Dreams3:00am August 11, 2012: The alarm wakes me up. My body wakes up differently on race days than any other day. It's a controlled wakening of all my systems that I have a hard time explaining. It's as if my body systematically turns on it's different senses one at a time going through an "all-go" procedure to make sure everything is at it's peak sensory level.
The race doesn't start until 6:45am but I have to start getting fuel into my body now. My body won't be able to eat enough during the race to keep up with the calories burned and if I go into "calorie deficit" during the race; it's over and there's no recovering. The food is exactly the same every race. 3 hours before = 3 tortillas each filled with 1 Tablespoon peanut butter and 1 teaspoon jelly.
There's no chance of falling back to sleep but I save my energy by trying to lay in bed as much as possible but there's things that need double checked and the start line is an hour's drive away. There's 3 things that you can't borrow at the starting line: a helmet, shoes and a bike. Those get checked first, then the "kit" which is everything you carry: jersey, shorts, sunglasses, food, water bottles, etc. Each has it's place and order so I know if something is missing. I'll carry all my food so that I only have to stop for water. Tools needed before the race and those that will get carried during the race are checked.
5:00am: time for 2 more tortillas, 600mg ibuprofen, and an Emergen-C pack.
The bike and equipment is loaded and the drive to Park City looms ahead. It's an hour that I get to focus and go over race thoughts. If you've been around me the week before a race you know how intense I get; the hour before is probably unbearable.
6:00am, Kimball Junction, Utah. It's 52 degrees but I make the decision not to wear UnderArmor or arm warmers, I'd have to stop somewhere and remove them as the day warmed up. The elites will launch at 6:45am and almost every minute from 6:00 to 6:45 is structured. Unload the bike; check tire pressure, brakes, gears, seat, chain, bike computer, etc. A bike jersey has 3 pockets in the lower back and all my fuel, ibuprofen and an extra Co2 canister needs to be stuffed there. Underneath the seat is a small compartment where an extra tube, pump and Co2 is stowed.
Next I check in, I'm pre-registered but I like to make sure everything is ready. Then it's on the bike to check all the components of the bike. I run through all 20 gears, check the brakes, check my pedals, do some maneuvering and stretch a little. It's also time to size up the competition: do I know anyone, recognize team jerseys, who looks nervous, calm, scared? Who is using what type of gear set-up? What type of wheels? Where are the biggest calves? When all else fails follow the biggest calves.
6:35am, Time to stake your claim at the starting line. I have a favorite place: about 18 feet off the line and on the inside of the first major turn. Today it's a hard right turn right out of the starting gate so I line up accordingly and then don't budge.
6:44am and it's quiet. The race isn't going to start on time. I'm focused which means I'm cranky but I have to calm myself. My mind isn't worried about the racers around me, I'm worried about the pros coming behind us and they'll start on time. Every minute we're delayed is a minute in their favor.
6:51am. The gun sounds. There's the sweet sound of hundreds of shoes clipping into race pedals. The pedals on race bikes are unlike your childhood bike pedals. I'm locked onto my bike and in essence my shoe is the pedal. It allows me to, not only, push down but also lift up, slide back and kick forward which generates 4 times as much power as a "childhood" bike.
Once out of the starting gate and clear of the parking lot we are joined at the front by a 3 car police escort. The first 4 miles of the race skirts the edge of town and the escort will get us safely on the open road.
The big, main pack of bikes in a race is called a "peloton". On this day the riders at the front of the peloton have set a fairly moderate pace of 22mph. It's slightly uphill but it feels slow. I've made a decision that I'm going to just "sit in" for as long as possible. Inside the peloton you expend far less energy as you would by working at the front. The "drag" of those bikes pulls you along. By "sitting in" I don't have to work as hard to go as fast.
It's tough to describe what it feels like to be in a peloton. But imagine going 25 mph and being able to reach out and touch six different riders at any one time. That's how close it is. Your senses are magnified; who's shifting, who's standing, who's drinking or eating? Things like this will slow down or speed up a rider and you have to dance a delicate waltz inside the peloton of holding your line but being aware of who isn't holding theirs.
