Fourth Leg: Afton, WY to Hoback Junction, WY (60 miles/100km)
We pedal out Afton feeling as refreshed as you can be after riding a bike for 7 hours. It turned out Lisa was right not to stop and cheer us over Salt Creek Pass, had she and Jennifer done that we never would have met them in Afton and there would be no refreshment, just the saccharine citrus taste of gu to deal with (thanks for catching us, Lisa/Jenn) At 125 miles both of us are riding into uncharted territory distance-wise. dregger's longest training ride was 122 miles, mine was the Pony Express 113 mile ride 4 months ago. We only ride alone for a few minutes before we attach ourselves to a train of riders. The great thing about this race is there's no shortage of wheels to which you can attach yourself. I can't feel any wind and since we're rolling along at about 25mph it means we're riding the Wyoming jet stream of tailwinds. I had read on weather.com about and anticipated cross winds for the next forty miles or so. I hoped for a tail wind and Jennifer ( I found out after the fact) prayed fervently for them. Her prayers were being answered and I was reaping the benefits, not the first time in our marriage that has happened, probably not the last either. I found this quote from an Idaho newspaper article on the results of LOTOJA 2010:
Unlike some other years when the riders battle a wind crossing Star Valley and going up Snake River Canyon, they got the benefit of a tailwind.
“We had that tailwind almost the whole day,” Burbidge said. “It was great. You couldn’t ask for better wind conditions.
I've thanked Jennifer already, but I'll thank her again. That tailwind proved pivotal in how the race turned out for me.
Meanwhile, back in Star Valley: dregger & I continue with our group of riders at 24-26 mph which is faster than I would go on my own but doesn't feel impossible. The negative grade has ended and we're flat or climbing slightly, crossing rivers, railroad tracks farms and ranches. The livestock stays a safe distance from the road and I'm encouraged. I do have a hard time staying on dregger's wheel though. Every time I hear him or the rider in front of him slow, I don't trust coasting to keep me from hitting his back wheel. There's part of me that's still shaken by the water bottle incident that morning and I've read enough accounts of what happens to riders that go down at 25 mph, so I tap my breaks instead of coasting, drop back 5-10 yards and have to pedal hard to get back in the slipstream. I had read about yo-yoing and now I was getting personal training on what it does to your energy level. You work much harder than the cyclists you are trailing and eventually you get dropped. When we overtake a slower moving peleton I allow myself to join them at a slightly slower pace but I keep dregger in my sights, about 50 yards ahead.
The slower peleton forms and breaks several times and I realize that even without drafting I can pedal at 22 mph without over exerting myself. Eventually I take advantage of that fact and drop off the peleton and ride on my own. The mental strain of drafting seems more taxing than the physical strain of riding without a group with the advantage of a tail wind. I'm losing time but conserving energy, perhaps mental/emotional energy more than physical but it all adds up, or subtracts I suppose is more accurate. It's a gamble, I know but I decide to continue on my own for several miles. I can still see dregger's peleton, they are about 200 yards ahead of me but the gap is not growing so I figure I'll ride this way until the wind makes it more prudent to try something else. I am 140 miles into this race, the wind is at my back, the road is essentially flat as far as I can see and my legs feel strong for the first time since Preston ID (100 miles ago). I've hardly finished my 'good fortune inventory' when I start to feel every contour of the road jarring into my elbows and shoulders. At first I assume that in my revere I allowed myself to drift into the notorious Afton, Wyoming rumble strips that have doomed many LOTOJA riders in the past. I look down and see that I'm a safe distance from the strips and I realize that without any fanfare or audible announcement the air has completely drained out of my front tire. I slow down and realize that about twenty cyclists have been drafting off me, they manage to negotiate the space between me and the rumble strips and I limp to the side of the road. I contemplate the tube change and always exciting CO2 canister inflation when Jennifer and Lisa pull off the road, like I'm on Le Tour and they are manning the team's chase cars. I briefly wish I had thought to bring an extra wheel set like dregger did, but who could have anticipated this unfortunately fortuitous turn of events?
