Back in the Sierras: Mounts Williamson & Tyndall

The trip's objectives: Mt. Williamson, left, and Mt. Tyndall.

The trip’s objectives: Mt. Williamson, left, and Mt. Tyndall.

Prologue: You’d be advised to skip this self-indulgent section

For two years Michael, my intrepid Sierras climbing partner, and I had been planning our own version of “Intro to Climbing in the Palisades” by taking on Mt. Sill and Polemonium Peak.

Last year (2012) our plans had come to an abrupt end when I reluctantly had to acknowledge that, after a full season of bike racing, I would be at risk of defaulting on the significant loan I had taken out from the marital bank by asking my wife to work full time and take care of our two kids for a week while I flew out to California for four days of climbing in the Sierras.

This year I would be piggy-backing the climbing trip on top of three weeks of family vacation in California. While patting myself on the back for this shrewd bit of logistical maneuvering I am secretly harboring serious doubts about the final pitches up to Polemonium’s summit. It is notoriously exposed Class 4 and I have not yet read one trip report where the authors were confident to free solo the stretch, universally opting to rope up.

This presents a problem as I have limited…I mean, very little…in fact I have exactly ZERO rope experience beyond seeing some rope once on a trip to Bent Gate to buy trail runners, reading the relevant sections of Freedom of the Hills (the knot tying diagrams are particularly difficult to abstract without an actual rope in hand) and watching a few Youtube videos. A week out from our departure and the learning curve would appear to be as steep and exposed as the pitches in question.

Despite the klaxons of intuition blaring “Don’t do it!”, I hold out hope of not disappointing Michael (an experience rock climber) until I happen to, out of sheer boredom, read the safety chapter of Hiking and Climbing California’s Fourteeners by Stephen Porcella and Cameron Burns:

“The first step towards the use of a rope in safeguarding an ascent is to know proper rope handling techniques. There are many books on this subject, but unfortunately, books cannot substitute for getting out and practicing these techniques.”

Further down:

“…know your own limits…this goes back to our earlier point of knowing when to back down. There have been numerous incidents concerning climbers on the fourteeners where an experienced climber refused to acknowledge slower or less experienced climbers in the group. In almost every experience someone was hurt or killed.”

My intuition is validated. Though I rate myself a decent scrambler and figure a 90% chance of success soloing to the top of Pol, the remaining 10% has only one possible, somewhat terminal outcome. There has already been enough tragedy in the mountains this summer. I e-mail Michael and beg off the choice of target peaks.

He is sympathetic and after a flurry of activity we choose Mt. Williamson and the adjacent Mt. Tyndall as the trip’s objectives. My pitch to Michael is that climbing these two peaks will put us into the 1% of 14er climbers. The reality is that since 99% of all 14er climbing activity in California is centered on one mountain, anyone who climbs any other 14er in California automatically joins the 1% club!

Williamson & Tyndall have a reputation as two of the more remote 14ers in the Sierra. This is mainly due to the 12-mile, 6K’ gain of approach required just to get to the top of Shepherds Pass, where only then do the appropriate faces of each mountain first come into view. Almost every report mentions the grinding nature of this approach, the ensuing crossing of the Williamson Bowl and the 2K’ climb up the gully on Williamson’s standard West Face route. Rather than further dwell on these challenges, I will instead refer the reader to the best report I read on the climb.

Many tackle these mountains by heavy packing into the alpine bleakness of Williamson Bowl. Since both Michael and I merely tolerate heavy packing with gritted teeth, we plan on packing about 10 miles to the forested Anvil Camp, set up base camp and then day hike the two peaks on subsequent days. This will add a few miles and about 2K’ of gain to the total trip stats, but they will be light and fast miles.

I am excited to have in pocket a brand new Canon S110 which I received a day before the trip. It is the first point & shoot I have ever owned and it will have it’s trial-by-fire straight out of the box. No longer would I be limited to embarrassingly dodgy iPhone pics or have to pack & carry a dozen pounds of SLR gear.

Day 1: The Approach

Just shy of Lone Pine, we make the obligatory stop at the [inhaling big gulp of air] Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center, AKA the Taj Mahal of ranger stations. Anyone who has been there has likely seen the unmistakable spires of that other mountain to the west. What I had never noticed before is that if you scan the range just slightly to the north, there’s Williamson and Tyndall.

Williamson: obvious though anonymous from Lone Pine.

The Williamson Massif (center) and Tyndall (to the immediate left): obvious though anonymous from Lone Pine.

I wonder how many people standing in this parking lot have any idea that this mountain is the second highest in California?

From the Taj we head to Lone Pine proper for a Subway sandwich. We easily navigate the dirt road to the trailhead at 6,000’ and, after wolfing our sandwiches down, are pounding dust up the trail along Symmes Creek by 1pm.

On the road to the Shepherds Pass trailhead.

On the road to the Shepherds Pass trailhead.

Pounding dust on the trail.

Pounding dust.

Much has been made of the mid-day summer heat on this trail and I am struck by the purely desert nature of the Eastern Sierras at this elevation. We are lucky to have a nice breeze and as the day goes on a merciful amount of cloud cover to keep things relatively cool.

We had been advised at the Taj that heavy flash flooding earlier in the summer had done significant damage to the creek bed and the some of the trail. While this is immediately evident to us as we make our way along the trail, the Forest Service has done en excellent job rerouting small sections of trail and we cross the creek four times without trouble.

I have decided to tackle this trip with only a 1L Nalgene bottle and a filter, so at the last creek crossing I gulp the whole thing down, fill it again and we begin the climb away from the creek and up the 56 switchbacks to Symmes Saddle. Once on top of the saddle, as promised, the northeastern flank of Williamson dominates the scene.

The view from Symmes Saddle. Williamson dominates the entire area.

The view from Symmes Saddle. Williamson dominates the entire area.

The rest of the approach is long, but pretty and uneventful. We encounter the first water after the last creek crossing in the form of a stream about a mile before the Mahogany Flat area. I gulp and fill. Once at Mahogany Flat we are fooled into thinking that our arrival at Anvil Camp, just above and ahead a ways, is imminent. In fact it is still two miles to go at that point as the trail gradually ascends some long switchbacks to the right.

Shepherds Creek. Anvil Camp is in the forested area at the upper middle of the frame, still quite a long way away.

Shepherds Creek. Anvil Camp is in the forested area at the upper middle of the frame, still quite a long way away.

Just before Anvil we come across the final washout, a 15’ deep trench filled with an assortment of granite boulders. We leave the trail pick our way up the loose dirt and stones until we come to shallow area suitable for crossing. Good warm up for tomorrow!

Clearing the final washout of the day.

Clearing the final washout of the day.

Back down the other side we rejoin the trail and within minutes are entering the relatively lush environs of Anvil Camp, just shy of six hours since our departure.

Entering the forest at Anvil Camp.

Entering the forest just shy of Anvil Camp.

We find a good site before crossing the creek which runs through the middle of Anvil. It is not a gorgeous packing destination by Sierras standards but nonetheless it’s very nice as a base camp with ample shade and the creek nearby as a water source and constant nighttime lullaby. We encounter very few mosquitoes and see none of the mice that had been reported as being a problem here.

It’s also interesting to note that this is the only trip I’ve taken of many in the Sierras where a bear canister is merely advised but not mandatory (we bring them anyway). In fact there isn’t much in the way of obvious wildlife here in general, maybe because it’s high and pretty dry.

Our decent site at Anvil.

