Monday, August 3, 2009

A Rabbit, a Wreck and The Great Chase: My 2009 Tour de Park City Race Report

Note: Yes, this is another race report. I feel a little guilty doing these because a) they don’t have much to do with the stated purpose of the blog, and b) race reports are always, by definition, somewhat (OK very) self-involved. Still, they make for fun stories, and hey it’s my blog, so here we go.

Tangent: But to make up for it, I’ll include this awesome shot of the Salton Sea, which I blogged about in Thursday’s post, and spotted out the plane window Friday afternoon.

IMG_0797 If I’d had any common sense at all* I wouldn’t have raced the Tour de Park City this year. The TdPC is, hands-down, the toughest race in Utah. Many folks think LOTOJA is the toughest race around, but as a 3-time LOTOJA and 2-time TdPC veteran, I am telling you, TdPC is way, way tougher.

*And it should in fact by now be apparent to long-time readers that while I have been somewhat blessed with good health, physical endurance and at least moderate mental acuity, I am tragically short on common sense.

Tangent: It’s tougher because the biggest, most brutal climb- Mirror Lake Highway over Bald Mtn Pass- is a) at least 3 times the climb of any of the 3 LOTOJA climbs, and b) doesn’t even start until around mile 110. And the first 110 miles are no cakewalk either, with several tough climbs, brutal headwinds, and about 7 unpaved miles. Oh, and c) there are 2 additional tough climbs at around mile 160 that that you hit mid-afternoon, when it’s probably 80+F degree, and d) the course peaks about 1,500 feet higher than the LOTOJA course.

Gloomy Foreshadowing

So the race is tough. But worse, I’d spent all week at our company conference, at sea level, with zero exercise- a terrible combination for a 6AM start the next day.

To make things even more challenging, I learned mid-last-week that we (the Cat3s) would be racing together with the Cat 1/2s. I’m barely confident racing with the Cat3’s; the idea of racing with the 1/2s was terrifying.

So Friday I made it onto my oversold* flight home from San Diego. I landed at 6:15 and made it to the packet pickup in Holladay by 6:55, picking up a couple last minute items (including a new tire- I noodled about it on the flight home and decided I didn’t like the rubber I had on the rear) and headed home. I ate, changed the tire, assembled gear, prepped the bike and crashed at 10:40PM. At 4:00, the alarm went off, and I was way tired. As I drove up to Park City in the pre-5AM darkness I kept thinking what a lousy idea this was…

*Oversold? Of course it was oversold. That same day, 3,000 miles away, Awesome Wife and the Trifecta were booked on a flight from Philadelphia to Boston that was undersold, so Delta canceled it, rescheduling them repeatedly on various flights/airlines, including an attempt to place mother and children on separate flights! It is remarkable how dismal the airline customer-service ethic is; we wouldn’t tolerate service like this from any other major vendor of consumer-oriented goods or services. But dealing with an airline is like dealing with the Mob: you have to pay, they can and do change the terms unilaterally, and there’s no recourse. In fact, for all I care, we should just turn over the airlines to the Mob or Mexican druglords: either group seems far more logistically-coordinated and no more unethical than airline customer service. (Oo- good angry-middle-aged-guy rant tucked into a footnote!)

Part Where I Introduce People Who Will Turn Out To Be Important Later On, So Pay Attention

At the staging area I was pleased to see that I had a Cat3 teammate racing with me: “Cam”, who’d blocked for me so selflessly a week ago at Chalk Creek. Shivering, we geared up and assembled at the starting line, where I recognized some familiar faces. There was Coyote Dave, and “Perry”, a friend and Team Wright racer with whom I’d worked last year in the Cat3/4 pack at LOTOJA. There was also Amazing Todd. At maybe 145 lbs., Amazing Todd is an unbelievably fast climber; I’ve raced against him a few times, and he’s beaten me soundly every time, most recently at Porcupine Hill Climb, where he took 1st. He’s also a phenomenally nice guy and a gracious competitor; if you have to get your butt kicked, it might as well be by Amazing Todd.

I knew that also at the start was Legendary Courtney, who pretty much soloed the last 35 miles to win Cat3 at the High Uintas Classic.

The start was delayed till 6:10 due to lack of light. With less than a minute to go, I heard my name called out from the sidelines; it was SkiBikeJunkie, wishing me luck. Little did I know then how badly I’d need it…

Tangent: I may have mentioned this before, but Salt Lake is pretty far West in the Mountain time zone, meaning that dawn and dusk occur later than you might expect, about 30 minutes or so later than in Denver.

