I wrote this last October (2012), after the San Francisco Randonneurs’ Del Puerto Canyon ride, my second 200k brevet. Just found it again. It hasn’t been edited at all.
Coming up out of the canyon, around mile 75 or 80—before, I should say, the big hill starts—I get what I think is a glimpse of what makes people ride ever-longer distances.
I am over the halfway mark, just past the point where setting out becomes returning. And while there’s a comfort and a victory in this—as What if I don’t make it? turns slowly into Let’s get this thing done, there’s a sadness too, like the way that afternoons are more melancholy and less hopeful than mornings. The course was mapped out all along, but the illusion to the mind is that the first half was more indeterminate. Then, we were headed away from the world and our problems. Now we’re headed back. That’s what it is, more than anything else. There’s a potent feeling of escape in a long brevet (long, for me, is 200k now, and I understand now how this distance might have to ratchet up, longer and longer distances being necessary, as one’s skill and familiarity with the activity improves, to provide equal-sized quanta of escape, in the well-known pattern of an escalating drug addiction). In the early morning hours, and the night before, all my attention was focused on the ride. Phone calls and email and work and friends were squeezed out. It was: how are your tires? Where’s the maltodextrin? Have you boiled the potatoes? It was the knowledge that there’d be no snoozing when the alarm clock went off, no fucking around, none of the choice that defines and, sometimes, sucks the life out of an ordinary day. For once, my purpose was singular.
For the first 15 miles of the course, my purpose was singular. It was: catch up. Find people. Get to the first control. Our BART train was late and we missed the formal set-off. There were four of us on the train. We found the volunteer and got our brevet cards. Jesse zoomed off, saying “I have to catch those guys!,” and for a moment I though no you don’t, felt like the martyred girlfriend. I left the parking lot with David and almost fell off the bike before even leaving it. I followed him as long as I could, trying to make it to the back of the peloton, pushing myself (“Find other riders and stay with them, even if it’s painful,” Jesse said once), worrying because conventional wisdom for getting through a long ride is not to push yourself in the first third, to save something.
Then for a while, after I started finally finding some blinking lights, passing a couple of old guys, then a woman, then a younger guy with a moustache on a heavy-ish steel bike, it was keeping hold of the wheel I was riding, belonging to a dude named Bruce, who struck me as a really strong rider who was, for whatever reason, not going all out. I hung on Bruce’s wheel for miles, while he rode beside and chatted bike stuff with a guy a bit younger than him. God, endless bike chatter: trips, places, equipment, the company or non-company of wives.
For some reason, I thought the control was at mile 33 so it seemed to take forever to get there, but then it was at mile 43, and the feeling was, ‘gosh, we’re a third of the way done.’ Cyclists milling everywhere, this overwhelmed guy manning the register. A woman my age or a little younger with spiky blond hair and an all-black cycling kit takes a Torpedo IPA out of the fridge, “How much is this?” “Two dollars.” “A little early for me,” someone says—it’s ten-thirty a.m. Fueling a ride with beer is not unheard-of, though. I opt for a can of V-8, and nearly slam it. I’m not sure the tomato is best for my stomach, but the cold, salty, tomatoey juice with its hint of Worcestershire is so good, I’m getting excited just sitting here two days later, typing about it. And a crumbly peanut granola bar. The toilet in the men’s room isn’t flushing. By the time I get outside again, the dozens of cyclists are gone, like locusts that chewed up the landscape and then disappeared as suddenly as they arrived. It’s just me and Barb and Brian and a few others. I look at my watch. I’ve been here about twelve minutes.
There’s a guy smoking a cigarette outside. I guess he lives around here. We’re in Tracy now, in the Central Valley. He looks so hickish as to appear to be from another time, maybe the 1940s. A few miles earlier, a car that looked about that old pulled over on the side of the road and a woman in her eighties got out. I thought of that one Joan Didion essay, I think it’s from Slouching Toward Bethlehem, about a murder in the countryside? Near Tracy we rode over several irrigation channels, beautiful flat rivers running through concrete channels. The West and its water.
