Confessions of a Fondo VIP

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The cold rain pelted us as we waited for the ride to begin. Up front, in the small pen for the fastest or most prominent participants, it felt like a race was about to begin. Thousands of shivering cyclists stood over their bikes behind us.

The 2013 Tour de Tucson was about to begin. I stood next to my lifelong friend, Peter, who’d flown out from LA to do the ride with me.

Over to my left was cycling legend John Howard, a four-time Olympian, a two-time Ironman World Champion, winner of the first Race Across America, past owner of the cycling land-speed record, and winner of enough National Championships and big stage races to make your head hurt. The guy was in his 60s and still combative like a junkyard dog.

Over on my right was this small squadra of Mexican dudes in matching kit who I’d never seen but were as pro as shit. You could just tell by glancing at them that they were going to rip people’s legs off. Mike Sayers, a retired pro who did his final two years with BMC was over by the barriers, shaking off the cold and talking to himself.

It was basically all guys like this and me—an unremarkable 46-year-old Cat 4 racer who surely was going to finish an hour after them. I wasn’t in such elite company for my talents on the bike—I was there because I was editor in chief of the world’s largest cycling magazine.

When I’d taken that job, I really had zero clue what would be involved when I showed up at a big ride. I was just a journalist, exponentially more skilled as a writer than a rider. But what I’ll call the bike industry—an aggregation that includes manufacturers and media and the pro racing ecosystem—is full of fantastic athletes and strange codes of conduct. There were all sorts of unspoken rules and expectations at every ride I clipped in for.

I remember how little I knew when I made my first visit to Specialized HQ. It was 2010 and I was only a day away from riding my first fondo on behalf of the Bicycling brand. That night, I’d hobnob at a Carmel Valley vineyard with CEOs and members of the Kennedy family and Hollywood personalities like Rob Lowe, David Hasselhoff, and Phil Keegan.

And though was just 24 hours away from riding a pretty hard 100-mile ride paced by domestic pros, I first had to survive the lunch ride at Specialized. It was a Friday, which I later would learn meant that the ride was the local world championship. One of the Jacque-Maynes brothers was there—at the time I couldn’t tell them apart—as were about 40 or 50 Specialized employees who had no interest in a conversational ride. I was the new top editor at Bicycling and folks in Morgan Hill were more interested to know if I was a poseur or if I was fast.

In the end, I suspect I showed them that was neither—fit and passionate enough to be upbeat pack fodder on a hard ride, and not nearly strong enough to hang when pro/1/2 guys threw down. I was on a Roubaix that’d been handed to me 15 minutes before the ride; I’d soon become more expert on getting dialed on a random bike right before a huge ride. I rode back to HQ with a group of 10 or 15 stragglers—the strong guys who blew the lunch ride apart definitely weren’t the regrouping types—getting my first lesson on how my bike-industry riding life would go in my new job.

Fortunately, by the time I was standing there in the frigid rain in Tucson, a few years had passed and my education had progressed quite a bit. I wasn’t necessarily a much stronger cyclist, but at least I understood the rules of the game.

The event organizer was on the mic, thanking sponsors and issuing last-minute instructions. His voice boomed out of the PA system and echoed back into the corals where more than 5,000 riders were ready to tackle the 107-mile course. The Mexicans pulled off their jackets and tossed them to a soigneur. It was not a pleasant feeling to be that deeply chilled before a long day in shit weather even began.

Less than a minute before the gun went off, the guy on the mic said something about me—thanked me for coming and suggested that my presence underscored just how prominent an event this was. I think I raised my arm and some people clapped and then I took one last look around at all the fast riders that I’d probably not talk to for the rest of the day.

And then an actual gun went off. Followed by the sound of thousands of cleats clicking in.

I was wrapping up a busy autumn in which I was doing a prominent fondo nearly every weekend. It feels strange to remember how and why I was flying all over the country to ride fondos.

