You came here to relax this weekend, and you arrived late. You are already nervous about the race, and the gear, and the weather. You shake up a few bottles with some powdered crap, because that seems like a solid idea, and you peel off your toasty jacket in the blowing wet snow to put on something like a tutu, to dance about in the swirling white with eighty of your favorite strangers. Now, is when you realize that you may have brought a knife to a gun-fight. You quickly lob ideas about the hollows of your skull; bandying a ball of bad advice, but basically you have one ball echoing in this squash court, and hence you have one idea. This always happens with you, because you can't see that there may be other outcomes, and alternative strategies. As the frenzy of pong sounds subside, you resolve to just ride the race with these dudes regardless of what may come.
You have a bike with 2" tires which you thought were large..., and they all brought Fat bikes with more than 4" humongous tires. The automotive equal to your Civic in a sea of Monster-Trucks. But of course it did not dawn upon you the moment you drove up. What began at the parking lot?.. Each and every vehicle entering the mushy farmland parking pad was 3 ft higher than your city SUV. Everyone (else) boasted bumper stickers with jargon you don't yet know, and everyone but you brought bikes which looked like they could pull your truck out of a snowbank.
You tell yourself that you may have the advantage... a dramatic pause as the wind whips up................ You unroll the first presta-valve and begin hissing out some city air into the silent blanket of country white noise. You anxiously jettison pressure from your measly tires in hopes you'll dig into the mush. It will be an ordeal.
You reclaim your mind from it's gloomy segue toward doom scenarios, and recover with the novel idea that you do in fact have an advantage. That your drop bar gravel thing is sleeker and faster, and you will hold your own. But when the gun goes off, and you roll out to the first left, you begin rapidly to disprove your theory. How can it be that this is better than Netflix? Mud sprays Michigan sand & clay silt all over your face. Glasses coated, and hard upon the next riders sloshing knobbies, the mist rolls up from the business end of his Monster-Truck. You shift, drop a hand to signal, and mash the pedals to arrive in the front of this mangy wet peloton. Without any warm-up, you struggle to align your breathing with the thrum of the rapidly rising beat in your chest. You are now doing some of the spraying, but you are already losing your mojo. Hands are still warm, but wetter each time you raise one to swipe mud from your glasses. You dig in and grind away at the chatter, of humming treads and clacking chains. A drone of a thousand buzzing truck tires sound like the devil pulling down his zipper. You know what may come next and you choose to drop two lengths, tuck in and grab a tow, even if it means sucking in more muddy spray. The river-like road we ride atop is like the chocolate brown of a mountain stream after the monsoon. The Muck of an Indian village; The spray of a drunk at a Music fest after the downpour. Your mud sprays your neighbors, and theirs the next trailing rider... all coated and building upon your lenses, nobody seems to mind. You are enveloped in the mid pack now, and several comrades have the novel idea to press on the gas-pedal a bit harder, as dominant riders separate the wheat from the chaff. You bow your head, and keep pace. You are enwrapped in just the thing you signed up for; A winter gravel sufferfest with 80 other guys who'd rather go outside and feel something real, (if muddy) Than to watch Netflix. Shifters click, clunky Sram cogs index up. Fingers on a trigger rather than a TV remote. You are all in deep, and you are all pretending to have a blast, but you know that this pace is untenable. This rapid gain of muddy men will shake loose the spare change, splintering into separate bubbles, some popping and others rising, the elites will get to counting the real money. You are working too hard, rhythm is what you need now, thoughtful parsed breaths, elude you. This momentum which once held you like a seed in a pod won't work for you unless you gather your wits inside that invisible jet. You gasp to tame your heart rate as your lungs throw heat. Respiration, is one of those things we take for granted until the lungs falter. It will all be fine when your lungs and heart find a parity, and stop their resentment. Your legs fall under your spell, but the rest is a shambles. Two more move up, and then a few more. Could you even see and feel the slip-stream school past you like a pedestrian crossing a roundabout in Vietnam. Fish schooling around you like a still coral -- Others slipping past the sharks. Stay the course, breathe! Don't Pant!!!, IN and then OUT go the lungs, and Up and Down you mash the pedals until you gain back a bit of what you've lost, but you are still losing pace to a bunch of Cummins Diesels. You are a Porsche playing the ploughman, with your own snarky bumper sticker. You are sucking right now. Every fifth Pot-Hole grabs your wheel trying to pull you down to that prick who's infinite zipper buzzes like satan's private bee-hive. Your legs burn, while your neighbors float atop the mirth, as a combine would. Its a fast affair, but you calculate the outcome in slo-motion. Nothing is coming to mind except D.N.F, or is it D.N.C....? you'll have to learn that new lexicon, if you don't pick up the pace. Did Not Finish. you haven't failed an exam since school, and you are sure the F stands for Finish, and that's a good grade right? You wipe your lenses again, and find a wheel that throws a bit less misty brown in your face... But the wheels are moving up, and you are dropping pace. Snow builds on the arc of your abdomen, like a charm or token, just sitting there laughing as the next tire approaches. You have some catching up to do. You dig in harder paddling class 4 water, each stroke counting for less against a massive eddy who's promised to swirl you away.