Under other circumstances I would have despaired as dregger and the peleton disappeared in the distance, but I've established to my satisfaction that I can cover ground on my own and it looks as though the rest of my afternoon will involve a lot of that. I know Lisa has a bike pump in her car, so I tell Jenn to ask her for it and go about switching out my tube. I actually relish the extra 10 minutes I get sitting on something that's not a bicycle seat. I'm fairly certain I've seen the last of my youngest brother for the day and I hope he's able to keep up the pace he's set. He's having a great ride and figure he'll finish in under 11 hours which we decided was a completely victory. I figure if the tail wind holds out I may just squeak in under 12 hours, assuming my legs keep feeling the way they do at the moment. I finish with the tube, Jenn lends a hand with the pump, the wheel feels sound, we replace it, Jenn gives me a bonus hug & Kiss of encouragement, I hand her my CO2 canisters and repair tools since this is the only tube I have. Any further flats will require a wait for an official race support crew and I assume they will come with the tools to do the job, no sense toting any more weight than I have to. I strike out into Star Valley on my own. Of course I occasion riders on a regular basis some I draft off briefly and others do the same to me but relationships last less time than that swarm of Mayflies at Thomas' house last summer.
Riding on my own I'm able to take in my surroundings rather than concentrating on the wheel in front of me. Star Valley stretches northward for miles and miles, I continue to pedal and try not to look down at my GPS which will tell me that I have far enough left to go that I have no business checking time or distance. Eventually snow capped mountains become visible. I read on the LOTOJA website that the race finishes in the shadows of the Tetons, might these mountains be them? I search the horizon for the iconic images of the Tetons I see nothing that comes even close to resembling them which means this is just one more mountain range I will have to ride over, around or through, I want to feel despondent but apathy* is the emotion that requires the least effort so I embrace it (*see also chapter three, Pattern of Grief: Acceptance).
After what must have been two hours of mostly uneventful pedaling (I do nearly crash in Thayne when a LOTOJA well wisher at a gas station runs at my peleton waving a cowbell and screaming something unintelligible, my earlier interaction with cows has made me hear cow bells differently, that is, I don't ignore them anymore, had I not been reaching for my water bottle and hitting a pothole at the same time it wouldn't be worth mentioning, another near miss to bump your heart rate from 140 to 180 for a few beats) I enter Alpine Wyoming. I see a skinny man with thinning strawberry blond hair playing football with a toe-headed 6 year old. I figure it has to be Nigel and I figure correctly. We give each other a shout out and I pedal into the last Jennifer-manned feed station before Jackson Hole. I have been riding for just over 8 1/2 hours and I've covered 160 miles/270km. I feel remarkably fresh, the last 25 miles have been the best of the day. I've ridden basically alone and averaged 22mph. I no longer doubt I will finish and I begin entertaining ideas of making up lost time.
I reach station 9 and find Jennifer and Lisa. Jennifer forces a banana on me from her own lunch and some sesame snaps. She scolds me for not emptying my water bottles and still having too much uneaten food in my pocket. Lisa offers me some chamois butter which I accept (it works remarkably well) I find a semi discreet location between two parked cars and apply it only to find that 8 hours on a bike seat has left me with what an anesthesiologist would call a 'saddle block'
Any type of love it will be showed Like every single tree reach for the sky If you're gonna fall I'll let you know That I will pick you up Like you for I I felt this thing I can't replace When everyone was working for this goal Where all the children left without a trace Only to come back as pure as gold To recite this all Hey oh here I am And here we go Life's waiting to begin Tonight I can not live I can't breathe Unless you do this with me I can not live I can't breathe Unless you do this with me
The moment feels somewhere between High School dramatic and Hollywood 'swollen with triumph' movie cheesy but I'm so far past feeling too cool or sophisticated that I buy in completely. I feel energized and emotionally overwrought as I pedal out of the feed station and toward storied Snake River canyon ...
