Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Trans Iowa...When Tough Isn't Enough

Cloaked in total darkness I shouldered my bike for what seemed like the 100th time. The rails of the saddle cut deep into the groove they had already established in my collar bone. As I trudged through energy sucking mud that gathered around my ankles I heard my good friend and training partner Charlie Farrow call out to me, “Eki, what are those eyes up there?”. “They're cats, out huntin'”, I said as I approached three miniature lions lying in wait among the corn stubble and weeds. Their glowing eyes reflected my head lamp back to me as they watched me march through their territory. They were not startled or even nervous as I passed within feet of their hunting grounds, but appeared almost annoyed and perplexed at the same time. “They're livin' the dream.”, Charlie remarked as we left them to their business, we had ours to tend to. We were in Iowa, the land of endless black soil and a sky so big it seems that only the hawks soaring above could ever come close to understanding it. My partner and I were in the 7th running of the Trans Iowa bike race, a 320 mile, unsupported, nonstop gravel road experience. We went there with a plan to race, to win, and to leave our mark. Some things would go as planned, others wouldn't, but one thing is for sure a mark was made, Iowa is in our blood forever.

Charlie Farrow, Tim Ek, Jeremy Kershaw DBD'ers

I pounded out the miles early in the day, feeling fit, light, and fast. Focusing intensely on Charlie's wheel I eeked out every bit of his draft as he did the same to the two leaders in front of him. We were in an established break away and testing each other's strength with hours of racing ahead of us. Our plan was polished, practiced, and solid. We were committed to each other, vowing to do what ever it took to stay with the leaders in the hope that I would be able to launch late in the night for the win. Charlie was willing to “bury himself” for me during the race in order to keep me at the front. So goes the beauty of cycling, a sport so pure that one rider will give all of himself in order to see the other succeed. The art of sportsmanship is represented here in it's purest form when one is willing to acknowledge the chances are better for the other, therefore that one will “give it all up” to have a taste of success. I was humbled by his commitment and honored to train and race with him. Our bonds would only grow stronger as our plan would begin to take on new shapes.

Wet days leading up the the T.I. (Trans Iowa) had the gravel buttery and wet. It took only minutes to be completely covered in mud spray from the wheels of fellow competitors. I spit dirt and at times small rocks out of my mouth every few minutes. The fine Iowa grit reeked havoc on the drive trains of all machines. I winced through every climb as my chain groaned and popped up the hills. I waited for the sickening feeling of a pedal giving way to a broken link as the body suddenly drops to the top tube when all resistance disappears in an instant. A mechanical of this nature would doom all chances of success and destroy hopes of staying in the front. The bike became my number one concern. I would steal a glance to Charlie from time to time only to notice him straining immensely on the climbs as he was unable to change out of his big ring, forcing him to stay in a gear built for high speeds and flat terrain. I rode to him and shouted, “we need to take care of our bikes or all will be lost”. He agreed, but the peloton was not stopping for anyone. It was early in the first morning of the race and this pack of 30 hungry men weren't going to let up. Nervous tensions had things moving rapidly. We were caught in a dilemma, do we pull off to tend to our dangerously dry chains and risk losing the leaders? Surly if the big horses of this race knew that Farrow and Ek had pulled over they'd hit the throttle in order to either completely drop us or deeply hurt us in our efforts to get back. Against better judgment we took our chances and sat in with the group in order to make the first check point, there we would tend to our needs.

The Iowa mud covere my La Cruz
A flurry of activity made the 1st c.p. a stressful time. Each man focused on resolving his own concerns, mine was getting the chain lubed and the mud out of my rear derailleur, front rings, and brakes. Once the task was completed there was a quick stop in the convenience store to top of fluids and Charlie and I were good to go. We rolled out of town, ultimately taking a turn onto a long stretch of rolling gravel that put a strong wind at our backs. A Lincoln, Nebraska rider named Troy Krause jumped in and made up the third man of our little band. We would comfortably hold a pace that had us rolling at speeds that touched 30 mph from time to time, life was good. Charlie and I joked about how we were leading, uh, winning the Trans Iowa, but we knew the two previous strong boys would be catching us soon. One of these strong men was a Sean Mailen, a Salsa Cycles engineer who is largely responsible for designing the very bike I was on, the Salsa La Cruz Ti. We had the pleasure of riding him in last year's T.I., but he was different then. In fact, we nicknamed him the "boy" due to his boyish good looks and striking charm. This year was different, Sean was all grown up, he wasn't a boy anymore and he was capable of putting the hurt on us in ways that I can't describe. We didn't mention the word "boy" once on this day.

