This past July, I elected myself and a good friend for the TransAlp—a seven-day mountain bike stage race from Austria to Italy. 308 miles, 57,000 feet of climbing. If you do the math, that’s between 7,000 and 10,000 feet of vertical per day, every day, for seven days in a row. It’s hard to wrap your head around. I think I didn’t. You know how your brain kind of seizes up and shorts out when you think about what’s a billion million trillion gazillion miles past the end of the universe? That’s probably what was happening when I hit “register.”
I had done this race in 2016 so it’s not like I didn’t know. But I was younger then, and I had eight months to train. This time I had four months to train with a nice Covid curveball in the middle. And that is how, on the first stage on the first day, I got swept.
I stopped to take off a jacket and heard someone roll up behind me and also stop. “Ah! Company here at the back of the race” I thought. But while he had the same top-tube TransAlp route sticker, he didn’t have a number plate. Oh. God. The truth dawned on me slowly and was accompanied by the sinkiest sinking feeling of all time.
“Uh…are you…the sweep??”
He just nodded.
“Well, shit. That’s embarrassing” I said as I pedaled away, trying to remind myself that it wasn’t his fault I was slower than molasses in January.
“Sweep” refers to the person or persons who go last in a race to herd the lost, the injured, the stragglers, or the hella slow. They also take down the route markings when the last person has gone through. Now, I’m not fast and I wasn’t expecting to be anywhere near the podium in this particular race. But DFL (Dead F*ing Last)? It was humiliating on a cellular level.
Theirs was a silent presence next to me on every grueling, interminable climb. Have you ever been on a ride where a halo of gnats or small annoying flies surrounds your head and mimics your every move? You speed up to outrun them, they speed up too. You slow, they slow. Haha! We’re here! We escort you! You’re welcome.
They were a constant reminder of my suckitude, and led to an unhelpful mantra that my brain and ego co-wrote in a diabolical collaboration.
“Last, last, dead-f*ing last. You’re Last! You’re Last! Nobody can you pass. You suck. You’re last.”
While this song played unhelpfully in my head, I tried to conjure a diplomatic way of asking the sweep if he could please buzz off, leave me solo with my suffering and self-recrimination.
“Hi. So…yeah, it’s really pretty embarrassing to be last…”
He was silent for a moment and I wondered if he’d heard me, or if I was presumptuous in assuming he spoke English.
“Well, somebody has to be last.”
ARGH!!! Not Helpful!
These folks were likely volunteers, the glue that makes most bike events function. They were knowledgeable, trained in first-aid, and would no doubt save many an ass during the course of this event, so it made me a jerk to compare them to a swarm of insects. I’d have to get over it. If he was going to be my escort, I might as well get to know him.
“What’s your name?”
We settled into a nice back and forth—the basics—where are you from, have you done this race before, how many times, etc. We talked German and American politics, we talked bikes, we talked weather—he in conversational rhythm, me in halting, wheezing bursts as we climbed our third, fifth or ninth pass of the day. I told him I was “on assignment” for a bike magazine. He was again silent for a moment (this was becoming a trend), and I wondered what he’d say next.
“Most journalists, they do not have to work this hard.”
Yes! Vindication. Thank you Klaus. I’m sorry I called you a gnat.
Though I started every stage thinking today’s the day I’ll outrun the sweep, I always spent at least a little time with Klaus or his colleagues. Hope springs eternal, they say. I’d hear the hundredth crunch of tires behind me, look over my shoulder and sigh.
“Good morning, Klaus.”
“Good morning, Maureen.”
“Shall we climb six passes today?”
“Okay Klaus. Let’s do it.”