ometimes you sprint at the end of a cyclocross race. But you always sprint at the beginning. As I straddle my top tube on the starting grid waiting for the whistle to send off my category at the Coyote Point Bay Area Super Prestige, I know this sprint start will hurt more than most.

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Every cyclocross course sends you careening around a 6- to 8-minute winding circuit on mixed terrain as wide as a road or as narrow as singletrack, with surfaces ranging from paved roads and paths to every form of dirt and sand. The Coyote Point course goes straight uphill onto dirt, where the climb continues for more than a minute to a paved section with three sharp left turns. Then it’s back into a singletrack trip through a eucalyptus forest on loose mulch and dirt that plummets, ultimately, down to a beach.

It’s my twelfth start of the season. I’ve been at it since September and have netted a smattering of fourth-place finishes, a fifth and a few other top tens. But my goal for the season — making it onto the podium — has eluded me. Coyote Point is my second-to-last chance of the season to reach that goal. It’s 37 degrees and clouds of breath hang in the air above the start grid as we wait. The whistle blows. I clip into my free pedal easily on my first downstroke and catapult forward in the holeshot.

Racing bikes always hurts. But cyclocross racing hurts a little bit extra because once that whistle blows, you’re burying yourself until you cross the finish line. With enough time and a solid training plan, most people can develop high-level, race-specific fitness. But it takes serious skill to excel in cyclocross, too. You have to hone the ability to navigate the dozens of winding turns through constantly changing terrain and surfaces on a bike with 700 x 35 tires inflated to 30 psi without getting a flat, wrecking yourself, colliding with a competitor or having a mechanical. Do it well, you’ll haul ass. Do it poorly, you’ll have your ass handed to you every time.

At the crest of the hill, the wave of effort catches me and then I push it out of my head and keep going.

Up the hill, two of the best guys in my category who have been nailing wins all season pull past me and I dig deeper to try to stay with them without blowing myself up. I’m throwing my bike side to side, chugging along as hard as I can to will my six-foot-two, 190-pound body to fly, wondering why God made me so big and beautiful. The intensity of the start numbs whatever pain I might feel. At the crest of the hill, the wave of effort catches me and then I push it out of my head and keep going.

I can’t catch the guys in front of me, but two riders stick with me and we open a gap on the group behind us that’s 15 seconds and growing. We’re all pushing to reach the two riders in front of us while we battle over every inch of the course. I hear a pedal hit the ground in a turn behind me and accelerate to capitalize on what I know is a handling error. Then I strike a pedal on a root in a single-track section and hear an acceleration behind me that I block.

On the final lap, a competitor passes and leads me out of the forest onto the beach where we dismount, hurdle two barriers and then run 50 yards through soft sand. A friend watching the race screams at me to run him down, so I try my best and inch past him, hitting the concrete on the other side first. I throw a leg over my bike and go as hard as I can through the rest of the circuit, just barely holding off the charge behind me. It’s close heading into the last turn. I sprint so hard I make what has been called the “horse face”, looking like I’m trying to swallow buckets of air and about to neigh.

Some days you’re the hammer. Some days you’re the nail. This day, my sprint sticks and I make third. Some would call that second loser. And I’d say, give it a shot. Where you finish counts, always. But what counts in equal measure is how you fought, the skill you hone, the lessons you learn to carry into every fight you face — and the ability to laugh at the dumb face you make while you’re putting out so much effort that you look like a dying horse.

Andrew Vontz is a journalist, content innovator, cycling coach and adventurer based in San Francisco. He writes about people, places and things at the limits of human experience. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Playboy, Outside, Bicycling, Men’s Health, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, UFC magazine and many other publications. Find him @vontz on Twitter and instagram. Find more of his stories at andrewvontz.com.