“[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!
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.