Second Leg: Preston, ID to Monpelier, ID (46 miles/70km)
They say the first 34 miles of LOTOJA is basically a warm-up, the race begins when you begin your first big climb through Emigration canyon to Strawberry Summit, then, as they remarked in orientation, 'the herd gets culled'. Culled, whittled or fragmented dregger and I are in a pack of about a dozen riders that started with us ninety minutes ago. Almost immediately outside Preston we hit our first significant hill climb. What looks like a blip on the elevation chart next to the unholy trinity of mountain passes we are going to climb today turns out to be a two mile hill of 6% grade. A hill that long and steep from the seat of a bike looks like it disappears in the clouds. Me, dregger and a dozen other cyclists attack it like we're still riding to Preston and things are still flat and easy. We climb at an average speed of 16mph, it's a hill that were I by myself I would be down around 8-9mph and pacing myself. If I doubted it was a race before, I'm keenly aware of it now.
We swap out pace duties until we reach the summit. dregger surges to the front and I know what he's thinking. This is the first time for both of us on this road but roads that are steep going up generally drop just as precipitously on the backside. dregger doesn't have the classic cyclist body (Nigel does, and yet he resists the wheels, preferring to run across states and mountain ranges rather than ride them), far from it actually. He's wide through the hips and shoulders, squat and stocky but one thing he does well and more beautifully than anybody I've ridden with is tuck and run. As we crest the hill I see what has to be the holy grail of descents, a 2-3 mile 7% downgrade, chalk line straight and perfectly paved. As I predicted dregger has started his bombing run, fully tucked and disappearing in the distance like a navy blue torpedo fired off by the remaining crew of Licensed Mens Cat 5 5300s. I drop down on my handle bars to give chase and brace myself for the 45mph descent in the middle of a pack of riders. I didn't relish the thought of that mix of proximity and speed but figured that's the only reason you train going down hill, so in the words of the late Marvin Gaye "Let's get it on!". I glance to my right and left and both riders are semi-tucked, looking wary and unwilling to cannonball the hill. I check my Garmin and see that we're still hitting 41-42 mph and I accept that. Not much I can without weaving out of the pack and across the center line and an auto DQ if there's anybody watching, besides being really unwise. I watch dregger get smaller and smaller and figure that might be the last I see of him when just as the road pitches up again he takes a hard right.
The peloton reforms with the same dozen or so riders and we begin hitting fun ride traffic as we jet through Idaho farmland. I wonder to myself if that was the first mountain summit. It was the kind of hill that was just high and long enough to make you think that, plus it was something I wanted to believe even though I knew it couldn't be true. What I did know was we were still climbing and doing so at 20-22 MPH. This pace was ridiculous given the lack of flat roads. We just climbed and climbed and my chest started hurting. It had been doing that for a week now and I dismissed it as nerves, by Wednesday my joints ached and I assumed it was some viral bug I had. I kept it to myself for the most part, hoping that not talking about it would make it go away. I finally mentioned it to Jennifer and told her I planned to ignore it because what else was I going to do? Suffer is the answer to that question, which is what I was doing now. I remembered dregger saying the important thing is to stay with a group, even if you have to over exert yourself a little to do it. It's imperative you don't get dropped and left alone. With that in mind I bore down and tried to ignore the pain in my chest and the creeping nausea. I reminded myself to drink and eat and again ended up with half chewed energy bar in my mouth for 1/2 a mile. Every time I ate or drank I would have to back off the pace slightly which meant pushing myself to catch back up. My final undoing came when I reached for my water bottle just as the rider to my left tried to merge right without knowing I was there. I saw him just as I was sitting back from reaching for my bottle and ended up swerving left with the natural motion of my bike as I sat up and we came centimeters from crossing wheels, I'm still not sure how we didn't. At 23mph, that might have been the end of both our days. I pulled back from the group, tried to slow my racing heart, found I couldn't. Tried to reason with the pain in my chest and the nausea, now more strident than ever, and began to despair. We were 42 miles into this ride, a mere Saturday morning commute to work and I was struggling mightily. I've read several LOTOJA blogs and in one the rider talks about getting yo-yoed by his group on a hill climb and "suffering like a pig!" That about summed up how I was feeling and even with the hopeful lies to myself, I knew we hadn't yet hit our first mountain.
