Few things are this disconcerting. You are in the toilet at the Center of the Known Universe, hand on equipment, or you are sitting down, all 387 zips, straps, and buttons on your cycling kit undone as it sits around your ankles. There are seven cyclists in line, legs antsily crossed. Four more are waiting in line for their coffee.
Outside several cyclists are milling around, chatting. Everyone is a bit nervous about the upcoming 220 or 230 or 240-mile ride, depending on where you started from. One rider notes that his rear derailleur battery didn’t charge the night before. Another fiddles with an air cartridge to fix an untimely leak.
Everyone is nervous but not panicked.
Then, magically, unpredictably, the clock strikes 5:30, which was announced in 38 separate emails as the starting time. “5:30–POINTY SHARP.”
I then rolled out, as advertised, along with two or three other punctual people. “Was that Seth?” someone asked.
“Yes, he’s gone.”
“No worries. We’ll see him in ten minutes at the latest.”
“Who was with him?”
Suddenly people begin leaping onto their bikes, flinging half-eaten donuts into the gutter, drizzling piss down their leg as they hoist up their bibs, jumping onto their bikes as if their chamois had been lined with jalapenos, and sprinting full gas.
Because when Evens goes, well, he is gone.
Meet your true self
Cycling is constructed of countless facades, and the group ride is the biggest one of all. It promises that you have friends (you don’t), that the ride will regroup (it never does), that Ol’ Hammerdick will be told once and for all to go easy the first thirty minutes (he ignores you), that it isn’t a race (it is), that there will be a neutral zone (nuh-uh, never) that if you flat or mechanical a pal will stop to wait (this happens but only rarely), that there will be a pee-stop (dreaming), and most importantly that you won’t be culled from the herd and left to die. Of all the certainties, this last one is absolute–if there’s one thing that will happen to you, it’s that you will be dropped and no one will care.
However, no one likes to admit these facts because if they did, who would come to the ride?
Answer? Twenty-seven nutjobs who had nothing better to do yesterday than start off on a brutal jaunt that would leave the group in tatters almost from the start.
But unlike other group rides, the Big Day is very up front. It leaves at 5:30. If you flat or your bike breaks, you chase. When you quit, no one cares. And then, after about 220 miles, it’s over. It is a form of honesty in group riding that has no one to cheer you on, no finisher’s tee to flaunt, no trophy, no sponsor, no on-the-road sag, no aid stations with smiling volunteers and mounds of green bananas … all done along a pitiless stretch of highway with bad shoulders, road trash everywhere, a 7-mile brutal climb at the halfway mark, and an awful slog the same miserable way back. If you’re really lucky you get a headwind on the way home.
If you fail, quit, or don’t show up, everyone calls/texts/emails to find out WTF happened, you quitter! If you finish, no one gives so much as a half-twisted backwards fuck.
The Big Day isn’t for everyone
Prior to the ride several cyclists had made alliances. “If you have a flat I’ll stop for you, and if I have a flat, you’ll stop for me.” Like all such lifeboat pacts, it would eventually result in cannibalism.
The shock and sadnesspants that riders felt began immediately, because Evens slowed down exactly once to let the potty chasers catch back on. After that, he barreled through town to PCH, where Nigel’s tire blew up. Nigel de Sota is a crazy strong young rider who had decided on the spur of the moment to show up and he was the only rider who’d been able to sit next to Evens on the insane pace out of town.
However, Nigel’s blowout was a sort of rough frontier justice as he’d not told anyone he was coming, was riding without a light, and of all people was on the front and best positioned not to run into the gaping chasm that was visible even to those behind him. He smashed into the crater so hard we thought his spine would snap, but no.
Charon stopped to wait for his pal, and just like Charon doesn’t wait for anyone in the last 300m of a bike race, the pack didn’t wait for him. The flattees took this as a get-out-of-hell pass, and spent the balance of the morning riding and enjoying life. Of all Charon’s awesome traits, his best one is being able turn any negative into a positive, and to do it with style, charm, and class.
