I was thankful for the new start time for the 2014 Hincapie Gran Fondo. This meant I was able to get up at my normal weekday waking schedule. Then it was just a matter of getting the stuff I had prepared the night before into the car. In the cool (but not cold!) air of an October morning, I drove the 30 or so minutes to Hotel Domestique for the start of my 2014 Ride For Mike.
The VIP package allowed me to drive right up to the hotel and park within a stones throw of the start. The only hitch I had was with the zipper of my vest. The base came unattached and I fought with it for awhile before finally deciding to ditch it and head over for the breakfast. I could sense my nervousness. However, it wasn’t the riding that made me nervous. It was wanting to make sure I was at the right place and the right time.
The breakfast was in the dining area of the hotel. You could look out of the large pane windows beyond the pool to the mountains in the distance. The sun was just beginning to kiss the tops of the ridges as I downed my muffin, egg biscuit, second cup of coffee, and more fluids.
Probably the biggest perk of the VIP area was not the chance to meet the pro riders who showed up, but the easy access to the hotel restroom. I did see a couple of the pros — though I didn’t speak with any of them. However, I did take advantage of that restroom multiple times before the start!
Then it was time to head out to the start. Another advantage of the VIP pass was the access to the front of the LARGE pack of riders who lined up for the start. It was a chance to connect with folks that I don’t normally see except at these types of events and position myself to avoid the majority of the “scrum” that comes from a mass start like this.
Then we were off. The nervousness was gone now. The weather was AWESOME and I could see the leaders pulling off no more that 50 riders in front of me. This was going to be a good day.
The nervousness returned as we got farther underway. I was riding along in the right lane of the road as the pack got settled into a rhythm. Then I noticed a good number of riders passing on in the left lane. The 50 or so riders ahead of me continued to swell.
I was riding under the understanding that there was a yellow-line rule. What I didn’t realize was that during the “neutral” start, the marshals were creating a “rolling closure.” So, any traffic coming towards us (which was very little) was stopped and moved to the side to allow the pack access to both lanes. I could see this taking place on some of the longer straight sections of the road.
At that point, I decided to work my way toward the front. Sometimes I did this by going in the left lane and other times along the right shoulder. At other times, I just settled in to the middle of the right lane and followed others up through the riders ahead.
I was in this position when it happened. The group was taking up both sides of the road. We were in a slight right curve going down a hill. This allowed me to look ahead to see an upcoming left turn. Because of the vantage point, I could see that on the other side of the left turn a truck had been stopped by the course marshals. Suddenly the nervousness returned — at about 25 mph.
The riders ahead of me in the left lane began to call out — “Single lane! Single lane! Right lane! Slowing!” The brakes of multiple bikes were also calling out the warning of a quickly slowing mass of flesh, carbon fiber, and metal. I began to slow and look for my escape path. The wall of riders before me was beginning to compress as the riders to the left began to move over as the riders approaching the vehicle slowed.
Like an accordion the group compressed. I balanced myself on the bike fully expecting to get hit from behind. I aimed the bike to a small gap while trying to keep my momentum going forward. Just as I thought I was going to hit a rider moving across my wheel from left to right, the accordion released in front of me.
However, it was too late for a rider I could hear very near me but behind me to the right. As I was rejoicing that a lane was opening before me, I was struck once again with adrenaline as I heard brakes squeal and then carbon fiber snap. It is a hard sound to describe, but if you have ever heard it you understand. I can’t help but think of bones breaking.
Once again I just knew I was going to get hit. However, the anticipated impact never came and I rolled away. Just a second or so later an even larger sound of entangling cycling equipment erupted behind me. The sound was slightly more muted by that point as I was moving beyond the carnage.
Later I heard from a rider who had stopped to check on the group that all the people involved were okay, but that at least two bicycle frames were broken in half. At the moment of the event it sounded so much worse. After making my way past the truck (that had stopped, but had done so without moving out of the road), I set my position to the right of the field and decided to not worry about how many people might be passing me!
I knew that the craziness of the start would end when we started climbing. However, there were still a couple of technical sections I would have to make it through. I saw one more near accident as a rider was sandwiched between two others. He did a great job of using his body to protect himself and hold his position while keeping his balance.
Finally the faster guys started to pull away from me while the slower folks were beginning to fade back. Before I reached the first SAG, there was a sizable gap ahead of me and looking back I could only see a few riders interspersed along the way. So, rolling through Tryon, I knew the ride was now in my hands. There wouldn’t be a lot of pacing at this point and the climbing was about to begin.
There would be no more worrying about the riders around me. Now, I just had to worry about myself. I would find that was enough to worry about!
To be continued…