The Tri-States Gran Fondo started inauspiciously enough with a simple warning about not missing the u-turn left at the bottom of Utah Hill on the other side of checkpoint one and a ready set go. I pushed forward at about mid-pack and clipped in quickly and started pedaling. It was very very cold and everyone started out at a pretty reasonable pace and stayed together for a while which caught me off guard. Since everyone on this big ride had a timing chip glued to the top of their helmet I thought many would take off at a blistering pace right away but instead everyone was on a pretty steady low-key chug that let the ramps and rollers sort out the riders in the cold.
I can't remember how many ramps and rollers there were before what I considered the first proper climb of this timed event that wasn't a race but there were enough that I remember thinking "boy these little ramps are going to be hell on the legs during the last eleven miles to the finish" and I wondered if it was going to warm up any because it was still really very cold. Normally I would have stood and powered up rollers like these in the big ring but I didn't know quite what to expect from climbing 7500 feet over 112 miles so I thought I would use the small ring like everybody else pedaling around me and save some gas for later.
I had noticed before the start that everyone had a road bike and all these road bike riders seemed to know someone else that was there. I didn't see any panniers or fenders or hybrids or flat bars or mountain bikes or recumbents or any other oddities that in my mind always seem out of place on a ride like a Gran Fondo but always seem to be there in number anyway. I didn't see anybody I knew either. Along with the nice road bikes everyone seemed to have grundles of nice riding gear too. I saw stuff that I didn't even know existed and was surprised at how bundled up everyone seemed to be. I was freezing cold and all goose fleshed in my Tour de Donut jersey waiting to get going, but I figured once underway it was almost all uphill for 27 miles to checkpoint one and the 3255 feet of climbing during those 27 miles was sure to warm me up.
Crossing under the highway into Beaver Dam I realize that I am and have been riding alone the entire way. I had had a few riders on my wheel here and there over the last ten miles but they had all either dropped off or moved ahead and dropped me and now I am and have been pedaling alone with the road and the cold. I pass the Dam Store and the Dam Deli and Dam Jam and cross the bridge heading up. The elevation at the start in Mesquite was 1662 feet above sea level which is the lowest elevation I have ever ridden my bike at and when I hit mile 11 I know that I have climbed almost 500 feet of the 3255 feet of climbing that ends at checkpoint one up on top of Utah Hill.
Not really too painful just one painful and fast enough that it really would be nice to have a few riding buddies here with me to help break the wind and grind the pace. But I'm a peloton of one chugging along up this 5% grade and now I wonder if the temperature is going to warm up much more as I slog my way up this seemingly never ending hill. It's still quite cold and the desert smells great like only a desert in winter can after a hard rain the night before. I can smell the sagebrush and the bunch grass and the Josuha trees and the dirt and the tumble weeds and with no one to talk to that crisp beautiful smell of the desert rushing in and out of my nostrils is bringing back a flood of memories.
It smells like Junior High again and that little field trip where my 7th grade science class walked down the road four blocks to an undeveloped plot of land by I-15 in North Las Vegas to look at desert plants. I remember my teacher, Mr. Gates, having us take some leaves off a plant that I don't remember the name of and rub them briskly in our palms. They smelled strong and pungent and he explained that the Indians who used to live here would crush up these leaves and put them under their armpits and on the soles of their feet for their "medicinal properties" and how they were then able to run super long distances and accomplish other super human feats without feeling any pain.
I can smell that plant right now as I am slogging up this 5% grade but I don't remember what it looked like and I can't remember the name. I can smell it though just as if I was rubbing it on my palms right now and I wonder if any of these other riders in their little pelotons know about the Indians. I notice the Josuha trees are getting thicker now and larger and closer to the road. None are in bloom as it's the wrong time of year and they will only bloom after a freeze. I wonder if they got their freeze last year or last night or whether that will come deeper into this coming winter? It's still very cold but the sun is crawling higher in it's low November arc and I try to determine whether it's the temperature or my metabolism that is reluctantly creeping up a little.
It smells like Junior High again and walking the half mile to Jim Bridger Junior High School in North Las Vegas because we lived in the Vegas Chalet Motel for six months while we waited for base housing. It smells like feeling alone and being the new kid and being different than everyone else with whiter skin and shorter hair and different clothes and bigger ears and a cleft lip. It smells like making the swim team and liking social studies. It smells like learning how to get beat up by the gangs in the school bathroom because I was the new kid and in there alone and different than everybody else. It smells like Star Wars and Whataburger and Baskin Robbins and Bootlegger Pizza.
