Leopard Ladies Kick Butt

Or, how 3 soccer moms, a firefighter, and a tap-dancer take on the Race Across Oregon
by Sandy Kenny.

June 1, 1999 - at computer: "Receiving Messages....message 1 of 25...." - of which 23 are related to the Race Across Oregon. I have put together an all-women team of friends and friends-of-friends. We all love biking, and are intrigued at the idea of a series of hard challenges. But, of course, there are complications! Kids, parents, boyfriends, work, school...all of these can force a last-minute change of plans. I'm trying to stay loose, but suddenly find myself in need of one more rider less than two weeks before the event! I sent out a desperation, blanket email to all the women bike racers I can find email addresses for. I got a response, and a great rider, in less than 8 hours - not bad considering that I'd sent the email out at midnight. I think that's when I knew that we'd be "okay"....

June 9 (Wednesday) The team jerseys arrive: leopard print, mesh, "S-cut" (read: as close to sexy as anything made for performance biking could reasonably be expected to be...). I was kinda neutral on the team jersey issue - it was mainly due to Martha's persuasion that we did it. I'm glad we did - it added a lot of fun and team spirit to our experience.

June 10 (Thursday) I leave work early to pick up the rental vans that Kate has reserved, get there 20 minutes before the place closes. She has ordered 2 Dodge Grand Caravans. When I get them home, I notice that one of them is suspiciously short: it's a regular Caravan, not the "grand" (larger) version. Too late to fix it now....we'll just have to make it work. My friend Tim returns my bike, after spending an embarrassing-to-me number of hours cleaning, lubing, adjusting...he even put together a replacement aerobar pad for me out of a discarded mousepad. All this and delivery service...I feel really pampered, and it's great to know that the bike's in good shape.

June 11 (Friday). The plan is to leave the Valley at around 10, and get to the race start (Ontario) ASAP. Martha shows up first, bringing her husband Tim (our driver extraordinaire). Tim is the sort of person that, once he's accepted the inevitability of Martha's newest crazy endeavor, will jump into it 110% and do whatever it takes to make it work. I immediately relax one little bit more. Shelley brings Lenore (our other support person AND massage therapist!!!!!) shortly after that. Tim packs up one van and takes it to Portland to get Kate and Kathleen. Kate is a great friend that I've met through triathlon. She's a firefighter/ paramedic, and has a great perspective on life - she doesn't sweat the small stuff, since she sees so much big stuff. She's brought the first aid kit - including an IV bag and lots of other goodies we hope are extremely useless. Kathleen is the woman we've gotten at the last minute. She's a bike racer, into velodrome racing, soccer, and tap dance. She's almost young enough to be the daughter of the rest of the team. She's delighted to be doing this, which is what matters the most.

Martha, Shelley, Lenore, and I roll along toward Ontario. We stop in Sisters for lunch, talk a little about the race, but mainly about ourselves, our kids, our jobs, our hectic lives. Shelley is on the Cycle Oregon board, which stimulates a lot of conversation between Shelley and Martha: will Starbucks still be the Official Coffee Vendor???? (Martha is pretty passionate about latte.) At Prineville, we're on The Race Course, so we try to scope it out. We arrive in Ontario around 8, and find the guys from the Mid-Valley Bicycle Club ready to head to the restauant - so we get to have a group dinner, swap blatant lies about strategy, and generally kick back. We find Darlene, who will be our roommate for the night (she's a racer from CorVeloce - a team that consists of Darlene and "four sweaty guys" - she'd rather room with us....)

There is a crew meeting at 11PM. (just for crew, so the riders can sleep - which seems odd to me, 'cause I'd much rather have a sleepy racer than a sleepy driver!) While Tim is off taking care of the business end of our team, Lenore goes to work on the part of our anatomies that got overworked today: she massages the kinks out of our backs and butts. I almost fall asleep while she's working on me, she's so smooth and gentle. It's the first time my mind has slowed down since Memorial Day.

June 12, 1999: 4AM MT: My alarm goes off. I try not to wake anyone. I make coffee (well, not quite coffee: the "hospitality" stuff that you make with the 4-cupper in your hotel room) and lists - a "to do" list for everyone. Tim's list is immense - when I look at it, I feel like I should go wake him up RIGHT NOW so that he'll have time to go out and hire 4 or 5 assistants, just to get his list taken care of.

5AM MT: Everyone else gets up. I shower and distribute lists, then go outside to work on my bike and see if I can't get just a little more nervous. I'm the starting rider, and I for Pete's sake don't wanna be the last one to Vale. Wandering around outside, I run into a lot of people I know, try to chat a little - but there's so much to do that I have to focus on the tasks at hand. Inflate tires - check. Distribute lists. Answer questions about lists. Apologize for illegible handwriting on lists. Lube chain. Help Tim find duct tape. Pee seventeen times. Roll to the start. From here on, it'll be easy....

