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A Call To Arms
It is with ardent enthusiasm each year that we wait for ‘the e-mail’, the annual communiqué from Rapha announcing the particulars of the route for the Rapha Gentlemen’s Race. A race that makes boys out of men, men out of women, and which crushes souls and elevates hearts (and heart rates) all at the same time. My teammates and I wait with wholehearted excitement each year to take on the challenge that the beautiful, sadistic gentlemen of Rapha have prepared for us. Standing proudly at the front line on race morning, fresh faced and eager, we urge Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Mr. Slate Olson, to yell the magic word: “Fire.” And just like that, off we go into gravel oblivion.
Those of us on the team who have done this race before know what lies ahead, for in years past our apparent ‘victories’ have not been without casualties. In 2009, I was the soldier wounded in battle but was nursed to the finish line by teammates who never once left my side, despite the excruciatingly slow pace I was keeping. They never gave up. They pushed me, fed me, and we finished that year, albeit painfully, together. In 2010 we had another combatant who was strong of mind but whose body, when 100 degree heat combined with arduous gravel climbs, decided to rebel. We pushed and walked and, once again, finished that year together.
2011 brought renewed hope. We had a strong team and we knew it. We had new troopers fresh out of boot camp, and while they had no idea what going to war was like, they were keen to find out. We battled and pushed and pedaled through an unbearably agonizing 130 miles. Don’t get me wrong, sprinkled throughout the skirmish there were good times and Snickers bars and singing and beautifully executed pace lines – and pavement. We shared a few miles and a few pulls with the Grundelbruisers, the ladies of Ira Ryan and a few other teams. There were laughs and stories of races past, while hopes of reaching the finish line that lay ahead were shared as well. But mostly, all we had all day was each other. Six individuals all fighting our personal limits to reach a common goal. It sounds perfectly attainable at the start but at mile 100 and in 95 degree heat things happen to your head.
You question your earlier enthusiasm. Fatigue, confusion, frustration and flat tires ruin hope and break spirits. This is where the gentlemen are separated from the boys. I tell my troops that this is were the real race starts. This is where your body says stop but you must defy it, must keep moving. Keep. Moving. This is the mantra for us all. Eat. Pedal. Drink. Pedal. Walk. Just keep moving. And we do. At some point or another during the race, we all question whether or not we have the ability to continue and finish but I know we are strong, we know we are strong. Physically we can all do this. It is the mind that must be overcome.
This year at mile 100, the blue-eyed devils at Rapha had put approximately 30 miles of gravel between us and the finish line. Thirty miles of hellish gravel, climbs and painful, brain-rattling descents. Don't get me wrong, we all like riding gravel. But at 100 miles into a ride no one, and I mean NO ONE, is enjoying this. We decided as a group, while cursing obviously, that we preferred the gravel climbs over the tire- and spirit-deflating downhills. And those damn ham sandwiches we’d been waiting for all day, what happened to those? Why weren’t they at the aid stations as they had been last year?
We were ticked about the ham sandwiches, Susan especially, and this made us laugh. With hindsight, I was truly glad that at the time cut-off checkpoint none of us knew the extent of the torture that we were about to take on; it was hors catégorie. As the gravel kept coming and the hours kept ticking by and the sun kept beating down, I knew we were crumbling. But we kept pedaling, trying to keep the mood light, hoping the gravel would end at the next corner. Privately, I calculated this is where they would break, my fellow soldiers in the field fighting the same battle. I tell the girls that this is the defining moment in the race, that everyone is hurting and that we must keep pedaling. And they did. No one argued, no one said, “I can't.” No one dared. Finally, somewhere around mile 120, we start to get caught by other teams, most of them wounded and with four or five of their original six soldiers left. No one really talks. We are all in survival mode, trying to overcome the bone crushing fatigue to get to the finish.
And that’s the funny thing about the finish, when it finally comes. There is not the overjoyed apres-ride party you might expect. Instead, there is a field of wounded soldiers, bodies everywhere, each five pounds lighter and utterly exhausted. This is not where the celebration happens. The celebration (and sheer amazement) at finishing doesn't come until later. After food. After sleep. Sometimes it’s the next day, sometimes over the course of the next week. For me it trickles slowly in, over the next few months and often carries on into the next year. I get a lump in my throat, even as I write this weeks later, at the endless tenacity that my teammates show every year we toe the line for this ‘character building’ exercise presented under the guise of a bike race.
Those miles we shared provided an irrefutably unique experience that we will remember until we get ‘the e-mail’ next summer. When the call to arms for the next Gentlemen’s Race arrives, we will happily join the ranks again.
Rapha Gentlemen’s Race 2012 - FIRE!