The Ultra (aka “a race recap from 6 months ago”)

Look, another photo—I'm on a roll!

Years ago, I’d set a rule for myself that I’d never do the same race twice. And then one September, I discovered the Widow Maker, and I instantly fell in love — with its mercurial weather, its relentlessly unforgiving and often puzzling gradients, its capricious traction, its pristine alpine air, and most of all with the adventure of ascending a 3,100-foot mountain in 70 minutes or less. So I scratched my rule and replaced it with a commitment to come back to the Widow Maker for as long as the race exists.

Well, life changes, and in 2014, I had an obligation to my daughter that far outweighed any rashly made promises I’d made in the blind heat of racing passion. When i realized I wouldn’t be able to make it to my favorite race, I looked around on the calendar for something else.

As it turned out, there was one other hill climb that used the same course — with a slight variation. I’d still get to climb to monolithic Hidden Peak, 11,000 feet above sea level, but first, I’d have to climb from the valley to the ski hill, a climb of 3,300 feet in 9.5 miles. If you’re doing your math, you know that means this would turn out to be about 6,400 feet in 15 miles.

I figured I’d take it casually and simply participate instead of racing it. When the race started, I moseyed along, casually chatting with the racers around me.

“Hey man,” one of them said, clearly annoyed my garrulousness, “you’re not going hard enough if you can talk.”

What can I say? Exertion makes me talkative. Chocolate makes me talkative. Being within a five-minute radius of another human being makes me talkative! But I didn’t want to throw off his groove, so I quieted down. When he decided to attack the pack as we hit the climb, I went with him. And when he saw I was on his wheel, he turned and said, “You wanna work together?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m game.”

It came time for me to take my pull, so I got out of the saddle and went to the front. But when I turned around to see who we’d dropped … he was nowhere to be seen. Whoops.

Out of the saddle and feeling good at Snowbird — that's a first!
Out of the saddle and feeling good at Snowbird — that’s a first!

So instead, I soldiered on ahead by myself, and every time I got out of the saddle, I caught and/or dropped someone else. Working my way up the climb, I found rider after rider who’d gone out too hard or whatever, and one by one, they dropped behind me.

As I rounded Taylor’s Flat, with about a mile to go, I eased up, knowing I’d need to save some juice for the mountain bike climb. And at that point, a couple of guys got away from me. But when I came to the transition, I told my wife I was having a journal day. I grabbed my mountain bike and my Camelbak, and I was off.

As I rounded the initial switchbacks, I caught up to some girl who I’d seen ahead on the road climb, and she commented that she probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with me. I told her I’d never done that particular race before and I hadn’t even ridden much longer than an hour all year, so I probably wasn’t much of a threat.

Just moments later, we got to a steep climb, and as I gripped my handlebars, they twisted slightly with the torque. Handlebars, in case you’re not aware, are not supposed to do that. I quietly hoped I was just hallucinating, but as I came to the big switchback that signals the start of Peruvian Gulch, they twisted again. “Oh no,” I thought. “I knew I should’ve packed a multitool.”

My handlebars started wiggling out of place, and my magical fitness quickly faded. Racers started catching and dropping me just as I’d done only a half hour before. I’d been pedaling uphill almost nonstop for two hours when my bars finally came completely free of the stem, and when that happened, I had no choice but to walk. The heat of the day was starting to microwave the trail beneath me as the peak loomed tauntingly above. I threw my bike over my shoulder as I fumbled through loose rock on a steep switchback.

Behind me, another racer approached, and this time he looked oddly familiar.

“I think I’ve seen you in a YouTube video,” I told him. “Isn’t your name Brett Hawke or something?”

“You really have seen me in a YouTube video, haven’t you?”

We exchanged a few pleasantries, but ultimately, I learned he didn’t have a multitool either, so the conversation ended pretty quickly.

After a few more passersby, an older gentleman came riding up the switchback beneath me.

“You got a multitool on ya?” I plied.

“Hah?”

“A multitool — do you have one?”

“Hah?”

After about the third time, I thought he was just having obnoxious fun at my expense, but then he reached into his jersey pocket and then handed me a fairly robust multitool. “I don’t want to have to slow down to give it to you,” he said snarkily.