The Start

We rolled shivering for over an hour before the sun finally hit us around Coalville, where we turned up Chalk Creek, repeating the same course I’d done a week earlier. But when we reached the top of the climb, we turned off to the Northeast and onto dirt, into Wyoming, for the next 7 miles.

Sometimes, when you’re out for a road-ride, you have to ride for a bit on an unpaved road. Generally this is no big deal; you slow down and pick your line a bit more carefully to avoid flatting, wrecking, or otherwise trashing your bike. Only in a Cat 1/2/3 pack, you don’t. Instead you speed up and hammer for 7 miles, trying to outsprint each other and shake out the pack. When we finally reached Wyoming pavement, I breathed a sigh of relief. We rolled, with several intermittent and half-hearted attacks- another dozen miles or so into the Evanston feed zone at around mile 75.

All About Cat1/2s. And Peeing.

Tangent: This is a good time to talk about the Cat1/2s. In an earlier post I gave an example of the kinds of things really skilled racers do. In the Cat 1/2s, everyone does those things. They think nothing about riding no hands in tight pack situations, whether to fumble with pockets, or open packaged food items or whatever. One racer in front of me actually removed his shoe to shake out gravel, while he was riding! By the 80 mile mark, it wouldn’t have surprised me if one of them took out a needlepoint set.

But the most amazing thing that Cat 1/2s routinely do while racing is urinate off the bike. That’s right, they pull over to the right, ideally on a shallow descent, lower their shorts, pull out their you-know-what, and urinate, while rolling down a road at ~20MPH, surrounded by other racers. Sometimes, on flats or slight inclines, they’ll be assisted by a teammate, who will place his right hand on the urinator’s butt to push him along while he (the assistant pedals.) In fact on one slight incline Saturday I saw a double-assist, where a 3rd teammate helped butt-push the primary assistant.

Double Assist This always amazes me. When I urinate- whatever the circumstances- I try hard not to make a mess of things. And truth be told, it requires pretty much all of my wits and focus to hit a stationary target while standing still. I simply cannot imagine peeing on a rolling bike without making a total mess of things, or even crashing. But these guys do it, and do so with complete and relaxed confidence.

Nested Tangent: Speaking of, er “aim”, this brings up my biggest beef with public restrooms: guys who *miss* the urinal. Guys, you know what I’m talking about. I’m always astounded when I encounter the evidence of such a “miss”. It’s a urinal. You’re standing in front of it. How can you possibly miss? If your eye-hand-you-know-what coordination is truly that bad, how do you dial a phone? Or make toast? Or walk across the freaking room? I just do not get it. (Oo- that’s two good rants…)

You’ll notice I’m using only the male pronoun in this tangent. I don’t think female racers ever pee off the bike. (I guess I could google it, but I’m afraid of what might show up…)

Yeah, so anyway back to the race. And don’t worry, it’s going to get exciting now.

After the Evanston feed we dropped down onto the Mirror Lake Highway, turned South and started the long, tough windy slog up into the Uintas. The next 30 miles is rolling, open, climbs gradually and usually windy. I was a bit tired, and having some derailleur/ shifting issues, but was otherwise OK.

The Rabbit And The Wreck

Then it happened. We were ~2 abreast on the shoulder when the racer in front of me swerved. With < a bike-length to spare I saw it: a big, bloated mass of road-kill/fur* dead ahead. Without even thinking, I swerved a foot to the right and missed it. Immediately behind me I heard brakes, cries and crashing. I cast a quick glance back- multiple riders down.

*I first thought it was a cat. Turns out it was a rabbit. Amazing Todd told me later he actually “bunny-hopped” it, perhaps the most accurate use of the expression I’ve heard…

From time to time, racers wreck. It happens. And as a rule, if it isn’t you, you don’t stop. You don’t win races by stopping and checking up on people; that’s for the wheel-cars. But this one happened right behind me, and there’s a good chance that my sudden swerve caused the wreck.

There’s wasn’t really anything I could have done differently, even if I’d had time to think. The sensible thing to do was to keep pedaling and quickly re-integrate with the pack. But I thought, “If being a good racer means riding away from a wreck I might’ve caused, then I don’t want to be a good racer anymore.” I pulled a U-turn and pedaled back.

3 racers were down, 1 in the grass, 2 on pavement. I asked if they were OK and blurted out that I might have caused the wreck, but didn’t know and if I did I was so terribly sorry… they weren’t listening to me… The one in the grass had one arm of his bike’s carbon fork snapped clean off. The 2 on the pavement had a bit of road-rash but were sitting up, not seriously hurt. Then the guy in the grass sat up and started laughing deliriously. “I can’t believe it! I’m not hurt! I’m not hurt!” Behind me I heard the high-pitched whir of a Japanese car driving fast in reverse. I spun around; it was the Cat1/2 wheel car. Help was here. I turned the bike around, and took off.