Ultimately, Troy struggled to hold our wheels and sure enough we were caught by the original leaders and the four of us were back together, but we were now dealing with 25+ mph hour cross winds that were taking us off of our lines like rag dolls in a dryer. Also, it should be known that the four of us were certainly not working together. There were two clearly established allegiances here, theirs and ours. Charlie and I fought to catch a draft off them in the quartering/cross winds, but they weren't having it. We were being beat down and clearly not as strong. We'd make it to c.p. #2 (177 miles into the race) as four, but it was tenuous at best. In other words, we knew it wouldn't last, this little gathering was going to split up soon. I felt their attacks and I hung on for dear life, but the constant closing of little gaps was taking it's toll and I couldn't help but think of the long haul. Charlie was thinking the same when he finally said, "we have to let them go". I agreed, we'd start working on contingency plans. Auger in and stay the course became the name of the game. Settling into a rhythm became paramount as experience told us that the real race begins when the sun goes down, boy were we right.

Watching them ride out of sight came as a bit of a relief in that I knew the stress of keeping up was over. I could talk with my friend again and just do what we do... ride. And, ride we did. We laughed, told stories, talked of how happy we were that we were still hooked up in the race just like we planned. We built each other's confidence as we played out countless scenarios of how this, that, and this were all going to happen and one of us was going to win the race. I mean hell, they were ahead of us, but Charlie and I still had a huge lead over the rest of the field. We were comfortable, for now.

The sun sank low and we faced different challenges such as coming upon a bridge that was out. The directors must have missed this one as we never saw a re-route signal. No worries, all part of the T.I. we figured, we welcomed these little surprises. However, I don't do that well with heights and this bridge was in a state of disrepair as large portions of the decking were missing. I kind of froze when we rolled up on it and I took note of Charlie immediately confronting the situation by hopping over the barrier and commanding me to "hand me the bikes!". I did, then I watched him shoulder his and wide step across an open section of decking with one foot on a 4 inch wide steel I-beam and the other foot doing the same about 3 feet away. My mind started calculating bad things that could happen, "our shoes are made of hard plastic bottoms and they're packed with mud, I could slip off and fall 20 feet down into that river, with my bike on my shoulder!" Charlie being an experienced mountaineer breezed through this situation as if he were changing t-shirts, while I gingerly tip toed across the beams with my heart in my throat. I got shivers through my whole body when I was done crossing. Soon enough I was back at home on the saddle and on the hoods.

The cockpit I lived in for nearly 30 hours.
As the darkness took control the chatter about "the real racing" blah, blah, blah stopped and switched to comments like, "I'm getting cold, how are you doing?", "Eki, don't you have a better hat?", "My feet are wet and freezing", "We should stop so I can put on every thing I have, I'm worried". My thoughts raced back to the hotel room when I made a snap decision to pull my long sleeve jersey and warm gloves out of my pack and throw them on the floor. I pictured them laying there, clean, warm, and doing me absolutely no good. We thought about buying sweat pants and a hoodie in a convenience store, but they were all closed now. "My God, what if it rains?".

We were in "no mans land" that abyss of being too far from the start and so far from the finish. The scary place where you don't really have a choice, but to keep moving no matter what the conditions. Also, neither Charlie nor I believe in carrying cell phones in this event as Guitar Ted makes it clear that this is a "no support" race, but he encourages the cell phone for an emergency. We see the cell phone as a way out, we don't want that option. As silly as it sounds, the Death Before Dishonor patch we wear on our gear has got us through these hard times. This patch means you don't quit, you just don't! Of course there are exceptions, but those are decisions each man will make for himself and none of us like putting ourselves in those situations, so we just go on and on. Finally, a stop for a cue sheet change and a chance for me to put on everything I had with me. A light weight wicking Helly Hanson hat under my cycling cap, an extra pair of fingerless gloves over my light weight full fingered gloves, some toe warmers, and a plastic $19.99 rain coat. I was a new man and ready to roll with a clear mind. Miles began to roll out behind us.