“Thanks!” I called as he pedaled off. “I’ll give it to you at the top.”

“Whatever.”

Despite the odd exchange, I was elated. I tightened the hex bolts on my stem, threw a leg over my seat and got back to pedaling what was left of my sorry carcass up the mountain. I easily cleaned the last few switchbacks, crossed the finish line and tracked down my good Samaritan. Minutes later, my wife and sister got off the tram and found me crumpled over my bike.

I’d produced one of the worst race results I’ve ever had for the Ultra, but on the flip side, I’d had a great ride on the road hill climb, enough for a 6th place in my age group. I’d flirted with my limits and perhaps even pushed them a little.

When the date for the Widow Maker rolled around, I was with my daughter, where I needed to be. But little did I know that, hundreds of miles away, it was snowing on Hidden Peak, and there was a race organizer telling a group of mountain bikers to head back to their cars.

The Widow Maker had been postponed …

The Upside of Lance’s Confession

A lot of folks are (appropriately) pretty frustrated about this whole Lance Armstrong confession deal. I know that a lot of people were holding out hope that Lance really was clean. If you’re one of those people, I have to say that I feel for you. It stinks to have your sports heroes admit being dirtbags, and it would’ve been nice if Lance—cancer survivor, father, activist, etc.—could’ve been the exception.

But the truth is, some of us have been trying to explain this to the rest of you for a long time. It took me a half a decade to reach the conclusion that Lance was doping, and after that, I willingly told anyone who asked what I thought about the subject. The internet was different. If you bashed Lance there, you got hammered and flamed.

So, amid this “truth will set you free” rhetoric, I want to point out just a couple of the silver linings, the reasons why Lance admitting that he doped is a very, very, very good thing. There are more reasons than what you’ll see here. These are just what’s on my mind right now:

1. We can all stop trying to figure out how he did it.
Lance’s success never made any sense. He wasn’t built like a climber, and he was never an overwhelmingly good time trialist before 1998 or ’99. He didn’t have the strongest legs, the highest VO2 max, the largest heart or any other particularly outstanding physical characteristic that would make sense out of his victories. So it must’ve been his training, right? Everyone wanted to know what the secret session was, what the winning training protocol was. Well, now we know: it was EPO, cortisone, HGH, testosterone and a cocktail of other junk—actovegin, etc.

That’s a really good thing to know. We no longer need to have the argument “well, Lance does it, so it must be right” about how we ride our bicycles. Whatever the secret session is, Lance couldn’t have done it without the dope either.

2. We can give Greg Lemond his respect back.
With Lance’s admission, a whole host of people can have their credibility back: Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Stephen Swart, Prentice Steffen, and yes, even Greg Lemond.

Years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why Isn’t Greg Lemond More Popular. In the end, I concluded that it was because Lance told us not to like him. Same goes for all of those folks. Lance told us not to like them, and we, like lemmings, said, “Okay, we won’t.”

I remember hearing photographer Graham Watson describe Greg Lemond not as a jealous, bitter old man, but as an “outrageous character.” He was fun, he was a phenomenal athlete, and, in my opinion, he likely won the Tour de France clean. He was the real deal, and the greatest American cyclist in history.

3. We can all be friends again.
Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve been pretty convinced about Lance’s PED usage for the last three or four years. I can’t remember exactly when I realized it, but I think it came down to physics: how does a rider go from being an average time trialist and a lousy climber to dominating all of the time trials and the climbs? Unless Lance had just never trained before, there was only one way.

But I quickly learned that if I shared my opinion online, the Lance faithful would rip me to shreds with senseless arguments and lines right out of Lance’s PR strategy. Well, the conflict’s over now. Lance did it, there’s no reason to believe otherwise, and there’s no reason to keep the argument aflame. You can now go back to arguing about other arcane topics like whether weightlifting helps you be a better climber.

