Morning ekes toward noon. The peloton, or main group of racers,
continually morphs in amoeba-like fashion. Single riders or small
packs attempt breakaways and are reabsorbed. Then, as the middle
miles are reached, the main pack begins splintering. Riders who
have given too much too soon begin to pop off, an innocuous cycling
term for the sad moment when body and mind are fried and the pop-ee
is jettisoned by the pack.
"Fooooooood," Willett croons to his boys, who are all still hanging
tough. "Don't forget to be eating."
As the riders begin the climb to 11,671-foot Guanella Pass (rated
HC, or off-the-scale on professional climbing's ascent-o-meter),
the popping off begins in Orville Redenbacher earnest. The road
turns to dirt, rising in a series of steep, seemingly endless
switchbacks that debilitate both physically and mentally. The team
support vehicles kick up clouds of dust. The riders, mouths agape,
hump through the gritty veil like wraiths in some foggy brown
purgatory. Some riders have unzipped their jerseys. Their bare
chests heave. They look straight ahead and their eyes register
nothing in a place of spittle, dust, and lace-thin air.
They climb at an astonishing clip. And I realize that riding a bike
makes me as much like Creed as throwing a baseball makes me Randy
A talented climber, Creed begins to move. Calves bunching, he
climbs past struggling teammate Russell Stevenson, who had
workhorsed Creed to this very move. Willett tries to urge Stevenson
on, hoping he will help lead Creed down the coming descent, but
Stevenson has nothing left. In cycling's Machiavellian world, the
serfs are sacrificed, the knights galloping right over their
The riders whip down the backside of Guanella. Ahead lie three more
mountain climbs. I know what Creed is thinking, because he'd told
me the night before.
"You think about anything but the race. I mean any weird crap that
comes into your mind," he'd said. "Tunnel vision. If you think
about how much you're hurting and how much of the race is left,