Thursday, May 7, 2009

Me vs Gila Monster

I wanted to quit so badly. The first few miles were hard - they felt as horrible as the crit the day before... And this was to be the grueling, mountainous 106-mile "queen stage." Things were not starting well.

As we rolled out in the early morning and the pace quickened, all I wanted to do was to turn around and slink back to bed. My goal for the day was a simple one: Make it to the day's first major climb at mile 53, settle into the best pace that I could maintain, get into a decent group, and finish the damned race.

Even those modest objectives were starting to sound ambitious. I'd conveniently forgotten the uncategorized hills - and inevitable attacks to set up an early break - along the way.

Once a group of ten-or-so riders finally did get off the front and establish a gap, the peloton settled in to a tempo that would keep them close enough that they wouldn't threat the overall results and, likely, would get gobbled up on the day's decisive climbs. I was able to hang with the group up and over the first Category 4 climb, down the descent, through the valley, and up and over the Continental Divide.

A stage race of this magnitude always involved attrition - riders who just fatigue over the course of the event and whose bodies go into revolt. During the Gila Monster stage, good riders were literally losing their wits. Crashes were everywhere and several racers were seriously hurt. It was starting to look like a war with bodies falling and staying alert becoming the most important task.

The Overall GC: Levi, Lance, and Gila Monster stage winner Phil Zajicek!
The Overall GC: Levi, Lance, and Gila Monster stage winner Phil Zajicek!

I held tough until mile 53, at which point I knew my time with the peloton was soon to end. The pack shattered going up the Category 2 climb, followed by the most hair-raising, high speed descent I've ever seen. There were small groups forming up and down the mountain, with Lance and Levi pushing the pace of the eventual winning move. Gila veteran Phil Zajicek would upstage them both, however, as he attacked hard into the finish and took the ultimate victory of what's been a successful domestic career.

As for me, I settled into a good pace and actually got stronger as the race wore on: The Monster itself - a Category 1 climb, followed by a Category 2 and Category 4 climb to the finish with lots of high-mountain road, twisty descents in between. 9,131' of climbing, all told. Although I was pushing my tempo, I was actually able to enjoy the scenery, reflect on the insane week of racing, and appreciate all that I'd gone through to get to that point. It was a beautiful, poignant moment.

The 106-mile day took about 5 hours, with the stage winners a full half-hour quicker. I ended the week in 84th, dead-center of the 168 starters. Only 104 riders made it to the finish line - an accomplishment in itself.

The memories of suffering are becoming more vague and remote, as they always do, but the grandiose images of the event remain. This can only mean that, despite the struggles, or maybe because of them, I'll be back for more... this was my 5th consecutive Tour of the Gila, after all. And I'm a better person for it.

No comments: