Sunday, July 6, 2008

Lanterne rouge

And we're off
Originally uploaded by amawby75
What a comedy of errors! I spent six months preparing myself athletically and forgot to make a couple of essential six-minute purchases.

Don't misunderstand me: it was fun, immensely fun, even in the disgrace the day began as.

The night did not go very well. In fact I'm positive I did not close eye for longer than a couple of minutes. And I wasn't the only one: at least a couple of veterans of many battles in our group suffered from the same event-induced insomnia. However, as they said, it's not so important how much one sleeps the night before the event, if enough sleep has been enjoyed in the previous week. Unfortunately, I am not doing well on that front as well, having traveled through quite a few timezones just a few days earlier. Yet that proved to be the least of my problems.

The endless night goes at the rhythm by thunder and lightning. No, the weather was not going to be that good. At sunrise, only a light drizzle salutes the early riders. At 6AM it's time to decide: vest or rain jacket? I go for the vest, considering the previous days of heat. The drizzle will just dry off while climbing under the sun, right? Wrong: while in the pen with other 8500 riders, waiting to start for over an hour, rain starts pouring. We curse the sky, but to no avail. We can't leave or go back now, we're locked in by metal gates waiting our turn to start. People leave in batches of 1000. I have bib number 7170. The rain keeps falling. I suffer in silence. It takes just a few minutes to realize the full extent of the "colder than hell" expression. I realize there is only one way out: after starting, pedal full speed back to the hotel, then back to the race to avoid the feared broom wagon. Yes, because as I found out, my high bib number has another unfortunate consequence: leaving at 7:30 or so leaves only 10 minutes advantage over the dreaded fin de la course.

I literally fly back, adding already a few extra kilometers to the long day ahead. Then I rush back passing the extremely unlucky, those who got all the way here to be eliminated in the first mile due to a flat. Me, I only have myself to blame so far. I'm going super fast, catching up with all the stragglers. But I'm still cold. Even if now protected by the rain jacket I am completely soaked underneath. Worse, my feet are protected only by very light socks, and are drowning in the well ventilated shoes I so appreciated during the Mulholland Challenge. Why didn't I bring my shoe covers? Because, as many other spoiled Sou Cal riders, I own none, nor would I ever ride if such implements where actually needed. But the lack those cheap pieces of nylon could change the course of this gray rainy day. Soon enough every descent will chill me to the bone, and at some point I'll stop feeling my toes.

Yet I'm rocking and rolling to the first hill at Rébénacq, explored a couple of days before, and I catch up with a couple of hundred of the slowest, hungover, invalid and misguided, imagining the broom wagon losing more and more terrain. Old ladies and children defied the weather, standing at the window or along the route cheering and applauding the riders, shouting "bon courage." I'll never forget them or thank them enough. "Yes," I think, "I'll make it!"

Then everything stops.

A couple of accidents in the next few kilometers stop the gruppetto in its tracks for ten minutes or so. I feel my advantage evaporate while the unfortunate victims are picked up by the ambulances. It gets worse: really slow people are descending carelessly on the wet pavement, way above their demonstrated skill level. The group however is spread thin enough that it's easy to avoid the worst elements, and pass them easily at the next hill.

The weather does not improve. When I get to Lourdes, I know I won't make it much further. It would be crazy to climb the Tourmalet in my condition: I'm already shacking for the cold, and there are nine degrees more than the reported three on top of the pass. After all, I'll be in the Hautes Pyrenées for an entire week, and I'll be able to take my chances with the mythical climbs then, if I don't catch my death today, that is. "Live to ride another day," I think, cutting to Argeles-Gazost to the arrival hotel, dreaming of the hot shower that will put an end to this unfortunate, but ultimately epic day.

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