7AM MT (6AM PDT) - we're off (well, we're a little late, but who's counting). The first several miles - to the John Deere showroom - are under yellow flag conditions. I take the opportunity to scope out the other teams, and to chat with a couple of people who look like they'd be like to chat: Barbara and Bill. I also talk to a tandem team. Tandems are a lot like dogs - you can't talk to their owners without praising them: "Gee - what a beautiful bike" - but theirs a slick-looking fuschia number with a disc wheel - really something. At the official race start, I find myself pretty close to the front - alternately passing and being passed by the tandem team and a whole team that has decided to ride together for a while to warm up. (My team hasn't given much thought to organized warmups - add it to The List - but we did bring a stationary trainer for just-in-case....) The slightly thinner air is a bit of a struggle, but not really all that bad - I decided that the burning sensation in my lungs wouldn't go away, ever, for the next day or so, so I'd better decide that I LIKE it. I roll into Vale feeling pretty good, except for the burning lungs and legs - both of which, of course, I now like....

And Martha takes over. And Kathleen takes over. And then, Shelley takes over in time to make an assault on Brogan Hill. This is as close to a "strategy" as we've come across: Pedal REAL HARD and Stick Shelley With All The Hills. She's a very good climber - built for it, and trains in Roseburg, where there are more hills anyway. Halfway up the hill, as my van passes her, I have second thoughts about giving her the whole climb. When we get in front of her, so that I can see her "game face", the second thoughts dissolve - she's gonna slaughter that hill, no matter what....

At the top, Kate gets to take over for a descent, and then a beautiful flat-to-rolling section that makes me insanely jealous. Fortunately, I'm up next, and I get part of this beautiful stretch before the pavement bends upward again. It's not a huge climb, or an insanely steep one - about 2 miles of steady grade. For about a mile of it, I am being "paced" by a tiger swallowtail butterfly. They can really haul wing, as I was pushing 20 mph at the time - I was rather surprised.

Continuing to roll along...lots of pee stops. After 3 hours on the road, we can all pee with panache, anywhere, anytime...on one of these roadside adventures, I discover puncture vine. I'm actually glad to discover it in my shorts, rather than in any of our tires - that's how much of a team player I am. A friendly, helpful farmer pulls up at just this moment, and informs us that we'll see lots of puncture vine for the next 10 miles or so. I neglect to tell him that I just peed in his "driveway". The spot is already dry. We apply sunscreen, again, and drink more Cytomax.

We roll into Time Station #1 (Stratton Store, Unity) sometime after 10. We're cookin'! We pick up a couple of things (water, water, and water, if memory serves me correctly), and take off. The other van is doing support, and we're just travelin'. Eventually, we come to a stop. Immediately, a weatherbeaten pickup, complete with two weather beaten little old ladies, pulls up behind us. We sigh and get out of the van - I'm expecting a lecture on how we're harrassing livestock or how ladies shouldn't be parading around in tight shorts. Instead, they leap out and hand me our clipboard and my (extremely sweaty and gross already) gloves. They noticed that I'd left them behind at Unity, and chased us down, because it looked important. Note in log: "90 miles: had butts saved by little old ladies...."

Another hill. What a coincidence - I do believe it's Shelley's pull...this time we reward her with some of the descent, though. My van pulls ahead to the Dixie Campground, where we find more water (fill ALL the bottles),and something approaching restrooms. And shade. I also find a very nice massage, as we still have Lenore for our driver. My legs are ready for it, too. I have a short climb (the rest of Dixie Mountain), then a long, pleasant descent into Prairie City. I go on through Prairie City, and have a blast on some very nice flat/gently rolling stuff, until the van catches me and I have to give it up to Martha. Martha rides. Kathleen rides. I hate to admit it, but I don't remember much about that. In John Day, part of the G-T team is hanging out waiting for their rider, and we are pressed for more interviews, which we're pretty cheerful about. She tells us we've been dubbed the "Leopard Ladies" by our fellow competitors - far better than our team name (Veni, Vidi, Velo). But that pretty much kills our planned gas stop in John Day, especially since the one remaining gas station is jammed. We think we remember a gas station in Mount Vernon - press on, we've still got more than half a tank...the vans are getting pretty good mileage.

