This is the most perfect race I’ve ever done.
I got dropped early but quickly joined a chasing trio. We rotated well and kept the pace high, at the first aid station we all stopped to pee and refill water. About 6-7 riders came in just after us and eventually we all got together and kept the same high pace. Lots of rotation and regrouping – southeast riders can be very polite and hardworking.
As we moved through the dusty countryside the pace pushed higher and higher and riders dropped as exhaustion and mental fatigue set in.
Riding in a fast paceline on unknown gravel roads creates a hyper focus – it’s a rush and completely fills my mind. There is no time to focus on anything other than the road 15-20 meters ahead. I eat, I pedal and I rotate through with strong pulls.
Eventually we hit pavement. The rush recedes and suddenly we’re all just pedaling along – confusion sets in and there is some crowding and back and forth rotations as everyone tries to square their different bikes and tires and strengths. Eventually we all calm down and the rotations begin again.
Thinking back now, 2 weeks removed from the event, this reminds me of having an injury break in the middle of a wrestling match. High school wrestling is an absurd sport and this is no more obvious than when the pause button is hit and I’m just standing there in a tiny lycra singlet while the other guy gets his bleeding nose stopped with tiny cylinders of cotton.
For the previous 3 minutes we’ve been locked in combat. Arms, legs, heads and bodies attacking, defending with hearts pounding away. Suddenly a spot of blood appears on the mat and multiple whistles are blown. The hands of the ref, shockingly strong, pull us apart and my bleeding opponent kneels in place as his injury is attended to. I stand there and can only really hear my heart beating. Everything takes a crystal focus. I feel like I can see every single face in the stands at once. My dad yelling encouragement in the stands as my coach paces back and forth showing support with a diminutive thumbs up and some clapping. My mind is running so fast and I’m only along for the ride, the break only takes a minute or two but it feels like an eternity. Wrestling cleared my mind and now I’m noticing everything that had been turned off. I’m cold and tired and hungry and angry and ready to get back to wrestling. I’ve worn down my opponent and he doesn’t deserve any rest now so close to his edge. Shortly the ref guides us back to the center and we resume, everything gets shut off again and I feel at home.
Anyway, the pavement section is fast and a little boring. We blast along rolling hills and I look around and note the other bikes. I see a 650b Open Up with slick tread WTB Horizon tires, another a Felt that is some sort of monstercross rig with 60mm G-One tires. Mostly the other riders are on cross bikes with mildly aggressive 38mm-44mm tires, like my bike but theirs are either carbon of aluminum. That’s ok, I like my wiggly steel Soma – it’s skinny tubes look nice and it rides so well.
We reel in a few more riders and the group is eating and happy and moving along. Shortly we hit gravel and the knives come back out. The strength differences become apparent after each rider takes a few pulls. The weaker riders are slowly discarded as the pace picks up incrementally. I dig in my dwindling reserves and try my hardest to maintain the pace when I hit the front and there’s an uphill. It’s uncouth to drive the pace from the front on the flats or downhills – just a waste of energy and I’ll get caught anyway.
But when the road turns up, that’s where I can attack. Keep it quiet and non-obvious. A little bit faster here, keep the cadence normal but pedal hard. Riders behind will unconsciously keep up and with each 20-30 second climb they get pushed closer and closer to the edge.
Miles tick by, the gravel goes from grey to white to red to orange back to red and we get closer to the finish. I keep one eye on my GPS and watch the miles go by, the other is on the remaining group members. There are five of use now, they are all strong and the friendliness and comport have left. We’re riding the ragged edge of exhaustion. Mental and physical fatigue are intense and slowly grinding down our will to continue. We are close to the finish, less than 2 kilometers now. Intermingled with the short course riders I surge over the remaining hills. In the drops climbing out of the saddle but crouched low. The gravel rumbles under my tires. Our group is still together but spread out, attacks come and go – no one has enough energy to pull more than a few bike lengths ahead. I am metering out my efforts as well as I can, I have hardly anything left by the time we hit the wooden bridge that signals the last few hundred meters.
The group is still together, a ragged sail of five riders crouched over their machines breathing fire amid the dusty heat of the day. We are seconds from finishing, ending the pain and falling into the grass exhausted. The group is fluid, posturing and threatening attacks when something explodes in my head. I grip the drops as if to crush them and stomp the pedals, attack so none can follow, blasting ahead I leave the group behind. Bouncing and skittering over the broken pavement I am alone at the top of the hill. I drop my head and coast through the finish line. People are hanging out, mingling with smiles and cold beers. Music drifts through the air chasing laughter and the smell of a well run grill. The instant change of atmosphere is surreal and underlines the absurdity of the experience.