The next tire victim was Cari. Her pact mates stopped but the rest of the peloton charged. In the first twenty miles the speed had averaged 28mph and ten riders were already either done for the day or had shifted from race mode to “now we’re gonna be stuck out here for another 13 hours or longer.” Cari wasn’t especially upset. She’d ejected water bottles when she hit the chug hole, and she did not GAF. She was going to finish the ride no matter what.
Rahsaan, whose derailleur wasn’t working at the start, had driven home, swapped bikes and driven to Temescal, where he was parking when the peloton rushed past. He hooked up with the flattees and they chased like insane people for almost an hour, but with Evens on the gas there was no hope. Rahsaan rode to Ventura before calling it a day, while the others continued on. The following morning I had to call him and apologize for being such a worthless liar about the neutral zone, but when you’re a ten-time national champion and RAAM finisher, you’re used to bike racer lies. He still ended up with 130+ miles.
Fire in the hole!
The plan had been to ride neutral for the first 60 miles, but since Evens was riding neutral, and his neutral was 30, there was nothing to be done but hang on for dear life. The group was already whittled down to about 15 riders from the original 27.
As a “joke” I attacked at Pepperdine, but Leo Bugtai didn’t know it was a “joke” so he bridged, and then Evens “joke” bridged to us “jokers” and everyone was pinned, gasping, and barely able to see straight. Thankfully we still had 200 miles to go, so there would be hours and hours to regret our foolishness.
Among the pace-pushers was Baby Seal, who had announced beforehand that he was simply riding to the Rock, a mere 120-mile day, and so, since he had excess energy, each time that Evens took a brief breather Baby Seal was there to make sure the needle sat at 30.
After Trancas we lost Michael Smith, who gashed his racing tire’s sidewall. His misadventure had just begun; we made eye contact as I passed. Michael was a Marine and expected no pity. He wasn’t disappointed.
Baby Seal shook his head. “Your buddy flew all the way from Texas and got abandoned on the road side without even a nod. Geez.”
“My buddy knows the way home,” I said.
Before going home, though, Michael made it to Oxnard, bummed a tube from another cyclist, but was unable to properly boot the tire. Eventually he found a hardware store, bought a roll of duct tape and taped the outside of the tire. With a “clump, clump, clump” he made it all the way back to Santa Monica and a bike shop.
Once the neutral zone finished at mile 60, Evens upped it a bit and reduced the group further. At Las Posas he turned back and looked at me. “I’m surprised we lost so many people.”
“We,” I said. “Yeah, Evens. ‘We.'”
The nightmare continued through Oxnard, where Leo flatted. Everyone was so exhausted that no one said anything. It was just another body getting dumped over the edge of the life raft.
We hammered through Ventura and onto the 101 following the coast, where the CalTrans engineers have constructed a narrow steel bike lane cage that is separated from car traffic and perfect when you are pedaling at 13mph, but a death trap at 30, as you pass oncoming walkers and cyclists within inches and the slightest mishap will fling your face, teeth, and eyes into steel prongs or over the barrier into traffic or off into a 30-foot fall, broken by your neck.
As we emerged from the 101, the inevitable happened: Evens had to pee. He’d sprinted ahead and there he was, dick in hand, hunched over as he tried to coax water from the tube. What would a friend do? Attack, of course, because on this ride YOU HAVE NO FRIENDS.
Soon Rudy, Jon, and I had opened a huge gap, racing through Carpenteria with a vengeance. After a short while Evens hunted us down like mangy curs, and responded with a counter that was so vicious it dropped three more riders, including me. Kristie and Georgeta were now OTB, and I was somewhere between them and the group.
The plus side? I made it to Cabrillo and Garden in Santa Barbara by 10:05; a hundred miles in 4:35. The year before we’d arrived at 10:35 or thereabouts. The mind works in curious ways on a bike, mainly by turning every lousy defeat into a great victory. In my case, I patted myself on the back for getting to ride to Gibraltar at my own pace. The prior year I’d tried to follow the leaders, detonated at the bottom, and not recovered until the following day.
