Every year we choose to race up one signature mountain climb, the day being known as “Race Day.” Bragging rights are at stake, no small prize for wannabe jocks who have little else to hang their hat on. Today was Race Day.
We’ll call the chosen mountain “Old Baldy”, since—unlike the Alps and Pyrenees, where every mountain pass is named and famous—the Umbrians do not seem concerned with names. It tops out just over 5,000 ft., and our climb profile showed a 3,000 ft. vert. climb over 10.85 miles, for an average of 5.3%.
Markham and Charles (Atlantans and “Easties”), first place finishers on past race days, were ready to go. Todd and Rick (“Westies”) showed up riding particularly strong this year, as did Bill S. (“Westie”). Rich (Dallas, un-allied) would always be in the hunt for a podium spot, as we presumed would be his strong-legged friend, Bill R. (Dallas, un-allied). Howie (Westie) podiumed last year on the Tourmalet, but as usual kept his intentions and riding form quiet.
Having just past my 60th birthday, I announced my comfort with riding for pleasure now and in the future. Waking up with a sore throat confirmed that as a sound strategy.
Meanwhile, our weather luck ran out. We woke to a moderate rain, and the forecast called for ½” of rain with 15 – 20 mph winds from the north. The Race Climb was just outside Norcia, 2.5 km from our hotel.
We waited until 9:30 AM in hopes the rain would abate, and in fact it lessened to a light rain as we left the hotel. We even got a rainbow at the race start.
The rainbow did not deliver on its promise, though. Mike lined us up for a start photo and away we went in a light but steady rain. Charles and Markham immediately opened a 100’ gap, ignoring instructions for a neutral start. Rick followed, and I rode his wheel feeling comfortable and easy, although I was breathing moderately hard. After a half mile, we were down to two twosomes, with Charles and Markham keeping a steady 50 yards ahead of Rick and I. Unfortunately for me, when the gun goes off and wheels start spinning, something old, beyond intelligence, takes over. It was looking like I was in a race.
[Note: from here, this is a personal account of my race experience. Sorry, Markham and Charles–I wasn’t with you!]
By mile 3, all sense of pedaling easily up the mountain was gone. Rick kept hammering and we were both near our limit but not closing the gap to Charles and Markham. Slowly they pulled farther away, and then it was just Rick leading me up the mountain to the cadence of rapid breathing.
At a certain point in an endurance race (as many of you know better than me), you have to make the commitment. The pain is intense, you’re well beyond your comfort level, and your legs beg for relief. Miles of suffering lie ahead. You’re either all-in or done. You reduce the equation to making the curve 100 yds. up, then you add 50 pedal strokes, then you regain Rick’s wheel across a 10’ gap. The struggle never ends.
Rick motioned me through to lead for a while, but I act strategically and decline. Actually, I’m at my limit and can’t, but he MUST NOT know that. By mile 6, it’s clear my legs will be wrecked for the rest of the day, and it would be a shame to burn them up with no reward, so I grit my teeth and keep following. Rick’s standing on his pedals, laboring, and I think he might crack by mile 8. He’s cracked before. All I can do is cling to his wheel and hope.
We’re averaging between 9 and 10 mph, and the slopes are ranging from 5 – 9%. Occasionally we get a brief reprieve around a bend, but we just click into a higher gear for fear someone behind may gain on us. We no longer see Markham and Charles so we’re fighting for the final podium spot.
“Three miles to go!” I say cheerily, hoping the news will break Rick. “Really? Three miles?” he replies, and gets out of the saddle making another push. My plan backfires and I pay the price trying to close down the gap again.
It’s raining hard and the wind is catching us in the face as we make some corners. We’re wet but not cold. Rick leads on, and I recognize his strength and generosity—the wind would stand me up.
I’m beyond any thought now, heartbeat at max, legs threatening to cramp. One more ramp. One more ramp. One more corner. Suddenly, we see the Andiamo van, signifying the top. It’s 100 yds ahead. I wait to mark Rick, but he doesn’t make a move, so I jump up and pull even with him, ready to dash the last 10 yards. “Really?” he says. “You’re going to sprint now???”
I sit back down. Nope, that would be too chump to do, even in a once-a-year race. Rick is a friend, a man of great character, and he has done all the work to get us up the mountain. This is his first chance at a podium finish and he is earning every meter of it.
“Let’s go across together,” he offers. I accept on the spot.
But we weren’t at the finish. Mike was pointing us up another road. “Two more…….” he said. The rest was lost in the wind and rain. Two more what??? Two hundred yards? That I could do. Two more km? That would be impossible.
We turned up the ramp, praying it was the last, then hit a hairpin and it wasn’t the last. Rick kept churning, never giving in, and I wondered if he had reconsidered his offer. And then….there was the mountain-top café, just below the pass, with Nel’s Andiamo van parked at the road….the FINISH!
We fist-bumped and rode in together, noting two riders rounding the curve behind us, trying to close the gap. “Good job–get inside the café!” Nel ordered, and then we realized a hard diagonal rain was soaking us amid gusting wind. It was freezing! Markham and Charles were already inside, standing in front of a huge stone fireplace. They, too, had crossed the line together—co-champions!
And with that, I officially declare my retirement from racing on Race Day. It just hurts too damn much! It’s a prerogative of turning 60. Sorry, Ken Rosskopf! Thank you, Rick, for a great last run. Go get Markham and Charles next year!
Distance: 14 mi.
Vert: 3,200 ft