[Before I begin, I want to give a big shout out to Chris Wilcox, the Tulsa Wheelmen, Eucha Volunteer Fire Department, and all the volunteers that made for such a safe, smoothly-run, and awesomely fun race. Even if you’re not a racer, you need to drive up and check this event out!]
With the weather looking very Oklahoma-ish, riders converged on the small town of Eucha, OK (pronounced “oochee”), a few miles west of Jay. Winds were strong but erratic, mostly from the South, though rapidly shifting SE and SW; there one second, gone the next. Drizzling rain was followed by hard wind, then eerie calms. Lightning in the distance (thankfully in the distance), but the charge in the air was all around.
It was race time.
The Eucha Classic is not a course for the faint of legs. A 34 mile loop encompassing four categorized climbs and over 2,000 feet of elevation gain per loop. Hard, grueling climbs, fast descents, and sharp turns, with beautifully forested countryside all around. Not that you get to really appreciate much of it: either you’re flying by at 40+ mph, or you’re crawling up what feels like the longest hill in the world at walking speeds, too out of breath to notice anything but your burning lungs.
As a Cat 5 (that’s an entry-level road racer), you don’t get much glory. That’s usually reserved for the 3’s and up, where racing has been elevated to an art form. As a Cat 4, you’re in the “every racer” group, with those who don’t want to be Cat 3’s, or those who have moved up after their ten races from Cat 5.
But just because the Cat 5’s haven’t earned their stripes doesn’t mean they can’t race. Unlike last year’s free-for-all, this year felt like a clinic. Biggest difference? Teamwork (and some indisputably strong riders who will be catting up in a minute or two).
A group of Tulsa Wheelmen – led by Greg Peterson and James Holcomb – took early control of the race with a few other strong riders (including Randy Jackson, Jeff Fox, Ron Willis, and Joshua May). They paced the climbs so we weren’t burned up. They ramped the pace at different intervals, shelling those who couldn’t hold and closing gaps on the few flyers that went out on their own.
At one point I heard a rider I wasn’t familiar with grumble on why we weren’t going faster, and it made me smile. See, the team had it right: you don’t need to roll a super-fast race to win. You just need to cross the line first. With serious climbing ahead and unpredictable winds, it made strategic sense to hold back, reserve.
Well, unless you’re Greg, who appeared unstoppable and unperturbed by the climbs and the wind both. I don’t think his “Are we racing yet?” look ever left his face the whole race. James was right there with him, riding in an almost Zen-like state, looking relaxed and effortless, like this was just another group ride for him.
The last climb – a 2-miler at 4% grade that just grinds you down – was where the front break we’d ridden in for 30 miles finally started to splinter. Six pulled away – including four Tulsa Wheelmen – followed by two more racers, followed by myself, Josh May, and Paul Bush. I wish I could’ve held with that front six and witnessed the final sprint for the line where Greg and James went 1/2, followed quickly by Steven Sharpe in 3rd, then Jeff Fox, Randy Jackson, and Ron Willis. But everyone has limits, and I blew past mine well before we hit that last climb.
Joshua May passed me near the top of the climb, and I only had enough left in the tank to hang on, coming in hard on his heals with Paul Bush right behind. I came in 10th, just making my goal for this race.
Last year, I had finished this race wondering why people were so into racing. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the course, and the support and atmosphere were great, but the actual racing? It felt chaotic, aggressive, even dangerous. And that’s not me. But this race wasn’t anything like last year (apart from the same excellent course, organization, and support, of course). This year, I didn’t feel that aggressiveness. Instead, I felt camaraderie. I didn’t feel chaos; I felt control. Despite the inherent dangers, I felt aware. A lot of that might be just learning more about racing and tactics, and having done it once before. But most of it I believe was from the excellent racers who I had the privilege to ride with.
Standing there with the team after the race, watching the other racers fly in from various Cats and distances and feeling a euphoric sense that I’ve only felt on a few great tour rides before, I realized: THIS is racing. This is why they do it; why I did it. And why next year, I’ll be driving up here to do it again.