"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 Johnson.
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 bodies.
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, it's over."