My first experience at Leland was in 2011 – the year of legend. When people were freezing to their bikes, and polar bears were attacking, and all that. I shouldn’t joke, the conditions really were dangerous and awful, but luckily I went early in the morning before the temps really dropped and the sleet started. I just had to contend with the gravel-paste, the nice clay we had to bike through for 40% of the race. It was freezing, windy, cold and I hate gravel of any kind, but it was a real mental win for me last year when I powered through it, a lot of it alone, and finished 5th. And I had a really good time in the process for some reason, so I had been looking forward to returning this year.

You know when you just feel it – those days that you are on, and everything goes perfectly, and you know you’re invincible? That wasn’t today. The previous week I had spent dealing with my swollen Popeye arm (what some people were calling it, sigh) from my Hillsboro crash, as well as two business trips in 3 days. I was absolutely exhausted when I got home Friday, and when the alarm went off Saturday morning before the sun even came up, the negative thoughts started creeping into my head: “you’re a crit racer, and this is a gravel road race – what are you doing?”

For those who don’t know Leland, it is a 25K flat course with 3 significant gravel sections. That plus the winds almost guarantee that the race will absolutely shatter. My race would consist of two laps of this and then a left turn down a long stretch to the finish. We got there nice and early and conditions were dry, chilly and windy. But it was sunny, and that almost seemed too nice for the battle ahead. I was just happy the gravel was dry. I had volunteered to take Tamara’s registration spot since she was still injured, and she was sending me the ever encouraging texts that I could eat this gravel for breakfast. We saw Ellen (our newest cat 3, hooray!) off in the W1/2/3 race, and then I went back to my car still completely confused about what to wear. I didn’t want to freeze, but I didn’t want to overheat either, and settled on just a jersey, arm warmers and vest. Not going to lie, my warm up consisted of me riding around in the parking lot for about 5 minutes, I just wasn’t feeling it. My plan was to camp out near the front but not on the front, and just keep my eyes open. This race can blow up in mere seconds.

We took off and were neutralized down the sprint stretch approaching the start of the lap, as groups from earlier races were coming around and they wanted to safely merge us in. Once on course, our lead car honked once to signify the start of racing, and the fun began. This was not Hillsboro – people were on the far side of the road in the other lane, ignoring the center line and trying to charge ahead. On top of that, things were a lot more physical in the pack. Moving all over the place fighting for positions, and I was on full defense mode protecting my bars like Randy teaches in skills clinics; exchanging some elbows and shoulders. This was enough to make up my mind that I would happily burn a match or two to get into that first gravel section near the front of the pack, not to attack but just for safety. Until then, I was quite content to move near the outside and grab Kristi Hanson’s wheel, a solid Spidermonkey who I know and trust as I couldn’t find Jess and Sandra in the chaos.

We had a few attacks, one strong one coming from Eleanor Blick, and I took off to go with her. We made a turn and both soon realized that what we thought was the start of the gravel section was actually farther down the course. She had the same plan as I – get to that gravel first. We tried to compare notes before getting lost in the pack, and a mile or so later, I started to recognize the course and knew exactly where we were. No time to mess around - I took off as hard as I could, only looking back once to see if everyone came with. I felt a wave of relief as I realized I was going to hit that gravel first, and thus could choose my line and my speed going in.

I hit the gravel and tried to steady myself. Gritting my teeth and trying not to stiffen up too much, I was cursing myself for choosing a shaky gravel race for my first race back after a crash. Ok, just breathe, keep going, this isn’t so bad. I was wondering how our resident cyclocross champion Sandra was doing behind me, and didn’t have to wait long to find out. People always seem to advise that the key to winning Leland is being first into the gravel. I’m sure that is true 99% of the time. I was pretty pleased with myself for being first in until the entire contingent of the Chicago Cross Cup blew by me. “Freaking cross racers!” I thought in my head, and tried to pedal faster. Ellie, who I am learning this year to be one of the nicest people in bike racing, cheered as she zoomed by “great job Sue! Keep it up!” Sigh. Doing a little evaluation, I realized I was seriously feeling not well and started worrying that I wouldn’t be able to even finish this race with the pack. Trying to shove those thoughts aside, I transported myself back to Gapers when I thought I was completely done and then still managed to pull off numerous attacks and a crazy sprint, and kept forcing myself to keep up. When you don’t think you can go on – you can. So do it.

That section of gravel seemed to go on FOREVER. I was getting so tired of it when we finally hit pavement. Thank goodness, I quickly got back into my normal position near the front and found we still had a great deal of people with us. I overheard Ellie saying that she thought the third section of gravel would have a tailwind, and that would be the place to attack. Most of the attacks were either dying out on their own or being caught. We hit the second gravel section in what seemed to me like only moments after we left the first, and this time I noticed had a strong tailwind pushing us along. I made note of that too, and quickly looked for Ellie, curious if she would attack here. Back on the pavement, we were a bit more strung out and then it was into the third gravel section. I was about 8 or 9 wheels back, and we were all in a line. There wasn’t a tailwind, but I looked up and saw the front girls charging away. And the girl in front of me, who had kept up the rest of the time, started letting a large gap open. I sat there a few more seconds seeing if the attack would die, and of course it didn’t. Reality hit me like the Hillsboro pavement – this is it. That is the break, and you are being dropped. You now either dig deep and put in everything you’ve got to catch those girls, or you will be racing for scraps. And I charged.

