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by Scott Penzarella on August 29, 2011
Sometimes a ride, a race, is seen not through the eyes of the narrator, the spectator, but the eyes of the racer, the rider himself, the one who suffers, the one who lives the experience. Below is an inside look at a team, a true team of racers, who through grace and teamwork, experienced and thrived in this year's 2011 West Coast Rapha Gentlemen's Race.
By Josh Flexman
Rolling up, rolling out. Destination was the RGR (The Rapha Gentlemen’s Race) just outside Portland Oregon. The car ride up was persistent but jovial.
The crew. Racers, racers to be, and something in between. The six of us enjoyed the company, talked work, talked food, watched movies, took naps. Something was in the air about us though. Something we knew was looming ahead, but could not yet define or predict. Subtle nervousness, angst.
Ok so there was some heat up there this weekend. Foggy, cool Mill Valley was shrugging her shoulders in the rear view, sorry guys, good luck...
Our first ride of the weekend took us along some of the meandering rollers and flats of Southern Oregon, just outside Grant's Pass. Beautiful country, sweet warm air. After the near 2 hour warm up we dipped into the Rogue River for a quick float before continuing the journey north. Spirits up, heads up. The balance was still there, always the balance of the next day. The company, the jokes, the bikes, the vacation all held in balance by what we all knew would be effort of the unknown next day.
We arrived in Portlandia in the dark; nourished and hydrated. Things were on schedule. The wake up time was 6am. Could we sleep? Some maybe? My night would be a mixture of both dreams and wall staring. Typical and expected.
Dirt roads change the way you ride a bike. Especially a road bike. In my head I was preparing for some dirt roads. I have ridden dirt roads many times before on my road bike. I did a lot of training camps in West Virginia where dirt was expected and welcomed. Gear down...b*tches. Slow and steady. Grade up. This is what I was thinking before this race. This is what I was telling myself as we drove mile after mile to the start line passing countless "pavement ends" signs: It's just going to be gravel connectors. Ok some climbs too, and maybe some steady false downhill flats. But it's just a long ride, just a long social ride, a promotional stunt, a "Gentlemen’s" race...
But what I really knew (and perhaps only knew) going in to that said race was its length: a 130 miles. That is long sure, but I have raced 80+ countless times, whats an extra, ummm 40...? Some level of heat we were un-acclimated to... Thanks Mill Valley. Dirt roads. We all ride mountain bikes... The wild card was this; something very unique to bike racing and riding, something that may not immediately register as familiar to many, even very experienced bike racers: This was a pure team event, nothing counted if one of our guys didn't make the full course. We were tied together--- all day long. Bound by this unspoken trust that each would do what was needed to get to the finish line. Our time was clocked by the last finisher of the team. No support, no sag, no shallow end. Just steady grinding. Steady chipping. How far down does the well go today for this SV team. Today it went DEEP.
The environment was beautiful. Rolling green hills, trees on the edge of deadly thirst, leaves desperately holding on to red summer. Bugs, blue sky, lots of energy. There is a level of awareness one has about their environment as they start to dig into a big day on the bike. It is as if the beauty is holding you in the palm of its hand. Slowly closing, less light comes in, less sounds, more uncertainty. There must always be the respect. Beautiful yes, forgiving no.
The ride started and ended with a steep dirt, deep gravel driveway. When we rolled out down the road, already passing the day's first flat (unknown team), nerves began to settle, and acceptance set in.
Eat drink, drink eat, drink, drink, eat, eat. Heat.
So far so...well...ok I will use the word good here, reluctantly. We got passed by the Rapha Continental team about 6 times in the first 40 miles. Each time they flatted we would roll by, steady, in control, and driven. When we flatted, they rolled by us, no hi, no bye, just “flatted again?”
First real climb of the day at less than an hour in burned a match. Everyone starts with a book of matches. The size of your book depends on what you have prepared for, what your body is willing to do, and what your mind expects. As we crested the climb, and I looked down at the Garmin, a feeling of fear washed over me so fast, so determined. It was a confident and aggressive fear. Mile 20? No it can't be. Something was wrong with the computer. 110 miles to go, no way. It’s can’t really be this hard the whole way.