Trouble is, some folks don’t know the argument’s over. They want to keep it alive with statements like “it was a level playing field,” “everyone was doing it,” or “he would’ve won seven Tours anyway.” Doping does not create a level playing field, everyone was not doing it, and the idea that Lance would’ve won anyway is patently ridiculous. As Kathy Lemond said after Lance told her and Greg that he was going to win the Tour, “How could he think he was going to win the Tour when he only finished once? He just wasn’t a Tour rider.”

4. Hero worship aside, cycling is still fun.
The one other benefit of Lance’s admission that I’ll mention here is that we can all get back to riding our bicycles because we enjoy it. Cycling is fun. Racing a bicycle is fun too, even when you don’t win. You get to meet cool people, enjoy the outdoors, exert yourself, break a sweat and feel like a kid again. Cool, right?

Ghosts

“You were racing because you were pissed.”

“I was.”

What’s amazed me most about this whole Lance Armstrong thing is how many people seem to be shocked or surprised at the mountain of evidence released by USADA. Really? No one knew? A sprinter loses five pounds and is suddenly beating the best climbers in the Tour de France on the mountain stages, and no one blinks an eye?

Of course, we were all so ignorant of the world of cycling back then. By the time Lance won in ’99, I already loved riding my bicycle (which had been my sole form of transportation for at least a year at that point). But if I hadn’t read Lance’s book, I probably never would’ve pinned a number on and climbed Teton Pass. I’d probably be lifting weights and riding my bike, but not for competition’s sake.

So Lance, if you’re reading, thanks for that.

But through all of this process, my mind keeps going back to a different cyclist, someone who’s not around to see his suspicions validated, someone I grew to idolize (probably more than I should’ve) and recognize as a victim of this doping culture.

I keep thinking about Steve Larsen.

There’s an almost 90-minute interview with Steve still available on CompetitorRadio.com. When I first listened to it, I hardly knew who Steve was. But it’s hard (for me, anyway) to hear that interview without identifying with the guy.

Here’s a rider who was set up on his bike by Greg Lemond, who devoted an enormous amount of energy to becoming the best cyclist he could be, who showed promise from a young age, and who competed for a national championship early on. Then suddenly, things changed.

“In 1990, I was beating Lance, and by ’91, I was working for Lance, and that’s all she wrote! … That’s how quickly Lance progressed.”

Steve went to Europe to race as a pro a little earlier than the others. He managed to make his team’s Giro d’Italia squad. But by the end of that three-week race in 1993 (and yes, I fact-checked this), Steve finished fourth from last—129th—riding, in his own words, “pan y aqua [bread and water]—you know, clean.” He’d gutted his body just to finish under the time limit while legends (and dope fiends) like Marco Pantani conquered the monolithic spires on the course in record time.

“It’s mind-boggling how severe it is … A three-week tour, the kind of fatigue and suffering you go through is hard to explain. I mean, it’s so deep in you, and you’re so tired. Your heart rate doesn’t go up anymore. Things aren’t working normal, and yet you just get up and you do it again day after day.”

Ultimately, Steve came back to the United States after only a couple of seasons. Europe wasn’t a place for clean riders at a time when EPO was spreading like a disease across the peloton. I once talked to a former pro who’d raced him and who said Steve had a nasty attitude toward his competitors. Can you really blame him? A rider he used to beat (Lance) won the world championship the year before Steve lost his pro contract and came home.

“It is a little disheartening to, y’know, know guys that I raced with for a good part of a decade are now coming out and saying, ‘Oh yeah, I cheated,’ and knowing those were guys I could’ve been competitive with. By the same token, it is what it is.”

For five years, he competed in what I think is the most intense sport on the planet: XC mountain bike world cups. Then he got left off the 2000 Olympic team despite being one of the best riders on the circuit. By then, Steve had learned his lesson.

“I was racing with anger and with rage, and it was, honestly, a miserable way to do it. As much success as I was having, it wasn’t any fun.”

He left the NORBA behind (despite being the national champ) and entered the hypoxic world of Ironman® triathlon. He smashed Andrew Macnaughton’s Wildflower bike course record on a stock road frame with a road helmet on. He won Ironman Lake Placid and demolished the field on the 112-mile bike leg of Ironman Hawaii on an extremely windy year at the Big Island, taking 12 minutes out of the guy who would ultimately claim the Hawaii Ironman bike course record.

