We had been stuffed into the box, the lid had been nailed shut, and now there was nothing left to do but suffer. As Greg and I struggled up Fortuna Ranch Road, Sam and the Wily Greek kept slowing down to wait, and it wasn’t because they liked us. It was because they needed all four guys in order to finish.
This was the SPY Joker Ride, where for ten bucks a rider you got to form a four-man team and race your bike for sixty miles on a variety of paved and unpaved North County San Diego roads. It was early in the ride and the road was decidedly unpaved. Unfortunately, as we reached the end of Fortuna, our fortunes took a turn for the worse.
The road leaped off and down into a deep muddy trench filled with rocky craters and every type of igneous obstacle. The day before I’d bought a slick new pair of FastForward full carbon clinchers. This was the first time in over thirty years that I’d ridden real carbon wheels, and the difference between these magical hoops and the concrete, 32-hole, aluminum box rim Open Pros that I finally smashed into bits a few weeks ago was amazing. In addition to floating uphill and accelerating like a juggernaut, they had another amazing quality, a quality I’d been sort of warned about. “Just be careful at first because, you know, carbon doesn’t brake so good.”
As my bike launched into the trench of death I grabbed on the rear brake. Something happened, but it didn’t feel like braking. More like a gentle love tug, or perhaps a nudge. The bike didn’t slow, and neither did the uncontrollable urge to soil myself, so I grabbed the brake even harder. The bike gradually scrubbed speed and I made a mental note to bring extra diapers when running full carbon.
Wily led us over the rocky moonscape and back to pavement, where we caught our breath and Greg continued with the truly most complicated part of the whole ride, which was navigating. The organizers had kept the route under wraps until the morning of the ride. As each team sat at the starting line, going off in one-minute intervals, you were given a playing card and a direction card, one of three that would take you to the next waystation. At each of the waystations you’d pick up another playing card to make your hand, and another direction card to get you to the next stop. At the end of the ride, the team with the best hand got a prize, and the team with the best time got a prize.
As the seconds ticked down to our start — we were the first team off out of forty — we stared frantically at the direction card. Instead of saying “PCH L to La Costa. R on La Costa, etc.” it was a riddle tucked inside a rhyme. You think I’m kidding? Try to figure this out while your heart is pounding, everyone’s yelling, and your colon is telling you that you might have some unfinished business:
If you weren’t a local, and all but a couple of teams were, you could perhaps figure it out, but if you were a local you could simply scheme your way to the next waystation without doing nasty, unpaved climbs like Questhaven. But if you were Team Wank Special you were already lost and if you didn’t follow the directions you’d get extra lost, plus lose time, plus not get your card, plus look like a total cheating flailer when your team’s data got uploaded to Strava.
We whipped out onto Elfin Forest and made a right towards the turnoff for Questhaven. At that moment a rider came up behind us. “Hi, guys!” he shouted. “I’m not doing the Joker Ride! Which team are you?”
“We’re the first team off,” said Sam.
“Awesome,” he said. “Let’s go!”
We looked at each other. “Let’s?” said Gret.
“Where are you heading?” He was so excited to have found us.
“Questhaven,” I said.
“Perfect! I’ll take you to it!” Though Fireman and I knew where it was, having done the Belgian Waffle Ride and numerous rides in North County, we shrugged as Cliff charged ahead. Soon it became clear that he was a member of that most despicable species of rider, the Ride Bandit.
Too cheap to fork out ten dollars for an entire day’s worth of riding, food, support, and fun, and/or too much of a Delta Bravo to get anyone out of the 256,911 population of avid cyclists to ride with him and form a team (even though you actually show up, pay your ten bucks, and get paired with three other riders), Cliff was trolling the course to find someone he could ride with, getting the benefits of a fun race-ish ride without having to contribute.
Now that he had us, he was in a frenzy, asking to see our direction card and playing card and desperately behaving like he was one of our “team.” Greg had a pretty good idea of where the course went, and after finishing Questhaven we began climbing to San Elijo.
“Turn here!” Cliff shouted at a stop sign intersection. “It’s a great shortcut!”
