But I told her that in hindsight I could see that my strong showing at the 2012 Barry Roubaix was a confluence of favorable factors which were mostly beyond my control. First, winter gave up the ghost in February of last year, and the race in March was rather pleasant, not too hot, not too cold.
Second, I happened to spend very little of the race alone. I was able to attach myself to a group of riders that were probably a bit faster than me, and maintain contact with them from just after Cloverdale until the the Sager-Shaw-Sandtrap. I benefited from the support, camaraderie, and shared work of others for 40 miles of a 62mile race. Third, I was healthy last winter and had just over 1,000 miles of training in between Jan 1 and the start of the race.
This year was shaping up to be a different animal. Winter was holding strong, and showing no signs of relenting. I felt like I was training smarter (more 2 x 20 intervals), but two different bouts of illness, a respirator infection in late February and a cold in early March, set me back at least 2 weeks of training. Third, in contrasting my first Barry-Roubaix with my second, I realized how fortunate I was to be able to work together with that group for long as I did. I feared I wouldn't be able to do it again, and tried to train accordingly. I spent many miles grinding alone in the dead of winter.
So when the week of the Barry-Roubaix finally arrived, it was surreal. I had been training for this one race continuously for four months, and all of a sudden it was time to pack up a car and drive deep into the Mitten. Morleigh and I had made our hotel reservations in December, not wanting to end up in Grand Rapids like we had a year earlier. Our friend and teammate Chernoh asked us in Feburary about our plans, and we happily offered him the extra queen bed in our room, as well as a ride to Michigan.
Whereas some on Facebook were daring one another to pack less and less for the Barry-Roubaix, Morleigh, Chernoh, and I rented a mini-van so we could carry our excessive quantities of preparation. Morleigh and I discovered last summer the joys of taking minivans to races because we were able to fit multiple bicycles inside the vehicle without any dis-assembly, seat three people comfortably, and still fit all of our belongings. Morleigh and I generally prepared for everything from sub-freezing temps to 50s and rain.
Our trip to Michigan went smoothly with good conversation triumphing over the time and distance. We left on Friday morning, and arrived without incident in Hastings, MI at just after 1PM EST. We stopped at the Walldorff brewery pub in downtown Hastings for lunch. We each had a slightly different lunch-time sandwich, and tried the gambit of fries (regular, garlic parmesan, and sweet potato). It was a great way to start our racing weekend.
After lunch the plan was to head back to the hotel to check in, Chernoh and I were going to change for a ride, and Morleigh was going to take a little nap. I was curious to see the course conditions so we followed the race-route out of Hastings on our way back to the hotel. When we made the right-turn off of paved spur into the course into the course proper I was completely taken aback, and my jaw literally dropped open. First, despite having studied the map of the course for weeks and having ridden it twice before, I had absolutely no idea that as soon as we turned off the spur leading out of town we had a date with the three Sisters. The land around Hastings undulates wildly, but there are two sections that are so positively evil that they have been named, and less than four miles into the race we were going to tackle one of these sections. In some ways it was a relief, because that meant we didn't have to tackle them at mile 40 when there was nothing left in the tank like previous years. But it also meant that I would have to burn three matches very early in the race to maintain any sort of contact with the main field. With fresh legs people were going to attack these hills like pinatas at a birthday party.
The second source of shock was the road conditions. They looked to be much worse than my imagined worse case scenario. There was at least 2-3 inches of sandy-muddy-slush coating all three hills. The car in front of us was leaving a rut 3 inches deep. I felt foolish having suggested in a team meeting four days prior that file-treads might be good enough despite the conditions.
We continued driving the course, and found as we went further along course conditions deteriorated even further. There was one section shortly after the third sister that was completely rutted with basketball sized pot-holes. As we drove over them in the car (slowly) water splashed out and drained back in. I remembered this "bad" section from prior years, but it seemed to be much worse, like a war had been raging all winter. There was no clear line, and no "shoulder" upon which to avoid the holes. After the ruts we dropped into alternating patches of slushy valleys and completely frozen snow-covered hills. I'm not going to lie. Even though it was my third, dance, I was nervous. When we neared the section that had been taken out of the route, I wondered aloud how bad must that have been if these parts were still "good"? We headed north to Gun Lake Rd, and made haste to the hotel so we could check in, and Chernoh and I get out for a pre-ride before dark.
