Sunday, May 06, 2012

When the days get long

I woke up to the sound of bicycle tires grinding on sand, so I knew I must have slept a little. I hadn't set an alarm as part of my "let my body do what it needs to do" strategy, and almost felt disappointed when I realized the sky was still cast in pre-dawn violet. It was 5:45 a.m. and my mind was struggling to find the surface in a sea of grogginess. "Oh well. No use in laying around any longer." I packed up camp as color started to creep through the shadows on the eastern rim of the canyon. I was nearly 3,000 feet higher and it was still spring in this part of the desert — shades of green dotted by a bright palette of yellow wildflowers, cream yucca blossoms, and crimson Ocotillo.

I ate a robust breakfast of two flattened Snicker's Bars, having forgotten the day before that chocolate can't survive in the desert. I figured I needed to dispatch of them before they liquefied once again. Having neglected to eat "dinner" the night before, I was surprised how much more spring I had in my step after the Snicker's Bars. Still, as I commenced climbing through the sand, I was disappointed to see speeds in the three-miles-per-hour range. Was I pedaling this slowly last night? Probably, I thought grumpily.

I didn't have much time to be grumpy as the route soon lifted onto one of those famed Southern California 4x4 roads, the Pinyon Drop. The rutted, more-vertical-than-not hike-a-bike would be tough any day, but on this morning I struggled to find the strength I needed to continue basic forward motion. I felt like a vehicle with a faulty clutch. When I tried to engage the high gears, they slipped and I faltered. Gasping didn't feed enough oxygen to my racing heart, but I already had the bike perched precariously on a ledge above me so taking breaks or slowing down wasn't an option. There were several pitches like this and every one felt like a barbell loaded with one plate too many. I'd stand at the bottom, taking rapid breaths like a powerlifter trying to psych myself up, and charge up the hill in an all-out effort to push to the top before it crushed me. Good intervals for getting a lazy body back in shape — but not so good for a long endurance effort amid an already depleted physical state. This wasn't really "letting my body do what it needs to do," but at the same time I didn't have a choice. It was both refreshing (in a "yeah, cleared it!" kind of way) and discouraging (in a, "this race is going to take me a year" kind of way.)

It did feel satisfying to arrive at the top in still-cool morning air, head swimming happily through the endorphin surge and a half-bonked haze. My body had entered the hard end of living, and even two whole Snicker's Bars weren't going to go very far any longer. I pedaled in a drunken stupor and gazed over the Borrego valley, saturated in golden haze that accentuated just how far below it was now.

The jeep road took a dramatic turn downhill as it approached Highway S-2, the remnants of the Overland Stage Route of 1849. It's always fun to travel through historic areas that you know haven't changed all the much in an century and a half. And cycling on these sandy roads really give one a sense of what these stagecoach passengers jostled across in search of elusive fortunes. Today travelers are just looking for quick thrills — or slow punishments.

I arrived at the Stagecoach Trail Store just before 8 a.m., lucky to find the owner opened early specifically for Stagecoach 400 racers, as the place usually doesn't open until 9. I stumbled around the aisles, casing the place for any kind of coffee maker. Beyond that, I hadn't really thought about what I wanted to buy. I figured I would "let my body get what it wants to get." Turns out that was frozen egg and sausage burrito, a package of Hostess cupcakes, and one of those giant cans of Arizona fruit punch. Now, I utilize junk food as much as any amateur endurance athlete, but even I have my standards. All of these foods dip well below these standards. The place had bananas, and I didn't even give those a second glance. When left to its own devices, my instinctive side invariably veers toward all kinds of food my logical side has deemed disgusting. I find this amusing, and maybe a little telling. I usually feel great after I eat this garbage, until a few days go by and I can think of nothing but vegetables and fruit.

As I shopped for resupplies, a large contingent of Stagecoachers trickled in — Brendan and Mary, their friend Carter, a couple from San Diego, and two other guys. None of us were in any particular hurry to start pedaling again, so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and talked about the previous day's adventures. Part of the fun of participating in these types of events is meeting the other weirdos who share this strange desire to go out and beat themselves up on a bike for days on end. Everyone seemed so normal while sitting at picnic tables in the morning sun, devouring donuts and yogurt.

Still, there was little time to be social, as we all understood we had to make a break for Oriflamme Canyon before the sun really started cranking. Oriflamme Canyon was the ramp that would take us from the low-lying desert to the crest of the Laguna Mountains. Its name sounds like a brand of wood-burning stove, and its steep walls feel like one. Hurt, hurt, hurt. The couple from San Diego admirably struggled to ride up the steep, loose road in the crushing heat. I gave up early but shadowed them consistently at walking speeds. Still, even the hike was brutal. I again couldn't find my high gears and soon began to see plenty of flowers and vistas to take pictures of during needed "camera" breaks.

The reward for climbing Oriflamme were alpine meadows in the Lagunas. I say alpine although the elevation was only about 5,000 feet, and the climate zone for pine trees was actually still a thousand feet higher. But this terrain had the look and feel of a high mountain meadow, and was wonderful to ride through.

