Monday, May 18, 2009

Conestoga: Circle the F-ing Wagons, It's a Genocide

Yes, I am aware of the many levels on which this title is offensive.

(1) The Conestoga-towing settlers, and not the wagon-encircling natives, perpetrated the genocide.

(2) While borderline cases of genocide (e.g., Armenians, Palestinians, etc.) are hotly contested by scholars and advocates alike, amateur cycling events aren't even in the running. To liken a hilly bike ride through the woods to the wholesale slaughter of an ethnic group is to inflate the currency of persecution. I guess it's like saying you got raped by your cell phone contract. The price of gas is not a holocaust. I get it.

(3) The F-bomb is always offensive.

But you're reading, aren't you? You're reading. I learned that little trick from one Ann Coulter. Thanks, baby. I owe you a drink, but nothing more. Nothing more, I say!

Seriously, though... the Conestoga Challenge lived up to its name. No wagons in sight, but plenty of obstacles, both external and self-inflicted. Foremost among these were the 20% grades. 20% is just a number. It doesn't sound all that bad. I mean, it's only a 4:1 ratio of over to up. It could be a lot worse, like a 1:4 ratio, for instance. But I suggest you try it. Stand up and hammer in your 39x25 for awhile. That's right. Actually feels pretty good for a few kicks, doesn't it? Now repeat until you taste blood in your throat.

Someone in the 3/4 race snapped his rear derailleur cable and got it stuck in his 12 cog in back. Up the sharpest hills, he ran with his bike, and by his own accounting, lost little to no ground on the 3/4 field. Yeah. Not a bad idea, actually.

Take those 20% grades, and throw in some screaming descents on narrow, sharply-crowned and pothole-ridden roads. Cross some poorly-marked, bewildering intersections and turn tightly against camber at the bottom of 50-mph bomb-fests. Add a straight, slightly uphill section with a 15-20 mph breeze in your face, and there you go. All the makings of Little Bighorn.

The 4/5 race had 60 starters, a massive group on narrow roads, with the yellow-line rule in effect throughout. After a neutral start I was near the back of the pack with Gregg, violently alternating braking and pedaling as the pack kept bunching up and, just as quickly, stretching out. Minor gaps up front kept expanding through the pack and whipsawing those of us near the back. It was impossible to ride smoothly in that congested, messy accordion, but I did my best.

Turning up a 10%+ grade, riders in front launched an attack, and just at that moment, someone flatted in the middle of the peleton, directly in front of Gregg and myself. With bikes and bodies bumping all around us, we steered out into the grass and around the mess, safe from the crash. Only now the first 30 riders had a 50-meter gap and on a brutal hill. Gregg and I jumped hard, and we made the front group, but at a cost. My legs were like, "Here's your pound of flesh, boys."

I was in the top 5% of my heart rate range for nearly the next 10 minutes, hanging off the back of the pack and climbing back on. Gregg was gone. I nearly missed a turn crossing a tricky intersection, was gapped while descending cautiously (i.e., poorly), and then dropped hard on the next big climb. We stragglers were all breathing like racehorses.

Spectators camped out at the sharpest inclines, urging us on. Even though they were mainly interested, I think, in seeing a human being explode before their very eyes, it was cool to have fans. I wish some of them had been running beside us shirtless, with pitchforks, antler-helmets, bodypaint, and such. But if that's not going to happen, I'll take nice, neighborly Pennsylvania folks on lawn chairs over the usual audience of locusts and cowbirds.

Back to the race... The bike twenty yards in front of me missed a sharp right turn. I don't blame the rider. I saw no markers anywhere, though my vision was so narrow at that point, I would have missed an illuminated billboard for free hookers and blow. (Not that I'm into that sort of thing *cough* Tom Boonen *cough*.) But I followed him and we rode for nearly four miles off the course before realizing our error and doubling back.

This is what I meant by "self-inflicted" obstacles. The worst part about Conestoga was not the 20% grade on the course. It was the 20% grade *off* the course that I didn't actually have to do.

Turns out, we were not the only ones. We hooked up with some other lost souls after doubling back, both of whom had taken different routes out for a couple of miles and back.

I knew my race was over, but I had paid my entry fee, packed up early and driven over two hours, and there were still these lost guys to beat, right? The will to power is strong with me. (Nevermind wattage. My Will-to-Power-Tap readings are off the scale.) So I hammered. And yeah, I didn't see those three guys again. Ah, the sweet taste of victory.

Up the worst of the hills the next time round, I saw the police escort's lights flashing from behind me. It was the 3/4 race, and I thought, "With this grade, I bet it's Rugg on a break". Yep. Rugg had at least 100 yards on the field, which was only like six or seven people by now. Yeah, that's right. Field shattered.

Rugg looked effortless, floating by me on the 15-20% grade, not so much an angel of death as a kid riding his bmx around the cul-de-sac. I handed him a bottle of water and told him he looked strong, which wasn't the right thing to say. He looked easy.

I pulled over when the five or six riders in the peleton came by and I saw that my brother wasn't there. What? Calvini dropped? Doubtful. An accident? Possible. But these were all 3's chasing Rugg, who is, by all accounts, a freak on hills. Polka-dot man. None of the five or so Shirks guys who started was there. Wow. Maybe my brother really was dropped. I mean, the rest of the field was gone, wasn't it?

When I crossed the line in full asthmatic attack, feverish and coming down with a cold -- full-blown illness at the time of this writing -- I saw my brother there cheering me in. He had indeed been dropped, despite throwing down some massive wattage numbers and hitting 50 mph on the downhills to catch back on. Insane.

End of the story... Some beastly rider bridged up to Rugg on the flats and helped him stay away from the field, then jumped at 200 yards to go and held it to the line.

In sum:

Gregg: valiant, but dropped
Me: cracked, lost, destroyed
Calvini: dropped, despite riding well
Rugg: wrecked nearly everyone
Conestoga: genocidal

My plan to win next year:

1. Starve and train til I have Andy Schleck's watt-to-kilo ratio.
2. Nurture an indifference to death.
3. Know the course.

That's definitely do-able.


Brian said...

You two have authored some top-notch write-up recently. Keep up the good work!

I think I speak for the majority of your audience--by virtue of being the majority of your audience.

qualia said...

Majority of one. I'll take it! Thanks Brian!

Anthony S. said...

Cool photos man!

Calvini said...

Those are great photos, Anthony. I saw you out there, as I've seen you out there in PA for a while.

I bought some of your prints last year...I think at Turkey Hill...of my brother in his first big race. He looked totally spent and hilarious, and you captured it perfectly. I had to pony up for that.

Keep it up, man.

Tim Rugg said...

Oh, this is GREAT - I wrote a full account of the race up - but it's not nearly as fun to read as this!