A Perfect Day That Ends in Unspeakable Tragedy

Fate conspires. I am convinced this is true. The thing is, it usually conspires against us, to the point where we look askance at fate when it conspires for us. And yet, once in a while, fate lends a hand.

This past weekend, fate must’ve felt I was due.

Intervention 1
The plan for the weekend was that my family and I would be out of town. As it turns out, though, Thursday evening we decided Susan isn’t quite ready to travel.

Abracadabra: suddenly we had a free weekend at home.

And within moments, I had latched on to the Nebo Loop ride Kenny was planning. Saturday, 6:00am, starting at Kenny’s house. 6.5 hours of riding, 110 miles, one giant climb, one giant descent, a 40-mile paceline on lonely roads.

Seriously, there is no better possible hometown road epic in the world than the Nebo Loop.

Intervention 2
In short order, I pinged the rest of the core team to see if they could do the ride, too. Rick Sunderlage (not his real name) got an approval — no mean feat considering how late in the week this was coming together — but that was about it. Everyone else either was out of town, had a race they had committed to, or had other stuff going on.

And then Dug sent a text message. He was reversing himself; he was in.

This has never happened before. Ever. Over the course of 15 years of ride invites, I’ve learned: If Dug says he’s out, he’s out. It’s not negotiable. You can argue and try to work things out on his behalf, but it does no good. If Dug says he’s out, that’s final.

But here we were, nevertheless. Dug had said he was out. And now he was in.

“Kim says I need the miles,” was his simple explanation.

I did not pry further.

The Best of All Possible Riding Buddies
I’d like you to conduct an intellectual exercise. If you could put together a list of attributes that would make up the perfect riding buddy, what would they be?

I’d make this buddy male, first of all, because otherwise this list starts to sound like I’m writing a new verse to the “If You Like Pina Coladas” song. Next, I’d make this riding buddy highly available. And I’d make him just slightly faster than I am. I’d make him interesting, but not an incessant chatterbox on the road (after about half an hour of talking on the bike, I’m usually in the mood to shut up and ride).

You probably have other attributes you’d build in to your perfect riding buddy. Think about them for a moment.

Now let’s change things up for a second. Which would be the better riding buddy: the person you just dreamed up, or a strong rider / nice guy who also happens to own a Ben and Jerry’s franchise?

Yeah, me too.

And that, my friends, is Bill Freedman. Now, just in case you have a picture in your mind of a soft, lazy ice cream-eating schlub, let me point out: one year, Bill did the Leadville 100. Unfortunately, someone crashed into him within four miles of the beginning of the race, breaking one of his pedals and giving Bill an enormous case of road rash (and an entirely exposed butt cheek). Did Bill bail out of the race? Nope. He did the whole 100 miles anyway.

That’s one hardcore ice cream guy.

Anyway, courtesy of my totally non-subtle prodding, Bill volunteered that at the end of the ride, we’d stop at his shop for ice cream, his treat.

Since it was already hot by 7:00am and the high temperature for the day was slated to go to 102, I wholeheartedly endorsed Bill’s idea.

Clown of the Paceline
Drue and Larry rounded out the group, making seven of us — right at the sweet spot for a group road ride — large enough that you’ve got a good long break between turns pulling, and small enough that it doesn’t take forever to get the group rolling again once it’s stopped.

We got started right around 6:20 (just a few minutes late). We were doing the Nebo Loop a little different this time: counterclockwise. This meant we’d be doing the 40-mile flat section at the beginning of the ride — before the big climb — instead of after. It also meant we’d be going up the South side of Nebo, which only Larry had done before, but which we all agreed was going to be a steeper climb than going up the North side.

I was feeling good as the paceline got rolling. Not as good as Larry, I guess, because he kept rolling up to the front and pushing the pace. i didn’t mind, though. He wasn’t pushing it much, and we were all staying together really well.

I, on the other hand, was being a complete goofball. Any time there was a tiny hill or overpass, I’d jump out of the paceline and attack it hard, celebrating with a victory salute each time I rolled across first. I’m pretty sure everyone thought it was funny the first time I did it. The group might’ve even thought it was mildly amusing the second and third time I did it. I’m sure that by the fourth time, though, I was the only one who found myself entertaining.

I couldn’t help myself, though. I was in such a great mood that I was willing to try out the “incessant repetition” comedy gambit: the theory that any joke, repeated often enough, goes from funny to unfunny to — eventually — absurdly funny.

I am not sure that the gambit succeeded, but I was having fun anyway.

Attack on the Climb
We all stayed together up to the beginning of the climb, and even for a mile or two beyond. And then Rick started pushing the pace. This was no surprise since he had indicated, via instant message, the day before that he intended to drop me in the climb.

So I did the honorable thing: I grabbed his wheel and hunkered down. Dug and Larry grabbed on, too, seeing exactly how far the Sunderlage train would take us.

Kenny stayed back, riding with Bill and Drue. None of them had anything to prove.

Briefly, I thought to myself, “Hey, I should ride with Bill. After all, he’s the one who owns the ice cream store.” So I eased up, which must have looked like an early implosion to Rick, Dug, and Larry.

