The monotony of ‘daily life’ is your enemy, and you don't even realize it until it’s too late. When you feel apprehensive about the future…bills, getting older, and running out of breakfast cereal… daily life’s regular routine gives you a sense of purpose, security, and continuity. Daily life gives you a shoulder to lean on, but all the while it pushes a dagger deeper into your soul. You only awaken to the fact that you’re dying inside when you have the opportunity to do something spontaneous… or better yet, ill-advised. Epic things can happen when you spastically grasp at the chance to do something different. Maybe you find a great hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. Maybe you get coked up out of your mind and kidnapped in a ghetto in Jamaica. Or maybe you find yourself pushing a bike up a steep, gravelly pass in central Washington, every muscle in the legs cramping at the same time.
There I was on the mountainside, awkwardly trudging on dead legs, with the bike as a crutch to keep me from face-planting when my feet slid out. The sun burned overhead, my water bottles were empty, and the last meters to some merciful shade beneath the pine trees ahead were excruciating. And I thought, Oh yeeaahhhhhh, now, this…this is living.
It started out on a Friday afternoon, two days before. I had just handed off a bike to one of my personal clients for the Gran Fondo Leavenworth. He'd requested lower gearing for the event, at least as low as a 30T cog on the back to go with his 34T small chainring. So I knew it was supposed to be hilly when Byron, Hugger-in-chief, texted me to see if I wanted to take over his entry to the GSL. A quick glance at the website of event organizer, Vicious Cycle, provided a few more numbers: 42 miles paved, 45 miles gravel, and 9,400 ft of climbing. That sounded intriguing, but before I really evaluated if I should start such an event, I needed to figure out if I could even make the start.
I may not know much, or rather anything, about Washington state geography despite my thirteen years of residency in Seattle, but I knew that Leavenworth wasn't nearby. Due to my carless lifestyle, I’d need to hitch a ride with someone. Of the two guys I knew well enough to impose upon, one was already on his way Friday evening, and the other was leaving Saturday mid-afternoon after the Seattle Sounders game. Also, I would need to wriggle out of working the full Saturday at the shop, though there was no way I could avoid going in for at least half a day. So it was 7pm on Friday evening, I didn't have a ride to Leavenworth confirmed, had a full day of tasks scheduled at the bike shop for Saturday, had no idea where I would stay, had nothing prepared in terms of food or supplies for the event, hadn’t even ridden over 75 miles in almost a year, and while we're cataloguing lack of preparation, Byron just offered to transfer the entry to me without actually having cleared it with Vicious Cycle’s head organizer, Jake. I usually have more organization than that before I make a grilled cheese sandwich, but what the hell…let’s do this thing.
I have this thing for eating Chinese food the night before big cycling events. Not crap Chinese food that you find at Panda Express-wannabees in mall food courts, but also not totally authentic Chinese either. I know both well, having been a mall rat until I left small town Florida for school and having traveled Asia extensively as an adult. What in America typically passes as Chinese is just so much deep-fried chicken nuggets in disgusting sweet n’ sour sauce, while true Chinese cuisine never has the right balance of meat and vegetables unless you order enough items to fill a banquet table. I just want some tender beef or chicken in brown sauce over a bunch of stir-fried veggies and a side of steamed rice. Maybe it was actually smart nutrition or maybe it was just superstition, but my best seasons of cyclocross I had always gone to a place called Little Shanghai on Capitol Hill the night before. To my utter dismay, they closed a couple years ago. I felt so bad when I found out… like I was solely responsible for them closing up because I hadn’t eaten there enough for that family to keep the shop open and the lights on. Frankly, I think my racing has suffered since.
Twenty-four hours of frantic activities had elapsed since Byron texted me, very little of which involved sleep, and I’m in Leavenworth, a small former logging town nestled in the North Cascade mountains. What catches me off-guard is the Bavarian theme to the majority of the inns and restaurants on the main avenue. My initial impression is that I’m kinda disappointed that there aren’t a bunch of German immigrants running everything. I mean, when I go to a Chinatown in some American city, I expect that there will be Chinese people, but I figure that I have more German heritage than most of Leavenworth’s folk… and I look about as German as a plate of chicken adobo with a side of eggrolls. But it’s a fine sunset on the mountain peaks, the air is pleasant, and the town is cozy and relaxed. Leavenworth does sort of remind me of Bavarian, and it’s been so long since I’ve been to Europe that being here is like finding a souvenir from a vacation long before. But whether Leavenworth is more Bavaria or rural Washington, I am clearly not going to get the type of semi-authentic Chinese food I’m craving.