A short section traversed by a flowing ribbon of singletrack nearly made up for all of the heart-bursting effort of the early morning.

We crossed onto the California Riding and Hiking Trail, and the only part of this region I've seen before. This trail serves as part of the course in the San Diego 100, where I paced Beat for 40 miles last June. I remember thinking some of these trails would be way more fun to ride than run, and promising myself I'd come back with my bike. The context under which I'd returned amused me.

I dipped back into my pain cave on the hot climb up the Sunrise Highway, and the cave only deepened after I topped out at 5,500 feet and began the steep descent into Noble Canyon. The early part of the trail flowed but it quickly turned chunky, and then extra chunky. I'm not a good chunk rider even in the best of circumstances, and these were far from the best, given the heat, my fatigue, and the fact I was riding a fairly-new-to-me bike loaded with touring gear. Sections of trail were rideable for me, but after I while I grew tired of crawling off my bike every hundred yards and relented to hiking the whole thing, even the easier parts. Downhill hike-a-biking over boulders is strenuous, and after four or so miles I was the most irritable that I'd be during the entire Stagecoach 400. It was unfortunate that I spent much of this time chatting with a local mountain biker, who would ride a few hundred yards at not terribly fast descending speeds and then wait for me to catch up so he could ask more questions. It was fascinating to watch him ride and realize that at least some people don't just bomb down technical trail, but ride it so deliberately that their pace is almost confusingly slow (as in, why bother?) But I get that chunk riding is fun for people. I admit it has never done much for me and I doubt I'll ever develop enough interest to really learn. Anyway, the local rider was pleasant to chat with but toward the end he insisted that I couldn't get to Alpine via the supposed direction I was heading, and I needed to take this and that shortcut. When I told him I couldn't shortcut the course no matter what, he argued that his way was better, and I should either just race the thing or do what I want (I presume he said this because I was hiking a mountain bike downhill, so I obviously wasn't racing.) Anyway, he was nice, just inquisitive, and I wonder now if I my annoyance with him stemmed from how grumpy I was at the time.

Still, I was annoyed with this guy because I believed he questioned my "racing," so I was happy with the trail split off in another direction after he'd already ridden ahead. The trail immediately turned up this crazy steep chip seal road. I spent so much of the morning hiking that I already had blisters, so I engaged my highest possible non-slipping gear to ride this climb. As I was mashing the pedals, two guys from the Stagecoach 400 motored up beside me. They weren't carrying any bikepacking gear, so I assumed correctly that these were the "hotelers" — fast guys who were touring the course by cranking hard for a hundred or so miles every day and spending longer nights in high-end hotels. A great way to ride this course, really. I approve.

"Awesome riding," one said to me.

"Who me?" I replied and laughed. If only they had seen me on the Noble Canyon Trail.

"Yeah," the other guy said. "We're about to give up and walk."

"Let's do that now," the first said, and they dismounted their bikes and began walking as I drifted ahead of them. I admit it felt good to climb, well, anything faster than the hotelers, so I pressed a little harder on my unreliable accelerator. I may have even beat them to the top of the climb if my GPS battery hadn't died, but I wasn't about to let that thing blank out for a second. They were riding again when they passed, and that was the last I'd see of the hotelers.

After that was more exhausting singletrack, a wicked fun descent out of the mountains, a steep rolling fire road, more descent, and finally I reached the town of Alpine right at sunset. After stopping for dinner and a small restock, I strongly considered staying in town. Somehow I let Beat talk me into continuing for a few more hours after I called him. (Honestly, I don't remember what he said to me if anything. I only know that I blamed him in my mind for coaxing me out of Alpine after I reached a horrendous hike-a-bike right at the end of the night. Sorry, Beat. I don't think you deserved the blame.)

I was so tired. I guess that goes without saying, but it's more difficult to describe the subtle ways in which fatigue accumulates alongside hours of effort. One minute I was inexplicably giddy, and the next I watched crazy-eyed rabbits dart toward my front wheel. I'm not certain these rabbits were real. It was only about ... oh, it was midnight again. The couple from San Diego had told me I'd probably find a good spot to camp at the top of "the hike-a-bike." I lifted my bike over a cement barrier and saw yet another near-vertical wall of a dirt road. I'm not even sure how I managed to keep the bike from rolling back down the hill due to my own inertia, but I think I pushed that climb at a rate of about 0.5 miles per hour — meaning I think it took me an hour to climb it. It probably wasn't that long, but it felt that long. I found a nice flat spot at the top to collapse and unrolled my bivy in record time. I was lucky at the time not to know that I was on an Indian reservation where the tribe didn't take too kindly to trespassing bikers and had already threatened a few who were caught trying to access this part of the course earlier in the day. I say I was lucky I didn't know, because I was going to sleep well tonight. (Map from day two.)


  1. Nice write-up. This ride looks hot.

  2. I love these installments. Thanks so much for taking the time to share them with us. They are an awesome read!


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