It smells like little league baseball and riding my bmx bike everywhere and bunny hopping and doing cross-ups and knocking over neighboors' garbage cans with berm-shots that would launch them out into the street spilling their trash everywhere. It smells like Webco Mag Wheels and Ashtabula forks and grease and ball bearings. It smells like learning how to spit right and how to do push ups and earning money from mowing neighboors' yards. It smells like air shows and the USAF Thunderbirds and learning how to skateboard. It smells like winter in the desert and throwing rocks at the frozen puddles of water while waiting for the school bus.
It smells like learning how to ride a road bike and how to shift gears and pedaling for miles out on the frontage road with my dad. It smells like learning about responsibility and figuring out that school might be important and it smells like getting my road bike stolen along with my sisters. It smells like a big dusty city with lots of neon and glass and metal and cement that has been heated up way too hot way too many times by the super hot and super dry desert air in the summer and it smells like having had enough and doing a good job of fighting back and finally being left alone.
I pass the one guy I've seen with the clunky pedal stroke riding with the guy on the Calfee with the frame pump mounted on the seat stay who's riding with the only guy with hairy legs, because he's the only guy that doesn't have his legs covered, who seems to be riding his wife's purple Specialized something or other and I keep passing riders that keep stopping and hopping off into the desert to find a ditch or a bush or a Joshua tree or a post or something that can give them a little tiny bit of privacy. I pass the guys in the Team Mort kits who always seem to struggle going uphill and I remember passing other Team Mort kits on many other long rides this year - always while going uphill and I wonder who is Team Mort, why Team Mort is even slower than I am going up hills and whether or not these are those same guys.
It's odd because I've climbed a lot of hills on my bike and this is probably the first time I've ever climbed a hill on my bike and don't look back or down to see how far and high up I have pedaled. I'm in a trance pedaling in smooth circles, elbows bent perfectly, sweat dripping off my nose looking up the hill waiting for checkpoint one to show up. This feels like a long never ending climb for 16 miles up a slip and slide, not because it's slippery even though things are still very cold and the road is damp in places, but because it's a constant grade with minimal curves and a mind numbing perceived lack of progress. For some reason I don't want to look back and down the hill so I keep looking up for the summit that never seems to materialize grinding away in my peloton of one at this steady 5% grade smelling the sagebrush and remembering Junior High.
I see riders behind me spread out in their little pelotons for miles pedalling up the cereal bowl climb on the slip and slide slope to the top of Utah Hill. I look back up wishing I could find the summit and only see more little pelotons stretched out in front of me looking up wishing they could find the summit too. The wind gets a little stronger and the road starts to curve more and it looks like the grade is changing pitch, almost like small downhills. I'm out of the cereal bowl now and the summit has to be close. I decide to stop pedaling for a moment and coast on one of the little downhills my mind is telling me I am seeing and I almost come to an immediate stop. Apparently the change in pitch isn't very downhill after all but only an optical illusion that finds me now looking more insistently and expectantly for checkpoint one and the summit of Utah Hill.
Startled, I hear a couple of rifle shots and quickly spot the camouflaged movement of two hunters skirting counterclockwise around a hill up ahead on the left above the road, one up high near the summit and one down lower about mid way up the hill. I hope they're not shooting at the little pelotons up the road and yelling "hurry up!" down at the cyclists sprinting helter-skelter up the hill to get out of the way of bullets. I wonder what they're hunting for out here in this cold middle of nowhere because I didn't think there was much wildlife up here with the exception of desert bighorn sheep and the threatened desert tortoise. I wonder what they are shooting at and I hope it's not me.
I pedal on in the now windy cold and I know I'm getting close to the summit of Utah hill and checkpoint one because it's sure starting to feel like I've ridden up 3255 feet of elevation gain already, pushing all my own wind bearing all my own cold and setting all my own pace in my peloton of one for all of those miles it should have taken to get here already. It certainly feels like I've done a really good job of working up at least 27 miles worth of restroom break and my water bottles are empty just as planned. I shift down the cassette three cogs and stand up again to pedal a bit and finally see the top of an E-Z-UP instant shelter peaking up over the top of the road where it goes up over the hill to where I can't see the road anymore. It feels good to know that I'm almost there to checkpoint one, up the road in the wind and cold about a half mile as the road starts to look like it is starting to level out again as it gets closer and closer to the summit.
