Getting dropped is a lot like bankruptcy. It happens gradually, then suddenly.
The first couple of days of the Trans Andes Challenge (TAC) had been pretty heavy on the legs and just as importantly (and expensively), heavy on the mind. We'd traveled to Chile to race as much as train, but going full gas at a mid-summer fitness level wasn't something my winter brain or body really were too excited for, much less prepared to do.
Each day started with the duo team of Javier Püschel and Luciano Caraccioli quickly pulling Stefan Sahm and I off the front and quickly putting me, at least, a bit in the pain cave. Caraccioli, particularly, had become notorious for picking a gear that was pretty tall and then winding it up over and over and over again on the climbs. My ability to sag climb or chase back on the downhill was starting to dwindle, leaving me with having to climb at his pace... and I could feel the bank account draining.
We hit feed zone on day 3 with empty pockets and bottles, so the refuel was going to take a bit, and I was Ricky Bobby out of the pits - just a bit behind everyone and feeling a bit worse for the wear in the heat. Sahm and the guys sensed this, and unfortunately for me, 100 meters after the feed zone was an exposed, hot, dusty, and 1000-foot climb with an average of 14 percent. Sprinting out of the feed station, quickly I realized I'd need to change gears, and in my haste, dropped the chain. It's little things like this that, when you're in difficulty, are often the last nail in the coffin. Five seconds sneaks up to seven. Seven becomes 15 and suddenly what was merely a "gap" is a major situation.
I wasn't getting back on. Later, a review of our Strava files showed a VAM of almost 1500m/hr for the 12-minute climb, a good pace for me on dirt, so while I felt like something was wrong, really this was just the emergence of reality: I was dropped, and would have been most likely, anyway.
Once over the top of that climb, facing odds of 3:1 on rolling and fast terrain for the remaining 30km, regaining contact was going to be impossible. Gradually and suddenly, winning the Trans Andes Challenge was out of reach. I rode solo for the remaining portion of the day. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon when it comes down to it.
Stage 4 proved challenging again, as our usual quartet again emerged on the day's 30km climb through the ancient Araucaria pines forest near the Villarrica Volcano. Yes, I was the slow kid in class and had to summon my best super D skills to come back to terms with the group over the top of the climb before we hit the 20km to the finish. A race within a race, the duo team helped Sahm and I keep the chain on the 11-tooth cog coming in and Sahm in check on the last few rollers into the thermal complex of Coñaripe. No time gained (or lost) on GC though I did get a stage win for my suffering.
Our departure from Huilo Huilo meant we would spend the next four days in the no Wi-Fi zone. Reactions and withdrawal symptoms ranged from mild annoyance to disbelief and denial. Faces of folks who I'd had dinner with all week suddenly appeared where previously we'd only seen crowns of heads aimed at iPhones. It was liberating and confounding all at the same time. No communication with the outside world will force you to become present with the here and now. We rented a cabana without a TV, but it did have a dog and handful of chickens to visit with on the porch. Quiet afternoons where sunset ran the evening until almost 10:00 pm capped off three great days of amazing riding and zero social networking. Rebecca Rusch even mentioned something about looking a number up in the phone book... but let's not get out of hand here with this off-the-grid thing.
Stage 5 evolved into my favorite of the week - a reverse version of 2011's route proved a more natural if not more difficult sequence of climbs, each increasing in length and grade, but rewarded with a proper downhill trail and finish stretch into town. Our group on this stage was a mix of solo and duo-team riders, giving me a chance to see teammate Blake Harlan give a go at his first stage win against Belgian Jan Dams. Harlan would have the upper hand on the climbs 4km from the finish, but Dams took the initiative a little further out, catching Harlan out. Sahm drove tail gunner on our group as we tried to keep the Belgian in check on the final run in to Menetúe.
A painful and honest way to finish a stage, both Dams and Harlan left it all on the course with Dams taking the stage and Harlan having his first pint of bike racing bitter pale. If you've ever won anything in sport, you'll know it's best done with the after taste of loss still on your palate. Harlan's time will come.
Stage 6 had us traveling from Menetúe to Pucon to close out the 2012 chapter of the TAC. Another highlight moment of the race was lining up again on the wheel of former Team Telekom's Udo Bolts' wheel, hitting 50kph in a strung out paceline as Udo ground his bike's largest gear into dust.
Almost every time Udo hit the front of our group during the week, you could almost guarantee someone in the pace line would raise their hand, with a fist, and do the CHOO CHOO locomotive arm motion. Old habits die hard, and Udo and his partner Carsten are just as talented on the mountain bikes as they were on the road. Quickly, and with a fairly large group, we arrived in Pucon, knowingly contesting a sprint finish on unknown terrain.
Dam and I played the gentleman's race in the last kilometer, dodging livestock, parked delivery trucks and the like, eventually finding the finish straight and giving a go at an old fashioned drag race. I'm not sure who won it, as we've both seen our names on the top of the list, and honestly it doesn't matter.
Getting there, to the last finish line of the last stage, was the real point of this whole journey. What happens at the finish line will be one of the things I'm least likely to remember or bother to tell when I recall this fantastic week here in Chile.
Thanks for coming along on the journey with us. Next stop: the Cape Epic!