Our decent site at Anvil.

Water at Shepherds Creek is only 100 feet away from the campsite.

Water at Shepherds Creek is only 100 feet away from the campsite.

Nearly accurate map and stats of the day's route.

Nearly accurate map and stats of the day’s route.

Day 2: The Soft Underbelly of The Beast (Williamson)

Nice morning. One of the luxuries of starting the day high up in the Sierras is a relatively late departure time of 7:30am, since we do not have to worry nearly as much about thunderstorms.

Daybreak at Anvil.

Daybreak at Anvil.

Now with our daypacks, we jam through the balance of Anvil, pass treeline and cruise up the nice trial through the numerous moraines that make up the remainder of the trek to Shepherds Pass. Along the way we encounter the first descending hiker we have come across on our trip. He tells us that he managed Tyndall but bailed on the attempt on Williamson because he could not discern the “black stain”, a watermark made by a small cascade on the side of Williamson that, critically, marks the entry point of the gully.

Soon enough we can see Shepherds Pass before us and I have my only “uh oh” moment of the trip. From a distance, the pass looks like a ridiculous slog up a very steep and loose slope.

Approaching Shepherds Pass. Trail anyone?

Approaching Shepherds Pass. Trail anyone?

But we come closer and handy switch-backing trail is revealed, of which we make short work.

Halfway up the pass, looking back down the trail.

Halfway up the pass, looking back down the trail.

At the top of the pass we are treated to a killer view of Tyndall to the left. Tomorrow’s intended route—the North Rib—is obvious from this angle at the center of the mountain’s face.

Beyond the pass Mt. Tyndall dominates the background.

Beyond the pass Mt. Tyndall dominates the background.

A closer view of tomorrow's route: Tyndall's North Rib in the center of the frame.

A closer view of tomorrow’s route: Tyndall’s North Rib in the center of the frame.

We briefly enter Sequoia National Park before swinging left, working our way across an open, gradual slope toward the rising mass of Williamson and the rim of the bowl. Tip: If you head up the middle of this slope (middle being somewhat subjective in this case) you will arrive at the edge in the approximate area of the use trail that leads down into the bowl. From here Williamson looks like an unassailable fortress, an armored beast. We must find its soft underbelly.

Williamson rising.

Williamson rising.

Michael pauses at the edge of Williamson Bowl.

Michael pauses at the edge of Williamson Bowl.

Down in the bowl we pass to the left of the first lake and then trend right. After picking our way up and over the various hills of rock and stone we eventually arrive at the western shore of the second lake where we fill bottles and eat. The black stain is easily visible from this point and Michael and I entertain ourselves with speculation as to how the descending climber could have missed it.

Looking down into the bowl.

Looking down into the bowl.

Good view of the ascent route from the western shore of the second lake.

Good view of the ascent route from the western shore of the second lake.

Back on our feet we disagree on the fastest way around the lake so we each take off in different directions to see who’s right. The result is a virtual tie as we meet in the middle and pick our way up a moraine toward the stain, crossing underneath and beginning our climb up the face at what seems to be the optimal point.

The going is rough here, the steep slope a mass of rubble with no obvious path, just keep going up. We scrape our way past several mounds and as the gradient eases a bit, realize that we are a little too far right of the gully. After some cursing on my part for the wasted effort we traverse over and begin the ascent of the gully proper.

Negotiating the rubble of Williamson's lower flanks: say hello to the black stain (upper left) as you pass!

Negotiating the rubble of Williamson’s lower flanks: say hello to the black stain (upper left) as you pass!

It’s a grind. We try to stay right where the rock tends to be a little more blocky and solid, but the loose stuff is unavoidable and unpredictable as seemingly solid stones suddenly shift underfoot. After about an hour of this struggle an internal conversation begins as fatigue begins to set in.

“Why are you doing this again?”

“It doesn’t matter, you chose to do this–waited two years to be here–so just shut up and keep going. Any day in the mountains is a good day.”

Grinding up the gully.

Grinding up the gully.

Looking back down from high up in the gully.

Looking back down from high up in the gully.

Finally, after nearly an hour-and-a-half straight uphill, we arrive at the chimney, the way out of the gully. Much has been made of this feature. I will only say that is was the most technically challenging and so, fun, section of the whole four days of climbing.

Michael searches for holds. Hint: start on the the good rock to climber's right of the chimney.

Michael searches for holds. Hint: start on the the good rock to climber’s right of the chimney.

Michael leads the route and gasps as we exit on the summit ridge. Before us is a rocky plateau leading toward Williamson’s east and west “horns”. From the floor of the Owens Valley the horns appear to be the summit of the mountain. In actual fact the true summit is further west and much more subtle.

Sweeping the chimney.

Sweeping the chimney.

The horns of Williamson.

The horns of Williamson.

We swing right and up the ridge. After about 15 minutes of Class 2 scampering and boulder hopping we arrive at the summit! The views from the top of Williamson do not disappoint, as every California 14er save Shasta is visible.

First 14er of the years and it's a pretty good one.

First 14er of the year and it’s a pretty good one.

A rare view: Langley, left, Russell & that other mountain.

A rare view from this angle: Langley, left, Russell, center-right, and…that other mountain.

As we begin our descent we catch site of two guys emerging from the chimney and Michael shouts greetings and an advisement as they errantly begin heading toward the horns. A shouted conversation ensues and they tell us they’re day hiking the two peaks from the trailhead!

The racer in me feels a pang of envy as our noble effort to attempt the one peak from Anvil is completely eclipsed by this seemingly mad endeavor. Turns out the tactic is not uncommon and I soothe my ego by speaking the truth to myself about the matter: 20 or so hours straight of hiking and climbing 30 miles with 10K’ of gain, while an amazing feat of endurance, is just not my idea of a fun day in the mountains.

My envy sufficiently quelled, we continue the descent. Other than the fact that I find the way down the chimney a little trickier than the way up, the descent is uneventful if a little sloppy on my part. Michael shows off his boulder hopping agility and arrives at the base of the gully several minutes before me. From there we retrace our path out of the bowl, down the pass and back to Anvil.

Down the chimney Michael goes with a bound.

Down the chimney Michael goes with a bound.

This has not been my hardest day in the mountains, but the cumulative toll of the route lives up to its reputation. A climb of Williamson demands respect strictly as an endurance event. Ironically, even though I am pretty blasted by two days of grinding, I struggle to sleep well—worse than normal—for reasons that are unclear.

Red clouds over the ridge, from Anvil.

Red clouds over the ridge, from Anvil.

The GPS may wander but we stay true to the route.

The GPS may wander but we stay true to the route.

Day 3: Oh, and Tyndall…

Another nice day and knowing that Tyndall will be a comparative breeze we depart camp at a leisurely 8am. The hike up Shepherds is pleasant and we harbor no regrets having to climb the 2K’ again as it serves a great warm up.

Groundhog's Day on the pass.

Groundhog’s Day on the pass.

Though the “Class 2” Northeast Ridge is officially considered the standard route up the mountain I have read nothing but bad things about the route and so we never even consider it as an option. In fact I would like to officially nominate the North Rib route as the new standard. Anyone know where to submit the forms?

Michael and I stand at the top of the open slope and scout our proposed route. There is a moraine at the base of the rib. To the right of the moraine is a boulder field leading to shallow gully, carpeted by dusty orange rocks. Any route would seem to suffice but we choose the gully, working up and left over the top of the moraine to the base of the rib.

