I was standing in the shade of a scrubby little oak that was barely wide enough to hide under. Outside the shadow, the sun was doing its best to kill everything that moved, especially cyclists. With one shaky hand I fished out a mashed up tiny square of bread coated with sweaty peanut butter, while with the other I tried to pee. My new white shoes turned orange but I didn’t care.
It was 104 degrees. I was out of water. I was only a few miles into the dreaded Gibraltar climb. I had no gears, no legs, and barely even any will to live. Oh, and I was 110 miles into the ride with another 130-ish to go. Twelve idiots had left Malaga Cove at 5:00 AM in order to knock out a cozy 240-miler and be home in time for dinner. What had seemed like a relatively bad idea at the time now looked positively awful.
I chewed and my spit softened up the bread until there was enough of an energy boost to get one leg over the frame. I pedaled along for a ways, my mouth swollen and sandpapery from thirst. As I approached a turnout I saw a battered Toyota 4Runner with Shelby County, Tennessee plates. “He’s got to have water,” I thought.
Next to the car a man was hunched over a small plastic bucket holding a pair of boxer underwear. He was dipping them into the bucket and wringing them out. The brown discharge with each twist told a dire tale.
I stopped. “Hey, man,” I said. “You got any water?” Dysentery and oral herpes seemed like a small price to pay for a drink.
The scraggly fellow stood up and smiled. “As a matter of fact, young feller, I do.” He dipped his hands in the bucket to wash the brown stuff off with some less brown stuff, then rummaged around in his car. “Here ya go!”
He produced a big plastic jug of Arrowhead. It looked clear, although from the giant spots in front of me, I couldn’t be sure. Then he unscrewed the cap and filled my bottle with dripping hands as I proffered it. “Where you off to?” he asked.
“The top of the climb.”
“You’re doin’ great. You’re almost halfway there.”
Upon hearing the news, I wondered if it would be okay to cry. I numbly drank the water, he refilled my bottle, and I continued on. One of my other ride mates, Ram-Ram, had thrown in the towel and was sitting under a tree. It’s not often that you see super tough, battle-hardened cyclists sitting under trees. “I’m gonna wait and go down with the others,” he said. “My goal today was to only go halfway.” I love it when someone has a ride plan that incorporates quitting. I needed one of those, badly.
“So this is halfway?”
“No. It’s a ways on up.”
After “a ways on up” I stopped pedaling. There was a yard filled with junked cars and some orange pylons and a hand-scrawled sign that said, “No trespassing I shoot.” It might have been the Tennessee guy’s place, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
I turned around and descended back to our rendezvous spot in Santa Barbara. Nichts, Bottles, Ruins, Surfer Dan, Bondage, and Pornstache had all dropped me on the climb, badly. Baby Seal had met up with a friend and was driving home, proving that there was one genius in the group. As we sat in the Starbucks waiting for lunch, Pornstache told me about Ruins’s dark side.
“We were getting near the top and I had run out of water. It was warm up there,” he said.
“You don’t say.”
“I said to Ruins, ‘I’m out of water,’ and so he took out his bottle and had a nice long drink.”
“But I wasn’t gonna beg.”
“Of course not.”
“So I offered to let him win the climb.”
“Much better than begging.”
“Yeah. So he was like, ‘Okay.’ And then he handed me his bottle, which still had a couple of sips in it.”
“I bet that tasted good.”
“It did. Then I noticed he had another bottle so I said ‘Hey, Ruins, how much you got left in that other bottle? And he was like, ‘It’s full.'”
“Ruins is a dark, dark man.”
As we stood in line I noticed that Pornstache only had what looked like three quarters in his hand. “What are you planning to buy at Starbucks for seventy-five cents?” I asked.
“I was thinking of maybe getting a sandwich.”
Normally I would have let him starve, then bonk, then leave him on the side of the road, especially since he had been driving the pace since 5:00 AM that morning and would likely murder us all on the 120 miles left to get home. “Let me pay for it,” I said. That brief moment of pity would come back to haunt me, as the favor would only be returned with pitilessness.