Our Code
I had taken on the role of navigator, a position I never have felt qualified for and always admired in others who handled it well. It feels like a big responsibility, because extra miles due to mistakes really hurt and they don't just hurt me, they'll hurt the other guy too. Well, lets just say things got confusing. I had a great conversation with a Police officer in a little town called Belle Plaine, Iowa. He had me all squared away and I knew exactly where we were going. So, a quick stop at a little store where I ate a snickers off the pavement (that I dropped) without even batting an eye and we were ready to get back at it. I lead us out of town and onto the gravel again. Suddenly, mileage on the cues were not matching up with my GPS and I became increasingly concerned while Charlie rambled on about his dog, Loki. I made the all too familiar Trans Iowa stop and flatly stated, "This isn't right". My partner tried to find a way to make it right as if talking about it in a nice way would change the situation. His voice lifted and he made comments about how he "feels" like it's "o.k.", but as navigator I needed more than this. "Fine, I'll ride up and check that next road, if it's right I'll blink my head lamp at you which means you should come up too", Charlie said. "O.k., Go! Cover your light with your hand off and on to let me know", I said. I watched as he disappeared into the distance to the point where I couldn't see him any more. A nervousness settled in on me as I stood alone in the Iowa night, so quiet. Then, way up in the distance I saw a light blinking back at me. "COOL, I thought, what a great system we have." I took off and sure enough it was the road we were looking for. All was good again. We rode on, talking and laughing about how far ahead we were when two strange lights were coming toward us at the same time that it donned on us that we were heading back into town. "What the hell are you guys doing here?", I said. "What the hell are you doing and where are you going and who are you?". "It's Farrow and Ek, who are you?" "Krause and Grelk, where are you going? You're going the wrong way!". "You're going the wrong way!", I replied. Dennis Grelk always the cool, calm spirit suddenly chimed in, "No, you are going the wrong way, we're going the right way." He said it in such a way that I simply believed him. A short discussion followed and we turned around to follow them.

Our hour lead on Grelk and Krause was now gone, but still we weren't worried. We discuss how we'd stay with them until sun up, then just ride away with the hopes that the men up the road might be having some spot of trouble, allowing us to sneak in for the win. To say we were optimistic is an understatement. This would rapidly change as Grelk found his legs again.

The chasing began in earnest. Grelk hit the climbs with a vengeance, while the three of us fought to grab his wheel. After all, he was now navigating, we needed him and he had proven good at it. But, he was really hurting us on the climbs. Soon it became apparent that the 180 miles of hard riding earlier in the day were beginning to weigh heavy on Charlie and I. We exchanged concerned glances as the pace ratcheted up at different points throughout the night. I was holding my own, but feeling seriously tired, not only the kind of tied you get from a long bike ride, but I'm talking about hospital kind of tired. I would look for sympathy as I told Krause and Charlie, "I'm really hurting guys, my legs are cooked!". They wouldn't answer, instead they just stared straight ahead. I began to accept that this was how it was going to be and it was 11:00 p.m. My calculations had the race ending for us some time around 8:00 a.m. How would I make it through the night like this?

Race Director, Guitar Ted and Tim Ek
My concerns shifted from myself to my good friend. No longer was he the man who would launch me to a glamorous win of the 2011 Trans Iowa, but he was Charlie Farrow, the man who I talk to about my life, my hopes, my dreams. He was in desperate trouble and he was telling me that he couldn't hang on any more. He started asking about the cue sheets, stating that he would be dropped soon, that he couldn't do it any more. I always told him where we were on the sheets, because I wasn't sure how much longer he could keep coming back to us. The "yo yo effect" in cycling breaks a man down. One can't just keep digging deep to close down gaps over and over. It's nice and romantic to talk about "digging deep", but at some point there's nothing more to dig, at some point one just hits bedrock. My friend had been operating at "bedrock" mode for hours and I was worried. This is not some 24 hour lap mountain bike race. This is the middle of the cold night, in the middle of a state we are not from, with no idea of towns or where they even are. We couldn't even see farms at times. The four of us had been staring at a cone of light from our handlebars for hours and it causes a kind of immunity to the outside world. We were operating in a tunnel of light, so to speak. During a break for food and gear adjustments I made a promise to Charlie that I wouldn't leave him out there in the Iowa night. I vowed I'd get him home and it was getting to the point that we needed to cut Grelk loose.

