Sisyphus was a Cyclist
It was hot, dry and smoky on Saturday when I, along with the TnT Death Ride team, returned to the Death Ride for my third consecutive year. The day before, when we drove into Markleeville, you couldn't see the mountains that lined the valley walls where Markleeville lay. Smoke from recent northern California fires seemed to be concentrating right where we were going to ride the next day. When we got out of the car, we were assaulted with 90 degree heat. I had some serious doubts about the next day's ride. I thought the route would be littered with fallen cyclists along the side of the road trying to catch their breaths. I thought to myself, "Why the heck am I doing this?" This is my third year with TnT and here I am again, ready roll my boulder of a body up 15,000 feet of elevation. There must be something mentally wrong with me. Well that wasn't an original thought, I had that question posed to me by a number of friends in the past. Most recently a couple days before the ride.
We arrived the next morning at 4:45am. The goal was to get on the road around 5:00. Thankfully you couldn't see the smoke as it was quite dark. This year I decided to take a different tactic to riding the Death Ride, I buddied up with friends Alex, Andrew and The Hammer (pictured to the left). As we left in the dark at 5:05 we noticed that it wasn't very cold. In fact, as we rode towards Monitor Pass, there was a warm wind blowing down the valley.
The buddy ride tactic was working quite well. We talked about various topics from vacation plans, mosquitoes, mid-life crises, and what we planned to do with our weekends now that the training season was coming to an end. Before we knew it, we had crested the first pass and we were at the bottom of the second pass. The good news at this point was it turned out to not be that smoky. In fact, it was downright pleasant. I knew not to get too confident. I felt good at this point every other time I did this ride. So The Hammer, Alex, Andrew and I set off to conquer pass number 2.
We got to the top of Monitor Pass again, having climbed two mountains now, and it was only 9:00am. We went down Monitor, hitting a top speed of 46mph and we made our way over to Ebbetts. Our luck was holding, we crested the top of Ebbetts Pass at 11:30. This was astounding since I'd never made it there before 12:15. Wow, I was having a great day. At the bottom of Ebbetts in the Hermit Valley we met my friend Betty (pictured on the right). Betty drove over that morning from her home in Arnold and brought sodas, ice and Milky Way bars for the TnT folks. She commented that I was much earlier than the last time two years ago when I came through at 12:30. We hung out drank Betty's greatly appreciated Cokes, grabbed some ice and headed up the back side of Ebbetts Pass.
Now normally the back side of Ebbetts is my bane. The sun beats down on you, there's no breeze and it's very steep. Well it was still steep, but a serendipitous thing happened, large clouds came in and blocked the sun. This dropped the temperatures at least 10 degrees. The ride to the top of Ebbetts was pretty straightforward. This couldn't be, the only problem I had all day was my heart rate monitor was flaking out on me. Could this be the year where I breeze through this ride? When I met my wife Sherri for lunch, I told her I was having a great ride. When I rode through Markleeville on my way to the fifth pass, there were actually people still there to cheer me on. Unbelievable!
I made it all the way to Woodfords, which is the lowest part of the route, and I thought everything was going fine. Then I noticed, it's quite warm now. Actually, it was downright hot. Woodfords is right at the edge of the Nevada desert. The area around it is covered with spiky shrubs. Fortunately you climb away from Woodfords to the cooler area of Picketts Junction and Carson Pass. But at that moment, my brain said, "Hold on there big fella, it's too hot for us, slow down." Being a person that occasionally listens to my brain, I had no choice but to slow down.
When you're riding and one of the people you're with slows down, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to slow down. It's quite acceptable for the faster riders to go their own pace and you'll meet up at the top of the climb. When you get to the top, they'll have been resting for several minutes. When you get there they usually say "Let's go" and you have to keep riding. This is known in cycling circles as "Paying the slow tax." As The Hammer, Alex and Andrew pulled away, I knew I would be paying the slow tax.
So there I was making the hot and slow 5 mile climb from Woodfords to Picketts. At this point, the thoughts of "Why am I doing this?"returned. At the end of last years ride, my friend Barb, who has completed Iron Man triathlons, said "I cannot understand why *anyone* would ever, ever do this ride twice". Like a marathoner, I realized I had hit my wall. So I did what a marathoner would do, focus on something else and gut it out. So I focused on the well wishes I received the days before. The phrases "Have a great ride" and "Just keep pedaling" kept playing through my head along with the song "Lose Yourself" by Eminem. Okay, if I keep my focus it won't get any worse. I was wrong. It got worse.
