The Lanterne Rouge
by Matty Taylor
Somewhere between Lower Church Road and Lilac Drive, I lost it, the will to carry on. It was my first big race, a 90 kilometer slog through the West Virginia hills called the Tour of Tucker County that ended somewhere on the Sugarlands climb, a locally notorious beast of an eight kilometer long Category One mountain that averaged an 11 percent grade.
I looked down at my bike computer. 91 kilometers, it proclaimed. A hell of a place to realize that it wasn't quite configured correctly, halfway up the climb of doom. I hadn't seen the one kilometer banners, and half hoped that I wouldn't see them, that I had already passed that point, and that somebody had taken them down when the peloton had pulled themselves up this same mountain probably more than an hour ago, but I knew that the finish line lay somewhere up ahead, where white blades of wind turbines lazily churned through the pastel sky.
I could be grateful for that at least, I thought as I crested the top of the hill. The day had been perfect for a bike ride, just about sixty with clear skies and little wind. And a ride it had been. The group had dropped me right away, spinning off like a flock of spooked birds as I tried and tried to clip my right foot into my pedal while avoiding the explosion of water bottles that spilled out from another rider, obviously about as inexperienced as me. He quickly regained composure and zoomed ahead to join the rapidly receding pack.
“What are they thinking?” I remember saying to myself. More than fifty miles, half of it climbing, and they were taking off like bats out of hell, bats with carbon wheel sets and bikes that weighed less than last night's dinner.
Now on the final climb, the road curved upward sharply, and I tried to push forward, but my legs wobbled and failed. I had barely enough energy to unclip to avoid falling over in the road. If I collapsed there, it would probably be a long time before anyone found me, struggling to breathe, on the verge of passing out from exhaustion. I hadn’t seen the support car, which had been my constant tail since the peloton dropped me in the first mile, for at least twenty minutes. Nor had I seen another soul, except the vulture that I glared at me over his dinner several yards along.
I clomped toward him, leaning on my Bianchi and allowing her wheels to carry me a bit further up the hill. The carrion eater stared me down, whether angry at my rude interruption of his meal or sizing me up for dessert, I couldn’t tell. Deciding I wasn’t quite ready for snacking, he flew off to the left and I trudged past the half-eaten rabbit he had left behind, feeling like so much roadkill myself.
To the right, a cemetery rose up atop the hill, another reminder of what I was doing to myself. Why did I subject myself to this torture? More importantly, why had I paid to torture myself in this way? I vowed to give up, to flag the SAG vehicle if I saw it while I walked, but it never came. Pushing past the graveyard and cresting the hill, I winced as I threw my right leg over the top tube and clipped back in. I gave a little shove with my left, and gravity started to take over, allowing me to coast for a while as I reflected on the race.
“You never need nobody.” The lyrics of the Lone Bellows song returned in my pounding head. “You’ve never been alone.” But I was certainly alone now. “I try to get your affection.” The tune had been playing a non-stop loop in my brain since I’d been dropped so early on, a mournful lament that I had lost my first real road race right at the beginning, when I’d struggled to clip in while avoiding the bottles that another novice rider had spilled all over the road as he, too, had trouble with his pedals. I stuck with him only briefly, as he rushed forward to catch up with the main group of Cat 5 riders, which had surged forward at the very start of the race, much faster than I had expected. Having watched tons of professional cycling, and knowing a bit about my own plan to conserve energy for the long ride ahead, I had expected a leisurely pace until the crest of the first climb, after which I had expected a steadily rising, but still comfortable, pace until the big descent. I had been dead wrong. The others had ripped out of the starting line like rabid wolves on the hunt, leaving me alone behind. That’s when You Never Need Nobody started playing in my head. “And all I ever do is wrong.”
“You’ll catch them on the climb,” I told myself. “You’re a decent climber, stronger than most of those old guys, and with better knees. They may have lighter bikes, but you’ve got better gearing.” I was riding a 2001 Bianchi Giro, an aluminum frame that would have at one time been a pretty high end bike, but, of course, most of the others had arrived on carbon. Carbon fiber frames with carbon fiber forks rolling on carbon fiber wheels that had probably had to have extra weight added to be USAC legal.
Up ahead, I saw two others who had been dropped by the pack, and I tried to keep them in sight, but they pulled away from me, and I lost them around a bend. I had thought my triple might allow me to get into an easier climbing gear than anyone else, most of them riding compact doubles, but now it stubbornly refused to shift, and I had to grind my way along on a tougher gear than I wanted. A Category Three climb rose and rose, and my cadence dropped and dropped.
I did manage to pass two riders on the ascent, two riders who’d probably had mechanical trouble, and since the support vehicle hovered behind me like an overprotective mother, that meant they had to wait for me to get picked up. I apologized to the first rider that I had taken so long and delayed the car.
“No problem,” he said, but I wondered later how long it had really been. If I had been closer to the pack, could he have ridden back to it? Was he only giving up because too great a chasm now separated our position from the lead? Or perhaps the time spent waiting by the roadside had cooled his legs, allowing the pain from a tough climb to settle in. I remembered reading another rider’s blog post about this race, where he warned that a rider who stops, trying to give his legs time to recover, might as well give up. His legs would not allow him to continue.
