Rockwell Relay, Part 4: Valley of the Shadow of Death? Sounds Pretty Good, as Long as There’s Really Shade
In the most recent installment of this series (if you’re not caught up, you should probably read part 1, part 2 and part 3 before continuing), The Hammer was riding up to her first exchange point. Heather was clipped in, ready to take the baton and head off on what is — every single year — the hottest, head-windiest stage of the race.
But right as The Hammer arrived — and I mean literally, right as she arrived — Heather’s back tire exploded. Not just a psssssssss. More of a
As you would expect, some people jumped, and all heads turned, knowing exactly what that sound meant. But the explosion from the tire — and the resulting head-turning and jumping — were nothing compared to what came from the normally calm, cool, and collected Heather.
“$&*#&$@#! KENNY! MY ^*$@!!^& TIRE JUST %^$$#(&!@ EXPLODED!”
Kenny and I sprang into action. Specifically, we both ran away from Heather. I have never checked with Kenny on his intentions, but I was running away 30% because I wanted to grab the spare back wheel we had pumped up and ready to go in the back of the van, and 70% because my fight-or-flight reflex had kicked in and I’m more a “flight” kind of guy.
Maybe Kenny is too, because he got to the van before I did. He grabbed the wheel and we both dashed back to Heather to get the wheel on her bike in what we hoped was record time.
Unfortunately for everyone, I am even clumsier when my system is flooded with adrenaline than when I’m not. Which is very clumsy indeed. As a result, I thoroughly hampered Kenny as he swapped out the wheel, probably increasing the amount of time it took by about 90 seconds.
I’m not absolutely certain, but at one point I may have heard the Benny Hill theme begin playing.
After what seemed an eternity — but was probably really less than three minutes — we had Heather back on her bike and on her way.
The Hammer took a shower — as it turns out, I would be the only one to not get to use the shower, which is really much sadder for everyone else than for me, when you think about it — and we loaded up and took off to catch up with Heather, hoping hoping hoping that she had not flatted again.
As we drove, looking for Heather, I said, “Well, that’s the worst possible time for a flat to have happened.”
Kenny disagreed. “Really, it was the best possible time. We were right there, the van was stopped and empty. The worst possible time for that tire to explode would have been about two minutes later, after Heather had ridden away from us, so we wouldn’t know she had flatted ’til after we got back to her twenty minutes later.”
Kenny was right, I agreed, and then said, “Well, let’s hope she hasn’t flatted again since she left us.”
I stepped on the gas. (Kenny was in the passenger seat, I was driving, The Hammer was in the back, recovering).
As we got near Heather, the temperature tipped over to 100 degrees, which is where it would hover for almost the entirety of her 45-mile ride. So we made sure we had a new bottle, packed with ice, to hand to her as soon as we rode by.
“How’re you doing?” Kenny shouted.
“My gears keep ghost-shifting!” Heather called out. “And the chain’s dropped off twice.”
In fact, the only gear that would reliably stay in place was a tall gear, meaning that for the first big climb of the ride, Heather couldn’t spin her way up. Clearly, the cycling gods had decided that on this day, Heather would have the mechanical troubles of the entire team heaped upon her.
We had to come up with a fix, fast. One that wouldn’t mean a long stop for Heather.
Kenny and The Hammer swapped places — The Hammer would have to recover while she also took care of Heather. Meanwhile, Kenny got Heather’s old wheel — the one that had just blown — and took the tire off, figuring that it was at least probable that some little undetectable thorn or piece of glass was the culprit of Heather’s blown tire. Kenny then stole a tire from one of our spare front wheels (we could afford this, since we had two spare fronts) and put it on Heaher’s original wheel. He pumped it up while we drove, and then we pulled over, waiting for Heather.
As we stood there, Kenny said, as nicely as he could, “Fatty, just stand aside and let me do this alone. It will go faster.”