The Great Chase

I’d spent only a couple of minutes at the wreck, but the main pack had a ¼+ mile lead on me. I started hammering hard. I was at mile 80. At mile 82 I caught a Cat1/2 straggler. “Let’s work together to catch the pack!” I yelled. “OK…” came a not very enthusiastic response. And as we “worked” together it was clear he was cooked. His pulls were short, and didn’t close any distance, but gave me brief breathers in between my all-out hammer-pulls. We worked like this for what seemed like forever. Gradually the pack drew closer, as we rolled up 1 slight incline after another. 500 meters, 300 meters, 100 meters… At 50 meters, at mile 86, I took the lead again. “Hold my wheel!” I yelled, “I’m going to close it”. I gave it all I had. 40 meters, 30 meters… I looked back- the Cat1/2 had fallen off. 20 meters… And then they attacked. The whole pack went into attack mode, shelling off a Cat3 straggler whom I followed for 15-20 seconds before I realized what was happening. And when I did, I just didn’t have it in me to catch them. I fell off all over again, and soon they loomed 1/10th to 1/5th of a mile ahead.

I was completely and utterly despondent. I’d (maybe) caused a wreck, had fallen totally out of contention, and now was looking at a 90 mile solo ride home. I’m embarrassed to admit that at that moment I just wanted to start crying…

But I didn’t cry, and the pack’s attack pace eventually slowed. And I started the Great Chase all over again. This time I was truly alone; the 2 stragglers were far and way off the back. It was me against the pack. Slowly, slowly I gained, head down mostly, looking up from time to time to gage my progress. I thought about speeds and grades. I thought about why I bother to race, when it’s so hard and miserable and pointless. I thought about how much energy I was expending, and wondered how long I could maintain that output before cracking.

Tangent: I also thought about my extra team jersey. One of the things that’s happened to me several times at races is that I’ve done well and wound up on the podium. When you’re on the podium, you really ought to wear your team jersey. But after a long road race, your jersey stinks. So Saturday, I had a spare jersey in the car, just in case I wound up on the podium.

Nested Tangent: The absolute grossest thing on the planet is your race jersey the next morning after a race. The pockets are full of a kind of grossness you thought was only found in sewage canals. And if you make the mistake of actually sniffing the thing, well then Yahweh help you. When I have sniffed a post-race jersey, my immediate thought was: Really? I’m capable of producing that odor? My body should be a superfund site…

And of course I thought: This is why this race is sucking so badly. Because I was cocky and arrogant enough to bring along a podium jersey. This is my own Negative-Hubris-Karma, coming round to haunt me.

I looked up. The pack was only 200 meters ahead, and not hammering. They were almost dawdling. I put my head back down and gave it all I was worth. I knew that I was out of contention, that I’d burned all my matches. But if I could just catch and hang on, then the long ride home might not be just quite so miserable and depressing.

100 meters. I could do this. 75, 50… I stood up and sprinted at mile 90. 20 meters, then 10, and as I finally felt the welcome, wonderful, blessed slipstream of the last rider envelope me in its gentle loving embrace, a car pulled alongside me, a Honda. It was the Cat1/2 wheel car. He’d seen me turn around and go back to the wreck. He’d seen me give chase, get shaken off after almost catching the pack after 6 miles, then fall off again, then chase all the way back up. He’d seen the whole miserable thing, the lone witness to the Great Chase.

Window down, he gave me a thumbs-up. “Nice job, man, nice job!” he called. In 3 years of racing, the most welcome praise I’ve ever received was from that pony-tailed stranger.

Route Map TdPC For the next 10 miles, it was all I could do to hang on. I stayed near the back, forcing myself to eat and drink. It was clear I was out of contention. I had nothing left. My “strategy” was simply to hang on for as long as possible. While we raced, I caught up with my packmates; 1 rider was out ahead, way off the front. It was Legendary Courtney.

The motorcycle official repeatedly yelled out Courtney’s lead to us: “One-forty!... Two-twenty!... Three-thirty!” but no one seemed up for giving chase. We grabbed bottles at the mile 105 feed zone and continued upward.