All this time, we are playing radio games with the other van. Okay, I'm playing radio games, and everyone else is humoring me. Everyone has an issue. Martha's is latte. Mine is radio. We name the vans "Velo 2" and "Velo 3" - because they hold 2 and 3 bikers, respectively. ("Velo 3 to Velo 2 - what is your position?"...."Wheels down, pointing forward...." "Velo 3 clear." - sometimes radio communication is helpful, sometimes it's just a relief to hear that the other van is okay, and still has a sense of humor!)

Somewhere in here, we encounter our "secret weapon pit stop", that I'm not going to tell about, lest others find out (hint: it's not listed in the race guide!). There is a gas station with clean restrooms (Tim even mentioned that the guys' side had helpful little hints on proper aim posted....). A nice gentleman sitting on the bench outside asked us what we were up to. He mentioned that he was there when BikeCentennial came through - "Now THAT was a sight to see..." - I imagine he's spent a lot of hours between '76 and now sitting on that bench, watching whatever happens to come by.

We also have our van's animal encounter somewhere in this stretch: we're pulled over at the side of the road, inhaling turkey sandwiches, paying no attention to the very large and well-equipped motorhome across the road, when suddenly one of its occupants bolted across the highway and vaulted onto Martha and Kathleen's laps. He was a smallish black poodle. I considered the possibility that he was our "manifest destiny" mascot, and that we'd best just shut the van door and drive off with him, as anything else might be bad luck...but we sent him back to his people.

On to Dayville (Time Station 2), which is where I will ride out again. I buy club soda (nausea insurance, we never needed it) and beef jerkey (salt, salt, salt - the mousepad/aerobar pads are gritty with the stuff, so I'd better replace some). I get what is arguably the most beautiful section of the course - flying down a windy section of the John Day River, through part of the fossil beds. The river is to my right - even with the rushing wind, I can still hear it, it's so close - and there is a cliff on my right (the fossil beds, I presume). It's midafternoon, and the sky is intensely blue. It's hot, but not miserably so. I suddenly get overwhelmed by how lucky I am to be able to do these events.

Martha rides. Kathleen rides. She is struggling just a little, and somehow we've (I've) miscalculated mileage, so Tim and I take the van back in case she needs some relief. She gives us the "thumbs up" - she's doin' okay. I tell her that there's a rider in front of her - actually in sight - the first solo rider we'll get to pass (a woman from Idaho). I tell her that she should nail her before the top of the next climb. She grins. She nails the other rider in less than a mile - and the gap was at least 500 yards! Now we know what motivates Kathleen... Somewhere along the way, Kate and Shelley have switched positions, probably to make sure Shelley gets enough climbing in. While they ride, my van goes on to a rest stop. We're disappointed to find no running water - we'll have to get more from the other van, no problem, just have to remember. While we're waiting for them, Kathleen and Tim discover a mutual and simultaneous need to do cartwheels in the grassy area. Many pictures are taken. I work out a strategy for the next bunch of miles, for Tim to convey to the other van. My idea is that we need each van to do one course of "double duty", so that the other can get some rest. We know that we need a well-rested driver for the descent off Mt Hood.. (The reality, in retrospect, is probably that the driver would be so wired by the experience that there's no way that drowsiness would be a factor, but I think we made a wise choice, nonetheless, especially for a first effort.)

Knowing that it will take them some little time to sort out, communicate, and get prepared for the next assault, I tell Tim that I can handle 18 miles. This seems reasonable, since the first part is a great downhill, and then it moves into smooth, gentle rollers all the way to Prineville. This is where Sandy pulls the "Accidental 40K Timetrial". With the gravity assist, I fly through the first part, descending with slightly more gusto than my usual chicken style will permit. Then the terrain becomes exactly what I like best: easy rollers. I have a general sense that I'm flying through this section (I don't ride with a computer, so we'll never know for sure). The van does not arrive. I see a sign for "Prineville: 12 miles" - which means I've done 16, and there's no van, and there's no way in heck they're going to catch me, and set Martha up, within 18... still flying...at precisely 17 miles (1 mile before where I "should have" ended), a nasty head/crosswind picks up. Ride the bike, Sandy - ride the bike. Miles pass. I'm wondering if they're okay, if there's been a mutiny in my absence, if the vans have both simultaneously broken down....still pushing at max...I figure I'll have to call them from Prineville, and am glad that I've memorized one of the cell numbers (hopefully we'll be in range?). 20 miles in, I finally see the van - tell them to go ahead "10 minutes" and set up a transition - meaning that I'd commit to this pace for 10 more minutes, and they'd best supply me some relief...I guess Tim didn't know that I meant Earth minutes, or that if he DROVE for 10 minutes, it'd probably take me longer than that to get to him, especially given the headwind....maybe it really was 10 minutes, but it sure felt long. We figured in the end that I'd done at least 24 miles on that leg....Martha rides. Hates the headwind. We cut her short on the far side of Prineville. Kathleen rides. She hates the headwind, too - but she'd been whining about not getting enough miles, since my leg had gone extra...we leave her out. She smiles! She's riding the bike -she's happy.

