My phone vibrated in my jersey pocket. The road was straight and undulating upward, the sky lead gray, the strong head wind wreaked of burning tires. The smell, probably emanating from the black column of smoke a half mile away up at the top of the hill, was distracting me from the light cramping in my legs. I was at rock bottom for the day, but I didn’t know that yet. My brain fussed over my personal shortcomings and another rider ground past me. And then another who had been chasing the other rider came up alongside me briefly and pulled away. I attempted to grab his wheel and slip into the draft. My legs responded with a cluster bomb of cramps in both legs. My phone vibrated again notifying me a second time of the text I had not looked at.
I rifled around in my pocket, and pulled out my phone. “Are you done yet?” with a smiley face blowing a kiss emoji was the message from my wife. That’s when I really hit the bottom, it was only the fifty second mile of the Almanzo 100. Peg, my wife, was trying to be supportive, but at that time it had absolutely the opposite effect. “I wish” was my reply.
How had this happened, I felt awesome at the start. Once our ambulance lead out pulled away and we hit gravel, the race was on. We were thundering along, shoulder to shoulder rolling fast and hard. The sound was the most insane part. Stones flying up off every tire, pinging against frames, rims, helmets, glasses and human flesh. The sting from the rocks hitting my body, drove me on.
I had also managed to avoid several large crashes, one in particular that had involved several of my teammates. People were all over the road, coming in hot and late into corners covered in loose pea stone. Bike handling skills quickly winnowed the group down further as people crashed into ditches or layed it down in the middle of the road. Seeing the carnage fly by in a blur, I became elated, deluded by my own survival of these various obstacles avoided.
Coming out of a hard corner, a group moving fast, working together come into my sight. Slamming down on my pedals, I surged to catch on and did in short order. Sitting in for a few moments allowed me to gather strength and jump into the paceline. Rotating through felt great, my legs were strong. The eight to ten of us worked together, giving encouragement after each pull. Every rider that came into our sight up the road, was our prey and we were on the hunt.
Rolling into a group that was slowing a bit, I realized that we had just caught the front of the race. Checking my average speed confirmed that I had been punching above my weight for the last hour and a half, twenty four mph. That sent a shockwave through me, it was only mile thirty six. I just made one of the most classic blunders in a bike race. Maybe it would be possible to hold on to this group if I tucked in and stopped trying to be a stupid hero. That question was quickly answered as a negative. Slipping out the back of the group on a series of punchy climbs, it became obvious that I had played myself. Escaping crashes, good start position, reeling in the leaders all faded away.
Before long I was in no man’s land. The wind ratcheted up, the sky took on a oppressive look and I was going backwards. Eating made me feel better but my legs were spasming badly as I sadly answered my sweet wife’s text. Feeling self deluded, my mind wandered into other gloomy introspective topics as it registered that my water supply was also critically low.
As I crested the hill, the acrid burning tire that created the column of smoke was finally down wind. At the crossroads, following the other wheel tracks, I turned right to see rolling terrain that was flatter and more welcoming. Additionally, I had actually caught someone. As I passed I gave them a few words of encouragement and he jumped on my wheel. The two of us seemed to be in recovery mode. It was reassuring to see someone else on the mend and having a partner helped my mental state. We both took a pit stop on the side of the road as a large group rolled into sight. Two of my teammates that were caught up in some of the silly drama early on, were right there. I jumped in the group and found my buddies. Smiling and exchanging stories from the morning completed my mental recovery. We were all riding not racing at that point and it felt so good. Suddenly we were on a holiday, taking in the sights, joking around and having a whole lot of fun. Then the sun came out!
As we went, we accumulated more people and rolled as a friendly group, enjoying ourselves but still suffering to some degree. The difference was companionship, we were riding together, not against each other. I love competition, but I am still a novice. My actions in the race were not shrewd enough, my strategy weak and full of holes. I am an expert at having sufferfest fun with people though. It’s really one of my favorite activities, being outside, doing something that sounds ludicrously difficult, with your friends really is the best. Almanzo 100 took me to the brink and back again. I experienced elation, invincibility, despair, companionship and exhaustion. It was simply amazing.