The longest I ever rode my bike was 150 miles, when a couple of guys snookered me into riding from Utsunomiya to Inubozaki and back. I still remember being miles and miles and hours and hours from home when the guy who had arranged it said “I quit” and checked into a hotel with everyone else except Saito-san, the lone guy who knew the route home.
I never spoke to any of them again.
Riding long distances is fun for some people, but not for me, although every year I do the French Toast Ride, which is 118 miles, and in the past I did four editions of the Belgian Waffle Ride, which is 130-ish, and I recently did 140-ish in Mallorca with a nice young man who wanted to do his first century. I think he gave up at 100 miles and 11k of climbing and called his uncle for a ride home.
But every time people suggest I do a long ride with them I politely decline, usually by saying “No fucking way.” In fact, my rando friends had an intervention earlier this year in which they tried to get me to commit to riding my bike for a long time for no particular reason.
“No fucking way,” I said.
So it stands to reason that on Saturday I rode 240 miles.
Then on Sunday I spent Father’s Day eating without pause and unsuccessfully rolling around in bed trying to find an angle at which everything didn’t hurt at once. The whole disaster was my own fault, as usual, and it started with the same lie that every big bike ride starts with: “This is a no-drop ride.”
It had seemed like a great idea at the time. There was a sagged ride that would pedal from Brentwood to Santa Barbara, with some riders leaving from Van Nuys to get the even century, and then we’d all take the train home. We’d chat along the way, have a jolly time, eat lunch in SB, and do something different from the usual Death Cab for Roadie that these things always devolve into.
The obvious deception in this well-worn package of lies became apparent in Brentwood, when James Cowan, Leo, Nigel, Reeven, and Steven all showed up ready to do the ride after having already done a quick 30-mile “warm-up” loop that included climbing Las Flores Canyon Rd.
Strava it, is all I can say, and if that still sounds like a warm-up for anything besides a funeral, you are insane. Then they said that they would be riding back from Santa Barbara to make it a solid 200+ day. Of course all this was done with much preening, flexing, and Rapha-ing.
I rolled my eyes. “You guys are complete idiots,” I said.
Five miles into the ride, we found out who the idiot was as the leisurely no-drop ride had it pinned at 30 on PCH. Although it was easy sitting in the group, I was wondering about the handful of riders who looked like that speed might be a formula for early detonation. I turned to Larry. “I’m going to float to the back for a minute and see how folks are doing,” I said.
Larry laughed. “We are the back, dude.”
In the distance I saw my friend Debbie vanishing behind into a tiny speck, about to spend the next six very sociable hours plodding alone into a headwind on the coast road. I dropped back to her and watched the group furiously pound away.
“They’ll wait for us,” Debbie said, confidently.
“Yes, they will,” I agreed, knowing cyclists perhaps better than she did. “In Santa Barbara.”
Debbie, who is slim and fit, slipped in behind me, I throttled it back to about 18 mph, and we pedaled the next ten thousand hours into a battering headwind until we got to Carpinteria, by which time I’d gone through most of my single water bottle and both of Yasuko’s homemade granola bars.
We stopped at the Starbucks and I had a bag of chips, some water, and an espresso. We remounted and shortly out of Carpinteria ran into Chris Hahn, who was going the other direction. He turned around and guided us into Santa Barbara, and we were able to chat and catch up on the latest masters crashout polemic and doping gossip.
At the rendezvous restaurant we expected to see our group but they weren’t there. Apparently they had rested at a park, gotten some flats, and made a bunch of unplanned stops, so Debbie and I actually rode there faster even at our modest pace. All I knew is that I was exhausted and looking forward to the train ride home. I’d been wearing that rotting kit since 6:00 AM.
We killed an hour at Handlebar Coffee, rode around Santa Barbara, and finally joined everyone at the restaurant. I was sitting there in my smelly kit, very hungry and picking away at a vegetable tostada I’d ordered that consisted of lettuce and tomato and a piece of avocado, while also eating baskets of chips and salsa. It briefly crossed my mind that this wasn’t the best day to embark on vegetarianism, but I’d finished the last part of a collection of stories by Miyazawa Kenji in which he had written about a vegetarian convention in Newfoundland in the 30’s that was crashed by lobbyists from the Chicago Slaughterhouse Union, and was inspired to try and live without meat for at least a day.
The beer began to flow and I fell into that morose alcoholic sobriety where you’re watching everyone enjoy their delicious beer, and I started thinking about the train ride back and how everyone would be happily drunk and I’d be sour as a bad pickle about having busted the wind all day and then gotten nothing but sobriety as my reward.
