Echo Red to Red - Prelude

I woke up Saturday morning about 7am feeling fresh and surprisingly rested for my 5th start of Echo Red to Red. This was somewhat surprising considering I had woken up in the back of a Subaru Outback on an air mattress and had done so after riding 14 hard miles on Friday, despite the fact that the race wasn't until Saturday. I had also consumed, not 10 hours earlier, a really pretty bad steak dinner that that should have left me with gastrointestinal consequences probably not too dissimilar to what I might have had from eating a raw woodchuck. I was also waking up with the dregs of a nasty cold. As a consequence,  I hadn't ridden my bike in three weeks and had only managed three half hour sessions on the trainer in the last two.

I couldn't escape the nagging feeling that I shouldn't feel this good.

I had resigned myself to a rough race because I was undertrained and sick. I was also worried because this race is tough even on the best days. I had also bumped myself to CAT II. I'm competitive at CAT III, but I've been racing there for five years. I may not be particularly fast or technically skilled, but I'm not a beginner anymore. It was time to move up and see if I can improve in a tougher field.  But setting all that aside, I was worried because I was getting bored with this race a bit. A year gap between races turns a challenging, beautiful course into a memory of 18 miles of relentless single track that squiggles around the high desert messing with your head the whole time. Race #5 just wasn't sounding like fun. But I'm nothing if not a creature of habit, so there I was. I did my best to deal with my lingering cold issues. I've never really mastered blowing my nose over my shoulder while riding (the "snot rocket", if you must know), so I thought about duct taping a box of tissues to the top tube but I wasn't sure what to do with the used tissues, so I gave up on that and just ate everything I could get my hands on the day before the race. Carbo loading seemed to help at Fat55 and I like to eat anyway, so I figured I'd give it another try. I also drove out the day before the race planning to do an easy pre-ride and camp at the trailhead. In the past, driving four hours, jumping out of the car and riding 23 miles as hard as I could really hadn't worked well as a race strategy.

All this seemed to help. Or at least it probably would have except my superhuman new teammates at Sappo Hill arrived half an hour before me and were waiting patiently at the trailhead to pre-ride the course with me. That was so sweet of them, but it left me rushing to chang into my bibs and jersey before I had even found a real parking place. I ended up with even less of a break than in the past before having to pedal as hard as I could just to keep up with my team, who continued to patiently wait for me for the rest of the afternoon.

Joe watching me slip farther and farther behind over the horizon.

Shortly after starting out on the hardest "easy" ride of my life, it became apparent that the race organizers had taken the time to deal with my boredom issue. They changed the course. A lot.

This is the easy bridge. I am scared to death.

We were running the course backwards this year, and everybody was doing the 8 mile expert loop that was only used by the cat I and pro riders in years past. It's completely different than the course I was familiar with. It crests a mesa and drops to the river on a narrow trail that skirts the edge of a serious cliff. At the bottom it crosses the river 4 times on narrow bridges. The old course was run entirely in open prairie. Not one tree anywhere. This section had trees. Lots of them. And they seemed to be in the way a good deal of the time. The old course that might have been psychological torture and physical agony, but it wasn't technically difficult. This was going to be hard.

Tom Keller, the team captain, is insanely fast and the nicest person I've ever met. He's just so happy to be out there racing. During the pre-ride he posed us on old farm equipment for team photos, talked bike upgrades and offered riding tips. He really stepped up on that front with me. I must have been radiating terror for the first 8 miles. He held back and offered me the kind of advice Indiana Jones would offer his companions -  "Just keep looking forward" "It's not as bad as it looks" "Don't look Marion!"- OK,  he didn't actually say that. I think it was more like "Don't use your rear brakes on the switchbacks", but the rest he did. As a result, I didn't crash and my face didn't melt off.

