Most of the time we just gape like awestruck kindergarteners on their first Disneyland visit.
Risaralda sits 2,500ft above the valley below on a narrow ridge of earth, perilously looming in the viewfinder of anyone plodding the switchbacks to its setting on the escarpment. To the casual observer, this is a rather diametric location for the largest puebla within 15km - but it seems common within the Coffee Triangle of Colombia. The city of Manizales, home to roughly 500,000 denizens (and your author), occupies a series of peaks at 7,000ft of elevation. The resulting topography is nothing short of sheer brutality. “Flat” does not exist - for that, one can ride the velodrome. There are two choices in Caldas: Up, or down. And then up.
A woman may not make an honest man, but a 20km Hors Categorie climb home every day will.
Day 1: Mogollon, Wednesday.
73 miles of windy, rolling desert riding from Silver City on US180 capped by the Category 1 Mogollan climb, an 8-mile, 2000-foot ascent with grades hitting 19% in parts on a single-lane, narrow winding mountain road. Toss in 10,000 spectators and this would feel straight out of a Grand Tour.
The race started mellow with a field of 70 rolling out of town and out into the wind. A few early break attempts were ineffective, with most racers opting to conserve their energy for the climb. A small break of two had almost a minute on the pack as we approached a short detour off of 180 into our first feed, about 30 miles in if I remember correctly. At some point, one of the officials messed up and directed us straight (so much as blocking our turn with support cars), even after much protest from the pack. However, the break had not gone straight and hence had a few extra feet of vertical and an extra mile. The officials realized this and neutralized the field for a solid chunk of time, at which point I nicknamed the Mogollon RR as the “Gila Gran Fondo”. The break caught back on and was offered their break back by the officials, which they declined.
As we continued on the rolling course, another break of four or so racers formed and pushed out from the pack into the wind 10-15 miles from our second feed at Glenwood. A couple miles out from the feed, a solo break went off. I heeded the words of one of my mentors (and three-time Gila pro winner) Burke, “Steady Eddie wins the race”. He also advised me to stay near the front as we rolled through Glenwood to position myself for the Mogollon ascent. 1k from the second feed in some fairly short rollers I rolled to the front and did a bit of tempo work to gauge how everyone else was feeling. My spidey senses tingled at the labored breathing and gasps coming from behind. This was good. Knowing there was a break with a solid gap (3-4min), I stayed up front with a moderate effort on the uphill approach to the ascent.
The ascent to Mogollan is broken into two parts - a shorter effort to the top of White Water Mesa, and then the final ~3 mile grind after a mile of flat across the top of White Water. I was cautioned that a lot of racers would attack and pop on the first climb. I was cautioned correctly. I pushed into sub-threshold and maintained a steady rhythm as racers around me attacked and exploded with regularity. A Garmin Dev racer launched an insane effort, only to find his legs couldn’t match his mind’s motivation 100m later and he came to a near-complete standstill. We crested the mesa with about 15 guys at the front, the rest of the 65-man pack spread out across the first climb. I pushed tempo once more across the top of the mesa to the bottom of the second climb, once again listening to the moans and groans behind me.
The road hung a left and began to point upwards. I mentally breached the threshold of my pain cave and watched my heartrate creep towards suffering. My mind screamed “Eddie” as the temptation to punch it rose. I watched people around me launch fruitless attacks, just as I’d seen before. Keep spinning. Eddie, Nate. I’d hear someone behind jump two gears and try to attack. The crudely affixed motivational phrase “SOUL CRUSHING” on my bars encouraged me to apply just a bit more power. A groan would be uttered forth from the nethers of the climb, and the attacker would be slaked off like a snake shedding its skin.
The mash continued. Only one guy was capable of hanging - Manuel, one of the Mexican racers from Crazy Cat. He and I were grinning in delight and pain, each matching the others accelerations. Bizarre bonds are born on hellish climbs, I learned. 1km from the finish, and we were neck and neck. A last ditch attack from behind sputtered like air being let out of a balloon. We were alone, chasing one more from the earlier break. It was apparent it wasn’t to be as we approached the 200m sign. Manuel patted me on the back, we smiled at each other, and I punched it. He couldn’t respond.
Second. 22 seconds back. The break had owned a 4 minute gap at the base of Mogollon. Conflicting thoughts rolled through my mind - the same thoughts that happen every time I come ever so close to a win in a race, yet fall barely short for one reason or another. “If only I’d had another click to climb,” or “If only I’d bridged onto the break before Glenwood”. Still, I was pleased. I’d known that I’d come to one of the biggest races the US has to offer for my category and thrown down a hefty gauntlet. The specter of a 5-day race hung in my mind, but I was thinking I’d conserved enough energy to hold onto my position coming into the Inner Loop stage the next day.