But then, when Heather arrived, I couldn’t help myself. I immediately pulled the quick release and started pulling off the wheel, when Kenny caught my eye with a “Really?” look.
“Sorry,” I said, and backed away.
Kenny made the change, Heather got back on her bike, and rode on into the brutal heat and what was becoming a truly awful headwind. And the bike continued to mis-shift.
She did not look happy.
Bonus Miles Applied
As we drove, it became apparent that moving The Hammer up to the passenger seat had been a great idea. Her nurse persona came out and she pep-talked Heather through her stage of the ride.
Meanwhile in the van, we talked about the deceptive nature of this stage. On paper, its one of the easier stages: 45 miles, 1900 feet of climbing. Tough, but not really that tough. In reality, though, we all agreed that this is — without question — the most difficult stage of the race. It’s the hottest. The climbing is a long, relentless grind — the kind that wears you down, not the kind you stand up and get over with.
And it has featured a headwind every year we’ve done it.
We therefore awarded Heather an honorary 20 bonus miles for the race. When apprised of this fact (by way of having it shouted at her out the window), Heather seemed only mildly appeased.
We got to within fifteen miles of the exchange point — where it would be my turn to ride again. By now, Kenny was driving, I was in the back seat, changing into my bike clothes and eating slice after slice of pizza.
There was no pre-ride nutrition strategy to this. I just really like pizza.
I am pretty sure I ate four slices.
OK, back to the story.
We made sure Heather had two full, cold bottles, wished her good luck, and took off.
And then, feeling the wind buck the van, I said, “I don’t think we should leave her quite yet. Fifteen miles is a long way to fight this headwind alone.”
So we stuck with Heather ’til we were within ten miles of the exchange point. During which time, she caught up with and pulled along another rider. Their heads tell the whole story:
Finally, we had to go.
In ten minutes, we were at the exchange point. The Hammer went to go buy everyone — except me — ice cream, while I got my bike ready. Then I rolled up to the line, my bike pointing forward, my head craned around, looking back.
And there I saw Tommy, from Team 91. Bike pointed forward, head craned around, looking back.
“So you’re the team that’s going to break our streak,” I said. “At the last exchange, you were already 25 minutes ahead of us.”
“Well, it’s not a fair fight,” Tommy said, referring to how their team had three guys racing, while Team Fatty had two. “On the other hand, our woman is pretty new to riding.”
“Well, she’s holding her own on this leg,” I said. We had passed her in the van; I knew she was close and would be handing the baton off to Tommy in just a minute or two.
“In any case, this is an amazing race — just beautiful,” said Tommy. “And this leg of it we’re about to do is the most beautiful of all.” Which made me mad, because it’s really hard to think of a guy as your sworn enemy when he’s really nice and also right.
Tommy’s teammate rolled up, looking exhausted and encrusted with salt, and handed the baton to Tommy. He left only three minutes behind a pack of four riders going together; I knew there was a great chance he’d catch them and together they’d make excellent time on this leg of the course.
I checked my watch and started mentally counting the minutes ’til Heather arrived.
Five minutes went by. I stared back, willing Heather to appear — to have somehow eaten away twenty minutes of the lead of Team 91.
Ten minutes went by. Then fifteen. Nobody had rolled through in fifteen minutes. There was no chance whatsoever I was going to be able to catch and ride with a group ahead of me.
Twenty minutes. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three.
And then there was Heather. Even from a couple hundred yards away, I could tell she was cooked to a whole new level of doneness. She came in just a minute or so behind another rider, giving me someone to chase after all.
Heather had been faster than the woman on Team 91, but just by a minute. We were still 24 minutes behind them. Things looked bad.
Still, what Tommy had said stuck with me: she was a new rider. And while she was quite obviously a strong rider, cycling endurance is something you earn over time. And Heather tends to get stronger and faster the longer she rides.
So it wasn’t quite time for us to toss in the towel.
It was my turn to ride now, and I wanted to go.
Which is where we’ll pick up in the next installment.