Not sure entirely how this started, but at the time we were about 10 miles from the cars, which meant about eight miles to the last town sprint. Bob shelled a few miles ago while Andrew held on as long as possible before he dropped back to help Bob hobble in - big dummy never eats enough, nor does he bring food. I was also starting to crack, but was comfortably snuggy, nestled in at third wheel. My achilles had been biting at my calf since Mad River, maybe 80 miles earlier, and the weight of the last two days of riding was starting to drag me down. Fucking Eric was setting a tempo surely meant to separate the wheat from the chaff and I was determined not to be chaff. There wasn’t much chance I could put down a sprint in my condition, but I knew I could try and make them hurt as much as Eric had. When he pulled off, and Ryan took a pull most juniors would scoff at before flicking me through, I knew we were close; they were setting up. Sure enough the clicks of Boas tightening and gears quietly dropping to the next cog could be heard. As soon as Ryan pulled off, I dropped to a tuck and upped the tempo seated - a trick I learned from track. It’s enough to gap off anyone who wants to skip pulls, without making it look like an attack. If anything, it messes with their head just enough. My legs began to scream. My lungs couldn’t seem to take in enough air. My bike felt like an angry lover enraged with spite. All I could hear was the wind. I took them within 600 meters before Eric and Ryan tore around me with Jason in tow. Damn they looked fresh as daisies, bikes wrenching beneath them from side to side each eager to take the sprint. I sat up and could only see an arm raised in victory. Not a full salute, mind you. We are, after all, still friends. Like that, a weekend ride of 280 some odd miles and 24,000 feet of elevation was over.
Somewhere around 2015, I joined up with a first year local amateur elite team, Amain Cycling (now Performance Cycling) based out of Chico, California. Leading up to that season, a series of emotional and professional setbacks doubled with a searing bout of depression all but killed my desire to compete in anything more than a drinking contest with myself. However, when the pitch was made to join, it felt like getting picked first for grade school dodgeball and with it the same juvenile exuberance that came from simply being accepted. To be honest, I’m perfectly content to explain how exceptionally mediocre I am at racing. Yet, joining the team gave me added motivation to train hard again and push myself beyond comfort.
Sure, we were like any other team. We held team camps like everyone does, only instead of intervals and leadout practice we devised tortuous rides and proceeded to rip each others legs off between dick and fart jokes retained from elementary school. Over the years, we’ve taken on and lost a few periphery teammates here and there, but have been lucky enough to retain the original core of the team. All the while, between missed results, scattered podiums and an ER’s worth of tegaderm, we found ways to get together, discover new routes and beat each other up. Each with mixed success.
No one will take credit for it, but one of the Chico boys suggested a mega ride to cap the season; a big dumb ridiculous ride, as it were, to sign off the year. The plan was simple: leave as close to 6AM as possible from Red Bluff, roll west on Highway 36 to the coastal town of Fortuna, stay the night and ride back the following day. With no major turns, it was impossible to get lost. Easy as pie. Well, except for the fact that the ride was a 140-mile out and 140-mile back that crossed between the King and Coast ranges of Northern California via the Mendocino National Forest for a daily elevation gain of 12,000 feet. No big deal.
Joining the ride consisted of Ryan, Alex, Jason, Bob, Jeffrey, Eric and my friend Andrew- who wasn’t on the team, but rode like the devil. A solid crew, for sure. With an overnight of only 10 - 12 hours, the key was to pack the minimum: off bike shoes (optional), swim trunks (because they have built in underwear), a long sleeve button up (it’s an extra layer if needed), necessary chargers and enough calories that are easily consumable (figure 3-5k worth each day). Everyone brought some variation of this, tucked into an assortment of bags wrapped to our bikes. For the last two years, I rode developmental variations of the Road Logic Disc; the latter being a pre-production final sample. The rest of the guys rode team issued race rigs, none of us on classic touring bikes by any means, yet it wasn’t anything saddle and bar bags could remedy.
Rolling out of Red Bluff was a jittery exuberance for the weekend to come, possibly fueled by over caffeination and nerves. We settled into a reasonable tempo, trading pulls and catching up on the time we lost between last visits. The land felt dreary as we passed by dry foothill chaparral cast in late fall morning sun. The day was young and we had mountains yet to cover. Unceremoniously, the road pitched upwards, quietly stringing out the group. Each person finding a tempo suitable for a day’s worth of riding, yet still trying not to be the last to the top of the climb where we’d regroup before bombing the seeming endless descents that twisted through the upper cusp of National Forest.
