|Representing for Topcycle in Antibes.|
It takes place on an 11 mile loop. You start up a short hill, hang a left, then go down a bumpy, rutted connector trail. This short stretch of trail turned out to be incredibly handy. More on that later. After that, you swing on to a stretch of beautiful single track that weaves through the woods in a gentle down grade. A couple of little climbs and you hit a short rock garden. Some more pretty single track and then the trail turns uphill for about a mile or so. Mile 4 you top out and start a fantastic downhill on a trail called Dinah Moe Humm, named after a Frank Zappa song I can't stand, which is a shame because it was all I could hear in my head for much of the race. Maybe 7 miles in the trail turns uphill again for a half mile. Mile 9 you turn on to a straight fire road you ride for 1 1/2 miles before a sharp left turn that takes you up a hateful little climb before a short downhill back to the start. You go through the timing station and then head back out again. Teams would change riders there. Solo riders would pit stop either right before hitting the timing station or right after. I rolled right by my camp so I stopped before. I want to describe that to you because all those notes, those pieces of a continuity were the rhythm of our world for 24 hours. It's a shared space and whether you were an elite pro or the slow 5th person on a corporate team, we were all there together.
It's a strange space.
The first thing that struck me was how easy the first lap seemed. I just flew up the climbs and downhill trail sections were fast and sticky. I remembered it being tougher. The second thing I noticed was how much harder the course was on the 2nd lap. I repeated this discovery every single lap. It's interesting watching your power fade over 24 hours. When you start this, you know it will happen. It's still surprising when you experience it.
I did a lot right this year. I wasn't fast but I was efficient. I tapped away the laps and when I went out at 9pm I was starting my 7th lap. I was running 3 laps faster than last year. Then I blew up. I was pushing too hard a gear on the climbs and I wasn't tuned to riding at night. I kept trying to let people by way before they were on my wheel. I couldn't tell where they were, I just saw their lights. I kept riding into bushes on the side of the trail and getting mad at myself. I pulled into my camp at 11 and had to stop. I was off most of the food I had. Boiled potatoes with salt and olive oil were all I could eat. The cool damp day made the trail great but the night had dropped to the low 40's. Hypothermia was something I hadn't planned on. It's a trap. You come off a lap and you're hot and perspiring. You sit down and you feel fine and your body heat just gets stripped away and you hardly notice.. In five minutes I was shaking. I curled up in my sleeping bag and just stopped for about an hour. I didn't sleep. I heard riders passing by in the night. Chris King hubs. They sound like angry bees. I always knew when the pros were coming up behind me because I could hear those hubs. All those people buzzing by while I tried to bring my core temperature and energy reserves up.
I got back on the bike around 1:30 am. My stomach had settled down and so had my mind. The lap point was lit up as I rolled in to tell the officials I had finished a lap. Team members were waiting for their riders to come in. As you rolled in to the lap point, you passed a midway of sorts of all the teams campsites. They had lanterns and string lights out and there was a strange quiet festivity about it. A night circus.
Lap 8 went much better. I stopped and let faster racers by. For some reason, my bike was downshifting better and I could use my lower gears, which I had been avoiding because my chain kept dropping. I wasn't breaking any speed records but I was moving and if you're moving at night, you're gaining on everyone who had to stop and rest.
And as I picked my way through the woods I understood that this was what I came for. The dull, sleep deprived strangeness of riding through the night. The trail was familiar but different. Tree stumps became menacing. Rocks in the trail took on new shapes. There was so much contrast. It was like riding through a black and white movie. It was cold. My face was numb. I guy came by me and said "It's like the Blair Witch Project out here."
Then the sun came up.
If there's a reason to do something as dumb as a 24 hour mountain bike race, it's to see color come back. It's to realize it's not a rider coming up behind you, it's the sun. It's to go from silence to birds singing. It's to say "Good Morning!" to other riders instead of "Go by on my right". I went out at 4am in the dark and by the time I finished my lap it was daylight. It's been a long time since you've watched the sun come up. You should do it again.
The morning laps felt good. Sun has that effect. Fatigue does take it's toll and when I left on my 10th lap, I left without a water bottle or my hydration pack. I realized that as I started down that rutted single track after the first short climb but I was not going to go back. You just can't turn your brain around like that after 100 miles of going in one direction. Here's the thing: I was at the top of that rutted trail when I realized this and this bit of trail was like a candy store. Everyone was dropping stuff or having stuff bounce out of their pockets on this stretch. I figured if it stayed on the ground for two laps, it was trash. I had already picked up a tail light which was great as one of my two lights was DOA. There were water bottles everywhere. I found a full one and stuck it in my frame and took off. I never used it because, you know, ick. In my exhausted head I imagined it belonged to someone who had just stepped out of the shower, brushed their teeth and used a whole bunch of mouthwash, but it more likely belonged to some hairy guy with cold sores. Good to have for an emergency, but it was a cloudy cool morning and I rolled 11 miles just fine.
I finished the lap and took stock. It was 9 am. I had plenty of time to do one more. It was right there. I checked the results for my category. Last year there were only 5 50-59 category racers and 11 laps would have been a solid second place. This year there were 9 racers and they were all on teams. The fastest had put in 18 laps. One more lap wasn't going to change anything and I had to break camp and drive myself home. I called it quits. Endurance races are as much about what you do off the bike as on it and driving home was part of this. It was OK. They were making pancakes at the finish and I got to talk with a company that makes custom bike saddles.
I packed up and I drove home. I only had to stop once to nap for a bit.
It's always hard going back to do something you remember as the best thing you ever did. It's always different. The Oregon 24 was different too, in a good way. I missed Carolyn but I think I missed her last year too, and she was there. I'm not really present when I'm racing. It was good to know I could take care of myself and not have to put my loved ones through the wringer for my idiotic hobbies. It's still the best race I've ever done. It's hard and it's honest. I can say with great clarity, I'm not fast. But I'm steady, I plan well, I respect other competitors, and I'm persistent. I am also grateful, from the bottom of my heart, that I am strong enough to do this. I heard that sentiment passed around by more riders than myself.
Weeks later, I've cleaned up the bike. I seem to have some persistent numbness in my left index finger. I need to move my brake and shifter levers inboard a bit. The daily grind is settling back in. Carolyn still patiently listens as I talk out the race for the umpteenth time. I think I'm just putting off being normal again.
The living room needs vacuuming. I should get on that.