The moraine, the gully and Tyndall's North Rib.

The moraine, shallow gully and Tyndall’s North Rib.

Approaching the rib on the dusty orange rocks of the gully.

Approaching the rib on the dusty orange rocks of the gully.

From the base of the rib to the summit ridge is less than 1,000 feet and the effort is similar to the Williamson gully at Class 2+, though shorter and so not nearly as demanding. Again the trick is to climb the blocky talus and slabs of the rib itself as opposed to looser stuff on the right. There is a gendarme at the top of the rib and we use it as a target to assist navigation.

Michael leads the assault ont eh rib. Use the gendarme seen above as a target.

Michael leads the assault on the rib, using the gendarme seen above as a target.

And up...

And up…

...and up, approaching the gendarme.

…and up, approaching the gendarme.

Just short of the summit ridge we lose the route a bit and end up climbing the fun Class 3 blocks which make up the base of the gendarme. The correct (but less fun) route would be to cross over the rib, working left, into an obvious chute that passes the gendarme to the left. After our scrambling fun has played out we correct our trajectory, climb the remaining portion of the chute and arrive on the summit ridge.

Oops: a good bit of off-route fun.

Oops: a good bit of off-route fun.

The scampering traverse to Tyndall’s exposed summit is simple and direct, excepting the contouring of a minor false summit along the way.

Approaching the summit block. Watch your left: that first step is a doozy.

Approaching the summit block. Watch your left: that first step is a doozy.

We arrive at the summit, dropping into the small dirt-floored cavity that houses the register. There is a block of rocks that serve as the pinnacle of the mountain, dividing two windows that look down nearly 2,000’. The exposure of these two windows is so profound that as I sit only a couple feet from the precipice my nether regions tingle and not in a good way.

Michael contemplating the air of the summit pinnacle. Or offering thanks to the creator, whichever works for you.

Michael contemplating the air of the summit pinnacle. Or offering thanks to the creator, whichever works for you.

Michael and I take turns mantling to the top of the block and touching the pinnacle. We muse about how if this stone were in our in the backyard we could literally do a handstand on the thing and not even give it a second thought. As is it, since a mere gust of wind could send the perpetrator of such a feat flipping arse-over into the airy void, I cling to the thing for dear life and feel little silly for my cowardice.

Touching the summit pinnacle makes your nether regions tingle.

Touching the summit pinnacle makes your nether regions tingle.

Williamson across the void. We wouldn't believe it climbable if we hadn't done it the day before.

Williamson across the void. We wouldn’t believe it climbable if we hadn’t done it the day before.

We find a slightly less daring perch on the west side of the summit, eat and relax in the Sierra sunshine for a good duration. The descent off the mountain is quick and unremarkable, other than the fact that Michael again torches me down the talus.

Arriving back at the intermediary slope we pause for pictures. We’ve done it!

Success!

Success!

One last look of the glowering West Face of the Williamson.

One last look of the glowering West Face of Williamson.

Rather than hang out back at Anvil, we decide to pack up and cut our final day’s descent in half by packing down (and back up) to camp at Symmes Saddle. A short pack out will await for Day 4, along with a handsome breakfast in Lone Pine and the drive back to greater LA.

Moon and freakish cloud above Williamson's East Ridge at dusk.

Moon and freakish cloud above Williamson’s East Ridge at dusk.

We talk openly of next year’s trip to finally tackle Sill & Polemonium. My deadline to become a proficient technical rock climber and rope handler is 361 days away and counting. I better get started…

There and back again.

There and back again.

Seeing it though, no matter what: The 2012 Killington Stage Race, Part 3

“[Courage is] when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through, no matter what.” –Harper Lee, from To Kill a Mockingbird

Day three and the Queen Stage: the 61-mile road race. The festival of brutality will likely commence at mile 25, on the climb up North Road, and end up the dreaded East Mountain Road.

I am within 11 seconds of my modest goal of finally finishing this race inside the Top 20. The plan is to ride defensively and simply try to outclimb more guys than can outclimb me. Despite another fitful night of sleep, I feel pretty rested as Jere, Scott and I warm up by riding the 11 miles from the house to the start at the Skyeship Gondola Basestation.

Normally I wouldn’t bother to warm up for a race this long except for a cruel feature of the course: we will tackle the “Valley Park” climb, 1.3 miles at around 6%, at just two miles into the race.

The tempo is quick but steady up the climb as, mercifully, no one feels the need to turn the screws on the stage so early. We swing right and begin a long, gradual decline toward the White River. A break of two goes off the front and there is a half-hearted effort to chase underway. Ahead I see the race leader mixing it up at the front. I am content merely to turn the pedals as little as possible.

The next 20 miles are a nervous affair as we are riding on two of the roads that were apparently overlooked for post-Irene repaving. There are long sections of choppy and disintegrating pavement on the right side and numerous deep crevasses right down the middle of the lane. Were someone to catch a wheel in one of these crevasses at speed, calamity would ensue. I don’t even want to think about this possibility as I crane my neck around to pick up these obstacles in enough time to avoid them. Thankfully the field skillfully navigates the sections, aided by the lime green paint the promoter has used to outline them.

The official vehicles are up ahead with the break when we come upon a temporary bridge surrounded on all sides by gravel. It ushers the field to the left and into the oncoming lane. We round a gentle bend to see a truck coming straight at us. Shouts of urgent warning go up in the peloton and everyone dodges right. There is an audible mass sigh of relief along with a smattering of nervous laughter as the truck rumbles safely past.

Jere is at the front and decides to attack, taking a few riders with him. It is short-lived as the group bogs down on a sharp roller. The road straightens out and the break of two is visible up ahead, going for the points sprint only a mile before the turn up North Road. They sit up immediately afterward and following a half-hearted effort in the field for third place, we are all together.

I’m in good position near the front as we swing right onto the climb. It is an awkward transition from 20 miles of spinning in the big ring to the initial section of the climb, which is a mile, topping out at 10%. I grind away in a small gear and am able to maintain my position with a workmanlike effort even as an attack goes on the left, way over the double yellow.

We crest the initial wall and I anticipate what is to come: the several miles of sharp rollers that were my undoing last year. Here is the first roller and there is an acceleration as several riders attack off the front. Still feeling good, I surf it, drifting back a few riders and wary of gaps. Here comes the second roller.

Another acceleration as guys in the group respond to the attack. I’m right in there…right in there…right in…the sirens go off! My quads flood with lactic acid.

This sensation is unfamiliar to me and I cannot fully comprehend it, even with the benefit of hindsight. Despite countless occasions of anaerobic suffering in both training and racing over the past year in Colorado, the nuclear quad meltdown has never occurred—I’m simply either able to push the gear and hold the pace or not. In fact the only other time I have experienced this sensation was at this exact same section of road in this race last year. I remain perplexed by this anomaly.

I am now rendered helpless. My head is in the game, my lungs and energy levels are willing and like John Paul Jones, I have not yet begun to fight…but the legs appear to have struck their colors. Riders stream past me—big guys that “should not” be able to outclimb me. I can only chuckle a little as I contemplate the ironic déjà vu.

But that’s where the comparison with last year’s race ends. I bear down and push, hoping that Jere or Scott will come up with a group from behind. I trade pulls with another rider and we crest the next roller to see the main group agonizingly close.

“Get up there!” I hear Jere yell from behind and as hoped, he is here with reinforcements in the form of a chase group of about eight. I wish, but now comes the darkest moment of the race as for several minutes it is everything I can do to hold onto this group until we crest the top of the climb.