But then, before his career grew stale, he dialed things back, became an age group athlete and took things a little easier.

“One of the reasons I lasted 15 years in pro sports and am still married to that great wife and have five kids is knowing when that passion is going away and when you need to redirect your energies.”

He understood balance and knew what came (comes) first: family.

And then, on a spring day morning in 2009, he collapsed during a run and died on the track at the age of 39, leaving behind a wife and five kids.

By that point, he’d become my biggest endurance sport hero—a guy who could do it all and be a great dad at home too. He also seemed to embody the same turning point I knew I needed to make: from a vengeful underdog to a calm role model and family patriarch. I’d go to my little pool-swim sprint triathlons and hammer the bike, passing hundreds of other riders and feeling I’d sampled an hors d’oeuvre from the same table where Larsen had eaten his endurance feasts.

I was devastated when he passed away.

In literature, they say ghosts symbolize unresolved conflict. I guess that’s what the doping situation seems like to me: a whole lot of injustice and a whole lot of loose ends. Perhaps that’s why the more I read about the “reasoned decision,” the more that interview with Steve swirls around in my mind.

But in the end, it’s Steve’s interview that reminds me that not all injustices result in personal destruction. Some, it turns out, do just the opposite. In Steve’s case, I think it whittled and carved him into the dad and competitor he became, someone I came to really admire.

“The whole rage thing interests me. How long did it take to let go of that, and have you really let go of it? I mean, deep down inside, it sounds like that really, really, really got to you.”

“You know, it did … after the road career didn’t end great. But you know, I’ve let it go … I sleep well at night … Some of the guys you mentioned, I know how I used to beat ’em at a certain age when, you know, playing fields were level.”

The Triple

After scoring some hardware at Powder Mountain (a bit of a surprise), I was happy with my season. I could’ve ended it right there and then, but for one fact: I’d spent the whole year thinking about that snow-laden finish on the top of Hidden Peak last year.

Besides, I’d started nearly every weekend in July by doing hill repeats up my favorite trail. On that trail is a super-steep section that I’d only ridden once or twice before. But then I started doing repeats on the trail. The second weekend I rode there, someone had dropped a log across the lower sections, but that didn’t stop me from cleaning the entire trail three times in a row. I stuck the steep section every single time.

So when the date for Widow Maker came, I packed up a one-man tent in my trunk and drove down to Utah. But I nearly ran into trouble the night before the race. My planned campsite had a “full” sign in front of it. Because I was desperate, I drove up to the window anyway and found the campsite manager in the booth.

“Is it really full?” I said as the sun began setting behind me.

“Yep.”

“Seriously? What’s the occasion? This campsite’s usually empty this time of year.”

“Yeah, it is. We had a bunch of Boy Scout troops who just showed up today. You know what, though? There might be a site open. I think they were just hiking during the day. Why don’t you go check site 23?”

So I drove over there. There was a car parked but the site was indeed empty. I asked around, and no one had seen anyone there. I unpacked my stuff and set up my tent. The camp manager even gave me the site for free, which was awfully nice of her.

I’d found a place to sleep for the night, but it wasn’t until I was comfortable in my sleeping bag that I realized I’d camped in the middle of a bunch of noisy Boy Scout troops. So even though I’d gone to bed at 8:30 (I was tired, okay?), I got woken up every couple of hours by some noisy scouts who’d wander through my campsite.

Nonetheless, I was fresh as a daisy when the sun peaked over the mountains and woke me the next morning.

I was taking a relaxed approach to the race. I did my warm up on the singletracks that I never get to ride up there, and I didn’t plan to take the start too aggressively. I bumped into Laura H., Mike J. and a handful of other folks—i.e. the Hawaiian shirt guy—I’d seen at races before. It seemed everyone else was making it a casual, relaxed affair as well.

When the RD shouted go, I went straight to Laura’s wheel instead of bursting off the front and burning all of my fuel early. Laura, I should explain, has a history of starting slower than me but finishing faster than me nearly every year. So I decided I’d take a “let’s see how Laura does this” approach this time and maybe get the payoff in the second half of the race. But after the first half-mile, I wound up unintentionally building a bit of a gap on Laura anyway.

