About a month ago, I was invited to submit a piece of artwork that would contribute to an Installation called "Aesthetic Blitz." Curated and conceived by a close friend, the installation was meant to explore the idea of how we come to know who we are, via the tangible artifacts around us. For my friend (a Korean adoptee), the exploration of self through found objects makes sense (the reconstruction of a lost past, and the "installment" of a present and a future self); but for me, the invitation was a challenge. What part of me is made up of tangible pieces and parts?
I didn't end up taking part in the Installation (showing now in a gallery in San Francisco). My day job as a technical writer got in the way with more than three RFP's (Request for Proposals) to respond to and web content to draft. I'm also a cycling coach for at-risk and at-need kids at work as well as for anyone who will listen to me in Reno through Great Basin Bicycles (for fun).
So, I arrived at the Central Coast Double torn to shreds by stress and guilt. When Rich and I arrived at the registration table, the race official asked Rich for his last name (to retrieve his number) and turned to me to ask: "So, are you his SAG?" Whatever shred of self-confidence I had dwindled to about nothing. If this stranger could only see me behind the wheel of a car (and not turning the wheels of a bike) what hope is there for me for me in this world, no matter how I define myself?
So, that pretty much set the tone for my race. Defeated from the start. Honestly, there's more to it than that, but I've got 211 miles to cover, and so there is plenty of time to unpack. What I can say, honestly, is that I found my "found object" for this race early: my "torpedo" bottle: an unplanned obstacle, a distraction, a saving grace (sort of.)
They let us sleep in. Unlike other doubles, this one got underway with the sunrise, which meant 5:41 am. We gathered in the little town center of Paso Robles-- a cute place with brick buildings and bistros--and listened to the pre-race meeting which, in a nutshell, told us not to do anything stupid. The morning was beautiful. It was colder than I expected, but nothing to complain about. The air was calm.
I rode with the lead pack, which consisted of Rich, Brandon (who was my partner for the Silver State 508) about a dozen men, Lori (who is in first place) and I. The first climb was a gradual effort, and the group talks the entire way about past races, and who is who. I tried my best to be invisible. I felt, simply, "off." Not quite cold, but not warm, either. My legs didn't respond when I told them to "go."
The climb was beautiful. Fog rested over the hilltops which was turned slightly pink in the changing light. Trees lined the narrow winding roads which tended up more than down (or undulated across small hillsides.) When a downhill came, Rich moved to the front of the pace line and I into his draft. The scenery became a blur of greenery. I thought: "This ride is really turning out to be a lot of fun." Rich and I have so much fun that we miss the orange arrows on the road which indicate for us to turn left, up a hill.
Someone yelled something about falling off the back, but I knew Rich and I would catch up. We did, and we fell into the rhythm of a pace line- the buzz and whir of tire and spoke. Another right turn, and half our group continued straight, in the wrong direction. We yelled at them, but they kept riding.
We climbed York Mountain and the lead group pulled away from Rich and I. Just when we thought we are a pace line of two, we heard a familiar voice behind us. Brandon joined our little team which was about the best thing that could have happened. I was still in my funk (I fell off the main group, I'm not fast, I should be SAG, I'm hot/cold, etc., etc.) but the banter between Rich and Brandon distracted me from my internal monologue which was like something from MacBeth, but more depressing.
At about 30 miles, we began the Santa Rosa Creek climb which had a few steep pitches. We don't have those in Reno, and they always come as a shock, especially this early in the ride. Brandon charged ahead and I felt so slow. I set a pace, out of the saddle, and climbed. Later, Rich would say that he felt demoralized when I climbed away from him. Maybe some part of us is relative, always gauging ourselves by where we stand in relation to other people.
On the descent, my "torpedo bottle" (a bottle nestled between my aerobars) tried to kill me. I didn't know the bracket which held the bottle in place had broken; I only knew that, as I gripped my brakes around a hairpin turn, that I looked down to see the bottle dangling above my front tire like a loaded gun. If it had fallen, I would have eaten pavement, and probably lost all my front teeth.
After Santa Rosa Creek Road (which was another twenty miles or so of rolling hills in the diminishing fog) until we reach Cambria, which took us to Highway 1. The air was so calm that the ocean was a mirror of the sky. On the opposite side of the Pacific are old ranches, where cows grazed in golden-colored fields. Several of the cows that morning, though, didn't look "right"-- black and white-- as we rode closer, we discovered why: they're Zebras.