But I know this course and I know the peloton will shatter all too quickly. 11 miles into the race is a Class 2 climb. Hills, or climbs, are categorized in cycling by difficulty decided on by the steepness, length and to a lesser degree placement in the route. Class 4 is the easiest up to Class 1 being the steepest, longest hills. Then there are what are called "hors catégorie" or "beyond classification" which means cars aren't really expected to make the summit. This first climbing test of the day comes quick. At the base I look around. There's about 45 riders in front of me and a long file of bikes snaked behind me that stretches out of view. The air is calm and crisp. It's broken by the sounds of chains making their way up the cassette (or back gears) to the easier, lighter gears. My legs tell me to hold off, don't shift just yet. By doing this I gain a little speed on a lot of the other cyclist. My trade off is suffering. By not shifting into an easier gear as those around me I'm using a little more energy now. But I remember riding with a group of pros and complaining that my legs were hurting. One of them berated me, calling me arrogant to think I was the only one whose legs were hurting. Cycling is about suffering. Climbing is about trusting that you'll be able to recover once you reach the peak. I keep rotating my legs and move up the hill.
There's a big tradition in bicycle racing to leave messages in chalk on the road in support of your favorite rider, for a team or other reasons. I'll get to see a lot of those today with the pros coming up behind us. The first sign of these messages appear on this Class 2 climb. Sprawled out in big white words is this first message.
THIS... ISN'T... THE... HARD... PART......... THAT... IS ... above this is a huge arrow pointing off to the right.
My eyes follow off in the southwest direction of the arrow but I'm already laughing, knowing what's there. Across the Jordanelle Reservoir looming above the horizon is Mt. Timpanogas. The first HC climb of the day. I look back up the hill I'm on. This is what crushes cyclist's souls: thinking about the next climb, not the one they're on. I pedal on. Mt. Timpanogas is 40 miles away. I'm in the middle of The Jordanelle climb. Timpanogas will have to wait. At the summit I begin shifting back down into the heavier harder gears. The reward for going up a hill is getting to go down a hill.
I take a quick drink. On the bike I drink every 12 minutes. There's no debating this. I drink in 12 minute intervals whether I'm thirsty or not. It's 36 minutes into the ride, it's still cool out, I'm not sweating but it's time to drink.
I'm 7 minutes faster to this point than I was last year. I know this because this is where I crashed out last year. My senses jump to attention. There's a little fear in my heart. I've picked my way through the group and at the top of the climb I'm sitting 17th. Last year I was sitting 5th here. It gives me some confidence in the riders that will be around me on this descent. This is a higher level of cyclists than last year. The crest of a hill on a bike is very rewarding but I live with a problem. I've just gained about 25 spots on this climb but now I have to hold it on the descent. It's not as easy as it used to be. I'm weighing 142 pounds at the start of this race which makes the climbing a lot easier but the descending tougher. As one person told me: you can't expect to go down like a bowling ball when you go up like a feather. That means I have to be a little more aerodynamic than the heavier cyclists. I have to get lower, more slipstream, hide from the wind on my bike. I come completely off my seat and lay on the top tube of the bike frame, my butt tucked under the front of the seat. My arms tuck in underneath my body. My neck lays over my handlebars and my chin sits directly over the front wheel. In this position it's tough to reach the brake levers safely or easily; no worry, I won't be using them.
Next time you're going 45mph in a car open up the door and look down. Then to experience the crash from last year, jump out wearing only your underwear. I shouldn't be thinking about the crash last year- It was a freak accident, I'm better, the guys around me are better, the problem that caused it has been fixed- but in honesty I'm thinking about it and a grin lights up my face as I wiz past the exact site. I've made it. I'm a little safer. I'm going too fast to add any speed by pedaling but during regular intervals I'll rotate the pedals a few times to move my legs and keep the blood from pooling in them. For the next few minutes I'm just a passenger on the bike but there's no time for sightseeing. The two inches in front of my wheel are all that matter. I'm aware of my surroundings, the bikes, the road surface, the debris and my adjustments around and through these things are made by little more than tightening one side of my body, sticking out and elbow, and other very slight movements. The handlebars are to hang on to, you never steer with them.
As the base of the hill approaches I ready myself to switch from passenger to engine. My focus turns to the speedometer. And I watch the numbers fall at a steady rate: 48...47...44.4 (the sign of death in Asian cultures) ... 40 ...tense up Eric get ready... 39.... It's close! 38.... BOOM! Time to start rotating the legs again.
