This person is daring. Roots and gravel roll under her wheels and her face is unruffled. Bring it, her expression seems to say.
She has no qualms about stoking a tandem through narrow spaces amid a crowd of other cyclists. Oh no, this woman thrills to it, with full confidence in her captain. What could go wrong?
The road cants and she rises, stabs determinedly on the pedals, and drives the bike up up up. She moves easily with the tandem as steep drop-offs swirl into view.
Miles roll swiftly by, she won’t stop pushing. Her tenacity shocks me. I hear her tell the captain to pick it up. Yeah, she’s a boss, too.
This person is totally unnerving. Where did she come from, and why did she show up today?
She takes me aside as we ride. “Listen, Fraidy Cat Girl. Put your fears away, and come out to play.”
Hesitant, I acquiesce, and join the fray. I tell Felkerino my only goal is to not fall down. I’m pretty sure by saying this out loud that now we will definitely fall down.
The ride is crazy and marvelous. The day is perfect, in the 40s with light winds. The sun accompanies us for a few miles and then the clouds take its place. No matter, it’s still pleasant. I’m wearing a long-sleeve base layer with a jersey and tights, and am perfectly comfortable.
The field is crowded, but everybody makes room for each other. People handle their bikes well, and Felkerino doesn’t try to be a hero on the switchbacks. We know our strengths, tricky descents aren’t one of them. We claw, stutter, and soar our way through the first lap, and I can’t believe I’m doing this.
One other tandem team is on the course – Evelyn and Jeff – riding a titanium Seven mountain tandem. They are far more skilled at the technical parts and, while we exchange tandem leads in the initial miles, they move ahead as the course becomes trickier. Not so far ahead that they aren’t a rabbit, though, and I use them to encourage my spirited mashing through the 50 miles in Pocahontas State Park.
I’m breathless, and my heart rate monitor reads 110 beats per minute. What? Obviously that’s wrong. THIS #@)$(*&% THING. It distracts me momentarily, but I adjust it so it works somewhat more correctly.
The race organizers have told us that two sections of the course are normally closed to cyclists, but have been opened to us for just this day. When those sections appear the path narrows, more serious chop begins, and the roots rise out of the ground. I see the No Bikes sign and imagine a skull and crossbones in its place. Riders beware.
Somehow we make it through these segments, one of which dips into a creek that is then immediately followed by some protruding roots that I clumsily scrape my pedal over. I’m momentarily thrown off balance, but we don’t go down. Phew, race goal still intact.
We finish the first lap and I’m terrified. We have to do all of that over again – tree roots, creeks, sharp turns, gravely grinders. I used to wonder why more people don’t ride tandem on these kinds of events. I’m quickly learning the answer.
One more lap. I’m not sure I have it in me. “YOU MUST KEEP GOING!” That other person shows up again to yell at me, and we’re off for lap two.
Riders seem to settle down in the second half. There’s also a 25-mile option so maybe it’s just thinned out, I can’t tell.
With fewer people around, I relax one iota and take in more of the course. Felkerino has more time to find a good line. The beauty of the day starts to soak in and I wish I had my camera. “NO YOU DON’T! Hands on the bars, full speed ahead” Ugh, it’s that girl again, I told you she was unnerving.
I do as she says, hands on the bars. Focused. I am focused!
Felkerino starts taking it easy, or so it seems. After a bit, I spin him up a few times. No time for breaks, we must move quickly. It’s a race, Felkerino, not a day ride!
The tricky sections appear again and they don’t seem so bad this time. I sort of know what to expect. Felkerino makes a couple of interesting moves, including an impromptu pause on what I think is a totally rideable part, and I go along. I mean, it’s a team endeavor, I’m on the back, and nobody gave me the reins to this thing. Besides, he’s doing great overall and keeping my no tumbling goal within reach.
Our red Co-Motion tandem is strutting its stuff. It’s actually made for gravel, even though we don’t like to get it dirty. I’m certain ours is the only bike out there with full fenders. I’m not kidding. I hope we podium the fender division.
Like I say, this bike feels great on gravel. We just switched to tubeless tires, and they are rising to the challenge of the event. As the ride goes on, I see the bike as another personality in our group, galloping steadily and with good pep.
We hit the No Bikes section for the second time. I worry about the giant root chaser after the creek crossing, but then a person ahead of us falls down on it so we stop to avoid plowing into her. We’ll figure that segment out next time.
We bump and grind through the remaining unevenness and wind back to smoother surface toward the finish. People are applauding our efforts. My goal is in sight. I’m hyper-focused. Focused! It’s not over til it’s over.
Our bike thumps over the electronic timing strips, and the final clock reads 3:47:03. Is that good? I don’t know. My body uncoils, I want to cry and laugh simultaneously.
We made it and my goal has been achieved – no falling down. I hug Felkerino, my tandem teammate who convinced me this was a good idea. We sit and hang out with our bike for a few minutes.
For some, Monster Cross might be a walk in the park, but for a fraidy cat like me it’s riding my edge with a racing heart for 50 straight miles.
Relief, happiness, and pride embrace me. I give myself a mental pat on the back. What a day! As my legs start to recover, I hear a voice inside me chirp, “So what’s the next race?”
Many thanks to the race organizers and volunteers who made the event possible, and to Shelly Liebler for the excellent photos! Also, thanks to everybody we rode with for making it a great day on the bike!