Chris, Ben, Jesse, and I line up for the combined Pro/1/2 and 3’s races. The race plan is simple (so simple that it probably doesn’t qualify as a race plan): stay at the front of the race for the first lap and improvise from there. With several pro’s and strong cat 1’s in the race we know that there will be little left of the field after the first lap. As expected the field starts breaking up as soon as we hit the first gravel section. I’m around 12th wheel at this point, which is too far back (Chris is further back with an as yet undiagnosed mechanical problem. This is really a shame because Chris is feeling great). Eight riders go off the front and the riders directly in front of me do not respond to the attack. I’m initially boxed in and by the time I’m able to maneuver to the front the attacking riders have a sizeable gap.
I put in a hard pull and look back to see if anyone is on my wheel. Ryan Freund (last year’s winner) is there. We start trading pulls in an attempt to bridge the gap. A mile or two later Ryan surprisingly falls off the pace. I’m alone but I can see a small group of riders not that far ahead of me (I think they are the leaders). As I close in on these riders I notice that there are only four or five of them and that there are several other riders further up the road. I ride by the first group hoping that at least one of them will jump on my wheel and start working with me. No takers. At the end of the first gravel section the situation in front of me begins to come into focus. There are three riders a long way up the road and one rider about halfway between me and that group. I can tell from the colors of his kit that this is Chad Hartley (Kenda Pro Cycling). My plan is to bridge to Hartley and then work with him to catch the leaders. I catch Hartley in about 4k.
I’m so tired that all I can do is sit on his wheel and gasp for air. After sitting there for a while he motions for me to pull through. I oblige with what can only be described as a weak token pull (all I can muster at the time). Less than a minute later I motion for him to pull back through. He doesn’t. I look back and he’s no longer there. Decision time. I’m on the rivet but the three leaders are within sight. They have just turned onto a 2k tailwind section that is followed by the final stretch of gravel—a 2k crosswind section. I know that if I don’t catch them within that 4k they will be gone for good when they turn onto the 8k headwind section. I ride the last 4k like it’s the last couple of laps in a crit. I reach the riders about ten feet before they turn into the headwind. The cheers from Liz, Lindsay, and J are wonderful but they don’t change the fact that I’m completely wasted. I try to ignore the fact that we’ve done only 25k of a 150k road race. The four of us settle into a relatively smooth rotation, putting lots of time on whatever remains of the field (they are nowhere in sight). The pace is faster than I would have liked. I never fully recover from my bridging effort and am barely hanging on. I crack 25k later at the beginning of the third lap. Time to assess my situation. I’m completely exhausted riding solo 100k from the finish. It’s been raining for about 45 minutes. I’m drenched and covered with sand and mud. The winds have increased to around 30mph with gusts that are even higher. The temperature is dropping. My feet and hands are half frozen. I start worrying a bit about hypothermia but I figure that as long as I can continue to move my fingers and toes I should be fine. I need to start drinking and eating (I hardly did either during the first hectic 50k). My left arm and hand are too cold/immobile to reach the rear pockets of my jersey but my right hand is just flexible enough to get there. I start stuffing mud and sand covered Sharkies into my mouth (interesting texture and flavor).
It’s at this point that I realize that my mouth is half frozen too. Around one out of every five half-chewed Sharkies is falling out of my mouth. It’s interesting to watch how far away from my bike the wind is blowing these things. But I can’t see very well because my glasses are covered in mud. I take off my glasses and stuff them in the back of my jersey. Bad move. As soon as I do this the rain changes to fine ice pellets. This does not feel good when one is riding into a 30mph headwind (the fact that my exposed skin is numb does lessen the sting considerably but this doesn’t help with my eyes). Wandering blindly all over the road I continue plowing into the wind. I try to focus on what I take to be the three fundamentals of riding into a major headwind: (1) stay aerodynamic, (2) pedal at a high cadence, (3) completely ignore the fact that you are barely moving. The headwind section finally ends. The ice pellets subside. I’m starting to recover a little bit. The Sharkie/mud/sand energy mix is beginning to kick in. Time to zone out. Attempt to enjoy the bleak and desolate landscape stretching in all directions. Imagine that I’m riding the famed Strade Bianche. Another lap goes by.
The Team TATI cheering section (the only team in the race with a cheering section) jumps out of the car to urge me forward. J gives me a bottle (before the race J had reminded us to slow down a bit going through the feed zone to make sure we didn’t miss a bottle. Suffice it to say that I was going slow enough that J probably could have placed the bottle in my cage for me). Another solitary lap passes. 100k down and 50k to go. It’s going to be seriously painful but I know that I can finish this race. I approach the feed zone once more. Liz and Lindsay are cheering but no one is in the feed zone with a bottle. I desperately start shouting that I need another bottle but no one seems to be responding. At this point I see an official who directs me to take a left turn down the finishing straight because they are cutting the race short. I cruise past the finish line for what would turn out to be a third place finish in the P/1/2 race. Technically it was also last place because everyone else abandoned the race. It’s hard to blame one for abandoning the race in those conditions. This is probably the hardest race that I’ve done to date. It’s one of those races that is pure misery while you’re doing it but which will be remembered fondly later in life (ok, maybe much later). Thanks to Flatlandia for putting on another great race. Thanks to the officials for enduring horrendous conditions. A huge thanks to the Team TATI cheering section and to J for getting my bike ready for the extreme conditions of the Kermesse.