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PEZ Does USPRO: The Dream Day!
While George Hincapie was busy lining his prodigious trophy case with yet another chunk of success, I had my own chance to add to my, er, memory’s trophy case. My ride at USPRO ended with a DNF, but the day was oh so much more than those three letters. It was one of the best days on a bike I’ve ever experienced.


There’s a fair sized pie to be had in professional bike racing. It might not always seem like it with teams folding and riders searching for new jobs, but in the end, the pie is there for the eating. The only problem is that a very select few are privileged to sit at the table and help themselves to this delicious, fresh, hot pie. Most of the time, little people like myself are left scurrying underfoot looking for a dropped crumb here and there. Something odd happened at the USPRO Championships in Greenville this year: I managed to seat myself at the table and take a tiny little sliver of pie for myself.

I don’t quite know where to begin with the long tale that makes up my Sunday, August 30, 2009. It was pretty much a perfect day. I woke up early with Ashley, walked downstairs, and started my day laughing with old friends that I hadn’t seen in over a year. We stayed with my former teammate, Andy Baker. He’s a good friend along with Daniel Ramsey, so before I even started my day, it was going well.


Oooh bikes, lots of Kane Bikes.

We drove over to my team’s hotel, and I had a scary pro moment. Jonathan Kane, the team manager, took my bike away, fixed it up all nice, cleaned it, etc etc. I felt bad. I always get really self-conscious when that happens. It’s hard to feel like I deserve that kind of treatment. Scratch that, it’s really hard.


That’s me, #151.

After feeling guilty for a few moments, I went upstairs, pinned my number on my new team jersey, put on my team kit for the first time, looked at in the mirror, took a deep breath – here we go, this is actually going to happen. I had long dreamed of racing in Greenville. I had gotten through many crappy days of training imagining what it would be like to race up Paris Mountain. Sometimes I even let myself imagine that I would attack and ride Paris Mountain solo.


Rolling up to the starting area with Tim Henry. You didn’t think I left my camera at home did you?

I walked back downstairs and got on my bike for the first time – that was kinda funny. Tim and I rode our bikes the 30 minutes or so over to the race. It was a nice way to start the biking day. I was a bit giddy and most likely talked Tim’s ear off, but I come with a warning label – and that’s on the label.



My day was about to take off from this point on. As we rolled over to the start line, the voice of American bike racing, Dave Towle, caught sight of me and brought me on stage with him. As any racer in America knows, getting the chance to chat with Dave Towle is a big deal. I had long ago put that on my To Do List: Get fast enough or do something significant enough to warrant a Dave Towle interview. I couldn’t believe it as I stood there.


Dave Towle and I debating the finer points of how ridiculous it was that I was about to start USPRO.

I was standing in front of hundreds of people, all looking at me, listening to me, listening to my ridiculous story, my laughable comeback. I was almost embarrassed to be standing there with the likes of Freddie Rodriguez and Ivan Dominguez signing in around me. I could only smile. That’s all I could do the whole day – smile and attempt to soak it all in.


I couldn’t help but take a picture of Freddie Rodriguez. I had never raced with Fast Freddie before. I still think that’s pretty cool.


I was so giddy, I signed the wrong line. I signed Sergio Hernandez’s space instead. My apologies.


Getting ready to sign in for Sergio.

As I walked down the stairs back to my bike, people yelled for me, wished me good luck, and took pictures. I was so far beyond Cloud Nine. I rolled back to the team car telling everybody within earshot that Dave Towle had just interviewed me! I don’t think anyone really cared, but I made sure to tell everyone just in case.


The podium girls asked me to sign a jersey. I thought that was pretty awesome, so I celebrated with a picture.


A whole bunch of people were taking pictures of me and cheering, so I figured I’d take a picture of them.

My day just kept getting better though when I returned to the starting area for staging – Ashley had managed to find the press office, gotten her credentials, and there she was taking pictures. It was fantastic enjoying the moment on my own, but still another step further in the positive direction with Ashley there with me. I realized that a lot on Sunday – these special, crazy moments are wonderful, but in the company of friends and loved ones, it’s that much more special.


Ashley with ‘me.’ Andy Baker’s girlfriend, Tori, masqueraded as Jered Gruber: she got to use my press pass for the day.

