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Winter Wandering

 

Having to miss the Saturday group ride is always depressing to me, especially when the reason is work related. As often as this happens, which isn’t often, I try to at least get a decent ride in on Sunday.

My riding club has a forum where you can post rides and look for responses from others who wouldn’t mind a little company out on the road. Taking advantage of this communication tool, I posted the following:

It’s 10:00am; I’m going to do a ride today and I’m looking for some company. I have no plan. You give me a time and a place, and I’ll show up and do your ride with you. I’ll go fast, or slow, flat or climbing. You make
the call, I’ll show up. (999) 999-9999

No response – which is common when you don’t have any friends. I tried to make myself feel better by thinking no one showed up because they feared my legs of steel – which might have made sense, if in fact I had legs of steel. So I fed myself a self-deprecating line of crap that was meant to be humorous and bring levity to the moment; unfortunately it wasn’t funny, not even to me. And so this became the low point in my ride and I hadn’t even turned a pedal yet.

At 1:00pm I set out, still with no plan, just a guy with a bike and a passion for turning pedals. I wondered to myself: is it possible to get in 3,000 feet of climbing in less than 30 miles without getting any farther than ten miles from home? The quest to answer this question would give my ride its purpose.

The regular Tuesday night ride has 2,700 feet of climbing over 28 miles; so it seemed possible. The caveat being that I wanted to find climbs that weren’t necessarily part of the usual route, so I made turns where I never turned before, crossed a field, forged a creek, talked with a dog for about seven or eight minutes and, ultimately, accomplished my goal.

Silly String, drapped over and across the hillsides, provides a plausible mental image of the new route I pioneered that Sunday; there were lots of out-and-back legs where I tried out roads that either dead-ended or lead to flat areas, so I made u-turns to get in more climbing or to return to a “through” street.

This would become a “Coffee Cap” ride, meaning that I had to put the coffee caps on and walk a couple hundred yards on packed gravel and dirt paths, including the crossing of a creek and speaking with a dog.

Yeah, the dog was all bent out of shape because some clickety-footed “roadie” with a bike on his shoulder was creeping up toward the yard over which she held dominion. Bark, bark, bark: she was cussing me out like a drunken sailor on liberty until I eased up along the chain-link fence barrier between her dominion and the hardpacked gravel fire road that ran behind the houses there.

As I came within ten yards, she gave up the facade of guard dog, calmed down, wagged her tail in a friendly fashion and woofed a few words of encouragement; something to effect of: you rode down into this hole, you know there’s no way out but to climb out, right?

She cautioned against riding the packed gravel road, owing to the skinny tires, the steepness of the road and the abundance of short field grasses growing along the steepest section. She said traction isn’t that good even on four legs when you put power to the ground. She also woofed out a sly comment about my legs of steel; I told her my dogs were barkin’ and I needed to get back on the road and finish my ride. A poor comeback, I know, but I was embarrassed and unprepared for her teasing remarks. I took some solace, however, since my line did elicit a little woofer-snicker from my new friend and advisor.

I heeded her words of caution and walked the hundred yards to where the road surface was paved. Probably a good idea since I was slipping and sliding just walking on the coffee caps.

Continuing my ride I was able to zig-zag my way over the ridge and back again, and again, and again so that I was always either climbing or descending. And ultimately, I was able to accomplish my goal, having logged 28 miles and 3,000 feet of climbing – all without ever venturing more than seven miles from my home (as the crow flies).  And making a new friend in the process?  Priceless.

Raisin Hope

There’s a long tradition among amateur cyclists of pre-riding the course of a stage-race. After all, cyclist don’t just watch; they “do.” In 2007, during Stage 2 of The Amgen Tour of California, Curtis Taylor, Scott McKinney and Steve Ward set out to embrace that tradition – along with a few other riders who had the same idea. It turns out one of those riders was professional cyclist Saul Raisin – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In case you haven’t heard of Saul Raisin, here’s the short version. At 20 years old, Saul was the best young rider in the 2003 Tour de Georgia. He went on to race in Europe for the USA Under 23 developmental squad. His success earned him a position on the Credit Agricole Pro Tour team. According to Dave Shields, author of an upcoming book about the phenom (http://daveshields.com/saul.html), power measurements showed that Saul had the ability to win the Tour de France.

Then, on April 4, 2006 a high-speed racing accident in France put Saul in intensive care. Doctors induced a coma and surgeons operated in attempts to alleviate pressure on the brain after Raisin suffered from a hemorrhage. Thoughts of racing were forgotten as the cycling world prayed for his survival. In February, just 10 months after the accident, Saul is using the entire Amgen Tour of California course for training. He’s also promoting his sponsors and “Raisin Hope”, an organization he founded as a way to raise awareness and support for sufferers of Traumatic Brain Injury and those who support them (http://raisinhope.ning.com/).