Chernoh and I changed into riding gear, pulled our bikes out of the van, and had a short conversation about what we should do. We quickly came to consensus that neither of us wanted to get ourselves or our bikes dirty and wet, so we opted to cruise up the road on the west side of Gun Lake, turn around, and come back. It was an uneventful ride except for a quick loop around a residential block to get a better look at a flock of turkeys moving through a field. As we were riding I called out "turkeys" and pointed to our left, but Chernoh did not see them until we looped back, stopped, and then he could see them moving against the background. He said he never would have seen them on his own. Later on Chernoh and I both noticed the same fox-squirrel frozen dead along the side of the road. I thought about bringing it home to Morleigh as a trophy, like a cat would bring home a mouse, but decided against it. I did tell her about my idea later. She agreed that discretion was the better part of valor, and would not have found any humor in having a dead squirrel as a mascot for the weekend.
But it was very good that Chernoh and I went for a ride, because a short way in I could tell something was wrong with my bike. After a half-hour my knee hurt and I could not put down any power. When we found or first real hill and decided to sprint to the top, Chernoh blew me out of the water. He was seated and just pumping those long pistons, but I had to get out of the saddle to put any power into the pedals. Even then I could not make up the gap. When we got back to the hotel, I looked closely at my seat post, and sure enough when they put it back in after the tune-up I had earlier that week they put it at the wrong height. I should have checked with a tape measure at home, but I had to pull it up another 2-3 cm before it felt right. We did another 15 minutes down and back to the East, and then Chernoh hung out with me in the parking lot, while I changed my tires to a more aggressive tread. After our bit of course reconnaissance I was a little nervous that the Michelin jet file-treads that worked so well last year, would be sketchy this year, so I opted for a slightly wider Bontrager Jones CX. It's all about floatation they said on the internets...all about flotation. As we were wrapping up with my tires, Eric D, another Chicago local from xXx, stopped by to chat. It turns out that after picking up his packet, Eric took his bike out and actually road the three Sisters. He told us that he could feel the resistance of the slush (i.e., having to push it out of the way) but it didn't cling to his wheels or his bike the way mud would have. His file-treads made it up the hill just fine. That provided some reassurance, but it was not enough to convince me to undo the work that I had just finished.
We showered, changed, and headed to the hotel restaurant for food. I was a little bit disappointed that the menu had changed (duh, it's been 2 years) because we had some great food when Jason, Chernoh, and I ate at the bar my first trip out. The food was good, but my chapped lips did not agree with the heat of the Cajun pasta I had ordered. I had to borrow some chapstick from Morleigh, and order a glass of milk to sooth the burn. Nothing on the desert menu really spoke to Morleigh and, so we settled for a bit of ice cream and a bite of Chernoh's nutella lava cake.
After dinner, Morleigh and Chernoh got ready for bed, and I went down to the hot-tub. I was hoping that some massaging jets and heat would help refresh my legs, as they had felt a little bit leaden on our pre-ride. Also? it's kind of a tradition. This is the third year in a row I've included a dip in a hotel hot-tub as part of my Barry-Roubaix prep. The trip downstairs was uneventful, and I tried to keep it brief. I was back in the room, showered, and in bed by 11pm.
We were up early the next morning. We went back to the hotel restaurant for breakfast at about 7am. It is here that I made what may have been my first mistake of the day. I think I ate too much and too much protein. My stomach was full when we left, and it still felt full a few hours later when we were on the starting line. I was trying to store up calories, but the big breakfast was not sitting well a few hours later at the start.
After breakfast we made hast for Hastings. We emptied the room, loaded, the car, and headed northeast. We found the world looking much different than the night before. The warm yellow glow of afternoon sunshine was replaced with a steel gray curtain of clouds, and any hint of spring had been replaced with a bone chilling cold.
After circling the closed off section of downtown, and getting the lay of the land we found parking on the street in Hastings two blocks east of the finish line. By the time we found parking, it was time for Chernoh and I to start our respective pre-race rituals. Morleigh checked the weather one last time, and found the forecast did not call for temps above freezing until 2pm. All week it the weather had spoke of highs in the 40s, but it was turning out to be a very cold day. Chernoh and I went for a ride south east of town, and again my legs felt heavy. Breakfast sat heavy in my stomach, and I had kind of a bad feeling about what was about to happen. For as much as I wanted it to be a great day, it felt like it was going to be one of those days.
