I flew to Oregon to race the Cascade Cycling Classic. For the U.S. professional, the event in and around Bend is arguably one of our country’s most prestigious events. For the amateur, it is –well, really hard. For a guy from Flatsville Illinois, it is –well, even more hard. The first stage, the road race, consisted of one seventy mile loop around the Bachelor Mountain ski resort at about 6100 feet above sea level. To begin the race, we would descend approximately 2000 feet, race over a few elevated bumps on the valley floor, and then climb back up the mountain’s base for a total race elevation of roughly 3300 feet. Randy, Taylor and I pre-rode the last ten up-hill miles of the course the day before, and we discovered its steepest pitches to be around seven to nine percent. Most of the climb, however, was a gradual four to six percent grades, not exactly the best type of climb for me. I would have preferred something to force people into the small ring for the entire ten miles. Snow fell from a patchy blue sky as we prepared to pre-ride, and I immediately wished I had warmer clothes for our initial descent. The ride would be ten miles down and ten back up. The landscape offered views of snow-capped mountain peaks, crystal blue lakes, lush green forests and lots of large deer with massive antlers. After we turned around midway into our reconnaissance ride, our hopes of warming up wile climbing dissipated as an ominous cloud let pea-size hail fall all over the road and onto us. Randy and Taylor jumped into the van before the worst of the squall, but I began to enjoy the climb so pedaled on. Fifteen minutes later, I was off the road taking shelter under a rock overhang. The van came along and I scrambled in.
110 guys queued to start; impressive as the Cascade amateur events are not held under a USAC permit and only organized by the Oregon Bike Racing Association. I felt like I had rolled into another dimension here on Mt. Bachelor, and with all the racers coming from Colorado, Idaho, California and Utah, it didn’t take me long to convince myself that these guys would be “Forte.” The last time I had climbed anything over 100 feet, or anything of significance, was this past June at the Tour of Galena, which was also before a stuff-my-face-with-French-pastries trip to Paris with my wife. I had one block of training in my legs since Paris, and now I could only hope that it would be enough because the whistle just blew. We plummeted down off the base of the mountain.
Coach Randy told me to make sure I was at the front fifteen miles in, where the road leveled off, turned, and then narrowed. As we neared 50 mph through the twists and turns, I waited for a moment where I could complete my first task. The pack was fluid and comfy, even as cross winds hit all the deep dish wheels. While looking up into the pack, I could see racers’ elbows flap with precision adjustments according to how the wind blew at the bikes. The peloton sailed swiftly down the mountain, the wind roaring, wheels droning in the background, eagles watching from above.
As riders echeloned to the left, I used the right side to position myself within the top fifteen. The road turned and narrowed as we funneled in and proceeded deeper into the forest. The pace was high, but not high enough to dissuade attacks. As individuals attempted these, one and then two riders would always immediately grab hold, with more guys grabbing hold of them so that eventually the front of the race resembled a human tow rope pulling a mess of men and carbon. For roughly 20 miles this happened with me sitting often in the top ten positions. On occasion, I was the third or fourth rider to follow attacks. It’s definitely more efficient to sit in the pack while the attack game is played, but then if an attack sticks, and racers break away, you have less control over the race’s outcome. In the event of a break getting away, I don’t enjoy being in the pack waiting for teams to chase, if they chase, and nor do I like being one of the racers to organize the chase without teammates. In any case, my actions were such that if a break occurred, I would make sure I got involved sooner before later, and as an aggressor, not the chaser. As the race wore on, we encountered a few hills, but nothing that required anyone to expend lots of energy. I remained alert and rode with restrained aggression, until after we approached the last right hand turn of the race course, where four racers did manage to put a sizable gap on the bunch, which is also evidence to show that my nose was not out in the wind for too long of periods. (As further evidence, and as I attempt to convince myself that I was racing smart, another small group had snuck away in front of them, unbeknownst to me.) Lead group; chase one; peloton.
The bunch turned right and continued down a long stretch of flat, straight highway, and we could see the little group ahead drift further and further away, so that eventually, the lead vehicle swung left to allow them to pass, and then floated back into the right lane, dropping a curtain and stopping any visual contact. I was the third wheel at the moment, and was becoming increasingly nervous. I looked around as folks ate and drank. I looked behind and ninety or so mirrored lenses stared back. Presently, I did not have an awareness of my feelings, but I missed my teammates. I missed having someone there to tell me to relax and not worry, to come back into the fold. The peloton sat up and the pace slowed. I had instinctively moved into first position, but seemingly not by much intentional effort; am I in control? Without increasing too much power, I noticed I began to float off. First it was a bike length, then five meters, then ten. I looked back and without much effort, had gained twenty meters on the bunch, which meant the front of the group was not concerned about my move at the moment. They were currently not concerned with the break, and also not concerned with anyone who might feel obliged to bridge the gap. I got out of the saddle and pushed down the throttle. Lead: chase one, me, peloton.