Our plan was to give ourselves a two-hour head start from our hotel in Santa Rosa, ride the stage course to the last King of the Mountain (KOM) sprint on top of “Cardiac” hill (just West of the Berryessa Dam) where we could watch the pros climb. After watching the KOM, we thought we might try to race the peloton to Sacramento (albeit by a shorter route) and watch the finishing circuits.

After emptying our bottles on the 5km climb up Trinity Grade between Sonoma and the Napa Valley, we made an impromptu stop to sponge water from Paul, a fan parked along side the road. It turns out Paul is a family friend of the Hincapies and runs a cycling tours company (http://www.blackbearadventures.com/). About that time, Paul yells out “hey Saul” as a rider in full Credit Agricole kit went by in a blur. “Saul?” “As in Raisin?” “Should we try to catch him?” “Yeah right!” With new inspiration, we set off towards Oakville thinking that seeing Saul was cool but that catching him was hardly within our reach.

After Saul sped past us down Oakville Grade, we saddled up and gave a feeble chase. Then, when Steve thought he saw the pro’s green team kit ahead, we hit it for real — three amateurs vs. one pro. When we caught Saul in Oakville we learned A) he was just spinning easy while we were working hard and B) he was thankful for the company. It seams Saul spent the previous day on the Stage 1 route, a lonely, 97-mile ride from Sausalito to Santa Rosa into a head wind, climbing 6000 feet and burning nearly 6000 calories.

Riding with a Pro Tour rider is inspiring on many levels. Saul’s personal support vehicle offered almost constant support (Water? Gu? gu2O? Lube? Legs?). Saul’s father and his GU sponsor covered our rear on blind corners, and kept Cycle Folsom topped up too.

Riding with Saul was both humorous and educational. Saul’s junior racing buddy was known as “Harry” — a strong surprise despite the hair on his legs. Saul soon dubbed Curt, “Hairy Curt” because of his similar stylings. Being the strongest of the Cycle Folsom group (i.e the only one who could hang out in the front for an hour), Curt spent most of the time side-by-side with Saul even up hills. As it turns out, shorn legs aren’t required to ride well. After falling behind on one hill, Scott absolutely buried himself to catch back on — this is not a ride to miss because you’re “tired.”

Chatting with Saul for 30 miles provided nonstop insight into the Pro Tour. How intense is it? The first hour and a half is hard, the next three are casual, then the final hour is intense. Just sitting in the pack may require 350 watts — but for a man who can produce 550 watts with ample room before hitting lactic threshold, that’s just spinning. What happens when your support car can’t reach you? While on a break in one race the feed bag held a 5lb sausage and a dirty magazine. Neither kept him in the break-away. Meanwhile, his team director thought the joke to be quite amusing.

Water? Gu?

There goes the support vehicle again. Steve hands over a bottle which was returned full in about 5 minutes. Saul says that in Europe, those who ride with their own support vehicle have made the big time. We say that’s true in California too. One could certainly get accustomed to this kind of support.

Along the ride, Saul took the opportunity to endorse his sponsors: Oakley (These new lenses are smudge proof, sweat proof, even impervious to marker. They just wipe clean.), Gu (here, have one), and PowerTap (it’s bad juju to use them in the rain).

On the last decent before the KOM, Saul explained that the ability to pee on the roll is a good bike handling skill to have. Scott and Steve backed off the pace to allow nature to take its course. Then we hit it hard — setting a quick-turning pace line (did we mention we were riding with Saul Raisin?) on the approach to the final KOM. Some of the most noticeable things about riding with this pro were quite simple. There are no stops. Riding is tight — elbow to elbow — even while descending on sketchy roads at high speed. And of course, unlike riding with most anyone else, there’s not much chance that he will get dropped.

In the final 500 meters to the KOM, Saul threw down a unique challenge. “If you donate $50 to my charity I’ll let you out sprint me in front of all those people.” Curt, I think you “won” that sprint.

At the top, someone on the sideline says, “That looks like Saul Raisin.” We looked at them, smiled and said “It was!”…and we just road with him for the last 30 miles.”