At mile 110 the grade suddenly stiffened and the real race began. A group of about 12-15 Cat1/2s started hammering off the front. With them was a single Cat3- Amazing Todd. I hung onto them for a good 5-7 minutes before they shelled me off. But when I looked back, I’d left the main pack far behind. Trashed as I’d thought I was, they were more trashed. A few other stragglers were strung out in between the 2 packs, and I worked with one other- Josh (Cat3) from Team Wright- over the next couple of miles. The sun was bright and warm, and the air was filled with the wonderful smell of pines. We climbed past wildflowers and babbling brooks, and I kept thinking how nice it would be to pull over, sit down and dangle my bare feet in a cold brook…

Side Note: Teammate-Cam remained with the 2nd group, and we didn’t see each other again during the race.

Near Hayden Summit we grouped up with 2 other riders- my friend Perry (Cat 3) also with Team Wright, and Scott, a Cat2 SkiUtah racer. We quickly agreed to work together up and over Bald Mtn Pass and down Mirror Lake Highway. Right after the summit another Team Wright racer loomed into view. It was Legendary Courtney, who’d blown up on the climb, been caught and spit out by the lead Cat1/2s (and Amazing Todd)

Together the 5 of us climbed the last pitch. I was climbing strongest and pulled most of the way up. As I did I marveled at my change of fortune: I’d recovered, despite my time at sea level I was having no issues with the elevation (10,700 feet) and I’d broken away from the main pack. If we could maintain our break, I had a decent chance of finishing in 5th place. I was- incredibly- back in contention.

At the pass we grabbed water hand-ups, re-grouped and started hammering down. The descent off Bald Mountain down to Kamas is long, rolling and windy. We rotated on the way down, but it was clear that Legendary Courtney was pretty trashed. The strongest puller was Cat2 Scott. Down, down, down we went, past Spruce and Lodgepole, and eventually into the heat and Sagebrush and Scrub Oak-covered hills around Kamas. We zipped through town and started heading up and East on Highway 248 towards Park City. As we left Kamas we caught another Cat1/2 straggler. We were at mile 160.

The 2 climbs between Kamas and Park City are miserable on a cool day with fresh legs. On a hot day after nearly 8 hours in the saddle, they are completely freaking miserable. But up we went. Way, way ahead in the distance, I could see 2 dots- 2 more stragglers. The Cat1/2 straggler we picked up in Kamas said, “One of them’s wearing a Porcupine jersey.”

Side Note: This guy’s eyesight was phenomenal. I regret not asking him he wore contacts or had had LASIK.

Amazing Todd wears a Porcupine jersey. I took the lead and picked up the pace. It was Amazing Todd and we soon caught him. He’d cramped badly come over the pass, and had been unable to hang on to any paceline coming down into Kamas. Now were 5, the Cat3 leaders, all together.

We descended into the valley at the North End of Jordanelle reservoir and then hammered hard up the 2nd climb on 248. When we crested it, Legendary Courtney was gone, never having fully recovered from his spectacular solo break and ensuing blow-up climb. We were down to 4.

We followed several miles of frontage roads back toward the finish line, conserving our strength as best we could in the face of brutal headwinds. Finally we rolled along the I-80 frontage road, Newpark (the start/finish area) visible in the distance. With ½ mile to go, Josh shot ahead. Perry hesitated, blocking me for a moment. But Cat2 Scott behind me, yelled, “go ahead!”- he’d dropped back a bike-length to give me an opening. I shot ahead. But so did Perry and so did Amazing Todd. Then Scott passed me. I knew how this would end. I’d known it for the last 5 miles. In a 4-man Cat3 sprint, I’m 4th. I always am.

Something Different, and Anarchy at Newpark

Only this time, I wasn’t.

20 feet ahead of me, Amazing Todd bent over funny and stopped pedaling for a full second- he was cramping again! I hammered and shot ahead of him, then made the fast left into the finish area. Only the finish area wasn’t there- “there” being the same place as last year. There was another intersection in a parking lot, and a confused woman with an orange flag directing us on another 90 left turn. I turned and saw the following: Cat2 Scott was down in the road, having collided with Josh, who, feet down, was trying to turn around. I rolled by fast. 40 feet later, Perry and another Cat1/2 were both down, scrambling to get up. Something was way, way wrong. Should I turn around? Where was the finish line?? The “road” bent around to the right through the parking lot, and another volunteer (Rod, owner of Spin Cycle, my team’s sponsoring shop) waved me to make a sharp left under the Newpark Hotel skybridge. There it was- the finish line! But now Amazing Todd, who’d somehow been flagged through the right way, was ahead of me, crossing the line. I sprinted and shot across, then regrouped with Amazing Todd.

