There’s an old photojournalist’s maxim printed on the 9W kit: “f/8 and be there.” It means, essentially, show up and be prepared. When we showed up for this year’s Northeast Rapha Gentleman’s Race, we tried to be prepared for anything. Last year’s race featured a monster lightning and hail storm, and, for our team, 7 flats- two with shredded sidewalls. Yet we managed to be the first team to roll over the finish line.
Last year’s success meant that this year we were under a little extra pressure- if only from ourselves. To me it seemed terrifically unlikely that we would have a repeat– not least because I’ve backed off the hard training this year. I had, however, brought a crew of very keen, and very fit riders. I told them I would be the anchor.
Ira Blumberg writes:
RGR combines all of the best parts of cycling: a quiet competiveness, an unknown adventure, suffering, camaraderie, and a collective sense of purpose. When we gathered as a team for the first time over a few beers, the veterans of last year’s team previewed what we might experience over the 130 miles that awaited us. Yes, part of this “race” would feel like any other – gear and tire selection were both important. But RGR is unique. No other race necessitates the mapping of food stops, designating individual responsibilities for the inevitable mechanical, and finding that fine line between a weekend ride with friends and a weekend race against competitors. Sitting at that table, I was confident about one aspect of this year’s RGR – I would be riding with some very strong teammates.
Six is my favorite number of riders to have in a group. That’s what the RGR format dictates. This time out, 26 teams of 6 left the start in Hopewell, New Jersey, at 3 minute intervals. Each team left a case of beer in the parking lot. The first team back would take all 26 cases home. The team with the fastest time would get a bounty of Rapha gear.
The day could not have been finer. We started in bibs and jerseys, a couple of us in arm warmers, and we were happy like that all day- no weather drama was to engulf us this time out.
Which is not to say there was no drama. Around mile 27 Stefan called out “mechanical!
Andrew and I had been reminiscing the night before about racing against each other in the Tour of the Catskills when we were Cat 5’s. Andrew had seemed unstoppable. I initiated a break on the big climb coming into the finish on day 2. He and one other came with me, and one guy bridged to us. Past the summit we were way ahead, screaming into the home stretch, when my cranks suddenly locked up. Huh? The culprit: A loose cassette. The other three vanished up the road, and so did my shot at the podium.
Back in the present tense, we were stopped on a dirt road in Pennsylvania because Stefan’s cassette had come loose. I looked over at Andrew and laughed ruefully. This time, though, he was a teammate. And in the RGR, unlike in a standard race format, all six riders on a team need to finish. So all six are always working together. When one stops, everyone stops.
We were not so prepared as to have a chain whip and a cassette tool in our jersey pockets. But with six pairs of hands at our disposal we managed to improvise a method to get the nut off the cassette, re-assemble the cogs, and re-tighten the nut.
Disaster averted, we were off again, in slightly more time than it takes to fix a flat.
The course was fantastic. There were long vistas of the Delaware Valley, winding, canopied dirt roads, and some killer climbs, both paved and hardpack. The steeper inclines demanded standing up on the pedals even with the easiest of gearing. My arms hurt for a couple of days after the race.
We had passed a good number of teams, but we’d lost count. At mile 49, Rapha’s Gerben Gerritsen, the race director, appeared as we crested a very steep rise. He told us: “Three teams in front of you”. Some teams we hadn’t seen, we realized, must have gone off-course.
At the top of the KOM, mile 64, Gerben appeared again: “One team in front of you.” Could it be that we would, again, be filling our cars with cases of beer at the end of the day?
Around mile 88 we missed a quick jog to the right. We backtracked, made the turn onto a dirt path along the Delaware River, and found ARC Racing, the last team in front of us, stopped there for a nature break.
RGR started to feel familiar then. At least that was when I turned to Harry and told him so. After five hours, we had passed the last of the 15 teams that had started ahead of us. We had been fortunate so far, with only three unplanned stops–for flats and the loose cassette– and we had been quick and efficient in getting through them.
A description of the route, emailed a few days before the race, had mentioned a “water crossing”. I thought that would mean the Delaware river–a bridge, of course. But then Andrew came across Gerben’s Instagram from a scouting ride:
We came upon that creek at mile 38. I’d have made it across riding but forgot to shift to my small ring. Had I not put my foot down, I still would have got my shoes wet.
