Some places are so pitilessly ugly that they scar you with their wretchedness. Pearblossom is one such place. Pearblossom howls with a dry desert wind that sucks the moisture from the air as it blows over the sharp, spiny, wound-inflicting desert plants that puncture the coarse sand like rusty studs on the collar of a rabid punk rock killer. Stuck in an orbit of pain and ugliness at 3,997 feet, this dustblown town has just enough of a commercial dribble to keep it from being a ghost town, but not quite enough to raise it much above the status of a graveyard.
Every time I load my car with bike, pump, wheels, and dread, I think about the bone deep ugliness of Pearblossom, gateway to the Devil’s Punchbowl, the last cobbled and cracked pavement on my own personal highway to hell. Saturday was no different. Mired in the defeat and despair of the relentless horsewhipping I’d suffered two weeks earlier as the only Ironfly 45+ at Boulevard, all I could think about on the drive to the race course was the weather forecast: rain and temperatures in the low 40’s. I’ve done Devil’s Punchbowl twice and finished near-last or DFL both times, and have done UCLA’s Punchbowl once, finishing in the last group of broken stragglers and damned proud of that.
There’s something poetic about the race being held along the San Andreas fault. According to UC geophysicist Yuri Fialko, “The information available suggests that the fault is ready for the next big earthquake but exactly when the triggering will happen and when the earthquake will occur we cannot tell. It could be tomorrow or it could be 10 years or more from now,” he concluded in September 2005. Devastating, catastrophic, unexpected, pain, suffering, misery, loss of life…great place for a bike race.
Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly is to the bone
Saturday, I could feel deep down that the only recompense I’d have for spending the day in the vicinity of a town that looks like it has been shot with a shit cannon would be another painful beating at the hands of my betters. Turning off onto Pearblossom Highway I noted the wind turbine that was spinning crazily from the 30-mph wind and gyrating in tandem with the billows of dirty diapers, styrofoam cups, and fast food wrappers that blew across the roadway. The wearying ugliness of the place was heightened by the hand-lettered roadside cardboard placards that advertised “Coffee and Gas” and “Chorizo Viern/Sab/Dom,” scratched in black magic marker and nailed to a post. A junked car lot had a rusted out VW microbus that some redneck had painted camo and welded onto a set of tank tracks.
The only bright spot was the bright blue sky, the brilliantly shining sun, and the knowledge that however awful the day’s drubbing was going to be, it wouldn’t be meted out in the rain. When I pulled up to the sign-in booth I spotted my good buddy Kwan Luu. He had been there since 5:00 a.m., and although the day was still cold, the dreaded rain never materialized. Shortly after signing in, a huge gust blew through, picked up both sign-in tents, and carried them away like the giant sails they were. Volunteers scrambled pell-mell into the cactus-filled desert scrub, trying to wrestle down the wayward tents, which blew farther and farther away with each fresh gust as the angry desert plants shredded the volunteers’ legs into bloody, pulpy wounds. The tents came to rest several hundred yards off, heavy steel legs tangled up in the cactus. “This,” I thought,”is the perfect metaphor for this race: sturdy legs caught unawares and blown to hell into a cactus field of pain.”
An earth-shattering event
I tested the air temperature against my bare legs and chatted with racers who had just finished. “Arm warmers and you’ll be fine,” one idiot said. “I took my gloves off after the first lap.”
The air was still biting cold, but the sun was bright and we didn’t go off until 1 o’clock. “Perfect time to slather on the Mad Alchemy,” I thought. Fortunately, I’d brought the Uber Madness tub of gel, which warms down to 0 degrees and in a pinch can be used to smelt ore. I rubbed on gob after gob and then got out to warm up. To offset my thin gloves I smeared a thick layer on my hands. Despite the sun it was cold, mid-40’s or so. I’d been off the bike all week and felt even slower than usual.