I slowed my pace to about 20mph and watched in disbelief as dregger and the peloton disappeared in the distance. I remembered being concerned that dregger would struggle. Every training update I sent him seemed to be returned with statements of concern "I'll have to get back to training after graduation, after our trip to Hawaii, after our vacation with Lisa's family to Yellowstone ..." It turned out my worry was misplaced. Maybe it was the fact that he had been riding for two years to my 6 months, maybe it was his comfort level riding in groups where I trained alone or with people drafting off me or maybe I had fallen victim to what we've identified as the Glennard conundrum: ("I've waited hours for this, I've made myself so sick" ... yata yata), or possibly today was not my day. Some days you have it, some days you don't and you have to pack it in early. If the latter was it, this was an incredibly inconvenient time to have one of those days. Whatever name you gave it, the day I'd trained for so long and so hard was evaporating in front of me faster than the dew disappearing from the fields with the morning sun. I stopped thinking about finishing, that seemed completely unrealistic at this point, and concentrated on making it another 35 miles to Montpelier and Jennifer. I was afraid she would be worried, sad, disappointed, heartbroken. I just needed to tell her I was OK, I'm just having a bad day, that's all. Today is not my day, it's OK, it's OK. Eighty miles with a mountain climb is good day riding, nothing to be ashamed of. I didn't let myself fixate on that final thought, just Montpelier and Jennifer, that's all I have to think about. Keep pedaling at your pace, onward and upward. Jennifer is waiting for you. She has Peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches, oatmeal cookies and a hug. Thirty five more miles, keep pedaling.
Emigration canyon to Strawberry Summit could be its own state with how long it takes to get through it. The road is closed to traffic and all you can see climbing in front of you are cyclists, same behind you, an occasional support car and this hill climb. The scenery is breathtaking and with the sun out I can peel off my gloves, that will make it easier to grab food out of my pockets, preferably easy food to chew. Shot blocks (Basically a block of fruit snack pectin with electrolytes and extra carbs, they require minimal chewing, a bonus when you're wearing a chin strap and struggling to breathe and swallow at the same time) I begin eating them every 30 minutes or so and drinking more regularly. It's still very cold but now I'm sweating and breathing hard still passing riders but more often getting passed myself. About a mile into the canyon I sense a surge behind me and a female freight train of cyclists chugs past me like I'm the family dog tied to a post. Six women in bright and official looking cycling gear of every color, with shoulders that hearkened back to the East German women's Olympic team in Munich 1976 and quads as big as my waist, churning in unison like pistons in a locomotive. I swear I can hear their thoughts as they thunder through the canyon air "You're so weak, I can't believe they let you start this race before me (I think of them as a single collective conscience, they moved together like a school of fish, if predatory fish like barracuda move together in schools)". They are gone before me or any other rider around me has a chance to process what we've just witnessed.
I continue to climb, converse with the occasional cyclist, make apologies for wearing the number of a licensed Cat 5 rider when, today at least, I clearly am not that rider. Every time I think the road is going to level or the climb is going to end what I thought was a crest is just the beginning of a steeper incline. I begin to wonder if we'll get out of this canyon before the winter snows start when I come upon a rider obviously struggling more than me. The cyclist is huge and as I see that he's riding a Trek my suspicions are confirmed:
It's Sean Bradley on the custom bike he rode in the Pony Express Century earlier this year. Even with a bike made specifically for him he is suffering (probably like a pig, I know how that feels). He's sweating profusely and his face is red, heading toward purple. Hills like this are not kind to large riders (something for my buddy Rodney, aka 'Rodzilla' to give some serious, serious thought) and Sean Bradley is proving that fact in a very poignant way at this moment. I pull along side and say "Hey Sean!" He lifts his head from his handle bars and the look in his eyes is the same one you see on an animal with its foot caught in a trap. I see from the number on his bike that he signed on to the 'fun ride'. I think to myself that he deserves a refund and I keep pedaling.
