Tales from the peloton, November 20, 2007
Continued from part one.
My trip planning for this year's endeavour was totally ad-hoc. After a frantically busy day in the shop I don't climb off my cycle at home until 19:30. After dinner, I sit contemplatively looking at half-packed bag and wonder how crazy it would be to try to do this. Mechanically I go through last minute preparations, vacillating between staying or going. Only my client and friend, ex-basketball pro and now New Zealand Postie Callum Brock's encouraging texts get me to finally commit. After swinging by the shop to pick up a set of test Bontrager Race X Lite wheels, I am finally on the road at 8:30 with six hours to drive. Yep, I've gone full circle – in 1986 I was sleeping in the back of my car and here I am again embarking on a trip so poorly planned and ad-hoc that the back of a clapped-out Alfa Romeo will be my bed for the pre-race snooze.
At 2:30 I roll into the campsite and pull into an open space. Toss the bike, wheels and luggage in front seats and jump in the back for a three and a half-hour nap. I gradually awaken to the soothing sound of a babbling stream not five metres from the car windows. Who needs a gizmo playing tinny "soothing sounds" when you've got the natural world, eh?
It was the first time I've pulled on a lycra cycling kit in about two months. Rolling to the start I was so nervous that I was barely aware of the headwind which would prove to be so crucial later in the day, as well as the light rain falling. After a few years away from the scene, I'm basically incognito, which is just peachy.
The K2 parcours is littered with tough climbs, and we didn't have to wait long after the start to encounter the first. I start the hill right at the front of the bunch which is the only thing that saved me, as part way up the hill a few jokers can't contain themselves with 175 kilometres still to go. I was dropped but I was still in the follow cars over the top. I never thought I was much of a descender... perhaps I didn't need to be.
I could hold my own in the pro peloton but now I'm like a man possessed, and I caught back up before the road levelled out. This scenario replays for the first 100 kilometres over numerous rated climbs (even a hors catégorie, the toughest of the day) until finally my spindly legs could not generate another watt and I was convincingly dropped as we rounded a corner and viewed a monster of a hill which is cruelly only marked as a category three.
There were only about 25 guys left of the original 58, and I should have been happy that I lasted halfway but now there is a major headwind and instead of pacing myself I went to exhaustion early. Teeth gritted, head hung low and cocked sideways, eyes flicking between the road verge and the spot 1cm ahead of my front wheel... I was reminded of the trademark climbing style of American cycling legend Kent Bostick. Why did I ever make fun of his physical manifestation of determination? Nearing the top it looked pretty unlikely I'll get back on unless the sole other dude who has been dropped sits up immediately to wait for me so we can chase on the descent together. Futilely, he tried to go it alone.
Ten minutes later I was still alone, without a single rider in view as far as the eye can see down the valley behind. A transition and feed zone materializes through the shimmering heat coming off the pavement. Despite suffering, it was also very pleasant to finally feel hot after eons of cold winds in Palmerston North. I'd like to complete the distance but it seems ridiculous. My average speed has dropped to a mere 20 km/h with 80 kilometres to go... I can finally understand all my customers and all those who have asked me over the years "don't you get a sore butt?" Well, riding 400 to 700 kilometres a week since I was 15 meant that I never did get that sore. Today, however I cannot contemplate another four hours in the saddle. I begin looking for a promising vehicle to catch a ride to the finish. Just as I was about to unclip, the volunteers begin to clap. "Arghh! Why did you have to do that, ma'am?" I thought. Onward then.
Another ten minutes passed and all of a sudden the odd spectator starts to clap yet they aren't looking at me. Huh? A glance round and the mystery is solved, there's a dozen guys charging up the hill behind me! I'd thought nobody else would still be trying to finish, but this could be a stroke of luck. There was somebody to draft, as long as I can get to the top of the hill before they blitz past me. They rocket past me while still climbing, but after having chugged food and drink for the past twenty minutes since I was dropped, my legs were actually turning a bit better and I can just hold the last guy's wheel over the top.
For the next hour and a half we average close to 40 km/h into the headwind, swapping pulls smoothly and I was tired but rejuvenated at the same time. What a rush to feel some of the same sensations that I lived with day-in and day-out for most of my adult life... Our group swelled as we pick up riders dropped by the hard charging leaders, including my old Southland Tour lieutenant Tim Gudsell, now of vaunted Euro-pro team Française de Jeux. Going into the finish Tim gives me a mock hand-sling and I dramatically sprinted alongside the gung-ho riders of our group. As a pro I never could figure out why people would undertake a potentially dangerous sprint for 25th place, but as I draw alongside the top five of our group, I was taken by the urge to sprint for real. The transformation is complete as the realization of what it means to be a "weekend warrior" sunk in.