There was a small cheering section on the far side. I realized they were RGR riders, sitting down drying their feet. I was a bit shocked that, in the context of a Rapha Race, wet feet for at least a portion of the day would not be taken as a given. Then I looked back and saw that 3 of my team had taken off their shoes to cross the creek. (I guess we neglected to cover this topic in our pre-race meeting.)
Waiting, I watched some riders we had just passed go past us. I looked back again and saw Stefan drying his feet- with a towel! (I never did determine where he found it.)
Courtesy of Strava, every team had been given a Garmin 800 with the route programmed into it. Ira had been reading ours, as well as a cue sheet, all day. I had been double checking with another cue sheet.
I had gleaned, before the race, that there were a couple of roads signed “detour”, but that we should ride through them- it wouldn’t be an issue. At mile 90 we did in fact see a “detour” sign, and rode right past it confidently. A half mile later, though, there was an impassable barrier, and a sign: “Bridge Out.”
First I checked my cue sheet. We were on the right road. Then I confirmed with Ira that the Garmin pointed across that bridge. Then I repeated those two steps, two or three times each, even as we hit a rocky trail off to the side of the bridge- on foot. It seemed a bit inconceivable, even for a Rapha event, that this was part of the plan. Someone uttered the phrase “epically annoying”.
There was no shoe-removing that time. And no foot-drying. Arc Racing was lined up behind us on the river bank, ready get their feet wet.
We later confirmed with Jed Kornbluh, who wrote the course this year, that they had pre-ridden nearly every stretch in the days leading up to the race. Just not that one. We let him know our feelings about it later, over some beer.
By mile 95 I began wondering if I had been a bit too eager to get over those early hills, as a familiar pain started to run through both quads. My water bottles were looking rather empty, and, having mapped out rest stops along the course, I knew it would be a while before we found refuge. Andrew asked me when we would next stop. I hesitated to answer. Not soon enough, it seemed.
I knew everyone was thirsty, and we were out in the sticks. Ira said he’d seen a man with a hose a while back…. I began daydreaming about a ride we’d done in Spain one very hot Sunday– out of water, stores closed, looking for a sprinkler, a spigot, anything….
And then, On Sandy Ridge Road, I spotted a pump-head with a hose attached. A man was riding a mower on the front lawn.
We stopped at that house without any hesitation. With kind (and likely desperate) voices, we asked if it was possible to refill our bottles.
It was the best thing I tasted all day.
The last real climb was a long, straight drag, and when we looked back down we saw only empty road. I think we all had a sense then that we might actually pull off a win. Someone even said so out loud, but they were quickly silenced by the superstitious amongst us. Still, with less than 10 miles to go, I began to believe we had a chance, not only of finishing first, but perhaps with the fastest time as well. After all, last year we were the fourth fastest, and that was with all those flats.
We found ourselves back in a paceline, not with the speed we’d had 7 hours earlier, but with equal sense of purpose.
Coming down into Hopewell I took a turn on the front. That felt great, until the grade flattened out, and then I struggled through town. I ate three last shot-blocks with two miles to go, and I needed them. I was spent. On the last rise before the finish, I fell off the back, having a vague feeling that something very bad was about to happen to my body.
As we approached the final right turn into the parking lot, I remembered back to last year’s finish; would anyone be there this year? Or would we, as Harry had put it then, celebrate in front of a “gathered crowd of none”?
This year was different; Graham had been live tracking our position with his new Garmin. And (we learned) Strava had been tracking us on theirs. As we turned into the driveway, our fan club of wives and girlfriends cheered our return.
Rapha’s Derrick Lewis was standing at the finish line with his camera-phone. And the clock. He timed us at 7 hours, 49 minutes.
We laid in the grass as the minutes counted away. Philadelphia’s Bicycle Therapy had started 18 minutes behind us, and they rolled in 18 minutes behind us- a tie for fastest time. There were a few minutes of suspense waiting for Ride Studio Café, who had started 27 minutes behind us, but it was 29 minutes before they crossed the line, giving us a narrow victory, and a choice, this time: The Beer? Or the swag?
The swag won.
Andrew Shapiro, Stefan singer, Harry Zernike, Tim Stenovec, Ira Blumberg, and Graham Macbeth
Reaction from NYC via smart phone:
Update- July 3, 2013
Here’s the official Rapha version.