Saturday, Jan 19
News reporter: “You’ve said that you saw what appeared to be three big wild cats on the roads of Bloomington. Can you describe what you saw?”
Witness: “I’m still a little shaken from the ordeal. Exhausted really. But I saw three of them. They were stealthy and unbelievably fast, quiet and smooth. But it was clear that these were the real deal. They were getting away from me. I don’t know why, but I decided to see if I could keep up with them. It was like chasing a truck, and they kept getting further away. My memory is so vivid, it’s as though the word PANTHER was written on them.”
The wind was howling out of the south west when I left my house this morning to meet the group at the downtown Bakehouse. I was hoping for a good turnout as we were hosting two riders from the new elite collaboration, Panther/Bakehouse Granola; Andy Clarke and Paul Martin. They had just driven over 300 miles that morning from south of Cleveland to make the noon ride. It’s a 5 hour trip, but the duo made it here closer to 4 I am told. Paul has palmares too numerous to list. Suffice it to say that he is a former professional rider with the Navigators, a national champion and current Ohio State champion and had victories in 2012 that included Tour of the Valley, Grandview, Tour de’Burg, McDonald’s and Snake Alley. Andy, the CEO of Panther Expedited Services, a global logistics company won Quad Cities this year and has dozens of elite podium and top ten finishes, many in the support of his younger teammates.
I wasn’t disappointed in the turnout! Over 30 riders had assembled at the downtown Bakehouse for what appeared to be more of an audition than a moderate training ride! In addition to Andy Clarke and Paul Martin, some I remember include; Ryan Knapp (Panther/Bakehouse Granola), Fred Rose, Austin Venhuizen, Drew Coelho, Colin Allen, Emily Palmer, Liz Cobb, James Calvetti, Kevin Newkirk, Kevin Hays, Lyle Feigenbaum, Jacob Read (Scholars Inn Bakehouse), Chris Kroll, J. Cody Woods, Andy Messer (Upland), Graham Dewart (Nuvo), Paul Smith (Motion) Brett Frommer (AEP), Hans Ibold (Joe’s), Doug, Charle McClary (Fiji)… perhaps a dozen others.
Many of the younger riders had earlier made a circumnavigation of the Forest, so had 30 miles under their caps going into the start. I am continuously impressed by the level of dedication that these collegiate and Little 500 riders have as they build up to their early season, with the Lindsay Wilson race just over one month away. It’s clear that the fitness bar is being raised. The ride today was advertised as a 60 miler with lots of vertical and high winds. But these men and women were strong. When I was a 12 year old kid I used to draw superheroes on white Tshirts. I was pretty good at it. Good enough to outfit a few friends in the neighborhood with The Flash or Captain America. I remember drawing the legs of these fictitious heroes, strong and lean, powerful. Now I was seeing that all around me as we prepared to head out for a few hours on the bike.
Today’s course was a similar to last weeks with a bit of a twist. As usual, the course was published a day or two prior. We were navigating a clockwise loop today, Cascades to Old 37, Anderson, Low gap, Mahalasville, Lick Creek, 45 to Helmsburg, Lanam to 45 to South Shore, then Robinson. Colin Allen gave some brief instructions to the group, standing atop one of the traffic buttresses on 6th and College. “Steady with no attacks aor accelerations” I think I heard. We would leave that open for interpretation as the day progressed! Later, I would be flipping through the dictionary in my mind looking up the entry for acceleration!
The big flags downtown were straight out, bending to the southwest wind, but the sun was out, it was nearly 50 and spirits were high. We headed out in as orderly a group as possible being of this size, complete with several onlookers in awe of the size of the group. It’s a testament to the vitality of cycling in our town that we have a group this large and this homogeneous, relatively speaking. After the usual sorting out we established two lines and the majority took turns pulling, with the author being one notable exception!