Then, we rode by beaches and beaches of elephant seals. A few of the males pressed their chests together and growl. Gray Whales spouted miles off our left shoulders in the deep blue. There was hardly anyone on the highway, and I couldn't help but feel grateful for the wildlife around us, the near perfect conditions and for such great riding partners. We fall into a pattern: Rich pulls us down the hills, Brandon pulls us up them, and I am pulling in between. I mis-calculate miles: I think I've only ridden 50 miles and I get quiet again.
Up and down; through a town called "Gorda" (yo soy SAG gorda, I thought) to the first big climb of the day, Nacimiento. I should rewind this story slightly, and tell you that we missed an aid station back in Cambria, and so I was hungry when we got to the aid station before the climb. I knew about the climb, and didn't want to eat much, so I started this section of the race hungry, but willing to survive on water, which I'd refilled in my "torpedo" bottle.
The first part of the climb is the most aggressive, which meant my discomfort in climbing was immediately rewarded by incredible panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean in nearly every direction. At 17% grades at some points, the climb is demanding. If you don't know grade percentages, perhaps the best way to describe some of these pitches is this: you can't get off your bike. If you do, you won't be able to create enough forward momentum to keep upright. Even experienced riders fall over if forced to stop.
Brandon rode ahead of me. Rich was behind me. I was in the no-man's land of the middle. I passed another rider, a woman, with earbuds in and I wondered what she was listening to. The temperature climbed as I climbed, and when the ocean fell from view, I decided it was time that two of my three layers needed to go. Rich caught me in the middle of my strip-tease, and joined me. Brandon, by then, was well ahead of us.
We climbed together. We were mostly silent. An Aussie we'd met on the last double passed us. Cars passed us, and one filled with teenage girls, cheered me on with "Go, girl, ride!" The climb lasted forever. Literally. A small flicker of hope raised in my chest at every turn, that it would be the last turn, and every time I was disappointed.
We reached the top and I refilled my torpedo. Rich's Garmin was really on the fritz, and he asked the race volunteer for directions to lunch.
(OMG lunch. I was so hungry, it was painful.)
"It's on your route sheet," the volunteer said. And it was true enough: but we left the route sheet in the hotel because we had both uploaded the electronic version to our Garmins. Mine, for whatever reason, didn't have the route, but displayed accurate mileage. Rich's had the route, but he only had 20% battery left. I didn't know this at the time, but he only turned his Garmin on at critical moments to get the right directions.
The downhill portion was winding with mostly bind corners. We flickered through the dappled light, and we had to control our speed. Then, we passed through a very strange gate, entering (I didn't know this, in the ride) Fort Hunter Liggett. The landscape turned hot and dry; we were passed by Hummers captained by uniformed and helmeted army officers. Then, there were barracks tucked beneath the oak trees, and obstacle courses designed for some sort of military exercise. My heart fell. My stomach grumbled.
Lunch wasn't here, I knew.
We joined a group of male riders. Rich and I traded the pace line lead, and I wondered if lunch was an idea I invented to distract myself from the 211 miles. Then, more insistent questions came: Did we make a wrong turn? Are we off-course? We kept riding. I pulled the group through another funny gate and we were out. In less than five minutes, Saint Luke's Church (the only building for miles along a lonely stretch of road) announces itself as our lunch stop. I ride my road bike up the dirt driveway, so excited to know I will have a sandwich.
My torpedo bottle jostles more than usual on the dirt road, and because I'm weird, I think it's because the bottle, like me, is ready for lunch.
Two Squirt sodas and a million potato chips later, we're back on the road. The torpedo bottle is full, but seems to rattle more than it used to prior to the lunch stop. Starting the ride again is a painful, slow process and my legs don't like turning the crank at least for another mile or so. We regroup with the five or so men from before lunch, and Rich, Brandon and I take turns pulling the group through the empty, dry fields. We arrive at a gradual downhill and we take "pulling" to a new level. Averaging 27 mph, the landscape turned to color-streaks as we formed a diagonal pace line across the deserted, country road. At first, the road was smooth and riding that fast, fun. Then, cracks appeared in the road and the ride became less than smooth. After a series of rather large cracks, my torpedo bottle launched across the road and landed in the shoulder on the opposite side. I went back to retrieve it, but our pace line was broken. The men who'd followed us down the hill kept going, and I watched them disappear around a bend in the road.
I don't know why this hit me as hard as it did, but the futility of riding fast, of pulling other riders along, of going nowhere because of something stupid-- a torpedo bottle of all things-- and now I'm here, and the men who drafted aren't, and will (I thought) beat me to the finish line. The narrow space behind my knee cap was beginning to hurt. I was so upset, I wanted to cry.
I stopped riding, got off the bike and pretended to check my phone (because at 130 miles of a 211 mile race, it's really important to see if you are all caught up on email.) Rich and Brandon circled back, and I said something like: "I'm done."
