Sunday, March 27, 2011

Keyser to Cumberland, WV to Maryland, on a hot 35th birthday

One of the most famous recoveries in cycling occurred as Lance
Armstrong avoided a huge crash...he instinctively scurried through the hillside and though skipping the switchback, gained no advantage and rejoined the leaders.

It was my birthday, June 18 and Dave Hoffman and I would be riding out of the Walmart parking lot, but logistics made it such that it was just me for now.

At 4:26pm on June 18, 2010 we crossed the time check just South of Keyser, West Virginia. What that meant in real time was Henry McCoy was barreling down WV SR 220 and soon and very soon it would be my turn to ride a bike.

About 15 minutes earlier I had doubted.

I stood there, out on the highway in the blazing sun, wondering if I was going to make it. I had not slept in days it felt like. I was so tired--pumping Five Hour Energy's like chewing gum...around the clock. It seemed so far until the end of this race, the sun would set again before we would finish. How much longer could it go on?

No one on my team was ready. Not only were people tired, but we needed some van transition time so that trash could be removed and new food and gear and riders loaded in. This was going to take a few minutes even if we were alert and we were not. The other riders and the drivers could barely move so the going was slow, but Henry was coming fast. So I waited, just me and my bike. I had the turns written on my arms so that I could find my way down the road in this Five O'clock traffic.

Moments before I had walked across the Walmart parking lot in the 90 degree heat just having used the facilities and in a haze of fatigue unlike any that had ever come my way. I've been tired before, but not like this. I wondered if I could go on. Could I get back on the bike and do my part to help Durham and my team?

I was feeling the weight of the world and I thought this is what I came here for, to see if I can go through this moment and find out what's on the other side. I wasn't sure that I could, but I looked back at the hot asphalt behind me and saw that I was not exiting my physical body, and no part of me had been left back there in a greasy puddle. I must have been walking back to the curb where Lance was poking around his stuff. I poked around mine. I put on my race bibs and jersey one more time, and made the necessary preparations to ride a bike for about the 40th separate time over the last six days.

It seemed like we were a million miles from Oceanside, CA (more like 2500) and million more from Annapolis, Maryland, (more like 400). This is the kind of spot in these races where teams quit. A waterfall of fatigue and despair washes over the group and they just say, we did good. Let's call it a day and find a hotel. Nobody said that in this group.

I'm back on the bike and coming back to life. Once set in the motion of bike riding I was starting to return to the land of the living. Cars were flying by and I was enjoying the excitement. I didn't necessarily stop for red lights if it was clear, this was a race, and I was in a hurry.

I was by myself, because like I said, no one was ready, not even the van. If something went wrong, I was on my own, just out here on the road. It was kind of nice. Not much true solitude during this race. Usually a van nearby to point the way or shine lights to help illuminate the road ahead. Now it was just me in rush hour traffic, sort of rural rush hour, but still rush hour.

I motored down the road and finally heard the van behind me. You get the sense because the rest of the traffic is sort of stalled. I was moving fast, but bike fast, maybe 22 miles per hour. Not car fast.

So why would I ever think to lead with that heroic recovery by Lance Armstrong? Well, it was what flashed through my mind when my tired hallucinogenic body made a wrong turn and went left against a one way street. The van yelled behind me, WRONG. I darted right, over the curb, through the grass in the Exxon parking lot and I bunny hopped an eight inch curb. To this day, it's the coolest thing I have ever done on a bike.

The day before I saw Lance, this one was Lance Condray, do it on a bike. I had tried it once. Now it was instinct. I leveled the pedals, front and back, parallel to the ground and picked the bike up with my feet, jumped the curb and with the forward momentum, cleared the back wheel and landed flat on the concrete in front of me.

I turned back to the right, back toward the road I had been on, but it was a two-way street and I was now on the left side of the road. I rode facing traffic, five or so cars passed and honked, I found my gap and made my way back across the road and onto the right side.

One block more and there is the left--the one I should have taken. I got lucky, because now luck seemed clearly to be on my side and I flowed right into the left turn lane as the cars were moving forward and with no stops and at a busy intersection I was turning left and hauling past one of the solo riders. She had a caravan behind her, but it was such a rush to see one of these brave souls who had started three days before our eight person team.

Within a half mile up the road, even more excitement. The 4th place team, the one we had been chasing down for 24 hours, there they were and I passed the rider on the uphill as if he were standing still. We assumed they were 45 minutes ahead of us. We later found out that they had made a wrong turn, but whatever the circumstances, it was one of the crowning moments in the race. Our whole team had been focused on this since the middle of the night before and now it was our job to gap them as much as possible between here and the finish line.

I had been riding more than 10 miles, a long pull for our rotation. Only one van was behind me, but I pulled off and Dave Hoffman and I began our beautiful work together. I rode the uphills and he hammered down. For four rotations, back and forth, we blistered the hills outside of Keyser, West Virginia. We were like machines. Zbow and Ben handled the logistics, bike on, bike off, try not to hit anything with the van. As I recall, we may have lost a rear-view mirror along this stretch, whatever, seriously, whatever, collateral damage at this point. We were all focused and pushing the limits of what we were being asked to do. It was a beautiful sight.

When Lance took over for us, I basically blacked out for 45 minutes.
Is it weird that I am a little sad that we are not all going to be in California the second week in June?

Christopher Gergen bear-hugged me at the start of the Great Human Race on Saturday, and I thought to myself, any person on that trip is a friend for life, a brother or sister in a way that is intimate beyond words. We have been to hell and back. I love you all.
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