We exchange with the other van, and roll up to Time Station #3 (Madras). This is our rest stop. We spend the first bit of it getting ready for the night: lights, reflective tape, warm gear. Some average-looking guy accosts us in the parking lot to ask about his friend, who was doing it solo (Harold Trease?) - I guess we must've looked like bike racers! We were able to tell him that his guy was out there, that he was looking good, once we figured out that he was the guy being supported by his wife and toddler. Just from the little I could see leapfrogging them, that is one mellow kid. We chat briefly - and now have another "friend" to cheer for. Great! My voice has been fried since about 9AM, but what the heck.

Having taken care of all our business, we roll on to the appointed meeting place: the top of the climb out of Warm Springs. (Guess who got stuck with that climb, sports fans!) A solo guy (Greg Pressler?) rolls up to us and stops - he has a flat. I can't for the life of me figure out why they don't just replace his wheel and get on with it - but the flat was on the support vehicle (duh). I offer my can of Fix-A-Flat, which is rejected. They think the problem is beyond that. We lend them our only flashlight as long as we can - until our rder shows up, at which point we wish them well and take off.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Kate and Shelley are fighting the vicious headwind that Kathleen, Martha and I had all been so fond of. To make matters ever so slightly worse, Kate had had that van's animal encounter - she ran over a rattlesnake. She's pretty light, but the contact patches on a Specialized Team Turbo are pretty small, too, and I imagine she was hauling right along, so the force of the collision led to a rapid and ballistic decomposition of rattlesnake tissue. Plainly put, Kate got splattered with snake guts. It was on her glasses. It was also, apparently in her brakes, creating some additional drag (subtitle: "There's a Snake in my Brake"...could be a bad c/w song?). She handled it. She handles everything.

We're all a little nervous about the night riding, but we're prepared to go with it - and Tim is an excellent tracker. We shift our batting order slightly: Kathleen goes first, I get stuck with the climb up to Timberline, and Martha gets to roll down into Wemme, where the other van meets us. The shift in timing and order, combined with the plan for longer pulls, has caught Kathleen a little off guard: she is diabetic, and her blood sugar isn't where she likes it - but she went out and went for it. She passes the next solo guy - Pete B. Night passes are tricky - we can't pull between them until she creates a gap, and he's evidently eager for company. Probably doesn't hurt that Kathleen is really cute! Anyway, we go on like this for miles, essentially tracking both of them, until a CorVeloce guy streaks past both of us on a climb! We hadn't seen them since before Prineville - great! Now there's someone else out there - and they're almost like teammates, since some of us know most of them, and Darlene roomed with us....Kathleen makes a decent chase effort on the CorVeloce guy - but gets momentarily confused because she's not sure if our van, or Pete's, is the one following her. If she goes, she's afraid she'll lose support....but she does create enough of a gap that the other (more experienced) crew hollers to us that it's okay to pull through.

The effort costs her, though, and as soon as she's enough in front of the solo rider that we won't have to pass him again, she gives us the "thumbs down". We swap - now it's my turn, and it's 23 miles to the summit, instead of the 17 we'd planned...okay. If it gets bad, Kathleen can squeeze out a couple of miles while I gather myself. We don't want Martha to get too lathered up before her downhill leg - which she wanted to do as badly as all of the rest of us wanted NOT to do. So off I go, climbing, steady, breathing, climbing, shifting to keep effort up and steady. I keep it below the blowing up point. Night riding is GREAT. The weather is pleasant, there are stars everywhere (I don't get much chance to see them, with my head hanging down and my tongue hanging out, but it's nice to know that they're there). I keep getting closer to the CorVeloce team. I have some hope of actually reeling them in! I up the effort from "not-blowing-up" to "not-quite-blowing-up". I'm getting closer...aaack., no fair - he pulls off right before I get a chance to pass him, so I don't quite get the satisfaction... I tell Tim I can hold it for 3 more miles, but then a significant downhill starts, 2 miles after the "I can only take 3 more miles" point. I thought all I had to do was go UP - this was NOT in the contract, and it's cold as Hades. I can't see hauling Kathleen out, now - she'd freeze, and then immediately have to go into climbing mode. Plus, each transition takes a couple of minutes, because we have to directly follow the racer (we can't send the van ahead to set up a transition). I concentrate on Not Freaking Out, and Descending Steadily so as not to be smushed by my own support vehicle. I do okay, but I'm glad it was a short one, particularly as underdressed as I am. Between the adrenaline and the rest my legs got going down, I feel pretty good about the final assault on Timberline. A couple of miles before the top, I meet Del Sharffenberg - the lead solo guy, and an old friend of Shelley's. He's looking strong, climbing steadily. I blow past him, make him catch me, and we talk a little. He's been feeling okay, been sick a little. I tell him what I know about where the other guys are. I leave him eventually, and go on to a spot about 1/2 mile from the summit. This will leave Martha just enough work (hopefully) to get her legs loose before the descent.