Relief on the brief descent. I sit in and recover, the main group now out of sight around the bends ahead. The legs clear, the storm has passed and soon enough I am at the front of the group driving it up through the feed zone. The field has gone up the road and with it, my shot at a Top 20. Dammit.

For pride’s sake, I will make the most of this race. I will tackle East Mountain and I will finish as high up as possible. A handful of us trade pulls at the front and over the next 25 miles we pick up stragglers until the group tops out at 15+ riders.

Soon enough we are heading up toward the left turn onto East Mountain Road. A round of congratulations goes around at the front of our group for the thankless effort of towing half the group to the base of the climb. Jere tells me that he is done and will granny gear it to the top.

In the end, East Mountain Road isn’t all that bad. There are several steep sections but nothing quite as long or sustained as Upper Flagstaff in Boulder, which I climbed half a dozen times in training. Granted, our little group is barely racing at this point and soon enough, splinters on the lower section of the climb. I pass the cheering family support gang half way up the climb, leap frog with several riders up and over the crest of the road, then descend down to series of rollers prior to swinging a left onto the final section of climb up Killington Access Road.

I muscle to the line, finishing strongly but in 38th (36th overall) and nearly 10 minutes down. In the end, only three riders from my group outclimb me and I have to acknowledge that there were several days of training this winter where I finished a lot more blasted. That said I have to reconcile the fact that, with 90% of my discretionary training this season devoted to climbing, more than 15 guys I beat in the TT were able to outclimb me on this day. I become a little wistful, wondering what might have been had I just been able to hold the pace during those critical few moments on North Mountain.

Minutes later, Jere comes over the line and sits on the ground. Lone riders continue to come across looking completely shattered. As rough a day as I have had the race leader has had it worse, coming in almost 16 minutes down on the stage winner. I suppose he is content with two wins out of three.

Anyway, it’s Memorial Day! Beers and a burger await at the Long Trail Brewing Company!

Epilogue

Although a respectable overall finish eludes me at this race, to overanalyze my performance this year would be a waste of time. I chalk it up to just not having the 5% extra I needed on North Road. Lacking the top end to compete there is likely a result of too few race/group intensity sessions in the legs and losing more than a week of training to illness a month before the race.

Although I cannot speculate what role the crash may have played in my ultimate result, I can say that spent the better part of the following week very tired and feeling like I had fallen down a long flight of stairs.

A few tweaks next year along with some long overdue good luck and I might finally get up there, hopefully as a Cat 3. As it is, the season is not even half over and there are many left races on the calendar in Colorado.

Special thanks to my whole family for the encouragement and support I received at this race and throughout this season. It’s a hugely selfish pursuit and my efforts to make up for it in other ways can only fall short.

Do you want to cry tomorrow?: The 2012 Killington Stage Race, Part 2

Wake up for Sunday’s time trial comes early. Where Friday night had had been the best pre-race sleep I had gotten since…well, since I started racing again, Saturday night had been a toss and turn affair.  The sting of road rash and the incessant pounding of pulse in ears (as the body’s healing mechanism works double time to push blood to both tired legs and abraded skin) has me hovering on the brink of consciousness most of the night.

This would only be my second time trial this year and I had learned a few things from the Superior Morgul time trial the week before. The first was the beautiful concept of the “variable pacing” strategy.

In last year’s KSR TT I had followed the conventional “start easy, finish hard” pacing strategy. It’s a nice idea when you’re doing, say, a 40K (25-mile) TT on a flat course. Problem is, the Killington TT is less than half that distance at 11.1-miles. Also the first half of the course is more difficult, basically a 1-2% false flat culminating in a series of 3-4% rollers. The second half is flat and fast. This meant that last year I was going “easy” on the difficult part of the course and by the time I cranked it up it was too little, too late.

The variable pacing strategy dictates that you basically go hard when the course is hard (e.g. hills and headwinds) as these are the parts of the race where the most time can be gained or lost. On the easier sections, like descents, you back off slightly so as to allow for a little recovery. The trick here is to keep the speed up by getting as aerodynamic as possible while keeping the pedals turning over quickly, or what I’ve come to refer to as “efficiency mode.”

So the plan for this year’s TT is to start quickly, use the first mile to settle in and then crank it up over the first half of the course. Once over the Val Roc climb, the biggest roller of the course that we named after the adjacent Val Roc Motel, ease off slightly for a mile then drop it into a heavy gear and suffer to the finish. The goal: do better than last year embarrassing performance of 47th, nearly four minutes off the winner. Being a realist, I would love to finish inside the Top 30, less than a minute or so outside the Top 20.

The second thing I learned at Superior is that it’s no good to have a plan if you don’t execute it in its entirety. I executed the first half of that TT brilliantly, going hard on the uphills and efficiently on the descents. But I inexplicably lost focus in the second half, held back where I had planned on going all out and ended up crossing the line with way too much left in the tank. I got 15th there, a maddening 11 seconds out of the omnium points, setting off an evening of Woulda Coulda Shoulda rehash. I would not make that same mistake today.

Perhaps the silver lining to the Stage 1 crash was that we the victims were all given “same time” at the back of the main field. This means that Jere is starting 30 seconds in front of me and as a better TT’er, will serve as a great rabbit. 30 seconds behind me is the Wild Child himself, the instigator of the crash. Pride can only take you so far in racing if you don’t have the legs but to put it simply, there is absolutely no way in hell that I am going to let this guy beat me.

Jere and I exchange a few words of encouragement and I start my clock as he jumps off the line. I pull into the start house, clear my head and after five beeps, I’m off.

I usually feel like hell the first few minutes of any race that starts quickly as a combination of nerves and caffeine conspire to turn my legs to rubber until I can warm up and find a rhythm. But today I feel good off the line and I quickly ramp it up to race speed.

I am pacing only by “Rate of Perceived Exertion”, AKA “how bad it hurts” and have committed myself to not ever look at my computer or care one way or the other if I pass or am passed by another rider (that is, any rider other than the one immediately behind!). I have found both to be distracting and potentially demoralizing.

The false flat bites but I keep the cadence up and over the first few miles and seem to be slowly gaining ground on Jere up ahead. This is either a bad sign for him or a very good one for me. Soon enough we are swinging right and onto the rollers. I get out of the saddle and pound away up and over the first.

I come upon the gang of supporters (my Mom, Courtney, my nieces and Scott’s family) at the base of the Val Roc, flash them a quick sign and then drop into the small chainring and power as fast gear as possible. Over the top, Jere seems to be pulling slowly away as, true to plan, I back off slightly on the short descent.

Once on the flat straight away there is a light breeze and the going seems a little harder than last year. I press low into to the aero bars and start to ramp it back up. A rider ahead is in the process of pulling a Bjarne Riis, having come to a full stop with an apparent mechanical. I have to shout a warning to him when he starts to pull a U-Turn right into my line, apparently heading back to the neutral support mechanic’s tent that we passed a mile back.

Along this stretch I have to come out of position a couple of times in order to check for car traffic as I move out into the lane to pass slower riders. I am suffering now and bog down a bit as my attention span begins to wander.

I read a good article on the TT in which Hunter Allen explains “This is just a trick of your mind to get you out of your limit, away from that edge: ‘Hey, this stuff is tough, it hurts, I don’t know if I can do this…‘ and then you ease off of the edge and start to lose your focus–and that’s when you let go of your possibility of a peak performance.”