In the morning, about 180 riders gather in the local high school’s parking, about two minutes’ ride from my hotel. The vast majority of participants have chosen cyclocross bikes, with some mountain bikes and sparse few touring and road bikes. The local Toyota dealer led a neutral roll out on rural, asphalt roads that wound through sparse clusters of houses until we hit the first gravel section. The front of the field is no longer in sight, though it’s not like I didn’t already know that I’m not fit enough to hang with them. Long distance isn’t my forte, and I don’t really have that many miles in my legs this year. But what I don’t know is how badly over-geared I am. I am atop my Redline Conquest carbon CX bike, which I kitted out last season with a 1x10 drivetrain. My only nod to the mountains is running an 11-32 cassette, and that only gives me a 38x32 low.
The gravel road gradually steepens as it wanders among the pines, and I am feeling good about my pace. My hamstrings are a little tight, but I think I can manage it. The gravel is well-packed, so traction isn’t too much of an issue. I’m running tubeless tires at moderate pressure, or perhaps a little firmer on the rear wheel than I would have had I not fitted a suspension seatpost on at the last moment. I usually adhere to the old adage of “don’t mess with your bike/position right before a race”, but I wasn’t sure when I’d get another chance to test out the post in a real gravel grinder. I have to say, I am rather pleased with the post, especially as I make the first descent. It’s not that the post has enough travel to handle the washboard descent on its own, but I can clamp my thighs on the saddle so that I can somewhat relieve my legs on the impacts. And this descent is insane! I pass more than a few riders who must have slid out on the gravel or pinch-flatted on the ruts.
The adrenaline goes to my head as my eyes water in the slipstream…I feel like a rockstar as I blast by riders standing at the side of the so-called “road”. I’m going so fast for so long, I’m a bit puzzled why I’m still headed downward and a little worried that I am burning so much brake pad that I’ll have to stop to adjust my brakes before it levels off. And just as I’m thinking that I must have dipped below sea level, it’s done and I’m covered in dust.
Now the ride begins the second climb, this time on much more open paths without a tree canopy. The sun is a bit warm, but it’s not that the heat is uncomfortable per se, rather it’s the loss of electrolytes through perspiration that affects me. And now the road starts throwing steeper pitches at me, but the loose pebbles on top the packed dirt set my rear wheel spinning out every time I stand up out of the saddle. I’ve got no choice but to grind it out seated for long stretches, though my legs prefer to spin at 100-110rpm. It looks like I’m going to be getting real acquainted with that 32T cog, and my hamstrings are winding tighter and tighter.
I’m at about mile 30 when my hamstrings first start cramping; this doesn’t bode well for me. I’m sure there’s some really fit riders way ahead of me whose riding style and strength would suit my gearing, but if I were fit enough to hang with them I’d still want a 34x32 or 34x34 low gear to allow me to spin. And now there’re riders starting to catch me from behind using the gearing I wish I had. I have to pull off a couple times so that the spasms in my legs can relax a little. I am beginning to realize that I didn’t eat what I needed to this morning nor during the ride. My electrolytes are just totally fucked, and when you get like that, ain’t nothing gonna rescue you.
When I crest the second summit, I begin the new descent with a mindset that is something between desperation and a vengeance. At one point I hit 34mph and have to drift it through a gravelly turn slightly sideways like I’m ball bearings. Maybe it’s because I’m really tired, but this descent feels even faster and rougher, yet the sightlines between the corners are more limited. While the first descent felt like I was going straight down a mountain, this descent is more like descending along the side of a steeper mountain, so the corners are more off-camber and blind to boot. I remember that this Gran Fondo Leavenworth is not a race closed to cars in the same instant I nearly plow head-on into an orange Jeep that popped out from behind the cliff wall. I hit the brakes just short busting the tires loose on the gravel, adjust my line, and whip around the Jeep without looking back. My quads are starting to cramp just from supporting my weight over the ruts, not even pedaling. I rocket past a couple of riders who are dragging their disc brakes just to awkwardly tip-toe over the some eroded portions of the trail, but I’m praying that this descent ends because I don’t know what I’d do if my quads spasm while I’m riding this bucking bronco. And then the gravel trail abruptly t-bones a level paved road, and I follow the red arrow sign to the right.
