After properly (though perhaps over) executing my plan for yesterday (taking it easy vs riding like a meth-addled gorilla), today was the day to get after it. I was going to embed myself like a tick in the lead group, and not drop off until I was turgid with their watts. My legs felt good, I was reasonably confident in my fitness, and I was mentally ready to suck wheel like a champion.
Of course, if everything went according to plan, none of you would be interested in reading this nonsense.
After a "neutral start" (which went exactly how you think it did), we lined up again across the highway. The leaders of all the categories were called to the front, there was much jostling and jockeying for position, and then the race started.
For the uninitiated, the simplest definition a peloton is a group of cyclists riding together. They will take turns in the wind, sheltering behind other riders, and executing tactical plans talked about at great length beforehand.
By any measure or reasoning, the drifting, chopping, surging human Katamari ball roiling down the dusty crushed gravel road was a peloton in only the most generous interpretation of the definition.
We alternately sprinted and coasted down the (surprisingly non-selective) dirt road, arriving at the one rider wide "holeshot" in a 60 strong group.
Who all somehow managed to get in front of me.
Slotting in to the barely-moving conga line with Mr. Matt Timmerman, we alternately softpedaled and walked (!) our bikes to the first enduro section.
Because there is nothing safer than being mid pack in a group of panicking, over-enthusiastic xc dorks trying to catch back on to a lead pack of ultra-elite, hyper competent xc dorks.
Matt and I dropped in behind Crystal Anthony (you know, Jesses sister*) and began making reasonable progress.
Until the guy in front of Crystal, instead of veering right and following the (clearly marked) trail, decided to go straight into a pile of deadfall.
There was a long moment. In that moment, the dude up front crashed out, Crystal went over her bars, and me and Matts bikes tried to mate with one another.
Also in that moment: so. many. people. passing.
Extricating my front wheel from Matts rear triangle, I dove back into the chute. I panic-sprinted up to a group containing Al Donahue, a guy in a Bike Express kit whos name I should be able to remember, and Mycal Dick.
Who is SO LEGIT.
She towed us around for a solid ten minutes. During that time, I never felt particularly inclined to go any faster. Nor was anyone gaining on us. Things went well until the combination of Mr. Bike Express grabbing a bunch of brake and me sitting way too close to his wheel resulted in me finding the pointiest 10 rocks in Pennsylvania to go over my bars into.
At which point I was caught by the NEXT group, led by a smiling Vicki Barclay, who politely asked me to get out of the way so she could go ahead and win the stage.
Which of course she did.
Sadly, I am not nearly as rad as Vicki, and from my current position I could see - way off in the distance - my hopes and dreams for this stage on fire against the shimmering green line of the ridge.
I reeled in Al, who said - and I quote - "no offense, but I'd rather ride with Ellen".
I looked for another partner in sloggery, incrementally hauling myself up to the Dan Chabanov Group. Which was unenthusiastic about the configuration and variety of head-sized rocks and leaf-covered hollows on the seemingly endless climb up to the first aid station.
The stage alternated between interminable climbing, tomahawking your way through nigh-unnavigable rock gardens, and sphincter-clenching fall lines.
It was in one of those gardens of spiteful granite that I caught up to some Colorado guys.
Who were NOT PSYCHED about the Bicycle Pushup Contest they had been engaged in for the last 3 miles. I offered to take the lead, hoping I would have a lean wattage-mule for the next road section.
Surprised at my ability to move up through the field (and simultaneously saddened by my lack of a riding buddy), I continued to apply watts where they were needed and brakes where they mattered. My motto for the stage became "go hard on the easy stuff, and easy on the hard stuff" - I rode the enduro sections like a mobility-challenged octogenarian, but tried to consolidate what little horsepower I could muster for the smoother stuff and the climbs.
This strategy had the unintended consequence of allowing me to really enjoy some of the singletrack on the stage. Because it was glorious. I was the Loam Ranger, weaving in and out of fern beds and around beautiful low pine forest. The forearm-destroying rocks went from an impediment to a puzzle to be solved, a challenge to float over instead of chop my way through.
I started to lose focus, started to forget I was racing.
Which, I suppose, is the sign of a really well-constructed course.
Sadly, it wasn't all puppies and unicorns for the rest of the day.
Stillhouse Hollow, the climb I dubbed "God's Own Middle Finger" last year after a zombie-like shamble up its sanity-destroying slope, was still to be reckoned with.
And it was a reckoning.
In fairness, I contended with the first 1/4 of the climb quite well, riding within myself and keeping the cadence high.
Then I noticed someone in front of me.
And someone behind me.
The climb became an MC Escher painting, turning ever upwards, its end always out of sight. The rider ahead remained the same distance ahead, the rider behind remained the same distance behind. It was totally silent.
It continued this way for eons. Four new popes were elected. Glaciers collapsed into the sea. Stars were born and died.
But I started gaining on the rider ahead. And the rider ahead was Cody Kaiser. I could only assume that I was gaining on him because there were no stairs handy.
Slowly, wincingly, I passed him.
We grunted at each other, our language of heavy legs and hurting hands understood like words carved into headstones.
I was alone again.
My name is Michael; my whole life was lived on this slope. I was born on this climb, and I would die here.
Another rider, a helmet bobbing above drooping shoulders.
And just like that, it was over: the road leveled out, and I dropped into a crouch in an attempt to give gravity some payback.
I went into the last section of singletrack just behind the rider ahead, and was just out of sight when I heard him yelp.
He had cramped himself off his bike.
I rode in alone, against all reason and expectation somewhere in the top 10 on GC.
What a day.
What a goddamn day.
*the "Jesses sister" thing is, as I hope you know, a joke. Crystal is the real deal, and as rad a human as she is a bike racer.