I’ve become quite familiar with that voice this season. It is persistent and clever and, at a critical moment of weakness, will hit me with a persuasive argument to relent. Though I do not believe in Satan, this is certainly the devil inside.

Expecting to hear the devil is half the battle of defeating it. The other half is to counter it with the meaningful things I’ve told myself when I wasn’t suffering. In this moment I remind myself that my family have all sacrificed a lot so I could be here doing a Cat 4 race that contributes nothing productive to anyone but myself. I also remember what I yelled to my brother in this very time trial last year: “later you’re going to wish you had gone harder so do it now!”

It’s a long-winded and melodramatic thing to yell during a race. It’s also true and a variation of something I heard a long time ago. In 1994 I was ringside in Vegas, running film at the IBF heavyweight championship boxing match between Michael Moorer and Evander Holyfield . There I personally witnessed Moorer’s trainer, Teddy Atlas, lay into Moorer when he felt his fighter was succumbing to the pain of the moment (I conveniently found the quote transcribed on the internet!):

“There comes a time in a man’s life when he makes a decision – to just live. Survive. Or he wants to win. You’re doing just enough to keep him off you. And hope he leaves you alone. You’re lying to yourself. You’re gonna cry tomorrow because of this. Do you want to cry tomorrow? Huh? Don’t lie to yourself. Back this guy up and fight a full 
round…”

I don’t want to cry tomorrow. I push harder to get back up onto the wince-inducing edge. I pass a few more riders, small ring it up a short but sharp roller and turn right onto the twisting road that is the final mile of the course.

The asphalt is brand new—much of Vermont having been repaved after the devastation of last summer’s Hurricane Irene—and I am cruising now. I see Jere weaving through the corners just ahead and I bear down so hard that I keep coming off the front of my saddle. In fact the sharp pain of the nose of the saddle continually jabbing “sensitive areas” only serves to whip me along.

I thread the needle between two riders through a shallow S-bend, sprint over the final short roller and heave across the finish.

Never has a rider been so happy to get 23rd place. I know I’m generally good for a much better result back in Colorado but to execute a plan perfectly in a discipline that I didn’t train for and doesn’t really suit me, competing against the strongest Cat 4’s on the east coast, the day after the most spectacular crash I’ve ever been involved in, at a race that has historically had my number…I have to rate this as my best performance since I returned to racing.

I’m 2:11 back from the leader (the same guy who won Stage 1!) and only 11 seconds out of the Top 20. Interesting to note that the rider in 24th finished only 0.03 seconds behind me. It’s a razor thin edge of suffering and execution today. Jere finishes a few seconds back in 28th and Scott in 36th. Despite wind being more of a factor this year, all of us have improve our places from last year’s race.

Jere has suffered more bad luck by hitting a pothole inside 200 meters to the finish and cracking his rear Zipp 808. Having cracked his front in the crash, he’s now out a full, expensive wheelset and vows in turn to sell his TT bike at the first possible opportunity (look for a sweet Cervelo rig on eBay any day now).

Though the cruel Stage 3 road race—the one that basically ended my season last year–looms tomorrow, I will not be crying!

Oh, almost forgot: I put 3+ minutes into the King of Crash.

Bent but not broken by The Beast: The 2012 Killington Stage Race, Part I

1K to go and the field is rapidly snaking it’s way through the final gentle curves and down Route 100 on its way to the finish.

It’s Stage 1 of the 2012 Killington Stage Race and we’re on the last of three 18-mile circuits. I’m tucked just inside the middle of the peloton about halfway back and barely holding my ground, though it’s not because of the 40mph pace. Alarms bells are going off in my head as my field of vision successively tunes into a series of sketch moves by riders intent on getting themselves into position for the final.

Just up ahead of me is my brother, Jere. We had concocted a plan to do the same but the inner debate has begun. My gut says to drop back, avoid the sketch and live to fight another day. My main objective in this stage was to stay out of trouble near the front, avoid last year’s bad luck (an untimely puncture) and pedal as little as possible in order to save my legs for the more demanding stages to come. So far, so good, having only had to work for a minute over the final KOM sprint a few miles back.

The second objective was, with my brother on my wheel, launch an early sprint at around 500 meters. In theory, this would give him a shot at the podium, allow me to hang on to cherry pick an upgrade point or two and put us both in position for a late start in tomorrow’s time trial. Nice idea.

600 meters. Despite the fact that my brother is ahead of me and the field has devolved into high-speed chaos and anarchy, my brain counteracts my gut and I order myself to execute the plan.

500 meters and the left lane opens up just as we turn gently right to reveal the finish line below. A strong surge goes on the right but I jump left into a large gap with no wheel to follow. Colin Powell once said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In this case, no half-baked sprint plan survives contact with a brick wall of a head wind. I instantly bog down along with the 20 or so riders who moved left, including my brother.

400 meters and I’m already resigned to merely sprinting for a mid-pack finish and the 15 extra minutes of the sleep tomorrow that will be the resulting reward.

300 meters. A big rider passes me on the right, sprinting madly and shouting “Look out! Look out!” We, “the leftists”, are all well out of it now and I think “He can’t seriously be thinking he’s gonna win it from this far back?” As if our giving deference to his exhortations is enough to make up for a really late surge from the back of the field…

200 meters. He crosses in front of my line and tries to squeeze through a tight hole between two riders about 10 meters directly in front of me. We are headed into the sun and the whole horrifying scene plays out for me in silhouette.

The three shapes come together and violently collapse to the ground. My heart stops. In the milliseconds that follow I have enough time to grab handful of brake and think “NO. So close. It cannot end this way!” I’m locked up and going sideways as I torpedo the screaming heap at 45 mph.

100 meters. I’m flying. Blackout.

Killington is my nemesis. The 2012 edition marks the fifth time I’ve done this race and despite a few fleeting glimpses of potential along the way, I’ve never finished higher than 24th, having suffered and inordinate amount of perennial bad luck. After last year’s cataclysmic meltdown, I initially vowed never return as did both Jere and the third of our brotherhood of pain and humiliation, Scott.

Soon enough though I was analyzing my performance in 2011, dissecting my physical and mental preparation for the race and coming up with a new training plan. My parents (who live only a few miles from the start of each stage) offered generous support for me to attend the race, which if you’re flying from out of state, costs a small fortune.

Despite there being a handful of races on the Colorado calendar which suit my abilities much better, it was Killington—the race I have absolutely no chance to win—that irrationally fueled my offseason training. My logic was that if I could get in shape for a race as difficult as that, then decent performances at the local races would be an inevitable side effect.

Other than having an off-day at the Superior Morgul Road Race the week prior, this logic has proven sound. I have six months of training in my legs. Although I devoted 90% of my discretionary training to climbing, all aspects of my cycling fitness have improved over last year. My nutrition has been dialed in, I have sharply curtailed my alcohol consumption and I weigh five pounds less. My race-day rituals (IMO an underrated aspect of successful racing) are finely honed. I have a plan to, unlike last year, dose my efforts and conserve energy so as not blow out my legs early. Jere is convinced that we are unlikely to suffer the perfect storm of sandbaggers that wickedly blew apart last year’s race.

On the flip side, I came into the offseason having spent the better part of four months indulging in my two favorite deadly sins–sloth and gluttony–so I started training in October essentially from scratch. The early spring was a blessing for weather but a curse for my allergies. Losing ten days of training to illness only a month before the race has been a blow to not only my fitness but also to my training momentum. Similarly, I’ve come to hate rest weeks and the peaking process in general as the decreased hours tend to subvert my focus and consistency.

