I've never done anything like this before. But wow. Was it cool.
We got in to Columbia Friday night, hours later than expected thanks to some freak rain and a pile of accidents on the interstate right in front of us. I talked to Mary from our team and told her we'd see everyone in the morning. Team pictures were scheduled for 7, so we set our alarm for 5:45, figuring that would give us plenty of time to get our gear sorted out and head down to the main grounds.
Fifteen minutes later, Mary pounded on our door. I think I opened it still blinking and with a toothbrush hanging out of my mouth. They'd decided (and neglected to tell us) to meet in the hotel parking lot at 6. It's 6! Let's go!
So we hastily grabbed helmets, gloves, nutrition, shoes, water bottles, cell phones, and – oh, yeah – bikes, and everything else we could think of without the use of our caffeine-dependent brains and tried to pretend like we'd been awake for hours.
We entered a line of cars at least a mile long queuing up to park on the grass beside the expo center where tents were set up to house food, medics, bike mechanics, and team meetings. The chill air was damp and tingly, and I began to get a nervous fluttering in my stomach.
We walked our bikes down the wet, grassy hill toward the food tent for breakfast, which was an egg on a tortilla, a very frightening link of sausage, and a scoop of cheesy potatoes.
I very much wanted my usual pre-ride peanut butter sandwich.
The anxiousness inside my stomach wrapped itself around that slippery sausage link and formed itself into a hard knot that refused to budge.
I found the coffee tent. Coffee helped. This was normal, warm, reassuring, familiar. I could feel my equilibrium seeping back.
Walking our bikes to the start line, Pearl seemed to roll weightlessly along next to me, as if she were moving on her own. She was ready for this. Her tires were gripping the gravel drive as if they already knew what to do and where to go. My gloved hands fell naturally into place on her handlebars.
I overheard snippets of conversations from other teams along the way. One group of girls had gathered by the port-a-potties and were loudly teasing one of their own:
"Oh, that's right! It's High-Maintenance Jenny! Did you get all your make-up on this morning? Is every hair in place?"
The blonde with the hairsprayed ponytail perking out beneath her helmet and the impeccably applied make-up laughed through perfect teeth. I felt a flicker of irrational envy, but quickly put it aside. Everyone here was wearing padded bike shorts, the great fashion equalizer. What exactly was she trying to prove?
Cyclists were streaming, literally pouring out in groups, from the start line onto the rural road in the directions of the marked routes. The 40-mile loop started in one direction, and the 75- and 100-mile routes took off in another. Our 75-mile route was marked with a green arrow.
Okay. We straddled our bikes. Okay!
Out into the stream of cyclists, out into the road, matching the pace of a group that quickly broke into those moving slower and faster. It was nice and even and smooth. I clipped in and we rode over a smooth incline, through a few intersections, more or less staying together as a team.
And then, I think we crossed over into Hell.
Up next: "Rolling hills???"