I think I was there because my presence signified something. What that something might be seemed clearer to me in 2013 than it does now.

Here is the true story of five fondos.

•••

Viva Bike Vegas

This event took place early in the morning the day after (the recently defunct) Interbike trade show wrapped up in Las Vegas. So rest assured that all bike industry participants who showed up at the Mandalay Bay casino in the predawn darkness were coping with a chronic cellular hangover from too much food and drink, very little sleep, and generalized convention-hall ennui.

We rolled out just before the sun came up and cruised the full length of the Las Vegas strip with a police escort. That was just as awesome as it sounds. Having one or two “celebrity riders” at these kinds of fondos is a strangely regular custom, and here the big talent was Oscar Pereiro. I remember feeling bemused and cynical about his presence—I projected all kinds of awkwardness on him for how he backed into being champion of the 2006 Tour de France after the Floyd Landis fiasco. But Pereiro was pleasant and funny and told me a few good stories about his brief pro soccer career. And after sitting on his wheel for maybe five miles I’d like to assert that he has the most beautiful pedal stroke I’ve ever seen up close. But I never got to share a fondo with Frank Vandenbrouke.

I also remember talking on the rollout with Phil Gaimon, who had just recently finished a season with the domestic Bissell Pro Cycling squad and was signed for the next season for his World Tour debut with Garmin Sharp. After the sun came up and we cruised past the Stratosphere, Gaimon told me how Jonathan Vaughters, his new manager at Garmin, had instructed him to conduct a virtual Grand Tour—to simulate the miles and stresses of a three-week stage race.

Gaimon seemed tired and resolute to prove himself and aware that Vaughters was messing with his head. I recall looking around and seeing Neil Shirley—the retired domestic pro who had finished third in the 2007 US National Championship Road Race (behind Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie) and was now an editor and standout fondo crusher for the magazine Road Bike Action—and wondering who else might keep Gaimon company on his 103-mile ride. I guessed correctly that Pereiro, no matter how perfect his pedal stroke remained, had no interest in riding a hard century.

I spent the next few hours cruising with a small crew of bike-industry veterans who I knew well. We had opted to ride the medio Fondo — which is shorter, less epic, and usually more fun that a full fondo. There was a guy, Zack, on my magazine’s marketing team, who was doing his first “big” group ride, and we all pledged to stick together for the full 62 miles. I recall that another bike-industry acquaintance, who will remain nameless, passed us and called us pussies for not riding the full fondo. Soon thereafter, we hooked up with Thomas Prehn—who’d won the 1986 U.S. National Road Race Championship and later authored a book on racing tactics—and a young Cat 2 guy in the bike industry pedaled up alongside Thom and unwittingly lectured him on how to position himself in a cross-wind.

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I spend most of the time riding with and talking to Giorgio Andretta and (the now retired) Sandy Nichols of Gita Sporting Goods—the company that makes Giordana apparel and at the time was the U.S. distributor of Pinarello, Merckx, and Pegoretti. When you are a regular cycling consumer you base your opinions about brands on products and marketing campaigns, but when you are inside the industry you put a lot of stock in the people who bring a brand to life. This was the kind of ride where no one talked about product launches or ad campaigns—we talked about family and laughed about one drunken evening we’d shared in Italy. I don’t really bemoan the passing of InterBike but I feel sad that a venue for such moments has died.

The highlight of that ride was a loop through the Red Rock National Conservation Area—this shockingly wonderful desert wilderness with curvy roads and colorful geologic formations and wild flora. The air there was different than in Vegas—cool and fragrant and unvarnished. I’d been set up on an $11,000 Dogma and I remember carving turns like a wide smile as we descended out of the park and back into reality.

