Events: The Trexlertown Sunday Derby
(2015) I had a secret weapon going into the Derby: I was going to utilize the Java Joint near the start of the ride by ordering one of their red eyes. I was then going to remind myself for the first portions of the Derby to be patient before unleashing my caffeinated missile-self to the front. It was perfect. How could anything go wrong?
Except that Java Joint is apparently closed on Sundays. I stared out the windshield of my car at Rodale Fitness Park feeling as though I had a wet wick. I purposely left out coffee prior to departing because of Java Joint’s great coffee. Now I had to refocus and sort out a second plan amidst a perfect coffee sort of day. The roads were damp from the overnight rain, the winds were blowing, and the temperature had dropped twenty degrees in the past couple of days. I began preparing by utilizing the car's seat warmer. I was also waiting to meet up with my buddies Eric and Josh who would share in my suffering.
There is something to be said about the Derby ride that has been going strong for just shy of forty years. Started in 1976, the route has been slightly altered over the years to accommodate for sprawl, however it’s not far off from the original, or so I’m told. The ride attracts pros and sportsmen alike. There are male riders, female riders, old riders, and young riders. It’s the ride to show off the team colors, or lack thereof. It’s the ride to converse with your paceline buddy in the first two-thirds. It’s been going for almost four decades on the backs of rural riders through Mennonite farmland. That’s probably the most impressive part: that a ride has so many participants in such a sparsely populated area.
The Derby starts as it always does, with a scream at 10:00am from Paul Pearson, one of the leaders of the ride. He’s easy to point out, as he is one of a handful of riders who have not opted into the option of headgear. The circling riders warming up - Eric, Josh, and myself among them - head over to the roll-out as it heads its southwesterly direction. Today felt a bit light possibly due to the early rain or the lingering Thanksgiving hangover, but that would change in the ensuing miles.
Once we are out in the country, the ride comes alive. It’s a living entity rolling through farmland. One can’t help but feel part of something larger. This isn’t a regular group ride. The two-by-two formation feels comfortable. The twenty-mile-per-hour pace never feels taxing. (It will be uncomfortable soon enough.) The leading riders take pulls that are never really timed. Actually they’re quite remarkable in length. It’s common to have riders pull for five or six miles before dropping down the sides of the group, the peloton snaking between the two to give room. Taking a few moments to look around the ride swelled noticeably. It is fascinating to see the add-on riders join by riding past and hooking back, by holding onto a rural stop sign still clipped in and waiting, or the perfectly timed intersection of simply riding into the group. There is a lot going on and very little going on at the same time.
The Derby has several unique trademarks one will most likely experience. With the wet road there was the presence of sloppy horse poop on the road. Mennonite buggies use these roads regularly with their horse-drawn buggies. With a little spray comes more than precipitation. The ride does its best to avoid the manure, of course. Another unique experience is the amount of train track crossings. The same track is crossed four times, three in the beginning and once during the Derby portion. One final unique experience comes with the turns in the farmland. There are more ninety-degree banked turns than I can count. The feeling of winding through these turns is the same as coming in for a landing at an airport. It’s obvious these turns are here to go around someone’s property instead of through it.
There are landmarks that stand out to heighten the senses that the hammer is about to drop. Turning down School Road is the most obvious as it is the last road prior to turning onto the drag of Fleetwood Lyons Road. We reached the intersection in under one hour. We were going to do nearly the same distance in half the time. The group was edgy compounded by a Mennonite buggy holding our left turn. I started to prepare to suffer.
The group gives everyone a chance to come together before heads swivel checking for riders gambling by trying to jump off the front. I decided to be patient and let the ride unfold before making any moves. Typically I find myself at the front by accident with my brain shouting at me, “We’re not supposed to be here!” Before I know it, I’ve exploded and dropped back. I had to avoid that today.
