This week I was invited to join a cycling group who was going to tackle the Steptoe Butte climb first thing on Monday morning. The plan was to meet in Oakesdale, ride up Steptoe, ride back to Oakesdale. Meet at 6 am, be back at the cars around 7.30 am, drive home to Spokane and get to work. Total mileage about 24 miles with the impressive climb up Steptoe Butte. I hadn't ridden Steptoe this year, unlike the last four or five years and our cycling season is holding out a bit longer than usual, so I was intrigued. I only knew a couple of the people going, but I assumed the rest of the group would be similar to those I knew and I guessed that I might be slow up Steptoe, but that I could generally hang with the group and not be a drag. With all of this in mind, I agreed to go.
It turns out that my assumptions were wrong.
No offense to the old guys I know and ride with, but it turns out that much of the rest of the group was younger and fitter. Of course, you can't always judge a book by the cover, but when I got there I thought the same thing I always do when going out to ride with some new folks, "Jump in, hang on, don't be too much of an idiot." I quickly violated this rule as we rolled away from the cars by realizing I had stuff in my jersey pockets I didn't want to haul up the climb. I doubled back, threw the unwanted stuff in the car and dashed off to catch up.
As I rolled up to the back of the group (nothing like a sprint workout 30 seconds after starting a ride), I realized that I didn't have my rear light turned on, which seemed important since the sun wasn't up yet and I was in the back of the group. Unfortunately, where it is situated and partially blocked by the seat bag, I can't start it while riding. So again, I stopped, fiddled with the light much longer than you would think would be needed and then was forced to sprint back up to the group, although by now they were moving faster and it took longer and was much harder.
As a result of this, I hadn't been there for any ride-start niceties. I didn't have a sense of the group dynamic or plan. What I did know was that the wind was strong as we rolled out of Oakesdale, so I jumped in line about third wheel and tried to stay out of the wind. My own rule on "pulling" is that the guy in front is the best judge of when he is tired, so I usually sit on until they pull over. After the first guy pulled off and the second guy appeared to be putting himself in the gutter, however, I thought I would take a stint at the front. When I looked back, though, our three person train had left behind the other five riders. In the next mile or so, it then went from me hanging on one wheel to getting dropped, then riding another person's wheel back up to re-make our three man group. The wind was howling and losing a wheel by ten meters meant that your personal workload skyrocketed, so hanging on was a critical skill. Thankfully, even when I am not fit, I have been riding long enough to be wily about wind protection and dogged about hanging on to it.
When we turned the corner off of the highway heading towards the park at the bottom of the hill, we slowed to re-group. I knew I would be slow up the hill, so I didn't want to wait behind everyone and when a couple of guys started pedaling again, I did too. It turns out that our group had not re-grouped and in fact we left one rider behind enough to miss the turn off, which we didn't know until we got a call from him. Oops.
The climb was the climb, except that the wind wasn't just blowing as it usually does around there. Instead the wind was howling, so that as we corkscrewed up the hill, we went from killer headwind to joyous tailwind and back again repeatedly. We did all make it to the top, including the tandem couple.
On the topic of tandems, I originally thought that purposely taking a tandem to climb Steptoe Butte involves a dedication to suffering that I didn't personally understand, but I was impressed. Although in retrospect, maybe taking a tandem was very smart because my own personal achievement was measured in part by how far behind I was. In other words, my finish could be described as "you were way behind me and these other guys" or "I was there second to last among the bikes" (only the guy who missed the turn was behind me), whereas the tandem achievement, even if they came up 20 minutes later (which they didn't) would be "wow, they made that climb on a tandem!" or as I said at the time, "hey, you were first in the tandem division!"
Anyway, with the climb behind us, I figured we would roll down the hill, re-group at the base, and roll into town enjoying the tailwind and slight downhill back to Oakesdale.
As we hit the highway, D. D., attorney and Leadville extremist, took the lead and ramped up to 24-25 mph. My legs were stiff and cold from the time and cold wind on top of Steptoe Butte followed by the descent, so it didn't feel good even with the tailwind. I called past one rider to DD and said, "Are you mad at somebody? Why are your hurting us?" DD pulled over and said he was just riding and enjoying the tailwind. As I was listening to DD, the rider who had been between us and was now the lead did just the opposite of my expectation. He ramped up to 27-28 mph. I mistakenly thought that my comment to DD would be taken for a plea to slow down a tad. Instead, the ride back to Oakesdale was turning into an all-out race.
The long and short of it is that I got dropped quickly, watched a few riders go past, stayed ahead of a couple of others and was completely spent by the time we rolled back to Oakesdale. Back at the cars, everyone seemed perfectly pleased by their experience and I had gathered along the way that this group had done rides together on prior Monday mornings that twice involved climbing Mt. Spokane. I had been game for the invitation and might even show up again, but at least next time I know what to expect from this group - Monday Morning Fight Club.
Oh crap. I just violated the first rule.