The last hour was a cruise through exurban and suburban Vegas—not pretty—but at least the sun was blasting and the shoulders were wide and our group of eight riders was extremely cohesive. Everyone was determined to make Zack’s first fondo a great experience, and I feel deep nostalgia thinking about how we traded measured pulls and offered encouragement and had a genuine bonding experience. Really, it’s one of the most beautiful things about cycling culture—the profound way people connect with other people on a long bike ride.

I remember rolling into a strangely elaborate finishing chute at the end and exchanging high-fives with my little crew. And less than a minute after that, seeing Phil Gaimon and Neil Shirley blast over the finish line looking like they’d done the Dakar Rally. They were filthy and sweaty and not exactly happy looking. I suppose it’s a lot harder to ride 103 hilly miles in a little over four hours than it is to spin 62 in that time. Still, I’m pretty sure my steak and beer in the VIP tent was as good as the one’s Phil and Neil got served.

I think I handed my Dogma to someone with Pinarello and headed straight to the airport to fly home. I think this is as good a time as any to apologize to whomever sat next to me on that flight.

•••

Big Dam Bridge 100

A week later I was in Little Rock, Arkansas. My hosts were the U.S. distributors at Orbea, who were based in that city at the time. I was there for a long weekend along with my colleague Steve Brawley, who at one time or another has sold ads for every cycling media brand in the United States. Steve is another one of those guys who make the bike industry an entertaining place to work. With no offense to his actual cycling talent—if I remember correctly, as a young man he went from Cat 5 to Cat 2 in a month—his most extraordinary gift might be his ability to do almost no training, drink deep into Saturday night, and then somehow wake up early on fondo morning and actually perform decently. That’s more than I could ever do.

The Big Dam Bridge 100 is one of these events in the south-central U.S—like the more famous Hotter’N Hell in Wichita Falls, Texas—that brings out the heaviest hitters in the region. It’s a regular old century for 95% of the thousands of cyclists who participate, but for the fastest men and women in Arkansas, north Texas, and Oklahoma it’s a legitimate and important bike race.

As I mentioned earlier, many large fondos bring in one or two celebrity riders, and the organizers of the Big Dam Bridge 100 had paid to fly in George Hincapie to participate. He had just retired a year earlier. I already knew George pretty well, and as we chatted at the cocktail party the night before the ride, he told me just how serious the fast guys at this event were—he wasn’t just there to shake hands and generate attention; he had been flown to Little Rock to be a super domestique. No one had ever broken four hours at the Big Dam Bridge 100 and a few local strongmen were determined to end that drought. George seemed bemused by the tenor of this effort.

Minutes later I met the key local ringleader, this racer named Hunter East. At least four times in the past decade, East has won a national age-group championship on the road. He was 50 at the time, and serious as shit about this fondo. He’d seen me chatting comfortably with Hincapie and in quick conversation sussed out that I was the head editor at Bicycling and buddies with Paul Pearson, another age-group legend. I could tell where East was going with his questions, and I had to let him know that I sadly lacked the capability to contribute to Team Four Hours.

The next morning was appropriately unrelaxed. I was out before dawn on some huge boulevard in Little Rock, standing around with Hincapie, Brawley, the guys from Orbea, East and all these other fast dudes with matching Zipp wheelsets, as a few thousand nice century riders stacked up behind us for blocks. Up front, it was like an unofficial master’s world championship was about to begin.

I knew it was going to be a throwdown from the start. The gun went off and it was immediate out-of-the-saddle sprinting. It was a genuine struggle for me to latch onto the back of the big front group of maybe 200 riders. I’ve been in 20-mile crits that started slower than this. We were on this flat road paralleling the Arkansas River, and after four or five miles, I peered over my shoulder—there was nobody in sight.

One of the things I’d learned over the previous few years was that as an untalented media VIP, it was far more desirable to show flair in the first half of an important fondo and then blow up than it was to just ride within myself the whole way. No one cared if I rode a century in five hours and finished 110th, but to be visible at the front at mile 40 of the Sea Otter Gran Fondo meant something. It was like being a domestique but stupider.