The land changed around us without warning, from rugged foothill to coastal evergreens, lush and year-round damp. The only indicator of change was the subtle differentiation in coal-rolling central valley hicks to coal-rolling Mendo weed farmers. Each just as displeased to find us on the road as the other. We stopped in a blip of a destination called Mad River for lunch, which served as a DMZ of sorts for the two cultures. It was here Andrew touched my arm and asked if I noticed anything about the last 20 miles. I shrugged, “Nothing too eventful, why?”
“There hasn’t been a single cop, sheriff, or ranger,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “I bet some shit goes down here. We should be careful.”
He was right, for a thoroughfare, I hadn’t seen a single member of law enforcement the whole weekend. I’m sure anything could and had happened just beyond the treeline, away from eye sight up there. The thought of an irate driver casually nudging us off the side of a mountain pass without any repercussions raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Though, not much I could do other than press on towards the coast. We still had 60 miles to ride.
A climb greeted us immediately after lunch; while it was possibly one of the shortest on paper, it felt longer than necessary. At the top of the pass, the land unfurled like a rough tapestry towards the Pacific signaling an eventual end to the day, if only we could get there already. The run in to the coast was fast and undulating with a cumulative elevation drop. The rollers felt quick, yet biting, each little bump taking their toll on our bodies.
Houses slowly peppered the landscape until we found ourselves on the edge of town where it felt strange and weird to be back near anything urban and man made. We made our way through Fortuna to the cheap hotel where we booked rooms the night before. In our lethargy, we begrudgingly showered and decompressed before heading to the brewery adjacent to consume shameless calories and beers as fast as they were placed in front of us. Then it was back to the room for mind numbing cable TV to lull us as I slipped into dreamless sleep.
The next morning felt like a hangover coupled with a horribly long walk-of-shame back to our waiting cars, some 140 miles away. Though the elevation gain was the same, we told ourselves it was more downhill than up on the way back. As much as I studied the GPS route, I still can’t figure out how it worked, but it felt true. Once atop our bikes, the miles began to pour away. The land felt familiar, but strange in reverse. The most recent scenery from the day before was alien and bizarro, with only a hint of recognizability. Descents we zinged down with fearless joy just 14hrs prior, were now brutal slave masters abusing us with the sole task of simply crawling over them.
Then my achilles began making itself noticed. A slow searing pain that wouldn’t let up, but only seemed mitigated if I pushed harder forcing a new and different pain elsewhere in my body. I kept my discomfort to myself, until our first stop back in Mad River where I asked the shopkeeper for any pain reliever they had - even inquiring about the stale looking bottle of ibuprofen behind the counter - only to be denied. That’s fine, I told myself, only 80 miles to go before I could relent and let my weary legs rest.
To say the land was beautiful would be generic at best. To understand what it meant to traverse the ranges, skirting the ridgeline to half-hour long or more descents, followed by hour-plus long climbs would take away from the accomplishment. In a way, completing the ride was like being accepted, not by peers - though they were certainly sharing the moment with me - but by the journey. Time seemed to be irrelevant, distance a theory, and fatigue a myth. Yet this thought was comfortable, without fear and full of potential. Despite the searing sensation in my legs, I felt as though I could keep riding. As much as I wanted it to end, I also wanted it to last forever. Or at least, that’s what I told myself.
We made the last climb, a paltry 15-minute effort, and began our scramble back to Red Bluff. Wordlessly, we formed into rotation, our breaking egos pushing a pace hard enough to want to quit, though none dare be the first. The pace shelled one rider then another, when suddenly I found myself on the front, digging deep to try and pop off anyone else who might be hanging by a thread when my teammates brushed past me to the waiting city limit sign that marked our finish.
In the car ride home, the road blurred below. Miles adding up to miles on miles. Distance that was effortless and pointless - worthless at best. In the coming weeks, every moment on the bike felt weak and short. A taste. A taste of what I was missing. I would dutifully pedal to and from work just to keep that flavor on the tip of my tongue. To keep that longing for the next big dumb ridiculous ride yet to come.