A mile out, at a traffic light, we were surprised to pass the Bilenky tandems. I have to admit that soon after we breathed a sigh of relief and announced "Mission-accomplished."
Of course, we still had to finish and stay ahead of them, but as long as none of us was raptured away, we were pretty confident about finishing. Oh have I failed to mention The Rapture. The race was held on May 21, the day that Harold Camping had proclaimed as Judgment Day. So in addition to racing the other teams, we had to finish before the Rapture. Not that I really feared any of our team members would actually be raptured away, but I worried the ensuing earthquakes might add even more elevation than the 12,000 feet calculated by RideWithGPS or make the roads even rougher, or worse yet, it might disrupt the GPS! As the day wore on, plenty of irreverent rapture jokes kept us entertained, but I'll refrain from repeating any here, so as not to offend delicate sensibilities.
For finding our way, we had Gigi, the GPS, on our bike, master navigator Emily, reading the cue sheet on the Trek and Todd and Kristen promising to stay close and follow orders. Given the 20 page cue sheet and turns what seemed like every 100 meters, good navigation would be key to doing well. Fortunately we stuck together and between Emily and Gigi we managed to stay on route all day. Of course there were times that it might have been nice to miss a turn up yet another gratuitous hill. With the GPS, I could clearly see where extra hills or gravel was thrown in in a purely sadistic manner - except the route designer was also racing, so he seemed to be a masochist too.
The venue for the Gentlemen's Race changes every year. This edition of the race was held in Pennsylvania Dutch country, land of horse-drawn buggies with reflective triangles on the back, loads of churches, stone barns and lots of steep nasty gravel climbs. A few days before the race, we'd gotten an email that seemingly downplayed the amount of dirt. I had considered the dirt to be an advantage for us, since we had the low gears and fat tires and demon descenders. But if there really wasn't that much, I wondered if we should take our lighter weight racing tandem. Fortunately that thought never took hold.
Indeed, just a couple of miles in, we hit the first gravel road through a farm. This wasn't that namby-pamby, smooth as glass dirt that we ride in Vermont. This was real gravel, big and loose, the kind that tosses you about and saps your strength. But this first section of gravel was relatively flat, so not too bad at all. And then the first featured climb was actually paved. Maybe the ride wouldn't be so bad...
But then we started hitting more gravel and more climbs. And descents too. Ah this was going to be hard and fun. Then we hit Goat Hill - more like a goat track up the side of a cliff. John and I dropped into the granny gear as did David and Emily. Todd and Kristen were powering away on the middle ring, but not by choice. The shift to granny wasn't working. At this point, they executed a well timed Tullio Campagnolo move and hopped off, manually dropped the chain in the granny, remounted and caught us effortlessly. They did this numerous times throughout the day. Fortunately this was the extent of our mechanical problems, and they were so smooth and so fast that we never lost any time.
Somewhere on one of those brutal climbs I let out an "uggh-oomph" sort of grunt. Emily quickly told everyone else that this was "Wookie" for "Use a lower gear dumbo!" I'm not sure when either of us actually learned to speak "Wookie", but she did a fair translation.
Many of the screaming descents ended abruptly with stop signs at the bottom. On more than one occasion, Todd brought the big bike to a stop in the nick of time. But he said he wasn't worried since "Mother-of-Three" on the back of the bike would give all passing vehicles a mother's withering don't-you-dare look that was so intimidating that they'd stop in their tracks. Now the first time I met Kristen was a bit over a year ago when she and John started training for Mt Washington. The two of them rode the tandem and I rode with Kristen's husband, Greg, on singles. We were doing the local Wednesday night hill ride. Greg and I were riding along being social and I asked if they had children. He said three and before I could stop myself, I asked, "Who gave birth to them?" Kristen doesn't have what one would call child-bearing hips and ZZ-Top wrote a song about her legs. She is a lean-mean climbing machine. I just don't think of her as Mother-of-Three, but this was Todd's new nickname for her.
The first 30 miles had to be among the hardest 30 miles we've ever ridden, with brutally steep climbs, and way too short descents, but then we started a long downhill and took a hard right on to Smoketown Road, which was tandem-nugen to the nth degree. The three tandems, inspired by the name of the road, burned up this gradual downhill and hammered into Kutztown, the only town on the route, for a quick stop at the Mr. Food store.
We each headed in and found drinks and other nutrients and made use of the very clean bathroom. We were efficient and not too rushed, but left before any other team arrived.
Even so, we wondered when we might get caught. How far back were the really strong teams? Was our perceived advantage on the gnarly descents real? Would everyone come screaming past us on the next climb? Had all the other teams been raptured away?
The middle part of the course was a wee bit easier than the first part, and at some point, we even started talking about glory. Not too much though. Some of us are superstitious and didn't want to jinx things. So we went back to talking about the rapture instead. We'd heard some folks had come up with a business plan to take care of pets left behind. Now wouldn't the pet get to go too? Apparently not, because quite a few folks had signed up for such a service!