By 9:40AM the starting corral was already starting to fill up, so we made our final preparations and headed over. I had posted on Facebook our location, but we did not see any of our teammates until we were lined up. Even Chernoh and I were split up as he had gone for one last trip to the bathroom, and I kind of regretted getting caught up in the mix as a last minute urge hit me. I stayed put though, hoping the anxiety would fade after the start of the race. The mayor spoke, they played the Star-Spangled Banner, we surged forward to the starting line proper, and at precisely 10:00AM we were off. I was not too far from the front, maybe 5 rows back when the pack took off down the street, and I rolled along holding my spot. I did not want to burn any matches getting out of town because I knew the three sisters awaited. The pack remained dense, with a few riders cheating the system and using the opposite lane as a passing lane, but the majority held their position in the peloton.
When we hit the main loop and turned right onto Yeckley Rd, the front of the field exploded down the hill towards the first Sister. I acutely remembered my first trip over the three Sisters two years earlier. My first time over the third Sister the people who lived at the base of the hill was blasting "Eye of the Tiger" from a rather large stereo system, and at the top I vowed I would be walking that hill the next time I saw her (that year we did two laps over a 32 mile course and faced the three sisters twice). I held true to those words, as I was completely spent by that point in my first race.
This year we sprinted up so hard and fast, that I remember only that the slush of Friday was completely frozen solid. Everything else was a blur as all of my concentration was focused on climbing, and staying upright in the pack of riders around me. There was no time for anything else. At the top of the 3rd Sister I felt like I still had a chance to do well. I tried to be very smart on the downhills, coasting as much as possible, because another big climb awaited us. I tried to catch my breath as we hit our first tantalizing bit of pavement on Hwy 43, but there was no time to recover before we hit more gravel, and turned left onto Hubble Rd, and up the climb without a name.
The year before this hill came as a complete surprise. Even though we climbed it twice my first year, when we came to Hubble Rd in 2012 I had no memory of struggling up this long steep grade, until we got over the top and saw the cows grazing along the west side the road. The suffering I forgot about, but the bovines I remembered.
This year I remembered both the climb and the cows. Given that we were still so early in the race, I knew it was a bad sign at how much that climb was hurting. My legs filled up with lead, and I had to stand up hammering on the pedals with all of my weight to get to the top. When I crested the top of that fourth climb and saw those familiar cows, I could also see the lead pack already making the turn at the bottom of hill and streaking down the Goodwill road out of sight. The long slide backwards had begun.
The next section of Goodell Road was some of the worst terrain we saw all day. This was the section we drove over the day before with potholes the size of basketballs except that the water in all the holes had frozen over, adding an additional layer of treachery. By the time I arrived there were already dozens of water bottles spread across the road. Later waves encountered hundreds of water bottles. Thankfully mine remained firmly in place. They weren't doing me much good. The rough course made it very difficult to actually get a drink, and my stomach was as full as my legs were heavy. I needed to take in more calories, but there was no where to put them.
One good thing happened on this stretch of road as three of my teammates, Chernoh, Sean, and Joe all coalesced into a group during this section, and we started to work together to make the riding easier. We tried to grab onto groups that were passing, but the difficult terrain made it hard to ride in close proximity. At one point, Sean and I were following another rider on a downhill at fairly close spacing when the rider in front suddenly lost control and went down hard. Sean and I swerved to the left as our hearts jumping into our throats, and miraculously avoided the piling into the downed rider and also avoided losing control during our evasive maneuvers. We slowed our cadence for a few beats to let the wave of adrenaline that was crashing through our bodies receded. It was a very close call for us both. I wondered again about how bad must have been the roads that were not good enough to ride, because I saw dozens of riders with dirty and torn kits as we made our way forward.
The next section was "the easy part" of the course. As we turned left onto Gun Lake Road we found a few miles of smooth pavement to savor and enjoy. In past years this was the home stretch. If you made it here, you knew you were almost home. There was one significant climb, but the pavement, favorable wind conditions, and teamwork made it bearable. This year it was just a hiccup. A confusing inhale that was not long enough to recover, and offered pleasant distraction from the suffering ahead. It was during this section that the four of us got caught up in a large peloton. The leaders of the second wave had already made up the 3 minute gap on us by 15 miles, and we tried to attach ourselves to this new group of fast riders for as long as possible. It was as we made the turn onto Mullen Rd that the 40plus riders (and the lead woman) started to work their way around and through the 30 plus riders they had picked up on the asphalt. I remember cheering on my friend Newt Cole as he passed. I ran into him in the shop two days earlier, and he said he was going to just go out and have fun. No heart rate monitor, no worries. He ended up finishing 6th in the 40+ race, so apparently his laid-back strategy worked. Also? He's a beast.
