Pavel is recovering from the head trauma and surgery on his face. He sits on a daybed in the same position for a couple days with gauze over his mouth. One evening, he makes it upstairs to video chat with his parents. We hear yelling in Russian. From his medication bottle, I learn that Pavel’s real name is Pavlick. He pronounces the Europeanized version “Pavél,” and has stylized his last name as “Marossine” — more French clay court tennis player, less Eastern European immigrant. “Suave,” he explains. I resist teasing him that he should have gone with “Pablo.” He’s described to me the difficulty of moving as a shy teenager to a Hispanic high school in Queens, and always leaves out his Queens cross country championship and the fact that he can run a fifteen-minute 5K. And that he’s handsome under all that gauze. Or was.
In a couple days, Pavel forces himself to chew a bite of hard food. Then he starts refusing painkillers. By the time he’s taken a walk down the valley, he says he’s racing. David growls that he’s not allowed to.
Racers start to roll in. Crit racer Gabe Lloyd proposes marriage to national track champion Casey Manderfield on the climb to the pass, and we celebrate. Todd, who built the prize bike, and his friend Kirk ride in, at the end of a weeks-long tour. Hannah Trimble, driving up, picks up a guy from L.A. who slept in the middle of nowhere last night. Some local racers come. At this point, Dave is relieved at how few racers there are, and he smiles with Pavel, and shows him photos of the helicopter.
We have been laughing off Pavel’s insistence on racing, but when the morning comes, he’s kitted up, bandaged face and all, and he isn’t laughing. None of us has any say.
* * *
The pack is shivering in the rain up near the Gold Cord mine. David tries to put the fear of God in everyone at the start line. But everyone knows their limited control over fight and flight after the start gun. There’ll be a rocky descent, everyone bunched up, relying on each other not to go down. Then, a massive gravel climb up over Hatcher Pass. Ben Renshaw lights the dynamite start signal. It quakes into us. Rocks move. David rips down the mountain.
The pack shudders down from the mine. David sprints between the corners; at the apex of each turn, he’s back on the pedals. With 8,000 feet of elevation gain ahead, he’s ready to make every use of the gap between what madness is to him and the rest of the pack on descents. There are stronger climbers.
Stuck in the back, I push to bridge up on the flat road at the bottom to climb with the leaders but don’t make contact. Dave, Jamie Stull, and, damn, Pavel have already taken off up the brutal mountain climb. The wet gravel is loose and chunky. If you get out of the saddle, you spin your rear wheel. Stull surges past David halfway up the climb, but his body language is labored. It’s the first climb, but it’s devastating the pack already: everyone is redlined at nausea, muscle pain, oxygen debt and gasping at the cold rain.
Pulling on the bars against my pedal strokes, it takes everything not to tip one direction or another on the steep last push near the summit. Coming over the pass, you are first pitched up at the white sky and then down, on a valley of rain. Pavel hammers it over the summit, trying to catch Stull. He doesn’t sit down. David is surveying them both from behind, assessing what to expend when. He catches both racers on the descent.
The pass has separated the racers. I’m in the middle, and the lead group is gone when I descent. Kirk is now flying down behind me. We yo-yo for a bit on some rollers and shorter descents, and once it flattens out, start to work together. Kirk tests out descents, attacking the wet soil downhill with his fatter tires; I tow him on flats. His pulls don’t build our pace, but give me a chance to rest every couple minutes. I worry that the group up the road is organized and moving farther out of reach by the second.
Up ahead, David yells to Stull that he’s most worried about the chase group of Bernstein, Gabe and Pavel, and suggests they work together. But David drops Stull on a descent and finds himself hurtling into the cold rain alone. Stull’s wife drives between the minute gap between the two racers, giving time information.
Kirk and I put in about twenty rolling miles together, sometimes past heavy machinery combing the potholed hardpack into marshmallowy dirt, and finally hit a paved section. Still no racers. I take a long break so I can give us a good effort. Finally, we see a rider. Three would be real nice. I get legs and sweep forward, head down. Rhythm, breathing. Finally, I check back for Kirk. Shit. He is way back, not on my wheel. Todd is just ahead. I bridge up, and try to pull Todd. He is in rough shape, and sends me on after a bit with a push.
I start moving, feeling stronger. Toward the turnaround, David and Stull ride by the opposite direction, having made it to the turnaround. David is on Stull’s wheel, punishing him for attacking at the halfway point. Then Pavel and Gabe. I get happy, cheer on Pavel and build speed into the halfway point.