Suddenly, blinking lights appeared at the top of a climb. The leaders were stopped with a mechanical, we had caught them. A short conversation and a decision to offer them a pump had us moving on without them. We were in the lead or more accurately Dennis Grelk was in the lead. Approximately 50 miles out we encouraged Dennis to leave us as it was clear we were holding him back and he was the strongest rider at the time. He was hesitant, but itching to go. He'd hit the climbs even harder than before only to hold up a bit for us on the other side. I ultimately told him, "just go, I'll get us home". And, he was gone...

Grelk's disappearance was phenomenal as he was there one minute and the next he was out of sight. We all tipped our hats to him and began to root for him. I don't really even know Dennis, but I recall thinking, "Go Dennis, Go, You Can Do It, Don't Let Up!".

Krause, Farrow, and Ek were now the chase group, but we weren't really chasing, we were running, running from the earlier leaders, now behind us dealing with mechanicals. I took over nav. and I took it seriously as I viewed Krause and Farrow as my responsibility. I would get these boys home no matter what and I'd do it without any mistakes. This focus gave me purpose and drive. I rode at the front a lot and I felt them trusting me. I informed them of our distances in order to gauge nutrition and hydration, the sun would be up soon, then every thing would get better.

Being caught and passed by the earlier leaders just before sun up as they chased hard for Grelk had us demoralized, but intent on the bigger prize of finishing. I told the boys that it's about getting home now, just getting home, don't worry about them. This view point would soon change and the race would become a race again as the "what if" scenarios Charlie and I discussed earlier began to unfold.

Another flat had them side lined, we were back in the fight. I was renewed and driven. Farrow seemed to be coming around. Krause stayed positive despite extreme knee pain, he emerged as my rock and my co-pilot. Troy stayed tight on my wheel at all times giving me confidence knowing he was there. He proved to be the Salt of the Earth as I got to know more about his character. I remember thinking that I could ride to the corners of the globe with this guy.

30 miles turned into 15 and we were still in good shape. A large climb "popped" Charlie off our wheels as I grew increasingly concerned about getting caught. I began to lift the pace while Troy stayed hooked on. At 14 miles I rode next to him and asked about the finish. Troy politely stated, "I was just thinking about that and I think you should come in 2nd place and I'll take 3rd, but of course we have to ask Charlie". "Are you sure? And, yes of course we'll talk to Charlie", I said. We both turned around to see my friend about a 1/4 mile back. He was "popped", there was nothing more we could do for him. A sadness came over me as I said, "He's off the back, let's go". Without hesitation Krause and I slipped into a fast moving rotation and began to knock out the remaining miles. As the count down continued I began to get more excited and nervous. I took longer pulls, obsessively looked over my shoulder for chasers. We were doing it! 5 miles to go and I was riding harder than ever. Troy would report that we were clear, no chasers, while I would give him distance to finish information. With 1 1/2 miles to go I sat up. I turned to my new friend to hold out my hand. We shook, smiled and thanked each other, but more importantly we knew what we'd been through together and no one would ever be able to understand it or take it away from us, we were now connected.

So happy
I barely remember feeling anything physical that had to do with riding the bike while we closed in on the finish. Troy pointed them out to me when I couldn't find them. Suddenly, I saw a group of people clapping and moving to the road to get a better look at us. I said to myself, "You did it, You really did it!". I put my hands in the air, then over my face as I was overwhelmed with the enormity of it all. I finished 2nd place in the Trans Iowa for the second time in a time of 29 hours and 44 minutes, over a distance of 336 miles.

Thank you Guitar Ted and D.P. for giving me the gift of finding out what I'm really made of and showing us all that we can be. Thank you Mike Riemer at Salsa Cycles for all that you've done for me. My Salsa La Cruz Ti was exceptional. Thank you Sean Mailen for the time I got to spend with you and I enjoyed getting to know you as well as watching you effortlessly handle your La Cruz. Troy Krause, you are one of the "good guys". I felt so at ease with you and deeply appreciated your approach to this beautiful sport as well as your approach to life. Finally, to my good friend and training partner Charlie Farrow, we did win buddy, we really did win.