This earned wisdom was on my mind in Arkansas but I felt certain I was going to blow up at mile 8. There’s no flair in that. So as we crossed the impressively soaring bridge that gives this century its name, I sat up and watched Hincapie, East, Brawley, and the Orbea guys charge into the future.

For what felt like 10 minutes, I soft pedaled in a sea of self-loathing. I kept waiting for a group to roll up on me but that lead group had very thoroughly cleaned the road. Eventually, this group of 40 or 50 riders came by and I jumped on. I initially felt like crap and struggled to stay with them, but I eventually things came around. One of the more uplifting learnings I’ve gotten from doing long, hard events like this is how frequently you can pedal your way out of a crisis. Suddenly, I felt pretty decent—and our group had swelled to perhaps 100 riders. There were some hangers-on at the back, but most everyone was working together and in rotation.

The landscape was gently undulating and wide open, and after a half-hour had passed, we could see a large group ahead in the distance. It seemed like a miracle. I joined this hard-charging rotation of 10 or 15 riders at the front to close that gap. We were inching closer but not exactly sealing the deal.

What I did next is one of the stupider things I’ve ever done in a fondo. I knew that we were only five or ten miles from the only big climb of the day, where surely the front group would split for good. So I went to the front of my chase group and did the longest steady pull of my entire life. I think I pulled for a couple miles—an eternity for a pretender with one bullet—and it was not until the closing seconds of that effort that I realized how fucked I was.

After we made the juncture, at least a dozen riders pulled up alongside me and patted me on the back and thanked me. I had the presence of mind to push forward in my group and make eye contact with Brawley and all the Orbea people and momentarily act nonchalant and then I just dropped anchor. I was 45 miles into a century and completely useless. I actually pulled to the side of the road and sat there with my elbows on the handlebar, trying to get it together for the punishment in front of me.

It took me almost four hours to ride the second half of the Big Dam Bridge 100 and it was agony. It seemed that everyone who passed me that afternoon recognized me and wanted to get my opinion on road disc brakes or what Lance told Oprah. As someone who often had to ride random bikes, I luckily got along with most any saddle, but the new Orbea adventure bike I had been set up on had a saddle with a gaping central channel that eventually went to war on my crotch. I think I rode nearly all of the last hour out of the saddle. Of course, a photo of me crossing the finish line appeared in a race report on a local racing site and fittingly, I’m pictured out of the saddle making a face like I was passing a kidney stone.

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I ran into Hincapie later in the day and he told me that he’d done the lion’s share of the work trying to pull a group of five or six riders back to Little Rock in less than four hours. But it was not to be. The leaders finished in 4:03 and change. With a smile on his face, George said that he had pushed to the point of cramps and sat up when everyone started sprinting in the home stretch.

For the record, Hunter East won the 2013 Big Dam Bridge 100.

•••

The Bicycling Fall Challenge

The next weekend the editors of Bicycling hosted a fondo on our home roads in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. I would wind up getting fired from that job and hope to never live there again, so you should trust me when I say the road riding in the area is quite possibly the best in America.

I decided to skip the marquee 90-mile ride and instead rode the 50-mile distance. That medio fondo had by far the most participants and I felt a responsibility to interact with as many readers as possible.

All in all, the lesson I digested from that fine October day was that it’s far more fun to ride a huge fondo than to organize one. We had hired Hincapie to participate as a celebrity rider, which turned out to be a controversial choice in our local riding community. The uproar still makes me sigh—as many of the same people who shrug at dubious results in the biggest pro races on the calendar get incensed about a retired rider’s ceremonial fondo gig.

And then someone crashed hard in the opening hour of the ride. You don’t want your fondo participants in the back of an ambulance.

