For Val, the race started with a fist bump. It was unexpected, to say the least—an enthusiastic presentation of four small knuckles outstretched upward on a young arm. The arm reached only up to his chest at full extension and the closed fist was only the size of a kiwi, but the fist bump was rock solid and steady. This was something Val was immediately jealous of as he tapped his knuckles with a loosely closed hand that trembled with nerves.
“I hope you keep that yellow jersey!” the young fan said without inhibition, despite being a complete stranger.
“Thanks, big man. I appreciate that a lot.”
Straddling his bike, in full race gear, with a bandanna tied under a matte-black helmet, full reflective aviator sunglasses hid the uncertainty in his eyes. His hands were still shaking with nerves.
As soon as the gun fired, the pack of 40 riders sped off. The “neutral” first lap went by in an instant. The race would consist of 24 more laps of the same course around the city—three blocks that had been barricaded off for the final day of racing.
The next three laps were a little faster. Much like boxers in the ring, every rider tried to feel the others out before throwing jabs. The fifth lap came and the riders hit the pedals hard. Berk was out in front and Val latched onto his draft with a hard effort to keep up with him. They flung themselves around the six corners at an insane pace. Berk took a bonus after winning the lap.
Torin broke away up front. Val was caught off-guard; Rich took off after him and successfully latched onto Torin’s draft.
This was the absolute worst scenario for Val. Torin fell out of contention for the Tour but wanted to stay up front and win the stage. Rich worked with him to collect time bonuses and to lengthen the gap between Val and himself. Rich was the man to beat, and he was in a nearly invincible position right now.
He was doing a lot of the work in the pack chasing the two men up front. It wouldn’t be until the 15th lap that he’d get a bonus. This was bad news. At this pace it seemed like everyone was in survival mode, and no one wanted to help.
Val started yelling as he took corners trying to solicit the other riders to help effort of working together to bring the two leaders back in, “Pull though! Let’s GO! Bring ‘em in!”
He realized why no one reacted to his calls when he looked back: The person holding the position right behind him was Rich’s teammate, Rivers. It was a really good defensive tactic that would ensure Rich’s win.
A few more laps went by tiring out Val’s legs even more. He was running on fumes, not making up any ground, and knew that anyone who wanted to help out would have to make a monster effort to overtake Rivers to get up front.
This was a near impossible task. It was their two pairs of legs versus his, and any support that could help was locked in a cage behind Rivers.
Val led the chase for laps 12 through 15 solo at a consistent but increasingly difficult effort. His legs were screaming; they felt like someone had ripped them off his body and beat them with a meat tenderizer. Despite exerting all this effort, the two leaders were still far ahead. If this continued, Rich would undoubtedly win first place.
Val and the rest of the riders took the first corner of the course again, and a spectator yelled, “Nine seconds!” to indicate that Torin and Rich were a full 9 seconds ahead.
Val yelled in frustration as he gave up hope and packed in the race mentally. “Dammit! Dammit Dammit!”
Just as he shouted, he saw Rivers grin. When he saw the reaction to the exclamations it sparked an idea.
Val yelled up to him again, “YOU OWE ME ONE! LET’S GO DUDE! PICK IT UP!”
A beckoning like this, at surface value, is quite possibly one of the most ignorant things that could have been said in the moment. Asking help from a rider on another team is outlandish.
He yelled in hopes that it would catch Rivers off-guard emotionally.
Rivers reactively yelled back with a snarl, “I don’t owe you shit, dude! I don’t owe you a damn thing!”
Rivers was absolutely right, and Val knew that. However, he slowed down to yell just enough to let Berk and a couple others around his position. They swerved by him and popped out in front. Val grabbed right on their draft and the two of them put down some serious power.
If Rivers wanted to put the nail in the coffin, all he had to do was keep his cool, accelerate through, and throw a fake out. Essentially, he could have acted like he was going to help catch up to his teammate while sandbagging his pulls and slowing the pack down.
The newly arranged team started to reel the two leaders in. The very next lap, the same spectator at the corner yelled, “Six seconds!”
Another lap. Another shout, “Five Seconds!”
There were eight laps to go and the chasing riders were in the zone. Pedaling almost in-sync with each other and taking corners at the exact same angles. Their muscles felt like they had battery acid running through them instead of blood.
The first corner came around again, “Four seconds!”
The two leaders up front were caught with three laps to go, and Val resumed his place at the front of the pack. If Val could have beat his chest without crashing right then, he would have.
A couple other racers jumped up in front for laps 22 through 24, but not at a pace that could have shaken Rich or Val. They both knew it was going to come down the final sprint.
He bombed around that corner hard and took an inside line so tight that he nearly went head over heels into the barrier. This kind of move takes a whole lot of heart, even more guts, and a ton of skill.
Val suddenly felt the efforts of the entire race throughout his body. Lungs throbbed, quads lit on fire. He didn’t know how his body was moving the way it did. The two lead competitors were off like bandits.
They started the final lap pushing the pedals as hard as they possibly could. And they managed to open up a gap on the rest of the group themselves. They bombed around the course not caring whether they took the lead or wrecked onto the pavement. Anarchy on wheels.
The two riders were side by side for the final 500 meters.
The end of the race came in the same instant that it started. The photo finish flashed the difference of a one-hundredth of a second. First; last.