Peter Shelton (Team Boulder-Rock) won the ninth stage of the Tour d’Ouray bicycle race Sunday with a bold solo assault on the Beyond Category Col de Piñon.
Never mind that there were no other riders on the 224-kilometer loop from my back door to, um, my back door. It was still a bold solo assault on the tour’s first major mountain stage this year.
Wearing the leader’s yellow jersey (well, it’s yellow-ish, and red, and some other colors, and it’s cool seeing as how my son-in-law, who used to be a pro mountain biker, gave it to me; this was back when he was sponsored by California Dried Plums and a brewery in New England, where he’s from, and their logos are plastered all over the shirt) Shelton led the peloton on a winding, scenic route through the narrow, medieval streets of Colona, Ouray County’s third largest city, before they all headed west across the Massif de Horsefly.
The attacks started almost from the gun. Attacks of piñon gnats, that is. On the first of seven categorized climbs on the day, I was forced to slow down, since my team was not there to pull me up the hill, and somehow the gnats caught up to me and I inhaled a few.
Coughing and sputtering, Shelton nevertheless waved off the chase car, took a swig from his Camelbak and, undeterred, leapt back to the front on the long Flat du Log Hill, where iconic sunflowers beside the road flew by in a blur, like butter melting off flapjacks.
Again and again, breakaways sprinted to substantial margins over the main pack, and Shelton had to calculate the necessity of either letting them go, or reeling them back in. Once, in the middle of the chase group, Shelton went down in a field of loose rocks and prickly pear cactus. But he brushed himself off and got right back on, and soon drove the chase to overtake the escapees.
This would never happen on the Tour de France, Shelton thought, picking prickly pear quills out of his thigh as he rode. But then, this is no paved Euro-tour, where prima donnas complain about a few clicks of cobblestone. This is the Haute San Juan! Loose rock! Chip seal! Gnats!
Besides, he thought, I don’t have to worry about dropping off the back or having to catch back on, because there is no back. I am the breakaway! I am up out of the saddle, dripping sweat from the end of my nose, pushing a huge gear, like Lance Armstrong on the Alp d’Huez. And look! The peloton is beginning to crumble under the pressure!
There were other humbling moments, as there are on every stage of every Tour. Like the one where I decided to walk my bike down that washed-out arroyo. Too scary steep to ride it. Pretty scary just walking! But it was OK, because I had a seven-minute advantage on my closest pursuers and only the final hors categorie climb to go – the dreaded Col de Piñon, over which I had trained again and again in the last months.
I didn’t know if I had the legs on this day to hold off the furious pursuit. I looked again over my shoulder as I approached the turnaround at the second cattleguard, but the rainbow clutter of heaving jerseys behind me looked just like a...heaving clutter of...rainbow-colored jerseys.
All that remained was the long, tricky descent to the finish in the valley. I looked for a fanatic cycling fan lining the course, one who would thrust a newspaper at me, something to zip inside my shirt to ward off the chill of a screaming, high-Alpine descent. Ha! Who needs it? I laughed out loud. They’ll never catch me now!
At the finish, it was Shelton crossing all alone, pointing to his chest in an “I am the man!” gesture that was impossible to refute. The teams and the cameras and fans all pressed in around him. Yes, yes, I know. No one could have expected such a brilliant ride. And yes, of course, there will be the inevitable questions: EPO? Testosterone? Some new blood-doping drug the International Cycling Union has never even heard of?
The press pressed forward their microphones. But Shelton waved them off in order to get in the door before the gnats, which, absent the astonishing speed of the last hours, had managed to find him again.
(A version of this column first appeared in The Watch in July 2008.)