I somehow managed a front row start next to the day’s early aggressor and four-time time trial champion, Dave Zabriskie. I was a little bit too shy to introduce myself, but I made sure to stare at him. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen the likes of him a lot in pictures, on the internet, and magazines, so to be standing literally right next to him? Pretty cool. I can’t help it, I’m a bike fan at heart.


Ashley and PEZ Photographer Extraordinaire, Darrell Parks.

As soon as the race started, I lost about 50 spots. I wasn’t quite used to the whole racing thing. I was more than a little balky in the field after such a long time away. No big deal, there’s always a spot at the back of every race reserved for me. I found my way to my happy place at the back and settled in. The opening circuits in town were really quick. I wasn’t exactly chewing on my stem or anything, but I was definitely a bit far off from comfortable.

Even in these rather rough early moments, I couldn’t help but notice who was around me. There was Danny Pate chatting to Alex Candelario like we were just rolling easy through town. Floyd Landis rolled by, then Andy Bajadali, Steven Cozza – I felt like I was playing a who’s who game at the rear end of the field. As a bike journalist, I write about these guys all the time, but I’ve almost never had the chance to talk to them, let alone race with them.


I recently interviewed my old teammate, Tom Soladay, on PEZ – I got the chance to say hi in person for the first time in a year on Sunday. He hit the big time this season and is going much bigger in 2010. Congrats, Tom!

I breathed one of those heartfelt sighs of relief when we left the opening circuits – step 1 in my day had been completed: don’t get dropped on the opening circuits. I was so happy to have made it out of town, I figured I’d celebrate by talking to Floyd Landis. To my surprise, he actually said hi. This was all just too much for me.

After a few more minutes, I realized that we had really slowed down. I immediately went from worrying about being dropped to rolling up the side of the field not believing that I was about to do what I was thinking about doing. I couldn’t believe that I would actually do it, then I did it. As I got inside the top 20, I dipped down for my drops, clicked down into my 11 and off I went.

I was smiling as I attacked. It was just so ridiculous. I put my head down, afraid to look back. I didn’t know what would be worse – to find out the whole field was on my wheel or to find out that no one had followed. If the whole field had followed, then I was the jackass that ruined the easy moment. If no one had followed, then I was the jackass that got to ride all by his lonesome for as long as possible.

When I looked back – no one was there. In fact, I was making very good progress. The field was rapidly fading in the distance. My solo ride to the base of the climb was hard. I was almost frantic trying to eke out as much time as possible. Even as I ploughed forward as fast as possible, I couldn’t help but smile at all of the people cheering. I don’t see how people manage to not respond to the swell of support from the roadside. I almost felt bad if I didn’t acknowledge their energy, which they so freely were giving in my direction. It felt amazing as I rolled by, ever closer to the mountain.


My good luck kiss must have been a perfect one, because I got lucky.

It wasn’t long before the motorbike came up to me and told me I was one minute behind Zabriskie. I thought that was mildly humorous, I certainly wasn’t planning on riding across to the four time US National TT champion. I just wanted to know how big the gap was to the field…and most importantly: how far was it to Paris Mountain? I could see the large hump of the mountain in the very near distance, but I wasn’t sure if the course zigged away for awhile. That really scared me. I couldn’t imagine anything much worse than going all out only to get caught at the base of the climb. The Mavic guys said they figured it was only about a couple miles away, but I didn’t believe them until I rolled onto that familiar bump before the climb begins.




Two different angles of the start? Why not.

I dug deep in the minutes leading into the climb, but it was only as I took the turn onto the climb proper (after one last look over my shoulder to make sure the time gap wasn’t a lie) that I allowed myself to believe that I was going to get a chance to ride up Paris Mountain solo.

I took a deep breath, smiled, and let it sink in. I had almost 90 seconds in hand on the field. At this point, I was doubly excited, because a group of my friends, including Ashley, were about 500m up the road from me. I couldn’t wait to see how surprised everyone would be to see me, I couldn’t wait for Ashley’s expression, her surprise, her big smile.


Hell yeah!

