Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hillside

“We've been here before. This is the town where one of the major exchanges occurred during the Ragnar Relay. So this is Hillside.” After hearing that, Laura asks that I check the map and directions to make sure we are where we're supposed to be. Yes, this is Hillside, this small town of a few dozen houses amidst rolling hills. It's where tomorrow's bike race is.

With the sun beginning to set, we get back in the car, U-turn, and find a suitable camping spot just outside of town atop a hill. We congratulate ourselves on setting up at such a convenient spot. “No one will drive a shorter distance than us to get to tomorrow's race.” This prediction turns out to be false; shortly after settling into our tent, a truck pulls up nearby but closer to town and two other race participants set up their tent. We'll end up driving a tad farther than them the next morning.

The tent itself is new and deserves some description. I thought Laura's $25 Walmart tent was as cheap as they come, and I further thought we were fortunate to have this other tent mysteriously show up in her car's trunk many months prior to the Walmart tent's two main poles both snapping in the heavy wind at Lake Powell earlier this month. Tonight I discover that the Walmart tent is a luxury tent, whereby “luxury” is taken to mean any tent in which Craig can sleep without both head and feet pressing up against opposite sides of the tent wall. But for our simple one-night stay just outside Hillside tonight, this mystery tent serves its purpose well.

The bike race is the Hillside Road Race. It replaces the Skull Valley Road Race, which changed venue because the race was kicked out of the small town of Skull Valley a few weeks prior and had to be moved down the road and off Yavapai County roads. This change happened to transform the race from being a race with climbing to a race of climbing. It's a 55-mile out and back course with not a bit of it flat and finishing with a 9-mile, 1,600-foot climb. This is not a finish-and-feel-good-about-yourself kind of race; it's entirely about getting to the finish line before the others in your group do. I, being unlicensed, am in the Category 5 division, making me something of a sandbagger.

Laura and I awake the next morning before the Lycra-clad masses descend upon Hillside. We take our time packing our belongings from the tent back into the car. We discover that the tent kinda passes the waterproof test. The drizzle is light, but the air is humid in a way that suggests that the weather may not clear in time for the race.

With about two hours to get ready, I make it to the starting line with less than a minute to spare. There are never enough port-o-potties at these kinds of events. My group roles out under thick cloud cover and some occasional drizzle. The first ten miles are nearly all downhill, and soon about three dozen cyclists who don't normally ride together are wheel-to-wheel, many of us vying for position while reaching 45MPH downhill on rain-slicked pavement. But what really makes me nervous is that I think I have a chance to win.

We coast down the big hill and work our way up and down the ensuing rollers. It's a brutal course for anyone who doesn't train for climbing, and some of the heavier guys get punished early and drop off the group. Though, after everyone's initial excitement wears off, it becomes clear that we're all saving ourselves for the big climb before the finish. Though there are a few teammates in the group, no one seems interested in working any strategy and attacking the group. Over the course of nearly two hours, I continually monitor my heart rate and watch as it dips lower and lower until eventually hitting numbers below what I consider recovery-level intensity. This is a 10-mile uphill race with a 45-mile lazy warm-up. The one point of excitement is when, at the turnaround at the halfway point, I drop my water bottle and double-back to pick it up and race back to the group. Already by then the group is going so slow that catching up to it is no worry.

The excitement happens all at once upon beginning the final climb. The pace is suddenly pushed and pushed fast. I don't need to look at my HR monitor to know that my body is becoming stressed. I look back with casual interest to see what's happening behind me and discover there is no one behind me. Over half the group is already dropped off, and we've only just begun climbing. The group splinters further, and I find myself on the rebound, trying to catch up to the leaders. On my way, I pass by the guy who I pegged from the race's beginning as being a possible winner; he's off the back of the lead group. Within a few minutes, the race is down to four guys, myself included. Another few minutes more and the race is down to one guy, myself excluded. By then, I'm isolated in second place, futilely trying to catch the mountain goat pulling farther out in front while slowly building distance between myself and the third-place rider. The group is inexorably stretching out like a loaded spring. There's no strategy here, just a long, slow power-to-weight competition with the results becoming more evident each minute. I keep an eye on my HR monitor to target a steady HR of 170 and realize that, without some bad luck befalling the rider in front, I'm very likely a lock for second place. I concentrate on my form, lifting one knee high while driving the other heel down. I watch my altimeter to count up to the final elevation of 4,000 feet, wanting the ordeal to be over with. By the time I make it to the top with one mile of rollers remaining before the finish line, I can see neither the rider immediately in front or behind me. The group is strung out all over the hill, as are other groups whose dropped-off riders I continue to pass. There's no drama, just a stream of riders finishing from different groups with no one racing anyone. As I approach the finish line, Laura doesn't know whether I'm flashing the peace sign or my result.

* * *

Later, after waiting for the official results and beginning the drive back to Phoenix, Laura announces her plan for us to hike up Vulture Peak outside Wickenburg. Somehow she missed the elevation profile in the hiking book that shows the hike as being a 2-mile, 1,200-foot climb. There's also some terrible August midday heat going on as we step outside the car in the otherwise-empty unpaved parking lot, but we have ourselves a fun, relaxed hike. The trailhead registry book shows no entries for the previous nine days, and we have the mountain to ourselves. We take our time getting to the top while vultures circle overhead. We talk of this and that. We spot a couple of creepy-crawly millipedes near the summit. We take too many photos of everything. The day begins to draw to a close, and we mosey down the mountain and back to the parking lot. Why race?

2 comments:

Lindsey said...

Is it okay for me to say "congrats?" Good jub! Sounds like you did very well at the race. I felt tired just reading it. I don't know how you do it...

Laura said...

I like blogs with my name in them, even if I did have to trudge through more bike details than I generally care for. :)