“The others can’t be far. Catch up with them,” I urged myself, but, like what might have happened to that rider on the side of the road, the little warm-up I'd had time for had cooled in my legs on the pre-race descent down Sugarlands Road, a downhill so steep and long that at least three tires had blown up along the way when the carbon rims had overheated from braking. The sound was a gunshot, echoing across the ravine. I ducked and looked around when I heard the first, only a few meters behind me, then I realized the cause when I witnessed the second ahead of me. I was thankful, at that time, for my good old fashioned aluminum rims. It wouldn't be long before I would curse their added weight.
The third blowout struck like a thief in the night. Several minutes after we gathered at the base of the climb and separated into our category groups, a loud bang and a puff of smoke issued from another Cat 5 racer's rear wheel. The problem had been anticipated and tubes were replaced, but I wondered if they would have problems during the actual race, during the descent down Cheat Mountain into St. George.
I never found out. I didn't see them again once they dropped out of sight, not the whole group, anyway. I traded places with a few riders, passing and then getting passed in turn, but the peloton eluded me. By the top of that first climb, I was on my own, accompanied only by the SAG car that crept along behind me, which disappeared briefly as it picked up those two riders who'd dropped out along that ascent, whether from mechanical issues or tired legs, I didn't know.
But, then, around the next bend, I'd glance back, and there it would be, my eternal companion, my Sherpa on this trek through the mountains. Two things kept me going: the desire to experience the Cheat Mountain descent, and the knowledge that I could drop out any time I wanted. The ever-present escape route should have discouraged me, but, on the contrary, knowing I could signal the support vehicle and hitch a ride as soon as the going got too tough gave me the peace of mind that I needed to push on, getting myself to the crest of that hill.
Now, here on Sugarlands Road, as the ground swept upward towards the wind-farm peak, I wondered where the station wagon had gone. Had they given up and left me there to make my own way home? I wouldn’t be surprised. I was almost two hours behind the hopeful finishing time I had told my wife that morning, and at least an hour behind the time I had reasonably expected on a ride of this length. I’d never been up a Category One mountain, and I really wondered what I’d gotten myself into. The Cat Three climb had done in two others, and here I was, pushing on up this grade, more than a foot higher for every ten feet farther along, and much steeper than that in places.
I’d passed one other rider partway up the climb, another novice who I’d raced against in the training race early that spring. We had traded places several times since St. George.
I wouldn’t see him again until arriving at the staging area of the school. I felt sorry for him. His sacrifice had allowed me to continue. On the first climb, I told myself that I wouldn’t drop out until the big descent, and Cheat Mountain had been exhilarating. I had never before had the chance to go down that extreme of a road with abandon. I wished I’d been able to use the whole road, but at least I had my whole lane, as the support vehicle kept most of the traffic behind me well off my tail. The wind howled past me as I dived into the turns that came roller-coaster fast. I tucked into the lowest position I could manage while still maintaining some semblance of control. Even in a car, I didn’t dare take some of these turns as quickly as I took them on that little yellow rocket, and, with every bend, I felt renewed and invigorated.
More than an hour on the road before I’d reached the top of that climb, and it evaporated in just a few minutes. Receding beneath me all the way down to the Cheat River. Now my attention and dread turned towards the Sugarlands climb, and I told myself I would drop out if I didn’t see another rider before the road swept upward again.
Then, there he was, like a beacon in the distance just as the hills began to return. He pulled at me like a magnet and soon I was sitting behind him. I pulled past, then dropped back, then pulled past again, and, the downhill slalom having refreshed my legs, I felt like this was just any ordinary Sunday ride.
“Four more kilometers, I think,” I told him as I pushed past, not knowing at the time how grossly I’d underestimated the distance, which was much closer to six or seven kilometers. “We can do it,” I encouraged, as much trying to convince myself as trying to give my fellow sufferer a little dose of hope.
Then, it was just me and the mountain. And now I seriously considered why I tortured myself like this, but I pushed on. The sunlight shone spotty through the trees and my aching legs turned round and round like the wind turbine blades up ahead. Then I saw those one-kilometer banners, waving red against the green, brown, and blue of the trees, earth, and sky, scarlet flags the color of the lamp that had supposedly guided riders like me home for the past century, and I knew I would make it. A new song crept into my head, and I sang it joyously in my mind. “We are the champions my friend, and we’ll keep on fighting to the end…”
And I thought now of my family’s motto. Cursum Perficio. “I have finished the course.” I understood that motto now, with a clarity that had never come to me before, and I knew that this elation, this pride that I felt, was the reason that I went through the torture. I wondered how many other riders had felt this pride, and decided that it might be as rare as the pride of winning. Every race has a winner, but does every race have that rider who pushes so hard, comes so close to failure, is ready to give up, but slogs along to the end? That is the spirit of my family, and of the family that I now joined: La Famille des Lanternes Rouges. We are fighters, not always the best, but those that hang on until the bitter end. We are the finishers, those that suffer through the worst to come out better and stronger from the tempering of the fire.
As I passed the finish line, the last finisher of the race, I felt proud. Yes, I had taken longer than I’d hoped, even longer than I’d feared. Yes, I had finished far behind everyone else had finished, but I had made it, all 90 kilometers, down a Category One and up another.
I pedaled past the finish line, grateful that the official had come down to register my time even though most everyone else had already left for home, and I kept on going. I thought about stopping and waiting for a car to take me back, but the glory of finishing pushed me on and I rolled up and up, all the way back to the staging area, where only a few had remained to see my triumphant smile, the smile of a champion of suffering, the smile of the Lanterne Rouge.