Epilogue:After our surreal, 30-mile saga with Saul and watching the pros ride Cardiac, we felt the need for speed. So, we took advantage of a strong tail wind and hammered all the way to West Sac (via the Causeway) averaging about 21 MPH (in spite of obeying most of the traffic laws). Because of our shortened route, we were able to beat the peloton to the turn in West Sac by about 40 seconds. After the team cars passed us, we jumped in behind the last motorcycle cops in the escort and rode a closed road across the Tower bridge into downtown just in time to see the final circuits around the State Capital, snap pictures with the Specialized Angel (http://www.pezcyclingnews.com/?pg=fullstory&id=4709&status=True), and compare notes with our rider friends (who had some epic adventures of their own).

By: Curtis Taylor, Scott McKinney and Steve Ward

Stage Fright

 

“Sitting-in” behind two other riders with whom I’ve been trading “pulls” with for several hours on this cool, peaceful February morning, I could see that the predicted scattered showers would not materialize. I was a bit hesitant to join this 105 mile ride from Sacramento to Santa Rosa, and although the elevation chart indicated 40+ miles of flat spinning preceeding some six thousand vertical feet of climbing over the remaining miles, my trepidation was not related to environmental conditions, the distance or climbing.

What worried me was the pace. My riding partners, Scott McKinney and Curtis Taylor, were accomplished double-century riders and each were winners of the California Triple Crown. While both are very stong riders over distance, Curtis completed his double-century season by placing 6th in the state – and Scott not so far behind him in those same rankings.

The Tour of California, America’s premiere ProTour bicycle race, a one week event, was coming through Santa Rosa and Sacramento and we intended to see as much of it in person as possible. For us that meant riding to Santa Rosa on Sunday, watching the Stage 1 finish (Sausalito to Santa Rosa) in downtown Santa Rosa on Monday, and then riding out ahead of the pro cyclists on Tuesday to catch the final King of the Mountain (KOM) sprint line located at the top of “Cardiac hill”.

Our ride began in the urban area that skirts the north side of downtown Sacramento; our course continuing through Old Town, across the Tower Bridge, through West Sacramento and across the causeway that links this metropolitan area to the more rural community of Davis.

We rode through lightly congested traffic, across cobblestones, over bridges and causeways and into pastoral farmland; passing feral cats, water fowl, the occasional dog, and an abundance of farm animals. Presently, we were riding along Putah Creek, taking in the cattails on the right, and a walnut grove on the left.

Before the day’s end we would enjoy an even greater variety of scenery whose beauty is a result of the geography and micro climates that dictate the contour of the land and the vegetation it supports. As the day progressed, we rode westward passing lakes and dams, climbing ridges and mountains, navigating the vineyards of the world renowned Napa Valley, and transitioning into high-canopied wooded areas with their underlying flora and fauna.

It was a wonderful place to be, almost unexpected but certainly appreciated.

Eventually we gained the Silverado Trail and worked our way north to St. Helena, a busy if not beautiful town fit perfectly within the valley bordered by the mountains we had just descended, and those we were about to climb.

As we pedaled toward Spring Mountain road it was Scott who commented that he used to ride the very same road decades before in his high school days. He was living not far up the road in Angwin, Ca and he included this climb on his training rides from time-to-time.

When asked about the difficulty of the climb, all he could remember was that is was either not nearly as troublesome as people make it out to be, or much more painful than could ever be described with words; not really sure which though – said with a dopy, quizzical look upon his face.

Mile 80 had just gone under our wheels as Spring Mountain Road began to rise up from under us. “Not too bad”, was my comment as we ascended the first few miles.

There was a smattering of vehicles descending in the opposite direction and no words were passed between the three of us when we began to smell the very heavy odor of overheated brakes. A few minutes later that same smell would come wafting up off my legs in the form of lactic acid burning through my quadriceps.

The road pitched up sharply to what I believe we later determined was an average of 8% grade for the next 5.5 miles. There were no areas of relief where the road eased up; just a long, steep and relentless climb.

At first, I would approach each corner expecting a flat spot around the other side where I could get a little relief, but after some twenty or more corners, I learned to give up that way of thinking. I was still in touch with Scott, and to some degree Curtis, when a flock of turkeys buzzed over the road across our bow. There must have been thirty of them and the sight of it was surreal; my mind kept attempting to re-image them into geese, but their lack of grace in flight continued in denial of this possibility.

By now Curtis was way up the road, in Algeria, or Nicaragua, or somewhere else really far away. Scott had been riding at my pace for a few minutes, then realizing he was riding at my pace for a few minutes he engaged the big pistons, turned up the revolutions per minute and rode off for Algeria, or Nicaragua, or somewhere else really far away.