She's flying! Martha is small and light, and has also stripped her bike down to carbon, titanium and fairy dust, so she doesn't build up huge speeds - and she's playing a little conservative. Still, she's having a blast. Tim does a great job of following her - she's his wife, and he doesn't want to raise the kids by himself. We radio ahead to the crew in Wemme. Once they get rolling, we move on to Troutdale - civilization!

Well, semi-civilization. Time Station #4 is an absolute hole (Hint!Hint! George...) - a minimart that shall remain nameless in the hopes that your author can avoid being sued by their corporate lawyers. The kid running the place won't let us use the restrooms - says he'll give us some toilet paper, and we can pee in the bushes. In Troutdale. At 3:00 in the morning. Great! Del's wife is hanging around there, hoping to see him. We tell her what we know. Del had blown past us while we were making the Sandy-Martha rider swap, which meant that he took the descent off Timberline/Govt Camp without extra warmth (wouldn't've been my choice, but I didn't go on to win the solo division, so what do I know). He must've pulled off for a while somewhere in between, because we never saw him again. She sweet-talks the minimart guy, somehow, into letting us use the restroom - if we slink around the counter at a funny angle so that the video doesn't pick us up. What a sweetie! He goes outside to wash his friend's car, while we sort out the bikes and get ready for Portland.

We get lost in Portland. 'Nuff said. Won't happen again.

By the time we get to the other van, it's beginning to act like it will be light again. We're glad that the following part is almost over, and very glad to see the other van. From Scappoose, we leapfrog the vans, so that the transitions fly again. Everyone is riding well, and feeling really positive about finishing this thing up, well in advance of my projected time of 30 hours.

We know that we're making good time - and as proof of it, we pull within a couple of minutes of the CorVeloce team as we all ascend out of Rainier. They had passed us at the Govt Camp switch (where we swapped riders) and had been about 15-20 minutes up at one point. This will be my last pull, and I'm not leaving anything. Kate does a quick bit of descending, hits a little hill, and then a longish descent. Shelley takes over, riding very strong - but the CorVeloce team just keeps pulling away. We later learn that they'd switched to 5-10 minute sprint pulls to build up a gap....something to file away for next time.

Shelley flies into the exchange at the fish hatchery (Knappa), and Martha takes off. She leaves nothing - I have really, truly, never seen Martha work that hard on a bike in my life. Kathleen will be our finisher. She starts from Svenson - this gives her a good run at what (I thought was....) the last little hill on the route. She is totally psyched to be the finisher, and will go out with everything.

This is the point where Sandy almost makes a major tactical blunder - fortunately the strength of the team allowed us to recover. We wanted to parade in behind Kathleen, all wearing our (now very smelly) Leopard Lady uniforms. I figured that the logical place to launch from was the Welcome To Astoria sign, just over 2 miles from the finish. Tim did a great job of giving us warning that she was coming . The Welcome To Astoria sign is of course perched on a hilltop, and of course Kathleen hit it with incredible speed, and of course we didn't, and of course that made a difference on the nasty little uphill on the other side....in fact, we almost got dropped by our teammate, and had to do some serious teamwork to regroup. Martha hung with me, while Shelley and Kate got back on - then I gunned it for Kathleen's tailbone, with the gang hanging on for dear life. We made it - but next year I'll start the parade a little later.

The CorVeloce guys were out helping us, pointing out the last couple of turns, and Kathleen sprinted through the finish line at 27:44. Lots of hugs, grins, pictures, T-shirts, hugs, pictures...at one point the race director was taking pictures with 5 different cameras. Showers (a hilarious scene at the Red Lion - Shelley negotiated what was basically an hourly rate, then we pull in with Tim and 5 ladies in skin-tight leopard apparel....), lunch, repack the vans AGAIN, and home. Whew!

Next year: Return Of The Leopard Ladies....

Copyright ©1999 Sandy Kenny. All Rights Reserved.