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The most memorable hiccup of the day came at the rest stop about 30 miles into the ride. It was out front of this modestly picturesque church out in the Pennsylvania countryside. There was this picture-perfect cornfield across the way, with stalks turning tan in the October chill. I’d been riding with someone in the bike industry—who shall remain nameless—who was riding the full course at a glacial pace and then attacking the timed segments full gas.

Anyway, when I got to the rest stop everything was fine but a few minutes later the volunteers ran out of water. And then bananas. Multiple calls apparently had been made back to the start/finish line for a resupply, but it had never come. This was supposed to be managed by the team at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center, specifically under the direction of then-executive director (and former gold medalist) Marty Nothstein, but that crash had stretched the team too far.

I was amazed that on a moderately cool day that so many participants on a 50-mile ride were so livid or upset about the prospect of riding another 12 miles to get water and bananas. But as the face of the brand, I felt obligated to stand around and apologize to everyone and try to press Nothstein to show up and end the minor crisis.

Just a week or two earlier, I’d been summoned to the office of Rodale CEO Maria Rodale to discuss Nothstein. Marty’s role at the velodrome (built by the Rodale family) had been controversial for years—there were allegations of mismanagement and harassment—but Maria was furious about a deer’s head. Apparently, Marty had gone hunting on opening day and had left this future taxidermic trophy on ice in a big refrigerator in the concession kitchen (which was run by Rodale). Sometimes I look back at this phase of my life, and I can’t decide whether I’m sad that I lost the best job in the world or whether I’m relieved like I escaped the circus. It’s a little of both.

Anyway, after about a half-hour of stressful ambassadorship to the victims of Water-gate, Nothstein showed up with barrels of water and crates of bananas. It was not a feel-good moment, but at least it freed me to get on with my ride.

I wound up catching back up to the guy who had zoomed up all the timed segments and soft-pedaled anything else. We got back to the velodrome—the fondo ended with a Roubaix-like lap on the legendary T-Town track—a minute before the small lead group made their entry. Hincapie was there, of course, as was domestic pro Ryan DeWald, Bicycling contributor Selene Yeager, at least one Specialized PR person, and a few others I don’t remember.

Apparently, the final miles of the “race” had involved some minor controversy. One of the unspoken rules of big fondos with celebrity riders is that you simply don’t attack pros when they’ve told the group to stop at a rest stop. I recall the same thing happening at mile 75 at the Demspey Challenge in Maine, where someone in the bike industry, who will remain nameless, taunted Chris Horner and took off seconds after the Radio Shack pro told everyone to refuel and use the toilet. I was surprised how seriously Horner, who’d been goofy or distracted all day, took offense and vowed to personally make sure that guy didn’t win Patrick Dempsey’s charity ride.

Back in Pennsylvania, someone did the same thing to Hincapie’s little group, and attacked at the last rest stop. A semi-frantic chase ensued and the ill-begotten break was shut down. I remember sitting on the grass at the velodrome that afternoon and talking with George about the hijinks at this event and the one in Arkansas. Everyone wants to judge the pros and the decisions they made—which is fair enough, I suppose—but I constantly see amateurs behave in a fashion that suggests we’re all cut from the same cloth.

•••

Krempels King of the Road Challenge

About 12 days later, I flew up to Manchester, New Hampshire, to do another big ride. I rented a car and drove straight from the airport to Ted King’s childhood home. There was a big potluck dinner underway and I instantly knew that I had walked into an intimate, tight-knit gathering. Ted was there, of course, as were pros like Tim Johnson and Timmy Duggan. I had read quite a bit about King’s father, Ted Sr., but had never met him before—he had been a respected surgeon and was a stroke survivor. Ted’s Fondo was a fundraiser for a local center that provides support and resources to people with brain injuries. This was going to be one of those rare cause rides with a heartfelt cause.

Knowing that I was coming up to support the ride, someone at Cannondale had called someone else at Cannondale and I got set up with a ridiculous bike — an EVO Nano with Enve wheels and Schwalbe tubulars. It was the rarefied kind of bike that actually could make you feel like a different and better person. When I got to the start area, a mechanic at the Cannondale bus handed me this bike as though it made sense that I should ride it.

