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Notes from the Scrum: The convenient memory of pain

LEADVILLE, Colo. (VN) — I’m never riding the Leadville 100 ever again. Don’t ask me about it.

At present, a small child is shooting a .22-caliber rifle into my lower back, and my stomach is soured from the hummingbird water I drank to keep moving. Anything to keep moving in that headwind across the valley floor, all alone.

I remember my father in the aid station at Twin Lakes, a musette bag hanging from his outstretched arm, clad in a bright orange jacket so we’d know where to see him.

I remember the eternity of the Powerline climb, its lumpy dread and marching procession of defeated cyclists. I remember the Cokes held out for us, and I remember the pain like breaking china in my wrists. I recall Velo’s technical editor Caley Fretz yelling at me as he was coming down the Columbine climb, all of us in a bizarre collective isolation at 12,000 feet.

The race and the faces and the climbs, they’re all only pieces right now, something that will quilt itself together in the shallow-water sleep of the exhausted that can only be examined for a finite period of time before it’s vanquished to the alchemy of memory.

I remember the single speeder, catching whatever draft he could before floating away. I remember the sound of a helicopter when the leaders were close, and then the tanks of men like Alban Lakata (Topeak-Ergon) and Christoph Sauser (Specialized), guns and legs blazing as they came at us, the mortals’ faces great faucets for sweat and spit.

I looked at my Garmin, too often. When it said around six hours, I remember thinking that the race was nearly over some, halfway over for others and not close enough to over for me.

I remember how I got into this mess in the first place. I was in France, working the Tour, when the question came. It was from our editor at Velo, Neal Rogers. We scored some extra spots at the Leadville 100 thanks to a partnership, and would I like to race?

Leadville, as we know, is one of the country’s eminent endurance mountain bike races. It’s legendary and it’s hard, though how hard one can never really take the metric of until it’s in your legs, until it’s eaten your muscle fibers, and forced your lungs to actually bleed, which is something they do when you use their darkest corners.

Of course I would race. How could I not?

Conversely, I remember thinking Saturday, how could I have the audacity to think that getting two weeks of riding the mountain bike beforehand would be enough? Sometimes my memory doesn’t know itself.

In a very lucky existence this season, I’ve ridden, with Fretz, the Paris-Roubaix, Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and l’Étape du Tour sportives, and now the Leadville Trail 100 MTB.

This was by far the most difficult of all of them. It didn’t have Flanders’ cobbled climbs, or the granite teeth of Roubaix, or the paved shark teeth profiles of the Alps, but it had more hours, more elevation, and more rattle, at least in my lower back. Don’t get me wrong, Roubaix was miserable, and the Tour stage (Annecy-Annecy Semnoz) had us swearing it was the hardest thing ever, but Leadville. Oh, Leadville.

I thought about beer at mile 69.7 but quickly forgot about it, as a small hill had me pondering throwing up. At one point, I took my one stop for the day. The urge to pee was too strong. I tried to clip out with my left foot, but the cleat had loosened itself enough that the mechanical advantage was gone, and I couldn’t actually unclip. Swiftly, I thought of the looming Powerline Climb, the race’s true and final nail into the legs and aorta. I’d have to ride it, and I did, save one bobble that resulted in my walking my bike for 10 feet while missing a shoe.

But now I can also recall six-time winner Dave Wiens standing at the finish line, patting me on the shoulder. Our whole crew from VeloNews (four in total) finished the race, and I love thinking about that, too.

I remember, now.

But maybe more will come to me tomorrow. Hopefully not. Otherwise, I’d never do it again. If we recalled how hard things really were, we’d never do things that ask us to go beyond our limits and reason.

The more I think about it, I’m probably riding Leadville again. After all, I started in the back this year and finished in 8:29. Who’s to say I couldn’t go under eight hours the next time?

I’ll try to forget I just said that.

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