As I reached Picketts Junction those clouds that provided shade on Ebbetts Pass decided to call up some reinforcements. The friendly cumulus clouds had turned into nasty cumulonimbus clouds and they were full of hail and they were mighty angry. Lightning, thunder, and hail the size of garbanzo beans started hammering us. Now I can tolerate garbanzo beans in small doses, but smacking you in the head and back is most unpleasant. It felt like the ice balls were being shot from sling shots. Everyone scattered for cover. The outhouses were crowded with people trying to avoid the hail. Roughly 100 cyclists were huddled under one tent. As the hail was coming down, I had the unbelievably good fortune of having my wife drive up in our car. She didn't see me. Fortunately she pulled over about 200 yards ahead and was helping some other cyclist. When I got to her, the other cyclist was quite dry under the shelter of a wading pool that she had brought along for people to cool their feet. She thought, correctly I might add, that the riders' feet were probably quite cool at the moment. The only room in our car was in the back seat. Well, actually, if I moved the ice chests and beach umbrella out of the way. I decided I'll just sit in the back seat and hold the ice chest on my lap. You see the funny thing about ice chests is they are usually full of ice. When an ice chest has been out all day, the ice has melted to a mixture of about half ice and half water. So instead of leaving the ice chest outside, where it could quite capably weather the hail storm, I held it on my lap. Well that is until the I tilted the ice chest a little too much and about a quart of ice water dumped into my lap, soaking my jersey and shorts, and flowing onto my nice leather seats.
At this point I was colder inside the car than outside. I really envied that guy under my wading pool...lucky bastard. After about 20 minutes, the rain let up to a light shower. It was time to leave. Mister Wading Pool also decided it was time to go. He thanked Sherri for the use of the portable shelter handed the pool back to her through the car window. Pools, as you might guess, are quite good at holding water. This one was no exception. As the pool was being fed through the window, the collected water poured onto my front seats. At this point I let out a series of expletives that would make Eric Cartman blush. If I catch that guy I'm going put a water bottle in his spokes. I wasn't going to dwell on it. I got out of the car.
When one has ridden 100 miles and climbed over 13000 feet then dumps ice cold water on his thighs, a very predictable and painful thing happens. I got vicious cramps in both legs. I said to myself, to heck with this, maybe they'll go away if I keep pedaling. "Just keep pedaling" So I got back on the bike, shivering like an apoplectic fundamentalist at a revival meeting, I set out to finish this dang ride. I had lost The Hammer, Alex and Andrew when we all scattered for cover. Well, I guess I'm finishing this one on my own.
There was a seemingly endless line of cyclists making the slow climb up Carson Pass. By the way, the nasty cumulonimbus clouds weren't done. Twice more the hail and rain beat down on us. At one point on the climb the rider behind me hit my rear wheel with his front wheel. Immediately he fell over into the sand on the side of the road. For a split second I felt sorry for him, then I thought, "Sure, fine, lie down and rest." "Just keep pedaling" I passed my friend Jon who was taking a rest on the side of the road. (He hadn't fallen like the other guy) I told him to get behind me and we'd finish this thing. He said there were about 100 riders behind me and would wait for an opportunity to pull in. I hadn't realized the Death Ride had turned into the Bataan Death March on Wheels.
At 5:35 I made it to the top of Carson Pass. I got my 5 pass sticker, my 5 pass pin and my celebratory ice cream. I waited at the top to see several teammates come in and complete the ride. I raided a nearby dumpster and stole some discarded cardboard. I stuffed that down my shirt because I knew the descent back to the finish would be very cold and likely wet.
The pavement was still wet, though it wasn't raining. On the east side of Carson Pass there's a quarter mile straight steep section with a sharp right turn followed by a left turn. I figured that I should apply a little more braking to accommodate for the wet pavement. Wet brakes tend to grip inconsistently and can set up a vibration in the wheels. At 45mph I started a high-speed wobble. I'm heading down a highway, at 45 mph, towards a sharp right turn and my bike starts shaking. The Tour de France, which is going on right now, has a commercial where they show lots of bike crashes. In the commercial they say, "The next time you're in your car, start driving at 50mph, strip down to your underwear and jump out. That's what crashing on a bicycle is like." It's a very memorable commercial; I had no desire to test that now. I tried braking some, it made it worse. "Oh crap!" Then I remembered, "change the physics of the machine." "Get off the seat and just keep pedaling" Sure enough, I lifted my butt off the seat, pulled my knees close to the top tube and moved the pedals. The wobble subsided. That was really scary.
After that, as I returned to the start and I wondered again, "Why am I doing this?"
When I returned the start. Alex, The Hammer, Andrew along with Kimberly, Jon, Sue, K.Sue, Shelley, Grace, Richard, Robert, and many other teammates were there celebrating their accomplishment. I saw the satisfaction they had in finally conquering this achievement. I remembered that we all trained together all season to make this one goal. When we got separated, I lost concentration and had forgotten that it wasn't about me. Sure I could be drinking margaritas while sitting on a beach in Costa Rica, and I will some day, but this day, it was about the team. The Hammer came up to me and said she waited for me after we got separated and tried to find me and that she really wanted to finish the ride with me. It's something we did together. We worked together and we all made it together. It's not about the ride, it was about the camaraderie. So I did the only proper thing, I bought a couple beers and we celebrated like we'd just won the Tour de France.