Rich gave me his "look" and said something along the lines of: "Shut up and get on your bike."
Which I did. Quietly, realizing that I'd crossed some awful line. I felt bad for Rich and Brandon, and until about mile 180 or so, I repeatedly told them that they were welcome to ride ahead, and leave me to the elements.
They had popsicles at the next aid station, which I'm reluctant to take because, by mile 160, I didn't believe I deserved them. It's a community center located on the corner of "nowhere street" and "desolation highway." I asked the volunteers about the possibility of a SAG, and Rich gave me another one of his looks. I filled up torpedo and languish in the shade of a tree which looks like I feel: droopy, sad and covered in bugs. Even the luxury of a bathroom with real plumbing isn't enough to lift the rain cloud hovering above my head which told me, again and again, I had, due to the capriciousness of a water bottle, failed.
Plus, my knee hurt. It felt like my knee cap was going to explode every time my crank rotated past 50 degrees. I tried pedaling with only one leg, but the lack of motion only seemed to make it worse. In our last few minutes in the aid station, Rich looked at me sharply, and said, "You're just going to have to figure out how to make this work." I knew he was right: races aren't always about kicking ass. Sometimes, it's finding the best way to handle the cards you've been dealt for the day.
Brandon, our friend, offered me some advil he always carries on long rides. I declined, and felt horrible for being just like my torepdo bottle: super lame.
I followed Rich's advice and found a way to make it "work." For every climb, I'm out of the saddle because my knee hurts less that way. On the downhills, I'm spinning, keeping the motion going. The landscape undulates and we ride up and down. We catch a few of the men who'd drafted us. The order of climbs and who we passed where blurs a bit for me now, but I remember one climb in which a check-in point rested near the top of the hill which overlooked a reservoir. We stopped, briefly, to refill our water bottles. The sun was still high and hot in the sky, and I knew I'd need more water before the next aid station.
A man who'd driven to the scenic overlook told us the downhill was long and fun. It's not quite as long as we'd hoped, and soon we found ourselves battling the wind, just as before. We caught the men who left us on that windy stretch. There were only two of them riding together. I remember passing them both, and one of them telling me, as I rode by, that they were eying our water bottles. "We didn't stop for water on that climb," he explained.
I handed him my extra bottle (not the torpedo) so he and his friend could share. They stay with our group through the next section of miles which are mostly unremarkable, except for the moment I drifted into Rich, and his right leg lifted the front of my bike off the ground, and somehow, we didn't crash (Rich will say, later, this is a testament to my bike handling skills. I think it's testament to how far gone I was; not hitting a person in a pace line is a sign of good bike handling skills. Hitting them and not falling is luck.)
Whatever it means, the next aid station is a wind storm. We make it, though, and that's the moment when I take Brandon up on his offer of an advil for my knee. I wish I would have done that sooner.
I became an animal for the final thirty miles. Up Hare Canyon, I was out in front. I don't know why, honestly, I chose to be "strong" at this point in the ride. Maybe I wanted to make up for being so awfully lame earlier. Or, maybe I really did feel that much better. Hare Canyon was the final climb of the day, and I tackled it with legs that have already ridden over 180 miles. I reached the top with another rider, and we traded the lead for another ten miles.
I expected the other rider to write me off like the man who gave me my number did. However, he rides with me as though I'm an athlete, too, and maybe that contributes to how well I felt. I'm not a rock star, but darn it, I'm a cyclist. I was in my aerobars and pulling as efficiently as I could. Rich told me later it was hard for he and Brandon to catch up.
The final eleven miles take FOREVER to complete. The cross winds blow across our faces and shoulders. The road meandered, and I kept thinking: "Where IS this town?" We reach it, we stop at two red lights. When we turn to the park and the finish line, I almost cry from happiness.
I finish in the top ten of all riders that day. I have come so far this year, I wish I knew how to believe that about myself before the finish line. It is hard for me not to be disappointed that I don't have the glitter-finish of first. But, I have ridden the fastest, the farthest and the most steady that I have ever done.
I discovered the bracket which held my torpedo bottle fractured at some point during this ride. My knee issue is residue from the increased running miles I have been doing to compete in a 178-mile running relay race next month. The Advil, not usually an item in my jersey pocket, saved me. These are the residual traces, or materials, which define this race. Maybe these aren't the elements of an art installation; they nonetheless are evidence of what pieces and parts make up an athletic body.
To be an athlete is to immerse yourself in all the elements, to be subject to the whims of the body and to chance. It's a game of a torpedo bottle: balanced on the precipice of total ruin and success. It's in the balance, though, where you continue to ride without any reason to keep going, where the spirit of what we do resides.