“Hey, tell me how to race my bike,” Colleen says.
“Just take your time and have fun. Don’t hurt yourself,” I say. I wave and ride off. Colleen is doing the shorter 17-mile course, so she’ll drive to the top of the mountain. Everybody in the 40-mile endurance race is riding to the start.
About 30 of us cruise along the back road away from the 4-H camp. My friend Birdley and I discuss the fragility of his avian bones, stop to pee, then catch back up to the fast-neutral riding pack. I really hope Colleen doesn’t wreck herself.
“There’s one guy from Ohio, Vinni, you should watch out for. He’s pretty quick,” says Birdley.
We stop at the base of the gravel climb up to the top of Cheat Mountain.
“Alright then. Guess we can go now,” says Benji, who’s kind of in charge because he cleared all the trails.
I sprint up the gravel. Oh yes. I’m feeling fine today. I pedal through some switchbacks on the steep road and check the gap on the rest of the field. Birdley is closest, and I’ve got at least 100 meters on him. Vinni from Ohio is out of sight.
The climb keeps going. I need to back off a little. Birdley catches up, and I get on his wheel. We hit the top of the climb, and he starts swerving back and forth across the gravel, trying to pop me off. I can’t believe he doesn’t want to let me draft while he does all the work. What a big jerk.
I hang on for a few miles, then he drops me on a gentle descent. I can’t spin my single speed fast enough to stay with him.
A few more miles of gravel, then I make the turn into the first section of singletrack. Crap. It’s so mooshy and leaf-covered I can barely keep rolling. Anytime I coast, the bike stops in less than five feet.
I struggle up a gentle climb, and a geared guy passes me. He spins away easily. My back feels like it’s going to explode from all the strain.
The trail declines. Straight down. Into a rock and root filled drainage, no traction anywhere. I let go of my front brake and slide down the mountain. Then onto gravel, back up to the top, onto another singletrack section like the last. Flat and soft, steep slippy descent. And up to the top of the mountain again.
I’m into the third singletrack section, and I’m starting to get a little tired. Down some sharp rocks, then up a muddy climb. I look back. Vinni from Ohio is right there. I pedal harder to try to drop him, but I can’t get away.
I gap him a little bit on some flat gravel, then we start up the last singletrack climb. He catches right back up. We’re hiking right next to each other.
I click into my pedals. Vinni clicks into his. His heart rate monitor alarm goes off, warning him that he’s near max heart rate. That’s a weird feature to have turned on. I attack and try to pop his heart.
For the next few miles, I put in an effort every time I hear that dumb heart rate monitor beep.
We hit the last section of gravel. I still can’t drop him, so I settle into a comfortable pace and get ready to sprint for the finish. If I can’t be stronger I’ll have to try to be smarter. A girl runs down the road with a couple dogs.
“Good job guys!” she yells. Her little fluffy white dog jumps in front of me. I swerve to miss the dog, she lunges to grab it, I swerve to miss her. Vinni from Ohio speeds up. Dammit. No way he’s dropping me here. I catch back up to him, and we turn a corner. Orange cones. Gotta be the finish. I spin as fast as I can, the cranks on my bike swaying back and forth.
My vision goes blurry and I cross the line. No Vinni. Sweet. Finally won a race again. Man, it’s been a while since I haven’t had everything go wrong.
Colleen is sitting in chair next to the finish line, leg propped up on a cooler. She’s biting her lip sadly.
“What happened to you?” I say.
“I dunno, I was just on the gravel a few miles from the finish, then I was under my bike,” she says. Her knee is super swollen and bloody. Damn. I can’t believe she made it through all that singletrack then crashed on the road. I make sure she has somebody to drive her back to the start, then start the ride back to the 4-H camp with Birdley.
15 miles really slow miles later, we get back to the cars. Colleen hobbles toward the car from the shower. That sucks.