Snake river canyon is The Creator's apology to Wyoming for making the rest of the state so grim, so austere, so cheerless. I had heard stories of its renowned beauty but I was unprepared for the experience. Words like ineffable and surpassing came to mind but fall short. Every time I felt what I was seeing couldn't possibly be eclipsed the canyon would prove me wrong. At one point it looked to me as if the very hand of God had cleaved the mountains and the rend in the earth still glowed in the aftermath of his personal touch. Geologist could probably tell you the history of the minerals and rock formations but the majesty of the scene left me feeling as though I were witnessing the creation personally. I forgot for a while I was racing or even riding and just took in the once in a lifetime first ride experience through Snake River Canyon.
The charge of energy from Jenn's pep-talk in addition to the tail wind she prayed for us kept me moving up the canyon at an astounding (to me at least) pace. I was covering the 2-3 % uphill grade at 22 MPH. Jenn told me that dregger was a mere 6 minutes ahead of me, even with the flat tire. I felt good so I decided to make a run at catching him and finishing together. I pulled out from behind the peloton I was semi-drafting and charged forward, then I remember my old nemesis hubris, saw that I had covered 165 miles and was still feeling good, better to let discretion take its appropriate place before valor and quickly decided to try and parse this energy surge, if possible for the next 40 miles.
I included this photo to rebut Rodney's wife's dismissal of our 18.5 mph average moving speed with the comment "yeah but that ride has lots of downhill. Actually after you climb a mountain you're rewarded with a terminal velocity death drop that lasts a few miles and then you start climbing again and you keep climbing until you finish the race, your will is crushed completely out of you or it gets too dark to see. Snake canyon is a good example of the inexorable, unrelenting climb (that's me bringing up the rear and saluting the camera).
Both Jennifer and Nigel rode several miles up the canyon and pulled off to cheer me on. Jenn snapped these photos as she passed me. I found myself in a loose peloton of riders including two from mens licensed Cat 5 5300s. I figured if I could stay with them I might not come in last place in my group. A minor victory to be sure but one of the many lessons today has taught me is to accept with gratitude every victory however small.
The rider in front of me has a jersey kit that says simply 'capo'. Isn't that the title of a mafia crime boss? In any case, he's a mens licensed Cat 5 5300
and he's in my cross hairs. Little does he know I'm reeling him in like a trout.
This is dregger, bringing up the rear and trying to reason with the knee that hasn't grieved him since the beginning of summer and waited until now to start sassing him again. I can't say for certain but knowing dregger he's probably thinking something like "Can't you just shut up for 90 minutes? That's all I need is 90 minutes, 30 miles, that's all."
About twenty miles in to the canyon I meet up with a chatty cyclist from Highland who strikes up a conversation by apologizing for his squeaky seat post. I make a mental list of things that are vexing me at the moment and find that even if I limit the list to parts of my body that hurt, there's still no room to include the squeak from his seat post. Turns out he's a LOTOJA repeat offender, third time. I ask him what his expected finish time is to see about where I can expect to be. He tells me he hopes to finish by 7pm and at our current rate it seems likely. That will put me at the finish in just over 12 hours. I ask him what I have left. "Is there anything I need to know?" is my exact question. He tells me there's nothing significant, a minor incline into Wilson, but nothing else. I thank him for the insight and drop back and out of the conversation, it's costing me energy I can't afford. The canyon has pitched up and we're down to about 17mph. My lips are chapped and dry and I'm getting cotton mouth. The 1/2 strength gatorade in my water bottles tastes like syrup and even sips of it make me gag. As I pull in to the last (neutral support) feed zone at Hoback Junction (180 miles/300km in) I jettison my gatorade in favor of straight water and eye the gus but decide against it. I use the facilities but nothing comes, I'm still not sure if it's because I'm dehydrated or because that particular system of my body is completely numb/non-functioning. I hear other cyclists pronounce resolutely "Let's finish this thing already". I remember not so long ago having that same level of energy and resolve but it seems to have floated down the picturesque Snake River along with the River rafting tours. I climb on my bike and head down the final canyon hill and the last 25 miles.
Final leg: Hoback Junction WY to Teton Village WY (25 miles/40km)
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