This is a little story about an apparent oxymoron, Larry Nolan and a race with over 5,000 feet of climbing. I apologize in advance if I embarass Larry in its telling.
I see Larry for the first time this morning at the start line. He informs me that he's had a nasty cold, hasn't ridden all week and that I may be on my own today. "Go for it and don't worry about me" he says. Hmm, what do I do now? Ride at the front, look for a promising break and be smart, this seems like the best approach. Fortunately it's a 45+ race and not the 35s. These guys have a knack of riding climbs briskly but noodling along on the flats, and covering any attacks that have any sort of threat but never pulling through on them, effectly neutralizing them regardless of when they go. A somewhat negative approach to racing. I know this and, of course, so does Larry.
What a surprise when this is exactly the way the race unfolds. On the first of three laps, the opening climb is done at tempo, I go near the front on the big climb and stay there. We start with about 60 guys in the group and I'm informed by Mike Vetterli, a racing buddy who rides for the Olympic Club, as we finish the climb and begin the inevitable noodle along the flats, that we did the climb between 320 and 340 watts and shed half the group. It seemed a lot easier than that to me and, happily, Larry is right beside me.
The climb on lap two is done with more enthusiam, led the entire way by John Ornstil, also a racing buddy on VOS. I stay glued to his wheel. The nice thing about racing as old men is we all tend to become racing friends, probably because of so much mutual suffering for nothing but the stories that ensue. This time Mike Vetterli informs me that we pushed it up about another 20 watts in the 340 to 360 range. Yeh that felt a little harder and now there was only a dozen or so of us left. I know the race needs special attention at this point even though we begin to noodle once again on the flats because, if I had my way, I'd test the metal of the group and I have to be sure I am ready if someone else has the same thought. I stay second or third wheel at this point and don't concern myself with what's behind me, ready to respond if someone wants to have a go. For some reason, I just come to the conclusion that I won't see Larry for the rest of the day.
Over the last 3 or 4 seasons, I've raced mostly in the 35s with only a few jaunts into the 45s. But I do know that for some strange reason, the pack always lets John Ornstil roll off the front at some point in the race, completely ignoring it like it isn't even happening and away goes John. Well, here's where it happens again. The first time check, 30 seconds, a collective shrug of the shoulders. The next check, 1 minute 30 seconds, same response. And on it goes until we reach the start of the final lap and it's gone to 3 minutes. Now there are a few rumblings in the group.
The final time up the climb, Mike Vetterli goes to the front and steps it up another notch. Cale Reeder from Echelon Grand Fondo/Z Team takes his wheel and I take Cale's. On one of the few areas of respite on the climb a guy gets between Cale and me, this turns out to be fortuitous. As we hit the steepest part of the climb about 3/4 of the way up, Cale overlaps Mike's wheel and goes down instantly. With a guy between Cale and me, it gives me enough time to swerve to miss the crash but nearly end up going down the bank on the opposite side of the road. I'm gapped and push it hard to get back. I get there by the time we reach the top. Oh yeh, guess what, we start to noodle even though the new time to John is 3 1/2 minutes.
I know you won't believe what happened next because it shocked the sh@#$ out of me. About 2 minutes into the noodle, Larry rides up beside me and says hello. I nearly fell off my bike. The race has taken a dramatic turn and I now need to do what I can to catch John. Fortunately I have a willing helper in Mike Vetterli and we cajol and at times badger the group into doing an orderly chase. The collective commitment ebbs and flows, but as the next time check shows, 1 minute 44 seconds, the carrot and stick approach is paying off.
Curiously and suddenly, the group shuts down the chase and there is only about 7 kilometers left to go. Hunter Ziesing, also of Echelon Grand Fondo/Z Team (actually the owner of the team), comes to the front and loudly announces, and I am paraphrasing, "I don't care if it kills me, I'm going to sacrifice myself to bring this back". This gets me excited and I take a pull. Immediately there is a final time check, 28 seconds and we have one final 300 meter hill to climb. This looks very good for us.
I go back to check on Larry. He says he's feeling some cramping and I should go to the front in case an attack goes on the final climb. He says if there is one, he won't be able to respond and I need to go with it. Advice heard and heeded. I get back to the front.
Mike Vetterli pushes it up the final climb but only at tempo and nobody seems either willing or able to attack. This is beautiful for Larry and me. The last piece of eye candy is John Ornstil 100 meters ahead of us as we start the final descent. We're on him instantly. Now all I have to do is guard against anyone getting away on the this screaming descent. I make sure I stay second wheel all the way down and Larry is either right beside me or on my wheel all the way to the bottom. I am sooooo jacked up.
But what am I supposed to do as we hit the bottom with 2 kilometers to the finish? This is where finishing school starts for me and something I want to impart to not just our juniors, but all our masters too.
Almost the instant I ponder what to do now, Larry screams "go Rob go!" Perfect! My thinking shuts down and I just go. Then Larry screams "harder!" and I go harder, then "faster" and "faster" again. Suddenly we are at the 1k to go sign and the turns to the finish begin. Larry yells "get left!", I go left. Then Larry shouts "go right!" I go right, and so it goes. No one comes around me and we are about 250 meters from the finish. Forget Larry's screaming, my legs are shattering my ear drums. Larry barks one last command "everything!". I obey.
At the 200 meter to go sign, I am fried and Larry comes flying by me. I suddenly see he has about 4 bike lengths on everybody. Uh oh! it's a false flat from about 50 meters to the finish. Larry cramps up and gets squeezed by about 1/2 a bike length by two guys and finishes third.
I roll to the finish and see Larry a little way down the road. The race has been over for about a minute and as I get to Larry I can see his hamstring muscles convulsing in spasm and knots right through his cycling shorts and I knew he had given everything.
How does he do it? Struggle all day, fighting to stay in striking distance on the climbs, clawing his way back on on the flats. 5,000 feet of climbing with his clydesdale body and suffering like nobody else has in the front group and still have the will to put himself in excrutiating pain from monster cramps and come within a bike length of winning. I guess all you have to see is his 14 or 15 world championships and you have the answer.
I will tell you it makes it easy for me when I see such courage, to bury myself to get him to the line. I will do it anytime, anywhere. Thanks Larry!
As a post script, I hope our juniors see the value in Larry's commands at the end of the race and it's something we need to always do as masters too. I am not a mind reader and we don't have the luxury of early season training camps to practice our lead outs to make them mindless. If you are the leader and your teammates are leading you out, scream at them with direct orders, loud, short and clear. It mitigates mistakes and always gives us the best chance of success.