A good friend of mine, Cleve Blackwell of Blue Bikes, lives on the mountain and was throwing a big party. Everyone was there waiting to see the race. Cleve had been making fun of me two days before – he told me I’d get dropped the first time up. He was just poking fun at me of course, but it was just too perfect as I came closer. As I approached I yelled to him: WHO IS OFF THE FRONT NOW?!?! I gave him a high five and let out a big holler. I was so amped up, I was almost sprinting through there, yelling, smiling, and at the same time trying not to miss a single person or second of it. I was thirsty to take in every bit of the moment. Right after, the piper came calling, and I had a hard few moments as the effort hit me.


After all of the fun of passing Ashley and friends, I had to get back to pedaling.

I recovered a bit, got back to the business of pedaling. My gap was falling, but I had plenty to work with. I kept my pace steady and I continued to enjoy the ride. I did my best to acknowledge everyone as I passed. I wanted everyone to know how much it meant to be a part of this moment. I wanted them to know that I noticed, that it helped, that it was pushing me forward, far beyond what I ever thought I could do.


I’ve never had so many motorbikes following me around. They usually fly by really fast. It was awesome – they’d come up, take a picture or film me, I’d wave, then they’d ride off.

The effort was not lost on my body or legs at this point. I was hurting. The top of the climb couldn’t come soon enough. The cheering had dwindled a bit on the upper third of the climb – I only had the motorcade for company and they’re a pretty impassive bunch sometimes. Just as I was getting a bit worried, I rounded the bend to the final steep pitch and the collected masses of fans lay there in front of me, all around me.


I’m not kidding, there were LOTS of people.

Their cheers were immense. I rode through a tunnel of noise and good vibes. If my perma-grin had been in danger of faltering, it certainly wasn’t under duress anymore. I couldn’t smile any bigger. I looked behind me and saw the field getting closer, but they weren’t going to catch me…at least not until the top. I crested the climb right as they caught me and drifted back into the pack – giggling as we started the descent.


Just a few more pedalstrokes to the top – I was all smiles.

I could have stopped right then. I think I had hit peak happiness on a bike. The race didn’t care in the slightest about my little triumph, but no big deal, that was all for me. The story after that isn’t quite as much fun. I rode out another lap, but my time in the race was quickly coming to an end. I did my best to relish what will most likely be my one and only appearance at a race of that caliber. I didn’t have that much to give on the day. I knew there was no hope of me ever finishing, but I wanted more from the race than a few passages up Paris Mountain and that sad moment when one takes leave from the field. I wanted to go out of that race on my own terms, however silly they might have been. For once, I managed to do that.


Yep, I made it!

I was kinda tired after all of that, but I was starting to feel better in the field. The circuit in-town was once again intense, but apart from the fact that I had some major difficulties getting back onto the field after going back for bottles – no problem. I guess that means there was a problem…whatever.

Heading out of town, it slowed down a little bit, then it got fast heading into the climb the second time. I caught the tired as we hit the climb for the Hard Charge Uphill #2. I made it a little ways up the climb then called it a day. It was funny though – at one point it was Andy Baker, Chris Monteleone, and me – a real TIME Factory Development Team reunion from 2007. At the top of Paris, I turned around, headed back down to Cleve’s party, a beer, a Sprite, some watermelon, lots of laughs, a couple brownies, a shower, some of Cleve’s clothes, and of course Ashley. It was awesome.


It would have been wrong not to celebrate with a beer. I had my beer, then had some watermelon and brownies.

I think there’s a piece of the pie for everyone. The trick is finding out how and where to squeeze in for it. I hope I can pull off something half that special again before I’m done racing my bike. If not, it won’t be a problem: I’ll always have that amazing final Sunday in August.




Questions? Comments? Happy? Sad? Send me an email. I hope none of this came off as too brazenly me me me. I was and still am excited about what happened on Sunday. I can’t believe I got the chance to ride my bike on such a huge stage. If you got any other idea than that, it wasn’t my intention. Ok?

Also, thank you so much for all of the emails! I am about to get into the task of responding to everyone – including all of the awesome notes from the West Virginia article a few weeks back.

If you ever want to check out some pictures, THIS is a good place to go…in my opinion.

There’s always the trusty JeredGruber.com if you ever get really bored.


 

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