As the June 6 race day approaches, it dawns on me that I have not ridden long in awhile. A last minute family trip to Denver in mid-May nixes a return to the 162 mile Almanzo Royal. Graduation festivities seem to fill every weekend. I have to go all the way back to the 110 mile Bad Buffalo ride on April 5 to find something more than an hour. That's two months ago. Hmmn.
|Much of the day looked just like this - rolling along on primo Black Hills gravel.
To my Midwest brethren, it's more like gravel sprinkles on dirt. (photo by randy ericksen)
Then a closer look at the course map reveals a bigger obstacle. In addition to the finish line, we face four additional checkpoints along the way, each with a time cutoff based on a 10 mph average speed. The fourth one leaps off the page. Just two hours to climb the 20.7 uphill miles from the Moonshine Gulch Saloon in Rochford to the Trailshead Lodge at 6,683' O'Neil Pass. That would be a challenge for me with fresh legs, let alone 15 hours into the race.
To have any shot of climbing O'Neil Pass by the 10:00 pm cutoff time, I must reach Rochford well before 8:00 pm. An hour time cushion would do nicely, but that requires averaging almost 11 mph for the first 14 hours. With the amount of elevation gain, unpredictable weather and uncertain road conditions, that is a tall order. I just had to go as hard as I could for 152 miles, to go even harder up a 20.7 mile climb for any chance. No mistakes. No mishaps. No room for error. But if I could just make that, the remaining 35 miles of mostly downhill would be a breeze.
|Pre-dawn start with race director Perry Jewitt leading a neutral roll-out to nearby gravel, where the racing begins.
(photo by randy ericksen)
|Enjoying the comraderie of Jason Thorman and Luke Meduna as the day emerges.
(photo by randy ericksen)
The early miles of a long bike race are special. Pedals turn quickly, hills disappear, friendly banter amongst kindred spirits fills the air and the miles flow by. Before long, we're into Wyoming, steadily climbing Sand Creek Road and then Grand Canyon Road all the way to Trailshead Lodge, Checkpoint 1 at mile 69.3. The long climb is behind me. Nice warmup for the day.
|Mist below Crow's Peak brings the promise of a good day.
(photo by randy ericksen)
|Flying towards Check Point 2 at Deerfield Lake, I'm 40+ mph on gravel, one-handed, taking this picture.
Just saying that my Black Mountain Cycles Monster Cross bike is built for this.
|With bloated creeks all over, early evening showers soften the Mickelson Trail a bit approaching Rochford.
But the showers stay intermittent and light, and the roads stay firm, for the most part.
To a seasoned cyclist, that just doesn't sound very hard. It also doesn't sound very hard to me either, now sitting comfortably at home. But, at the time, I had been out there over 14 hours, working hard all day to build that slender 40 minute cushion. Despite my intentions, too soon I am reduced to spinning a low gear at about 6 mph. That simply will not do. So, I abandon the steady effort approach and decide to time trial this climb for 1 hour, see where I'm at and just deal with it. Time to go all in.
I jump several gears, stand and crank, determined to ride as fast as I possibly can for 1 hour. I find myself riding like the single speeder I have been for over 12 years, rarely sitting while turning a big gear. The familar rhythm of climbing out the saddle restores some speed and confidence. This is fun again. The relatively steady grade, while most definitely up, is not overwhelmingly steep. The miles pass. Hope flickers.
About 45 minutes into this effort, I stand to clear a short, steeper pitch and bear all my weight repeatedly on the pedals. SNAP! Something breaks, hurtling me onto the top tube. Surveying the carnage, I find only a broken chain. The rest of the drivetrain, and the bike, looks OK. But I am not. I'm mad, and then despondent. I have no time for this.
Just then, Dave Mizelle powers up to help. I bark, "I'm OK. I broke a chain. I have the tools and the know how to fix it. Get on your bike. I'm not going to be responsible for you not making the cutoff." Taken back a bit, Dave graciously offers a helpful tip and pedals off. I'm sorry, Dave, for being so rude. I wanted you to make that cutoff. I thought my race was over.
I carefully examine the chain and remove two links, one broken and one twisted. Rather than replace them, I decide to just pop on a spare PowerLink to save time. The chain will be a little shorter, but I have no use for those easy gears anyhow.
Back on the bike, I expect to channel that negative energy directly into climbing fiend mode. But my mojo is gone. My legs have no strength. I cannot find a rhythm. My speed drops back into single digits. My addled mind keeps running numbers that sound impossible to achieve. I slip away.
Although I'm still turning pedals, it is without passion, without focus, without joy. I'm done. I can't make it. It's too much, for too long. Soft-pedaling to an intersection, I stop to confirm directions from the cue sheets and then just slump over the handlebars. Resignation reigns. I offer a short prayer of thanks for the day, for all the folks who helped make this day possible, and for the opportunity to share this day with them. A burden lifts.
As I'm about to remount, two cyclists streak by, Amy and Randall Smith in an all out pursuit of the summit. Hey, they must think they can still make that cutoff. They would not be working that hard otherwise. Is it possible? Really?
Suddenly, I don't care what my mind says about the numbers, or what my legs say about my strength. My heart says go for it. I jump back in the game, spending whatever it takes to keep those tail lights in sight. It hurts. A lot. But I'm back. And I'm not losing those lights.
After a few miles, I check my watch. Is it possible? Really? For the first time in a long time, I think maybe. After what feels like several more miles, I check my watch again. Not a minute had passed, as if time itself stopped. What? In a race to catch a cutoff, time now had no meaning. Stop thinking. Keep pushing. Don't lose those lights.
I round a corner and, to my amazement, see the lights of the Trailshead Lodge in the not-too-far-off distance. I jump another gear, now in a full sprint, head down in the drops. Abruptly, the gravel road turns to asphalt and I fly into the parking lot to rousing cheers from a handful of volunteers. 9:57 pm. After nearly 17 hours of racing, I made Checkpoint 4 by all of 3 minutes. Wow. Did that really just happen?
The finish line is 35 miles away, with some hills, rocky double track and other challenges. But this is an all out celebration on the bike, with cascading memories of sharing similar experiences with so many friends over the years. All of them were with me then. New friends, too. A party on wheels.
The finish line appears almost too soon. It's 1:00 am, but there's still a raucous gathering of folks to cheer me in. The last place finisher. 19 hours and 58 minutes. What a day.
|207 miles of Black Hills gravel, 12,000+ feet of elevation gain, 1 broken chain and 19 hours 58 minutes later, I'm finally back at the Spearfish City Park at 1:00 am. I still need to thank someone for those Finish Line tacos and potatoes.