The gap came down, the finish line drew near, and I cracked a smile.
Grant Koontz, 21, is a Junior at Texas A&M University, studying Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences. This is his second year as a member of Super Squadra’s developmental program, the Super JETS.
Photos : KM Creative
The lead in was typical. We all had a rough day at Walburg. Cross winds. A crash. A hard fought 12th place finish by Michael Pincus. We retreated to Austin, and sought refuge before another Texas Monument, Pace Bend. I spent the night in my new mobile home, my recently purchased 1994 Chevy conversion van. Life on the road in this van, however brief, has been an exciting adventure for me. I parked my mobile home in front of my dear friend and teammate Ian Dille’s house. I went to bed at 7:30 p.m., and managed to get a solid 12 hours of sleep (four REM cycles). My aim to recover as much as possible was a raging success.
The next morning, I awoke to a breakfast of special Dille family cornmeal waffles, infused with bacon. Not long after, we prepped and loaded our bikes into my van and hit the road for Pace Bend. We were cruising down highway 71—with Ian regaling me of his past exploits at Pace Bend, like that time (oh, 13 years ago) that him and Steven Wheeler rode the break with Lance Armstrong—when suddenly hot steam started blowing up through the dash and onto Ian. Desperate times called for desperate measures. We pulled over, and opened the hood to find coolant sprayed all over the engine. In order to save my van, I’d need to earn some prize money at Pace Bend. Our teammate Phil Wikoff saved us from the side of the road, and after some rushed preparations, we made it to the start-line with a few minutes to spare.
When the start whistle blew, I had low expectations. We were racing a man down after Wenger’s crash the day before and we were relaying largely on me and Pincus to fend for ourselves and get a result. The uneventful first lap seemed so short that, in hindsight, I thought the break went almost from the gun. Turns out, the large group of riders snuck away just at the start of lap 2. I hate to profile, but as soon as I saw that the break contained the fastest Mexicans, Guatemalans, and Kiwi in the race, I knew that was a decisive and dangerous move nonchalantly rolling away. I surged and bridged up to the select group without taking anyone with me or drawing too much attention. I was just going with the flow, but the pace remained fast and steady and the gap grew. The group of seven grew to ten, but the gap stayed small enough to keep the break humble. Elevate and Arapaho had a combined 5 riders in the move who did most of the driving to keep the break afloat. Perfect. I was able to conserve and save my matches for the decisive final laps of the race.
My mind was focused on the simple act of conservation.
Laps ticked down, the gap remained steady, and the break remained motivated. Tensions started rising at two laps to go when we got a time split of one minute back to the field. Elevate had the most firepower and the most to lose if the break came back, so they took the reins and did the vast majority of the pace making. My mind was focused on the simple act of conservation. The high pace started to strain the congruity of the group and small gaps began to open and close. With one lap to go, our group of 10 was still out front and together. As we hit the course’s steepest hill, on the backside with a half lap to go, a series of attacks and counters gave Arapaho and Elevate each a man off the front. Their teammates were content to let them fight for the win. The train had lost its engine.
I began to rotate with the two Elbowz riders, Kevin Girkins and Justin Stanley, and Bicycle Heaven’s Ryan Wohlrabe to try and bring the gap to the leaders down. But they weren’t willing or able to go all in, so I had to take the initiative and play my hand. Just a few hundred meters from the final 90-degree turn of the race, I surged and no one followed. This was my chance. It was time to put my time-trial skills to work. I had about 4k to go, and about a 15 second gap to close. I was chasing a group of two, but I knew I had a chance at catching them because they would be trying to save something for the sprint. I was saving nothing. I had one task in my mind, and that was to catch the two leaders. I carved the windy roads, pushing my featherweight Scott Addict and air slicing Mavic wheels through the shortest possible lines. My heart rate was maxed out, my legs were burning, and my mind was spinning. Through all the pandemonium, I may have cracked a smile to myself when the gap started coming down and the finish was drawing near. All of the hard work in the off-season was paying off, and I knew that I was essentially guaranteeing myself a podium spot and would likely compete for the top step.
With just 400 meters to go, I caught the leaders as they sat up and began the characteristic cat-and-mouse game. I decided to force them out of these shenanigans and push right through them—perhaps not the wisest choice for a big guy like me leading up to an uphill finish. Even though I wasn’t fully exerting myself, I was still pretty gassed from the strenuous chase effort. At 200 meters to go, the road kicked up and the two other riders, Alberto Covarrubias from Elevate and Alejandro Padilla from Arapahoe Resources, exploded up the hill. All three of us stayed shoulder-to-shoulder, but I couldn’t come around. Being just a bike-length away from the win was a thrilling way to finish off the race, but I can’t help but replay that finish in my head a hundred times over. So close. Yet still, so far.
Later that night, back at Ian’s, we drank Karbach beer from bomber bottles and ate homemade hamburgers and figured out a plan to save my beloved van. A tow truck dropped it off at a nearby shop, and 270 dollars and a few replaced houses later, it was back in action. The van would live to die another day.