The blanket of Trans Iowa covers all finishers and I will forever hold a corner of that blanket tightly in my fist. Thank you Trans Iowa for showing me who I really am.

T.I. recap in progress, but until then...

Here's a list of what hurts:

  • Both feet oddly swollen and retaining fluids, incredibly sore
  • Left ankle sore, but don't remember hurting it
  • Ugly blister on right heel
  • Left knee sore
  • Right knee appears to have a baseball implanted inside of it and the skin is ripped off it in about three places
  • Both quads have been injected with cement and are fatigued to a degree that is impossible to explain
  • Right hip is severely bruised with skin torn off
  • Left side of lower back is tight and sore
  • Upper back deeply fatigued and sore
  • Both triceps - destroyed
  • The heels of both hands are deeply bruised from being on the hoods for almost 30 hours of vibrating gravel
  • Right wrist sore, but don't remember hurting it
  • Wound on left side of forehead, most likely from a helmet rub.
  • Several toe nails are sore to the touch, will most likely fall off.
  • Stiff neck
  • Eyes burn
  • Chest hurts when I take a deep breath
That pretty much sums up my physical being at the moment. Oh, and I'm typing this at 1:24 a.m., because my internal clock is so messed up right now that it feels like it's 2:00 p.m. Work should be fun tomorrow.

I wouldn't trade any of it. I've never felt more alive! And, hey I took 2nd place in the 2011 Trans Iowa. I'm gonna ride this wave, cause despite the list above, it feels pretty damn good!

My full re-cap is in progress, coming soon. I hope you like it.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Give Me Iowa or Give Me Death

18 hours from now Amy and I will be heading to the hinterlands of Iowa. I will embark on my 4th Trans Iowa Race. The first attempt saw me elated to meet a goal of finishing the event on a 26" wheeled mt. bike with a huge pack on my back. The second effort had me walking on air for months after as I rolled to a 2nd place overall finish with a whole new perspective on gravel road racing. The third reduced me to ruin as a hurricane like system centered itself squarely over the state and forced me out at about the 150 mile mark.

This weekend I will come at the race humbled, yet experienced. I'm going light and built for speed. My kit is tried and true and I feel confident with the choices I've made in gear, nutrition, and clothing. However, Trans Iowa weather always has the final say. This is the "wild card" that cannot be controlled, only dealt with.

Please, think positive thoughts as you move through your day and night this coming Saturday/Sunday. We'll be out there, "Doing it". Trans Iowa always changes you a bit. I know that no matter what happens, it'll change me for the better.

See you on the other side...


Thursday, April 14, 2011

I'm all, Anti "Big Ring"

O.k., I'm comin' off the first race of the 2011 season and feeling pretty good about things. I had a solid day on the bike, worked through the dark times, climbed well, and most importantly stayed "hooked on". Hell, I even had some gas in the tank for a run at the overall win.

Now, with that being said, those things I mentioned didn't come for free. I have a deep nagging soreness in my right knee and right glute from a crash mid way through the race on tar that brought stars to my eyes. I also have some fatigue in the 'ole dogs that penetrates to the bone. Oh, and I've got 'King Kong' on my back, but he goes by a new name - Trans Iowa.

So, as the days tick by 'King Kong' and I approach each other like spies meeting on a bridge in some Ukrainian country side. Until we meet in the middle I've vowed to stay out of the Big Ring. I tell myself that the "50" is no place for me now. I must resist the urge to shift with my left hand, I must stay in the small ring and spin. Just spin easy I say. It's hard, as I feel like every thing is taking too long and my legs are saying, "Dude, what's your deal?" In fact I was on my way to get the taxes done last night and I threw her up into the "Big Dog" to start cruising mode, when I realized, "Wait, you're all anti "Big Ring", remember?". Sh*t! Back down to the "little guy".

I am resigned to spin like a little kid on an under geared bike for the next 10 days or so. It feels so wrong and right all at the same time.

See you soon, Mr. Kong.

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