That feeling of being part of something larger now shifts in the opposite direction by way of shedding riders. Our northeast turn unfurls a relatively straight ribbon of pavement with a generous shoulder. I was conserving because I knew of the deceptive shallow climbs that could explode any possibility of being at the final sprint. I kept repeating to myself, “Wait. Keep waiting. Wait just a bit longer.” The group was moving along easily at speeds under forty-miles-per-hour, and guys were soloing to the front of the line. “Ignore that,” I thought, trying to prevent my regular desire to chase everything down.
I was toward the back and enjoying my shelter from the wind. The two-by-two swelled to three-wide in certain parts. I was ok with this too as it blocked more wind. I could keep this up all day. I started thinking I was a bit farther back than I wanted. Halfway back would be an ideal spot. That’s when a teenaged rider went by on my right and I got on his wheel. I figured to hang there and let him pull me to where I wanted to be. But he picked a great line and I blew past the spot I wanted to be. He went straight to the front. This is not where I wanted to be!
The group fractured a bit. It would come together and fracture again. This was happening all around me, within two or three riders. This was putting me into a bind; I would have to dig deep. Another attack by a larger group actually gave me relief as it padded the front again. Riders on the front started voicing their agitation that no one was pulling through. My lane decided to overcompensate and rocketed to the front. We blew by two Mennonite buggies at over thirty-miles-per-hour. “How uniquely Pennsylvanian,” I thought for a brief moment. Where else does a Derby have to dodge that type of obstacle?
I got sucked along to the front. I started to panic as the road became more and more open. How was I going to deal with this? My time ran out and I was on the front. The headwind beat me back as I was also going up an incline. I could feel every fiber of muscle in my body work extra while commenting, “How did you manage to do this again?” I swung off to let the next guy pull through. He said something I didn’t catch. I dropped back telling myself to hang in there. For crying out loud we just started and I'm already saying, "Hang in there!" There was a larger fracture and I pulled back into the rotation. More comments about riders not pulling through could be heard as I moved back up and, yet again found my stupid self on the front. This was it. I couldn’t keep this up.
I swung off and dropped back. I kept looking for the rear of the group. I had tried this before in my first Derby ride, which was my most successful. This wasn’t a tactic today, though. This was survival. I saw Josh and Eric ride by. I tried to catch onto the last wheel. I freewheeled for a moment to catch my breath and lost the wheel. I sprinted again, freewheeled again, and finally got unhitched by a handful of headwind that intervened in my efforts letting me know I was done for. The missile of this morning had just crashed in some scrub brush just outside of Topton.
And there I was. Doing the ride of shame so very far out. I went through Topton alone. I made the turn at Mertztown alone. I actually caught and passed the last guy whose wheel I was trying to grab. Aside from him I was alone. Luckily I had ridden the Derby enough to know my way back. I was contemplating taking a photo of the barren road ahead of me to contrast the first photo. I was too annoyed to do it.
After a while, riders started showing up going the opposite direction as I came into the back way of Breinigsville. Clearly they were finishers. At intersections many riders were gathered. They were discussing how they did, I'm sure. I put my head down and continued to return to the start. I saw no other riders. It’s like that large group just vanished. I plodded along just as helpless as a grounded aircraft.
I finally caught site of Eric and Josh, catching them before turning into the parking lot. They both finished in the group, a great result for both. They said they knew I was out of luck when they saw how fast I dropped off. We finally had our chance to converse though it was much later in the day than everyone else’s. The Derby was over in just under 100 minutes for me.
Stowing my gear and heading for home I thought of a pro rider I know who once lived in Washington, D.C. and had commented on a derby ride there. He said he would show up each week. He would try to hang in there just a little bit longer each time. Something must’ve worked because he moved out to Colorado to continue his pro cycling career. This ride is much the same way. It’s one of those experiences where so many skills can be tested: bike handling, tactics, conditioning, and yes, even winning. Years ago, I used to channel my fear of being dropped because I had no idea where I was supposed to go, as evidenced by actually getting dropped in the final mile. My first time I hadn’t been aware we were so close to the finish. As the off-season progresses, I’ll try to reverse my backwards slide in the Derby. Even if things don’t work out, where else can one go to spend ninety minutes with current and former pros who have enough conditioning to be able to verbally flog those who don’t pull through while being on the rivet?