A sea of people anxiously await the start of the 34th annual Tour of Tucson. Benjamin and I sat perched on our tandem in the second row - a position secured from winning the mixed tandem category the year before. We're still figuring things out - like if you have VIP access in the platinum corral, you don't need to get there until about 6:45 (we arrived shivering at 6am); that only Benjamin needs to wear a camelbak and I can take four bottles and that I like my scratch on the lighter side - not the syrupy consistency it turned into after four hours on the bike; and that there's always, always, always a break that forms in the first few miles of the race.
A firetruck ladder hoists this year's dedication recipient over the crowd - Denise Mueller, the fastest woman cyclist. And the countdown begins: 10, 9, 8,....3, 2, 1!!!! We are immediately surrounded by dozens of eager cyclists - some racers, but mostly recreational riders all of whom are determined to get to the first river crossing at the front of the pack in nine miles. It's super sketchy.
I'm so grateful Benjamin pilots. His years and years and years of experience in the field, navigating and negotiating the moving amoeba of the peloton, eases my mind as we zip along at speeds over 30mph. I know popping my head out to look around him will throw our balance off and I want him to be focused 100% on the road ahead so I stay tucked in, responding only to his request for more power. The only time I really get a good look is when there's a bend in the road ahead. Otherwise I've got my head down looking at my Garmin or glancing to the side as we barrel down the road.
The thing about riding a tandem in a sea of people is that they often don't expect the caboose. They're used to the length of one bike - not two. And in the beginning I was sure someone was going to crash into us. I had one guy yell, at me, "watch where you're going!" I risked throwing Ben off by responding, "I would if I could." It wasn't until an hour or so into the ride that I felt like those around us understood just how big we were and that instead of chopping our wheel or freaking out, the best spot to be in a windy, 106 mile race is in the sweet pocket of the tandem draft.
Being on the back of the tandem is nothing short of terrifying. I close my eyes whenever I sense danger and put 100% faith in Ben's ability to navigate us through any pickles. Last night we talked about the deep sense of trust required on the tandem. It actually goes beyond trust. It's the realization that I'm okay if I die today. I'd have no regrets. We don't know when our time will be up but that's not going to stop me from doing what I love. But for Ben - it's something different. There's no way he would ever ride on the back of the tandem. For him, it's a control thing. He doesn't like when other people drive him or are responsible for his safety or movement through space and time. He has to be in control. But I wonder - are we ever really in control?
After an hour or so of riding, we find ourselves racing to a train crossing with the hopes of catching the break who has been waylaid. The break is within reach - but our mixed tandem competition, Paul and Noreen, are in our group of riders and bridging across to the break could be suicidal. So we sit and wait and find the group facing a massive 20mph block headwind, which seems to shift against us with every turn we take.
We had one mistake going into the second crossing. I watched as Paul and Noreen drilled it to the front of the group, positioning themselves into second wheel. We didn't know we had reached the crossing area so quickly but the sandy and narrow turns leading into it were a sure sign. We lost position- drifting back to about 50th or so and then the tires sunk deep into the sand, tipping us off the bike and leaving us running. The pack was gone - and I struggled to clip in. A rock was lodged in my cleat and took some focus on it to get it out.
"Keep calm, there's no need to panic," Ben said. The rock came loose and I clipped in and we started the chase with about eight riders clinging to our wheel. Tempo on the descents, LT/VO2 on the climbs. Slowly, surely, we rejoined the group after 40 minutes of chasing. We never went into the red, never over-extended ourselves. Again, I'm so thankful for Ben's experience and knowing what it takes to be a contender.
The rest of the race was a slog. The attacks stopped and the wind increased in the last 40 miles. I remember thinking, people are getting tired... and then a crash took out five riders. We were still recovering on the back of the group and avoided the carnage. Paul and Noreen saw the opportunity to break away - shattering the field in the wind as echelons formed. We responded by coming around the group and powering to the break, only to have the entire group come back together. So we sat and waited.
And sat and waited.
And waited, and then sat some more.
The problem with going easy is that you start to notice how everything aches. Your hands, your feet, your butt, everything. But if you want to win a race, you have to be patient. You have to sit and wait.
We rounded the last few corners of the course, pulling into the finishing straight, right on Paul and Noreen's wheel. We still had 500m to go - and Ben initiated our sprint. We dumped 1800 watts, putting a gap between us and the single bikes behind, as well as Paul and Noreen. We sailed through the series of timing strips, and this time I didn't put my hands up in celebration. This time we graciously accepted the win and thanked Paul and Noreen for the fun.