We looped back to the trailhead and rode maybe 4 miles of the rest of the course. Of all the things that happened that day, following them on that section of the course, might have been the biggest mistake. I was tired and I could feel myself burning reserves I was going to need tomorrow. Fortunately, just as my whimpering was becoming audible to other riders, the sun set, so we had to turn back before dark.

Back at the trailhead camp, I ran in to Lillian Schiavo, she and her partner Zack saved me some space next to them to set up camp. I drove in to Echo with Lilly to pick up our race packets. Sno Road Winery had done a great job setting themselves up for 600 riders. They had a band playing, wine and beer available, fire heaters on the patio and someone serving Cajun food for dinner. We had a glass of wine and I drove her back to camp and then headed off to Hermiston for dinner with the team. Hindsight being 20/20, I probably should have had dinner in Echo.

We met at an obviously popular steak house in downtown Hermiston. It took forever to find. My mental picture of a steak house in Eastern Oregon is a standalone building with lots of parking, cedar siding, and maybe some steer horns conspicuously displayed near the front door. This place turned out to be a storefront restaurant in the rather small downtown area that I drove by six times while I was looking for the steer horns. The menu was about as long as one of those "Hunger Games" books. I ordered a small fillet mignon, which seemed the easiest thing to digest that was actually a steak. The rest of the team ordered salads, pasta and tuna, and soup, which kind of got me wondering why we were in a steakhouse at all, but I was there with the team and I thought I should just roll with it. Bicycle racing is steeped in tradition and maybe this was one - like embrocation or those funny hats you wear under your helmet. The first sign of trouble appeared when Joe ordered the tuna fettuccine  and the waitress marveled that nobody had ever ordered that before. Joe tried desperately to change his order to a burger - correctly sensing that this was one of those "Vegetarian" meals that steak houses have on the menu that  serve primarily to keep vegetarians from ever setting foot in the place again - but Tom insisted it would be fine and ordered one himself as an act of solidarity.

My steak arrived and, well, it was certainly edible. It was overdone and a bit thin but it's hard to turn a steak into something really horrible. I mean, it's doable but you really have to apply yourself to it. This was just the result of a busy line cook keeping up with the orders. I had a baked potato with it. I was hoping for a nice Yukon Gold or red potato but ended up with this homunculus Russet that had all the culinary appeal of a large rock and looked like it might have damaged whatever machine they used to dig these things up. Peyton, across the table from me, had ordered a burger and fries. He may have had the best meal there. The burger looked fine, but the pile of fries was bigger than his head and when you are 14 years old, I don't care how devoted to race training you are, a pile of fries as big as your head is pretty much as good as it gets. Looking across the table at that heap of fatty goodness, it occurred to me that that's still true when you're 53. My potato really could have used some quality time in a fat fryer and some ketchup. 

I am absolutely convinced that Joe's bad race day began with the first bite of his dinner.

Most people can limp through a bad meal with a certain amount of polite grace. Just because we don't like it, doesn't mean it's bad. It's just different. It's part of the local cuisine. People line up at tripe stands in Florence. Who am I to judge? Heck, I had a spleen sandwich in Palermo and liked it!

This was different. After the first bite, Joe's face was a complicated mix of disappointment,  disgust, loss, and sadness. Even Tom looked a bit crestfallen. The kitchen had clearly dug some old freezer burned block of tuna out of the back of the walk-in and fried it up after a few minutes in the microwave.  Whatever texture or flavor that piece of fish might have possessed had been stripped from it by neglect and radiation. Maybe that's why I woke up feeling so good. My fillet was merely not great. Their dinner was bad. Tom didn't really care that much but Joe was clearly wounded and I couldn't blame him. I can live with a mediocre steak but that tuna will probably haunt him the rest of his days.

As I got comfortable in the Outback, I thought about how nice the atmosphere at the winery was that night and how good that jambalaya looked and I think next year I might suggest we dine in Echo.

So,  against all odds, Saturday morning I was rested, fed, with working brakes, and a fair idea of what was ahead. I headed in to town to start my racing season.


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