About this time the Cowan group began egging me on to join them for the ride back, and even though I was tired and had zero interest in the endeavor, I was in a foul and sadistic enough mood to want to observe such a friendly, confident, happy group of bleating sheep get delivered into the bloodthirsty jaws of Head Down James.
You see, Head Down James, although a relatively new cyclist with little understanding of the nuances of bike racing, is a relatively new cyclist with little understanding of the nuances of bike racing. Although devoid of tactics or guile, he is on the other hand devoid of tactics or guile. And whereas a beginner might mistakenly approach a 240-mile ride with a reckless display of murderous smashing, James approaches every 240-mile ride with a reckless display of murderous smashing.
I say “every 240-mile” because unlike randos, James sees no need to conjure rather long distances into impossibly longer-sounding stretches by use of metric conversion. Head Down James rides 300-milers, 400-milers, whatever-milers, and does it at one speed: Full smash.
We set out from Santa Barbara with plump tummies, and the vegetarian tostada + fried chips diet looked okay, at least initially. Several brave young bunnies gamely hopped to the front and set a very brisk tempo, proudly showing their youthful legs, happy optimism, and excited fluffy tails at getting the chance to do such a big ride with Head Down James. In my estimation they were all about to get their skin torn off in narrow strips and have the remaining flesh charred live over an open flame.
The only rider who looked like he would not immediately have his head hoisted on a pike was Reese, a 40-ish dude with tri-bars who is fiendishly strong and more importantly, wide enough to give me a good draft. You could tell he was for real because his team kit, which was only six months old, already looked like it had been used to wash the undercarriage of a Peterbilt. I tucked in while the bunnies frolicked, awaiting the inevitable, which happened at about the 30-mile mark.
People were starting to get that funny look of twice-tasted Mexican food; Steven had already been shelled once on the 101; Reeven had opined that “5 minute pulls were optimal,” Leo was deathly silent, and everyone else was huddling at the back only to find that with eight riders in a sidewind THERE IS NO BACK.
Somewhere on RV Alley, Head Down James took a pull. I don’t know how fast it was. I don’t know how long it was. But I know that the faces of the riders were twisted in pain, and short little bunny gasps were in plentiful supply. After a very long time that seemed much longer, Reese rolled to the front. It made the pull of Head Down James looked like the efforts of a kindergarten tug-o-war team. After a while, but before he was done, I decided to make a brief excursion to the fore of the ship to see what all the ruckus was about. My acceleration might have been a bit brisk, brisker even, than, say, the already brisk pace of Reese.
By the time I flicked my elbow the only two sailors left on HMS Idiots were Reese and Head Down James. This was good because the bunnies had been set free from the clutches of vivisectionist James. It was bad because it was fairly obvious that I was now going to be the next rabbit on the operating table.
I’ve never done a rando, but if, at mile 183, they’re still doing 28 mph, I don’t ever want to. Reese mercifully flatted. I lay down in the parking lot of Surf A Hoy and hoped he never got the flat fixed or that North Korea had targeted its first nuclear launch for Oxnard. James did donuts to keep his mileage up.
We got going again, but the “we” part evaporated on Hueneme Road. “Guys,” I said, “I’m done.” Although I had sat on, refused to pull, and hidden like a mouse running from a boa in an aquarium, the combination of speed and total absence of draft from Head Down James ground me into bits.
Head Down James look back for a brief second, swerved and took me through a giant pothole that almost shattered my rims and spine, and looked kindly at me, kindly as in “the way a shark rolls its eyes back into its head before sinking its razor-sharp teeth into your soft gut, which spills out a trail of soft intestine and foamy gore.”
“Okay,” he said, and they vanished.
Or so it seemed.
A couple of miles later Reese was standing up against a fence in a playground with a dazed look on his face. “Dude,” I said, with insincere concern, “are you okay?”
“My toe is cracked and I have to restraighten it,” he said, or some other gibberish, which I instantly understood as “Head Down James bored a hole into my skull so please let my brains dribble out in peace.”
“Okay,” I said, without stopping to make a fake offer of help, although I made sure he could hear me downshift.
For a very long time I rode alone. Although there are a lot of unique physiological changes that your body goes through when you are stretched that thin on a few leaves of lettuce and parts of a tomato, the major one is The Feeling Of Stupid. “Why am I here? Where am I? When will this end? Whose fault is this? Who do I know who lives nearby?”
These and a million other variations of “You are a complete fucking idiot” played in an infinite loop until Reese passed me somewhere around the Rock. “All better?” I asked, grateful for the draft.
“Yeah,” he said, blasting by. For a while I sat on his wheel until, faster and faster, I couldn’t. He vanished.