There were so many times when I looked at one of my teammates with the intention of asking how they were feeling and then decided it was unnecessary. So many details of this ride are peripheral. They exist somewhere, at some time, but are just for us, just for the sufferers. We all experience these moments, the beats the breaks, the ups the downs, the peaks and valleys. They all exist in the balance. This ride was so hard because we are so rarely called on to go this deep. So many moments of doubt and surprise. Joy and heartbreak. It was so hard because we all knew the same thing. The other guy wearing the same jersey as I am, will not stop. So therefore, neither can I.
The roads disappeared beneath us. Mile after mile. The rocks, the dust. Dying and rebirth. Round every corner, the feeling of anticipation. How long can this climb really be? Hard climbs. Long dirt gravel climbs. 8 mile gravel false flats are soul destroyers.
My muscles started revolting at or around 70 miles in. The fatigue pounds at the door. Kicking at the dusty broken, splintered door. We stand inside, huddled together, heads high, all taunting it. Hobbs almost beckoning. "I dare you," he mutters. Not yet. The eyes around me said no, so I said no. The energy was still there, always there. Scott made sure, Hobbs made sure, Tom made sure, Eric made sure, Justin made sure. I breathed it in. Fatigue underestimates.
At this point we are all in, chips down, minds melting. We peddle, and wonder what the hell we are doing. Crashes surround us, blood, broken bikes, broken bones. Cars blaze by. Car back, car back. Hobbs has the directions as if the course was his Sunday ride. Scott is never too tired to encourage and ground the ups and downs throughout each and every mile. The contagious disease of optimism fighting back.
This ride, this race, this “Gentlemen’s” race, was—in light of the challenges—a perfect (well, relatively perfect) display of teamwork and tenacity... We had a steady, predictable team of riders. Everyone was looking one step ahead. 4 flats. 4 pro flat changes. Calm leadership. Determination. Desire.
Of course there were moments where doubt collapsed on our heads . Every time a person pushes the limit, or checks what the limit is, there will be these moments. Checkpoint at mile 105 was this moment for me. Broken people littered the area. Bikes in the truck, bikes on the ground. Sun hitting so hard. Bastard sun. Water bottles are now dusty abused, hated. I recall grabbing the brakes as if it was the end, feeling the surrender, and coast to a stop. I can't lift my leg over the bike, I stand there, hunched over the bars, and staring at the menacing dirt road ahead pitch up around the corner. The “team” doesn’t miss a beat. I am pulled back from the edge. Scott, gets my bottles, fills them up and dumps cold liquid on my head and on my legs and says, “you are going to get back on the bike and start pedaling, now do it… I believe in you.” So I do. It works. I am in disbelief. Skeptically force things back together.
Miles 105 to 130 were 97% dirt, most of which seemed to be up hill. We past so many people at this point. Surviving and at the same time thriving. The f*%$king Garmin laughing in our faces. Distance: 119, 119, 119, 119, 120... Justin power walking past other walkers one of the ‘final’ climbs. Power he found somewhere deep. Justin is in charge now.
Eric and Tom were so strong, so steady. I borrowed strength from them. It was going to be over soon, we were for the first time in the race in first place? Maybe,..... but that was all it took. That maybe ignited us. One last flat, 300 meters from the end of the dirt. Flat fixed. Scott was on it. Rolling on. So close now, F you Garmin you can’t stop us now. 126...... 127. 128. Rollers...ouch. Last right turn on the dirt. Pass a girls team furiously. Sorry girls you are getting put into a tree if you contest this. We are finishing this now. The last 200 meters of the course was steep, uphill with a single track paralleling it to the right. Dismounted the bike to get over the ditch. Left leg malfunction, dragging the bike, looking back. Hobbs yelling help, Justin just straight in trouble. Blur, bluuuuurrrrrrr .
No field sprint, no arms raised, no kissing sponsors or podium girls. None of these things; but something else. I would lie if I said I knew it all along, "sure no problem boss, you can count on me..." We all made it happen today, we all spread ourselves thin, across 10 hours.
The wave of relief rinsed off our dust covered abused bodies. Everything was worth it now. The end.