I look up, there's a long straight stretch and a town at the end. It's pretty flat but still rolls downhill. I'll keep the speed up knowing that I'm getting some help from gravity. The police escort is still out in front of us, we'll be able to scream through town without the worry of vehicles crossing our path.
The last time I visited the little town of Kamas, Utah it was to put my bike back together and clean the blood off my abrasions. It's different this year and more rewarding. At the city limits there's a group of people along the road. Yes, they're there to get a good spot for the pro race but a mile away I can hear the cowbells and yelling. They're treating our race just the same. This could end up being a fun day. Halfway through town, at probably the only stop light, the police pull over, we're on our own now. There's an aid station at the local school, none of the elite cyclist will stop here, it's only 17.4 miles into the race. Bottles are still full, no need to get off the bike but it gives me a check point. I'm averaging 19 miles an hour at this point. Still under an hour, still ahead of what I'd projected. The doubt creeps in; am I going too fast, expending too much energy? I tell myself to trust in the training, pedal on. I'm my biggest critic and biggest fan at the same time.
20 mile marker: The directors of the race have set out big signs every 5 miles to let you know how far along you are in the race. 20 miles means I'm 1/5 of the way done. It's a big moment. I run through an "all-systems" check. I'm doing just under 17mph, I'm averaging 19mph, I've been on the bike 1:03.28, heart rate is 154bpm, still plenty of water in my bottles, quick look down at the tires show they're still holding pressure.
I've gambled on my tires today, especially with the chance of thunderstorms over the Wasatch Mountain Range. My tires are 23mm wide, under an inch wide. They are supposed to hold 130psi but I always run them at 135psi. Today I've gambled and inflated them to 140psi. It's left me with a concern. They're not designed to be inflated this high. If they burst, I can change a flat in about 2 minutes but that's a loss of a half mile in distance. The higher pressure allows less friction on the road, it also gives a rougher ride, and if the road turns wet, it gives less control.
More immediate concerns. We've wound our way through the little town and at the southeast edge make a hard right turn and start heading west, and right into a headwind. I'm pretty natural at being able to estimate wind speed. From the rustling of the leaves on the trees, to how the grass and weeds dance along the road, to the stray piece of paper bouncing down the asphalt, I've set the wind at around 12mph; more of an annoyance than an obstacle. It means shifting into a lighter gear and, strangely, working with your competition. It's time for a pace line.
In a pace line you're working with other cyclists to keep a higher speed. The cyclist in the front blocks the wind for the others then, after a given time, falls off and takes his place in back where he is pulled in the draft of the other's until he works his way back up to the front and pays his debt for the small rest by working for everyone else. It's a beautiful thing to watch and takes lots of practice to do right. It's a true "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" situation. Although all of us in the pace line are trying to win the race, it pays off to work together against the wind to maintain a higher overall speed. And the wind is every cyclist's worst enemy. The pace line works great for about 6 miles and then it happens. One of the worst, if not the worst, feelings for a cyclist; 2 inches... 4 inches... I'm seeing it happen and there's nothing I can do about it ... 5 inches starts feeling like a mile... 6 inches... I'm losing the wheel in front of me little by little and soon with it the benefits of the drafting. 9 inches... It's happening faster and all I can do is keep pedaling and hope a false hope. 1 foot turns into 2 feet then 3 feet... it's over, I'm out of the pace line. These "Cat 1" riders are better than me on the flatter terrain. I knew it, I'd planned on it, I'd prepped myself to expect. It doesn't mean I have to like it.
Racers, like hills, are classified in categories. Cat 1 & 2's are your up and coming pros or pros that are done competing for pay. I'm a Cat 3 which is a sponsored rider without true ambitions of being a pro. In essence the top amateur level. Then there are Cat 4's & 5's that are avid cyclists that race every once and a while.
As I fall off the pace line I know it's because everyone in front of me are Cat 1 & 2. I look around and I'm in no-man's-land. There's a group behind me in the distance and the 20, or so, Cat 1's pulling away from me. It's right where I expected to be. For the next while I'll do all I can to out run the group of cyclist coming up on me, filled with Cat 1, 2 & 3's. Generally speaking 15 riders are faster than one, I'm at a disadvantage and they have me in their sights. Their game is to see if they can catch me, mine is to not be caught. I have one advantage: there's some climbs coming up fast, and I'll pick me on a hill over anyone. I move my hands down on the drop bars, I have a new game for my pursuers: let's see who can get to the next mountain first!