The ride itself was memorable in ways that are hard to describe. I’ve pedaled all over the Northeastern United States but nowhere quite like this corner of New Hampshire. The homes were big and colonial like you might see in parts of Connecticut or Massachusetts but everything about the topography suggested that glaciers had wielded a heavier hand—the landscape was a bit emptier and the never-flat roads all had a one or two percent grade and there were little ponds all over the place. The leaves had already come off the trees and morning light slanted long shadows.

The rest stops were magically casual. There was one that was at an old-timey gas station and volunteers handed out sandwiches made with almond butter and fresh local jam on rustic bread. King and his pro-quality compadres made sure that entire group spent at least 15 minutes at these two stops so nearly all participants had a chance to regroup and experience the camaraderie of the big pack.

But for me, I think the most distinct part was how the pacing was controlled. Most big fondos unfold like free-for-all bike races, where the very fastest recreational riders and celebrity pros disappear into the distance and everyone else settles into a simulated racing experience with cyclists of similar ability. I’m not saying this is bad but it’s not the only way a fondo can transpire.

The King Challenge was a metric century, so with two long rest stops it essentially became three 20-mile rides. There was enough pro firepower with unified intentions to control the pace and make it a huge, brisk group ride with each segment getting a bit faster. I think the first segment was controlled around 19 mph; the second around 21 mph; and the final one around 23 mph. Obviously, this might have been a bit too fast for some riders and slower than the 50 best riders present could manage, but the net sum was a rather huge pack containing hundreds of cyclists riding as one and getting to actually ride shoulder-to-shoulder with all the celebrity athletes present.

I remember having a long talk about medical school with Ted King’s older brother, Robbie—an accomplished racer who like Rich Hincapie was ultimately overshadowed as a competitor by his younger brother and found his success in another venue. I also remember having a long talk with pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop—about a 2011 panel on doping we’d both participated in where I’d been attacked by the founders of Specialized and SRAM for publishing a story saying it was time to accept that Lance Armstrong had cheated and lied. Our conversation got so passionate that we got tailed off the back of the group and I got to decamp on Bishop’s wheel and throw that Nano around to get back on. Riding fondos every weekend is good for your fitness.

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At the finish, I shared a mid-day beer with King and Johnson and all the other lovely people who’d help raise a six-figure sum to help folks with a brain injury. At this point, I was blasé about hanging out with well-known pros but I was thrilled to meet Ryan Kelly, a local amateur racer who was the unintended star of a video that I will forever remember as A Dump Truck of Awesome. That production chronicles how King, Johnson, Kelly—who I believe was a strong Cat 2 racer at the time—rode the full 200-plus mile length of Vermont in a day, but the real drama comes watching how the amateur in that trio cinematically came to pieces along the way. I suppose I was enthralled to meet him because he had pulled off a great act of cycling and theater in one day.

Right before I got in my rental car to drive back to the airport, I handed Kelly a small pile of swag and thanked him for not quite surviving that ride.

•••

Tour de Tucson

The finale of my big month of fondos came on that torrential day in Tucson.

The night before I’d attended a lavish VIP dinner at a steakhouse. I was at a table with Bill Walton and John Howard talking about steel bikes. Then I ran into Rahsaan Bahati, who I barely knew—he had just found out that a huge storm was blowing in and hadn’t brought the right gear to Tucson. My friend Peter and I walked out with Bahati to the parking lot and pulled out our duffel bags and gave him a set of booties and neoprene gloves to wear in the morning. (Rahsaan woke up the next day and presumably looked out the window and never showed up at the start line.)

