Winter Rerun: 2004 Wasco Wild West 75
Even though he's from Texas, I have to wonder how many bike races Lance Armstrong has entered where a Stetson hat was offered up as a bonus prize to the overall winner, and that were started by a genuine six-gun. I'm sure that he's never been in a race that used such a liberal definition of "bicycle" as Clay Smith's Wasco Wild West 75. But it was for that event that I and twelve other recumbent bicycle enthusiasts lined up last Saturday, May 1, without Lance, to test our mettle against each other in the Eastern Oregon heat.
There were several bikes with lexan windshields and cloth streamlining, there was Joe Kochanowski's home-built street-luge-with-a-drivetrain contraption, and there were even a couple bikes that were, in fact, trikes, including my friend John Williams' Quest Streamliner . For my part, I was most interested in the bikes that would form my most direct competition; sadly, they were comparatively conventional. Five of us were racing on a style of bike called a highracer, characterized by two full sized wheels and a laid-back position a couple feet in the air. Three competitors who had come in from out of state, lured by the prospect of prize money, were on Bacchetta Aeros , a 22 lb., $3700 titanium wonderbike. My buddy John Climaldi was on his Kahuna GT (Garage Tech), which is his own (slightly heavier) version of the Bacchetta. I was racing my orange custom kitted Sabre, from the defunct manufacturer Vision. I expected the five of us to be quite competitive with each other, as we were obviously all strong riders, were all in the same race class, and had bikes that both performed similarly and could take advantage of each other's slipstreams.
The race was to consist of four laps of an 18.5 mile open road course, among the foothills above the Columbia River, near The Dalles, Oregon. For
the first half lap, the race played out exactly as I had envisioned it would, with the five riders on highracers forming a pack and leaping out into the lead. Joe was with us for much of that time, but soon fell off the back, the victim of Joe-mentum (a virtual tie for 5th!) The first half of the course was a long series of gentle rolling hills as the road follows a creek valley upstream, and we were taking it easy in that stretch, knowing it was going to be a long race.
But then, of course, the gentle rollers ended and the hills began. At the bottom of the big, main hill, our little pack immediately stretched out, led by John Schlitter (one of the founders and owners of Bacchetta). I was right there alongside him, and the rest of the pack fell away behind us. Schlitter only had a double chainring, and he was just hammering up the hill. I was in my middle ring, and downshifting on my rear cog at intervals. I ran out of cogs in the back, with lots of hill and even more race left. I knew I didn't want to blow up this early in the game, so I dropped into my little ring up front, the "granny". Schlitter smelled blood, and roared out ahead.
I got to the top of the hill not far behind him. I reasoned that he might lose his wind after being so aggressive so early in the race, and if I could just catch up to him, then he'd be too tired to fight me off and I could sit in his slipstream and just let him tow me along. I was close enough to lob a pebble at him by the top of the second rise, where there was a water station. Unfortunately, while the Sabre has a very efficient drive train (it has a direct path from the cranks to the rear wheel, while the Aero has a drive-side idler), the Aero is much more aerodynamic, and Schlitter opened up a chunk of distance on me in the ensuing descent.
I managed to keep him in sight for the next half lap, always about half a mile ahead. I'd crest a rise, and see him climbing up the other side. I figured if I was going to catch him, I would do it on the hill, where he might wear out, and I had to be in a pretty good position if I wanted to do that. I also checked my six periodically, but just saw open road, so I figured I was holding onto second place pretty well.
Meanwhile, it was getting hot. Eastern Oregon is basically a desert, and though it's early in the season, it's been a very hot spring. And we were going at it in the heat of the day, thanks to a 12:30 start time (the only aspect of the race, by the way, that wasn't perfectly planned and executed; Clay really did a tremendous job of pulling the event off.) I later learned that the mercury had gotten up to the high eighties.
I reached the bottom of the hill, and started pulling myself up it, when heard a clank, like a pebble hitting a hollow pipe. And all of a sudden, it got a lot harder to pedal. I had, of course, broken a spoke, which caused the wheel to come out of true, which meant that it was rubbing on my brakes with every revolution. Fortunately, I had had the foresight to bring a spare set of wheels, but unfortunately, they were at the start line, nine miles away. I performed damage control by reaching under my seat and flipping the brake's quick release, which gave the wheel another centimeter or so of clearance, and greatly reduced the rubbing, and figured that I'd just try and hold on for another half lap until I could swap out my wheel.
But clearly, the wind was out of my sails. Not only had the broken spoke on the hill impeded me when my muscles were already at maximum output, but I took the descent back to the start pretty gingerly on a no-longer-whole rear wheel. I had been working so hard up to that point that I was pretty pooped. So it was no surprise when Jim Verheul of California overtook me right at the end of the second lap. I swapped wheels, and replaced my hydration pack with a new, full one in record time and tore off after Jim.
I did manage to catch up to him, not more than three miles into the third lap, and felt pretty good about myself for managing to do so. I sat on his wheel for a little while to catch my breath. Jim was very friendly, and not averse to working together to see if we could make up some time on John Schlitter. I was game, too, and felt that we were probably similarly strong riders, given that we had each caught the other. Alas, it turned out that my tank was empty, and when it was my turn to pull, I was precious little help to him. He quite rightfully (and distressingly easily) left me in the dust about a mile before we got to the hill again.
Well, he was still in sight when I got there, but only as a speck, really. I gave it a go, but no sooner had I started the hill than the muscles in my legs started feeling like surgical hose that was being stretched and plucked and contracted simultaneously. Ah, these must be cramps.
I evened out my cadence as well as I could, and fought my way through the hills. At the water stop, I grabbed a bottle, took a swig, and doused myself with rest of it. For the next half lap or so, the wonderful evaporating water made me feel almost human again.
By this point, though, I had run up the white flag. No mas. No more thoughts of catching anyone. I would be damned if I was going to DNF, but there was no more thought in my head of doing anything other than a) finishing b) in front of John Climaldi, in that order. I passed Clay at the line and yelled out, "Any chance of making it the Wasco Wild West 57?"
The last lap was agony. My legs felt like they were threatening to fold themselves into all sorts of awkward angles, my feet were on fire (I am never, ever, EVER going to race in SPD sandals again), and there simply wasn't any gas left in the tank. At the bottom of the hill, just before I started my last ascent, the course crew there offered me a bottle of water, which I took. It had been in a cooler! The first cold course water of the day, and it was heaven (eighty degree water in eighty degree weather is not as good). By design, more of it ended up on me than in me, but that's probably the main thing that got me home.
I finished the race in 4 hours, 5 minutes, about 40 minutes behind John Schlitter, happy with third place, but happier still just to have finished under my own power. I can't wait until next year.
Pictures available at the WWW75 official Web site, here.