This isn’t a Boy Scout merit badge yet, but it should be, because navigating your way through a pre-race port-a-potty is more technical and has more horrific repercussions when done badly than any accident on the bike. I entered the cubicle of brown death to empty my bladder one last time, carefully placing my cleats so that they were on either side of the brown lumps on the floor that might have been mud. Or that might not.
I took off my right glove and held it with my teeth as I reached down to grip. Just as I made contact I cursed to myself. “Goddammit!!” I said, realizing that I hadn’t wiped the fiery hot leg embrocation off my fingers prior to reaching down. As I cursed, my glove slipped out from between my teeth and into the urinal. I swatted to catch it with my left hand, lost my balance, and both cleated feet slipped squarely into the big brown patch that I’d now concluded most definitely wasn’t mud.
Glove covered in piss, cleats clotted with manure, and the inside of my shorts now burning with the heat of a thousand forest fires, I hurried to the line just in time.
Lambs to the slaughter
The dire weather predictions had thinned the 45+ and 35+ fields to such a tiny contingent of idiots that the officials decided to combine us into one race of about thirty. As we sat astride our bikes waiting for the official to wave us off, a giant storm cloud that had been hovering above the peaks began to sweep down. The hillsides were covered with snow, but until that moment the bright blue sky and the warming sun, especially while sitting in the car with the windows rolled up (an especially accurate way to approximate what it’s going to feel like out on the course), had obscured harsh reality: we were starting at over 4,000 feet and climbing another thousand or so each of the four laps that would make up the 50-mile race.We rolled out into the 20mph+ uphill headwind at a pace that was simply a crawl. “This is awesome,” I thought. “I’ve never gone out this slowly. I may actually do well today. Plus, these 35+ guys don’t look that tough. All the guys who race 45+ say that it’s much harder than the 35’s.”
A few hundred yards later it began snowing. “Snow!” someone yelled.
“It’s not snow,” an idiot responded. “It’s a flurry.”
“A flurry of what, you dumbass? Charcoal?” someone shot back who sounded a lot like me.
Tucked in towards the rear of the group I sidled up next to Leibert. He looked at me and smiled. “Lambs to the slaughter,” he said.
“Yeah,” I chuckled, but then stopped as I choked back a bleat, realizing who he meant.
By the time we got to the right hand turn the early flurry had petered out. I was impressed at how un-tough the 35+ guys were. In the middle of that reverie, my legs awakened to the sharp pain of an even sharper acceleration. Within seconds we were strung out in a line, with the gutless and weak 35+ girly men smashing the pack into pieces. Dave W., Mike H., and another Big Orange rider made the split. The rest of us were pulverized into easily digested baby food and barfed out the back. I knew it was bad because one of the guys who missed the split was Leibert. It’s a rare sight indeed, but not an altogether unpleasant one, when you get to see the executioner with the blade against his throat for a change.
“If a man hates at all, he will hate his neighbor.” Samuel Johnson
We flew down the back side of the big hill in a mixed group of about twelve riders. When we turned right at the bottom of the screaming descent, the lead group was less than 30 seconds ahead of us. They had slowed as the gradual rise braked their speed.
A Barry Lasko rider accelerated to try and close the gap. Leibert answered with a swift counter. Bill Ralph and I took this as the perfect strategic moment to crack. With us was a rider from the 35+ gaggle, No. 104, I think, wearing a red-white-and-blue kit. I would come to hate him with all my heart over the next hour of my life.
Bill put his head down and began to pull. All I could do was come through with short, weak efforts, trying to spell him as he did the lion’s share of the work. To my amazement, up came Hotten from behind. Hotten, Bill, and I (well, not so much I) took turns as #104 sat on the back. Of course there was no reason for him to help, and by the looks of it, he was completely shellacked, but nonetheless out of my own misery a deep and lifelong hatred began to well up. I cursed that guys’ stupid Felt bike, I cursed his stupid jersey, I cursed his squeaky clean freewheel, I cursed his goofy pedal stroke, I cursed his parents, his siblings, his life story, his family tree, I even cursed his legwarmers, which looked really warm. Of course I did all of this manly cursing to myself, mostly because he looked big enough to twist me into a pretzel.