So I was left alone to make my climb. I was struggling and pedaling with great difficulty; I had fallen behind in my hydration and was now about the pay a costly price. My legs were burning and I could still smell the heavy odor of car brakes in the air, so I knew it was still a long way to the top of the climb.

I was creeping along at something like 3.5 miles per hour when I discovered, much to my dismay, that it was a burn day. Some guy was out in his field with seven or eight burn piles, adding brush and diesel toxicity to the overheated brakes “aromatherapy” I was receiving as a reward for climbing this beast of a hill.

The burn piles were set close to the road and the cloud of smoke they produced blocked the road like the great wall of China; repelling the Mongols and preventing them from entering the land.

Like little bits of stardust dancing in the air, swirling, scattering, and regrouping again, little lights would appear before my eyes, perform their artistic maneuvers and then disappear into the ether. I marveled at this delightful display for a moment or two: they were teasing me, flitting and darting, twirling and twinkling.

My mouth was agape; I put a single finger nail against my front tooth and giggled like a little girl. Then I reached out to capture a handful of the magical stardust only to learn that: there was no stardust, my lungs were broke, my legs were wrecked, my eyes were burning, my brain was fried, and I was few pints low on hydration.

I was contemplating whether or not to stop, regroup and restart, but decided against it. I pushed onward and upward, I absorbed the punishment and eventually reached the summit.

Curtis arrived at the summit ten minutes ahead of me, and Scott five. The long awaited, deserved and desired rest at the summit lasted, for me, about a minute; just long enough for Curtis and Scott to gain their feet, strap on their helmets and start turning pedals. It was cold out and after a long sweaty climb it isn’t good to sit around for too long waiting for the giggly little girl with asbestos breathe to arrive.

How slow was my ascent? To put it into perspective, of the five hours, fifty-eight minutes and twenty-six seconds of ride time from Sacramento to Santa Rosa, I spent fifty of those minutes on this single climb.

I concur with Scott, who has proffered the following: that cyclists “do”. This maxim is evident in the long held tradition of amateur cyclists riding the course ahead of their professional counterparts. In this, we test ourselves, and later, marvel at the chasm of ability that separates us from them. When we compare the results of our efforts to theirs our admiration for them grows, as does our respect for the sport.

Mix Canyon

 

Mix Canyon - Upper Ridge

Mix Canyon - Upper Ridge

 

Olympians are born with it. Warriors and conquerors breathe it. Aaron Ralston certainly has it; that indomitable will that lifts one above the circumstances and allows him to overcome, whether it is achieving a goal, winning a competition or surviving a certain death.

Sir Ernest Shackelton definitely had it, leading an ill-fated expedition during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration through a shipwreck (the Endurance) and ultimately back to civilization after over 497 days of living on ice packs, crossing the southern ocean in life boats, and trudging over mountainous terrain – all without losing a single man!

As to the aforementioned Aaron Ralston, pray you never find yourself in circumstances where your will is tested as completely, and where the consequence of either failing or succeeding carries such a heavy penalty.

At twenty seven years old, Aaron, an Aspen mountaineer trekking alone in a remote canyon near Moab, Utah, found himself pinned in a three foot wide slot canyon. As he was transiting this slotted canyon a boulder weighing an estimated 800-1,000 pounds shifted and came to rest on his arm, trapping him for several days. Aaron, with no hope of outside assistance, his food and water supplies exhausted, concluded that he had but one option remaining: using a pocket knife he amputated his own arm just below the elbow and set himself free.

Undefeatable will. Perhaps among the most potent forces a person can possess. History records innumerable accounts of people who came to a point in their life’s journey where only two options remained: lie down and die, or overcome an oppressive force of nature, man or spirit where the outcome would be the same in either case – a physical death.

In this crucible some will find peace in lying down, others will find theirs in engaging their oppressor right up to the very end; and in doing so may overcome, but at the ultimate cost of giving their own life in its pursuit.

Mix Canyon, although probably not life threatening, is a test for any cyclist, even at the Elite Pro level. It is an oppressor of body and spirit, a living, breathing, cunning, calculating and effective grim reaper of wills both weak and strong.

The eye of this grim reaper has, as its vantage point, the pinnacle of Mount Vaca from where every twitch of your muscles fibers can be seen, your every weakness observed. This malevolent reaper begins to plot against you, taking stock of every breath you take, each beat of your heart, every ounce of electrolytes that ooze from your skin to deplete your muscles ability to contract and release.

For each cyclist who tempts his or her fate, who keeps a well maintained bike, who trains both hard and intelligently, who clips in and saddles up and rolls that front wheel across the white stripe that marks the demarcation point between Pleasants Valley Road and Mix Canyon Road – a line is crossed.

