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We’ve sent in our postcards, trained through a horrendous spring, and waited patiently. Finally, we’ve made it. All of the 450+ starters are standing, shivering in the rain and now are singing happy birthday to Skogen’s son. A tradition from years past, it helps calm the group and establish a sense of camaraderiee. I’ve arrived with three teammates who’ve lined up in their rain jackets and knee warmers at the front of the group. The rain, which has thoroughly soaked the ground from storms moving in the evening before, continues to come down softly. The temperature and windchill will be the worst factor of the day. Most seem woefully ill prepared, myself included. As we say in Minnesota—uffda.

We start out and the front group takes off. I allow myself to slip back into the pack and settle in. Finishing today will be a challenge enough, no need to push it. My road tires sink into the wet slop and even though we’re only four miles in I’m caked from head to toe. My glasses are of no use anymore. I look around expecting to see depression, broken spirits—but there are none. Grin and bear it, my companions’ body language demands, and so I do the same. Once you look up, it’s hard not to want to continue. The farmland and forests the route cuts through are gorgeous in their own humble way. The local “wildlife” although doesn’t think much of the long chain of cyclists passing by, most of the cows take a quick glance and then get back to chewing their grasses. I can’t imagine that the trucks passing by think much more of us.

The first major climb approaches and it’s breaking wills left and right. Some are trudging up on the right side while others grind up with the occasional slip of the rear wheel. Up the bluff the road winds, groups gathered at varied heights. Some for a quick break, others a bite to eat. I manage to make it up entirely in the saddle, but I can tell I’ve burned a few major matches by doing so. At the top I stop and meet up with a group who will be dubbed the “Pugsley Brigade.” Astride their fat tired winter rigs they speed on top of the wet slop while others sink lower into it. With them blocking the wind and their jovial spirits we make quick work and get motoring. We pass a gentleman riding an old restored three speed and sporting a fine vest/knickers/shirt and tie ensemble. Later, he’ll come in somewhere in the top ten. I’m certain I did not see him loosen that tie of his either. I have nothing but the utmost respect for that fellow.

Eventually the bearded, fat tired train rumbles by my teammates at the side of the road. Having gone up with the front group they’ve now found themselves sidelined with a flat. Joy is a word I have a hard time using to describe my emotions—this was far better than joy. Forget trust falls, spend ten plus hours in wet limestone gravel on two wheels and you’ll learn who you can trust fast. An Oreo or two are shared. At this point, an Oreo is the most wonderful thing in the world and I share them with my teammates as a conquering hero might divvy up his newly acquired lands. The flat fixed, we start to fly and soon we’re thirty miles in. I push the pace but it proves too much. An opportunity for photos and I’m off the bike letting them press on. Another Oreo, but now I’m out. Bitter sweetness takes hold in a way I’ve never known. I savor every last morsel. I don’t realize it at the time, but I’m already way past bonk and into unknown food deprivation territory. Distracted by the taste of gravel and the wet rain having soaked every inch of me I would soon pay for this mistake.

Photos taken, I run into two other friendly faces and press on. The next ten miles are arduous work. Where once we were chatty, the conversation