An ordinary ride

On Sunday I set out for a quick ride up Emigration Canyon. My primary bike, Ol’ Yeller, is out of commission, so I was on the Black Mamba. The Black Mamba is my first “serious” bike, a twenty year old Fuji. She’s [1] a lovely bit of  Japanese steel, full 8-speed Dura-ace components, a delight to my retro-grouchy eyes. But alas, she has only a double chainring, not enough low gears for serious climbing for a person of my modest strength. Which is why she’s the backup bike. But the day was lovely and Emigration isn’t terribly steep.

As I enter the canyon mouth I see a woman perhaps a hundred yards ahead, wearing a pink jersey. She seems to be doing a manageable pace. So naturally I set out to catch her.

This has been a curious cycling year for me. I decided to take a break from Lotoja [2] and set Tour of Park City as my major goal of the year. But the spring was rainy long into June and my training was sporadic at best. I was weak and unsure, indecisive. Would I be strong enough? Would I just embarrass myself on race day? The more I rode the worse I seemed to feel and in mid-July I was ready to scrap the whole idea.

But towards the end of July the strength and endurance finally came and riding became a delight again. I was ready.

Then the Monday before the race, with my mind at ease, self-doubt gone and eager for the race, I woke up with a sharp unexplained pain in my side and shoulder. It eventually turned out to be, in the words of the emergency room doctor, “kind of a big deal”: a pulmonary embolism which left me in hospital for four days and weak as wet cotton wool after.

So much for the Tour of Park City.

The Lady in Pink is setting a solid pace but with effort I’m gaining inches. I’m within perhaps fifty yards as we came up to Ruth’s Diner. But then she spots a rabbit, another rider further ahead to chase, and lifts her pace. I’m not gaining any more.

With the Tour of Park City out of the question I set my sights on “I Think I Canyons”. It’s a brutal ride, 100 miles up and down the four major canyons that descend into the Salt Lake valley. It was difficult getting back to a decent level of fitness, though not quite as bleak as the early part of July had been. ” I Think I Canyons” is only a century, after all, if a difficult one. I had no doubt that I could at least finish.

Then two weeks ago I ‘volunteered’ to coach the lovely Weaselette’s mite hockey team. I didn’t want the job but there were no other volunteers and Shannon and the team at Salt Lake County Youth hockey have given us so much that it seems only fair to give a little back.

First practice was on the Saturday of “I Think I Canyons”. No way the coach can duck out of the first practice.

So much for “I Think I Canyons”.

Going through the rollers above Camp Kostopolus I raise my effort significantly. I’m hammering up the steeper bits, heart pounding in my ears. We’ve dropped our rabbit with ease and I’m again reeling in the Lady in Pink, slowly, slowly. But it’s costing me dear.

So what goal now? I’ve set my mind to an Olympic distance triathlon next spring; but that’s next year. The cycling season is winding down and I’ve nothing to be proud of. What goal now?

I close to within ten yards of the Lady in Pink but I’m right on the rivet, no more to give. I’m beginning to think about what I’ll do when I catch her. There’s no way I can pass; I won’t be able to set this pace without her to chase. I’ll have to grab her wheel, announce my presence, hope she’s sociable enough not to accelerate and drop me immediately, not until I have a chance to catch my breath.

Then she hears me shift, becomes aware I’m there. It’s the first she knows of our epic race. She kicks up the pace again and suddenly I can’t close that ten yard gap. It’s all I can do to hold on.

I was nervous about coaching the kids. I’ve assisted plenty before but never been responsible for the whole affair. I felt like a fraud – what do I know about hockey, anyway, lousy player that I am, a whole five years of skating? What if the kids saw through my sham, what if the parents called me out for an incompetent?

Of course none of those things happened. It wasn’t the best practice in the history of hockey but the kids kept moving and had some fun, the parents were supportive. I’m going to be able to do this thing. And I get to skate with my daughter all winter long.

Past the Sun and Moon Cafe and the Lady in Pink is stretching away now. I start counting off her lead in seconds. Fifteen seconds at the cafe; eighteen at the bottom of the switchbacks. I’m spinning, a gear left to spare even with the double chainring, much higher effort than I usually put out, but she’s slipping away.

Half a mile to the top, the steep bit, usually my strength. I give it all I have but it’s not enough. I make it to the top, gasping, about a minute back. I want to thank the Lady in Pink, but she spun about at the top and was already descending so I could do no more than nod at her as we passed. She wasn’t even looking. Seemed a bit churlish after all we had been through together, I thought.

I stopped at the top to look out over the reservoir. The day was perfect. Little wavelets danced on the water, the low sun glinting, the hills still green with the last of the summer. I took a pull from my water bottle. Then, idly, I glanced at my watch.

42 minutes from the time I’d left home. I’ve never made that climb in less than 45 minutes before.

Suddenly my goal was clear.

I hammered my way down the canyon. I poured my heart into that descent. I usually brake my way through the big steep turn at the bottom of the switchbacks, cursing myself for a coward; today I not only didn’t brake, I was actively pedaling, pushing my way through the turn. The Black Mamba seemed to be enjoying the ride, eager and responsive. This was it, my whole season. This one ordinary ride in Emigration.

Despite my best efforts I never saw the Lady in Pink again. But I came flying into my driveway 1:11 after leaving, more than five minutes better than my previous personal best, despite having had to wait at the traffic light on Foothill for what seemed an age.

I win. It’s been a good season after all.

[1] for some reason this bike is female; all my other bikes are male.

[2] no custom coat hanger for me. What a shame!

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