World Hillclimb Un-championships
Gibraltar is where Phil Gaimon holds his annual World Hillclimb Championships. Yasuko had parked her car at Sheffield Reservoir, just before the entrance to the climb. Before the ride everyone except for Stathis and Jon had given her a musette bag, and I swung up to the car to get a bottle of Gatorade before hitting the climb. The ride had lots of stand-outs, but only one hero, and her name was Yasuko.
She sat in the car for four hours awaiting our arrival, then fought traffic for three hours to make it back to CotKU to hand out the winners’ bread. She stayed until every single rider had come off the mountain, and did it with nothing but smiles and good cheer!
I crawled up Gibraltar. Compared to an average respectable time of 45-50 minutes, my 1:10 was pretty unrespectable. I didn’t care. I counted the riders ahead of me as they descended: Evens, Stathis the Wily Greek, John Beam, Adam Flores, Ramon Ramos, Leo Bugtai, Georgeta Ungureaunu, Rebekah Potter, Wes Morgan, Ivan Fernandez, Jon Petrucci … and I wondered how Georgeta and Leo had leapfrogged ahead? Mirrors, prolly!
“My day’s done,” I thought. “They’re all so far ahead I’ll never see any of them again.”
I got to the top and descended, slowly. Just before the bottom the entire pack of riders who’d flatted were just starting up the climb. Mathieu Brousseau, Lauren Mulwitz, Liutaurus Rusaitis, Cari Smulyan, James Cowan, Bjorn Snider, Peta Takai. The only rider missing was thunder hammer Rudy Napolitano who had been with the leaders when I’d been shelled. Turns out he’d flipped a u-ey and gone into Santa Barbara to enjoy a beer while everyone else suffered. With age comes experience. With experience comes wisdom. And with wisdom comes beer.
Back at the car, Yasuko was busily handing people their musettes. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Except for Stathis, who’d stopped neither going up nor going down, and Evens, who stopped but caught the Wily Greek later on the road, everyone else was leisurely milling about the car.
I grabbed my shit and dashed off. “Hey,” somebody said. “Are you leaving already?”
The answer was a couple of clicks into a bigger cog.
More panic as riders hopped on their bikes, realizing that the race was still on.
Caught and slaughtered
Before long Kristie and I were caught by the pack. We hopped onto the back and I promised myself to do no work at all. This was the part of the ride where it was easiest to do yourself in. You’d just eaten and rehydrated, your legs had rested a bit, and there were only 100 miles to go. Seemed natural to push the pace …
I watched as Adam Flores and Dan Beam began trading monster pulls, with furious efforts by Leo and Rebekah. The other riders rotated through except for me, Ramon, and Jon, who sat at the back and did nothing. On the 101 Adam redoubled his efforts, riding as a 22-year-old should: On the fuggin’ front, all fuggin’ in. Dan was also in finest form. He’s powerful, relentless, and not afraid to take the bit.
We got to Ventura in no time but you could tell people were worked. When Georgeta suggested a neutral pee stop, people leaped off their bikes to follow her as if she’s offered them a new set of legs, except for me, Jon, Dan, Rebekah, and Kristie. Pee stops are golden attack times!
We hit out hard for a few miles until Jon lit us up on the narrow bridge between Oxnard and Ventura. Kristie was shelled, and a few minutes later Dan announced he was done for the day and intended to hang a left and grab a beer. Rebekah turned the screws and punched me out the back. Jon hung on.
Kristie and I fell into a medium fast pace. She is crazy strong, tenacious as a tube of super glue, and completely devoid of the whine gene. As we cleared Hueneme Rd. out of Oxnard, we noticed a giant, three-sided iron pipe on the roadway.
“Shit,” she said. “Glad we didn’t hit that!”
