School of soft knocks

July 13, 2020 § 9 Comments

So you are thinking about abandoning real life and riding your bike north into a howling headwind for a month? Good. You’ve come to the right place.

Here is a key rule I’ve learned. Baby Seal, listen up.

Don’t pillow baby. Time is your mortal enemy and the guy driving the getaway car is your pillow. There you are, tucked into your $690 sleeping bag, the gentle sound of waves on the beach, and a cool Pacific breeze wafting across your sunburned schnoz. What harm could there be in rolling over and enjoying a bit more beauty sleep?

Answer: The harm is twofold, wind and collapse. In addition to my own experience starting late and finishing late, at the campground I met Bill from Placerville. Bill was a big packer and a big sleeper.

“Yep,” he said. “Been averaging 30 miles a day, mostly less. This is Day 14. Or 24. Can’t keep ’em straight anymore.”

“You’ll be in Argentina in no time,” I assured him.

“These dang campsites are so comfy,” he said. “Didja know you can stay at this one for ten days before they kick you out?”

I looked at his rig which had six giant stuffed bags of various dimensions, enough provender spread out on the picnic table to provision a division, his Stetson cycling cowboy hat and his cycling alligator cowboy boots. “I think you’re good.”

Dave was already cracking out the 2-liter plastic jug of vodka, drinking straight from bottle. He offered me a swig. “Thanks,” I said, “but I was gonna hit the head.”

“Roger that. There’ll be plenty for ya when ya get back. Long’s you hurry.” He chugged a draught that looked like a pint, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Ahhh. Thas some good shit.”

I went to the camp toilets and enjoyed a toilet. It was a porcelain one, clean and accoutred with all the proper toiletries such as paper, water, and a flush button. Back at camp Dave was waiting, but a lot of the vodka wasn’t.

“Come have a sit,” he said, slurredly. “You kin tell me the story of yer life. I bet it’s a goodun.”

“Man, I’d love to, but I’m pretty wore out myself and think I’ll go lay down.”

“Well fuck me a piano,” he said. “It ain’t hardly six o’clock.”

We said our goodbyes and I went to my tent. I was asleep by nine. I awoke at four then slept again until five. It was dark out so I waited a few more minutes before going out to have some hot oatmeal and coffee. The only sign of life in Bill’s tent was some snoring so serious that I hoped he’d staked his down good.

After breakfast I broke camp and put on my grimy bike togs. I was starting to learn that when you leave your clothes out overnight they get covered with dew, which feels amazingly similar to cold water only with a nicer name.

By 6:30 I’d left the campground and was on the 101. Guess what? Zero wind. So when you forego playing pillow baby it pays off immediately, as that windless window lasts only until about 10 at the latest.

This was the most beautiful part of the ride so far. The 101 goes along the coast with the sun at your back, no cars, no wind, and gentle rollers that are easily mounted and that spin out your single front chain ring on the downhills. I made Gaviota in no time; from there the road to Lompoc started with a long climb. Once over it you whip along, mostly downhill for mile after windless mile.

Was it as good as an extra two hours of pillowtime at that magical campground? Yes. Was it as good as ten days hanging out with Bill from Placerville? No fuggin’ way.

In Lompoc I Starbucked, fiddled around with my packs, and eventually got underway. I’d gotten the world’s nicest invite from Rob Knock to spend the night at his place in Nipomo and was on schedule to be there well before noon.

Immediately before turning onto Harris Grade, my schedule went to hell as the rear tire went soft. I pulled over, took out my oaths, removed my racks, flipped my bike upside down, and began looking for my tube and pump. Naturally it was a rear flat, and naturally I was at a major intersection where interested motorists watched me hopping around in my clown suit, cursing, and taking shit out of my bags.

“Oh look, mommy. The nice man has rainbow underwear!” Out came everything; the socks, the rain jacket, the JetBoil, the leftover garlic clove, the empty Mac bag (never know when that’ll come in handy), everything spread over the sidewalk like the homeless person I am.

Finally I found the pump and began the brain surgery of taking out my rear disc brake wheel. I had a couple of minor issues getting the tire seated, but it was nothing that a ration of fucks couldn’t cure, and after only an hour I was underway. Note: The Lezyne hand pump is a miracle.

The Harris Grade road was a miserable climb with a twisting descent, but it was so beautiful that I’d easily do it all over again, especially the part where I had to pee and so I stopped but, too lazy to get off the bike, tried it with a torso twist and ended up soaking the handlebars.

Of course at that moment the completely deserted road was packed with seven cars. “Mommy, why is that man putting all that pee-pee on his bicycle?”

“I don’t know honey but I will call the police now.”

At the bottom of the grade I turned left and met Mr. Headwind. He was angry and it seemed personal. Fortunately I’d beaten him to the draw by refusing to play pillow baby, so instead of six hours into the merciless wind I only had to ride two.

The first 90 minutes went fine but the last thirty didn’t as I ran out of water and desire to live. When I reached Guadalupe there was a man with a fruit stand.

“Do you have any water?”

“Coconut water.”


He gave me a massive cup of coconut water for two bucks. As he was handing me the cup a woman pulled up in her SUV. “Do you need water? You look terrible?”


She got out and gave me to water bottles. “You shouldn’t be out in this heat!”

“I know,” I said.

Less than a quarter mile from coconut water salvation was a Subway. I got a foot long with four extra slices of calories, some extra calorie sauce, and double calories on each bun.

I got to Rob’s place in Nipomo good and dehydrated and delirious, but that was soon taken care of with an amazing smoothie, a hot shower, and some amazing bike spiffery done by Rob. He readjusted my rack, especially the part where I’d fixed it so that it was about to fall off, cleaned and lubed my chain, wiped down the frame, and politely suggested that their washing machine was available.

None of this removed the sting of how Rob and I first met at the Rosena Ranch circuit race a few years ago. “Hey, I’m Rob. I live in Vegas and I’ve just started racing. Love the blog, man.”

Of course a rank beginner wasn’t going to be any match for a veteran with thirty years’ racing under his belt, but Rob didn’t know that, so we ended up in a four-man break with Rob taking puke pulls that singed my nostril hairs just to hang on.

“How’m I doing?” he’d ask after a 28 mph uphill pull into the wind.

“You’re doing a bit too well,” I’d said. “I think I’m going to stay back here for a couple of hours to take notes on your form.”

Rob rode one of the guys out the break but I managed to hang on. “Doing all the work in the break like a newbie,” I thought. “I’ll sit back here, do nothing, and smoke him in the sprunt.”

It didn’t work out that way, because in addition to doing all the work he outsprinted us, too. After the race he’d said, “Thanks for letting me stay in the break!”

“Uh, you’re welcome,” I’d said, instead of complimenting him with my characteristic four-letter praise. After that I made sure not to enter any races that he was in.

Rob and his amazingly kind wife Donna fed me, gave electricity to my phone and laptop, and listened to some of my stories with a graciousness that is rare.

I can already tell that tomorrow’s pillow battle will be epic. But I’m up for it. I think. Unless Rob says I can stay for ten days.


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