It was a beautiful sight to see the group effortlessly ride aided and abetted by the wind, our ally for the moment, all the way on Anderson and Low gap to Mahalasville Rd. We had a few mechanical problems early on, Todd flatted on Cascades, Austin had a front wheel problem at the start on Low Gap. A couple of riders elected to head up BeanBlossom Rd. The rest of us carried on. While the pace wasn’t high over the Col du Low Gap, still a couple of riders got squeezed off the back. Colin and I loitered a bit waiting for the two and then gave chase with them. He left with the first rider to arrive and I waited for the second, just a few seconds behind at the top of the climb. We began a steady chase and I settled into a big gear rhythm, just at the boiling point, but it was clear to me that we weren’t materially gaining on the group ahead in this very fast tailwind section! I was closing in on Colin and his passenger, but my charge was in difficulty. She released me on one of the small rises and I chased solo, watching the two ahead of me make contact. I was to chase for nearly three miles before I could say the same. I wasn’t rattled by the ordeal, but I knew that I had to attach myself to the tail of this steady train just before the turn into the cross/headwind, seeking much needed shelter.
The group, now about 25 made it through the not insignificant rollers of Mahalasville and Lick Creek. A few riders lost contact here as well. Colin again went back for one. I went to the front to let the leaders know that I thought we should modulate while the few behind caught on. While they obliged, and I settled into my lanterne rouge role, others soon resumed the steady pace and the riders behind lost sight of us. There are a couple of tricky sections on Lick Creek that require local knowledge if you’re going to take a short cut. I knew that the riders off the back could get through. On 45 we turned east again into a tail wind and made it for Helmsburg and then west into the headwind climbs leading to Lanam Ridge. I lost contact with the group briefly on the steep climb here but desperately clawed my way back over the top and in the descent as we made our way back to 45. Ryan Knapp had the misfortune (my good luck!) to flat after going through a rock garden on the road near South Shore. The group elected to wait and attend to personal matters while we got him back on the road. We turned back into the wind on South Shore and despite the idylic views and beautiful vistas it afforded it seemed more like we were sailing on rough waters rather than making our way on a bicycle, being blown about like little boats on the bay.
We settled in for the fast romp towards home and the group obliged by lifting the pace at the front on the spit of land that separates Lake Lemon from the railroad backwater. We hit the penultimate major climb at South Shore and Tunnel and a few of us didn’t quite make the selection on the second pitch of this classic Bloomington climb. Again though, two of us dragged ourselves back to the group. How many more times could I do this? I was thinking. We’ll I got my answer soon after reconnecting on Robinson, staying with the group back to Old 37. The answer is none! As we approached the base of Firehouse hill, a group surged off the front. Someone said, “Strava!” but the word barely registered as I finally let the group go for good. I rode back with a couple of stragglers through the Marlin Hills neighborhood and back to Cascades. Colin had reconnected with us just prior and invited me to the Bakehouse for a fermented beverage. Fred was there already and joined us as we summarized today’s event with one word as we raised our pints, “Cheers!”
Sunday, Jan 20
It’s colder today by ten degrees and less windy. But still an impressive group assembles. I rode in from my house, just about 4 miles away. Knapp is already two-thirds into his French toast when I arrive at the Bakehouse. He had ridden the Forest loop earlier with his Panther teammates, Clarke and Martin, prior to their departure. We talked a bit about their experience here. Ryan said that they were very complimentary and impressed by the caliber of cyclists in Bloomington and the prospect of partnering with an organization that cares as deeply about the sport as they do. Soon Rose, Kroll, Messer, Venhuizen, Smith, Em Palmer, Coelho, Allen, Read, Frommer and Johns came along. We meet Walsh on the road and then Ryan Shanahan and Adam Rodkey before we get to the turn at 446. I had planned on turning back at 446 and Moores Pike but I couldn’t resist the urge to tag along this no-holds-barred group for a while longer. Immediately Kroll and Shanahan accelerated on 446 and get clear of the group. Rose and Knapp are first to counter. The rest of us are hanging on as the group searches for a leader. Almost immediately Messer takes up the chase. We’re going 34 mph and the small pack is fracturing, gaps opening in front of me and behind. I jump around as soon as the gap ahead grows to 2 bike lengths. The small group ahead connects with Kroll and Shanahan. Messer drags us back to the group before the road narrows and the small hills come. We descend as a group to the causeway, but the pace is furious as the boys are clearly in a challenge match. I have had enough as the road goes up. I attempt to take a picture, but the moment is lost. I watch as the select group taps out a brutal tempo up the climb. Then, convinced that I was in the company of superheroes, turn back for home to face a headwind alone without regret, knowing that I had been able, for a moment, to ride alongside those who belong to the future of cycling not the past.