Over at Raw Talent Ranch, Jay Moglia has crafted a Thoreau-esque essay on the Gran Fondo experience that I'll not try to match.
That not try to match part, that's something I've learned in the three years I've been on a bike. There are some efforts you just don't try to match. You watch them go, you settle in, and you do what you can within the bounds of the red line.
We were 60 miles in and approaching a dirt climb of several thousand feet, the only way to get back into Harrisonburg, and I was sitting on Keck Baker's wheel. Keck has, in fact, been one of my most insistent instructors on the lesson I mentioned, the one about not even trying. So I didn't try to follow Keck when he leaped away at the base of the climb. None of us did, our small group that had come away out of the previous riser with its finishing gradient around 20%.
We rolled the gravel and our chips tripped the clocks on the timing device that would measure how long it took to summit this, the biggest and maybe baddest peak I'd ever done. I settled in behind Curtis Winsor, the main group about two hundred meters back. An elderly woman with feathers in her helmet was up ahead--how she got ahead, I wasn't sure--walking her bike through the mist. I later learned that she finished four hours after we did, an hour before sunset, a total ride time of something like 9 hours.
Into the base of the climb Jeremiah Bishop came sprinting past, hands on the drops, fully out of the saddle in the way you're not supposed to be able to do on gravel. He passed us and continued sprinting up toward Keck. I stayed on Curtis' wheel, wondering how long I should try. I watched Jeremiah catch Keck, and slowly, despite Curtis setting a fierce pace, the two of them vanished beyond. "This is the hardest part," Curtis said as we approached a rutted incline and instantly, I had popped.
Drops of sweat fell from me like condensation from an air conditioner, and I wheezed about as loud as one, but there was nothing cool about me. I advanced and halted with each push of the pedals.
I tried to think of where I was on the mountain, climbing its left shoulder, so small and wrapped in its surface I could not see the edge, the bottom, or the top. But I could hardly think, except to say to myself to keep going.
Now there were the riders stopped, heaving and furious as I passed. To some, I said, "the top's not far, I hope." They did not try to respond. Then the climbers came by, juniors limber and dancing on the pedals despite the loose surface. They passed and I did not try to respond.
Someone had spraypainted humorous vignettes in the dirt: "Kiss and Hurt Ahead" "Jeremiah Sucks" "You thought this would be easy?" It levelled off, and suddenly I could turn over the gear, and I was flying upwards, passing Pascal riding in Sven Nys's Landbouwkrediet jersey--a sign, I had thought, that he was a fred, but as it turned out, was an actual Landbouwkrediet jersey given to Pascal by a team rider.
As much as the uphill had silenced my brain, the descent awoke it. I thought of Nutella on waffles. I thought of my own luck at being alive and healthy, and, more specifically, no longer suffering from the climb. I was grateful this was no race, where I was speeding toward something, but just a descent where I could enjoy the energy I'd given to gravity and the energy it was now returning to me.