When I wrote this, I did not exactly believe that Armstrong had never doped but I had the capacity to believe it, and sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn’t. This is one of those times when it didn’t seem to matter. Of course, it does, it colors everything, and I wonder sometimes what Jen thinks, now, about the climb.
Bob Roll was the first to the top of Oakville Grade, looking from the back like he was working at it just a little, something that was part swagger and part effort flickering here and there in the otherwise smooth pistoning of his legs, or in the almost invisible sway of his upper body. Then there was me, breathing in my usual way as if I were vomiting barbwire — which, perversely, I can do for a long time — and scooping into my upstrokes just enough to stay between Roll, who I knew I would never catch no matter how hard I went, and Dermot from Bermuda, who I knew might catch me if I went too hard.
I coasted in circles at the top while Roll watched me, and when I decided I could finally speak, I said, “Blig schna zee.” I did a few more circles, then I really could speak, so when I passed by Roll, I said, “That was not easy,” and he chortled.
At 1.5 miles with an average of 8 percent, the Oakville Grade that connects California’s Napa and Sonoma counties is tough. It’s also a little bit legendary. The Coors Classic went over it in the ‘80s — Roll escaped at its base once with Davis Phinney and by the time they finished a screaming descent they had a four-minute lead on a snoozing pack of Euros. The Tour of California’s gone there. The Terrible Two Double Century rolls across.
Dermot rose over the crest and rode over to where Bob and I were straddling our bikes, looking as if all he wanted was for someone to wake him up and stop the whole thing, then the rest came straggling and struggling to us. There was Lesley the marathoner who confessed to walking some, and Claudia who informed us the grade was so bad she almost pooped, and Paraic the one-time sprinter from Ireland who simply shook his head and said, “That hill was a matter of physics.”
Our Backroads guides had made sure to give us our money’s worth by trying to scare us with Oakville the night before the climb, the way they’re supposed to. We were on a dream ride set up for Bicycling readers, Roll and me and Chris Carmichael and 20 guests, and over wine and meals like braised wild boar we talked about and wondered about and asked about and dreamed about the climb until we each created for ourselves whatever it was we wanted to savor — fear for some of us, plain apprehension for others, eagerness, nostalgia, impressive vertical feet of ascent figures to add to the training log.
Wiry, quiet Scott rolled up over the peak and into the growing circle we were making up there at the top and announced that his Garmin showed the steepest pitch at 17 percent. And there was Alan, the biggest and tallest of any of us, whose knee was starting to pay for a lifetime of transmitting his wattage into motion. Somewhere in there John finished, looking backward as he took his final strokes.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Carmichael bailed. You beat Lance’s coach!”
Some of us had shuttled to the top in the van, and a few had opted out of the route entirely, but Chris Carmichael missed Oakville Grade because he had to spend the morning retrieving a car and doing more interviews about the unretirement of the most famous bike racer in the world. The news had just officially broke, and was all over the place. That morning, an ancient man hunched under the weight of a stack of plates he was carrying from the hotel’s outdoor patio into the kitchen saw me in cycling clothes, paused and, without straightening his back an inch or lifting his face from its groundward position, gasped out, “Lance will win?”
Up there on Oakville, John smiled but he didn’t really laugh. He looked down the hill, following the dwindling road until it vanished into a corner of blue sky.
His wife, Jen, had never ridden a drop bar before this trip. Today’s 24 miles would be the longest bike ride of her life. She’d been having a great time, dangling every day off the back of the slowest group, trying to figure out how to draft, talking about the grapey fragrance of Napa. But, in all honesty, there had been some time in the support van. And the padded gel seat cover had gone on.
I lifted my foot off the ground and pushed down on the pedal with the other, clipped in and pointed my bike downhill and coasted to the corner. No Jen. I kept going down.
I kept going down.
There she was, mired in the steepest section, pedaling sideways across the road, traversing it so that she was silhouetted against the valley, and even from a distance so far I could not distinguish anything but her shape I could see that she was shaky, ready to fall over.
I kept going down. She reached the right side of the road and swung back around uphill and left in a big, loose arc. When she saw me, she smiled. And almost fell over.
I thought about telling her not to traverse, that it prolonged the climb, and was dangerous in traffic and that, anyway, real riders didn’t do it. She swung up and back to the right, becoming almost motionless at the apex of her desperate turn before finding her momentum again by more or less falling into the next pedal stroke. Ingrid from CTS was behind her, hanging there, and she shouted, “You got it,” and I kept my mouth shut. I descended past them and turned and clicked into my easiest gear and rose out of the saddle and instead of stroking the pedals I let my body weight drop down into them each time, pausing for a long beat at the bottom before doing another, in this way matching my uphill progress to Jen’s.
Ingrid rode around her and ahead and said, “We’re there now, baby,” and matched her pace to Jen’s. We wallowed up the hill.
Why do we quit? Why do we not quit? Why does one hill matter to us? Why does an eighth Tour de France matter when you’ve won seven? Why does a mother of two children discover that her sense of who she is has suddenly and inexplicably become tied up in whether or not she gets to the top of Oakville Grade without walking a single step?
I knew that Jen was going to make it. I didn’t know that when she got there the entire group would break into unplanned applause, and shouts and cheers. None of us knew that John was going to rush over to her and give her a hug that almost pulled her off her bike and say, “I’m so proud of you,” and mangle it a little because his voice would be wavery. I had no way of knowing that my throat would catch at something when that happened, nor that, as I rode off the front later with Bob Roll he would say the scene was the most genuine thing he’d seen in cycling in years (then, in his way, claim it gave him “the horn”).
But I knew that Jen was going to climb Oakville Grade, even as I watched her wobble more across the hill than up it, and I knew also, at that moment, that when someone needs a victory it is pointless for us to attempt to determine its worth, or its source. I need mine, the ones I can find, and Jen needed hers, the one she found, and Lance needs his, whatever he finds out there in the coming season, and the only thing any of us have in common in all of that is the most human part of it, the longing.
Originally published in the Sept 12, 2008 Sitting In