As we struggled through the finish area, world’s best Maggie, Angel to the Freds, called out encouragement and offered me water. Her smiling face got me through the second lap…not sure if I should be grateful or not. After getting halfway up the big hill the second time we were joined by another 45-er, “Scott,” who I will never forget as long as I live. He had closed the gap to our foursome and when he overhauled us he was gasping and wheezing and gagging with such ferocity that it sounded like he was being strangled.
That was fine and normal. What was unforgettable was the 12-inch dangle of near-frozen snot that had dripped from his nose, over his mouth, and was now swaying in the wind as it hung off his chin like a living, breathing stalactite. I wanted to offer him my piss glove and turd shoe to make the ensemble complete, but didn’t.
When the going gets tough, I head for the car
On our third time up the big hill, the P-1-2 group overtook us. Bill rolled towards the front of their group. “These punks aren’t so tough,” I snarled to myself. We turned right to attack the stairsteps, the not-so-tough punks hit the gas, and I hit the skids along with snotnose, wanker, and Hotten. Bill surged with the others and was gone.
Snotty and wanker then accelerated, leaving Mike and I alone. My piss glove was now iced piss. No feeling remained in my hands. The Mad Alchemy embro had mixed in with the dirt, mud, and sand and had ceased to heat. My feet were frozen. I couldn’t feel my lips or my face. My glasses were covered with ice as we hit the 50mph downhill. The wind cut through my short sleeve jersey and arm warmers like a bandsaw through a drunk millworker’s wrist.
Hotten looked back, let me attach to his wheel, and drilled the downhill as if there were actually something to drill about. We hit the bottom, where the snow had turned to freezing rain. “Got another lap in you?” he asked.
“Bleat, bleat, bleat,” I answered.
Crossing through the finish area for the third time, I saw Maggie. “Can I quit now?” I bleated.
“Of course you can, honey! Get off that stupid bike and get to the car before you freeze to death!”
It’s a known fact that the only two people you can’t disobey at a race are the official and Maggie. Bill had disobeyed the official a few minutes earlier by crossing the center line and getting DQ’ed. I wasn’t about to get DQ’d by disobeying Maggie, so instead I quit the race and staggered over to the car. Hotten roared on up the climb and finished like the iron man he is.
Winning isn’t everything (but it’s better than being a quitter wimp)
I wish I knew how the race unfolded, but since I don’t, I’ll have to speculate: Dave Worthington, Mike Haluza, and Jon Flagg rode everyone off their wheel to finish 1-2-3. This seems confirmed by the photo I stood around to snap at the finish. Greg got 4th, grinding it out for 50 miserable miles and never losing more than a minute or so on the leaders.
Haluza, judging from the absence of shoe covers, absence of leg warmers, and arm warmer pulled halfway down, wasn’t even cold. I’m not sure he knew it was snowing. Of course you’re wondering how they decided who got the win. It may have gone like this:
Dave: “Okay, guys, I’m winning today.”
Guys: “FU. You always win.”
Dave: “That’s right.”
Haluza: “I’m 6’4″ and could squash your entire body with my left foot.”
Dave: “I’m 5’8″ and can sprint faster than your Moto Guzzi.”
Haluza: “Okay. Take it.”
Jon: “Well, I get second then.”
Haluza: “Okay, but I get to punch you once as hard as I want after the race.”
Jon: “Ah, er, third place and that bag of pistachios sounds pretty good to me.”
Haluza: “Damn right.”
If you missed this epic slugfest on the San Andreas Fault and had to vicariously enjoy the UCLA Punchbowl race results on this blog, don’t worry! There’s another Punchbowl race coming up in April that will be longer, but every bit as fun.
Here’s the link to my WKO+ power file for the race, just click here.