I sit back down and shift back up the cassette and pedal quietly toward the summit as I take stock and decide that I feel pretty darn good and can certainly skip checking my blood glucose at this stop. I decide I'm just going to fill my water bottles, filling one with water and one with what ever Hammer electrolyte and carbohydrate concoction they have that sounds palatable and probably just eat a chocolate chip granola bar while taking my quick turn in the honey bucket and throw on my rain jacket and go. It's going to be a quick strike - in and out with military precision. No riding buddies to wait for and no idle chit chat to slow me down and no time for the cold and wind to sap the life out of my enthusiasm for going really fast downhill.
I decide to shift back onto the big ring because after this quick stop at checkpoint one it's all downhill for 7 miles to the u-turn left that we've all been warned not to miss and I think It'll be a smart move to just be able to clip in and start hammering down the hill in the big ring as I click down the cogs on the cassette. Besides I think it's embarrassing, for me and my bike, to be standing around at a stop with our chain slunk on the small ring. I'm already looking forward to the downhill as I'm chugging through the cold up the hill for the last quarter mile to checkpoint one as the road keeps slacking a bit more. I expect to make up some time on the downhill because I am a fast descender on a fast bike that loves to fly downhill using the whole lane.
I push my lever over with my full fingered gloves and hold it there briefly waiting for the chain to catch the pins and ramps and jump up on the big dog and jump it does - right off the chain ring. I've Schlecked my chain right off and suddenly gravity ceases to exist in the little space of the world right around my feet and pedals as resistance evaporates and the chain entangles around the crank arm trying to find a way back onto the the ring where the laws of physics can reign supreme again.
"No problem, I'll just work it back on there" I think as I work the pedal forward and back and forward trying to help the chain figure out a way to find purchase back on the ring but it won't make the jump and what I thought was the slackest part of the hill so far here about a quarter mile from checkpoint one doesn't turn out to be slack enough to allow inertia to sustain my momentum and 8 mph evaporates in a couple clumsy jerks from the pedals on my crank arms and there I go toppling over gracefully on the drive side of my bike still clipped into my Speedplays and landing hard on the shoulder of the road.
I don't think there's anything more embarrassing than toppling over on your sleek road bike still clipped into your pedals in view of other cyclists. It's bad enough when you're alone and worse still when witnessed by non-cyclists but when observed engaging in this ultimate display of cycling awkwardness by other cyclist you have achieved the highest level of shame and embarrassment possible on a road bike. I struggle to bounce right back up quickly and immediately but find I can't because my Speedplays simply won't let go of either of my cleats so I slow down to go faster and finally get unclipped and work my way up off the shoulder of the road.
Immediately I look behind me down the hill and am relived that no one is in sight. I quickly look up the less than a quarter mile of road to checkpoint one at the summit of Utah Hill and thankfully it seems that no one has noticed my acrobatics or if they have they're being kind and pretending that they didn't. I take a few seconds to turn my chain back on the ring in the wind and cold and re-Velcro one of the straps on the seatbag that jarred loose and swing my leg over the top tube as I check myself out. My right wrist hurts so now it matches my left wrist both in the pain I'm feeling and the reason for it.
I hit my right hip pretty good so I'm sure that will turn tender and I'll have a big raspberry there tomorrow but there are no rips stains or tears so I'm glad I'm a robust and healthy 175 pounds instead of the 155 pound mountain goat I was going to try to get to before this Tri-States Gran Fondo. If had been able to become one of those gaunt twiggy little cyclists that I was trying to become for this ride I would probably have to abandon right now with a broken collar bone and a fractured wrist.
I pull out my water bottles and get one filled with water and am standing there in the windy cold relieved that no one is saying anything to me about laying on the side of the road or how stupid I looked trying to hop up immediately while still clipped in. I'm trying to figure out which Hammer electrolyte and carbohydrate mix sounds like it might help me make it to my deep dish chocolate chip cookie that's waiting for me at Veyo Pies which is checkpoint number two another 27 miles or so down the road and another 1600 feet of elevation gain or so after the u-turn left that we've all been warned to not miss.
I notice that it's getting really windy and it's still very cold and I start eating my chocolate chip granola bar to save time while I decide on the second bidon and I realize how grateful I am that today I am riding alone in this wind and cold. I am grateful that I am a peloton of one. I am so happy that I don't have any riding buddies here today that got to witness what just happened. I am happy that my lack of skill on the bike will not have to live in their minds for the rest of time. I am glad I am alone pushing my own wind and pacing my own pace and climbing my own climbs on this 112 miles with 7500 feet of elevation gain that is the Tri-State Gran Fondo. I am glad I am a peloton of one right as I catch a glimpse of motion out of the corner of my eye and turn in time to watch my bike fall over in slow motion on the non-drive side because it just caught a little puff of wind just right in the cold.