4 days down. 2 left to go. We were going to make it. I got through the horrible back pain on Tuesday. Jeff got through riding with a broken frame on Wednesday and had acquired another bike to press on through this Brasil Epic. We were in third place, but only by 3 minutes. We had no hope of 1st or 2nd after all the time we lost. We wanted to hang on to the last podium spot, but after all that had happened so far, we just wanted to be able to finish. I was exhausted, mentally, physically, emotionally but I was there at the start line for the 5th time last week along with many others in the same state. Determined and ready to conquer the race that was desperately trying to conquer me first.
Stage 5 was supposed to be “easier.” It was long – over 130km, but on dirt roads, and the climbing came almost all at once. Jeff and I got a good start to the day and were riding in the lead group without any major issues. Finally, I wasn’t getting dropped. I felt hope. Maybe we could finally win a stage.
Only about 2kM in, I hear Jeff say, “Hey, stop.” I stopped pedaling and looked over my shoulder and saw him bent over his loaner bike. I heard some choice words from him as I saw the entire race ride away from us on the road. I made my way over to him and he said, “My pedal is broken.” The pedal body had come off the spindle. I didn’t say anything for what seemed like a long time. I simply stared at the pedal in shock. Two days of really bad luck in a row, two days in a row of thinking we wouldn’t be able to finish the race, and now day three. Broken pedal. We didn’t carry a pedal in our pocket, but we did have spare pedals in our luggage. Would it be possible to ride with a broken pedal. “What do we do?” The race crew had already left Rio de Contas (the stage finish was in the town of Mucuge) so turning around and rolling back to town wasn’t an option. The only guys around us were the video crew and they didn’t have a radio. “Do we have to quit?” It certainly appeared that way. Disbelief. We had overcome so many obstacles and to quit now? We traveled all the way to Brasil to do this race, we couldn’t quit from dumb luck! I couldn’t handle it, and I lost it emotionally, and of course the camera crew was there with a camera in my face while I mentally detonated for one (of many) of the hardest moments in the race.
Jeff decided that he would try to ride, and see how things were going at the aide station. We had to make it there to drop out anyway. He slid the pedal back on the spindle. The pedal body was attached to his foot. After a few minutes he said, “I don’t think we have to quit. I can ride it like this as long as there isn’t a lot of singletrack.” It was good fortune that this course was almost all dirt road. Techy dirt road, but doable. He had to keep his leg adducted to hold the pedal on while he pedaled. He barely said a word.
“Let’s see what we can do.” Ten minutes had gone by. The pack was long gone. Bound (well, with Jeff’s foot partially unbound from the bike) and determined, we started chasing people down. We’d catch small groups and pass them. My legs were sore from the constant power output on the road. At one point I said, “Can you slow up for a minute, I’m hurting.” Jeff said, “You’re hurting?! I’m riding a bike that’s too small with a broken pedal.” I shut my mouth and kept pushing.
We were making headway. The stage was long, and there was a big climb at the end. Maybe… just maybe…. At the base of the climb, the Sonya Looney Attack kicked in. That method would be the sneak attack on big climbs at the end of long mountain bike races. Don’t ask me why, my body just kicks into gear in these situations, and geared up we were. For the first time in days, my legs felt light. They were not the rotten meat sticks I had been nursing all week, and for one of the few times, I made Jeff suffer to keep up. I felt like I had wings. We caught 3rd place – Karen Lundgren and Paul Romero who were only 3 minutes behind us in the GC that morning. They are world class endurance and adventure racers, and Paul’s son was recently the youngest person to climb Mt. Everest. I knew they were stubborn and tougher than me, but I kept pushing. All the emotions that had been surging through me all week – extreme fatigue in body and mind, disappointment, frustration, elation, anger, doubt, surprise, disbelief, determination, passion, the will to move forward all surfaced and I was supercharged. I shifted down 2 gears and pedaled harder. It was extremely hot and humid on that climb, and the skies at the top were looking very dark and menacing.
The road kicked up even more and I saw 2nd place – Renata and Damien in front of us. Renata was struggling, Damien was pushing her. I asked Jeff how he was doing with his pedal. “Fine, I just have to be careful.” We pedaled by them on the steepest part of the climb. I encouraged them to keep up.
Minutes later, the dark skies unleashed their fury resulting in torrential rain. I could not see Jeff’s tire in front of me. If you were driving, you would have to pull over. The visibility was terrible. Stinging, angry rain pelted me in the face and clawed at my raw skin. The road became a river. I was tired from my huge effort up the climb, but I didn’t want to get caught. I couldn’t see out of my glasses and my eyes were squinted to tiny slits. Sand and dirt was in my eyes, my teeth were gritty from sand in my mouth, muddy water was draining from my helmet. I knew the finish was about 10k of paved road. I was looking for the paved road. I tried to look back but couldn’t see a thing. I had no idea who was behind us, or how close they were. The rain let up a little bit and we finally found our way to the paved road. We were both blown, and we wanted to see that finish line. Why is it the last 5-10 miles of a race always seem so far?
We crossed the line in Mucuge, 2nd place. 12 minutes out of 1st place. Jeff had made it through the second longest stage of the race with a broken pedal, and after losing ten minutes at the start and precious pack drafting, we had made it. Disbelief. But this time, it was not due to staring a broken pedal 5 days into a stage race.
All that was left was Stage 6, except they stage length had been increased to 100km. It was supposed to be a “fast” course. Jeff had a fresh set of pedals. We were comfortably sitting in 3rd for the GC after Stage 5. That night, the rain began to fall… and it didn’t stop for almost 17 hours.