After that dinner, Peter and I drove over to Tommy Danielson’s house. Tommy was getting his coaching business up and running and the house was full of clients who were there for a training camp. They all were going to get up in the morning and ride the fondo. Everyone was eating a chef-prepared organic, low-gluten meal except for one guy who was lying on the couch wearing Normatec compression-massage pants. (This whole crew woke up the next day and presumably looked out the window and never showed up at the start line.)

A week earlier, I had asked Tommy if he could lend me a bike for the ride. We went out in the garage, which contained enough gleaming Cervelos to outfit a couple pro teams. Tommy tried to convince me to take an S5 but I took an R3 instead—a decision that I feel says a lot about me as a human being. With his house full of paying clients, he spent 15 minutes making sure I was dialed on the loaner.

I’m aware that some people hate Tommy and many others hate the idea of Tommy. And that there are other pro cyclists I know pretty well—who have been sanctioned and pushed out of the sport—who are pariahs to many fans. I understand why people feel that way, but I also factor in the way these riders have treated me. Some have been assholes, and some, like Danielson, have been repetitively gracious and kind for no good reason. This has nothing to do with whether one should have the privilege to line up at a pro bike race, but there’s more to life than that.

The first couple hours of the Tour de Tucson were as uncomfortable and surreal as any I can ever remember. The race had gone on for decades in blissful sunshine but this day brought the hardest sustained rain I’ve ever ridden in. Everyone was freezing. Visibility was maybe 20 yards. I saw dozens of people crash or slide out; I heard more fracturing carbon-fiber that morning than the rest of my life put together. (John Howard later told me that he snapped his frame in a crash that morning.)

All the elite riders, as well as my friend Peter and at least a few hundred more cyclists, rode away from me in the opening minutes. At that point, nobody knew who I was or had any expectations of me and I thought periodically about just stopping and going back to the hotel. It’s one thing to ride on a day like that when you’re paid to race and you’re at Milan San Remo but quite another when it’s just a random fondo.

There was one point where I was riding with five or six other cyclists on this roller-coaster-like undulating road. The nadir of each undulation was swamped with flood water. On one descent, we rode into at least 18 inches of murky brown water and a guy to my left went down. I remember looking over my shoulder and for an instant his entire body and bike were under water. No one in my group stopped; it was understood that everyone was on their own.

I stopped only once on the whole ride; a three-minute break to pee and fill up bottles. It was too cold and I was too soaked to sit down or find comfort. Riding was the least worst option. There was a stream crossing in the middle of the ride that seemed a bit gonzo for a mass-participation fondo, and I learned later that riders who arrived at that point an hour or so later had to either tack on a 15-mile detour or end their day there.

It felt like an endless slog. The low point came around mile 70 when I looked to my left and saw the sign to the Westin resort where I was staying. I literally was five minutes from a hot shower and a cold beer and instead I was shivering uphill in a little gear, choosing to delay such comforts for hours. I found a few cyclists to ride with and none of us said a word—we were dutiful and resigned and soaked.

Then something that has never happened before or since happened to me. I very suddenly had great legs. I typically implode in the last hour of hard centuries and occasionally I hang tough but I never catch fire at mile 75. It’s like without warning I’d been given 20 bullets. Little packs kept splitting and regrouping and I kept moving up. I took huge pulls and bridged alone to groups up the road. I felt like an entirely different and better rider than the one I actually am—or maybe after hours of duress I just got a glimpse of a rider I always could have been.

I remember crossing the finish line and someone draping a metal around my neck signifying that I’d broken six hours. My finish time and place hardly seem spectacular, but I look upon those last two hours as perhaps the finest in my whole riding life.

When I got off the bike, I had this stabbing pain behind my right knee—I suspect my saddle height was a millimeter or two high—but I wasn’t even aware of it until the ride was over. I was just in some other state. For the first time in more than a month, I wasn’t in a performative role at a fondo—I was just another anonymous rider, facing an uncomfortable challenge and making the best of it.

Later that night, I was the guy wearing the Normatec compression-massage pants on Tommy Danielson’s couch.

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