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2012 Rapha NE Gentlemen's Race
Leading into the North-East Gentlemen’s Race, a debate sparked among friends. Is it a race? Is it a ride? What escaped the provocateur was that the distance and terrain, although challenging, do not make the Gentlemen’s race remarkable. What makes it a unique and meaningful experience for those who are chosen to participate is the fact that it must be started and completed as a team of six. This simple rule throws traditional race tactics out the door, and can be one of the most difficult aspects.
It was a point underscored by Beth Strickland, who supported last year’s North-East race, on a call with the other newly appointed Rapha Women’s Ambassadors as we discussed our entry into the race. We would ride together, we agreed, for the entirety of the race. I didn’t realize what an ambitious goal this was until a friend of mine asked doubtingly whether we had ridden together before. Not only had we never ridden together; most of us hadn’t met.
It wasn’t until the evening before the race that I met my teammates over beers at the Norwich Inn: Sarah Tombaugh from New York City; Beth Strickland and Kate Veronneau from the Lehigh Valley, PA; and Lauren Kling and Cait Dooley from Boston, like me. Some of us were racers, some of us just liked to ride, but it became apparent that evening that we all share a love for good beer.
Now that the race is behind me, I’ll confess that I woke up the morning of the race a little hungover. The start delivered the first lesson in working together. One of our teammates was just getting her shoes on when our start was called. Four on the team rushed to the line and rolled through, the remaining two chasing behind. We spent the first mile or so shaking out the hustle of the start, and settled in side by side on the road leading out of Hanover.
We hit the first dirt road, and the realities of riding on dirt swiftly came back to me as it suddenly felt like I was riding through tar. Head and heart pounding, the difficulty of the race ahead hit me. A short time later, we passed another team on the side of the road repairing a broken chain, and I was reminded that physical and mental fortitude would only get us so far.
My only memories of the miles that followed are of climbing. Time dragged, the air stood still, and the sun called for a scorcher of a day. I was riding within myself, but some gradients called for brute force and what got me over them was nothing short of ugly wrenching. Precious energy was wasted as tires lost their grip on sharp gradients.
As grueling as dirt can be, it rewards with beautiful scenery. The hidden roads reveal New England’s charm. We got our first flat in a picturesque spot overlooking a rolling grassy meadow. It was a welcome break, and our vantage point at the bottom of a steep, loose descent made for some hair-raising entertainment as teams bombed past us, fishtailing in deep sand before regaining control.
We caught up to several teams at the next town. Racers lined the curb of the block in front of the general store, swapping stories, and sharing water and bags of salty snacks. We lingered for longer than we should have, the camaraderie of the race pulling us in.
Back on the road again, we arrived at a Strava tent at the top of a long climb, indicating the KOM/QOM was upon us. Someone holding a long, fuzzy microphone was making conversation and asked me in several different ways when I thought my mental breakdown was to occur, and if we had suffered any breakdowns on the team. I laughed him off. It would take more than climbing and miles to crack our crew.
As we approached the QOM, Kate announced that she was going to go for the win. A member of the team that completed last year’s North-East Gentlemen’s Race with the fastest time, Kate made even the hardest climbs look effortless. She darted ahead, with Beth right on her wheel. As the rest of us continued at our normal pace, the sky started to rumble, and raindrops started to fall. A mile later, we reached two teams standing in a fork in the road, debating the superiority of the Garmin and the cue sheet in setting the direction of the course. We were told Kate and Beth blew past the group going straight, and had missed the turn. As we sought shelter under the cover of trees and waited for our teammates to return, the sky opened, releasing sheets of rain. Rain turned to pelting hail, and I wondered how Rapha managed to arrange these epic conditions.
Kate and Beth eventually returned to us, determination charged by the lost effort they had put in, and they decided to reattempt the QOM. The rest of us were thankful to be climbing again and generating heat. When Kate darted by me, there wasn’t any doubt that she was going to take QOM. We regrouped at the top and steeled ourselves for a long, cold descent.
The rain continued and soon we were climbing again. Streams of rainwater formed in the uneven road, making the dirt feel like riding through quicksand. We reached a short section so steep that we had no choice but to dismount and walk. When we reached the top, the road looked like a riverbed littered with large rocks, deep ruts, and mud. Lauren and Cait put their cyclocross bikes and skills to work, while the rest of us gingerly picked through the few navigable lines. We cursed the route and the weather for forcing us off our bikes. If a mental breakdown was to occur, this would have been the place for it.
We recuperated at a gas station and steeled ourselves for the last 25 miles of the race. Soon after we set off, we noticed a figure across a town green holding a Rapha umbrella and walking toward us. It was Derek from Rapha, delivering a message from the D.S. that our race was over. The rain had stopped, but the overcast sky was threatening to bring nightfall earlier than expected, and the last 25 miles of the race were on dirt roads that had deteriorated with the rain and would slow any team. A wave of disbelief and disappointment washed over the team. We were prepared to finish what we started, even if it meant rolling in after dark, after the celebratory beer had run out. It hadn’t occurred to me that we might not have the chance.
We were quiet on the ten mile shortcut that led us to the finish. We absorbed what the day had given us: a grueling 105 miles toward a challenge we could not meet. But we rode those miles together, and struck a balance of give and take that relationships are built on. I became an admirer of everyone on my team, on their skill, strength, and tenacity. It was a good day. We’ll be back next year.