Being alone during a race is the true competition. No one there to drive you on, no one there to hold you to your commitments. Sometimes I wish someone would secretly record me during these times. I start arguing with myself out loud. "just stop, no one will care." "okay, at that sign we'll quit." "if you kicked your spokes in, everyone would think it was just bad luck." "the mechanic will know you kicked them in yourself." "just keep pedaling you chicken." "okay, I'll pedal to that next sign and then I'm done." "shut up, you're not going to stop at that sign." ".... I'm going to seriously consider it." It goes on like this constantly.
I take a quick look back at the group behind me without seeming like I'm looking back. You can't have them thinking you're concerned.
Dang, they're closer.
It's not time to panic.
Another quick look back. It's like a horror movie, every time I look back they're closer.
The road is starting to pitch up but the real climb is still a ways off. Trust in the training. I keep pedaling. Concentrate on my pedal stroke. Push down; slide back; lift up; kick forward... repeat. It's the lifting up that separates a real cyclist and someone who rides a bike. Because my foot is locked on to the bike I'm able to lift up and generate more power through the rotation of the pedal stroke. Gravity starts forcing me to shift gears. I'm going up the steep part of the climb about a half mile before the chasing group. This hill isn't classified but it's tough. It's just as high as the first climb but because it's not one long ascent it isn't classified. It's done in steps; climb, level off, climb, level off until the summit. It's not long before I'm down to 13mph. I'm feeling good and keeping my pedaling smooth and breathing under control. I glance back and notice a group of 5 riders have broken off the chase group. And they're catching me. As they come up beside me I fall into the group. There's some Cat 3's in here, the first ones I've seen. I'm able to stay up with them and we crest the final summit together. I get to fight for my position on the ride down the other side. Quickly my speed is over 40mph and again I'm just a passenger on the bike. Once again as soon as gravity takes over the other cyclist start pulling away. I console myself in the knowledge that the race finishes on top of a climb so if I can keep close I have a chance. By the bottom of the descent a couple other cyclists have passed me. There's five Cat 3's and 20 Cat 1&2's ahead of me. And it's mostly flat and downhill to Mt. Timpanogas.
The route goes through the towns of Heber and Midway and there's more crowds building. The cowbells, the screaming, the words of encouragement are intoxicating. I could seriously get used to this. I hear a few screams of "Beat The Pros"... I'm trying guys, I'm trying. Inside the town of Heber is another aid station where people are waiting to fill bottles and give food. I check and do the calculations. It's time to make a decision: fill up here or in 17 miles at the base of Timpanogas. If you combine both bottles I still have about 3/4 of a bottle total. It's warming up but still cool. The road angles downhill for the most part to Timpanogas; I decide to pedal on. As I pass the aid station I notice 6 riders pulled over. None of the Cat 3's are there.
1:56.48. Time to eat. As much as I make myself drink every 12 minutes, I make myself eat every hour. I reach into my back pocket it's time for meal #2. I eat on the roll. When it's done I take another sip and get back to business. I've been on the bike for 2 hours, my back needs stretched, my legs need stretched, my butt needs a break but it has to wait. I won't do this until I can coast without losing much speed. As soon as I find a nice steady downhill slope I begin the stretching: I roll my neck, shake each hand a little, level my feet out, stand up and stretch my legs. It takes less than 30 seconds but it's all the break I'll take. 15 miles of relatively flat terrain lay ahead along with five Cat 3's I have to chase down. The wind is picking up and I try to use it to my ability. My light body weight might not have much of an effect on flat roads but I try to use my thin body frame to my advantage. "Ride skinny," I tell myself, "hide from the wind."
This is my way of reminding myself to concentrate on an aerodynamic position on the bike. The other cyclists are getting bored, tired. They're sitting up on their bikes catching more wind. I put my hands in the drops, or lower part of the handlebars, keep my elbows tucked against my body, and my knees angled in. I've trained all winter to ride this whole race in this less comfortable position, it's time to put it to use.