We discussed what had happened. Obviously, the woman’s poor directions had cost Josh and Perry 1st and 2nd. Todd and I agreed to do the right thing. Over the next hour we cornered an official, plead our case and asked him to change the results. After much discussion, he agreed, dropping me from 2nd to 3rd and Todd from 1st to 4th. Josh and Perry were awarded 1st and 2nd respectively.

Tangent: Negotiating this with the official was no small accomplishment. I took the lead in the discussion/explanation, as among the race-frazzled members of the group, I seemed to be the calmest and most articulate at the time. In truth I welcomed the chance to set things right; I was still feeling karmically out-of-kilter from the day’s earlier events around the crash.

Amazing Todd proved himself- yet again- amazing. Dropping from 2nd to 3rd is really no big deal. The difference between 1st and 4th is much greater, and means more than $200 less in prize money. Amazing Todd is a class act.

TdPC was probably my last race of the season; I decided months ago to take this year off from LOTOJA. That’s 3 Cat3 races I’ve done now, finishing 4th, 4th and 3rd. Guess maybe I can hang with these guys after all.


KB said...

Hi Watcher - Totally off topic -- It seems like you and I like similar mountain places, where we can car camp in relative solitude and ride our bikes up high. Do you have any suggestions for the Telluride, Silverton, and Ouray area? I just thought that I'd ask in case you have a favorite place there. Thanks!

KanyonKris said...

Wow, what a thriller! OK, spread out over 170 miles I'm sure it was mostly dull, but packed into a blog post it's quite the drama.

Congrats on the 3rd place finish - well earned!

Ski Bike Junkie said...

Nice work. I had no idea about the finish line confusion. I was going so slow at that point that I found my way across the line with no trouble. You and Todd are class acts for doing what you did. Kudos.

Faceless Ghost said...

Now I can put a face with the blog. As I rode away from the crash as fast as I could, I saw another rider turn around and thought, "why would anyone go back--is that guy insane?"

Don't worry, though, you had nothing to do with the crash. A cat 3 rider (don't know who) directly in front of me took himself out. He tried to swerve around the rabbit and jerked his bars, knocking me off the road and taking himself and two other riders down. (Such are the hazards of hiding at the back of the bus--in addition to the rabbit, I ran over a brick, a boot, and another unidentified piece of roadkill in the first 100 miles.)

I'm glad you were able to catch back on. In the future, just ignore the crash if it's behind you. Support cars are there to clean up the mess, and you can find out if everyone's okay at the finish :)

KristenT said...

That's an exciting story!! I found myself leaning over my keyboard towards my monitor as I read, heart pounding and eyes wide! :) Thanks for bringing us along with you.

Excellent job indeed.

Watcher said...

Faceless Ghost: Many thanks for your comment. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. I was still worrying about my role in the crash, and I now feel WAY better.

KKris, SBJ, KristenT: Thanks!

Watcher said...

Hi KB- I’m sorry to say that it’s been >15 years since I’ve been to Telluride, Ouray or Silverton (though I’ve spent time more recently around Durango, Cortez and Montrose.) On my last car-camping/biking trip to Telluride I camped up some side road South of Lizard Head Pass, off Southeast from the highway- maybe the road up to Tin Can Basin?- at about 10K – 11K feet. I remember it was real nice, no problem finding a site, but this was ’93 or ’94. We mtn biked on Wilson Mesa, which I remember being pretty, nice singletrack and only moderately technical, though again it was a long time ago.

KB said...

Watcher: Thanks very much. I'm going to look for those spots on my maps - but I'll keep in mind how different they may be now.

itgotweird said...

Nice recap. But I was more like stupid Todd for not eating and drinking enough. Thanks for the company after the race, and sorry they screwed you on the final final results.

Anonymous said...

A great recap of an amazing ride. The sportsmanship that you and Todd displayed at this race was beyond reproach. Almost no one goes "backwards" at a race, and then steps up to give away a podium placing. I appreciate your honesty and your friendship. Perry

Brooks said...

Alex -- I was bummed to miss the TofPC this year but wouldn't have ridden with you anyway (I can't seem to race enough -- or fast enough -- to get out of the 4s...arrgh). Sounds like an epic race as always...I love that race. Perry told me about everything -- very upstanding on your behalf. Nice work...a few more performances like this and you're cat 1/2 bound.

msj09027 said...

Great race report. Please bore us with more of your ride reports!

I really enjoyed the story, and as always you demonstrated what a class guy you are, (and why you are well liked by Mormons). ;-)

I didn't even have to skip over the botanical stuff either...

mj in fremont

WheelDancer said...

Haven't been by in a while but this is a great post and like someone else said, for 170 miles of mostly slogging through it riding, you have capped off the exiting parts in great style!