In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen released the mockumentary and comedic sensation that was Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The satirical story follows a Kazakh journalist along his journey through America. A master of stereotypical characters, Cohen enlightened the American public to the socioeconomic plight of Kazakhstan through his (in)famous role.
I was a junior in high school that year – and hoping to have a better grip on my future by the time the following year rolled around. College sounded like a good idea; the tricky part was nailing down where to go and what to go for. I had good grades, hometown friends, track and field, and no immediate plans. Fabulous. Too bad I wasted eight bucks on that damn movie. It wasn’t even that funny and I could have used that cash for other things – like lip gloss or something.
Four years later, I found myself in Astana, Kazakhstan for my first-ever UCI World Cup. I never thought I would find myself here, of all places – and as a member of the US national team, with an Olympic goal, for all reasons.
First of all, Borat was wrong, at least in part. The capital city of Astana is exceptionally nice – almost too nice. Kazakhstan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and designated the small city as the new capital in 1995. Development began and the capital was officially moved from Almaty to Astana in 1997. The result was an ultra-modern city so new that there appears to be very little remnants of true Kazakh culture. High-tech office buildings, hotels, apartment complexes, and shopping malls make up most of the cityscape; it’s unclear as to whether there are even enough people in the area to fill up this created space.
This is Kazakhstan’s huge stores of oil money at work. The locals that mill about the city are polite, pretty, and well dressed; a sizeable chunk of the population knows English. The young ones seemed friendly. However, we were cautioned that the older population still harbors icky feelings towards Americans from the Cold War – and we were therefore advised to pretend to be Canadians or Brits when out and about. Awesome.
Our four-star hotel , the Dumont, had 15 stories and was occupied by most of the teams in town for the World Cup – only a handful of teams were in the Radisson across town. It was like a dorm, or quite possibly the world’s largest international locker room, but classy – complete with high ceilings and granite walls and floors. I was out of my element in that regard, sure enough, but the poor hotel staff was probably worse off. Cram 100-plus track cyclists into one building and see what happens.
Actually, what happens is just a lot of odd meals, bike traffic, and roller noise – at least until after racing. Then a bit of beer happens. Enough said.
It’s 80 degrees in here and yet there’s still a cold spot in turn one. What the hell? Focus. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is going fast.
I made my way up from the blue line and to the rail, just like always. The track felt almost exactly like the home track in Los Angeles – the difference was it was only six months old and looked clean enough to eat off of. We had been in town for a week, mostly getting over the 23 hours of travel required to get there. I was now beginning the wind-up for my 200-meter qualifier, and my biggest concern was simply that I would have enough legs just to keep me from looking like a goober on the world stage.
First lap, second lap, it’s just like home, it’s just like home. Pressure on the pedals. Goose it here. Omigod, stand! Stand now!
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!
I rolled a personal best for a sea level track, but it wasn’t fast enough to make the tournament. I was a little dismayed, but not surprised. After all, this was a World Cup. Plus, it was Baby’s First World Cup; I was just happy to be there at that point – we all have to start somewhere, right?
I swallowed hard as I waited in the buffet line. It was 6:30 p.m., a.k.a feeding time, on Friday night and a handful of Brits had just walked into the dining room.
Oh God. That’s him.
Chris Hoy filed in line directly behind me – I was now in fact standing next to track cycling royalty. I let out a whoosh of air.
Don’t panic. He’s just a bike racer, just like you. Don’t panic. Actually, he’s shorter in person than I thought. Don’t panic.
We shuffled down the row of food, bypassing the buttered vegetables and mystery meat. Hoy leaned over for the tongs, looked at me, and said “Nice that the food’s actually hot today, eh?”
Yes, you are. Very. Um . . . what? Shut up, brain, shut up.“Hm. Um. Er. Uh, yeah, totally!” I stammered.
Good work. A moment of silence, please, for our dear friend, Conversation. I scuttled to the Team USA table before I could blurt out anything else.
Sitting up squarely on my seat, I leaned over to Jamie and blinked. “Any last nuggets of advice?”
“Get second or third. Be patient. And do not panic.”
Hm. I wish I had thought of that. We were lined up for the keirin repechage – Sandie Claire of France, Daniela Larreal of Venezuela, the Ukrainian, the Korean, and I comprised heat four.
Don’t panic. Don’t panic. It’s a keirin and you’re riding a big gear. Don’t panic, just race. I tipped down into my bars and got set.
I settled into fourth position and waited, controlling my speed and making space behind the Ukrainian. Five laps, four laps, three laps to go. The motor swung off on the back. With two laps to go I rose from seat and made as if to sprint, hoping to spook the three riders in front into action. Panic, panic, panic. For God’s sake, will you people go already?
Oh, they went – fast. I was trailing the Venezuelan, the Frenchwoman and the Ukrainian going into the bell lap. I swept up the Venezuelan in between turns three and four, but couldn’t catch the other two before hitting the line. It was hard not to feel a bit disappointed – I am a bike racer, after all, and this was my favorite type of bike race. But this was the international stage, and this was a World Cup for a reason.
I’ll take that for Baby’s First World Cup. Eat your heart out, Borat. Kazakhstan rocks.