It's here, after about 20 miles of riding that memory starts to fade into cold and icy gray. I remember riding alongside Mackenzie Woodring for a bit, marveling at how severely she was crushing it. I remember tackling the Killer as we caught up and passed riders from the 23 mile race, it was here that we lost Sean Kennedy off the front of our little group, as he was able to maintain contact with the larger group on the climb, as Chernoh and I fell off a bit. We passed Tom K from Triple X standing on the bend of the road cheering us on, and I found out later from Facebook that he had actually been hit by a deer (something which I am paranoid of happening to me). I remember making it over the Killer and watching the group we had been riding with pulling away, and not being able to do anything about it. Chernoh who was obviously having a better day than me, held back, opting to hang out with me rather than follow Sean and the pack he was with. Joe B said a couple of times that we would see Sean again, but I was pretty certain at that point at least I would not be seeing Sean again until the finish.
It was at about mile 30, on a relatively small climb out of of Cloverdale that it hit me that I was done. I fell off a group with Chernoh, and found myself in no-man's land with more than half the race to go. I clicked the lap counter on my Garmin and was happy that I had been riding at an average speed of 19mph for the first 30 miles, but I knew it was going to be downhill from there as my legs had just given out. They were like a elastic band that has been stretched one too many times and no matter how long I waited they were not going to snap back into place. I had completely blown up. I thought about quitting, and setting my Garmin to take me back to the start, but I have never been much of a quitter. I dusted off my mantra from year one "Just finish" and started repeating it to myself as I pushed onward.
By mile 40 if I stood up to put any pressure on the pedals both quads started to cramp. I knew it was a lack of nutrition, but my stomach was still heavy from breakfast, and water bottles were so cold I could hardly stand to drink from them. My hands were starting to get cold at this point, and my clothes were soaked through. Ice was forming on my sleeves where water dripped into my jacket.
At about mile 42, I caught back up to Chernoh who had pulled over to relieve himself of some extra water weight. He was at the crest of a hill so I rode down the hill, and on the uphill on the other side decided to pull over and wait for him. I took the opportunity to relieve myself of a little water weight, and he caught up with me, and soft-pedaled until I caught back up with him. He pulled me a few more miles and I told him that I was done and he should go on ahead. He waited a few more miles and then grabbed onto another group of passing riders.
Somewhere after mile 50, in the middle of no-man's land Mike Palmer of Half-Acre passed me. He was just plugging away all by himself. I would have liked to be able to hold his wheel, but he was doing much better than I was at that point. So I cheered him on, and watched him pull away. I was lost at this point in the race. I had the course loaded on my garmin calling out turns for me, but I couldn't really visualize myself on my mental map. I knew I was in the southwest corner of the course, and hoped that I was heading north on the final leg into town. I imagined it as a straight line from SE to NE, but it wound back and forth. Jogging east, and then west, and then north again. I lost all sense of time as my pace slowed even further.
Somewhere in this last 10th of the course I committed the ultimate sin, I got off my bike and pushed it up a hill. It wasn't a particularly long climb, but it was muddy and steep, and my legs were simply done pedaling. It wasn't even a conscious decision. Should I get off or should I not? It was just time.
My first year I had to walk up part of the Killer and the Third Sister, but my second year I rode the entire course. Dismounting as a three year veteran was a humbling reminder that this race is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.
The short walk (maybe 100 yds) did refresh my legs somewhat, and I was able to attach myself to the next group (including Jostein Alvestad on his single speed and two ladies) that passed me and rode with them for a few miles.