As we saddled up, Nichts and Bottles appeared to be quite satisfied at having crushed me on the climb, a stellar performance that was greatly enhanced by my weakness and by their canny avoidance of the front on the way out. Each time we would hit a stop sign or a stop light or make a turn, they would magically rotate back a couple of slots so that they were often near the front, but only rarely actually on it. It was clever and it worked, as I could see from the last-place position in the peloton I guarded jealously all day long. I even think there’s a phrase for their method in bike racing. “Smart riding” or something like that.
But their trick was not going to be repeated on the return trip to LA, where the rules were different. On the way out it had been:
- Ride as fast as we can.
- As far as we can.
- With as many people as we can.
On the way back it was:
- Good luck.
At the 180-mile mark our first casualty was Turbo Tom. Leo the Kitten had put in a gnarly pull, one in a series of awful efforts that he’d been sprinkling throughout the ride. Ruins came up, pretending sympathy and concern. “We dropped Turbo and Foxy. You guys were getting all surgy up there. I was doing 300 watts just sitting in.”
This was the same Ruins who crushed my soul on Gibraltar, now feigning concern for people who were struggling. Bondage, who had also ridden like a beast all day, appeared to be worried about his friends. “Sucks to be them,” I said.
“It’s a long way from home,” Bondage said.
“Uber,” I replied.
Suddenly there was a large group discussion going on behind. The gentlemen whose motto had been “Kill Wanky Now” were now discussing the best way to deal with what ostensibly were dropped friends, but in reality was the realization that the ride was about to get harsh and in our group of horribly impoverished Avid Recreational Cyclists, no one made enough money to afford an Uber ride home from Oxnard.
Nichts and Bottles, both shamed into taking exactly two pulls since we had left Santa Barbara, were studiously silent. Our droppees were brought back into the fold, where they remained until we crossed the Ventura County Line into LA. Leo hammered the first roller and the only ones to make it over were Surfer Dan, Pornstache, and Ram-Ram. We came through Trancas intact and hit the Zuma wall.
Leo began to smoke, and not in a good, legalized marijuana way. Pornstache and Ram-Ram appeared to be in difficulty. Only Surfer Dan looked okay, and he inexplicably went to the front to slow the pace. This wasn’t the Surfer Dan I knew and loved. My Surfer Dan would, when given the chance, always kill the weak. So I surged. If there were ever a chance to dispatch Ram-Ram and Pornstache, this was it. If either were allowed to recover, they’d kill me later.
“Don’t be stupid!” Surfer Dan said, by which he meant, well, I don’t know what he meant. But I slowed down, and once we got over Zuma it was game over. We rolled into Malibu a few miles later and I got to watch Surfer Dan eat an entire foot-long Subway sandwich with three meats, four cheeses, and twelve condiments in ninety seconds. At one point he was chewing so fast I was afraid he’d gnawed off a thumb. I was so hungry I wondered if he would let me lick the stump. Pornstache drank some water and breathed some air and was good to go.
We raced back to Santa Monica until the fumes evaporated. Surfer, Pornstache, and Ram-Ram blasted me out the back shortly after we passed Temescal. Luckily, I only had another twenty miles and a 1,000-foot climb at the end, so I was almost home, “almost” being a word I repeated over and over as if it would make up for utter internal collapse.
With each passing mile I went slower and slower until, reaching Redondo Beach, I had to get off and fish around in my back pocket for a banana I’d bought in Santa Barbara. When I bought it, it was already brown and cracking, and the effort of the last six hours, combined with much sweat, hadn’t made it any younger or better looking.
I pulled out the soggy mush, which oozed all over my fingers, disintegrating as I tried to disentangle the peel from the tan paste I was desperately trying to stuff into my mouth. I licked everything off my fingers and continued on, satisfied at my efficient consumption of sugar and salt and glove material all in one thorough licking. Eventually I got home, where a text from a friend was waiting, and it said this: “Dude, I saw you on Vista del Mar, looked like you couldn’t even pedal in a straight line. Are you okay?”
The answer, of course, was “No.” But it had nothing to do with the ride.
That evening, messages of joy began to trickle in. “Made it,” “Home,” “Great ride,” “You suck,” “Can’t wait ’til next year!” and of course my favorite one of all, “Thanks.”
Photos used with kind permission of Leo the Kitten. Baby Seal’s permission was asked and refused. Oh, well. Used ’em anyway. So sue me.