Shortly after the Rock, the chasers hooked us, reeled us in, and ran us through with a harpoon. Leo was accelerating on the front, with Adam trading the bitterest of hits. Ivan, Georgeta, and Ramon all hung on, as did Kristie and I, until, a mile or later, I blew completely. I spiraled off the back and Kristie sat up, waiting for me.
“Go,” I said. “I’m done.”
She didn’t say anything.
From there to Trancas, Kristie pushed me up the hills, tiny little big ring rollers that I was barely able to mount in my 25.
“Can we stop at the convenience store?” I begged.
“Thought you’d never ask.”
I took off my shoes and sat on the nasty, oily pavement. This was my first real stop since 4:30, when I’d left home. I was shaking and suddenly cold. I couldn’t eat anything but managed to swallow a Starbucks coffee/milk drink. My head felt nauseated and my stomach had a migraine.
An insane man came up to us. “You know they’re going to make PCH into a giant bike lane? No cars. Just a bike and pedestrian zone. So we can be healthy.”
He had no teeth, was barefoot, hadn’t bathed in months, but still looked better than I did.
“Really?” Kristie said. “That’s so nice.”
I put my shoes back on and we left.
Couples therapy or, Big Day Ride: 1, Couples: 0
There is something very wrong about taking someone you love, care for, or otherwise regard as a human worthy of dignity on a 240-mile death slog that will ultimately force one of you to eat the other. In small bites. And gnaw the bones. On the other hand, it is a great way to channel the BeeGees and answer the question, “How Deep is Your Love?”
Peta, Cari, James, Lauren, Mathieu, Bjorn and Liu got off the hill about 1:30 and joined up with Rudy at Cantwell’s in Santa Barbara. Between them they’d already had seven flats. How deep was their love? Everybody was about to find out.
Mathieu, acting as Dad Pro Tem, marshalled the group once they’d had a big lunch and many big beers. “We’re going to ride a steady paceline home. Someone will sit at the back to make sure no one gets dropped. We’re in this together.”
This was another way of saying, “People are going to die and I’m not one of them.”
Liu didn’t appear responsive. He was holding the sunscreen trying to decide which arm to pour it on, like someone who has eaten a bag of shrooms. Slowly he chose an arm, squirted the cream, then pondered how to smear it on. Like a sloth he slowly rubbed it in, then encountered a second, even greater scientific problem: How to get the excess schmear from one forearm to the other. A light went on like the dimmest of candles, and he began rubbing his forearms like a praying mantis.
The waitress came over, worried. “Are you okay, sir?”
“Oh yes,” Liu answered, staring off into space. “I’m fine. Very good fine.”
The pace line began but so did the flats. Cari’s tire, which James had now patched four times, looked like Swiss cheese. The sheer time in the sun had beaten everyone into a melted emotion soup, and no one was sure why they were all together anymore. Pact? I never made no pact.
Dad coaxed out the tubes and pump and made sure they got started again. Then there was another flat. Tempers would have frayed but no tempers were left.
Dad did some more soothing and tire repairing.
Outside of Ventura, just past the bridge where Jon had attacked, Lauren flatted. Dad swung over and waited for the group to follow suit. The group didn’t make eye contact and rolled on.
“Ah,” Dad said, wistfully. “So that’s how it is.”
After getting the tire fixed, Dad’s phone rang. It was a very sad Bjorn. “Dad,” he said. “Where are you?”
This bit of concern was touching and revived Dad’s crushed hopes for humanity. “Just outside Oxnard. We’ll be with you guys in a sec. Thanks for waiting!”
“Do you have another tube?”
“We flatted and are out of tubes.” Dad, chagrined, realized he only had one tube, that he’d surely need it before the end, and that the children had only called him for his tube.
Dad passed the group, then circled back and gave them a lecture. “No tubes for you. Bye, kids!”
After a while Head Down James, head down, manfully led the group through Hueneme Rd. where he neglected to notice the 6-foot iron Stopper Stick that neither Evens, Wily, Rebekah, Jon, I, or Kristie had bothered to move out of the roadway.
