The corn was taller this year, lurking at the edge of the softball fields surrounding the parking lot, where the hissing of bike pumps and the clicking of waddling cyclists announced the imminent start of a bike race. I was one of them, lubing my already dirty chain (I’ll clean it tomorrow), topping off my tire pressure to 120psi (wait, is that a slow leak?), and lugging my cooler full of bottles to the start line (“did hurt yourself carrying that thing?”, thanks Jay).
Rolling to the start, I overheard a few conversations indicating I would be a marked man for the whole race. I welcomed the challenge because the more and stronger the competition the better. I, like everyone, come to races to push beyond what I can accomplish individually. When you’ve been riding for eight hours and feel like crap and your mind is starting to decay, seeing the other racers in a similar plight is oddly encouraging.
We rolled at 6am, starting our day before the sun, which slunk into view amidst a flurry of reds and oranges before changing into its more common blazing yellow fireball. A big group quickly formed that was a mix of veterans in the Midwest ultra scene — Jay Yost, Paul Carpenter, Larry Ide, Ryan Heidenfeld, Pascale Lercangee, and Pontus Ostman — and a bunch of riders I’d never seen before, which meant the group dynamic would take awhile to establish because an ultracycling race isn’t a normal USA Cycling romp. In particular, everyone has to pull. You don’t just get to sit on the back of the paceline and get a free ride. TANSTAAFL and all that.
The morning roads were thankfully quiet as we rolled along in an uncouth blob. A constant flux of racers were splitting out of the middle of the paceline to shuffle back in an effort to avoid the wind. As soon as the next leader was established, they’d scurry back in line, creating gaps and mayhem. The mix was dangerous and multiple times, I went from the back to the front to escape the constant danger of crashing. Paul was particularly discontent with what was happening, having had his race end at the hospital with a cracked helmet a few years earlier when someone cramped and swerved in the middle of the pack.
While all the chaos was happening, I spent some time catching up with Jay, Paul, and Larry. I hadn’t seen Jay since Balltown and he’d done a little race called RAAM in between. Paul had been exploring the world of ultra gravel rides in the spring, so I hadn’t seen him yet. Larry hasn’t been riding much this year, but came out to celebrate the final UltraMidwest race. He’d been out to Colorado and Utah recently, so we chatted about the glory of the Mountain West.
Within a lap or so, the weaker riders had dropped off the back and the group was moving well. The continual effort to play “tactics” and wheelsuck was impressive. I settled into a routine of going to the very back of the line after taking a pull, ignoring any conveniently sized gaps along the way. Paul, Jay, and Ryan started doing the same, thereby forcing everyone to take pulls. All that matters is doing a little work to contribute. Knowing someone is just sitting there, likely hoping to last until the end of the race to actually do something drags the whole group down. Despite the weird dynamics of the race, the corn was taller this year and that was important!
I often find myself describing my beloved desert as a land of lush desolation. In its barrenness, the desert hides the hard-living types on this planet, who deign to impale, poison, or infect you if you have designs on their scarce water or shade. One could hardly call the endless monocultured fields of the Midwest barren — they feed much of the world after all. Yet in their mono-prefixed name sits the secret: monotony.
There’s simply nothing here. The receding glaciers left a loamy, fertile soil, but despite names claiming otherwise, the glaciers forgot to carve valleys and leave the dramatic outcroppings of stone that have forever captivated humanity. We are left with a clear-cut topography that’s great for grain and brutal for the brain — a desolate lushness.
Amongst the corn we raced, through the husky canyons. The view was broken occasionally by too-tall soy, more like hedges — perhaps the Illinois celebrates autumn with corn mazes and soy topiary?
My mind meandering with the grain. I pulled, sometimes for awhile until I was satisfied, then drifted back to bide my time until the front arrived again. I mentioned the corn to everyone — no doubt they were tired of my obsession. Except the corn dropped Pascale and caused Paul to take a nap on the side of the road, so it wasn’t innocent — an intersection made blind by the corn split the group when the front half shot past a too-close car, Pascale didn’t make it back, and Paul burned all his matches doing so.
