(Written for the team’s website, hence the lack of curse words)
It was still dark but birds were chirping loudly just outside the open window, which let in a cool breeze scented with fresh rain. I heard The Sheriff (Michael Burleigh) stir in the bed next to mine. He’d been restless for the past two or three hours, yet his previous snoring was a sign of contented sleep that I’d jealously coveted the past seven hours while staring up at the ceiling. I hadn’t slept one single minute that night and it was now 5:08 AM. Almost time to get up and pack the van for the drive home to Colorado from Fayetteville, Arkansas.
I heard a groaning sigh as Michael got up and started stripping the sheets from his bed for the laundry. Screw it, another 20 minutes of lying there wasn’t going to make me feel any better, so I got up too.
“I didn’t sleep at all,” I said.
“I slept like shit too. The meat sweats. I had them baaad,” groaned Michael.
“Yeah, same here,” I replied. The hot room’s scent agreed.
We’d feasted on a half dozen different kinds of smoked, roasted, and grilled pork the night before during a large barbeque that our hosts had thrown for us. I’d say I ate a conservative six pounds of meat that night.
“You know what the really messed up thing is?” I asked. “I’m still hungry.”
“Yeah. Me too,” Michael agreed.
I ate pulled pork that morning and a long side of ribs that afternoon, wondering what was wrong with me. The mental agony of forcing down that meat and the havoc it was wreaking on my intestines was not lost on me. I guess eating mass amounts of pork products is a lot like bike racing. You enjoy the deliciousness of the moment, try to forget about the pain, and focus on the next few pedal strokes (or mouthfuls) to victory, all the while attempting to regret nothing and block out the knowledge that something bad could and probably will happen around the next bend. I take my pig-eating very seriously.
Last week we competed in the second NRC event of the season, the Joe Martin Stage Race. I’d say it’s one of my top four favorite NRC stage races, with its rolling hills, long stages, and difficult final day crit. I for one could do without the uphill time trial on day one though.
Our top guy for Thursday’s TT was guest rider Emerson Oronte, who placed a respectable 6th, just 8 seconds back from the winner, Jamis’ Gregory Brenes. Chris Winn put in a good time as well to finish 21st, while Josh Yeaton came in a respectable 34th out of the 165 starters. The three of us draft horses Jake Deuring, George Simpson, and myself), came in a few pages down on the old results sheet.
That brings us to the Sheriff, who we’d all secretly thought could take the win. His strategy was a bold one, vying for either first or last; no middle ground (for him, 50th might as well have been last). He set out guns a blazing but ran out of bullets half way up and went out in a flame of glory. Alas, he’d live on to fight another day. I could continue with these war-themed metaphors but I don’t have that much time to kill.
The second stage was a 108-mile jaunt through the Ozarks, which are considered “mountains” by east coasters and mid-westerners. With a GC rider to protect (Emerson), a sprinter to shelter (Josh), and three or four hard men to battle for the breakaway, I set out to fetch bottles and help position the guys as best as I could.
The first 30 or 40 kilometers were fast, with nothing able to last out in the wind for long. So far, my job had mainly been left unaccomplished. I’d done zero positioning for the team and I had only attacked twice. Instead of playing a part in the race, I was wallowing in self-pity near the back of the peloton. I’d received some difficult news from home a few hours before the start, and my futile attempt to put it behind me while we raced had come to an end. The roads turned slick with rain and my mood continued souring right along with the weather. When you’re suffering emotionally, it’s incredibly hard to muster up the mental focus needed to slog the old legs into action.
I drifted off the back on a short climb, not from exertion, but from pure uncaring. I was done. Done trying to deal with everything. For those readers who aren’t aware, my wife was struck by a car while riding her bike last fall and was in a comma for five days. The aftermath of that crash still follows her and I with every step we take, and dealing with it during training and racing is virtually impossible for me. That brings us back to that hill I was drifting backwards on in the rain. At that moment, I was done with caring and done with wanting to even try. I envisioned quitting the sport right then and there. My eyes welled with tears at that thought, because bike racing is my life and without it I’d just be another regular fool working a 9-5, pissing my years away behind a computer screen like I’m doing right now. Just ticking off the days of my pointless, boring existence.
