Photo: Tony Allen-Mills

Photo: Tony Allen-Mills
The Charge: First Race, First Climb

Monday, May 2, 2011

Concerning One Third of the Tour de Ephrata, Taking Place in Lititz, Where Whifs of the Malodorous Presage the Finest Post-Race Hamburgers

It was April 4th, a few weeks after Black Hills (a race in which I found myself time-trialing for more laps than I care to recall), that I registered for the Tour de Ephrata, more specifically the cat 4/5 field.  Because I fit squarely within the 5 part of that equation, I did not expect much.  But the idea of riding circuit on a 9 mile course in picturesque Amish country, and a stage race no less, was too temping to resist.

The days before the race were filled with other responsibilities that could not be deferred.  For that reason, Friday morning I had 3 hours of sleep, and Saturday, maybe 4.  Further, I would only be able to ride the road race and could not leave for Ephrata the night before as I had hoped.  It was going to be an expensive and painful one-day affair for me.  So it was that I arose at 4:30am on Saturday to get to the course in time for registration and a quick warm up before my 9am start.  I have to admit that the drive to Ephrata was frightening.  I struggled to keep my eyes open and more than a few times came nearly lost that battle and careened into a ditch.  But the cure came about half-way there, when I stopped at McD's for breakfast just to take the edge off.  It actually worked.  I made it to the event in one piece and feeling reasonably fresh.

The temperature at the start of the 4/5 race was around 48-50 degrees, and the wind was up and blowing.  It was a small field, twenty-six total.  Stands to reason, since there were three fields available to the Cat4s, and perhaps most sane 5s were not interested in spending ninety big ones to ride in a 3-stage race especially against any 4s who wanted to beat up on 5s for upgrade points.  I marked one of the 4s, who had won a podium spot in the cat4/5 race at SoYoCo, so my plan from the start was to watch him and follow when I could.  Turns out I was right -- he won the road race.  Sadly, I did not manage to stay on his wheel.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

 After the neutral roll-out I found myself mid-pack for most of the first lap. As in other races, the pace seemed awfully slow.  It was a pleasant enough ride, some small talk, plenty of helpful voices calling out impending turns.  Gradually we reached the middle part of the course, where the wind came hard from the front and then the side, slowing the pace even more.  The same two or three riders were pulling up front, and no one made any real attmpt at a break.  Given all this, just in advance of the single real climb at about mile 6 or so, I was surprised that my Garmin was telling me that my heart rate was far higher than I expected.  I figured it must have been the wind, but it was not a welcome sign.  (A photo taken right at that point in lap one shows me wearing the sort of snarl that suggests I was hurting, although I really wasn't feeling it; maybe the camera just caught my bad side.)

Ill-tempered midget or optical illusion?
The climb rose up out of a sharp left-hander and continued for about a half mile, gaining perhaps 140-feet in two steps of maybe 5 to 9 percent, with a short flat section in between.  A young boy with a camera watched us pass from his porch.  The first two laps I spun up in my big chainring without too much trouble holding the cadence.  The group finished the climb in about the same time each of those laps -- 2:09/2:11 for me.

Shortly after crossing the finish and beginning lap 2, or mile 10 if you prefer, apparently someone else decided we were going too slow as well.  The motor marshal pulled alongside and told us we were neutralized for a while.  He almost caused a crash when he did that, since the guy he shouted to swerved, sending the chain reaction down the line, but all was well, and we stopped for a 2 1/2 minute pause while the 50+ masters class swept by.  It was unfortunate, as several riders had fallen off on the climb and were able to rejoin the peloton.  No one had attempted a break before we were stopped, so we were all together and refreshed again when the whistle blew and the race recommenced.

Miles 10 through 18 were no different than the first lap. I jockeyed somewhere in the middle of the pack, and rode the wheel of my stalking horse for at least half of it.  When we got to the climb, this time I suffered some going up; I felt winded and although I finished in the same time as before, it definitely hurt more.  I was not too alarmed, as I figured there should be a lull as we shifted directions and the wind was at our backs.  I had not counted on Syd, however, another cat4 who I had a nice chat with after the race, deciding to take the second approach to the start/finish area as his cue to open the field.  I admit that I was napping a bit, still not fully recovered, and just too close to the tail of the peloton at the time.  Regardless, just as we rounded into the beginning of lap 3, the pack went single file and the line quickly stretched taught.  A gap formed a rider or two ahead of me, and I could do nothing to fill it.  Worse, once I started chasing, my fuel tank almost instantly evaporated.  I ended up watching the peloton ride in front of me by about 100-200 meters for a mile or two, until finally on the windy approaches to the climb it was over and the gap drew out.

