Of the 7 that toed the line on the original Great Divide Race, Jan Kopka was the only non-American. A mostly unknown with a reputation as an old-world strongman, Jan was entirely a wildcard for this event.
Jan flew over from the Czech Republic and with his pro-roadie history I knew he couldn't be counted out. A recently retired-from-racing Pat Norwil fetched Jan from the airport and drove him half a day across Washington, Idaho, and Montana to meet us at the start. Pat would later tell me that on that drive he'd repeatedly instructed Jan to stick with me and do whatever I did, since I was the only one that had seen a good chunk of the route before. Jan 'got it', and never let me out of his sight the first ~24 hours of the race. Thanks Pat...
Going out hard on a 2400-mile race seems self-defeating, but I sensed that the others were a little more stressed than I so I took it out a bit faster than maybe I should have, hoping to further stretch them beyond their comfort zones. Within an hour it was just Jan and I at the front.
It was immediately clear that Jan's background and base as a professional road racer gave him a clear advantage over my purely mountain bike/trail riding roots. Jan climbed effortlessly away and then when gravity took over he'd whip out a small camera and bang out snapshots in every direction. Determined to make every second count on this go-round, I was often in the aerobars and ticking over the big ring on the descents, and it was here that I would make back up the time on Jan. I'd usually bottom out before him and start climbing again, and when he caught up, hauling, he'd place his hand on my pack and bring me immediately up to his speed.
Many hours of this brought us into the town of Whitefish at ~100 miles into the race. There was a gucci-esque quickie mart at the edge of town, right on the route, and I'd spent some time surveilling it the day before. I'd walked through and noted exactly what they had that I'd want at this stage of the ride, how much each item cost, and did a quick calculation to arrive at ~$22. Thus when the race started that morning, I already had $22 in cash set aside in my left jersey pocket. OCD much? When you're as slow on the bike as I am, you have to be OCD in every way, all to the end of saving seconds wherever you can.
Rolling up to the quickie mart I leaned my bike on the trash can next to the door, shuffled in and grabbed a few gatorades, some twizzlers, some jerky, and a hot plate of roasted chicken and noodles. I paid the kid and sat down beside my bike. Jan was still inside as I finished inhaling the first half of my meal and dumped the gatorade into water bottles. By the time Jan came outside with his haul I'd finished stashing jerky and licorice in my frame bag and settled in to finish my meal. Elapsed time from parking my bike to this moment was less than 6 minutes.
As Jan dropped his haul of loot on the sidewalk he reached across and placed an open beer next to me, making clear that it was mine. I'd heard stories of Jan's training rides involving pub stops and camelbaks full of suds, so his kind offering wasn't a surprise. The thing is, I don't much care for the taste of beer, and certainly not when riding. So I thanked him but declined the gift, reaching it back his way.
Jan speaks excellent english with a thick slavic accent, and I wish I could properly imitate both his disbelieving look and the response that accompanied it:
"But, how are you so good without beer?"
In one long, fluid, deliberate sequence of motions I poured the last of the pasta into my mouth, deposited my trash into the can, zipped closed my frame bag, then executed a running cyclocross-style remount of the bike, still chewing pasta as I sprinted out of the parking lot. Once on the white line I looked over my shoulder to gauge Jan's reaction. He appeared to be casually finishing his (my) beer as I shifted into a harder gear to continue accelerating south through town. A truck passed closely, and after it did I glanced back once more to see an explosion of activity all around Jan as he packed to give chase.
Jan caught me wordlessly as I wove through Columbia Falls and across the Flathead, and we resumed our climb/descend rhythm into the evening. Sunset was gorgeous but shortly after the skies thickened and began to drizzle, and would continue to do so through the night. It was already obvious that my motor was no match for Jan's -- my motor was never a match for anyone's in any race I ever attempted. As we spun along through a grey bucolic scene on the edge of the mountains, I knew that I couldn't outride him, thus I needed to start working on outstrategizing him. Plan A: Ride into the wee hours, in the rain, on the first night of a 16-day race, and see how he reacted. Easy enough.
As the hayfields and ranchettes began to thin out I could see Jan's headlamp searching through the drizzle and into every barn and hayloft -- to my eyes it appeared as though he was longing for the shelter that they offered. This solidified my commitment to do without on this evening -- I'd just keep riding until he either peeled off for dry sleep, or I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.
Glancing at my cue sheets clued me in to the fact that we were about to leave this "main" road and climb deeper into the mountains, and as the turn approached I heard Jan clear his throat just behind me. "Mike" he said, "Do you plan to sleep in nature tonight?"
Because he was just behind he couldn't see the smile forming, and I remained facing forward as I responded, "Jan, I have no plans".
On we went.
By 2AM, soaking wet and bone tired with Jan still dieseling along next to me, I had to concede the first round to my new friend. As the road tipped upward into a dripping larch forest, I pulled over into a clearing to get some sleep. My bivy routine was simple and quick: snap my car-windsheild-sunshade/sleep pad out to full length, sit down on it and remove my shoes, slip legs into my zipperless sleeping bag, pull chamois shorts down around my knees to let things air out a bit, then wiggle the bag over my shoulders. I could brush teeth in the morning, I told myself most nights.
As I drifted off I could hear Jan fumbling and fiddling with gear a few meters away, and that commotion quickly became background noise as I faded out. But then I was startled awake and found Jan looming over me. I can't quote him directly as my head was rummy with sleep, but he essentially asked where my food was, because we were in bear country he believed we needed to bag and hang it. Without realizing what I was doing I pointed him toward my frame bag. He quickly removed it from the bike, dropped it into his stuff sack, then strung the whole bundle up into a tree as I drifted back off.
Hours later, grey dawn as I woke and began stuffing gear back onto the bike, the lack of a frame bag reminded me of what had transpired, and made me realize what a brilliant strategist Jan was proving to be: No way I was sneaking away without him, since my food was in his bag, strung just above his bivy. Score another for the Czech.
I finished packing before Jan, and as I exited our bivy spot explained that I like to walk the first ~10 minutes every morning to get a little blood moving before pedaling. "You'll catch me just up the road" I assured him, being careful to seem honest but not earnest.
As soon as I was out of his sight I poured everything I had into the pedals.
As it turned out, that was the last I saw of Jan -- not because of anything I did, but because the cue sheets were listed in miles and Jan's cyclometer was calibrated for kilometers, and he missed a few key turns that day that prevented him from latching back on.