The distance between the second and third controls is brief. I ride most of it with Barb. We’re drafting again, behind two guys from San Francisco, who are mostly going at a social pace except they’re sprinting for the town signs, racing each other and also playing a sly game about who sees the town sign first. This is a quaint old cycling custom I’ve read about but not seen in practice till now.
Eighteen miles later, we’re there, at control 3, halfway through the ride and not having ridden any very significant hills yet. Control 3 is a big, open mall-like area with a KFC and a Subway and a Starbucks. Barb opts for Starbucks so I do too; I get a tall coffee and a piece of pumpkin bread that I probably, actually, don’t need, but I want it. I sit down outside (how can sitting feel so good, after “sitting” for so long on the bike?), eat, drink, space out. What seems like five seconds later, Barb says we should probably go. I’m mildly resentful, not quite done with my coffee yet, but I want to stay with her so I say okay. We pull onto the road, hang a right, go under the highway, and make another right on Del Puerto Canyon Road, onto a stretch that’s been described as “beautiful” and also as “a twenty-five mile hill.” I’m bracing myself. I’m dreading it.
The first little bit isn’t bad. The road is two lanes and runs between hills on each side—it is indeed a canyon—and sometimes a small stream off to the right. The hills are those tree-less, denuded hills, wrapped in bleach-blonde grass, that you see in California. The landscape isn’t quite desolate, but it’s getting there. Barb and I chat a little at the outset. She tells me that people like to ride their motorcycles out to the junction, about 24 miles ahead. “I don’t blame them,” she says, and I don’t either. The road curves and winds, goes up and down. There are mile markers on the pavement. I pull a little bit ahead of Barb, and as the mile markers pass by, I start to feel less uneasy about the ’25-mile hill’ thing. In aggregate, I think we are gaining altitude, but it isn’t a slog. The slog comes later.
A few miles in I see a roadrunner, my first. It is on the road, then bobs a little and runs off to the side, hopping down and into the shrubby plants. It looks a bit like some kind of flightless woodpecker. I see its aerodynamic head, actually recognizably like the Warner Brothers version. But no slobber and no “meep meep!”
Barb is maybe a quarter-mile behind me; I lose her around curves. We could ride together but I sense she wants to think her own thoughts, and maybe I want to think mine. ‘Time to think,’ I remind myself. It’s usually pretty easy to just concentrate on gaining miles or making the next turn; the canyon takes care of the latter, as there’s not a turn-off to be found, and I try to let the miles thing go at least between mile-markers. I have ridden through a lot of beautiful country so far in California but I see there is something special about the canyon, like everyone’s told me. It feels spiritual, like a natural cathedral. There are very few cars (but that’s true of other places). It’s dry. The hills are just absolutely gorgeous. As we gain altitude, the plants and rocks change slightly. And it’s in here—maybe the 16th mile or so, shortly before I run into Clyde, that I start to feel the mild, wabi-sabi sadness of ‘returning home’ as opposed to ‘setting out.’
There are three or four miles of brutal hill before the junction. Clyde tells me that the gearing on his bike compels him to stand up out of the saddle for most of this bit; “I’ll see you at the top!” he says. “I’m pretty sure you’ll see me before the top,” I say, but for a while I cruise ahead of him, in my lowest gear and wishing fervently that I had still lower ones. I pass a few people, including a woman who tells me the steep bit is only about another half mile (which is inspiring, but turns out not to be true), and a man, to whom I say, “My kingdom for a lower gear!,” which makes him smile. As I pass, he calls out to me, “You’re doing great!”
Up ahead, on the left side of the road, there’s a brown sign and a little patch of shade. Stopping seems so lame, but I have to stop. I peel over there, lean my bike up against the signpost, clip out, stretch my quads, touch my toes and then bend back toward the sky. The guy passes again, and then there’s Clyde. “The top is right there!” he says, gesturing just a few hundred feet ahead. Okay, okay. After a two- or three-minute rest I get back on. It is the top, for all I’s & P’s. There’s a bit of downhill, which feels like pure joy, and a couple small rollers, and then the Junction Cafe.