But I was not blown. In fact, I felt good. Real good.

As I got close to Bill, Kenny, and Drue, one of them shouted out, “Go at whatever pace you want. We’ll regroup at the top.” Kenny then started riding away from the group at the back, and would shortly catch me, tired legs from the Cascade Creampuff notwithstanding.

To me, that seemed like an invitation to test myself.

So I did some math, figured that I was fifteen miles from the summit, did a best guess as to how hard I could climb for fifteen miles, and then buried myself accordingly.

Before long, I was with Rick S, Dug, and Larry.

And then I was ahead of them.

And Kenny had not caught me.

Being fast up this climb had suddenly become important to me.

The Importance of 27
The climb up Mt. Nebo is difficult whether you go up the North side or South. The North side, however, has a near-non-finite number of false summits; it plays with your head like no other climb I’ve ever done (with the exception of the Powerline climb at Leadville, which is somehow even worse).

So while climbing up the South side was a steeper, more demanding cliimb, it was — from my point of view — paradoxically also an easier climb, because it doesn’t toy with you nearly as much.

As I climbed, I had time to think and look around. Here are some of the things I thought and observed:

  • I really like my 27 cog. Dug was riding on a borrowed bike with a 23-tooth cog in the back being his easiest gear. Since I was in my granny gear — 27 teeth — for most of the climb and still barely able to turn the cranks, I thought several times about how hard this ride must have been on Dug, especially since he had never done this ride at all before and so didn’t know when (or if) the climbing ends. As it turns out, Dug compensated for the 23 cog by serpentining whenever he was out of view of others.
  • Cows are big. At the very beginning of the climb, I saw a couple of cows tussling at the side of the road. As I got closer, they stopped and stood very still, eyeing me. To me, they seemed to be saying, “Hey, we should quit beating each other up and go attack that guy who smells of beef.” You know, of all the ways in the world there are to die, being attacked by cattle is probably pretty high up there in the “embarassing” zone.
  • Cows startle easily. At another point in the climb, I came across several cows in the middle of the road, lazily staring at me. I yelled and hollered (there is a difference between yelling and hollering, right?) and got them running ahead of me. I drove them forward until the next hairpin in the road, at which point I turned and they kept going straight. This may have been the most fun I have ever had on a road bike.

The Best Time to Check How You’re Doing Is at a Hairpin
Being the guy out front creates a dilemma. You want to know if anyone’s catching up to you, but you don’t want anyone to know you care whether anyone’s catching up to you. So that’s what hairpin turns are for. At first, I could see Rick and Kenny close behind me. 

And then I couldn’t.

That was a good moment.

I got to the top first and — goober that I am — immediately checked my stopwatch so I’d know how much I beat Rick and Kenny by. (Nevermind that Kenny was still cooked from Cascade Creampuff, and Rick S had no idea how to mete out his climbing effort, having never been on Mt. Nebo before.)

Five minutes and seven minutes, respectively.

I tell you what: The pink jersey makes you fast.

Left to right: Rick S, Kenny, and me. Dug took this (not posed, since none of us knew he was taking a picture) photo with his cool iPhone. I’m closest because I’m walking over to Dug to tell him I beat him up the climb by twelve minutes.

The Ride Ends in Tragedy
We regrouped at the top, all of us thirsty beyond belief in the brutal heat — more than 100 degrees in the valley, and probably 90+ even up top on the mountain. We loaded up on water at Payson Lakes — Kenny drew a small crowd when he stripped down to his shorts and went for a short swim.

Next up was the big downhill. Fifteen miles or so of it. And I tried to keep Dug in sight as we flew down. Really, I did. But I couldn’t. The fact is, nobody can stay with Dug on the descents. Dug has some secret gravity distortion field gizmo — coupled with a bizarre disdain for potential consequences — that allows him to rocket downhill faster than you and I can even contemplate.

Sadly, before long Dug had to slow, caught behind a slow-descending truck. Before long, the entire group was backed up behind this truck, and there was no passing it — the road was that twisty, and none of us were feeling so suicidal as to try passing a truck in a blind corner.

So we spent the downhill behind a truck, riding our brakes. Would it really have been so hard for this guy to pull over for us, just for a second?

It may seem to you that this was the tragedy I was speaking of. But no. That comes next.

As we exited the shadow of Mt. Nebo and rode the final 20 miles back toward Kenny’s house, we started looking at our watches, checking to see how closely the predicted finish time we had told our respective spouses matched with reality.

It turns out that Dug, Rick S., and I — who had carpooled together to Kenny’s house — all needed to get to our respective homes, ASAP. We were already late, in fact.

There was no way around it: we’d have to skip going to Ben and Jerry’s.

Yes, it’s true. We were riding with the owner of a Ben and Jerry’s store, with an offer of free ice cream. We were riding past that store. It was more than 100 degrees outside. We had all been on our bikes for 105 miles. Nothing in the world sounded better than New York Super Fudge Chunk.

And yet, we did not stop for ice cream.

I am still crying, even three days later.

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