We got to the top of the hill. I saw a couple other riders who were actually suffering, physically. Mouths agape, legs pushing agonizingly slow cadences, bodies rocking. Jesus, these guys suck, I thought. Can’t go off the back with them. That would be embarrassing. So I sprinted around them and caught back onto the pack, thinking that I’d drop out a few moments later.
Since I was already at the back, soon I found myself in the caravan taking a feed from Nick and Faith. Can’t drop out now, these bottles need to be delivered. I handed out the bottles, giving the last one to Emerson, who was near the front of the peloton. Since I’m already here, might as well attack. I followed one guy off the front, and we quickly caught two more up the road. I pulled through, weakly, and another rider came up from behind. Soon the five of us were rotating through and for a fleeting moment I thought this could be it. The move. Seven minutes ago I was about to drop out and ride back to the start by myself. Now I was off the front. Hope shimmered, temporarily. We were caught. It didn’t matter. I’d lifted myself out of the funk I was in and from there on out I was present in the race.
The real move got away a few kilometers later. Our boys lined up near the front behind Jamis and Orgullo Antioqueno to keep Emerson safe. Ha. There’s nowhere safe in a bike race. During a slight shuffling from another squad moving in on us from the left as we approached a downhill curve, Jake touched my rear wheel and went down hard, breaking his collarbone and taking out 30 guys with him. One moment was peace, the next was chaos. The worst part about at teammate crashing like that is that there’s nothing you can do to help. What other arena in life do you watch a friend smash to the pavement at 30mph, hear utter carnage and guttural curses, get word that bones have been broken, yet continue along without so much as a rearward glance? I’d gone to the back of the pack to wait for him in case he got back on, just in case. It didn’t account for much.
An hour later the final climb began. I wasn’t feeling great, but had enough oxygen in my brain to look up and take in the view and store away the moment in time as we crested the climb. We rose up into a thick cloud of fog. The bright colors of the peloton vanished 50 feet ahead of me in the suspended water droplets. As we began the descent, small rocks and grit flew into my eyes, which were uncovered by glasses since they were now too dirty and dark to see through. Brakes weren’t working at their finest, due to the slick roads and carbon rims. The bold blazed past and the meek continued grabbing brakes. I was among the later.
The 20-mile run-in to the finish was long, wide-open, packed with cars that were stopped on the left side of the road, never under 30 miles an hour, and terrifying. Trains moved up on the left, the right, and straight down the center. Riders began taking more and more risks to position for the final series of 90-degree corners in the last 1.5 kilometers. You have to be in the top 15 leading into that section if you plan on contesting the finish or getting the same time as the lead group. Everyone knows this.
I couldn’t seem to move up and regain contact with my teammates no matter where and when I tried. The pace only got faster as the finish line approached and my worthless meat pistons only grew more leaden. I entered that crucial left hander and was forced to jam on the brakes from a pile up in the middle of the road. I hoped up on the sidewalk to bypass it, but soon found myself stopped once again after seeing Michael go summersaulting over the pavement with his bike flipping over his head like a leashed surfboard flung high into the air after a big wipe out.
All at once, all the adrenaline, pain, hope, and excitement of the previous four hours vanished into the air. The race (our race) was over. I caught my breath. Still alive. George rolled up from behind and we helped Michael mount his battered steed for the final 500 meters. We rolled across the finish line and Michael went straight to the medical tent to get his wounds scrubbed. We regrouped with the rest of the team, bid farewell to Jake, who had been riding in the back of the race ambulance with a shattered clavicle for the past 2.5 hours without any pain meds or food, and began the short ride home.