Just after mile 57, I had lost Jostein, but found hope that I was closing in on the finish. That hope came in the form of fat bikes and mountain bikes whose riders were struggling to make it back into Hastings too. I knew that I had done worse than the year before, but I still took some solace in knowing I was finishing 62 miles in shorter time than these riders were finishing 36 miles. I drank some of my nutrients and hardened myself for one final push. I managed to attach myself onto the wheel of two other 62 milers as we made it back to the paved spur leading to the finish. I followed them into town, and told myself I was not going to try to sprint them for the finish, just try to hang on to them as long as possible and be grateful for the tow. A half mile from the finish the rider I was following made it clear that he was not going to be towing me to the finish, he pulled over and sat up. I did the honorable thing and put my head down and pedaled as hard as I could. As we made the final turn into the home straight he pulled ahead again, and I did not contest him for I had nothing with which to contest. As I rolled over the finish line I stopped my garmin and held the reset button. I did not look at my finishing time, or any of my stats. I figured I would sort through the details later. I looked up and found my girlfriend in her bright red coat waiting just beside the finish line. I pulled up to her and stopped. She was grinning from ear to ear and started to tell me how proud of me she was, and behind my ski goggles and Cold Avenger Pro, I broke down and started sobbing.
Only a few sobs escaped before I pulled myself together. I could see Chernoh ahead moving to cool down, and I wanted to go tell him how awesome he did. I didn't catch up with him right away because of lights and traffic. But it didn't take long for us to cool down, and we circled back to the finish line. My hands were wet and frozen, and after a few minutes I wanted only to be dry and warm. We congratulated all of our teammates for their great finishes. I found Morleigh and rode along side her as she made her way to the car.
I can not express just how good Morleigh is at post-race support. I'm generally an idiot post-race, and she keeps me focused and moving forward. She continually asks "what's next?" and help guide me when I am still unable to think straight. When I couldn't get my gloves off because my hands were so cold she rolled up her sleeves and pealed them off. As she pulled the second one off I started to sob again. I was just so happy she was there, I couldn't imagine how much longer it would have taken me to just get undressed if she wasn't there to peal off the wet layers. A few more sobs, and I pulled myself together. She helped peal off the wet jacket and jersey, and I wrapped one of my Mom's felt blankets around my shoulders. I used it as a changing tent and got into some dry clothes.
But that was only the beginning. She continued to make conversation with the Mayor, noting that she would like to go out and shoot photos at the race, but as an out-of-towner-with-poor-map-skills, she wasn't certain about the best way to go and view. The Mayor called out to one of the local law enforcement officers, and next thing you know Morleigh was in the back of a squad car, heading out to shoot on the course with a police escort. She found two different locations to cheer racers, and found Paolo from the Bonebell both times. Some of the gentlemen he was riding with lamented that he brought his own mobile cheering squad. As she cheered the dozens of Chicago racers by name and or team, her escort marveled aloud, "You really do know everyone." Her mission really was to find me and my other teammates earlier in the 62 mile field, but before she could get ahead of us her trip came to an abrupt end. They came across some walking wounded, two gentlemen who had serious crashes, and her escort turned into an ambulence, headed back into town to the hospital. So Morleigh had quite the little adventure while we were out playing bikes.
We stopped at a gas station in Hastings to fill up, and then I drove us out of gravel country and to our post-race tradition, the nearest Culvers. I really do try to eat healthy, but after a race I want nothing more than buttery-greasy-burgery-goodness. We stopped in Kalamzoo at the same Culvers where we ate the two years prior, and I finally started to feel human again as we refueled with high-calorie foods. Morleigh took the next shift behind the wheel, until Chernoh and I forced an emergency exit at the Bass-Pro Shop. Chernoh had never been to one and wanted to check out the camping gear.
I forget sometimes how much I know about the kind of things that Bass Pro Shop sells, and was happy as a clam giving Chernoh a tour and showing him the difference between shot guns and rifles, compound and recurve bows. We didn't end up purchasing anything, but had a good time immersing ourselves in the Bass Pro experience. Morleigh was pretty tired after our unplanned stop, so I took the wheel and got us home. We dropped Chernoh off at his place, and then headed back south to my apartment where we unloaded all of the post race stuff, and settled in for the night. It took the better part of three days to clean up and put everything away.
Later that night I tried to load my garmin file and somehow ended up corrupting the file. Gone was all the data I would normally use to perform a post-mortem on my race. heart rate, cadence, and temperature were all gone for ever. I was then left waiting for the official results to be posted to the internet. Sometime after 9PM we found a link. I finished in 101st place in my wave in 3:30:30.
It was a much different feeling than the year before. There was some "at least I beat that person" and "I can't believe I got beat by that person"but for the most part I just felt numb. The cold had left my body but not my heart. I finished. Sometimes that's enough.