There had been opportunities.  Another rider from my race, a junior (yes, a junior), was just ahead, and we were both passed at a rapid clip by another youngster (although not a junior) with truly massive quads.  I tried to communicate that we should work together and not simply bash ourselves against the wind individually.  Neither seemed to understand English, or at least they weren't interested.  By chance, a couple of guys from the 50+ masters race had also fallen off their pace and were riding near us, but unlike us, were working well together.  The junior jumped on their wheel, and steadily that little mixed-category groupetto pulled away from me as well.  Of course I said something to the kid along the lines of "hey, you can't work with them!," but maybe that was a bit ambiguous.  I suppose I can't blame him.  Anyway, a later photoset taken at the climb shows that the other dude, the guy with massive quads, had done the same thing.  Oh well, maybe I'm the fool.  Anyway, by the time I reached the hill again on lap 3, the peloton had extended its lead over me to 1:28.  And that is where the climb time of the field and yours truly diverged significantly: 2:13 for them, 2:53 for me.  No good excuse.  I was hurting from the solo, there were riders behind me somewhere but far off, and was clearly never going to catch the lead group again, so yes, I took it a bit easy up the hill that third time around.  Nonetheless, when I saw the photog taking his pics, rather than give him a throat cutting motion and maybe loll my tongue like a dead-man, as I thought for a moment I might, I instead put on my toughest jailhouse gritting in the hopes that, if those pictures were to see the light of day, it would at least look as though I was still in the thick of the race.  Sadly he was not using that big telephoto lens of his to much effect, and there's just no missing the empty spaces stretching into the distance before and behind me.

I felt a bit embarrassed about lollygagging it up the hill, so when I hit the long and very fecal-smelling downhill section after the climb, I decided to see if I could at least catch the gear-restricted junior before we reached the finish.  He was probably about 30-45 seconds ahead at that point.  So I hammered as hard as I could, but the wind and my heart were having none of it.  I doubt I exceeded 34mph.  I never did catch him, and ended up 17th of the 26 starters by the time I crossed the line, alone.  I threw my wheel at the thing anyway.

After the race, I smelled the sweetest scents wafting over the parking lot, a pleasant change from the eue de pastureland I had just ridden through during the last few Ks.  Across the street from the event, an enterprising couple likely with pasturelands of their own had opened for business a table stocked with freshly butchered and barbecued hamburgers and fixings.  It was one of the tastiest burgers I've had in a long while, and for just $4, in an age where a hamburger at a mid-flight DC restaurant can fetch $18 or so, it was money well spent.
As an aside, at some point during my race, I began to think about T.S. Eliot and poor J. Alfred Prufrock, a literary creature I've always sort of identified with.  This is not bullshit.  There is a line in the poem that has been stuck in my head for decades, which describes my current level of expectation in cycling fairly well -- to be pack fill, perhaps with an occasional ill-fated breakaway here and there just to get things started:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two. . . .

T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  I mentioned something about not being Hamlet to a teammate immediately after the race, but he just sort of looked at me.  Must have figured I was delirious.  Maybe I was.  Anyway, most psychologists probably would frown on thinking about the pathetic figure of Prufrock when contemplating one's sporting goals, so I will just leave it at that.
Ultimately, I was not able to compete in the other two stages of the stage race.  The same obligations that kept me in the weeds early into the morning Friday and Saturday called me home after the road race.  So that part of my theory about why I should spend $90 and a tank of gas to attend Ephrata, rather than Bunny Hop, didn't pan out.  The Amish business certainly paid off, though.  Not long after I left the venue in my car, a sleekly appointed two-door sports machine, I was greeted by an apparition from another time: a tall, gaunt, wispy bearded fellow in neatly homespun black pants, suspenders, and a white square-collared shirt, who expertly surfed upon the boards of a wooden thresher drawn by a pair of horse.  He stood during his labors.  I tend to think there was not even a seat on the rig, or at least I do not remember seeing one; I imagine a seat would be incompatible with the austere and hard-scrabble existence he had chosen for himself.  At any rate, he held the reigns in one hand, and braced himself with the other upon what seemed to be a tiller-like steering mechanism of some sort.  The blades of the ancient machine spun and chopped behind the two briskly trotting animals, cleaving a swath through tall grass, a thin cloud of dust trailing back over his painstakingly curated plot of ground.

This kind of clean living is by no means easy living, and here is the proof of that, I thought.  It was a picture of hard, rigorous, unflinching existence, but perhaps quite satisfying for him, lack of creature comforts notwithstanding.  Anyway, after blowing up in a road race and again beginning to feel the signs of sleep deprivation steal through my skull as I braced for the long drive home, it was hard not to carry away from that image some sense of significance to my own endeavors.  I sped toward the federal highway system, thinking about suffering, and relentlessness and determination in the face of suffering, which come to play in the sport of bicycle racing moreso than in any other sport I've participated in to date . . . albeit not my strong suits so much.  But I will leave whatever symbolic interest may reside in that encounter, at least as it relates to bike racing, for the reader to discern for himself.  It's late, and I'm too tired to say.
Now that I've had some rest, let me add a post-script -- not that any more electrons really need be spewed on the subject of Ephrata here.  Nevertheless.  You wouldn't know it from my inane, stupifying narrative, but my team fielded seven other riders at Ephrata, two in cat 4 and another five in the cat 3/4 race. I think I enjoy watching these guys spar with their fields as much as I enjoy racing myself, if not more. I'm just a piker, but they are the genuine article. And the extent to which you start to share in the successes, as well as the agony of the near misses of your teammates after riding and training together all winter and spring is a real bonus to membership, especially on this team, that I hadn't thought about much when I decided to join and try my hand at the sport. If nothing else, the gallons of shit that get flung across the team list-server really help break up the work day.  Not sure what my point is, other than to say I wish I could have stuck it out for the rest of the weekend.

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