Saturday, March 7, 2009

Riding With the Pros Part 4 – Hill Hell

So there I was pushing hard up the hill finding a little comfort in the knowledge that there were a few riders behind me. And trying not to think about the fact that they are probably going to be passing me soon leaving me in the very back, drifting further and further behind.

I see a guy break out of the front pack and head back down the hill. Is he coming to get me? He’s looking right at me. Oh hell, he’s coming to get me. I am pumping as hard as I can. I’m going to be embarrassed that I can’t pull more juice out of my legs right now. I’ll just do the best that I can.

I watched the guy sling down the hill toward me and as he got closer I realized, “OMG! That’s Hennie Kuiper! Hennie Kuiper is coming to get me.”

“Oh crap.”

For those of you who don’t know who Hennie Kuiper is I know you don’t cycle. He was racing in the Tour De France 12 times in the 70s. He is rated in the top 50 riders of all time and has coached many pro-cyclists including Lance Armstrong. And he’s coming after me.

I had met Hennie a couple years prior when I was working on the Tour of California for my bank. Super nice guy. I spent about four days with him and the rest of the Rabobank marketing team traveling with the tour. I really enjoyed him. However, he has a very serious face. If you didn’t know him, you may look at him and think “There’s a ball buster!” And I bet when he’s cycling he really is. He has an intimidating look and he was coming for me.

“You have to get up there with the others yeah?” He says to me as he pulled along side.

“Yeah, I’m trying.” I pushed out between gasps of air.

Hennie puts his hand on my back and starts pushing me up the hill! How does he do that? I am struggling to pull my own a** up this hill. He’s pulling himself up and push me too! Geez.

I’m pushing as hard as I can to catch up to the group and then I feel Hennie relax his grip and I start to “slide back” a little. But he keeps his hand on my back. Is his arm tired? Is that why he relaxed? No! He suddenly gives me a hard push and I catapult up the hill!!!! Then he rides ride up next to me again and does it again! And again! And again!

He is essentially ‘tossing’ me up the hill to catch up with the others!!! I felt like one of those people who pay a ton a money to have a professional Sherpa drag them up Everest. Talk about cheating! But I am so in over my head!

So finally he had catapulted me enough times to get me back to the group. He points to the back tire of the cyclist in front of me.

“Stay up with him. He’ll help you up the hill, yeah?”

“Yeah.” I understood he wanted me to draft the rider in front of me. But the problem was to draft a rider you have to be able to keep up with the rider. I could not keep up with the rider. I kept sliding back and getting out of drafting range.

Hennie kept pushing me back up in drafting range. I worked my hardest to stay drafting but I just couldn’t do it without help. Finally I see we are going to turn a corner. I was hoping the road would turn flat again.

No luck. We kept climbing.

When we turned the corner I saw my friend Karen right in front of us. Hennie tells me to follow her. I can keep up with Karen. Phew! So Hennie rode with Karen and I. He no longer had to push me. But he stayed with us to the end of the stage.

He was so kind, giving us tips and encouragement. I couldn’t believe I was being coached by Hennie Kuiper!

The road flattened and the pace settled into a speed I could manage. I started to feel better and my mind started to wander. I started thinking about what a nice perk this opportunity was for riding on the employee team! I was one of the core team members riding religiously every season. Riding with Hennie made the efforts of consistent practice rides several nights a week (after a hard day’s work when you feel like you’d rather go home and have a beer) worth it. During the season I rode loyally regardless of how tired I was. I’d train on hills, ride in good and bad weather push myself until I had nothing left. Maybe I can’t keep up with the pros. But I was stronger than the average couch potato and definitely not one of those ‘weekend riders’ who called themselves cyclists but only got out on a Saturday. No, “I’m a REAL rider”, I said to myself .

Hennie broke into my thoughts. He was asking a question about my riding habits: “So you ride on the weekends, yeah?”

Sptiiiissss…………… (That’s the sound of my ego deflating).

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