You think that if you fall back, you will lose the course, and where is the sopping map you shoved into your jersey? The dreaded gap now forms and you have lost ground. Others have as well, but it's not OK for you? You need to catch them!! Get back to the pack and tuck back into your Invisible Jet. Breathing is restoring, and the trill of your heart finally nuances back from a shrill crescendo. You are an in-between rider, working far harder, with nobody to share in the work. Now, back in rhythm you begin the long claw back. The gap does not lessen to the peloton, but you close some ground on a few more worthy stragglers. You are moving forward by that metric, but catching them does not seem gainful.
It happens. You know that trigger moment when you consider bagging the whole thing and tossing it out the window? yep..., it happens. The mind moves from solutions to excuses. You feel defeated wasting energy upon your reason, countering the logical backdrop of doing the hard work.
Nah... you mush your sled onward, and close some more ground using the buzz-saw of the riders you pass in your doppler to calculate that you're catching up. Soon you don't hear them, their buzzing monster tires fade and now a train horn, deep and strong to your right. The tracks berm obscuring the riders ahead. Are you closing the gap? They must be just beyond the tracks. You hear the thunderous Train Horn belch again, mocking you. If only you could chug into that "I think I can - I Think I can" shush please God let's make it to the tracks in time to not be cut-off. Again indomitable will-power seems to begin warming the wet snow on your lap. The talisman on your lap who mocked you, who said you won't make it, finally melting. You will be cut off behind a 10 minute long freight Train, and then what will your excuse be?
Ah... yes! the Train. We stragglers can all gather behind the gate and blame the train. D.N.F....
The horns come again and no-one approaches from behind. The sky is thick like milk with clumpy wet flakes swirling by. You approach the tracks and feel the air and wind inhale as if the Train were upon you, but you don't see it's headlight through the pale snowy curtains. You imagine the Bahamas, somewhere in the Exumas, and you imagine that clear warm water like a lens refracting glowing sunlight glittering now as you reach gently for a starfish resting just below the shimmer. You want that same tranquility, as you gulp air, to hold your breath and hop over the tracks as the Train thunders into view, pushing it's wet blanket forward revealing a golden bright lamp shining like the tropical sun. You've cleared the tracks just in time. There they are!, as you resume breathing and the hard work to catch your comrades.
You see them in the distance, once obscured by the mound supporting the train, the final group is turning left, but not onto a road. You are all moving onto a fire-road. You grind away, and re-regulate your air. You need calories, or Potassium, or a Beer, shit anything! may help. Perhaps a stretcher at the last mile, to carry you across. You turn onto a blanket of white with two deep ruts from someones tractor or monster truck. One hundred and twelve fat tires crunching it into sloppy grey slush. A new sound breaks the cacophony, The thunking crunch as riders fall sideways onto the packy snow. One and then another heavy thunk! like a trash bag thrown into a snow-bank -- With it, one less rolling mashing monster-truck.
You slip left and right as your pedals knick the sides of the ruts occasionally hitting ice, and knocking you off-balance, you rise up from the seat leaning more weight forward to keep steerage. You grind. It's tough. A few lonesome others run beside their bikes like a Cross Course through a mud pit, pushing monster trucks beside them like a tractor pull. You wince watching another topple over. Gaining on the runners dabbing a toe here and there. Riding a line on a tight-rope, you gain.
It's a quick left off the trail and back onto the gravel road, catching the group you spy a comfortable space to shoe-horn your bike into that tight wet mid-pack. Wet wool and musty Axe-Effect fill your burning nostrils, Salt and silt wash across your wet diapers. Passing the lake covered with fresh snow, you all note the new headwind and so everyone tucks in. Down shifts crackle into the uphill climb out of the lake valley to a filthy finish.
Cheers!, you did Finish so today you got an F Instead of the Dreaded D.N.F. No TV shows, No cameras, No Fictional awards ceremony, Restless exhilarated breath, blood flowing over every wiry muscle like rusty cables contracting and pulling you tighter. Fondue is in your future. The Cabin has no TV. The snow continues to fall large as leaves.
Not bad for an old man.
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Age and Treachery will overcome youth and skill.