i arrive late, without an entourage. i don’t have my trainer set up in the front rows and am not the recipient of a pre-race massage. my lycra shorts have a hole in them and my jersey doesn’t fit as well as it did even…last year. i spin up a couple of hills and about 5 minutes before the glorious send-off in negaunee, i slip into the back of the throng. there is light banter and outside one of the main street bars, some already-engaged patrons are pausing from their early morning liver disruptions to smoke a cigarette. compared to them, i am the epitome of health and vigor.
i am touching the surly bonds of 60 and will be there in another year. yet, i love to compete and with my dalliance in the ore to shore last year, found a race that is both challenging and rewarding. never mind that “1,000 feet above lake superior” ore to shore race slant though. compared to the north shore of lake superior where 1,000 feet descents mean 15 minutes of warp speed, the 1,000 feet elevation drop in the ore to shore is cryptic and deceiving.
the nice thing about starting at the back is knowing i won’t be passed by many. that is important to my psyche. once upon a time, i raced road bikes but that was 45 pounds ago and so to me, the ore to shore represents an affirming 48 mile time trial through sand and mud and cobble and hills and always…through the fine red dust of michigan’s iron soils.
the race begins and if i started in 850th place, i am in 750th by the time we leave the pavement and security of constrained racing. the luge hill is no problem and i take that as a positive sign given that last year, someone fell and everything came to a grinding halt in what was to become the first of many “hike a bikes”.
the throng spreads out through ishpiming and from my perspective at the back, i can see there is no effort to organize. yet, whenever i see a line of riders, i do my best to latch onto the rear wheel of the unsuspecting and for a while at least, conserve 20% of my energy.
i make a point of stretching and getting out of the saddle often because well, 48 miles is a long haul and my neck tends to leave me with the flexibility of r2d2 after most races. age has its virtues; suppleness is not one of them.
every crossing is announced with cowbells and support from the “yoopers”. the ore to shore is a multi-community event and it is nice to be offered encouragement and anonymous, yet well-received “good jobs.”
somewhere outside of ishpiming, a train whistle blows multiple times. as a former railroad brat, all i could think was how nice it was that the railroad was celebrating the bike race. nope, they are switching cars…right in the middle of the ore to shore…thereby emphasizing that in all the world and thoughout all of history, there is nothing more important than a train being on time. as a result, there is a massive backlog of riders at the crossing.
several intrepid (i.e., foolish) bikers start to scramble over the cars, while everyone else moves like cattle to the east. half-way down the line of cars though, the train starts to move and those at the front of the line are now at the back of the line and the 50 places i gained have been lost. the engines depart and as is the wont of an adrenalin-charged crowd of competitors, there is a mad rush to get onto one of the two tire tracks that mark the path towards marquette. except: those tracks are slippery organic muck and as soon as several riders go down, you may as well be waiting for a train.
and just when you start feeling like there’s a flow to the race and that the ups and downs are entirely manageable, misery hill looms like a bruised thumb above the horizon. even from a quarter-mile away, you can see the procession of hike-a-bikers moving up the unconsolidated sand and cobble. once there, conversation turns light because even as eager competitors, we know we are going only as fast as the person in front of us.
at the top, the downhills are thick with sand and a bad line means you are likely to tickle the raspberry in the best case…or ledge rock in a worst case scenario.
in my accumulated wisdom and poundage, i have become a relatively fearless downhiller. at this moment in the race, that strategy pans out perfectly until the one descent where a rider in front of me is struggling. i emphasize “rider on the right”, which is exactly the direction he moves. i swerve to avoid but fall like a stone in front of a collection of para-medics and onlookers. collecting myself, i feel no pain and am minimally bloodied, i get back on the bike and ask the crowd “you didn’t see that, did you?”
after misery hill, the miles erode steadily and the race doesn’t seem as daunting as it was when excitement overrode pragmatic bike riding. there are several spurts of group riding but the sand means the line of the rider in front of you may not be the best line to the beer trailer, which for every race i ride now, is where i am guaranteed a podium finish.
kirby’s hill is the last nasty little pitch and as hard as i try, i have to disengage from my bike ¾ of the way up. before the race, i challenged myself to ride it this year and so coming off, was a disappointment. but if nothing else, i am mentally malleable and from there, the course becomes an undulating mix of road and trails and finally, the terrain evens out and you know you are “home.”
this year, i cross the finish line with my arms raised, feeling good for a corpulent old fart. my time is a bit off from 2012 but i blame that on the train.
yes. that’s it. the train.
the times of those preceding me, especially those who were in the first rows in negaunee, are mind-boggling. there are many fast riders in the ore to shore. sick fast.
i disengage from my bike and pull some sweat-soaked currency from my jersey. fighting off the first hint of a cramp, i move easily towards the beer trailer and decide the ipa is my reward.
“first place,” i say as i raise my cup to a fellow finisher.
i’m already thinking first place next year as well.