The five mile markers tick away: 40... 45... 50 and then the signs begin appearing. The road over Mt Timpanogas is called "The Alpine Loop" and the signs on the highway are announcing it's arrival. Before I know it I can see the blue canopy of the aid station. I've got to fill my water bottles. It's warming up and over the last 2 years I've heard nothing good about this road. I've driven the Alpine Loop a couple times in a car but you can't appreciate a road from a car. All the little impurities, subtle pitches, steep switchbacks mean nothing in a motorized vehicle. They do when you're the motor.
I pull over. There's about 10 cyclists refueling. All I need is water. I don't even get off my bike. The volunteers are awesome. They already have water opened and ready. I unscrew my tops and two people are pouring water in. I still have enough food and don't accept anymore. Over the next 9 miles every ounce I carry will slow me down.
2:45.36 I'm 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I push off and look up The Alpine Loop,
up Mt Timpanogas...
Up Mt Doom.
"Watch out for 'the wall'." That's the only advice I've got about this climb. About a half mile away from the aid station I'm already out of gears, my heart rate is at 162bpm. Dear Lord, I hope this is "The Wall". The grade on this part of the road averages 11% and has portions that reach 14%. The mountain I train on in Vegas is 7 to 8%. There are no "Hors Catégory" climbs in Vegas. Legs: let me introduce you to Utah. Within a mile of the aid station 2 cyclists pass me, both Cat 3's. We chat as they pass, I ask them if they've done this climb before. They answer yes. I ask for any advice or tricks for ascending it.
"once you get past The Wall it actually levels off but your legs are toast by then so it won't feel like it."
Oh, thank God, this is the wall. I'm now in 8th but this is not about winning right now, it's about surviving. My mind clears of everything. I'm not thinking about the race, I'm not thinking about my bike, I'm not thinking about the summit. I'm watching my heart rate now. And trying to survive. The fine line I balance on going up a steep, long hill like this teeters on my heart rate. Go as fast as you can without "red lining" your heart rate. If I go above 185bpm for long I'll "pop" and pretty much end my day; end 2 years of hard work. Pedal, suffer, watch the heart rate, survive. The wall lasts about 3 miles. The mile marker says: Mile 55. They're starting to annoy me. I contemplate kicking it over as I go by. Then when I pass it I contemplate turning around, going back and kicking it over. But I have 6 more miles to the summit and I'm pretty sure I don't want to repeat any of it.
The crowds are staking their claims to the best parts of the mountain. There are some certifiable crazy cycling fans. In some parts of the world cycling is like football here. Standing alongside the road is a guy dressed up as a devil. He's holding a cold bottle of water. As I close in on him I hear the offer, "Your soul for a bottle of water." It seems like a reasonable offer. I swoop in and grab it. The crowd cheers and laughs. I pour it over my head and pedal on. Above "The Wall" the road reaches the elevation of cottonwood trees, it's probably very beautiful but I'm concentrating on the road surface. I'm scanning for the easiest line up. Are there little dips? Is one side smoother asphalt? Can I cut this corner? What line is best around this switchback? I'm doing 9.5mph, every advantage will make a little difference. I start picking off some of the riders ahead of me and dropping them. Two more catch me and pass me.
Visualization is a very strong training tool. Last year after the wreck I drive this road to commit it to memory. I've ridden it 100 times in my mind. As the steep parts and tough switchbacks appear I remember them. They aren't as intimidating. It's warming up even at this altitude. My heart rate has been above 170 for over 30 minutes. I unzip my jersey and take a drink. I recognize a long switchback. I'm close to the top. It's felt like forever. The road levels off some. I'm able to shift into a few heavier gears. Another switchback and a sign: Mile 60. Only mile 60?!? Son of a... Are you serious?
A few more switchbacks and I see a beautiful sign. "KOM 1km". The pros will race up this mountain to contest King Of Mountain points. This is their warning to start racing. To me it means 1000 more meters and I'm done with this Hell. I can see the summit. The day started with 4 classified climbs on the course, I'm done with 2. I have a nice long descent into the Provo Valley. It's time to push it for 500 meters. The crowd gathering at the KOM line cheer in appreciation. I slap the sign as I crest.
There's an aid station, but I'm not about to stop. I look down at my bottles, they're both about 1/4 full and I won't be reaching for them on the descent. 2 years ago in this race a rider was using a car to draft behind on the way down. The vehicle didn't know he was there. Around one of the sharp hairpin turns the car misjudged it and slammed on the brakes. The cyclist went through the back window and was pronounced dead on the spot. I guess that when the paramedics arrived and had to ask where his head was, the cause of death was easy to diagnose. I decide to play it a little safe. It costs me a couple more spots but I'll live to ride another day.
