I couldn’t see anything, just smothering glowing grey and the painted lines on the road ten meters ahead. It was soundless. Where am I? Somewhere along I-505? Or is this I-5? Maybe its neither and I’m dead, and it turns out this is just purgatory – driving forever into the impenetrable pre-dawn tule fog of the Central Valley. It suddenly lifted above as my car and I ducked into a lowland. A grid of incandescent lights illuminated a billboard sign off to my right: Best Rooms Hands Down – Colusa Casino.
This is the moment you wonder why on earth you woke up at 4am to drive your car to a faraway place, to then proceed to hurt yourself mentally, physically, and sometimes emotionally on your bicycle. Especially when you are reminded of a simple warm room with a decent bed. Even if it’s at the Colusa Casino.
The sun rose and I met my teammates near the outskirts of Chico for the famous Paskenta Century. Its really a raceride, for free, on one of the most classic courses in Northern California, a 100 mile route complete with a long rolling gravel stretch past the hamlet of Paskenta. My friend AJ described it as “hallowed”. If you look at the winners list, there are some famous names in there – the Jacques-Maynes, Kirk Carlsen, Paul Mach, Max Jenkins, Jesse Moore, and other guys I am unfortunately too ignorant to know of and have yet to learn about.
We had five: Chuck Hucheson, Nate Freed, Matt Chatlaong, Keith Hillier, and I. We wanted to win this thing and give the NorCal peloton a preview of how strong Herbalife presented by Marc Pro – Strava will be in 2015.
As our group of hundreds of riders rolled along through the cold countryside, I zipped up my Jakroo windvest all the way up to the high collar that kept my neck warm and cozy. I immediately noticed a different approach to this race. It was mellow, civilized. Very few riders chose to courageously, if foolishly, fling themselves off of the front.
When we reached the bends in the road outside of Corning, attacks started going, but it was still too early. Nonetheless, our own Matt Chatlaong was eager to mix it up and show his strength in some echelons and little group moves.
We crossed the Sacramento River, snaking languidly below a wide bridge. The attacks increased in frequency and potency, stretching out the peloton.
I enjoyed chatting with some of my friends from Davis, where I went to college, and others I know from cycling. I ate most of an English muffin with strawberry jam and gave the rest to a guy with a spectacular mustache who thought my sandwich looked good.
Paskenta was coming up, only 10 miles out now. The elastic on the front of the mob stretched to keep the attacks within the fold, but it was beginning to fray. Finally, a group with Chuck Hucheson, Nate Freed, longtime NorCal stalwart and former pro Mike Sayers, Casey Fallon from Data Driven Athlete, and Jeff Buscheck from DBC escaped.
With the wily relentless attacking sprinter legs of Chuck, and our unfailing loyal motor of Nate Freed up in the breakaway, the chess game was unfolding nicely in our favor.
There was a weak chase being put on by some soldiers from random teams, so the other favorites waited for the gravel, where I knew, undoubtedly, that Ben Jacques-Maynes of Jamis Hagens-Berman would attack. In the lead up, it was a little squirrely and I heard a crash behind the top 20 – glad to hear everyone was okay in the end. As we ripped the downhill towards the gravel section, I pedaled hard to the front and entered the famous blueish-grey shale of Paskenta sitting third wheel behind Max Jenkins and BJM… And BJM drilled it immediately.
I switched wheel ruts to get around Max and follow, the conditions were a little bit slippery, and after 400 meters, we all discovered the road was the most washboardy its been in years. We were going so fast at times it felt like our bikes were floating, and when the road conditions deteriorated in the slow sections, the ripples in the roadbed shook us. Bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup.
BJM hit the accelerator a couple times, separating us two from the front. Eventually, a small solid group was all that remained. Kirk Carlsen attacked, resplendent in the light blue of VuMedi, and I covered. The breakaway came back into view, maybe only twenty seconds ahead, before a brief treaty ensued for a kilometer… Which BJM shattered with a ten powerful pedal strokes.
Emerging back onto the pavement, which felt velvety and smooth in spite of the potholes, the original breakaway still had a gap, but now it was me and BJM with a growing gap on the group of eight-or-so behind. HMPS had 2 ahead and 2 in the group behind, so I didn’t really want to help Jacques-Maynes. I ended up doing only 25% of the work and we got up to the breakaway.
BJM was sitting on the back and with 3 HMPS riders in the breakaway, we were in charge of the work. The downside to our numerical advantage was immediately clear to me, because as soon as BJM got his legs back, he was probably going to attack ad infinitum until he just rode away.
So I beckoned Sayers as I pulled through, and attacked.
Sayers looked back, saw the hesitation, and then joined me. They practically stopped pedaling in a game of bluff. BJM waited for Chuck and Nate to go, and they waited for him to go. Our gap grew fast while Sayers and I rode hard.
During the ensuing hour, I became 100% sold on the power of Herbalife Prolong. It’s 250 calories in a bottle, you just mix it into your water. I don’t care what the science says about how to optimally get calories into yourself on the bike, that its all about solid food, rice bars, gluten-free, blocks but not gels, that calorically rich drink mix is bad for hydration. What I know is this: when I’m riding a two man breakaway in the middle of Central Valley crosswinds with Mike Sayers, riding eyeballs-out, trying to fend off a bridge attempt by Kirk Carlsen behind us, with 25 miles still to go, I’m not going to try to choke down a rice bar… I’m going to drink from my bottle of Prolong, because it’s the only thing I can do, and it works perfectly. I never got remotely close to bonking.
So eventually, Kirk Carlsen stopped trying to bridge up to us, and our gap grew again. In the distance behind, we could see a new VuMedi rider trying to get across with an HMPS rider and someone from DBC.
Sayers said to me, “I’m just about out.”
So I dug in harder, stretching out my pulls so we could stay out front. All I wanted was to keep our breakaway alive as long as possible, so Chuck and Matt Chat would have good legs to sprint if we were caught, while Keith Hillier and Nate Freed could attack.
The peloton vanished from sight with the impetus to chase probably lost, and it was only the small group behind, growing a little fainter. But then, we caught a red light entering the town of Orland.
“Do you know which way we go?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” Sayers replied.
We stood there, dumbly waiting. The little group came up on us, it was Keith who was in there. He barely slowed to yell, “Let’s go!” as he messenger-hooked through the intersection, most heroically.
We all began rotating together down Highway 32, and it felt amazing to get four-riders-worth of draft to rest behind.
Keith had the map of the course uploaded to his Garmin so we murmured a plan. The race was over behind us, it was going to come down to this breakaway, so we were going to use a 1-2 punch strategy to try and win. At mile 95, I was going to attack alone. If it worked, we won, but if it didn’t Keith would follow the others and win the sprint with fresher legs.
We turned onto River Rd, passing through the rows of silvery dormant walnut orchards. When the moment came, I sprinted out to a 10-bike-length gap, and rode my face off. I peeked under my armpit at the chase. Jason from VuMedi held the gap steady, and for an agonizing minute or two, it was a stalemate. Who would crack first?
With a flick of the elbow, and some reluctant legs behind, the chase was over, and I was out of sight.
There is a moment when you’ve won a road race, but you haven’t actually crossed the finish line, and you realize what has just happened, or what will happen, but you cannot know with total certainty. That moment is exquisite. The pain is completely irrelevant. I don’t know whether the pedaling stops hurting, or if the memory of the moment is so rich with satisfaction that it is impossible to recall the suffering.
At Paskenta, we played the best chess, and I was lucky to have really good legs that Sunday.