Don't Call it a Comeback
by Avi If you're reading this, chances are you're infected with an addiction to racing bikes, or you know someone who is. It's not Saturday night bowling or the occasional 9 holes of golf. The winter, instead of being a prison sentence to be served annually, becomes an opportunity to hit the gym, hit the trainer, and daydream of how your efforts are going to pay off. Take away any piece of the puzzle of the racing season, and the year feels incomplete. My winter was spent nursing a torn rotator cuff, surgery, and physical therapy, and 2011 was starting to look like a writeoff.
Everything I did to get me a decent 2010 on the Track was out of reach, so I just decided to do long, ugly, solo base miles, with a Midwestern "spring" that didn't exactly cooperate. I looked at the calendar a little differently. No tripling up at Snake Alley this year. 100k of gravel? Why not? Some good old fashioned Belgian miles. I thought a top 20 would mean I was on the path to getting some form back. Unfortunately my weekend started with getting hit in traffic by an off-duty cop. For a instant I thought my season would be over again, but I escaped with a bit of road rash. He gave me a ride home and pledged to buy me a new wheel. I made it to the start of the Gravel Metric. Hats off to Half Acre, Robots, the Bonebell, North Central Cyclery and all the sponsors for pulling it all together.
With 120 folks at the start, I wondered if maybe a top 20 was a little ambitious. Lots of familiar faces, most with 6-8 weeks of race legs under them, but still, a lot of cyclo-tourist types, so better to stay near the front. It started with a slow roll out of town. Lots of Half Acre, Iron Cycles, Johnny Sprockets, and all-around strongman CX Masters titleholder/coach Brian Conant at the front.
I didn't set out to attack relentlessly, but it seemed a slow pace, and it was in all of our best interests to thin the herd at the front, and maybe a break would form. The action started at the first checkpoint. It seems that our little group at the front forgot that this was an alleycat and flew right past. I was first in, first out, and despite being alone, attacked. Maybe a couple of opportunists would bridge up to me. If this were a "normal" race, there were enough teammates in the front group to block and let us go.
It wasn't to be, and I was caught, but in a lead group of seven! Maybe a top ten was in the cards! We kept an honest pace, but there were chasers. It was still overcast, and the road was fine gravel. I refused to look at the odometer, but I knew it was still early. I had no idea what was coming.
I had preloaded the course onto my GPS, and was just following a line on a map. Conant had a cue sheet set up similarly on his Garmin. They didn't quite agree. At one point, his route had him going off course, and I thought for a split second "if this were a real alleycat, I should let them go" but I couldn't. I called them back on route. With the delay, the lead group was up to 12. The course flags were agreeing with my route, so we decided mine was correct. A couple other guys had cue sheets pinned up, but with the rain starting and the road names tough to discern, they were becoming tougher to use.
Conant was happily dragging us all along, doing most of the work, when his road tires caught up to him and he flatted out. We kept on, and the rain picked up. We approached the second checkpoint, and a couple other guys started to realize the first in/first out advantage, and sprinted for it. The CP workers pointed us at our route: tractor tracks off into a field. It wasn't a road, it was a mile of wet sludge, ankle deep.
The group exploded. We all tried to ride as far as we could, but it was impossible. I wrapped my chain around my bottom bracket and suddenly had a dozen guys ahead of me, blocking whatever lines I might have wanted. Ted Ramos had coasted further than anyone and critically, seemed to have shouldered his bike while it was clean. He was off the front. The rest of us tried our best, pushing bikes until they were unpushable, then were stuck carrying them, slogged with 40 pounds of mud. I shed the mud by pushing it through the rivulets of rain water, in the tall wet grass, whatever seemed to work. Somehow I got my bike mostly clean and shouldered it, "running" through the peanut butter.
I don't know how long it went on. A mile? 15 minutes? There was Ted and then a hundred meters back, the rest of us. I knew I had to reach him and just kept on. I wanted the lead group to thin out, but I was stoked to reach him alone. I got him just as the mud ended and we started hammering. The madness continued, more mud, knee-high prairie grass, wading through wild alfalfa, scrambling across train tracks, fording a creek, for chrissakes, still, just following the little arrow pointing down the line on my computer. It was ridiculous, and getting more so. I would later discover that most of the lead group went off course somewhere in here.
The "road" came back and there was nothing to do but hammer and trade. Ted was flying in the tailwind sections and I could barely hold on. I pulled my weight in the headwinds, taking long steady turns. After my chain wrap, I was only able to get back into the big ring by reaching down and manually pushing the chain on, so I decided not risk the small ring for the rest of the day. Some debris in my rear cluster had my chain skipping in half the gears, and I didn't want to pop it, so I found myself with a whopping selection of about three gears to choose from. I was jealous of Ted, spinning merrily along, while I pushed the big ring.
I still hadn't looked at the odometer, but I thought we must be close, we made the turn and were heading back to town. "20 miles to go," Ted said, and I was more than a little crestfallen. Still, the out-and-back leg had tipped us off to the chasers, and I thought we could survive if we just kept at it.
The rest of the race was an hour of this. Blistering rain and 6 miles of headwind, then we made the turn and tried to outrun the storm. Lightning strikes everywhere, fortunately we were surrounded by windmills to take the brunt of them. I remember thinking "if I go out like this, at least I'm at the front of a bike race."
You'd think such a battle would come down to a thrilling and decisive finish, but you'd be disappointed. We both sized each other up in the closing meters, wordless, cautious. But neither of us knew where we were, where the line would be, which direction we'd be coming from, until literally seconds before we made the penultimate corner, and we were 20 meters from where we'd imagined throngs of cheering spectators. The CP workers had waited for an hour, then gone inside. They pestered us, "Somebody has to be first." We decided that it was a photo finish at the line, but with no photo, and no line, tied for first place.