Cari and Liu hit it full force, giving Cari a double flat and trashing Liu’s front wheel. Relationships were strained and feelings of affection were muted, but a quick solution was found as Rudy dialed Uber.
James, determined to fix the flats if he had to vulcanize the leaves of a nearby Eucalpytus tree, got Cari’s bike going again. Bjorn had left the lifeboat long ago and was going to swim home. “Those sharks,” he mumbled, “are my friends.” Normally that would be the case. Bjorn is stronger even than his Nordic strong-sounding name, which in Norwegian means “Eat wood for dinner.” Prior to the Big Day he’d trained a thousand miles in the Slovenian mountains. He was a beast. Emphasis, unfortunately, on “was.”
That left Liu, with the trashed rim. “Better take Uber,” Rudy counseled.
Liu stared with his shroomlike gaze. “I’ll … be … fine …”
No one cared anymore.
Burritos anyone? Or maybe a 5K fun run?
Liu, the same guy who did a 100-mile warmup before last year’s Big Day, was in his element. Alone, broken, foodless, out of water, broke, and a shattered from wheel with 60 miles to go. He opened his first aid kit and applied Band-Aids and a gauze tourniquet to the wheel, which somehow managed to turn.
A voice in his head said, “Gauze won’t work on four broken spokes and a cracked rim.”
One of the other twelve voices said, “We will try.”
Four hours later, otherwise known as 10:00 PM, he limped into Trancas, where the front wheel broke in half. He looked glumly at it and dialed Lyft.
Mathieu and Lauren, far ahead of those they’d abandoned, but still light years from that mythical place known as “home,” crossed Temescal Canyon. Instead of staying on PCH, however, the fateful decision was made to take the bike path. What could go wrong at 6:00 PM on the bike path?
Nothing, of course, if you were on it to participate in the annual 5k Fun Run that loads up the narrow walkway with 25,000 “runners,” and by “runners” I mean barely ambulatory people mixed with greyhounds.
Speed slowed to a gratifying 5mph, they forced their way like a chunk of bacon fat through a clogged artery until reaching their destination, “Peyote Pepe’s Street Tacos.” Everyone knows that after a 200-mile ride your stomach is in prime condition to receive large doses of Srihachi Sauce, jalapenos, barely cooked dogmeat, and fistfuls of black beans, so they loaded up, rode on another couple of miles, and then de-loaded into a giant trash bin.
“At least I won’t get fat,” Dad mused into the steaming pile of puke.
Fortunately they were home by 8:00 PM, where they found Bjorn, huddled in a fetal pose on the floor in testament to the healthy benefits of endurance cycling.
“Bjorn, we’re home.”
“Unnnnh,” he said.
“Get your fucking shit and beat it.”
By “shit,” Dad was referring to Bjorn’s Magic Burrito, a giant, 8-lb. rescue parachute of sorts that he had lugged for hundreds of miles in the heat. The burrito never got eaten because of the great fear of sharting or worse, so instead it got a free trip to Santa Barbara and back, and now it smelled like it.
“Unnnnnh. Nnnnnh. Grnnnnnh,” Bjorn said, and curled up tighter than a pill bug.
Never say quit!
James and Cari’s big adventure began after patching the double-flat because it was only a partial patch that leaked down to 0 psi every five miles. This would be James’s cue to pump the tire back up and ride along a bit more. As they approached home, he said, “What’s your pleasure?”
With the steely conviction for which she is famed, Cari, who is tougher than nails and broken glass, said, “CotKU or bust!”
It only took two more hours, but by 11:00 PM Cari had completed what is by far the toughest Big Day ever, and James now has two abnormal (for cyclists) growths known as “biceps” thanks to the repeated inflations. Of course then they turned around and rode home, which was in the other direction, making it to bed before midnight.
How the race was won or, A Star is Born
Earlier in the day we saw Rebekah and Jon, third and fourth on the road behind Evens and the Wily Greek, chasing full-gas. When they turned off into the headwind at Point Mugu, Jon rode up to Rebekah. His eyes were empty.