We turned and pedaled for about a hundred yards, then all looked at each other. The guy was obviously a cheater and had already annoyed us beyond belief in less than three miles of riding. “Dude,” I said as we flipped our bikes around, “you can go wherever you want, but we’re sticking to what we think is the course. See ya.”
Cliff hurried up to us. “Okay!” he said, with the happy nonchalance that ride bandit delta bravos have when they’re called out. “No problem!”
At the next waystation Cliff sped up to the tent. “Gimme our card!” he shouted. Then he turned and looked at Greg, who was just rolling up. “Do you want a queen? I can get you a queen!”
Greg yelled to the guys manning the tent. “That kook is not with us! Don’t give him anything! He’s not on our team!”
Cliff looked crestfallen as we scooped up our cards and tried to figure out the next phase of the route, which was this:
Cliff soon recovered, though. “Hey, guys!” he yelled. “This way!”
Wily rode up to me. “Dude,” he said. “I’m not pedaling another fucking inch with that motherfucker. Let’s hide behind a tree until he goes away.”
In a flash the four of us dragged our bikes behind a giant bush and hunkered down, peering through the branches while Cliff did circles in the parking lot, looking like an abandoned puppy. After a while another team rode up. “Hey guys!” he shouted at them. “I’m not on the Joker Ride!”
We hopped on our bikes and scampered down the road, leaving Cliff to his next set of victims.
An hour and a half later we wheeled into the SPY Happy Camp, utterly spent. We’d covered 58 miles in 3:04, four miles longer than the actual route, and a good chunk of that time had been spent soft pedaling while Greg plugged roads into his phone. The sapping climbs, the stretches of dirt, and the endless rollers of the North County byways had made it a grueling ride. Our effort hadn’t amounted to much, despite being dragged around all day by Wily and Sam, since other teams either knew the course and didn’t have to navigate, or cut the course, or were just flat out faster — although we hadn’t been passed by a single other group on the road. The winning time was 2:25, set by a threesome of pros including one ex-Cannondale rider.
Back at the SPY Happy Camp we changed into civvies and began helping ourselves to the delicious pizza and refreshments. After a while Cliff arrived. He hung up his bike and sat down on a nearby bench and began talking loudly as he piled his plate high with pizza he hadn’t paid for. “Yeah,” he crowed, not recognizing me as I was in jeans and t-shirt, dark glasses and ballcap, “I met these SPY guys from LA who were totally lost. I saved them! And those guys were so lame. They were the first ones out on the road and they’re not even back yet!”
“What was your team number?” someone asked him.
“Oh, uh, I didn’t race with a team today,” Cliff said, stuffing his face with another five square-foot slab of purloined pizza. “I just, you know, ran into them. But I finished with a couple of groups, we had a big bunch.”
Of course one of the “rules” was that 4-man teams couldn’t form a big group, but that didn’t bother Cliff at all as he got up and went over to the display table where two very nice women were handing out samples of high end fruit drinks. Cliff scooped up two big handfuls of the drink bottles, each of which looked like it retailed for five or six bucks, and crammed his rear jersey full, then pulled on his vest to hide the booty.
I watched Cliff prance throughout the exhibit area, chatting with people and scooping up so much pizza that I was pretty sure he was going to start jamming pepperoni, cheese, and tomato sauce into his jersey pockets, too. It was funny how people all seemed to know him and no one seemed to want him nearby, a kind of human being repellent. I wondered whether packaging his essence of Delta Bravo and genetically modifying it to repel mosquitoes could perhaps cure the global scourge of malaria.
Prior to the announcement of the winners, though, the real competition began: horse trading cards for a better hand. Within minutes some pretty amazing hands began appearing, and although no one was able to create four of a kind or a straight royal flush, the winning hand was an impressive ace-high full house with two kings. Much good beer from the Lost Abbey was swilled as I forlornly sipped from a bottle of craft water.
“Don’t worry, this beer tastes like shit,” Greg reassured me as he downed his fifth cup.
“Yeah,” said Mike the Cop, sitting next to me with a foamy cup in each fist. “This stuff is awful.”
Greg handed me the car keys. “But at least we have a designated driver!”
I tried to find the happiness in that, then looked around at the happy bikers, the killer venue, the good vibe, the beautiful sunshine spilling down on us, and realized that the Happy, indeed was all around us.
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