All this to say that I arrived in Vermont ambivalent about my chances to achieve one of the season’s most important goals: a Top 20 overall.

And here, on only the first day of the race and only 100 meters from the line, these best laid plans—as well as life, limb and bike—appear to about to become suddenly and violently undone by the actions of an overzealous idiot sprinting wildly for 31st place.

I jump up from the pavement really pissed off. The miraculous news is that I’m conscious, appear to have no broken bones and by some fortunate quirk of evolutional psychology, my brain has instantly deleted the impact and immediate aftermath (the flipping down the tarmac part) of the crash.

Although I would love to report that at this point I am simply happy to be alive, somehow the “that’s racing” equanimity eludes me and I let out a torrent of curses, mostly directed at the perpetrator of the crash who is picking up his bike out of the middle of the road. Spectators and officials rush over and I see my parents and sister-in-law, Courtney, running up the grass to our location.

A loud groan immediately to my right silences my tirade and I look down to see my brother sitting on the ground.

“I just need to rest for a minute,” he says, lying down.

What a catastrophe. Six riders of an 80-man field down in a crash out and two of them are us! Scott arrives on the scene having made the fortuitous move to back off and stay right.

I have further words with the offending rider, who adopts a “best defense is a good offense” strategy by suggesting that I should have braked sooner to avoid hitting the falling bodies, until the officials consider the argument sufficiently counterproductive to separate us. I cannot deny that I have a temper—it tends to be aroused by overt acts of foolishness that needlessly endanger and ultimately injure other riders.

As it is, both Jere and I have dodged serious injury. Later on, a forensic assessment of the road rash on my elbows, knees, shoulders and back has me guessing that I hit the group sideways, landed on my back and rolled on all fours. Jere has whacked his head and cracked one of his Zipp wheels. My right SRAM Red shift lever has been yanked out of the body.

The team jumps into action. Courtney picks up a enough bandages and medical supplies at the local pharmacy to patch up a small village (they were having a 2-for-1 sale—in anticipation of the race perhaps?) My dad brings the bike to the shop, which is literally on the corner just beyond the finish and repairs are affected. Huge shout out to SRAM neutral support who basically handed my dad a new (2011) Red shifter, no questions asked. I am now a customer for life.

We are bent but not broken and will continue on in tomorrow’s time trial.

Course changes, cone sprints and carnage at Deer Trail

I had been looking forward to the Deer Trail Road Race for two reasons. It would be the first Front Range road race this year that would be run on 100% asphalt (enter the carbon tubulars, finally) and the longest so far at 44 miles.

Also, this was to be the second stop on my 2012 Tour de Vengeance (now first, since I missed Koppenberg). In last year’s edition of Deer Trail, a high-speed crash close to the front knocked the majority of the field out of contention.

I myself was forced to choose between locking up the bike and barreling into the screaming heap…or veering off into a grassy ditch at 40mph, Lance-style. I chose the latter and was miraculously able to keep it upright. I then had to cyclocross it back up to the road to begin a long chase with a large tumbleweed jammed into my rear derailleur. Although I rode strongly the rest of the race, a mediocre finish was a foregone conclusion as the lead group had long since disappeared up the road.

Amped up by news that my brother Jere has scored a second place that morning in a race back east, teammate Fleetwood and I carpool out to Deer Trail for a 2:30pm start. Once there we meet up with teammates Aaron, Keith (who also got caught behind the crash last year and has similar thoughts of payback) and new teammate, Joshua, a neighbor of mine who has been showing steady progress in the big races. Only while picking up our numbers an hour before the start are we informed that the course has been altered to account for a washed out bridge.

The course is essentially a big ‘L’ with and out-and-back leg to the east, another to the north and then a repeat of the first leg around to the finish. The quirk of such a course is that there are three hard U-turns to be negotiated around cones placed in the middle of the road. Only the first few riders can make the turn cleanly and the rest have to fight their way back into contention after every cone.

What’s worse is that the guys in front know this and will typically attack after the cones, causing a whiplash effect in the extreme. Throw in narrow, incessantly rolling roads and the stiff winds typical of the Eastern Plains of Colorado (AKA Kansas) and you’ve got yourself a mentally taxing (some might say tedious? vexing?) race.

With the bridge out, the officials inform us that the northern leg will be cut in half and tackled first, followed by two successive circuits of the eastern leg. Quick analysis reveals that this will mean five U-turns instead of three. The race has also been necessarily shortened to 37-miles, coincidentally the same distance as both Boulder and Mead. So we won’t get our “longer” road race after all. This has me wondering why I bothered doing all those 3-4 hour rides this past winter (except that I know the answer: tune back here in about three weeks).

The race starts neutral as the motor leads our 60-man field out onto the course. The wind is blowing from the north and we roll along at jogging pace. With the roads being as narrow as they are, the only way to move up is, well…you can’t move up. I’m about 20 back when we hit the first cone and, as predicted, all hell breaks loose.  Large gaps open instantaneously and it’s a full-on track kilo effort to get back up to the leaders.

Sprint and repeat. Sit in, hoping that at some point the pace will pick up enough on the straight to allow for SOME advancement toward the front. A few solo attacks go a short ways up road, including one by Joshua, but the field has too much momentum on the downhills so nothing sticks for very long.

On the final outbound leg guys are starting to twitch. I’m comfortably uncomfortable, tucked in the middle of the field and starting to wish I had skipped this race for a training ride with maybe 8,000 or so feet of climbing.

I think everyone is so used to the wicked attrition caused naturally on a course like Boulder or Mead, that the blade of our tactical initiative is about as dull as a cake knife. Only the U-turn gaps have caused any attrition, but we’re so tightly packed in that I don’t want to take the chance to look back for a head count.

My instincts serve me well. On a fast downhill the magic elixir of one guy letting his guard down and another getting nervous while riding at speed within the group, is blended. Two riders up and to the left spontaneously come together and suplex each other to the ground. If the wreckage spills right, I’m in serious trouble and by reflex I get ready to execute the bunny hop of my life. Lucky for me but unfortunately for others, it spreads backward along the double yellow…

Indulge me now, please, while I step up onto my soapbox. I can abide a great deal of foolery in racing. Stuff happens, we all make sketchy moves once in awhile and crashing is simply a part of the game. What I cannot abide is a rider (or riders) that attack in the wake of a big crash in an attempt to capitalize on chaos and misfortune. While doing so is not against the rules, it is both lame and dishonorable.

Sadly, this happens nearly every time (in the 4’s), as evidenced by both editions of Deer Trail I have done as well as other races. And I have to say that most of the time it is an unattached rider who is the one attacking because, to put it bluntly, they don’t have to worry that it’s one of their friends/teammates left bleeding on the ground. Stepping off the soapbox…

Teammates are on my mind as I bridge up to the surging head of the field. Both Aaron and Fleetwood were back there and I can only hope that they stayed upright with a good roll of the dice. On the last roller before the U-turn Keith takes a dig on the front. It’s the most serious effort yet and attracts a lot of attention as guys scrabble for the wheel, but the status quo remains unchanged.

We soon reach the cone, repeat, and on the way back I see some riders being tended to by paramedics on the side of the road. Sure enough, I spot red stripe of the Sonic Boom jersey and as we approach I see it’s Fleetwood who has taken the spill. He’s sitting in the grass and sees me.

“Are you alright?” I shout as we pass.