Incidentally, Todd is the rider to bring on a boring ride where you need to be entertained. He is hilarious and definitely came out with the best and most inappropriate for a family-audience rapture jokes. If you want a good nom de plume to use as a porn star, just ask Todd for suggestions. By the way, Todd is also a father of three. So we had the parents of six children bombing down descents and taunting fate with rapture jokes.
Oh, I seem to have gotten off track. Fortunately, we stayed the course for the race. As we again were discussing when we might get caught, we came upon the 90 mile checkpoint. Just as I was again wondering if everyone else had been raptured away, we finally saw an official from the race! This checkpoint was really a simple water stop, providing directions to the only other store just slightly off-route, and apparently directions for the shortcut home for those riders who found themselves in over their heads. We quickly took on some water. It was starting to get hot, and we were all running low. We asked about other teams. He told us that some of the Bilenkys had bailed. I cannot imagine doing this route as my first ever tandem ride with an equally tandem-inexperienced partner... the descents demanded experience. He also told us about another team that seemed to know all the shortcuts. But we didn't get any info on how far back any of the other teams were, so we continued to ride as if we might get caught at any time.
We took it as a good sign that we had not seen the official photographers all day. While we might not make the race video, we thought we might have a chance at the beer or the jerseys. The first complete team home wins cool Rapha jerseys for each rider. Second place gets all the beer - part of the entry fee was a case of beer from each team. The second team home takes all that beer home. We were starting to think about glory and nice jerseys.
But before that we had a few more hills to climb and it was also starting to get quite warm. We headed to the store, grabbed cold drinks and then started up the Bake Oven climb. This climb was brutal, only partly because of the steepness of the climb. The surface was like quicksand, very sticky and it was starting to get seriously hot. Bake Oven, indeed! Then the descent was the roughest of the ride. John lives for gnarly descents. He is a phenomenal bike handler, but my inner chicken sometimes jumps out and makes it known that I am outside my comfort zone. I cried for my mommy on this descent! And when we safely reached the bottom, I hopped off and kissed the ground. I was so happy to still be alive. Meanwhile, David and Emily stopped to collect our ejected water bottle. I'm sure it bounced out on one of the rare occasions when we actually touched the ground! I'm certain John had an ear to ear grin the whole way. Screaming descent was quite literal for me.
We had another tough climb that seemed to go back over the same ridge, and then 30 more miles of constant up and down after that. I should have studied the route profile more. I kept thinking we might have a easy finish, but no, we had more twists and turns and ups and downs.
In our own secret competition with Matt Roy, riding on the Ride Studio Cafe Team, we were keeping track of yardballs. Yardballs are those reflective balls often seen in gardens. One legend is that they prevent witches from sneaking up behind an unsuspecting gardener. Matt is well known for counting yardballs on long rides and within a group of riders, we often have a competition for spotting them first. As we were ahead of the RSC team all day, we took the credit for all the yardballs - sorry Matt! We spotted quite a few near the bottom of Bake Oven Road and there was another house on the route that had several. Matt doesn't allow for re-purposed yardballs, so the bowling balls that were mounted and hanging in one garden near the end didn't count. Without those, I think we ended up with a dozen Matt Roy approved yardballs.
The temperature continued to climb and Todd ran out of water. The Cannondale had three water bottle mounts. I believe the Lafferty's had a dozen - well 7 or 8. But they didn't have any more to spare and we were running low too. So we stopped at a home, where folks were outside, to ask for water. I believe they had to use a hand-pump to get the water, as it seemed to take forever. Todd asked them to delay any other bikes that came after us. In fact. he made this request to several bystanders in the final miles.
At one point, we caught the Los Pariahs team. This was the team we had been told had gone off-course and had taken various shortcuts. As we made our way through and around them, I realized how lucky we had been to not have lots of other riders around on some of the descents, since we could just let loose. I must say how truly great it is riding with other tandems of similar speed. There is nothing like hammering along in a rock-steady tandem paceline. Drafting singles while on a tandem doesn't work so well. Singles make little adjustments in speed that are just hard to do on a tandem. Tandems are all about momentum and speed. So we just had a blast roaring along together.
Once out of traffic, we hit a maze of roads up and down through fields and then finally a screamer of a downhill that seemed to set us up to jump over the highway! Instead we turned sharply to ride along beside it and then caught sight of a few more bikes ahead. Had some team gotten past us at some point? It was Los Pariahs again. They really did know all the shortcuts. We continued hammering. We caught sight of yet more bikes, but they all were wearing different jerseys, indicating they were from different teams. We figured out these were riders who had opted for a short-cut home.
We approached the velodrome, hopped on the grass and rode to the back side, where we entered to do our lap and a half around the track. Then we saw the victory flag. We had done it. Our three tandems had actually won!
We collapsed, found cold drinks and food, and almost an hour later, Moots, the next team, arrived. They went straight for the beer! The locals from Bicycling Magazine came in soon afterwards. Other teams, some complete, some not, came in over the next few hours, all thoroughly exhausted, but all happy with the glorious day.
So indeed, Mission Accomplished! We had fun! We made a respectable showing for tandems, meaning we will never get such a good handicap again. Even without the handicap, we posted the third fastest time of the day, which is not too shabby for a bunch of cafe' racers!