Before I'm done congratulating myself for passing 300lb, 7'6" former NBA star Sean Bradley I get passed by a female cyclist in the end stages of tuberculosis. Either that or just prior to the race she tried out for the mezzo soprano in La Traviata and didn't have time to remove her kabuki make up before the race. She looks so white she's almost blue, like skim milk. She's so skinny I can actually see her shoulder blades and the bones of her hips through her jersey kit. She's not actually coughing, which you would expect in the end stage of TB. It's possible she's riding for team Goth but she's wearing a white jersey and bib so that seems unlikely. The sun is definitely shining now and modern fiction has led me to understand that vampires burn to ash in the sun or in kinder, gentler adolescent novels they shimmer? Is that right? Either way, no signs of that here. It occurs to me that she may be the pale cyclist of the Apocalypse, which means her name is death and I'm never ever getting out of this canyon. I look over my shoulder to see if Hell indeed is following with her but I only see the distant form of Sean Bradley, still sweating (I can't actually see that from this distance but it seems a safe bet). He does indeed appear to be in a personal purgatory of sorts but I feel that hardly constitutes the capital 'H' Hell that will signal the end of days, maybe I'll be OK after all.
We arrive at the neutral feed zone which I have forgotten is part of the Strawberry summit hill climb as opposed to the end of it. I top off my water bottles, grab some gus (orange vanilla cream is the flavour du jour, there is no other selection but it beats the heck out of 'espresso' so I won't complain) and head out. The post feed zone drop area is littered with energy bar wrappers, empty gu envelopes, and water bottles, thrown to the wind like the false expectations that this climb would be, if not easy at least manageable. The last two miles pitch to 9% grade and the canyon walls, the evergreen trees and the yellow aspens they all watch with what seems like mocking impassivity as I make my push for the top. As I crest the climb I find I'm all alone, the road twists but I have no riders immediately in front or behind me so drop into a full tuck and hold and hope we are too deep into the Mountain pass to be affected by gusting cross winds. The mountain descent is nearly as long as the climb, though obviously it rushes by in a matter of minutes. I notice a sign giving notice of a professional photographer up ahead, though I can't imagine how even with rapid shutter speeds they can capture an identifiable image. I take a sweeping right turn at what feels like 40 mph even after I've slowed, I sneak a peak at my Garmin and see that the wind has pushed it out of position so the display window is now pointing down. I look up again and just off the pavement, as advertised is the photographer. It must have been a long, cold morning. Still is when you're flying down a mountain on a bike.
The mountain pass drops from 7500 feet to about 6000 feet and eventually becomes farm land. the rush of speed doesn't seem to fully dissipate and I check my (now righted) Garmin and see that I'm still making a steady 32-33 MPH on a slight downgrade. I assume I'm riding a ferocious tail wind which if it would be kind enough to follow me north would make my day. I eventually get caught by a huge peloton of riders and we convoy the final 15 miles to Montpelier together in just over half an hour.
Actual photo by Jennifer outside Montpelier, ID. If you look really closely you can see that I'm still back climbing strawberry summit and being passed
by everything on two wheels that doesn't have a motor.
As I reach the city limits I check my GPS and seen that about 4 hours and 15 minutes have elapsed since I started this ride. We wait at a light (first and only time that happens ) as a semi truck rumbles past us on highway 89 and we charge down main street to the city park and our first contact with our support crew. We had agreed to meet at station 9 which is near the end. I finally spy Jenn and come to an abrupt stop to the dismay of cyclist attempting to leave the mob. Jenn waves me under the barrier tape and before I get my hug she tells me "dregger crashed, he needs to change his wheel." I look past her and see that he is indeed swapping his rear wheel for one from Lisa's bike that he brought just in case. Apparently the rider in front of him just before this stop swerved to miss a barricade which dregger was unable to do and he went down. The impact dislodged one of his spokes and knocked his tire out of true. He gets the wheel on and as he stands up I throw my arms around him and tell him I'm sorry. He tells me he doesn't need a hug, I need a new wheel. I tell him I need a hug. I hug Jenn then and notice that Nigel has made it with his son Ian. That was an iffy proposition the day before because Ian had a stomach bug and wouldn't stop throwing up. I'm glad to see Nigel because he's my ride home from Jackson Hole, assuming I get there and the mountain descent and the ridiculously fast charge across the farmland now makes it seem like a real possibility. I eat a PB&J, an oatmeal cookie, hug everybody that will hug me and dregger and me get on our bikes and get back to work. (cont)
Next leg: Montpelier, ID to Afton, WY