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A "blue collar" cyclist's adventures from the saddle of a bike.
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Alone in the Underdown: A Haunting
As I rode alone through the vast wilderness known simply as the "Underdown" something just didn't feel right. Sure my body was a complete wreck and I felt like I was barely moving, but there was an eerie feeling in the air. Was I completely alone? A quick check over my shoulder told me that yes, physically I was alone, but I found myself continually checking the trees around me, something was with me and I wasn't quite sure what it was.
Here I was well into the final race of the Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike Series. The course is the stuff that mountain bikers talk about when they're retired and sitting around the bar with their buddies. The only difference is that the course doesn't get more difficult the more the stories are told (much like the fish that keeps getting bigger during the typical Minnesota fish story), it really is THAT difficult. The beast that is the Underdown course comes from the demented/genious mind of one Chris Shotz. Shotz designed the trail system and seemingly snatched it right out from an historic figure of sorts named Bill Underdown. Ole Bill used to make Moon Shine or the like in those parts and kind of owned the area, so I'm told. Clearly, Chris has made some kind of peace with Mr. Underdown, because not only has he built the gnarliest of gnarly trail there, but he also absolutely crushes it while on his bike. Schotz is a straight up class act when it comes to our beloved sport. He's never conceited, always doles out respect to other riders (this writer included) and builds trail the "old school" way. If you finish a lap on his course with no bruises or cuts, you just haven't ridden it right.
Well into the day I wasn't quite sure what place I was in and given the small number of racers entered it seemed I was riding in some weird form of exile. That is to say, I was redefining ALONE! My first lap was what I'd consider a fairly "HOT" one by my standards and I knew I was near the front. As I turned through the second lap the pace went from "HOT" to "KEEP HUSTLING". At the start of lap three "JUST KEEP MOVING" became my mantra. I scratched and clawed my way through the 15 miles of that third lap, cursing every "punchy" climb and the man who routed the trail up them. "God, I'd kill for just a little flow. Can a guy just get some flow, at least for a few seconds?", were my thoughts.
My ipod was on shuffle and helping to keep the pain at bay and even helping me to keep some sense of urgency in the pedals, but something was amiss, something just didn't feel right. You know when you're racing and you just get that sneaky feeling that you're about to be caught so you decide to steal a glance over your shoulder and there's a rider (even though you never heard him coming)? It was that kind of feeling. The problem was that every time I checked, there was no one there, just the trees and the endless winding single track I'd just ridden through ... it was spooky.
Lap three ended like all good things must do and I thanked the cycling Gods for letting me get through those horrendously difficult 15 miles. I made the decision to stop and give myself a break at the pit area. I had a list of rationale as to why I needed the pit stop, a concept I'd given up on years ago as I really feel they do no good. My list was long enough to let me stop in good conscious. 6 minutes was what I took to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drink a Coke. I hoped it was enough to light the fires one more time, get me through lap 4 with enough time to beat the 10 hour mark, and limp through a Godforsaken 5th turn of the course.
15 minutes in and both engines were running clean and smooth. My legs pumped through the rough terrain and I was stringing turns together that made me proud. "You're coming around, you're back in the game!", I thought. I became cocky in my mind as I was sure that I was putting time into my competitors out front and distancing the ones behind me. The hardwoods that I rode through seemed to look down on me in judgment as I slammed my Spearfish through the course. I saw them shedding their leaves down on the trail as the wind pushed through their tops. Again, I became aware that maybe I wasn't as alone as I thought I was. I pushed the thoughts from my mind and stayed the course.
Cleaning a steep pitch I careened down a banked, curling bridge toward a piece of down hill that I had pinned hard on the previous 3 laps. Focusing hard on the sweeping turns I leaned the machine over feeling the knobs of the tires cutting through the leafy trail. Straightening out I stayed off the brakes for the run into the field that the single track poured into. Suddenly, a loud snapping explosion under me and the rear end of the bike fighting me in an uncontrolled skid! Instantly I crushed the rear brake lever into the grip hoping against hope my worst fear hadn't come true. I dared to look down between my legs at the back end the rig. There it was, my rear derailleur completely upside down and oddly twisted, the chain contorted into a figure eight, the stick still jammed through the spokes and frame.
Stunned I dismounted and pulled the stick hard from it's grip on the aluminum it had bonded with. With a rebel yell I threw the stick deeper into Bill Underdown's forest, as the wind seemed to pick up in response.
I walked the maimed bike down to the clearing as the gnats rallied against me, causing me fits as I waved helplessly at them. Dejected I removed the broken pieces from my frame as riders stopped to offer assistance, but none was to be had. I knew the score here and I had definitely lost. Just then a fast moving Chris Schotz screamed to a halt near me. "Tim, are you o.k.?!", he asked. I assured him I was, but my bike was not. Quickly we concluded that I would not be able to fix it and the only task that lay before me now was to find a way out of the Underdown. Chris pointed me in the right direction and I began the slow slog back to the start finish area.
As I walked through the old growth hardwoods I asked myself "why?". Why had I been dealt this hand, why me? Just then the wind picked up once more through the tops of the trees and it came to me. These weren't my woods, they weren't Chris' woods, these trails didn't belong to any of us and our fancy bikes. They belonged to Mr. Underdown ...And they always will. He reminded me that we are simply playing in a much bigger arena than we will ever know.
Thank you Chris Schotz and thank you to your wonderful family and volunteers. Thank you to all the riders who stopped to offer me assistance and thank you to my traveling partner, Charlie Farrow (who had an excellent race, finishing 4th in the single speed class after his own string of mechanical problems). Thank you Salsa Cycles, Schwalbe Tires, and Rudy Project, it's been a helluva season.