I lost traction in one spot on one climb in the first mile and a half, and at that moment, the lead girl created a gap on me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d outraced the same girl by a minute the week before at Powder Mountain. But this week, playing it conservatively, I let her get away rather than chasing her down.

My default picture since I never have any pics of this race.

There’s one section on Widow Maker that has forced me to walk every single year, and this year, I really wanted to ride the whole thing. Just as I started on that section, Laura caught up with me and the two of us took on one of the longest steep sections on the course. When she tried to cross over to my side of the trail at one point, she lost traction and I gapped her a bit again. I knew at that moment that I was having a great day on the mountain bike. I completed that section without putting a foot down once.

Just after that, the final switchbacks and the finish came into view. But that was when my troubles began. See, I rarely ride over an hour anymore. And something I’m discovering is that when I get to the 60-minute mark, it’s like the clock strikes midnight and I turn into a pumpkin—I just start to lose steam. Powder Mountain was short enough that I didn’t have that problem; my finish time was under 56 minutes. But on the final switchbacks at Widow Maker, I found myself shifting into survival mode. I got passed by two people and lost contact with Laura. I limited the damage somewhat, but I definitely slowed down.

I crossed the finish line parched and pooped, but I’d done it: I completed three hill climbs in five weeks, all with average gradients of over 7%. I’d knocked off a brutal triple.

While I was gorging myself on the apple juice and goodies at the finish, it became clear the race organizers were having issues with their timing system. Needing to get home, I hopped on the tram with no idea where I’d finished relative to my age group.

On the way down, I met one of the two guys who’d passed me in the final mile. He’d been riding a big-travel freeride bike. He let me pick it up, and when I did, I was surprised to discover that it weighed about the same as my bike—my rigid ’90s hardtail. Needless to say I came home thinking it’s time to build up the lightweight bike frame I bought last year.

Despite those failings, I made a pleasant discovery when I checked the computer results the next day: I’d managed another 3rd place!

Poseur

I have to level with you: I sometimes like to ride my ROAD bike while wearing baggy shorts and a t-shirt over my bike shorts, not to mention a visor on my helmet. Oh, and mountain bike shoes.

I rarely wear gloves, even on the trail. I often forget to put my sunglasses on.

My mountain bike currently has 0 inches of travel front and rear—yes, zero. My road bike cost me less than $1,000 seven years ago. With the stock set up, it weighed 21 pounds, brand-spanking new.

I don’t have a power meter (though I sometimes use a heart-rate monitor).

I’ve been known to enter cross-country mountain bike races in the beginner division simply because they only have to do one lap and my wife wants me to hurry and get the race done so we can take our screaming children home.

I’m the guy who brought those same screaming kids to the awards ceremony, by the way.

I’m also the guy who showed up to a 4,000-foot mountain bike hillclimb with baggy shorts, platform pedals and sandals.

I’m the guy who won a cat 5 race last year without a racing license, which means I deprived some serious racer of some precious cat-advancing points. Whoops.

So am I a poseur? Am I a fred? I’m pretty sure a lot of the local studs (ahem, Jackson Hole folks) think so.

But you know what? I’m not planning on winning any world championships. I’m just sampling the local races, keeping fit and having fun. Sure, I sometimes find myself getting serious about things, but for the most part, I’m the cycling equivalent of local 5k runner. In fact, I am the local 5k runner too. I’m just there for the enjoyment of racing my bike. And frankly, I hope you are too.

My own Steve Larsen memorial ride

So I haven’t typed up a blog for a while because I was too busy mulling over what I’d write about Steve Larsen’s passing. I never knew the guy, but he was probably the closest thing I had to a sport hero. He’d ridden the Giro (the coolest grand tour), stomped the NORBA, podiumed at a World Cup mtb event, gone 2nd in his only cyclocross national championship (which he jumped in at the last minute), set a bike course record at the Wildflower Triathlon, won Ironman Lake Placid, blown past Normann Stadler at the Hawaii Ironman World Championship (Normann later set the bike course record on a windless day in ’06), and even won some Xterra mountain bike triathlons. Despite retiring in 2003, he was STILL stomping pro athletes as of last year (exhibit A would be the fastest bike split at the 2008 Oceanside half-Ironman and 2008 Ironman Couer D’Alene), and doing it on weekend warrior-type hours.

