"Doublé Ellé. You signed up for the Hillybilly yet?"
"I told you yesterday, Wilsonito, just like the day before: of course I have."
Two weeks until Hilly Billy, and it's almost like a Christmas panto in the back of the shop. Wilson's like the kid waiting for Christmas Eve who keeps asking their parents if Santa's coming again this year.
Okay, what did I sign myself up for?
Kevin and I are meeting Shauna at Cafe Leopold. I'm sipping coffee #3 of what's going to be about five or six on the day, enjoying a shady back courtyard at the kind of place where the waiters wear immaculate white aprons and speak with subtle Austrian accents. No, it's not the kind of place you'd expect a couple of dirtbags fresh from the Eskape—and I feel kinda bad about leaking Stan's from Ellie's flat back tire on their perfect patio—but hey, we're the all-powerful bike lobby, we're kinda takin' over. I'm Herr Radler an der Konditorei.
*sip* "You got a triple, right?"
"You're gonna want one."
"I kinda have to run oneby."
"Ohhhh. You might want to get more gears. And know what you're like when you bonk. Like, really really bonk. You're gonna spend a lot of time there."
Evidently, I'm headed to the Deep, Dark Place. Had to come through many dangers, toils, and snares to get there (hi there, I-270!), but here we are in Martinsburg, race numbers in hand. I'm trying to perfectly calibrate my Black Bear burrito (seriously, why haven't people outside of New Mexico discovered the joys of green chile?), drinking a rather excellent Last Beer, reminding myself that I really should not start drinking the two liters of Zeke's cold brew concentrate I've got in the car the night before a race. We're camping out at the start line; I get to spend the night in the shadow of signs warning me that this is going to be hard. Like, really hard. I can still bail out, you know.
And now I'm at the line. Starting.
A few miles in, we finally hit dirt and climb. I pass about everybody - hey, I can climb! - but know that this is going to suck at the end of the day when I have to come back down this. I try to keep near Alex and Dylan on the flats, and remind myself that it's okay if 30 people pass me on every descent, I'll make it up on every climb. Nobody wins a race on an early gravel descent, but it's all-too-very-possible to loose one. I'm going to play this one safe, and avoid earning the Steven Kruijswijk Memorial Trophy. Make it past That Infamous Stream Crossing, through the Muddy Ex-Road With Bike-Eating Puddles They Get Lots of Pictures On, get passed closely by a race moto, keep having to work my way through the crowds, come down a descent...and notice I'm short a bottle.
Welp. Looks like this just got more interesting. Dangit, that was one of my favorites, too!
First rest stop. Made it. Three more to go. I might just make it. Have to take inspiration from Marko here. It's gonna be hot, though. See how this goes.
I try to climb through traffic, passing on the right on a wet slate climb. I lose my front wheel as I turn, and down I go.
I'm fine, but...thunkatathunk, thunkatathunk, thunkatathunk. I've thrown my rear mech into my spokes. This. Is. Bad. Okay, upshift, just can't use my low gear...wait, can't use my climbing gear? Shit. One bottle, down my lowest gear, fiftyodd miles left to go...survive. Just survive. Don't worry about time, just make it through. Abandon if you have to, but get out alive. If singlespeeders can make it, so can you.
Some kind soul is handing out bottled water at the next pavement section. Another bottle! The second aid station has extra bottles; I stuff one of the last ones in my jersey. We're gonna make it.
Long pavement sections. Hey, this is like being back in the Beltsville Farms. I'm actually kinda enjoying the scenery here. Climb isn't too bad, even. Almost to the next rest stop, probably. Can't be that far.
Can't be that far now.
Not much further, right?
It's hot now. I'm exposed and alone, down to the very last of my water. I hate heat. I feel dizzy, nauseated, like my vision isn't quite what I need it to be. Shade. Just need shade. This last climb's killed me. Had my through axle come undone just before the start of this climb, that was exciting. Can't use my gears, can't spin, can't see the end, cooked myself...pull over now. Just about surviving, I remind myself. You have to do this. Gah. Such a coward. Shoulda been able to push through...no, did the smart thing. Don't know when it ends, need to make it, just survive.
Five minutes later, I'm at the third aid station. Turns out that the top of the climb was just a hundred yards beyond the tree I stopped under. Probably could have made it, but probably best I didn't try to. Many of the folks I'm with are gassed. They're bailing. I spend a while in the shade, recover my mind as well as my legs, cool off enough to eat something, and press on...straight into another climb. I hate you all.
Lots of open, sun-blasted forgotten pavement leading to the last aid station. Mostly single-speeders and other folks who ran into grief now. I swear I'll never walk a paved climb, and, somehow, I never do. Have to walk quite a few of the dirt ones, though. My kingdom for another gear. One last water stop. I cool off, regain my footing, but my brain still isn't ready to take on the last climbs. Twelve more miles of what I've been through...just not quite feeling it. Okay. Just take it slow. Know that the climbs never end.
And so I make it up the last long climb without having to walk. Somehow. I find a bike-eating puddle at the top of the hill; my companion somehow saw the sidepath that went behind a tree and around it. Good for her. I pass a house just before the descent; who the @#$% actually chooses to travel these so-called roads every day??? One last descent, one last fatbiker passing me as I ride the brakes, and then...no, I lied. I stopped riding the brakes just after I got passed. This looks a lot like the road we came up this morning, and I'm finishing this honestly.
I try to channel all my inner Wannabe Dutch Hardman for the final charge. What would Sep, Vosjie, and Stevie do here? Forza Ellie! Allez! Allez!
I have no idea if there's anyone still out on these last two paved miles before the park, but I'm gonna pass 'em. Let's find out if my gears at the other end are shot. Two people still left, as I charge, sitting in the drops, trying to ignore that squishy feeling in my knees whenever I stand up to blast over a roller.
There's the bridge. There's the park. There's the gravel drive, the final bit of grass—and there's Marko. Only a few feet more. This can't be this steep, why is this hard? Am I really that shot? No, it was hard this morning, remember? Charge.
A few minutes later, I'm standing in the creek behind the campsite, trying to clean off the dust, drinking that cup of warm cold brew I've been promising myself all day. Finally, things feel good. I made it.
We're back in the car, heading back to DC, listening to Giro recap podcasts. We pass a RAAM rider heading the other way; I pour Francis the last of that bottle of cold brew. It's gonna be an interesting day at work tomorrow; Marko and I are supposed to be on the floor, and I'm pretty sure we're both gonna be zombies. I can already feel my braking muscles stiffening up from how much I used them on every frikkin' downhill all day.
Wilson stirs briefly next to me.
"Doublé Ellé. You going to be riding the Hilly Billy again next year?"