Things had gotten a little dark. I was 85 miles into the GranFondo, with 25 to go, and I was entering what my coach called the "pain cave." It's the place where you're mind begins to give in to physical suffering and negative thoughts become a feedback loop of self doubt and pain. After a fast, long stretch south on highway 1 from Jenner the ride got hard again as the tailwind gave way to yet another vicious vertical pitch. It was hard to tell if the hoards of people walking their bikes up Coleman Valley Road were an motivator or a curse. At least I wasn't walking the bike, although it did look easier. One woman wore flipflops as she pushed her bike up the grade. Even through the suffering I thought to look at her pedals to check if they were "flipflop" compatible. They weren't. She had SPD's, but had the foresight to bring walking sandals.
When the grade of a road gets above 10% your ability to ride uphill becomes a matter on pure physics. You can be the strongest motherfucker on the planet, but if that strength is attached to a large frame then gravity is you're nemesis. Without going too deeply into power-to-weight jargon, the math is very simple. A 100lb person has to generate half the work (or watts) as a 200 lb person to climb the same hill. No work-arounds, no tricks, just Newton and his brutal laws of physics working against those of us who are closer to the 200lb end of the scale.
So there I was with the inclinenometer reading 16% - pushing as hard as I could sustain on yet another vicious ascent. Dragging a black, block of concrete like a diagram from a high school physics text book, hoping that the next rise would be the last, I was rescued. Just as I had drifted into the deepest recess of the ride I heard a quite toothy whistle over my left shoulder. Two short encouraging notes that turned my attention off of the wall in front of me to the left. There floating past me in a turquoise, white and yellow kit was Levi Leipheimer, out of his saddle making a mockery of the incline.
At once I came out of the pain cave. "Hey, hey, hey!" I shouted at him and sparked back to life. My suffering made a small but critical transformation from senseless to meaningful. What had been a lonely adventure in pain, was now a mission. My lower back still ached and my legs and lungs were still filled with fire, but it was worth it now. I had the chance to ride with Levi and I was going to take it.
As luck would have it, the next rise was in fact the top of the climb. The aweful incline became rollers and I began to get my momentum back. An Italian 3 wheeled scooter, bristling with bicycle wheels pulled up next to me. The driver turned to me to complain about the wind. "It's hard enough on his scooter," he commented in a strong unidentifiable European accent, "I couldn't imagine it on a bicycle." He accelerated past me, then slowed a bit. A short invitation to hop on. I pushed a little harder to get into the slipstream of the scooter. The wind noise quieted and my legs began to turn a little easier. In the scooter's rear view mirror I met the eyes of the driver. He had done this before. A smile cracked his face and he began to pull me along. Increasing the speed incrementally. My heart rate came down and I was moving faster.
At the rest stop, I had a chance to chat with Levi. After asking for a picture with him, I told him that he had snapped me out of a dark place. "Day dreaming, were you?" he said, smiling.
"More like a Nightmare."I told him. But that was over. For the next 25 miles over some more familiar and less punishing terrain, I rode on Levi's wheel all the way to the finish in Santa Rosa.
At the finish I heard Todd Gogulski announcing on the stage. I'd seen him at the start of the ride, MCing the start, but he was clearly too busy to bother. Him and I worked together on the Giro d'Italia at Universal Sports. He was less busy in the post ride so I had a chance to catch up with. He asked me about my health an how my broken collarbone was healing. An amazing finish had just gotten better.
The next day in the hotel lobby, my wife Janine saw the local newspaper on the table. "I found you again," she said. And there I was on the front page of he Santa Rosa Press Democrat, rolling across the finish with Levi Leipheimer..
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