We filed into Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a breezy, sandy, seaside town famously known as the birthplace of aviation. Folks seemed like they were still beaming from that event and cheerfully waved at our group as we zipped on by. Kenny, the public-relations dude, was waving, smiling, and giving thumbs-up to everyone. It was quite amusing. People honked and pointed. As I watched from the group, I grimaced and told myself, "I rode eighteen miles further than he did; thatís why heís so happy."|
Kennyís group pulled into the next rest stop, and since I was interested in studying him, I stopped too. I quietly found an isolated log to sit on, and Kenny came over, sat next to me, and we spoke. We were alone, talking about life and very little about racing. I avoided that. I knew Kenny was a world-class cyclist. I wanted him to be human.
The last twelve miles of the ride were more interesting. After being with the group and having already ridden 106 miles on very little food, what looked like a day of disaster had me feeling spunky. At one point Kenny took over the pace making and led the line of fifteen riders, breaking the wind for us and letting us conserve a little energy. We rotated the leader so our group could ride faster. I always pushed a little harder than the others, show-off that I am, but when Kenny took the lead he split our group of fifteen riders. Half of them just couldnít keep up. I pulled out from the group and chased Kenny across the large gap that had already opened, followed closely by another rider who could only just ride in my wake. We caught him and tucked in behind him. Someone yelled from the behind that the group had broken up, so Kenny politely slowed and we regrouped.
| Then Kenny took over the pace making again, and this time the three of us rode away together. I set the tempo for Kenny and the third guy for a few miles, but when Kenny led, he was a little faster. I observed his style, his cadence, his speed, and after he'd been in front for a while I asked if I could take over. I accelerated to match Kenny, and the third guy was in trouble. He could only follow in our wake. I could see Kenny was getting restless and I wanted to isolate him.|
Thereís a phrase describing a loverís pursuit,"He chased her until she caught him." Iíd finally baited Kenny into action. Our trio was five miles from the finish when we turned onto the huge Washington Baum Bridge, two and a half miles long, arching steeply over Roanoke Sound and into Roanoke Island where the finish awaited us at Manteo. When the climb started, I surged again, like the gazelle luring the lion into his trap.
The third guy cracked, leaving just Kenny and me alone at the front. Hundreds of cyclists had seen and ridden with Kenny that day, but somehow, at the end, only I could match his pace, and I held it to my credit that I had never really taken the time to like him or be in awe of him. I just wanted to fight him. Now it was man against man, and the hillbilly side of my brain took over, telling me I could take this guy. I could hear dueling banjos playing faster and faster; it must have been the heat. At that moment, with deft precision, Kenny exploded and shot around me like a rifle bullet. Stomping on the pedals with everything I had, I accelerated, but being caught in the wrong gear with tired legs, my reprisal was no match for Kennyís focused attack. I was treated to the spectacle of a pro cyclist in full flight. Every ounce of energy, every movement he made pushed his bicycle just a little bit faster. For ten seconds I matched his pace, doing twenty-eight miles an hour up the steep incline with him. It was magic! He wasn't getting away!
| Then my legs turned to rubber, and I had to back off. I lost Kenny over the rise, but hammered with all my heart down the descent into Roanoke Island. I pursued him alone for five miles at ridiculous speeds through the streets of Manteo, blowing past groups of riders and startled motorists who had no idea who I was, only that I was chasing Kenny Labbe, and no one could catch either of us. I was King Kong in a despotic rage, searching for Fay Wray in the streets of New York City! Iíd pass a group of riders, see a U.S. Postal Service jersey, and when it wasnít Kenny Iíd be so furious Iíd want to toss them out of the way. I wanted Kenny!|
It was a lousy ride, but what a finish! I found Kenny signing autographs and posing for photos. When he saw my drooling, panting, gasping body slumped over my bicycle, he broke into a sly smile and said, "Hey, Mike; Great ride!" Showoff! He handed me an autographed postcard with a personal note. When I first saw Kenny that day, I wasnít star struck, but now, Iíd been touched. I felt a little more world-class, and Kenny seemed a little more human. I never did tell him what I wanted to do with his legs.
When look back on that day in May, I see how misfortunes played out to put me in the exact position to challenge Kenny at the finish of this big ride. Had my plans worked out, I wouldíve had a good day, cruising to the finish in Manteo with those fast riders in less than five hours, proud of myself. Instead, I had a day I will never forget. How often does one get a chance to spar with a world-class athlete in their chosen sport? God knew what I had planned that day, but he knew he could do better. I prayed for success; he gave me magic.