Another swarming-with-cyclists scene. There’s David, even, who left me behind this morning around mile 10. We’re two-thirds through now, and almost done with the “hard part.” I order a ham sandwich. Thick-cut ham, iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle on slightly stale sourdough sandwich bread, with a small bag of potato chips. I’m too tired to go back inside and ask for mayonnaise or mustard; it tastes fucking awesome even without them. There’s a collection of picnic benches under these big overhanging trees, well-packed dirt, a few motorcyclists and all the rest of us. The diner’s a real diner, not chromed out but wood and linoleum, five or six stools with battered red tops. They have an actual rubber stamp for us to stamp our brevet cards, like a passport (for some reason, they don’t give out receipts), and I suppose the club must have given it to them, which strikes me as weird and sweet.
Barb orders two hot dogs, and then is alarmed because they’re much bigger than she thought they’d be. She eats one and then puts the other, bun and all, into a plastic bag and stashes it in her camelback. I make the inevitable joke about whether that’s a soggy hot dog in her back pocket or she’s just happy to be on a bike ride, within earshot of this irrepressible, fireplug guy who introduces himself, first name and last, and tells me to Facebook him. Barb and I agree to roll out together but then Michael is bending her ear about this paddleboard racing he’s been doing—”I’ve put in less than a thousand miles on my bike this year!“, he says—and Barb and I share the small intimacy of knowing that we’d both rather be getting on the road than hearing about water drag and upper-body strength and etc. Finally we’re out. I estimate there are maybe 15 riders behind us still, and I’m happy. My goal for this randonee, besides finishing, has been to not finish dead last like I did the first time.
I ride with Barb. There’s another section of hills, nothing as bad as the “wall” we just came over, but significant hills all the same. She tells me how she got into cycling, for a while. I talk about New York, and hurricane Sandy and how it’s weird not being there with my peoples. We’re still in the middle of nowhere. On the right we pass a junk shop-slash-dwelling called something like Ruthie’s Place. “You’ll know you’re at the top here when you pass this sign for Ruthie’s Place,” Barb says. “It looks like a memorial, or something, and at first you think, ‘Oh God,’ but it’s an ad for the store.” When I finally make it there, four or five miles later, I know exactly what she was talking about. Plastic flowers sticking out every which way. I crane my head back to read the front of the sign and it says something bizarre and portentous, like “Welcome to Our World.”
At mile 90, the course tips down. I’ve been promised a 25-mile downhill stretch, and it basically is: not pure, hold-onto-your-hat “Wheee!,” but pretty steadily downhill. It’s still lovely and there are still very few cars, though a bit more than before. Barb’s just behind me again. And it’s here that I become unaccountably bored. Maybe it’s because the drama of making it or not making it has worn off. My ass hurts—I can tell I’m getting abrasions on the inner part of my butt cheeks where they contact the rear sides of the seat, as happened to me before. My labia is complaining. There’s a little cramp or a pinched nerve or something at the back of my left leg, which twinges slightly each time I do a pedal rotation. The sun is falling. For an hour or two, it seems to be in a perpetual state of setting, but because the ridge on that side keeps lowering as well, the sun effectively stays about right where it is. Off in the distance, an assortment of gold and blue hills. It looks—I know it—like the drawing on the package of some standard grocery-store item. I’m racking my brains. Is it pasta? Pasta sauce? Dressing? Hmm. My mind fluctuates between the grocery store, the scenery, my suffering ass, the clotted feeling in my stomach, the distance behind me that Barb is, the passing to my left of various trucks and motorcycles.
Eventually the down-grade gets steeper, lowering into three or four miles of fun downhill that’s fast enough to practice not putting on the brakes so much, and not fast enough to be really scary. We zoom down and then we’re back in civilization suddenly, at the junction of a normal, straight road with cars. Barb catches up with me here and we ride together, drafting off each other. I even pull her for a bit. Feels good. Maybe I’ll get the hang of this drafting thing yet.
