May 19th I completed in the Balltown Classic 200 mile race. This is the 5th time I have entered this race and it is one of my favorites. I really enjoy the fast starts that a 200 mile or 12 hour race offers. That fast-paced riding in a tight group takes me back to my USCF (now USA) cycling days. I feed off the riders around me and can dig a little deeper. The rush of chasing someone down or bridging a gap is quite exhilarating. It seems a little strange to be chasing with 195 miles to go but I love it and can't help but get caught up in the action.
The field this year was stacked. There were two 2012 solo RAAM racers, Paul Carpenter and Kurt Searvogel, one four person RAAM racers, Larry Ide and a past RAAM finisher, Dave Meredith. Previous Balltown winners Jay Yost and Bill Ford were also at the start line. Bill Ford is a teammate of mine and he and I have been preparing for this race for a few months. Bill came to the race with more centuries this year, 10 weekends in a row of 100+ mile rides, then he has ever had for the entire year.
During an ultra race there comes a time when your brain admits that you are going too fast and cannot sustain the current high pace any longer so you let the group go and conservatively settle in to your own "sane' pace. Our plan was to stay with the lead group and help with the pace in an attempt to break the race record of 10:05 or 20.13 mph average. We were not going to save anything but push and hang on until we could hang on no more. We knew who the big guns would be and we did not want them to get away.
The weather forecast was for warm and breezy with the winds picking up out of the south at 15-20 mph and gusty. This was going to make for a quick ride up and a long ride back. I tried to keep the thought of fighting the wind for the last 100 miles out of my head as we rapidly pushed our way north. The front group quickly whittled down to 10 in the first several miles. The group was riding strong as we rolled through Lost Nation and closed in our our rendezvous with the first of the big climbs south of Baldwin. Once over these climbs our group was reduced to seven with the first sag stop quickly approaching. We reached the sag in 2:08 with an average speed of around 24 mph. Kurt had on-course support and did not have to stop and Keith Wells was carrying enough food and water that he did not stop. When the rest of us stopped for 30 seconds they got a gap on us that "forced" us to chase. There we go again 150 miles to go and chasing. Sometimes the testosterone gets the best of the common sense. Five of us grouped up and started working to close the gap. Larry was on his recumbent and did some monster pulls on the long gradual downhills to help out and we eventually caught back on. I don't think they were really running from us but us still took 15 miles to catch them.
Chasing took quite a bit out of us and our little group was reduced to 5. Kurt, Bill, Martin, Collin and myself. Bill and I seemed like the weakest links as we rolled up and down the hills. We tried to take the downhills nice and easy but everybody else was hammering them. With the wind aided northern journey we hit the 100 mile mark in 4:16 and made the turn at Balltown, 104 miles, in 4:30. Now the fun would begin.
The race, and the hills, really begin in earnest shortly after Balltown on Horseshoe road. The climb into town is long and gradual and you hardly know you are trending upward until you are on the ridge and can see for miles. The route leaving town is a completely different story. In the first 20 miles after Balltown you hit three climbs that are over 10% with the length being over a mile. This year they changed the course and were avoiding those three climbs. I was glad because that is the point where I usually get dumped and finish the last 80 miles on my own.
Heading out on the new route my glad feelings were quickly erased as we came face to face with three very steep, 12%, climbs back to back to back. These climbs were not as long but were steeper and not spaced out like the old routes hills. At the end of the ride most of us agreed that the old route would have been easier.
Collin put the hurts to all of us on this section. He had commented that he likes the hills and was bummed there was not more. He was followed by Kurt, Martin, Bill then me bringing up the rear as the road finally leveled. This section decided the race and Bill and I did not have what it took to hang with the leaders. Bill commented that he has never wanted to get off and walk his bike up a hill before today. It is a good thing I loaned him my 12-23T cassette to go with his 39T little ring replacing his 12-21T. I was glad to have a 12-25T with a 36 in the front.
After the climbs all we had left was 85 miles of screaming head wind. Bill and I worked together not chasing just surviving at this point. We had Martin just in front of us and Kurt and Collin out of sight. We caught Martin just as my first cramp hit both legs forcing me to briefly stop and stretch until they went away. My legs were rebelling from the last 5 hours of pushing. The cramping would continue off and on for the next four hours. Bill got a little gap that allowed him to stop in Farley for water and me to catch back up to him. We again reeled in a suffering Martin but he was off the back quickly to leave Bill and I to push on to the finish.
Over the next 75 miles we climbed, fought the wind, enjoyed some much needed cross-wind sections and rolled along in survival mode wondering why we do this to ourselves. We commented that Mike and Jean were smart to stay home for this ride. I reminded Bill that we were solidly in third and fourth place and that everyone was suffering. This kind of talk was used to motivate him but also helpful in keeping my spirits up as I battled cramp after cramp.
We added a few quick unscheduled stops for water and the scheduled stop at the 150 mile mark to pick up some supplies at the sag before making the final push. With 23 miles to go we turned east for 16 miles of crosswind that rejuvenated us. With a quick stop in Welton for more cold water and wipe the salt off our faces we rolled on for the last 10 miles celebrating our accomplishment. Our finishing time was 11:15, 4:30 to Balltown and 6:45 back. We were 31 minutes behind Kurt and 27 minutes behind Collin. Martin would finish 27 minutes after us giving us 3rd and 4th place.
It was a very tough ride with the wind on the way back making every hill seem like a mountain. I have never seen Bill use such a low gear as often as he did that day. We pushed each other for the first 110 miles. He helped me through the cramps from the 75 mile mark to 30 mile mark and I helped him through the last 30 miles of no energy. It was a true team accomplishment by two guys who love to ride together. We have ridden thousands of miles together but this was the first rides that we really needed each other to make it to the finish. We were the only riders that finished together of the 15 official finisher.