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Only two of 221 cyclists refused to turn—three-time Olympic cyclist and 1981 Ironman winner John Howard and George Yates, a triathlete from Corona del Mar, Calif. A friend of Allen's watched Howard and Yates streak alone through Plan-du-Var and was no less confused than Allen. He had waited for the swimming leaders to leave the water and then had sped ahead to watch them race through the gorge. So where were they? Howard and Yates were much slower swimmers than Molina, Allen and Scott. Could the two have passed them on the road? Howard is a superb cyclist, but he wasn't riding a motorbike. When 10 minutes had passed and no other cyclists came by, it seemed the only plausible explanation was that most of the world's best triathletes had crashed like a pile of pickup sticks. Certainly they couldn't have taken a wrong turn, not all of them. Allen's friend chased the leaders into the gorge.
But were they the leaders? Did merely being on the right course make Howard and Yates the frontrunners? Certainly Molina, Allen and Scott had covered more miles. Couldn't they just do the race backward? Howard, when told he was in the right, asked, "Will I be disqualified?" Were Molina, Allen and Scott going to be disqualified, along with virtually the entire field?
Allen caught Molina in Plan-du-Var. They had completed the nine-mile loop, and as they moved into the gorge, Howard and Yates were 10 minutes ahead of them and Scott was five to the rear. And all were in danger of becoming dehydrated. There were too few aid stations, and the volunteers who manned them were ludicrously ill-equipped for the job. When the cyclists cried out for water, if they got anything at all it was a banana or a foul-tasting European electrolyte drink that would cause problems later.
The Gorges de la Vesubie is the pièce de résistance of what may be the world's most spectacularly scenic triathlon bicycle course. Jagged, vertical walls keep much of it forever cool and shady; its ribbon of road is a lip at the edge of eternity, and the river beckons far below. But most of the bicycle racers, with the possible exception of Scott, seemed far too single-minded to dwell on scenery. Scott, laboring up a hill, seemed dreamy and sluggish. Two cyclists whizzed by, dropping him to fifth in the majority group. That was hardly surprising.
The summer just ending had been the most difficult of Scott's life. Achilles tendon trouble had kept him out of a June race, Molina had beaten him in July, and he had withdrawn from two other summer races. Personal troubles were laying him low, and there were days when he didn't even train. In fact, in the five days before he'd left for Nice, he'd reduced his training to almost nothing.
In retrospect, his year had been a mess from the start. In late January, returning from a frigid cycling workout, he'd skidded on, of all things, a pile of crushed olives and hit the pavement hard, gashing his left elbow and badly bruising his right hip. He couldn't run for a month. Then one day while the hip was healing he was time-trialing, moving along at 25 mph, head down, eyes on the white line at the road's edge. This time he hit a dead possum, went hurtling over his handlebars, opened the elbow wound again and wrenched the hip. He continued to run and ride, but it hurt.
Olive Pits and Dead Possums would make a perfect title for Scott's biography. Even by triathlon's strange standards, there's nothing typical about his life or his training regimen, which are practically one and the same. In both there's that strain of self-imposed stoicism. One morning in early January, two weeks before the olives incident, after completing a 10-mile run, he put on his bicycle shorts and shoes, a goose-down vest, a pair of Duegi insulated booties and headed out on his bike.
A friend had asked him earlier, "What do you think of out there?" after seeing Scott's cycling route, the lonely road heading west from Davis, where all winds seem to be head winds. "My rhythms," Scott replied. "And lunch."
Much of the first 20 miles was through flat farmland. There was the pungent aroma of growing onions, but the almond and peach groves, though full of spring promise, were bare—a nearly perfect metaphor for Scott's life. The onions were his day-to-day existence, meager and spare. The almonds and peaches were pleasures deferred. They would blossom gloriously, as would the rewards he'd reap—a cramp-free bicycle leg in June, a big win in August, a vital old age.
At mile 22 he reached the base of what he calls the Dam Hill and climbed it in 3½ minutes. Streaking down the other side, his head and shoulders tucked in, he reached 40 mph. The air temperature was 38°, and the wind hit his face at 25 mph. Minutes later, pumping into the wind up 1½-mile-long Cardiac Hill, Scott moaned, "I feel terrible.... I wonder how many times I'll do this before the Ironman.... It does give me an advantage. In Hawaii, most cyclists can't contend with the headwinds."