He wavers his hand in the universal sign of “50/50” but then yells at me to keep going.

Inbound to the finish with a handful of hard rollers left and the field thinned out to about 20 now, I finally get up to the front intent on playing my card. The wind is blowing hard from the right, so I plant myself astride the double yellow and push the pace on a short uphill. I look back to the field in echelon. They eye me suspiciously and perhaps, my imagination suggests, with a bit of discomfort. But there is no effect.

On the next roller I try again, this time a little harder but still without effect. The climbs are just not long or steep enough or more likely, I am not strong enough to make an impression. Now inside 5K, I drift back into the field and come upon Aaron. He reads my mind when he says that it’s probably best just to finish in one piece.

None of us in this race are truly committed to taking a big chance, though I secretly hope that some beast of a rider will blow it apart on the last small roller before the drag to the finish. Such a move would offer us the opportunity to scrap it out for a decent placing, rather than have to risk a bunch sprint on a very narrow road.

As it is, the final roller passes without incident and with about 2K to go, the guys on the front start to ramp it up. The wind continues to blow from the right and as our speed increases, I notice guys on that side beginning to drop back. Other guys move over into the gap and so I am able to move easily up the middle, just behind the “sweet spot” near the front of the field.

1K to go flashes and we’re going good now, but I’m hardly pedaling and I think “I’m here so I might as well go for it.” Aaron is just in front of me to the left and as the front begins to surge I egg him on to punch it, hoping we can get out in front for a clean sprint. But he’s in the wind and with another rider right in front me the way is shut. More guys die away on the right and now here comes the jump.

Aaron falls back to my left and the rider in front of me cracks and fades right. 200 meters and now there is daylight. Some riders have a few bike lengths on me but I jump and spin it as fast as I can, outpacing the guys on either flank. We cross the line and I count riders ahead: 1, 2, 3, 4 and me. 5th! No one’s ever made money betting on me to place in a bunch sprint so I am pleasantly shocked by this turn of events.

Aaron comes in at 11th and Keith in 13th. We have managed to soak up our share of the meager Rocky Mountain Road Cup points on offer for this bronze-level event. Anyway, it’s enough to modestly extend our lead in the team classification.

Fleetwood ends up getting transferred by ambulance to University Hospital in Denver. Sketchy reports we get from a passing moto official suggest he’s shaken up with a smashed helmet and bit of road rash but otherwise OK.

With me driving Fleetwood’s truck, Joshua and I caravan to University and encounter Fleetwood sat upright on his ER bed wearing only his bibs and munching furiously on packets of saltines. He’s been diagnosed with a concussion and will obviously have to take some time of the bike. Disappointing to say the least but with any luck, he’ll be back in top form just as hill climb season starts to heat up later this summer.

As for me, a nice dose of confidence with only one week of hard training to go before two of the big goal races of the season: Morgul Superior and my very own annual Waterloo: the Killington Stage Race.

Moaning about adversity

What I find myself writing this Monday morning is about 180° from what I had hoped I would be writing.

What I hoped I would be writing:

“I’ve been planning revenge at the Koppenberg Circuit Race for the better part of a year. Last year I was in excellent position in the depleted front group of about 15, marking the moves of the strongest riders.  On the third of four laps I ran over what appears to have been, judging by the cross-sectional gash that instantly deflated my brand-new $95 tubular, the blade of a machete.

This year, in good form and having scouted the course on five separate occasions, I survived the early squirreliness, drove the dwindling field over the top of the climb each of the first three laps, dug deep to mark the attacks on the last lap and then sprinted out of the lead group of six for 3rd, or 2nd or…”

But instead of reporting this glorious result, my report is as follows:

“DNS because of illness.”

As I mentioned last week, I woke the morning of Mead up feeling a little rough. That didn’t stop me from a decent performance and although I felt like I had hit by a truck on Monday due to a combination of the affliction and the race, I figured all I would have to do is back off early in the week in order to get healthy again for the big race on Saturday.

Nice idea, but whatever was ailing me got progressively worse as the days went on. I went through the motions of preparing for the race. This included three short rides (took everything I had to get off the couch), prepping all my gear on Friday afternoon and crossing my fingers that maybe if I just took a bunch of Tylenol and sinus meds I might be able to muscle through for a result.

I even went so far as to Google “racing while sick” to see if I could divine some web wisdom that might help see me through. The results of this search revealed two things: 1. It may or may not be a good idea to race while you’re sick and 2. It probably is not a good idea to get medical advice from a mob of amateur athletes on the internet.

By late Friday with no energy, a low-grade fever, a wickedly sore throat and a left tonsil swelling to the size of a golf ball, I pretty much had to accept that Koppenberg would deny me yet again. Disappointing given how much I had prepared for this race, but also because all the guys on the squad had lined up to help me get my revenge result.

So while the first wave of racers tackled the circuit on Saturday morning, I headed to the see the doctor about a mile away. She was impressed by the size of my tonsil and immediately prescribed a course of strong antibiotics, although the exact cause of the illness remains a mystery (Strep tests came back negative). I was slightly amused when when she told me that this particular antibiotic (Clindamycin) works well on infections caused by both aerobic and anaerobic type bacteria.

I was still ambulatory at this point, so after leaving the doctors office I headed over to the course to wish my teammates luck and watch race from a grassy curb near the finish line. They performed well amidst the carnage of the race (two major crashes and a number of race-spoiling hiccups on the climb), with Aaron and Greg putting in their best performances of the season at 7th and 10th.

The rest of Saturday and most of Sunday were pretty rough. I was feverish and laid up on the couch watching a bunch of movies on cable, a stage of the Tour of Romandie and handful of NHL playoff games, the results of I didn’t really care about since my [defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston] Bruins got ignominiously bounced last week.

Anyway, when I started writing this blog I promised myself I would focus on stories and avoid moaning about adversity, roughly defined as any of the numerous physical and psychological setbacks that every endurance athlete has to overcome on a regular basis to keep training and racing. That said, I hate when people talk up some big feat they’re going to tackle and, when it doesn’t work out, they disappear and you never hear what happened.

I missed a big race that I was hoping/primed to do well in and I’ve likely lost some fitness at a critical point in the season. There’s a temptation to become despondent, but It’s taken me most of my adult life to realize that such a reaction is counterproductive. You can’t worry yourself into better fitness, you can only do the training. It’s a long season.

Here’s to turning the corner on this freak illness, regrouping a bit and picking up things at the Deer Trail Road Race this coming weekend. As for Koppenberg, you can expect that I’ll be back next year looking for payback with interest.

The Sands of Mead Roubaix

AKA the Mead Roubaix Festival Road Race. Mead is a small town about 30 miles to the northeast of Boulder in wide-open rolling ranchland prairie country.

The first incarnation of this race, held last year in lieu of the Boulder Roubaix, generated a certain amount of controversy amongst the local racing population. It is yet another race with a number of dirt sections, as the Roubaix moniker would suggest. The course in 2011 included three sections of dune-deep sand, which caused all kinds of physical and psychological trauma.

Despite the fact that I had beached it on the final hill each of the last two (of three) laps and had to hoof it over the top, I would fall squarely in the “epic race” camp. Not that I would want to do a race like that every weekend, mind you. The opposite camp bristled with moral outrage an uttered angry oaths at the promoter for including those sections on the course, saying in effect that the race was akin to an episode of Fear Factor for unassuming roadies.