We start to chat again. All this and she still doesn’t know what I do for work. I tell her, which elicits the inevitable personal story, which is cool, I like personal stories. We’re still talking when we pull up to control 5 (read the elevation off some town sign at an intersection), and another group of four or five randonneurs pulls up to us. The last eight miles are a formality. We’ll definitely make it in before dark, and we briefly think we’ll make it in in under ten hours, but we run into two other guys and all four of us make a teeny, tiny wrong turn; it costs us probably 45 seconds, but it’s enough. We pull into the parking lot of a standard strip mall and make for the Starbucks. I’m going for an optimum blend of fast but careful—I know how tired I am—we pull up, exactly 10:00.
“You look great,” says Jesse, wrapping his arm around me. I didn’t manage to text him from the road. I’m proud of my time—I came in 11:28 before—and of the fact that I hung with Barb. She might be 20 years older than me and she might have been under the weather today, but I don’t care. She’s an iron man athlete and she’s strong. I put things on my bike, strip off arm warmers; I can hear Jesse around the corner thanking Barb for riding with me, and she’s saying, oh please, don’t mention it, we were riding together, she’s good—and I feel proud the way you feel proud when you’re a little kid and you overhear one of your parents talking to a friend about your accomplishments within earshot but as if you aren’t there.
There are about 20 cyclists milling around the Starbucks. In lieu of a spread of snacks, there’s a Starbucks card with money on it, and it’s getting passed around so we can go in there and get something. I don’t even feel especially hungry. I buy a coconut-pineapple water. Jesse buys a hot chocolate. Barb buys a mango smoothie thing. I feel exhausted and radiant and sticky.
I sit down. It feels amazing. Later I’ll look at my ass in the mirror and it will have crescent-moon-shaped red rinds that correspond to the back edges of my saddle.
This time, we don’t linger long. Jesse has negotiated a ride back with Ernesto, a Venezuelan guy in his maybe late forties, slim, attractive, stylish, very strong rider, sociable. Ernesto drives a Prius and he said someone told him she recently got three entire bikes into the Prius, with no rack, so he wants to try it. “We have to take all the wheels off,” he says. We take all six wheels off and stack the bike frames like cordwood in the back of the Prius. No problem.
We speak of food. Ernesto takes us to Rudy’s Can’t Fail cafe in Emeryville. Someday I’ll start eating healthy food after rides, but today I have a chocolate milkshake (dude at the end of the ride put it into our heads), a mushroom and swiss burger, a side salad, most of an order of fries. I ask for mayonnaise but it never comes. I decide not to make a thing of it. It is to be a mayonnaise-less day. Ernesto is telling us some stuff about green energy, apparently he works putting in solar arrays and methane-producing digesters and other such-like solutions for people and businesses. It’s fascinating, and then we’re dead tired, he’s dropping us off, I’m showering, there’s ooze coming out of one of the red crescents on my ass, my whole crotch is swollen, I’m putting on sweats, I’m refusing sex, I’m passing out on top of the covers. I wake at 2 a.m., with my contacts still on and yellow boogers in my eyes. I remove them, get under the covers, sleep till 9:30, a total sleepings of over twelve hours.
After a big breakfast (tortillas, a big scramble of leftover potatoes, tomatoes, eggs, hot sauce, coffee) and a chat with Christine and Jesse on the deck, I spend most of the day in bed, working. This bed day feels richly deserved. It’s warm outside and sun pours in the windows. I feel a strong wish to be left alone and to work. Around 5:15 I go to the store. I’m compelled to hop on my bike because the store closes at 6. I buy some things. The store is a mess. I come home, drink a beer (can’t believe I didn’t drink at all yesterday, I feel I am still owed beer), make food in the kitchen with Zoe and Christine. Michelle comes in. We chat a little. Zoe is making butternut squash soup, I’m making kale salad. By the time we all sit down at 7:45, with soup, salad, seeded baguette, herb cream cheese from Christine, a dish of sliced avocadoes and cherry tomatoes from the garden, it all looks so wholesome, and it feels so much like Sunday night, that Zoe and Christine and Jesse and I feel compelled to hold hands around the table, but we have no words to speak so we just kind of shake them in the air, and then Christine, who is good for social graces, says “Thanks for the food!,” so we all say “Thanks for the food,” and then we eat, and don’t rush to jump up from the table and start the dishes, and it’s another week done.