Long Odds, Cruel Ends

There’s a woe-is-me Homer Simpson quote I’ve never forgotten: “Sick on a weekend … What are the odds—one in 10,000?”

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It’s easy to see random misfortune as darkly cosmic. Our cars fail to start “at the worst possible moment.” What we usually mean by “worst possible moment” is simply “now.” And misfortune can’t help but hit some particular now.

My particular now fell on Sunday at the Panama Enduro—a small, well-run gravel race south of Bennet put on by the good folks at Angry Cow Adventures. The Panama Enduro draws a handful of fast guys from a handful of counties. It was the first event of my short racing life where you could look around and say, “Maybe Eric’s got an outside shot today.” And things were lining up well.

The roads were sloppy and slow, which was fine by me. (I’m not any stronger on soft roads. But they don’t dishearten me.) And it was chilly, which was great for me. My superpower is the ability to overheat faster than a Phoenix husky. And cool weather helps me contain this talent.

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Marcus with his last words of advice before the start.

I spent the first third of this 35-mile race in the catbird seat, sitting in the lead group of six strong riders, three of whom were my teammates. The pace was heavy, and Addison eventually slipped off the back, dropping us to five.

After maybe a dozen miles, we turned south, and so did my race. The director had warned us to “tighten our dentures,” because we’d find plenty of fresh white rock. And here it was, loose and thick. We hit it and I flatted within a hundred yards.

Goodbye, race leaders. I loved you so…

***

I tried not to lose my temper. I’d gone a good long time with no flats. I checked Strava the next day and calculated that it had been 2,769 miles since my last one—or 40 miles longer than the distance between Miami and LA. So yeah, I was overdue.

But did it have to come the one time I was in the lead group? My inner Homer Simpson piped up. “What are the odds?”

Well, out of those 2,769 miles, the last 12, or 0.4 percent, were my only in a gravel race’s lead group. So my odds of a flat finding that particular now were roughly one in 250. But the rarity of the event did nothing to change the flatness of my tire.

***

I tossed my bottles in the ditch, laid down my bike and set to work. I knew the several minutes I was about to lose would be almost impossible to make up in the two dozen miles of racing that remained. But I found myself back on the road in seconds, not minutes. Let me tell you why.

Addison Killeen. That’s why.

He rolled up behind me. “What’s up?”

“Effing flat.”

He dismounted, shoved his bike in my hands, clamped my cue sheet onto his aero bars, and gave me my water bottles. “Go,” he said.

***

Just like that, Addison sacrificed his race for mine. He figured I had a better chance of bridging back to the leaders than he did, and he wanted me to have that chance. He didn’t hesitate.

He didn’t slap his forehead, pull a Homer and say, “What are the odds?”

He said, “Go.”

***

Here’s the invisible reality. Before he handed over his bike, Addison’s chance of winning was probably about identical to mine. Sure, Addison had been a hair weaker than the lead pack at the start. But several stretches of hidden, Darwinian mud were literally lying low, waiting to carve up the field. And the racers to come out of that sludge in position to win would be determined not just by strength, but in part, by chance.

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Addison Killeen, sportsman of the year.

The lead group was still in sight as I set out to bridge—under half a mile out. I saw one of the Lincoln Industries riders suffer his own mechanical, which he resolved quickly. (He’d broken a spoke, stopped to yank it out and kept going.) He was maybe 100 yards in front of me, and I thought he might hold up so we could share the work of bridging back together. No such luck. I’d have to pull myself back on my own.

I watched the leaders turn east onto O Road and told myself there was a long way to go. It would be foolish to claw it all back at once. But I was hepped up, and claw it back I did, going into the red to merge with the leaders right with Mr. broken spoke, who’d kept his calm.

Then came Darwin with his big old jar of Jif.

O (Shit?) Road’s surface shined with that clean-looking fresh-off-the-truck white rock. Honest to goodness, it looked passable. But underneath that white crust may as well have been wedding cake. There was no bottom. Tires sank and yanked up rocky paste. Death pointed at Vacek’s derailleur and said, “It’s time.” Last year’s winner was this year’s first victim.

Vacek had a chain tool and quick links. So he tried to resuscitate his bike as a single speed. But he picked a gear too high to climb in mud, and had to try again. A couple rounds of this, and his chain was too short to do anything with. He was a dead racer walking.

As for me, I was late to recognize it was time to hike. In the red, my bike and legs felt so heavy. All shoes became clown shoes. The muck tore loose my toe covers. Before the start, Wise Tony had given me a cut section of a paint stirrer for just this occasion, and I scraped the bike down and hiked. I tried to save my shoulder and roll the bike, necessitating only more rounds of scraping.

Tony hung back with Vacek, and I failed to match the pace of the pair of hiking Lincoln Industries riders, who slipped over the hill and out of sight. There, they did what crafty racers do. They saw their chance and slammed it.

I’d need to do the same, and then some to catch them.

Isolated, I had plenty of time to think. I chased and thought about Vacek’s definition of toughness: “your capacity to untangle your effort from your circumstance.” At the moment, my circumstances were this: I was alone … chasing two fast men working together … on a bike not my own … with a saddle set too high … shifters that didn’t work like mine … and a bottom bracket that sounded tubercular … and my clown shoes were too bunged up to clip in.

The untangling of effort from this circumstance took effort itself. I didn’t sit up, but I felt like it. Addison had given me this chance to chase. The least I could do with it was chase for real. I made my best Sydney face and I tried.

And I failed smiling. Third place is hands down my most successful failure yet.

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All this bottle cost me was a 2 mile hike in the mud and a rear derailleur.

As for Addison … he changed my flat and then let it rip on my Niner. On a bike too short, with shifters that didn’t work like his, he made it through the worst of O Shit Road. Then death pointed at my derailleur, too.

And my bike’s second mechanical killed Addison’s race a second time.

What are the odds?


6 thoughts on “Long Odds, Cruel Ends

  1. Beautiful story and love the teamwork. I really must ride my biker harder since I never seem to break it.

    Nice job with the statistical failure analysis. Wesleyan liberal arts education works on both sides of the spectrum!

    Like

    1. Thanks, Shauna. Paint stirrers work great because they’re skinny enough to get to those hard-to-reach places. And you can cut them to length so they’re not sticking out of your jersey pocket. (Our team has two dentists, so I can tell you: “Two out of two dentists agree…”)

      Like

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