But the really cool thing was the fact that he had kids—five of ’em—and he was a full-time dad and a full-time businessman on top of his sport achievements. Why didn’t he ever take up adventure racing? He needed to be home to read some stories to his kids at night. How cool is that?

The day I found out about his death (he passed away last week at the age of 39), I talked my wife’s ear off about how cool he was. So I’ll pipe down now and let you do your own reading about the guy. I’m still getting used to the fact that I won’t be looking for his results in races to come. That’s still a little weird.

So on Saturday, when I heard there would be a bunch of Steve Larsen memorial rides in other places around the country, I decided to do a ride of my own. All the more appropriate, I thought, I’d make it a family bike ride with the kid trailer attached to the back of my bike.

Saturday morning, we loaded the kids into the trailer, and got rolling. But right away, my ride seemed tougher than normal. Instead of outpacing my wife up the hills (even with the trailer attached to my chainstay), she was riding away from me like she was Steve Larsen and I was Normann. Weird. Finally, when we got to a longer climb, I was able to get some distance on her, but my HR went right up into the 170’s to do it. Ouch. But the really weird part came when I was riding back downhill. I had to pedal (downhill) just to keep up with her.

On the way home, we stopped at a park so the girls could play at the playground. My legs were feeling pretty fried. As we got up to leave, I heard a squeak coming from the trailer. I set my bike down and walked back to find that the trailer’s brakes were still locked on and had been during our entire ride. Yep, I did the whole ride with the trailer’s brakes locked on.

I hope Steve would be proud.

“What now? A team?”

My boss is funny. He suggested the other day that our company was going to sponsor a cycling team for The Tour of Utah and that I’m going to be asked to be on the team.

Okay, my boss isn’t really very funny.

I don’t think non-cyclists understand how much slower amateur cyclists are compared to pro cyclists. I probably wouldn’t be able to hang with the TofU peloton for more than 30 minutes, and even then, I’d only last that long if there was a herd of sheep or something holding the race up. Like I said, people don’t get it. They see your spandex and your slim waistline and assume you’re a pro cyclist or something. Weird.

Nonetheless, he got me thinking: If my company did decide to sponsor a new cycling team, who would/should they recruit?

Bear in mind that this is all fantasy on my part, but if they were going to put together a team, I know a few riders who, I think, deserve their attention. So here’s my list:

Sam Krieg, yes the guy whose blog I linked to the other day, is a killer fast rider living in Pocatello. His main target each year is cyclocross, but on his way there, he usually drills past everyone at the time trial (he clocked just a little more than 20 minutes for our local windy 10-mile out-and-back time trial—lowering the record by about two minutes), kills everyone at every crit he enters and knocks off a pro-level time at the hill climbs (including a 30-something at Teton Pass—yikes!).

Richard Feldman, who’s won everything under the sun, including the first race I ever entered, the Targhee Hillclimb (where he set the record, I believe). This guy’s incredible; never mind that he could be the team’s coach as well.

Matt Shriver. Okay, so Matt’s already on the Jittery Joe’s team. Doesn’t matter. He’s been top 20 at the U.S. Pro Road Race Champs, recently went to Worlds for cyclocross and owns the record on Teton Pass. (Noticing a pattern here?) Matt’s a rising star, I think. He still has plenty of racing years left in his legs. He seems to get better results every year, and he can perform at altitude.

Okay, so that’s only three people. Perhaps you could throw Norm Bryner in there too, since Norm keeps just about killing the Snowbird Hillclimb (narrowly missing out to a guy who rides for the competition). Heck, maybe Jay Petervary or Cary Smith too (climbing is a must for this sort of thing). But yeah, I suppose you could call this my "under-appreciated local riders" list.

As for me being on any kind of cycling team, it better be for a cat 3 mountain bike race or something, because there’s no way I could hang with those guys with my existing fitness.