Today was the day that all area bike racers both look forward to and fear at the same time...the Leland Kermesse. A 15-mile circuit in the middle of the still-barren cornfields with five miles of gravel and barely a tree to block the wind.
I had made it my mission to finish the race this year, come hell or high water. I had finished (and taken 8th) in the 2009 race, but that was on a shorter, 10-mile course with only one mile of gravel. In 2010 the organizers expanded it to the 15-mile loop. I abandoned after one lap...despite sunny skies, the winds were horrendous (30+ mph gusts) and I had absolutely nothing in the tank. I sat out the 2011 edition, as it was just a few weeks after our son was born. I thought about going, then looked out the window at the horrible weather and said "uhhhh...no."
So it was with a great deal of determination that I swore to finish it this year. The weather was actually quite nice...mostly sunny skies, and manageable wind. Early in the morning I met up with newly-minted Cat 3 Bryan Fuller and his friend Tom, who was going to work the feed zone. Along with Jim Spanish, and with the gentle, melodious strains of Steel Panther caressing our ears, we carpooled down to Leland.
The Cat 4s were scheduled to do 4 laps/60 miles. About 75 riders had pre-registered, but only 66 rolled to the line. I had numerous Bicycle Heaven teammates in the field, and my old WFR komrade Jason R was there, too. The officials sent us off for the mile-long neutral roll-out, and although there isn't supposed to be any jockeying for position during this neutral time, tons of guys were stealthily moving up and around.
We hit the official start line, and the hammer came down. For the first few miles of pavement we were crushing it at 27-28 mph, but with the usual Cat 4 slowing/accelerating/slowing/accelerating for no reason. The follow moto was constantly blaring his horn for yellow-line violators. Despite the high tempo, I was feeling good...HR was moderate, breathing was fine, and my legs were responding to the accelerations just fine. So far, so good.
When we hit the first gravel section, though, I got caught behind a few riders who allowed a gap to open. About 20 or so riders opened up some ground on my position, but I just couldn't get around to bridge up to them. They didn't get too far up the road, and I was confident that once we exited the gravel I'd be able to close the gap. I spent the next section of pavement as "the tip of the spear" trying to chase down the lead group. We were gaining ground on them as we neared the next section of gravel. And that is when the day took a turn for the worse.
I was still in the lead of the chase group as we negotiated the right-hand turn. I took it very slowly and cautiously, not knowing what the condition of the gravel was. I took a pretty easy line at no more than 10-12 mph. But the gravel in the turn was very deep and very loose, and in a nanosecond it had grabbed my front wheel and I went down hard on my right side. A rider directly behind me ran straight into me and got tangled up. As I lay there in the gravel with my right calf almost cramping up, this guy starts screaming "f--k! F--K!!!!" I think I even said "I'm sorry," but what could I do? It happens to the pros, too, dude. I couldn't tell if his profanity was directed at me or was just general venting that he was now losing time on the lead group.
I picked myself up and dusted myself off. The corner marshal asked "are you OK?" My response was "mostly." The palm of my right glove, and the skin underneath, were shredded. I knew I had some road rash (gravel rash?) on my right hip, but my shorts weren't even torn. I could tell that my right knee had been chewed into a little bit, along with my right forearm. But all in all it wasn't too bad. For a brief moment I thought "crap, 12 miles into the race and I'm gonna have to abandon." But then I resolved to do at least one more lap and see how I was feeling. My bike seemed to be OK, but for the fact that my left brake lever was turned 45 degrees inward from where it should have been. So I wrenched it back into place, hopped back on the bike, and rode off.
Lap two went pretty well. I connected with teammates John and Matt F, and we worked together. At one point we came across the lead group of Cat 4 women, where Mara was riding strong. We overtook them, and moments later they overtook us. This back-and-forth went on several times. Technically, the different fields aren't supposed to "mix," but it was difficult here because we were all riding at about the same tempo. Staying separate proved to be difficult. John and Matt ended up getting a small gap on them, but I was momentarily gassed and hanging on to the back of the women to catch my breath. At which point one of the women sniped at me "you've gotta get off of our paceline, dude, this is the Elite women's field." Uh, not quite...you're Cat 4, not Elite. Get over yourself. If the roles had been reversed, and a woman was hanging on to the back of the men's field to recover, I never in a million years would have yelled at her to get out. Whatevs. Duly "chastened," I stood up on the pedals and cranked it to get back up to John and Matt.
Aside from some stinging pain in my hand and hip, I was feeling pretty good, so I made the right turn to continue on to Lap 3. I snagged a fresh bottle from Matt H as I came through the feed zone. John, Matt F and I continued to work together until the later stages of that lap, as I fell off of their pace and ended up alone. I choked down part of a Clif Bar and some gel, and resolved to tough it out through the rest of the race. As I made the turn to start Lap 4 I grabbed another bottle from Matt H and off I went for the final 15 miles.
My low point came at mile 50. I was going solo into a headwind, and I had to force my legs to keep them turning over. I kept telling myself "10 more miles, you just have to do 10 more miles, and in a few miles you're going to have more favorable winds." I gritted my teeth,kept going, and watched the miles tick off on my computer. I was pretty elated as I made the left-hand turn to ride out the final kilometer to the finish. Despite crashing and riding 48 more miles with less skin than I had started the day with, I had conquered the Leland Kermesse and upheld my promise to finish it.
In the end, only 47 riders of the 66 starters finished the race. Of those 47, I took 36th (John and Matt had come in just ahead of me to take 34th and 35th). Bicycle Heaven had a pretty good day, overall. Rob Kelly took 4th in the 1/2 race, Andy Swims got 4th in the 3s (and Bryan finished his first Cat 3 race), David Ross and David Pratt took 2nd and 6th, respectively, in the 4s, and Mara took 4th in the Cat 4 women's race.
Call me crazy, but I can't wait to do it again next year.