The Minnesota Albatross
Have you heard of the curse of the Albatross? It’s an old tale but it still lives today as a figure of speech. The albatross is a large sea bird that ranges widely in the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific. The Albatross is also a metaphor for dead weight or burden one must carry, not literally, but a stigma of some kind that one cannot easily discard. This stems from an old story of a sailor that killed an albatross that was following the ship. This was thought to bring bad luck upon the ship. His fellow sailors forced him to wear the dead albatross around his neck as penance to ward off bad luck. Why do I tell this tale? Because we have our own ancient curse right here in Minnesota!
Each spring I look forward to the first big ride of the season, the Minnesota Ironman. This year was my 31st Ironman so I am no stranger to this ride. It’s also a big draw for the Saturday morning group because it is the first century of the season so it is eagerly anticipated. The weekend before the Ironman was picture perfect spring weather which resulted in a peloton of twenty riders Saturday morning, which ties a record for the biggest group we have had. At our traditional stop we sat around in the sunshine at the coffee stop and soaked in the sun as we watched the expensive cars of Wayzata drive by. Soon the conversation turned to the Ironman. Kurt the strong man was the first one to break the spell of a perfect day. “Have you seen the forecast for next Sunday’s Ironman?” he asked. As the sun warmed me I felt a shiver go down my spine. I knew the legend of the Ironman well. If the weekend before the Ironman is nice Ironman day will turn to crap. Wind, rain, snow, sleet, we have seen it all Ironman day. With dread I turned to Kurt and waited for his reply. “It doesn’t look good” he said. My buoyant spirits sank as his answer started to weigh upon me. How could this be after last year’s thunderstorm and cold weather? Six of the past eight Ironman rides have been rained on. How could this be happening again? It’s a curse!? Suddenly I remembered the legend of the Albatross. What Albatross have we killed to deserve this? I wondered if we made Ray the rat bustard wear a dead bird around his neck for the week if we could ward off the bad weather. My fantasy ended when the call was made to continue the ride.
The Faithful Gather
As the week progressed the weather forecast grew grimmer. It was going to be in the 40s, windy, and rainy on ride day. So it was unexpected to wake to dry weather with rain not predicted to move in until mid-morning. There had been lots of chatter of people still doing the ride despite the weather but it’s only brave talk until you show up. The faithful trio of chipper Steve G., big Wayne, and I arrived first at the Waconia High School. I was shocked when the Maple Grove crew of Kurt the strong man, Ray the rat bustard, and Steve G. the cramper arrived breaking all the well-defined Maple Grove acceptable weather riding rules. Joel the silent assassin was also there but he was riding the 55 mile ride with a friend. Dan the man was seen at registration going with his usual mysterious plan of doing his own thing. Craigslist Craig also showed as well as Rick Z the punisher. We started under grey skies with a peloton of eight.
Wind? What wind?
The ride started south with a NE wind as we pedaled effortlessly at 19 to 20 mph. Only eight miles into the ride the rain started to spit on us. At mile 11 the call was made to pull over to put on rain protection. It was now that we turned north and felt the resistance of a diagonal headwind. It’s not too bad I thought to myself. (This is the first sign things are going to go horribly wrong.) It was only sprinkling on and off at this point. At mile 24 we had our first rest stop and made it a quick one. Still no sign of mysterious Dan.
Soon after we bid farewell to the 55 mile riders as we looped out to the west, north, and then back east to the second rest stop. Spirits were still high as we worked together but as we turned north and then east it was obvious the wind was increasing. Ray serenaded us with his tenor voice with songs, if heard in the corporate world, would result in an HR moment. As we pulled into the rest stop at mile 52 I started to realize the wind, not the rain, was going to be the story of this Ironman.