There is no going back, not without failure and humility – or success; and a form of death that may occur regardless of failure or success.

And then it’s real. There is an anxious, palpable, almost spasmodic sensation coursing through your being as anticipation and expectation begin to meld with the now clear and present. You can feel the surface of the road transmitting emotion through rubber, carbon, leather and Lycra, vibrating subtly into skin and bone. The mood of the mountain is evident to you in much the same way that animals are aware of an earthquake moments before its fury is unleashed.

The air is crisp, although heavy and brooding as if exhaled from the top of the mountain, cooling as it cascades from ridge to canyon, gliding eerily along Ulatis creek. Newts make a slow, slogging almost cult-like ascension toward the summit as if being drawn into the reaper’s lair by some hypnotic force.

The tension rises within as you pedal over the rolling lower slopes wondering with each rise if it will mark the point where the climbing begins in earnest. As another rider moves up the road, you check your heart rate questioning whether it is prudent to mark that person’s wheel or continue with your present effort.

The reaper sees and notes your apprehension.  The reaper sees and notes that other rider’s arrogance.

Transitioning from the crease of the canyon up onto the crest of the ridge you are overcome by the forces of gravity and begin cursing the name of Sir Isaac Newton. Spreading, slowly at first, and then building impetus, the floodgates are breached and a torrent of lactic acid penetrates your legs. And burning incessantly, they scream for relief that will not come.

It is the opening gambit by the reaper, the first test of your will; simply the sampling volley of a serial killer gauging the reaction of his victim.

Conjuring an oasis of respite is your mind’s way of battling back, attempting to waylay the signals of pain overloading your neural receptors. You envision a leveling of the road just around the next corner, not much, but just enough to allow your body to transition back into a hurtful place from the state of shock that it’s now enduring.

This is pleasing to the reaper, and taking great joy in your suffering he increases the test.

There is no oasis around that next corner. What appears is a series of track points that when expressed over 5.8 second intervals equates to grades of: 15.6, 17.3, 18.9, 19.7, 22.0, 32.1, 28.2, 18.2 and 15.7 percent. Then the cycle repeats in equal measure three more times.

From Odysseus we learned that the Siren’s Song is seductive and alluring and that those who answer its call can expect a calamitous end. And so it is with Mix Canyon. It’s not a particularly well know climb outside of the immediate area, perhaps because it leads nowhere. The pavement simply ends at the top of Mount Vaca making this an out-and-back climb. The intensity of its attraction tends to strengthen in proportion to the brashness of the cyclist.

Oh how sweet the Siren’s song. Oh how calamitous it is for those who heed her sonorous call.

Many distortions begin to occur, increasing in number in proportion to the distance you progress toward the summit. At first there are pangs and twitches: you feel tiny little ripples of failure, minute tears in the fabric of your muscles. They are warning signs, omens of doom; your once elegant pedaling stroke now resembling a hillbilly in a knee-high slog through a Mississippi mud bog. Arms, chest, shoulders, hands and lower back are in distress, there is nothing that can be done to ease the suffering…except that you surrender your will to that of the reaper.

He whispers in your ear: “I shall ease your pain if only you shall desist in your efforts, clip out, bow down and acknowledge me.”

Your resolve is gone, your will a far and distant recollection. But you push on for reasons you cannot discern, perhaps some electrical synapse continues to fire in some reptilian recess of your brain stem.

Bouncing up and down with all your weight, or perhaps dangling from strings like a gangly puppet being played from above in the not so deft hands of a sleep deprived meth freak coming in for a landing on the runway of a barbiturate bender, the scene is one of a dying creature in the last throws of its struggle for life after all but the last breath has been effectively snatched from it.

And after an eternity it’s suddenly over. You’ve either entered the throne room of the reaper and slain him, or become chaff in the fields, blown about, and carried along directionless in shifting winds. In the case of the former there is little if any joy, where the concept of victory is just some ideal whose meaning now seems vague and somehow disconnected from the experience.

Crossing that stripe back onto Pleasants Valley Road there is no gloating for those who summited, nor is there humiliation for those who did not. What remains is the eternal bond of those who shared an experience culminating in the expiration of every facet of your being. Having given everything, a metamorphosis of immense magnitude transpires and the rider is left to grapple with its meaning. There is no victory, there is no humiliation; there is only the aftermath.

Something is lost in the canyon, and something is gained on the ridge. The cyclist who enters the former and returns from the latter is someone else altogether – humble, but not humiliated; wiser, yet without pride.

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