“How are you feeling?”
“Not so good.”
“My kneecaps,” he mumbled.
“Kneecaps. My kneecaps hurt. I think I better stop.”
Rebekah showed her sympathy by clicking it down a cog and sprinting a bit. Then they parted company forever.
Many miles later while stopped for some water and a carrot stick to replenish her body from the 200-mile effort, The Ramons blew by Rebekah, unaware they’d passed her.
Ramon, who’d been saving his reserves, opened up the throttle on Pepperdine Hill, sending Ivan to bed without any supper. Jon, who’d been overhauled, was left behind with Ivan. Afraid he wasn’t going to pass Rebekah, though he already had, Ramon throttled it all the way to CotKu with Adam, Leo, and Gerogeta, where he promptly fell off his bike.
“How much did she beat us by?”
“Who?” Yasuko asked. She was waiting at the finish to bestow the winner’s bread.
At that moment Rebekah rolled up. Per the #fakerules, as the woman who had completed the entire #fakecourse, Rebekah was declared the women’s winner by race jury. Georgeta was graceful in defeat, if defeat is what you call drilling and killing for 200+ miles.
Earlier still, Evens and Wily Greek had arrived, at 4:30, completing the entire thing in 11 hours. “We were faster last year,” Evens mused. “Because of the wind.”
I couldn’t imagine what that kind of time-speed meant. Kristie and I finished at 6:30, a 13-hour effort and I was destroyed. Two hours faster? On a bike? Moreover, as we were struggling along Vista del Mar, Wes whizzed by.
“Hi, guys,” he said, looking fresh as a chunk of kimchee at the Korean mart. “I’d stop and chat but I’ve been solo since Ventura so, gotta go.”
And … he went.
Wily was so happy that he didn’t even get off his bike and rode straight home. He had got to spend twelve hours sitting on the wheel of an underfed grown man whose shorts said, in big white letters, “EAT WELL.”
The irony of two malnourished adults pummeling each other under the mantra of EAT WELL was lost on them both, as Evens refused to accept the winners’ bread. He’d just consumed 6,000 caloris but obviously recognized the 1200 kcal in the loaf as bad arithmetic because it would put him at a deficit of only 4,800. Wily, who was desperate to have the bread just so he could refuse to eat it, thanked Yasuko for the loaf profusely and rode off without it.
He knew he’d be celebrating this amazing finish with an extra glass of water and a parsley sprig to go on top of his celery stick. It was incredible to think that Wily had finished the ride the year before wearing a down jacket even though it was 75 degrees outside, very far down the leaderboard.
But it vindicated a conversation I’ve had with people over and over who, after looking at Wily, I’ve had to re-educate thus: “Yeah, he’s skin and bones and not the fastest guy out there. But you know what? A few years ago he was the fastest rider I’ve ever seen. Just wait. He’ll be back.”
There’s not much to say about Evens. It wasn’t an especially hard day for him or a long one, but he got to ride in the presence of other humans briefly and to experience their strange customs and funny ways of riding, or attempting to ride, bicycles. Plus it was a good warm-up for Sunday, when he’d be riding to Vegas.
Big Day 2019 came disgracefully to a close. Some were angry at being dropped. Some were angry at no one waiting for them to change their diaper. Some were angry because the neutral speed was 30. Some were angry because of the Stopper Stick. Some were angry because of the two dozen flats. Some were angry because of the course cutting. Some were angry because of Peyote Pepe. Some were angry because the ride left on time. Some were angry because they had to take a pull. Some were angry because they were attacked while peeing. Some were angry because they ruined their kneecaps. Some were angry at chasing hard to catch someone they’d already passed.
The point is that although no one was happy about anything, everyone was angry about something.
As it should be.
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Photos courtesy of Ramon Ramos!
Photos below courtesy of Liutaurus Rusaitis!!
Baby Seal photos:
Photos by Adam Flores!