Although I’m not sure of the details (perhaps these slings and arrows were too much to withstand?) the promoter of the 2011 Mead decided to give up the race and a new coalition stepped in this year. The big change for 2012 would be the elimination of the entire northern section of the course and with it, all the sandpits and most of the hills. What remained was a 12.5-mile circuit with two dirt sections, which represented about half of the total mileage. We 4’s would be doing three laps for just under 38 miles (coincidentally, almost exactly the same distance as Boulder).

Reports from people scouting the course began to filter in last week and the word was that the new sections of dirt road that had been added to complete the shorter loop were “not as bad as the sandpits, but pretty loose.” Uh oh. Suffice it to say that anyone expecting this race to be like Boulder with it’s short-ish hard pack sections, or to be a lot easier than last year’s Mead, would be in for a shock.

On Saturday, the day before the race, I head out and ride a few local dirt trails and a couple reps of the Koppenberg climb and honestly, I feel super. There are pros and cons about a Sunday race: the con is that you’re advised to go short and easy on Saturday if you want to have fresh legs. This squanders a beautifully sunny, 70° Spring day on which you might otherwise be out doing four hours in the hills. The pro is that you can train hard on Tuesday and Thursday and still do a “micro peak” for the race by resting on Friday.

Having gotten 11th at Boulder, the sensations in my legs (Euro term) have me hoping for a Top 10 with perhaps a shot at the elusive upgrade points, which with our expected field of about 40, will kick in at 7th place. As it is, you never know who’s going to show up, or what kind of luck you’ll have, so it’s best to focus on what you can control: show up ready to suffer, battle and ride smart. Results will take care of themselves, or not.

After a night of fitful sleep, I wake up with body aches and a sore throat. No! I must have caught a bit of the infection from my 3-year-old who had a fever earlier in the week. No way I’m going to miss this race, but I’m slow getting going and the idea that I might ride home from Mead after the race for some extra miles is now summarily rejected. Luckily, the race starts at the luxurious time of 11:58am and I have plenty of time to drink several mugs of tea and allow the Tylenol to take effect before my teammate Greg swings by to pick me up.

At the start for Sonic Boom Racing are myself, Greg and Cris, the three of us veterans of many an ill-fated Sunday training ride this winter. Our strategy is the same as Boulder: stay up front and out of trouble and play it by ear.

The pace is modest on the first few miles of asphalt, with the obligatory young guns pulling hard tempo on the front “just because.” The speed picks up as we approach the first section of dirt when suddenly one of the young guns takes a right turn where we’re supposed to go straight. There is a burst of shouting from the pack and realizing his mistake, he overcorrects on the gravel and piles it up, taking a few other riders with him. Welcome to Mead.

We clear a few gentle turns and once on the straightaway, several flahutes power to the front and drill it. Instantly I realize that reports of the course’s demise are not exaggerated as I struggle to keep the bike moving forward at the necessary speed and in a consistently straight direction. It’s a long drag of a false flat and there is no clean line, or if there is I can’t see it as I am tucked in behind a line of riders in the middle of the field.

I see Greg riding strongly a few riders ahead and Cris comes past me in a line of guys moving up in line to our left. We uncomfortably negotiate alternating sections of loose sand and washboard. I’m redlining it when the gradient finally relents and we barrel down into a right turn and back onto pavement.

Just time enough now for a breath and sip or two before we swing right back onto dirt and the process repeats itself. This time, we bottom out on a right-hander and I power slide on loose gravel over hardpack. Up ahead is the only significant hill of the day and as was the case at Boulder, I am able to use it to regain some position near the front.

We swing left onto a straight of several miles of continued dirt. This is the crux of the course: basically a longer and harder version of the first section with it’s false flat of sand, washboard and now a light but noticeable diagonal crosswind. Guys dodge right and left trying to find a clean line and eventually two competing trains form on either side of the road with me on the left.

As if the pace and terrain aren’t challenging enough, several times my front wheel starts to wash out and I have to stop pedaling in order to keep the bike tracking straight. Following each of these washouts is an agonizing few moments of anaerobic effort to close down the gap that has necessarily opened. On this stretch I have the depressing epiphany that powering over several miles of sandy false flat is simply not a strength. I feel like the obscure Spanish climber, tortured in his crossing of the forêt.

As we approach the mercy that is the right turn onto the paved finishing stretch, the train on the right has gained an advantage and clears the corner with a gap of several seconds. I quickly count their number as six and as our train clears the turn with myself in fourth position, I look behind to see no one. That’s a problem.

Greg is with me and we try to organize our little group for the chase, but it’s haphazard and the leaders begin to pull away. As we near the end of lap one, a larger group catches us from behind. Thankful for the help, I let everyone know that if we’re going to chase back on, now is the time. We drive for the next half of a lap but lack the necessary firepower, organization and will.

I’ve been at the limit for the better part of a lap now and when Greg drifts back, still looking strong, I admit to him that I can’t keep up this pace for the rest of the race. On the sand it’s all I can do to hang with the bigger riders. I try to make up for this weak effort by taking a few pulls on the intervening paved sections, but it’s all to no avail as the leaders disappear up the road for good.

Onto lap three we go. The pace has slackened and a plan is afoot. With six up the road and eight in our group, we are only one dropped rider shy of guaranteeing Greg and I the meager consolation of a handful of points in the local association’s Rocky Mountain Road Cup competition. Mead is a “bronze” event in the Cup, which means that points go 13 deep. Not to mention there are still four places in the Top 10 to sort out.

I tell Greg that the next time we hit the climb I’m going to attack and suggest that he follow whatever wheels come after me. I’m thinking that with a couple miles of sand between the top of the climb and the finish I’ve got little chance to stay away. Best case scenario, Greg can sit on with the big guys forced to chase and then take them out in the final.

Right before the base of the climb I entreat the aid of a strong racer, Brendan from Natural Grocers, to help me in this scheme. He agrees and we make our move, taking one other rider with us.

Up to the top where we swing left. I’m not looking back, but Brendan tells me we’ve got our gap. The three of us trade pulls on the dirt but it’s impossible to keep a tight formation in the sand and we end up all over the road. At one point Brendan is ten feet in front going strongly and I have to claw back up to his wheel.

I look back and can see the remnant of the chase formed up and coming for us, but as we hit the turn onto the finishing stretch I see that they’re busted up all over the shop. We’ve got our Top 10.

We paceline smoothly for about a mile and then start to look at each other a bit. While not in at the kill, there is a whole upgrade point on the line here. The finish line comes into view up ahead, and I start to think about positioning myself for a smart sprint. I come through behind the third rider, who has taken a tentative pull and before my brain even knows what’s happening, I’m launching it.

I pass the 1K to go sign and there’s a brief moment of doubt, having not thought it out that maybe I was attacking too early. I look back and though the two are in pursuit, a sense of confidence comes over me as I think “no worries, this will be just like cherrypicking a Strava segment back home.”

I am able to hold my gap to the line and cross over relishing my first Top 10 of the comeback. I turn into town and see Cris standing on the sidewalk, having suffered a puncture on the first lap. Greg comes in a minute or so later having pulled off his best road result yet at 11th.

Checking the results afterward, I am surprised to see that I’ve gotten the bonus of 6th place—either I miscounted the lead group or one of its riders foundered. Anyway, it’s good enough for two coveted upgrade points and an excellent shot for the morale as we head into the wheelhouse of the early racing season. Koppenberg is next…more dirt!

In the meantime, thanks to RallySport Racing, cyclingevents.com and the town of Mead for putting on a tough race.