Our somber mood lasted for an hour back at our host house…until Faith came home and started cooking. Food cures all, almost. Late that night we found out that Emerson had been docked 17 seconds for being held up in the crash, despite the 3K rule and despite his position in the top 20 when the crash happened. Our GC contention was essentially gone in the blink of a disgruntled official’s eye.
Saturday’s race was a complete turnaround, for me at least. The sun was shining, I’d resolved the personal issues from the following day, and my spirits were soaring. The course consisted of a lollypop out and back section with four 23-mile loops of a hilly circuit. We were in for another long one again, at 110 miles. Emerson was riding in a blind rage for the first half lap, trying to initiate a break since his GC prospects looked grim. The rest of the guys had good legs as well and Chris was following dangerous moves at the front. The break got away on the descent, of all places, so I was once again very content to do what I could in order to keep the rest of the team near the front and as fresh as possible.
That, of course, included a lot of time spent back in the caravan with Nick and Faith, loading up on bottles. My time with them wasn’t limited to bottles though. I got a mechanical on lap two and had to do a furious chase back onto the group before lap three’s climb, then I crashed and broke my bars a lap later.
I was uninjured but fuming mad. A couple stupid, ignorant, son-of a bitch, dumb bastards didn’t heed the warnings of the rest of the peloton when they signaled the parked cars on the left. So when the pinch came, they rode into each other and caused a mini pile up. I had to get a neutral bike from Shimano and by the time I was rolling, the peloton was five minutes up the road. I did the last 35 miles solo, going hard enough to make the time cut by a safe margin.
Later, I heard that the finish was once again sketchy as usual with guys riding off the road into ditches and being carted off in the ambulance. Another big crash within sight of the finish line caused carnage in the 80-rider pack, but Chris, Josh, Emerson, and Michael all stayed safe and finished in the same time as the leaders.
The final day of JMSR is always my favorite. The 85-minute crit is somewhat technical and includes a hard climb that shatters the pack in the final laps. Our goal was to get off the front once and for all, since there wasn’t much to lose at that point. Instead, we managed to ride in mass between 20th and 50th wheel, missing out on the break and not getting organized enough to position Josh for the uphill sprint. To be fair, it’s a hard course to accomplish an organized train. I for one was just holding on for dear life during the last two laps, and should have made a bigger effort to move up with five or six to go when it was still manageable.
Chris, Josh, Emerson, and I all finished within a few lengths of each other, coming in between 20th and 30th, which isn’t ideal. It shows an obvious strength in depth when you have that many riders finish just outside of the guys sprinting for the win. But to not catapult one of those guys into the top 10? That’s a bad performance.
My big take away from the stage was that despite how your teammates might say they feel or how they look like they’re riding, if your job is to help them in the finish, you might as well burn yourself with four laps to go in order to make sure they’re set up for a fighting chance.
Despite not landing the GC or stage result we’d hoped for, we ended up 5th on team GC and were once again the highest-placed amateur squad in the race. Emerson’s 15th GC at the end of the race is nothing to shy away from, even though we all know it was a top 10 in reality.
That night I had too many beers (four), too many pounds of meat (who knows), and just enough laughs to cancel out any negatives of the week. Jake’s collarbone will heal, Josh, Chris, and George will all get another chance to sprint for that elusive NRC stage win later in the season, Michael will bounce out of the slight funk he’s in to re-earn his title as The Sheriff, and I’ll keep taking baby steps towards my old self. The steps of an ungainly, freakishly large 9-foot tall baby that is. Above all, I re-found a bit of forgotten passion for this crazy, amazing lifestyle. It’s not wise to take it for granted. Appreciate the moment. Your next could be in the back of an ambulance, off the back of the race in emotional turmoil, or hunched in agony over the toilet three days after an over-indulgence in BBQ ribs, hoping and praying for the smallest trace of a bowel movement.
Face of said attempted bowel movement:
Photo courtesy of Bill Stephens