No catching me today boys. I check my watch, the pros have just launched. I'm 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Somewhere down this side of Mt Timpanogas my bike computer will register a speed of 56.6mph. I was taking it easy.
At the base of the mountain it feels like I'm riding in sand. After maintaining speeds over 40mph for 11 miles it seems slow to be back down to 20mph. It takes a few minutes to get my legs accustomed to the pressure of pushing on the pedals. There's a group of 8 riders just ahead and I push to close the gap. A town approaches and as I get close to the city limits I see a cop car at an intersection. He's stopping traffic for the race. I make a hard right turn onto Main Street, Alpine UT. and almost gasp.
The town has come out in full force to cheer us on. Lined up 6 deep on each side and stretching at least a mile is a crowd going nuts. Cowbell, clappers, whistles, screams. For 1 mile I'm a pro and I can't wipe the grin off my face. We all instinctively pick up the pace and head into our dream. There's a time to race and a time to be grateful. In the crowd are lots of kids. I pull out of the group of cyclists and swing toward the sidewalk lined with people. High fives all the way down the street. By the time we're directed off main street and out of town I'm 50 meters behind the group I entered with. It was well worth it then, it's still well worth it now.
Outside of Alpine is the third of four classified climbs. It's called Suncrest. It separates Provo Valley and the Salt Lake Valley. The locals know it as Point of the Mountain. On the far west side of this mountain they race motorcycles up the dirt part and call it The Widowmaker. I think that's a more appropriate name. For two years I've said this hill will decide the race. It's a "Class 1" climb and it's between the two HC climbs. You've just gotten done with Timpanogas and you're beginning to think of Little Cottonwood Canyon when all of a sudden there's this mountain in your way. And it's intimidating. Some hills are just scary to look at and this one fits that description. From the edge of Alpine you can see the whole mountain and, worse, you can see that the road goes all the way to the top. You can't fool yourself by saying the road goes along it or beside it. The highest thing on this mountain is the asphalt of the road.
My predictions were right. I catch and pass the group I entered the town with. I pass some Cat 1 riders struggling, I pass some of the Cat 3 riders. The back side of Potosi, the mountain I train on every day, is eerily similar to this road. Every day up Potosi I told myself, "this is how your legs will feel going up The Widowmaker." I was wrong, they feel better. By the time I crest the summit I've passed 15 riders. No one passed me. I high five some fans at the top and head down into the Salt Lake Valley.
Mile 80. I've been on my bike 4 hours 35 minutes. I look at my bottles, precious few sips left. I have to stop at this aid station. They aren't as organized here and there's a line of cyclists and it's taking longer to fill the bottles. I decide to only fill one to cut time. There's another station at the base of the canyon. I didn't want to stop there but I'll gamble.
The race book lists Little Cottonwood Canyon as a 9.8 mile climb but what it doesn't say is that it's a good steep climb through foothills of the Wasatch Mountains and the town of Draper to get to the base of the canyon. The crowds are starting to fill in and cheer. As I pass one big group I ask, "It's all downhill from here, right?". Hey, you gotta get laughs wherever you can. I'm starting to pass more cyclists. This climb through the foothills of the valley is demoralizing. Cycling lesson for life: concentrate on the task at hand. As we snake through town I see the pizza place we ate at last year after watching the finish.
The race starts here. Mile 85.
A hard right turn and Little Cottonwood Canyon stares us directly in the face. And it's a steep climb to get there. The group that had formed down Suncrest, at the aid station and through Draper is 11 strong. At the top of this climb it's fallen to 6. The remaining Cat 3 riders are grouped together. There's 3 of us. We're not in a pace line, we're not working together. We're surviving.
I send a quick text to Bambi who's waiting at the finish line. It simply reads: Mile 90.
I'm running out of water. I'm wondering if anyone else is going to stop at the aid station 2 miles ahead. I've played my cards, I have to stop and fill both bottles regardless of what anyone else does.
