Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Ragnarok 105, Cream of the Crop

The "Builds" atop Big Buff's car near the "cabin"

The 2011 race season is under way with the completion of the Ragnarok 105 or is the 111? This year's RAG included some changes that left my head spinning to be sure (i.e. a climb called "Heath's Hill" - possibly one of the most difficult climbs I've ever done in my life). Also, a new start/finish that polished off the course in a way that lands the RAG into the premium gravel road race category. These changes resulted in a greater distance this year and more opportunity to climb the famous bluffs of Red Wing, Minnesota.

This year saw 4 DBD (Death Before Dishonor) members towing the line. Jason "Big Buff" Buffington, Charlie Farrow, Jeremy Kershaw, and yours truly. We were fortunate enough to be able to hole up in Buff's father in law's little trout fishing cabin near the race venue. This cabin met all of the DBD'er standards in such a way that it was agreed upon that we could all live there. Hell, if I lived there I'd become an avid fisherman without hesitation, that's how cool this little set up was.

The ride down to Red Wing from Duluth with Buff was great, as there is always good conversation and most importantly, it's not always about bike stuff. I love talkin' old college days, medical stuff (Buff's a Doc), and even giving him a glimpse into Eki's past. At the cabin we had plenty of time to sort out our gear and get the essentials dialed in for race day, while listening to the soothing sounds of Yanni (house music). Yes, Yanni. I bristled at the first suggestion of it, but hey it's not my cabin, I went with it. Immediately, my heart rate dropped, I was calm, I almost started some Yoga sessions. It worked well for my nervous nature.

Fast forward to the race. This year's RAG hosted some serious studs! Meiser, Tri, Farrow, Buff, Norrie, Sova, and a few unknowns that showed themselves at the front of the field early and wouldn't budge. Not only did all of these guys take the blows we tried to hand them, they gave 'em back and they stung!

The RAG always includes a 'King of the Mountains' competition, made up of six scored climbs where points are awarded to the top place holders of the designated climbs. The KOM starts and ends within the first 20 or so miles, so the hurting begins early. I was able to win the 'King of the Mountains' last year, so I was determined to do it again this year. However, I didn't expect it to be as difficult as it was. I controlled the first climb and won with a little "jump" at the end for the line. I felt that things would come easy for me at that point. Then, the diesel engine of Joe Meiser decided to throw his hat into the ring. Joe would now trade punches with me through the remaining 5 climbs. And, when I say "punches", I mean literally. It went something like this. Joe out front about 75% up the hill with me sitting on his left flank locked in against his rear wheel and the soft frost heaved gravel on my left. As I increased my speed to move for the pass he would squeeze me into the frost heaves, effectively doubling my work load. A smart, but some what dirty tactic. "Oh, I see how it's gonna be", I thought. The next climb was incredibly long and the two of us ended up in a similar scenario, however the roles were reversed this time. As Joe moved up on my left I pushed him toward the ditch, again and again. On about my third attempt at this strategy I felt him shove me hard off my intended line. I regained and continued to force him to the soft dirt. His shoves seem to turn to quick jabs to my hip. What it must have looked like to see two guys off the front of the break away punching at each other going up one of the biggest hills in Minnesota on bikes. We laughed about it as we've spent a lot of hours side by side racing. The competition would end with Joe winning three climbs and me winning three. However, Joe finished 3rd in the first climb, while the worst I ever finished was 2nd. I would be the 'King of the Mountains' this day. I was happy with that accomplishment, considering how difficult it was.

With the KOM over, it was time to sit in and concentrate on the rest of the race. There were about 17 of us moving to the first check point ahead of the main field. The pace was moderate and easily managed. Upon leaving the check point our numbers had dropped to 10 as several guys made a run to the store to refuel. The pace would soon ratchet up to uncomfortable levels over and over again.

Joe Meiser (left) and I with our Ragnarok Rocks

Farrow and Buff were determined to let the group know that the DBD were in town and things weren't going to be easy. They continually charged at the front, lifting the pace to a level that my legs (that had just come off the KOM) were objecting too. In my mind I begged them to stop doing this for fear of "popping off" the back of the group. Soon I wouldn't be begging them in my mind, I'd be doing it face to face. At one point I rolled up next to my training partner, Farrow and I plainly stated, "What are you doing this for? You're riding yourself into the ground". Maybe I really meant he was riding me into the ground - he was! He barked at me with a tone I only see from him in the heat of battle, "What do you want me to do, wait till the end so you can beat me on a climb!?" I retreated back to my reserved spot at the back of the field. I kept telling myself to ride up inside the group where the wind resistance was less, but I honestly couldn't handle the pace. My legs were cooked from the early efforts. I would settle for "hanging on", it was all I could do, while the heavy hitters took their turns at the front pushing speeds over 20 mph. We would start to lose members one by one as the pace become too much. It was kind of sad to see them go, they'd spend more and more time at the back, then a climb would really hurt them, a gap would form, they'd bridge back, then repeat the process about three more times, then they'd just be gone. I wondered if I'd be next.

Big Buff would belly laugh at my ability to
get out of car on the way home. This thing
really locked up.

