a second before you need to grab the lever.

At 35, though, for a rider, the days of winning with no sleep and a belly full of steak and a weird knot on the back of his neck from a race morning crash—I gotta get that checked out if the feeling doesn't come back in my toes—are gone. At 35, racing is hard work and fraught with potential problems. At 35 the bike needs to be perfect for you to be your best; luck and circumstance, which you never even considered at 21, are legitimate factors on how race day will play out for you.

And Jesus? At 35 you don't want to see glimpses of Jesus under any circumstances.

Once you've been great at something, it's got to be difficult to transition to "almost great" at that same activity. For the lucky ones they never have to get comfortable with seeing their names well down the qualifying order. Stoner stalked off, angry if not indifferent. Schwantz raced one full season after he won the title then said enough. Doohan tossed career to the clouds in wet practice at Jerez and retired. King Kenny Roberts said he didn't want to have to deal with "the missing tenths" and walked away. Those three didn't have to stare helplessly and hopelessly through the windscreen as riders in their early 20s tossed their bike on its side so hard and so quickly that the brain of an older rider is shocked when they don't immediately crash. Stoner, Doohan and Roberts didn't have to contend with endless questions from the press, even your friends in the press, asking, politely, why you're so slow.

When you're 21, winning can almost be easy. You can win easily on good bikes and even on bad bikes if properly motivated. Your riding can mask errors that at 35 have you running off course. When you're 21, you and your crew can have a good laugh when you finally confess to them that until three laps from the end you were in second gear coming out of turn five, when of course you needed to actually be a gear higher to make the corner work. Hey—want to have a big victory dinner tonight? Sure, but let's call it an early night, I didn't sleep last night at all. Then at 2:00 AM someone drags out the Playstation and you decide to stay up for 48 hours again. At 21, no problem. At 35?

When you're 35, the wins and the epic tales of racecraft are—almost—a ball and chain around your ankle. You almost want people to stop talking about the afternoon you punted Gibernau into the cheap seats and won, how you strafed Stoner at the Corkscrew and forced him into a crash while chasing you. You sort of cringe inside when someone brings up that time at the Suzuka 8 hours when you were 1.5 seconds faster than your teammate and had an unheard of lead of over 15 seconds, all on a bike you really didn't like or know that well. You want everyone to understand that this is a new challenge at 35, that you're really not that kid anymore, even though everyone wants to believe that you are. They don't understand that the fastest lap time doesn't come to you from sheer will anymore, that the confidence you had at 21 is now tough to muster at times.

At 35, racing is a double-edged sword. Just as when you were 21 racing is still your profession and passion, but it's also the activity that took from this earth a guy you considered your little brother in racing. The reality is that you are going to live the rest of your life with a giant hole where Sic used to reside in your heart. In a way his death gets easier to deal with as time passes, and in some ways it gets harder. Much harder.

But hey, you can quit, right? You can quit anytime you want and still be the toast of Italian TV and autograph shows for decades to come. Only you can't quit. Not easily anyway. Short of a Doohan-like bravado crash for nothing that ends your racing career, walking away like Stoner did just isn't just feasible. Because it's not just your needs and personal reality that factor into that decision. You're no longer just a rider, you passed into the realm of a phenomenon a long time ago and into a brand shortly after that. You have an entourage, a team of managers and advisers, a global product sales arm— all entities that require that you continue to race motorcycles for some time to come. And even if telling the accountants and managers that you're sorry but you're not going to do this any longer and they'll need to find a new client would not break your heart, what of all those people back in that little town in Italy who either work for you or are employed in the chain that leads to your front step? What of your fan club? What about all those people on the side of the track wearing your shirt and your cap and with your name painted on a sheet they pulled from their dresser?

A racer from the age of ten and a factory paid rider when he was in his teens, American Doug Chandler raced Grand National Dirt Track, Superbike, Grand Prix and World Superbike before he stopped racing in his late 30s. At around age 35, when he was trying to lap as fast as his young teammate, Eric Bostrom, Chandler said, "When you're young, it's easy to go fast. You see the guy in front of you and think, bare minimum, that you can at least go as fast as him, or faster. Finding speed is no problem. But when you get older, it gets really hard at times to go fast. You see that guy in front of you and you think, 'How the hell is he doing that?'".


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