I'm not gonna lie - I was a bit intimidated at 7am this morning, driving out to the Plains of VA to join the Haymarket ride. Over 100 people were there last week while I was busy shattering my pointer finger on a rock at Gambril Park.
And not just 100 average joes - this ride attracts the fastest guys in the area, mostly cat 1 & 2's. As I neared the Haymarket bike shop I wondered how fit I was. I haven't raced in 5 months. My finger is broken in 3 places with 6 stitches holding it together. It REALLY doesn't like the cold and the temps as I pulled in were hovering just over 20°, wind blasting the Plains with gusts over 35mph. No team mates joined me and while a few guys I knew were signed up along with over 100 others only about 40 showed. What was I thinking? I was out of my league for sure. I wondered if my gamble to gauge my fitness would backfire and leave my confidence in the gutter.
As I kitted up with double booties and double jackets I realized I didn't have a pump or Co2 in case of a flat. I asked Jarred, Cat 1 rockstar and owner of the shop if he'd turn on the register & sell me a pump which he did and even took a few bucks off when he could have charged me more for being a pain in his ass. Super guy and since I only loosely knew a couple other guys there, I figured it a prudent move for I was sure to get a flat on some of the 20+ miles of gravel road the course was hiding. Best to be self sufficient, for no Cat 1 roadie was going to pull over and offer me his pump while the ride (which turns into a bragging rights race) heated up. While I did see one other mountain biker there, pro racer and Leadville 100 veteran Jeff Dickey, I kept hearing the voices of Phil Liggett and Eddy Merckx, "Jason, this isn't a mountain bike race..."
Ryan McKinney, who showed up on an old steel bike with fenders, used to race with my business parter Ken Bell about 12 years ago. I met Ryan when he was 17 and he was on his way to being stoopid fast on both mt. and road bikes. True to form he's now also a Cat 1 rockstar, even on an old steel bike with fenders. Take note J-Wa. I don't know why I seek out situations to punish myself (or let others do it for me) but here I was again. Deep breath, clip in, roll out.
The first hour was all headwind and bitter cold but luckily the pace stayed relatively slow until we hit the first 4 miles of gravel. Some guys went backwards, some surged forwards. I figured I'd test the legs and my road-bike-in-gravel skills so up to the front I went. Throw in some punchy climbs, sketchy descents, flying rocks and oncoming cars on these narrow roads and it was pretty fun. We took a nature break, let the group reform and then it was off again. Now the pace heated up and one guy went off the front, into the wind solo. After a minute or so the Harley team surged after him so I gave chase. Again, why? I was happy to draft Jarred's wheel when he roared past me and helped drag me up to the blasting chase group. I was full gas, wondering how long I could hang. We formed a solid pace line and amazingly couldn't pull the lone rider back. After about 10 miles I was hurting and then the long climb up to Middleburg threatened to shatter me but as I started to dangle off the back they pulled over and stopped, letting most of the group reform. Deep breath, gel, clip in, keep going.
But now the big guns were warmed up and ready to fire. The first hill saw local legends Joe Dombroski and Dave Osborne pushing the pace. I gave Jeff Dickey a look like, "see you later buddy" and he smiled back. Smile? I was about to throw up a lung, how could he be smiling?? I was SO out of my league. But I hung on and even put my time in at the front taking the shortest pulls possible. Then came more punchy climbs and I was coming apart. There was no escaping the Grand Canyon of difference between a Cat 1 and this lowly Cat 4 - it's the top 10% of output, meaning they had 10% more to give and I didn't. See ya, backwards I went, straight through the group and out the back.
Luckily the Haymarket team car went by slow enough for me to jump in their draft. I totally cheated half the way back to the main group but when the guys driving saw me they picked it up past my ability to pedal. That's when Harley veteran Sean Barry, who must have taken a wrong turn passed and I jumped on his wheel. While he said he had done the same ride a few months prior, he made another wrong turn with me in tow and for about 5 miles total we were off course, trading pulls into the wind. Once we found the correct turn the road turned back to gravel and the climb over 1,000' started. He showed me pity and kept it slow but after my second flat I let him ride off. I was bummed surely be the last to finish but stoked to have that pump and 2 tubes.
It was my third flat that made me ultra aware of the pain in my finger, the soreness in my back and how f-ing cold it was on that ridge. But again a silver lining lay in the return of asphalt under my tires.
I lost another 15 minutes applying a patch with numb blocks of wood that were once my fingers. Thank God it held as I rolled back to the shop dead last, tho I have no idea how many didn't bother to finish.
Sure I was a bit disappointed and would have loved to have vied for the sprint but my reality isn't there yet, not even close. Although Hell, it IS only January and by the time the REAL racing begins who knows, I might be 1 or 2% better. I guess that's why they say it takes about 10 years of racing and training to reach your full potential. Huge thanks to Mad Alchemy for keeping my legs and back warm - my only parts that are not stinging as I type this. And if you don't know what HTFU means, check YouTube.