8 of us remained. We approached a left hander off the gravel and on to a stretch of tar. The unthinkable happened. My front wheel got tangled with Big Buff's machine some how, then my right brake lever planted itself into his left quad and I was going down. I clipped out my right foot to save myself and the hard plastic of the cycling shoe hit the damp, humid pavement and it was like I had landed on ice. I was down hard on the tarmac and sliding down the road. The pain was instantly shooting through my right knee and right hip. A cold hand slapped the pavement so hard it would sting for hours. My chain was off and I was alone watching the group ride away from me. I put the chain back on, realized I was o.k. and started the 10 minute gut check for the group. I re-joined, but was psychologically hurt more than any thing. I was nervous about getting close to people and sketchy in general. I would need to overcome these feelings quickly if I were going to stay in this fight. 

Attack after attack happened. It seemed like it wouldn't end. Why wouldn't they just settle down and fight it out at the end? The miles ticked away and soon enough we were about 25 miles out. We came to a minimum maintenance road, basically a trail called "Heath's Hill". This climb was made of soft dirt and mud. It was steep and just got steeper in parts. It was a grind of proportions I can't explain. Buff tells me he looked at his computer and the hill went on for 1.6 miles. A slightly built member of our group took the lead on this climb and simply "walked" away from all of us. He seemed to be gliding up the hill. I was in second position following his line, when he just started to gap me, then gap me some more. "How is he doing that?", I wondered. He crested the hill with a huge space between himself and the rest of us. I too had a bit of room and wondered if he'd sit up for me, thinking maybe together we could try to leave the group. He'd have none of it. This young, skinny kid would take this one in on his own. I saw him go into his drops and he was gone. "Can he solo in for 25 miles with 6 of us chasing?", I thought.

The solo effort, although valiant, wouldn't hold. The boy burned up some serious matches in the effort, his bid for the win was over.

15 miles to go. I started eating the rest of my cals and dumped a remaining water bottle on the ground to lighten my load. I reviewed my directional sheets over and over, memorizing the upcoming turns. My bid for the win was beginning. I'm not sure why, but I became energized. I moved to the front determined to take some pulls and win every climb. I felt I needed to show the group that I still had legs despite all I'd been through. Finally, the last hill before the descent into Red Wing. I moved to the front of the group at the base of the climb. I began repeating in my mind, "Win the climb, Win the race, Win the climb, Win the race..." I began to gap the group on the climb, determined to stay out of the saddle through all of it. I stole a glance behind to find one rider on my wheel, Brandon, one of the unknowns. He'd looked comfortable throughout the day and chatter among our group indicated he was a real threat. Brandon hugged my wheel despite my efforts to shake him. He seemed to be laboring, but was right there. I crested the climb and went to the big ring and my drops. Brandon and I had about 40-50 yards on Joe Meiser, with Joe holding a significant gap on the rest of the guys. Experience told Brandon to leave me out front and that's what he did. I fought the wind alone while Joe closed in on us. Soon it was the three of us and it was clear that one of us would win.

Our final turn behind us and about 4 blocks to the finish the chess match began, but at a frenetic pace. Joe went first with an explosive effort. Brandon was glued to his wheel, while I sat out of ideal position next them. Realizing I was in a poor spot I moved past them and found myself in first position with the end rapidly closing in. Still feeling like I was too far from the line for my final push I stole a glance over my right shoulder to find them, looking for their move. "Where'd they go?" flashed through my mind when I didn't see them. "Oh Sh*t!" was my next thought as my head snapped back forward. Brandon must have seen my look right, so he broke left and I was a half second late on his jump. I poured every thing I had into the pedals moving past Joe and chasing hard for Brandon. I closed the gap, but the finish line found Brandon first. He made a brilliant move for the line and I tip my hat to him. What an exciting sprint finish, one that I'm happy with and proud of. I'd go home the "King of the Mountains" and with a 2nd place Overall.
Tim and Brandon (2nd and 1st, respectively)
Brandon equalled total class!

The hardest Ragnarok 105 (111) I've ever done, but the best one as well. Special thanks to the RAG staff for hosting such a beautiful cycling event. And, thank you Salsa Cycles! My Salsa La Cruz Ti was amazing and she soaked up those gravel miles like a champ.

Me, my rocks, and my Salsa La Cruz Ti


J Meiser said...

Fantastic race Eki! You say dirty, I say tactical. I wasn't going for the KOM until I saw how easy it was for you to take it. It was then that I decided that you needed some competition. We both payed for it late in the race, but emerged unscathed and in good standing. Always a pleasure to ride with the fabled members of the DBD!

Charlie Farrow said...

Bravo Eki Hondo!!! Bravo Old Boy...Capital effort...Hear! Hear!...You are right, I knew that I'd get blown off the back on that huge hill @ the 95 mile mark...too many stouts in this old boy to compete w/you on the long hills...great times :)

Jeremy Kershaw said...

Inspirational! DBD remain a force. I would have liked to have been up there for longer. I'm very impressed.

Jonathon Delf said...

Nice race, Tim. Sounds like an epic battle. Is Trans Iowa in your future?

Kid Riemer said...

Well done Eki. Nice writeup to boot. And can never have too many stouts in you.

Jeff Austin said...

Great write up. I enjoyed racing with you on Saturday. Hope to see you lots more this season!

HEATH said...

Nice work this Spring. Impressive KOM and finish work for you and Joe.

Charly Tri said...

Good job out there, I look forward to future rumbles. Always fun, always painful.

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