While at the rest stop I pulled out my phone to see a warning of heavier rain approaching. I had resisted it but finally I put on my rain pants. As we headed out we all knew the second half of the ride would one day live on in the stories we would tell. Shortly after the rest stop Rick Z the punisher said something about a century the following weekend and turned right onto the short cut. We all looked at him go wondering if he made the right call.
Is this really Dan?
We sailed west talking as a group with a diagonal tailwind. I was getting concerned how far west we were going knowing we would have to fight the wind every mile we backtracked east. The fun stopped as we turned north and then finally east. OMG! The wind was horrible! It now qualified as gale force. We struggled as a group when suddenly we came upon the man of mystery, Dan the man! Dan, former racer and master of the echelon, started to organize us into a wind battling force of eight. He barked out orders on how to move in an echelon as we looked for shelter from the wind. At one point I realized Craig was off the back of the group. Then I saw Dan suddenly sit up and fall off the group. That’s it, he’s toast I thought. Much to my surprise within minutes the next thing I see is Dan pulling Craig back to the group. What? I haven’t seen Dan show this kind of strength in years. Surly this won’t last I reasoned.
The group was stretched across the road fighting the wind and I was trying to tuck to the right of Craig while riding on the edge of the pavement. With just one second of inattention I rode off the pavement into the grass. I came to a halt and walked the bike back onto the road. I looked down the road to see a gap of more than 100 feet had already opened. I put my head down to chase but the wind kept trying to push me back into the ditch. I gave it my all to close the gap but the gap only grew. I was starting to think I was toast when I saw Steve G. look back and give the order to soft pedal. Even with this gift it was still hard to regain contact with the group.
As we continued our struggle someone said is that sleet? I had just noticed the rain now had a sting to it. Sure enough, as if gale force winds and lite rain wasn’t enough it was now sleeting! Why do we live here? The sleet was short lived but the wind was unforgiving. I thought about the ancient sailor who killed the Albatross. What did we do to deserve the curse of the Ironman? I had expected Dan to weaken yet here was Dan taking long pulls at the front. At one point we had a tail wind and Dan went to the front pushing the pace. I thought my legs were going to explode. This was no fluke! The Dan of old was back and he was strong!
Are we there yet?
As we approached the town of New Germany Craig had a soft tire. He pumped it up to ride into town but it quickly lost air. Steve G. dropped back to be Craig’s wingman as we continued on to what we thought was a rest stop fast approaching. This was a new Ironman route so we were fooled into thinking a rest stop was soon at hand. It was a struggle as we rode east into the wind of legend and with stomachs that needed refueling. Finally we arrived at the rest stop in Mayer. It wasn’t pretty. Riders sat around in a daze mumbling to themselves something about the wind. As we shoveled down the food I received a text from Craig saying he was out of spares and couldn’t fix the continuing flats. He called for extraction from Jim of Dirty Lemming Gravel Grinder fame who lives nearby in Watertown. Steve S. called to say he was taking a short cut and would meet us down the road. I reasoned there was only 15 miles left and it should be fairly easy. Why do I think like this? It always gets me into trouble.
We struck out for the final leg of the ride with the first stretch heading north and north east. I hung onto the group from the back as my legs burned. As we turned south we came across Steve G. so once again the group was whole. Big Wayne was up front pushing the pace as if he hadn’t ridden the last 90+ miles. I gritted my teeth to hang onto the group. Finally we were on the outskirts of Waconia and the end was in sight. We had battled rain, sleet, cold, and wind, oh the wind, for the 51st running of the Minnesota Ironman.
Why do we punish ourselves in rides like these? If this were a normal Sunday not one of us would ride but this was no normal Sunday. This was the Minnesota Ironman! We ride because of the adventure it brings into our otherwise normal lives. While our families were home dry and warm we banded together to fight the elements. We came to the start eager and excited to experience yet another epic adventure together. The memory of battling the wind together will live on in my memory for years to come. But what makes the memory special is the comradery of the group. There will be more adventures to come! Will you be there too?
Saturday Morning Group Ride Historian