Sure, I’ve done plenty of brutal, long, hard rides in the last year, but I’ve never ridden for 57 miles without stopping. Like, not even a little stopping. No 15 minute rest breaks, no slowing down to wait for your friends, to bathroom stops, no freaking stops of any kind. None.
We arrived at Cooper Spur early to let breakfast settle, get warmed up, adjust to the elevation a little bit, and calm our nerves. I knew this was the Big Day, that everyone had been saving up something for the hellish climbing ahead. I also knew the route, and figured that the worst thing would be going for a really gorgeous ride on a beautiful sunny day. That’s not so bad.
We line up at the start, then we’re off to descend for a wicked 6 miles, down curving roads at a pace that scares a few riders who aren’t comfortable being that close to other cyclists. Yet again I’m toward the back, which means I’m near the sketchiest wheels and it’s frustrating. A few times I was afraid I’d get crashed out by someone, but they pull it together and by the time the road flattens out everyone is calm.
I expected someone to make an attack at the Lost Lake Rd. climb at mile 14, but instead we’re riding an easy tempo all together for several miles. It’s like a tea party, amiable and easy, people chatting, putting in the real warm up before the climbing begins. We pass the Tiny Cabin (a friend’s place in the woods) and I say a quick hello to one of my favorite dwellings in Oregon. This is all familiar territory and I know we’re smart to take it easy here.
As we drop down toward Lolo Pass Road I make my way to the front of the pack and lead us in the descent that heads to the first climb at Forest Road 18. It breaks the pack and we lose over half the riders, and I can’t believe I’m with the lead group through the climb. But it doesn’t last, and by the time we start up the grueling Forest Road 16 climb I’m on my own. And I stay on my own for the next 20 miles.
Racing alone is challenging. My mind wanders. My legs don’t want to work as hard. I start writing this blog post as I pedal. I notice the bear grass in bloom at lower elevations, then hot pink native rhododendrons still blossoming at higher elevations. Mt. Adams makes an appearance off to my left through a clear cut. I pass a few recreational riders. Then I hear a buzzing coming from behind and I’m not alone anymore, I’ve been caught by one lone racer from a Canadian team and she becomes my lifeline back into the race for a few miles. We furiously bomb down the road, me on her wheel, grateful for the company. Mt. Hood suddenly appears in front of us, covered in snow against blue skies and framed by a V of maples and pines.
I accidentally drop my new pal on a climb and find myself alone again for the 7 mile descent on FR 16. Holy hell is this a fun descent on my own, screaming down the hill as fast as I can stomach, barely braking at the corners, taking evasive action around some massive pot holes, in my drops for so long my fingers start to go numb, and going faster faster faster. I averaged 27mph and if I’d ever checked my speed I probably would have freaked out. Sometimes it’s best not to know.
Heading back through Parkdale I see the ladies of Ironclad and wave hello as they cheer me on. I need all the cheering I can get now, 40 miles in and 17 to go, barely managing to ride more than 12mph up a 3% grade into a headwind. My right hip is cramping, has been cramping since we started climbing at mile 21, and I know the only way to make it better is to get off my bike. But I can’t stop. I pass more recreational riders, barely. Then I look behind me and hear someone yell “Westbrook!” and I know it’s Courtney. I told her she’d catch me after the climb, and I’m glad for it. I can’t make it on my own for long on this road.
Courtney has company, my pal from FR 16, and I let them pull through so I can take a break on their wheels. It helps a little, but the rolling road is tough and then the climb back up to Cooper Spur begins. The Canadian leaves us behind, slowly breaking away. My hip is getting worse and I know I can’t push it much harder. I take a drink of water and slow down a little, then I lose Courtney’s wheel and am on my own again. My competitive self can’t believe I just let Courtney get away, I want to beat her on this climb damnit! But my body says no, if you want to finish at all you must take this slowly and just suffer through it. And I am proud to see Courtney riding so strong at this point, she deserves to crush the climb.
The next 7 miles just suck. The endurance climb is not my strength, and while my lungs and heart rate are fine, my hip is just killing me. I stand to give it a rest, but my quads are starting to cramp. All I can do is keep pedaling. I see the 5k sign and feel a glimmer of hope. I don’t need to get off my bike and walk after all. That’s like 3 miles, and I can do that. In my mind I compare it to my commute home from work. I’m already 1/4 of the way home. Just don’t stop.
The climbing turns into a little descent and a flat and a wave of relief washes over me, only to dissolve when I see the course head uphill to the right of the start line, 3k to go. Crap. And it’s steep. I keep pedaling. It’s the longest damn 3k of all time. I make it to 1k and it gets steeper. There’s gravel in the road, pot holes, grit, dirt, it sucks. I can’t stand because the road is too slippery with dirt, so I have to sit and grind it out. At 500m I hear “On your left” and Molly Cameron flies past me like this is so dang easy, but she hasn’t been racing and she’s a pro anyway. I pass a woman in my race who is stopped, sitting on her top tube, head on her handlebars, defeated. As I pass I tell her to go go go, she can make it! But I don’t stop.
200m! The best sign ever. Usually this is where I’d stand to sprint, put in the last effort, but I’ve got nothing. I stand and give it a go at 100m, but like everyone else I sit through the finish. I’m 14th in this stage, and 13th in the GC out of 25. Not top 10 like I dreamed, but still a solid effort. A group of other riders is gathered, recovering. I am spent, my legs are toast, and all I want is some water. There is no water.
Delirious, I scout for a faucet at the Cooper Spur Resort building, probably looking totally crazy trampling around in the dirt, but find one. Sweet water! I return to the group to share my treasure. We drink, we stare, we compare notes, we attempt to recover some higher brain function. We are done.
On the ride back down to the car I know each of us is thinking about what our next races will be.