The route was quite different this year, so I spent the first two laps deciding where I would attack at the end of the race to try and escape what remained of our group. The hill where Martin attacked last year wasn’t on the course, so I needed somewhere else. A few options were available, so I decided that once I saw the water tower for Metamora, I would try to make my escape. There would be a headwind, some slight uphills, and a couple dicey corners — all good ways to force an advantage over a chasing group. My mind settled, I found myself slowly sliding off my bike.
Wait! Why can’t I sit on my bike? The squeaking had been replaced by a rattling. What had been a slightly loose bolt became a very loose bolt, so my saddle as far back as it could go and tilted as far up as it could go, calmly jabbing my junk. I found myself holding myself on the bike with my handlebars, which obviously isn’t right. Twice I tried to tighten the bolt. The first time, the saddle stopped sliding, but continued stabbing. The second time, the saddle got worse, sliding, stabbing, and rattling. I could still ride, my back was a little stiff, but my knees felt fine, which was my main concern. Ultimately, it was only about five hours of not-too-great discomfort, and I could ride safely with other people, so I just kept pedaling.
By the last lap, the group had been whittled down to four riders: myself, Jay, Pontus, and Preston, putting in an impressive ride for his first double century. For much of the last lap, Jay and I spent the majority of the time pulling, Preston was fading, and Pontus almost never seemed to make it to the front. By the mid-point, Preston had dropped off from the group after he couldn’t hold the pace any longer. After we left Lori’s aid station with cold water for me and Cokes for Jay and Pontus, I offered a truce, ride it in strong to the end with the three remaining riders. Jay gave me a dirty look, probably unhappy about the unequal workload all day, and Pontus probably didn’t hear me because I got no response. I guess it was back to my original plan.
During the last 25 miles, I forced Pontus to chase back on to Jay after he’d left a gap after one of my pulls. Another time or two, Jay and I swapped, with no pulls from Pontus. Eventually, I became frustrated. When we hit Eureka, about 10 miles from Metamora, I decided to attack.
Pontus was shaking out his leg, apparently with a cramp, while Jay was pulling. Jay flicked his elbow, and I came around Pontus, riding hard in his apparent moment of weakness. After a tricky intersection, I looked back only to see Pontus closing fast, with Jay lagging behind. That didn’t fit with the cramps he was showing earlier, which, at that moment, I decided must’ve been to get me to take his pull, I don’t know if that was the case, but all I needed was a touch of impetus, and, well, that was it. Pontus was within about 10 yards when I ditched the rope and dove into the pain cave — balls out to the finish.
I had about 10 miles to ride — a little under 30 minutes. Each time I glanced back, the gap had grown. My heart rate was spiked, and I was clutching the aerobars to give more stability for my legs to fight against. I couple riders on the previous lap were ahead of me. I used them as inspiration to see how fast I could catch them. I caught Val right as we were heading up the last hill into Metamora proper. By this time, I couldn’t see Jay or Ponder behind me, so only something catastrophic could keep me from winning.
Fortunately, I had no flats, and my saddle didn’t fall off in the last couple miles. I rolled across the line in 8:54, about 7 minutes slower than last year, though the course was a little longer. My average speed was about 0.2mph slower, I think. Jay came across two minutes after, with Pontus another two minutes behind him.
We all stuck around the finish line for a couple more hours, chatting with everyone as they rolled in. For most of us, Metamora was the last race we’d all be at for the year. I’ve hatched a plan to maybe put together Midwest ultracycling training camp down in the Great Smokies, either next April or May. Hopefully I can make it happen and we’ll litter the mountain roads of Tennessee and Georgia for a long weekend, sharing the roads and then some great food and company afterward.
Eventually, Jay, Paul, and I went and grabbed a pizza — I also ate a salad! — then it was time to caffeinate and start the six hour drive home.