As my distance between them grew, so grew the distance between the lead car and pack as it remained in front of me. Also, like before, as I reached the appropriate distance away from the group, the car swung left to allow me to pass, and then ducked in behind me. I liked this as I was now out of view. The car would now slow and drift back to just in front of the group. The group could now no longer keep track with certainty my advantage; I could once again just make out the group of four. I pedaled harder. Another bit of information I did not know at the moment, was that there were two lead cars for our race, and one of them held its position at the very front of the race, in front of the true race leaders. As I drove on, I occasionally looked back, monitoring how the vehicle became smaller and smaller, and also, how another rider had flown the coup just as I had done. I eased up slightly and after a few minutes was joined by another racer. We traded pulls, but I did most of the work by pulling longer and harder. One time he slipped off the back of my wheel. The group in front was now near, but the road also began to twist slightly. The minutes passed and when I looked back again, I was surprised to see yet another group of four coming on. Lead group: chase one: chase two: peloton.
I had been out for ten miles now and was grateful for the extra help upon their arrival, even though it meant pedaling hard and holding intense concentration. The few times I glanced over my shoulder, I could not see the lead car or the group. The break in front of us was nearer and it was no longer a matter of “if” but when. We caught the break, and I was informed of the other break up the road, the lead. We organized and rode well together. I never missed a pull, and each pull was as strong if not stronger than the others. There were eight or nine of us, but some riders did not do their share of work. The road began to undulate, reminding us that before the race ended, we would have to climb over 2000 feet within ten miles. I was thrilled. Focused on the job at hand, I forgot about the pack and the first break. Being a part of the break gave me an independent and dark type of faith in our work and its results, and I willingly experienced the pain with indescribable pleasure. I remembered reading once somewhere that the bike racer must be categorized in one of two ways: as one who most enjoys making others suffer, or as one who most enjoys hurting himself. We would arrive at the feed zone soon. For the past sixteen miles, my heart rate had averaged 180 beat per minute –very deep into my threshold. Soon after the feed, we would be on the slopes of Mt. Bachelor, where I would need to continue this same effort, and even go deeper. To date, my longest climbing effort had been one hour averaging the same heart rate. Today’s race, upon a hypothetical and successful completion, would be more than twice those efforts.
Randy’s brother Dean, and Dean’s wife Ginger were waiting for me off the side of the road with water bottles. After the feed, we drilled it up an incline. 186 bpm. We went single file and I slipped back after a pull. In two miles, we would begin the real climb. One of our allies attacked us, but presently I’m not sure why. We stretched out but still held together. Then another attack; I was delirious and off the back. I tried to reattach –out of the saddle, mouth gaping wide, legs filled with crud. They were looking back, as if assessing whether or not I had been dropped. I didn’t understand. I was confused. These moves were our last moments of breath –our death throes. They didn’t care about me, they cared about the tsunami behind them; the storm known as the peloton, ready to sweep us aside, wiping the road clean of trouble. Lead group: peloton.
I knew to sit in and get ready to climb. I was in the middle of the front of the bunch. I needed to switch gears because the one I was in was too hard. After switching, my cadence went too high and I lost speed, slipping back in the bunch. I shifted back down, but was not able to maintain speed. I lost more places. I did this gear dance once again, all the while losing places. We were now officially climbing; it was time to race. Panic filled me as if I were having a nightmare; it’s that one where you try to run from evil but keep falling down. I tried to stay in the group but could not. I was slowly dying. When I looked back, I found myself with the pieces of other shattered racers. I saw the long team vehicle caravan; I looked down at my bottles and shoes. I looked at my cog and chain. The sun was out, and the pines were gorgeous. I heard the wind whisper threw them. Complete beauty. I recognized where we rode yesterday on our recon ride. They left me. I was hyper-sensitive to this real reality, but I had no more panic, no more alarm bells. There were no back-up plans while in this deep. I had been under too long and was in need of breath. I breathed.