My triceps are still throbbing as I make try to spin my legs loose, but the damage to my legs is the real story. Once you start cramping that bad, you’re not going to fully recover that day. I stop at the side of the road to eat some energy blocks and snap a few photos, but I should be grabbing onto the back of one of these small groups of riders pacelining down the road. Most of them I had passed on the descent, but now I ride solo for a while, hit 40mph on a smooth winding descent that dumps me onto a road that follows the Columbia River south to Entiat. I latch onto a couple of riders until my legs cramp up, and I’m forced to watch them slip up the road without me. Eventually I make it to Entiat where Vicious Cycle has sent up a great aid station, well stocked with energy drinks, gels, fruits, cookies, chicken wraps, etc. I’m hoping that solid foods will help. God, what I wouldn’t do for some Hunan beef and broccoli.
I join another group of riders who, being older than me, are more inclined to moderate their pace on the easy sections so that they have some reserves to make it over the tougher bits. But as soon as we turn off onto the gravel for the last climb, I steam ahead with baseless determination. I just want this to end soon. I’m suffering like a dog, but so is everyone else who is this far back from the fast group. Everyone is just trying to maintain their own pace, but the road keeps rearing up wildly. There’s no way to meter your effort, so everyone keeps blowing up, then recovering slightly only to blow up a hundred meters later. Maybe there’s more trees on this climb, but the sun is almost directly overhead. I’m worrying that I may run out of water despite topping off and grabbing an extra bottle at the last stop.
I’m hurting bad now… to hell with pride, I’m walking the bike as much as I’m riding it…so are the others. Sometimes I’m just standing still, glazed eyes staring at the road rising away from me. I’m just shelled. It’ll take me a couple days at least to right my electrolytes, but right now I just twant some water. Supposedly there is a final, unmanned water station at Swakane, but when I get to it there’s nothing but a cooler full of dirty ice water and a bunch of empty bottles in a waste bin. Some of the others wail and gnash their teeth at the injustice, but I understand the situation. We were slow, and the previous riders cleaned out the stocks. God has forsaken us, that is all. “Well, no point in stopping to complain” I say. I grab a handful of dirty ice, throw down the back of my jersey, and climb on for some more suffering.
I had assumed that the water station marked the summit, but I was wrong. This last mountain pass seemed to run along a ridge, so that I was kept dangling on the hook for another twenty-thirty minutes of grinding and stumbling. Please, please, please, just give me a steady descent. When it finally comes, I immediately leave my former companions behind, though I’m certainly not pushing the limits of the bike like I was before. My legs just can’t support me anymore; I just gotta make it to the bottom without falling. At long last I roll out onto the pavement, and I’mrelieved to know that today’s adventure will not involve me bleeding from a crash. I’m not sure how much asphalt lies between me and the finish, but I notice that there are mile signs counting down on the side of the road. I’m still descending on the road, and it almost feels as gravity is apologizing to me now after having brutally beaten me for eight hours.
I’m moving briskly but with no sense of urgency. That is, until a rider catches up to me unnoticed and mentions that only fifteen minutes remain to make an official finish. Well…I guess it’s time to light whatever matches are left. Moments later, I don’t even notice that I’ve dropped my brief companion. I’m not sure how my legs are even able to turn, but I put away the last three miles quickly. I see the finish line and sprint it out for good measure. Eight hours and forty-eight minutes after roll out, I’m more done than I can ever remember.
When I get back to the high school, I just lay down on the ground. I can’t even loosen the straps of my shoes without my legs spasming. This has been an adventure that my body won’t forget anytime soon. Vicious Cycle advertised a German-style meal after the race, but I’ve come in so late that my ride home was ready to leave me. I jump into the vehicle, as is… shattered, dirty, and dehydrated. I managed to negotiate a quick stop at McDonalds, which is obviously not what the doctor ordered. I drift into fitful sleep, awakened by bumps in the road and randomly spasming leg muscles.
When I finally get home hours later, I have to ask my girlfriend to remove my socks and shoes so I can shower, because my legs cramp just from pulling my feet up to my hand. I’m actually feverish and nearly delirious… I’d say I was MUCH worse off than I had been last month after I finally ransomed myself out of that Jamaican ghetto. I’d like to say that I learned some important lessons this year…things like “salt pills are a solid plan for aerobic activities lasting more than six hours” or “know the exchange rate before you agree to a ransom amount”, but I would say that I’m happiest to know that I have a new favorite cheap Chinese restaurant. I know, because after I crawled out of the bathroom from showering…and I do mean “crawled out”…my girlfriend had some Mongolian beef delivered from a place called Genghis Khan. Oh my god, it was the best food EVAH! Next time I do one of Vicious Cycle’s gran fondos and for sure this fall’s cyclocross schedule, I am definitely eating there the night before. I don’t know if that can be called approved nutrition, but I sincerely believe I will do better if I eat some semi-authentic Chinese. Superstition or science, I don’t care…it’s what works for me.
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