As we turn onto Little Cottonwood Canyon Road I see the aid station. As I get closer I see little angels dressed in green volunteer shirts. There's about 12 kids from a local Boys & Girls Club helping at this station. They're lined along the road holding out bottles of water. I've said many times before that cycling is about seeing an opportunity and jumping on it without hesitating. An idea pops into my head. A stupid idea I've never heard of. A stupid idea that might, just might, keep me on my bike. I slow my pace, ease close, reach out and grab a bottle.
Anyone can do that.
Quickly, I shove it in my pocket and reach back and grab another bottle. Just as quickly it's in a pocket. A third time I reach out and grab a bottle.
That was the easy part.
Holding my handlebars and one bottle in my left hand, I reach down and unscrew my water bottle. Putting the cap in my mouth I unscrew the bottle of water in my left hand and reach down and pour it into my bike bottle.
One down, one to go.
I'm pedaling slower but I haven't had to stop. I fumble through the next water exchange and pick up my pace. I open the third bottle, drink half and pour the other half over my head. The other cyclist didn't stop. I've fallen behind the group but I'm not concerned, I've saved seconds by not getting off the bike.
"This doesn't seem so bad." Is my first thought from a bike, riding up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Once you're on the road heading up to Snowbird Ski Resort it actually levels off some from skirting the foothills. I pick up the pace and chase after the five riders I was with. But on this terrain I'm at a speed disadvantage so the chase is to just minimize my losses.
9 miles left to my goal. I pass a couple riders with their heads drooped. I can't comprehend being defeated at this point. In fact my legs twinge a little as if they're going to cramp. They have every reason to. I've asked more of them already than any other race, ever. At this point in the race I've climbed more than any other race and I have the biggest climb I've ever done left in front of me. I tell my legs- you've got 9 more miles then you can explode. I go around a bend in the road and get my first glimpse of the real Cottonwood Canyon. It's all it's been cracked up to be. This is going to be a beast. What I don't see is the group of riders that I'm chasing. There's two Cat 3's in there. I've got to catch them soon. The road turns steep immediately. And just as quick I'm out of gears. My heart rate leaps to 180+bpm but it's a now or never situation. Time to give it everything.
5:02.45 I've been on my bike for over 5 hours. I'm still a little faster than I'd predicted and still feeling good on the bike. My heart rate is high, but I'm in control still. I've predicted that it will take me an hour to make this climb. I've set 6:05.00 as my goal. I'm feeling confident that I can beat that. I pedal on, reminding myself to keep my pedal stroke smooth and consistent.
If you ride a good line through a switchback you have about 2 pedal rotations to grab a quick rest but it seems a moot point on this road. Every switchback seems to bring a steeper grade. Every bend reveals a longer tougher section. Every turn introduces a new reason to quit. I look down at my bike computer. The speedometer embarrasses me. I'm going slower than I've ever gone in a race. My heart rate is skyrocketing above the red line. My body is screaming for water I have to ration. There comes a point in every race where you legs just give up, where your mind wants to pull over, get off the bike and sit down. It's here. And it's here with a vengeance. There's only one choice: I turn the computer screen off. I shut my heart rate monitor down. No more need for numbers. It's time to fight myself. The crowds are starting to get thick up this climb that will determine the outcome of the pros Tour of Utah. They've raced everyday this week and this climb is expected to reveal the winner. It's also designed to break the best riders in the world. Later today, seven pros will abandon the race right here. 25% of the amateurs will be caught here. None of that matters. I'm not in a race; I'm no longer trying to beat the pros. I'm simply testing myself: can I beat this mountain.
I'll never forget the crowds on this mountain. They made it easier and harder to ride at the same time. I wanted to give them all a show, but had to stay within my limits. They came with water for the pros but saw cyclists struggling in a race and shared what they had. More than once a fan ran alongside me, encouraging me. I'm trying to capture every second of it but my mind is focused on moving the pedals.
With 4 miles left I catch one of the five cyclists. He's not one of the Cat 3's but he lets me know they're not far past him. It gives me a boost in my confidence but not my speed. The farther up this beast, the steeper it pitches.
One of the signs I've been looking for comes into view: Tanner's Flat 1/4 mile.
