It is sometime around noon, and the second coffee is on the table, too hot to drink.
Two sips, a check of the watch. The morning’s Aspen group ride is in arrears. Two more sips. Another check of the watch. It’s now half past noon, somehow, and the USA Pro Challenge peloton is coming toward us at Independence Pass, a 3,687m high mountain road that slips through Colorado’s Sawatch Range.
They better get here sharpish if we’re going to make it to the top before the race gets there. Finally, we set off, and where there was once hours to meander there is now just enough time to make it to the top if we go a bloc.
Bike racing is an endless calculation. For racers it’s an intolerable and exhausting decision of when to go, when to wait. When to eat and when to drink. When.
For those covering the race, it’s always a matter of racing the race. Is there time to stop and eat, stop and watch, stop just to stop? At the big races like the Tour, the saying among the press was always ‘no quarter’, meaning give no one else an inch, not in traffic, not in the café. Those 15 seconds could cost hours later.
A few years ago when working at the Giro I lost this race against the peloton. The polizia weren’t buying my stampa (press) excuse. I had to walk to the top of the Zoncolan in road shoes along the mountain’s ridge just to make it to the press conference. Today, I have a little less than two hours to best the 20-mile grind. Tick, tick.
The Independence Pass began as a link between mining camps, like many of these high-mountain roads in Colorado. It’s been improved and re-routed over the years and no longer takes the 20 hours it used to with horses and wagons, with five changes of horses. No, today it takes a new black bike and a very long hour and half in a corkscrew wind that turns sweat to ice at the top. The roadside revelers don’t seem to notice the high-alpine breeze at all in their costumes made of skin and beer cans.
The helicopter comes into sound and sight down the switchbacks and we can see them now, tiny ants on the shoulder of the mountain. Soon, the entire athletic comedy passes by. Some riders in terrible pain, faces contorted into a bizarre grimace-smile. Others play piano in the back, some crack smiles and offer a few high fives. One rider doesn’t seem to mind that a large man in a yeti costume is giving him chase.
He waves as he rides by. Still more find themselves in the purgatory of the middle third of the peloton: dropped from the front but unwilling to be swallowed up by the back. This is a hard race for smaller teams — though there is no easy race for any rider anywhere — for so many reasons. The altitude wrings air into nothing above 3,500 metres, and the World Tour teams’ B-list riders can still turn the screws with their mouths closed. The hardest racing today seems to be at the very back.
Another look at the watch. Middle of the afternoon. The calculations begin again. How long to town? How long back to the house, how long in the cold wind? What time is dinner?
I stop to watch the finish on a television and shove off. There’s only so much time left, and the maths is never-ending.