So I started this stage with piss all over the front of my pants.
We were supposed to "regroup" after a neutral rollout, and a bunch of us - having been properly attentive and positioned well - were caught trying to helicopter the last bits of urine out of our turgid bladders while the race started without us.
The loss of the front group was compounded by the loss of whatever shred of dignity I still possessed.
And the race hadn't even goddamn started yet.
I untangled Dan Chabanovs bike, held it out for him, and like proper cyclocrossers we mounted up and sprinted through the backwards waterfall of riders not interested in picking up what Pete Glassford was putting down.
It was a mess. Just like any other race, everyone's a hero for 10 minutes. Because the best time to allocate what few watts remain after 5 days of racing is 5 minutes into a 45 mile stage. When things finally shook out, I was in a group of the usual suspects - Aaron, Andy, and Jon. This was acceptable, as they have proven over several days to be excellent travelling companions.
Today, however, our little group was going to get shook up.
For starters, there was a truly vile little section of uphill singletrack of such pine-needly steepness we were almost immediately forced to dismount and run.
Which, after about 3 minutes, became a walk.
And after another 3 minutes, became labored breathing and heavy cursing.
The cursing got significantly louder when Aaron Albright came charging up the trail - still riding - and passed us all.
This would be the first of many times Aaron passed me today.
In fairness, he bogged down slightly a few feet up the trail from us, and riding or walking, we were all sucking wind and shuffling along like a TSA line at the Newark airport.
I was gapped off slightly during the EnduRecovery section, but quickly regained the group before the second climb. The next few miles were uneventful, with a smattering of tricky rock sections and fat doubletrack to keep us on point. The next EnduRecovery was blazing fast and surprisingly easy to make a mistake that would allow you a much more intimate look at the surrounding foliage.
Sometime around now I think we lost Andy and Jon.
Meaning Aaron and I were headed into the biggest climb of the race on our own.
The climb is a monster - 1300 feet of elevation spread out over 6 miles, with half (the easy half) on a dirt road and the rest on an unrelenting, slightly rutted, grassy hellscape that stretches out over what I am sure is a delightful view of the valley below.
Aaron and I took turns encouraging/ pulling each other, and were rewarded by the appearance of the Timmerman group just ahead.
We pushed on.
At great length, with more grunting than a group of Cro Magnons playing with a Rubiks Cube, we hitched on to the back of the pain wagon. We acquired Jorge and Dans Harmons Thighs, and dropped Albright, though Timmerman (without even glancing around) immediately responded and broke clear, towing (I think) Drew Dillman.
Eventually the climb ended, and we were rewarded by the most stressful descent of the entire week.
Littered all over the screaming fast, winding fireroad were barely-visible waterbars.
Normally, waterbars are things that bring great joy and much air time, but at those speeds, and without warning, they are murderous, horrifying landmines.
As young Jorge was about to find out.
He and Dans Thighs decided that my pace down Mt. Shityourpants was a bit too leisurely, and forged on ahead.
They never saw the waterbar in the apex of a blind left hand corner.
As I passed, Dan was off his bike, yelling.
Jorge was nowhere to be seen.
Aaron rolled up to me - having heard more of what Dan was trying to communicate - and said that Jorge had been ejected over the top of the watebar and was somewhere in the woods below.
It was like someone tossed a bucket of ice water over my head.
As bike racers, crashes are something we are unfortunately quite familiar with, from the last corner of a crit to the treacherous rocks lining leaf-covered singletrack, we have all had a taste of what gravity can do to the unwary.
But big crashes - off of the road, high speed crashes - are something else entirely.
Footage of riders unresponsive, surrounded by spectators and marshals, elicit universal, reflexive loathing by the racing community for a reason. We know, that for all of our skill, experience, and precautions, that it could be us or someone we love down there.
We were already almost a minute past the crash site, so we gingerly rode down to the first checkpoint to alert the marshals.
Luckily, Jorge was (mostly) uninjured, and actually finished the stage just a few minutes behind me.
Because when you're 18, you can hit a tree at 25 miles an hour and laugh about it.
I didn't know this at the time, of course, so I was still a little freaked out when I entered John Wirt.
A trail that does not allow for even a moments inattention.
It took a few minutes to find my rhythm, during which time both Aarons dropped me like I was an ant-covered hot dog. (2nd time, if you're counting)
I wended my way through the choppy, lineless rock gardens, making (I suppose) a reasonable showing of it. Though I was unceremoniously booted off my bike once, sitting hard on my stem and squealing like a toddler eating jello for the first time, but other than that, things went fairly well.
The 3rd EnduRecovery section was also uneventful, allowing me to physically (and mentally) prepare for the assault on Tussey.
The long, lonely road climb has in the past been a source of great awfulness and sorrow for my legs. But because I'd been EnduRecovering, I was well rested for the exposed blacktop and crushed gravel leading up to the ridge. In fact, I was able to reel in Dans Thighs (and another guy I didn't recognize). Knowing my place, I went to the front, peeling off to allow them access to the singletrack once we crested the road.
The final climb into (and off of) Tussey is aggressive. Not particularly steep, it makes up for its lack of gradient with an incredible variety of pointy rocks placed strategically in front of your front tire at all times.
The ridge itself was, as always, gorgeous.
No matter how hard this race gets, the unique features and spectacular vistas of this part of Pennsylvania are able to snap you out of focus and redirect your attention with their singular beauty.
Which occasionally results in a flat tire, as Aaron Albright had just discovered.
I also passed one Drew Dillman, also futzing with his bike.
I allowed them both past me (3 TIMES, AARON. 3!!) so I could properly EnduRecover after the grundle-denting slog off the back side of the ridge.
Just before the final aid station, I passed a jogging Payson McElveen. Noting that while Payson is probably a decent runner, he is significantly faster on a bicycle (he was, in fact, winning), I shrugged and pushed through the last checkpoint.
I could see Aaron just ahead.
And I could see Drew Dillman towing a dumptruck full of watts up to us.
We wisely waited for that train to pull into the station.
The group was mighty: Drew, Payson, Dans Thighs, and Aaron made for a very hurty last few miles. Drew and Payson gradually made life intolerable enough for us to reexamine many of our life-choices, and we let up just as my vision was starting to shut down. We caught a slowly dying Aaron Oakes, who - in a moment of reflexive, browned-out race brain - thought it would be a good plan to follow Paysons shiny yellow jersey.
Aarons couch was almost immediately violated.
Abandoned by the Aarons, Dans Thighs and I forged ahead, catching a dying Dillman, pushing chain through the interminable last few miles - up the hated mulchy fenceline climb, down some unmowed grassy sadness, and (finally) across the line.
It was good enough for 6th.