I chased the rest of the gravel section. I saw people falling off, I felt my legs burning, but I kept going, carefully picking my way around exhausted riders. We finally hit pavement, and to the lead ladies’ credit, they did not slow down. Neither did I, and I just kept fighting and fighting both physically and mentally. I kept telling myself just GET there, get there, and you can rest, and enjoy a draft, and it will be ok, and for as close as I was, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. But I refused to give up and put in another hard effort, and I suddenly found myself at the back of the four remaining attackers, and what riders at that.

Eleanor Blick, who won the Gapers overall and who I’ve spent time with in a break before. Excellent. Kristi Hanson again, a strong rider who definitely knows the way of the rotating paceline. Christina Peck, who I don’t have much experience racing with but I know she is well respected in the Cat 4 peloton, and Mara Baltabos, probably an unknown rider to most of the Cat 4 group but who I have lots of experience with as we battled for the overall at Fall Fling last year. She is solid, and that girl has NO fear of sitting on the front of a group driving the pace. I could not have had better breakmates and looking over my shoulder, knew that if we organized, there was no way we would be caught. Kristi vocalized this immediately and called us to a rotating paceline to take quick strong pulls and then recover. No matter what the experience level in our little break, everyone picked up on it quickly and we worked extremely well together as we started lap #2.

In the gravel sections, completely unplanned, we worked out a nice little system where someone would take a long pull at the front, drop off to the left into area a bit more compacted from the left tires of car traffic, and move back over to get in back. I know bike racing can be so strange, where you work together with these wonderful people just to know you’re eventually going to have to turn on them to try to win, but we were a pretty cohesive unit. I think everyone was just happy to have the teamwork getting us through the race, and it was further improved when a strong junior named Carson joined our paceline (we could work together because we started at the same time). He was with us for a while and then took off in the third gravel section, and I was curious to see if anyone would go with him, but we all stuck together, content with the company and worn out. I started mentally talking myself up for what was to come: this was going to be a sprint, and I like sprinting, and if I position myself right…

Approaching the final turn where confusion has happened in the past, Mara was on the front. I thought this might be her first time racing Leland, and yelled “Mara, go left” as some riders make the right to go back into the feed zone and do another lap. I believe she rotated off as we turned and I prepared for pain, but no one went yet as we were still far away. I was either 4th or 5th, and it was perfect – exactly where I wanted to be. I stayed close and Christina was on the front, not wanting to be there but none of us would go around. She kept waiting, and waiting, and we all were waiting and waiting, and I could see the two little neon orange dots in the distance that were the parking cones on each side of the finish line slowly getting bigger. Patience…steady…in the drops…

The next part happened so fast, and it was just instinct taking over. Christina went into the drops, and as I expected, Mara came flying past me all out, causing Christina to really drop the hammer. I was ready for this and jumped on Mara’s wheel, and then it was a blur. I can’t remember exactly but I remember the cones, I remember the line, and I remember thinking – it’s a ways out still, but you must go NOW. I stood up and went around, and just kept going as hard as I could. I was waiting to sense someone on either side of me, but I didn’t, and the line was still getting closer. In my all-out effort, all I could focus on was that line, and getting to it, drowning out everything else around me. In the final seconds, I remember thinking “I might just pull this off” when I saw motion to the right of me as Ellie pulled into sight. NO! Just…a few more…AUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGHHHH. I was actually yelling from the effort at this point, and knew a bike throw could be crucial, and next thing I know I crossed the line. First, by about half a bike length. There were a few seconds of absolute shock and disbelief “I did NOT just win LELAND?!?” and then suddenly it hit me. Screaming at the top of my lungs, fist pumping down that entire stretch, almost tearing up from sheer emotion. Normally the first thing I do after the finish line is look for my teammates, or my breakmates, and congratulate everyone, but today, I took a liiiittle extra time for myself to shout like a crazy person down that long stretch. Then I stopped, turned, and the five of us met for congratulatory high fives and appreciation of all the hard work everyone did during the race. It was finally starting to sink in when Sandra came barreling across the finish line not too far behind us, and asked how I did, and I just raised one finger. She looked at me and more screaming commenced.

Of course Tamara was the first person I called to let her know I did her registration spot proud, and it was so fantastic to spend the rest of the morning celebrating with all the xXx men and women who braved Leland, as well as get our traditional women’s team group victory photo after the podium. Leland is such a fantastic and unique race that everyone should experience. I may always hate gravel, but I will always love Leland.