Tanner's Flat is where the road is the steepest and the last long straight stretch on the course. It's the best place to watch the race. It's where the crazies camp out the night before. It's where the unofficial Tour of Utah party is. Imagine being able to have a tailgate party on the goal line at the Super Bowl for free. That's what this is equivalent to. I round the corner. I'm no longer suffering on Little Cottonwood Canyon. I'm in my heaven called Tanner's Flat. I'm still suffering, but I've dreamed about what this would feel like since I started watching the Tour de France as a kid. The crowds are so deep you can't see where the shoulder ends and the road starts. There's enough space for about three bikes to pass through. Two bikes comfortably. Then I see a gift. The crowd at the top of the stretch is making way for 2 bikes. On top of the bikes are the only Cat 3 riders in front of me.
I've got to calm myself and it's tough. The energy of the crowd makes me want to stand up and pedal hard. But if I do that now, I'll pop and end my day 3 miles from the finish line. As I ride through the crowd someone hands me a cold bottle of water. I drink half and pour half over my head. Someone runs alongside me and pours water down my back. There's a gorilla handing out bananas. I'm sure I've lost it, but there's a gorilla handing out bananas. Superman is here too. I find Waldo. The crowds are deafening. Another water bottle in my face. I grab it, take a few sips and toss it. At the end of the stretch a guy makes eye contact with me. He runs alongside me. "want a push?". Oh how I want a push. My legs beg for a push. No one would know that I was aided. It's too crowded. There's no officials around. It would help me catch my competition. I don't have the strength to talk....
I shake my head no.
One person would know and I have to look at him in the mirror tomorrow.
At the "4km" sign there's a lady dressed as an angel holding up four fingers, "you've climbed 4 major climbs, you've got 4 kilometers to go. You can do it!"
Lady, I'm not sure I can.
I'm bridging the gap to the two Cat 3's and the distance is closing fast. I catch them at the 3km sign. There's a couple kids along the road. I unclip both water bottles and toss them to them. I'll jettison all the extra weight I have left here. I don't need any fuel or water. I've planned this. The last part of the race will be ridden as light as possible. Every ounce of unnecessary weight is tossed.
I stay right behind them. I've caught them and now it's their turn to counteract. We pedal together for what seems like an hour before the "2km" sign appears. Then one of them makes a move. My legs don't react and he continues to pull away.
2000 meters away from the finish line. I sit and watch him pull away on a climb. In all my dreams I was the one pulling away. But in the countless hours of training I was learning to stay within myself and race my race.
The guy left with me crumbles. Seeing someone pull away like that crushes him and it's as if he almost comes to a stop.
I go under the 1km banner "the red arch", alone. In cycling the "1km to go" sign is a red arch stretching across the road. 164,000 meters down; 1,000 to go. Just over half a mile. I've fallen behind by about 400 meters. He's smoking it. He deserves first. Second place in this race is good. I've done what I can. I should be proud.
500 meters left. The sign is just ahead. Then I see something I'd not planned on. At the "500 meters to go" mark the race turns down into the Snowbird Ski Resort parking lot. The climbing is over. It's all downhill from here. The crowds are lining the finish line. About 500 meters of crowds. I can give them a show. If I die here I can roll down to the finish line. I slam my chain into the hardest gear and push with everything I've got left.
At 400 meters I look up to get my bearings. I see the last Cat 3 at the 200 meters sign. I can catch him... maybe.
I push for another 100 meters. My brain does the calculations: not enough distance left.
No need to crash here unnecessarily. I start to sit up. Then he sits up and starts coasting.
As quickly as I've sat up I reach back down to the drops.
Turns out the race wasn't 102.6 miles; it's 200 meters. The pros didn't give me a head start; I gave him a 100 meter head start. I hear the announcer say- he's giving it a go! as I scream by the table.
My nose is over my front wheel and his bike comes into my limited view...
I'm at his back wheel...
The finish line is closing in...
I'm a half bike length back...
You won't know unless you try...
My front wheel is rolling through his...
Pedals matching pedals...
A life put on hold. Two years of training for one race. Two major wrecks. Being run over by a car. Cheated out of a victory in a big race. 4:00am every single morning. Saturday mornings traded away to sore legs. Lost friends who couldn't understand. Friends gained who respect dedication. Injuries, doubts, defeats. Victories, faith, lessons learned. sacrifices made. Blood, broken bones, concussions. Smiles, encouragement from people I hadn't talked to in 20 years, memories. 28,000 miles in heat, cold, rain, wind; many when no other cyclists were out on the road. A life made better.
Somewhere hidden in all that I found 60 millimeters.