On the back foot, I was struggling and riding with what felt like the parking brake on. Through hike-a-bike and granny gear climbs, bush whacking, gravel and cow-print downhill trails, nothing would permanently and with concise closure keep that five-second gap from opening back up. I eventually attributed this to (duh!) bad legs but more importantly, I was the anvil, not the hammer, in this situation.
It feels like stage 4 already, with the Osorno race, a travel day, and two days of the Trans Andes Challenge under our legs... there's been no real time to rest. While racing in Chile, at this time of year, is relatively easy on the equipment, somehow an entire day evaporates by just the simple act of racing for three or four hours.
As per usual (and in the time honored tradition of mountain biking), every racer and his brother gave it the maximum effort at the start of today's stage. Unfortunately for me, and them, the stage started with a 10-minute granny gear climb shortly after leaving the Huilo Huilo camping complex. Quickly the group went from 'bows and slashing handlebars to the exact same quartet as yesterday. 1500 meters into the stage, and we are down to four riders. With each of the other three guys taking turns turning the screws, I spent most of the entire first hour of the race dangling five seconds off the wheel of the guy in front of me. At 3mph and whilst on a 25 percent granny gear slope, this is only about 10 feet, but it might as well been a mile.
After the first hour's due-paying experience of chasing that five-second gap , I decided to take things into my own hands and simply set pace on the endless and never relenting granny gear climbs. There's something to be said for self-inflicting pain vs. having it dealt out to you. While no one could decisively drop each other, setting pace on the climbs seemed to at least temper the suffering, as we've now deemed our activity to be. This isn't gap riding... this is suffering. A bit dramatic, certainly, but to hear it with a German accent gives a bit more creedence to it.
Today's route was so difficult and heavy, simply lugging bike and body over the hills was race pace - going slower required walking and to go faster was beyond my means, so such was the day - we all would ride together and wait for failure rather than an attack.
Coming into the final few kilometeres, race leader Stefan Sahm and I knew it would be a gentleman's finish - after failing to cause a gap anywhere out on the course, we would contest the finish with a sprint in the final uphill meters to the finish, me taking the stage by less than a bike length. No change on GC, obviously, and Sahm demonstrated both his strength as well as sporting flair, as did the other guys. With such difficult stages, the race right now feels like an endless training ride with your buddies, waiting to sense a crack in your partner's amour, or catch the scent of blood, at which time you'll pounce... or become the prey.
With four more days to go, I can imagine we'll all have a chance to see both sides of that coin.