It had been overcast all day and now I was alone in a dense fog on PCH and freezing cold. I hated everyone, especially my rando friends in Sacramento who had made me do this, and my wrists hurt. My neck hurt. My back hurt. My ass had been grated with chunks of razor coral. My glasses were fogged over. Then, around Neptune’s Net, I saw a red blinky light–it was Reese again.
“Dude,” I said, “I didn’t think I was going to see you again.”
“It’s my heart,” he said. “Every so often when I go too hard for too long it starts spiking.”
“What’s it at?”
“201,” he said.
“You’ll be fine. I think as long as it’s not your age plus 400 you’re golden.”
“I have to dial it back until it drops back into the 180’s.”
“Okay,” I said, attacking him on the small roller and leaving him for the defib crew.
Many more miles went by and Reese caught me again. Now we were both too tired to attack. We laughed at how stupid we were. We cursed Head Down James, silently and in the open. We compared notes on the trail of burrito and salsa puke that the bunnies had left in their wake. And we finally got to Trancas.
Trancas, holy Trancas! Home of the Chevron and Saint Dr. Pepper and His Bottled Holiness Frappucino and Father Snickers, the divine and dogly Father Snickers, ambrosia of the dogs!
I had gone through my second water bottle for the day and was thirsty. We ate as much sugar as we could and then, horror of horrors, as we left the gas station we saw the most gruesome thing imaginable: The bunnies were pulling in as we were pulling out.
“Want to wait for them?” Reese asked.
“Fuck no,” I snarled. We pretended we didn’t know them and raced on.
With renewed energy and sugar in our veins we flew through the pitch-dark fog of PCH as stoned surfers, drunk beachgoers, and horny teenagers pulled out of the Zuma Beach parking and headed for more drugs at Moonshadows. Reese and I took turns until somewhere after Cross Creek, where he sat up and gave me the thousand-yard stare.
“I’m done,” he said. “Good riding with you.”
A wave of kindness and camaraderie flowed over me. I don’t know if it was the distance, the exhaustion, the fact that we’d already disproved whatever it was we set out to prove, or maybe it was simply a kinder and gentler me who wanted to show respect to a stronger, superior rider and all-round decent guy.
I smiled and sat up. “Okay, man. Hope you make it home.” I downshifted and rode off. [Editor’s note: I never heard from him again. If anyone knows what happened to Reese, please send condolences to his next of kin.]
After Temescal Canyon Rd. the traffic on PCH became bumper-to-bumper, and my speed was about that of the cars. As I cruised along peeking in the windows I saw normal people drinking beer, texting, and having a nice life although they admittedly killed the odd pedestrian or cyclist here and there. They seemed peaceful and happy. None of them could fathom that of all the people on PCH at that very moment, I was the dumbest.
By the time I got to Manhattan Beach I had made a list of all the people whose homes I was going to stop by and from whom I’d beg a ride home. I had rehearsed my speech, which went like this: “Hi, Derek, I know this is weird it being 9:30 PM on Saturday night and all and the baby is probably asleep and you and the missus are naked but could you drive me home? I’m very tired and am on Mile 230. Please? I have ten bucks and half of a smushed BonkBreaker as payment.”
What I couldn’t get past was how I’d explain having left on an all-day ride without my phone. If there was one thing Derek liked to say it was, “The great thing about Uber is you never have to call a friend to bail you out.” Who would understand it? Not even Manslaughter, although I pedaled by his house to see if the lights were on. They were, which meant he was watching NASCAR and so, no chance there, either.
I ran out of supplies in Hermosa Beach and stopped to buy another Dr. Pepper. I totted up my expenses for the day:
- Ms. WM’s granola bars: $ .25 each
- Coffee at Peet’s: $1.85
- Ride fee: $20.00
- Coffee and chips in Carpinteria: Free
- Piece of lettuce in Santa Barbara: Free
- Unused train ticket home: $36.00
- Donated BonkBreaker: Free
- Dr. Pepper & Frapp & Holy Snickers in Trancas: Free
- Dr. Pepper in Hermosa: $1.85
The closer I got to home the more my mind tried to figure out ways to not have to pedal there. But my legs were okay, my blinkies were still working, and my raging case of fire in the hole had subsided just enough to throw a leg back over.
I got to the bottom of the hill in PV and girded my loins for the final 30-minute climb. There were no streetlights and no traffic. I was swallowed up by a silence so complete that all I could hear was my gritty chain. At the bluff overlook on Via Del Monte I gazed at the brilliant city below. A young couple was standing there holding hands, oblivious to the filthy and tired old man laboring by with a raw ass and defective mental condition.
Eventually, like all colonic obstructions, the miserable climb passed. My wife greeted me at the door. “What happened to you?” she asked in horror, having expected me home hours earlier.
“What happened to me? James happened. Head Down James.”
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