—Marquis de Sade
"Perhaps all pleasure is only relief."
—William S. Burroughs
"The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply."
The sound is loud and crisp, like a rifle’s report, and wholly at odds with the low bass rumble of tires on gravel my ears have grown used to in the morning hours. Instantly, instinctively, I resist the high-rep spin of the cranks and feather the front brake ever so gently. The handlebar shimmies violently in my hands. The front tire expands, swells like a glutted snake, and flaps wildly as it pulls away from the rim on one side. The wheel begins to slow as the rim clangs through the gutted tire against the hard surface beneath, unprotected by its shredded tube. In a few dozen feet, I come to a stop, as do the other riders.
I've just become victim number six of the Flat Phantom, a karmic spectre that has stalked this group of riders all day long, hellbent on extracting vengeance for some slight—real or imagined—for which it has found us guilty in absentia. Alas, the Phantom is not finished with us yet.
I pull the wheel, strip out the tube, and pass it off for inspection while I throw in a new one. Jay lends me his pump, the community pump, as it's become on this ride, and I get the job done. There is a small break in the tire bead. The old tube sports a jagged, six-inch gash, but there is no corresponding damage on the tire sidewall. It is a mystery flat, and the Outlaw speculates that it may have been heat from braking that caused the rupture. It was a long, fast downhill, true, but I stayed off the brake for the most part. Odd, indeed.
Some 37 miles ago, when we began this 1903 Adventure Ride, we were 11 riders strong. Six of us rode fixed gear bikes. Of those six, five were still riding at this point. The one gearie still with us, Jeff, was riding a vintage, multi-colored GT mountain bike with large knobbies. The five absent riders had left in two exoduses, three at mile 20, and two sometime before that. Family obligations.
During that 37 miles, as I said, we'd already managed to rack up 5 flats, the first (Jon's) not more than a mile and a half from the cars. That flat ate two tubes and one pump; Fate was knocking on our door and nobody was getting up to open it.
Still, we've had no other mechanicals; just flats. It isn't helping that many of us are on skinny tires—28s, 32s—and that the Outlaw has deliberately sought out the roughest, steepest, most pothole-laden gravel roads Frederick has to offer. And if that last bit isn't the purest of truths, it sure as hell feels like it. And now this string of flats has already pushed the ride deep into the day, guaranteeing a late finish time. It's not a concern for me, I'm a free man for the day.
Up to this point, the ride has lived up to its billing. It's been a perfect mix of gravel and asphalt, of rough and smooth, up and down, pain and bliss. And there is no sign as I flip my bike over that things will change in any direction.
Back on the bikes again, we make our way to our one formal stop. It's a little quickie mart about a mile away with the unlikely name of Gateway Market, Candyland, and Liquor. We stock up on fuel and sit outside with our bikes, each of us smiling at the good fortune we've had in the form of unexpectedly mild weather. The sky is clear. Sunlight beams down on us, its warmth a whispered promise that summer is coming. Joe picks up a six of Stoudts American Pale Ale, somehow missing the Troeg's Nugget Nectar and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA lurking somewhere in the aging stand-up cooler...and wholly overlooking an incredible array of "exotic" offerings (how does Trappiste Rochefort 10 sound?...yeah, no shit!) occupying a nondescript wall near the back. No matter. Six beers, six riders. Perfect math. The ale tastes good; it's long overdue. Never mind the fact that some of us had shown the presence of mind to pack along a few cans of Dale's Pale Ale—those were already gone.
I'm beat. This ride has hit me hard, and I've struggled to stay with the front runners every mile of the way. Lack of sleep, a late night drunk-on, bad diet, a steep gear, a botched oblation, you name it, I'll claim it, it's mine, baby. Whatever, I feel weak. There are about 10 miles left in the ride, bumping us up close to the 50 mile mark when it's all said and done, and the Outlaw lets on with a wry smile that the last 10 are all uphill. Oh, and with a "wall" near the end.
The wall comes all right, but only after several taxing climbs—short steeps on loose-surfaced back roads and long, slow, gradual ascents alongside motorists as indifferent to our presence as to the swath of asphalt on which we ride—have wrested every last gram of glycogen from my liver stores and leg muscles. I step off, and up ahead of me, 25 feet from the peak, Dave B. sees me and abruptly follows suit in a purely sympathetic gesture. We take maybe 10 steps, then we're back on again. I thank Dave for his willful sacrifice, and he laughs it off, as if he'd needed the break. He hadn't.
At some point, we enter a Frederick neighborhood where Joe suffers the seventh and final flat of the day. He's quick with the fix, finishing up as a carload of young girls flies by, honking the horn as they pass. It is a silly moment that, for me, adds some much appreciated levity to the circumstances.
We roll off again to tackle the remaining few miles. I drop back into the fifth slot and just concentrate on turning over the cranks. I occupy a middle spot between the four riders ahead of me and the one behind, neither gaining nor losing ground as I move. Traffic passes by closely. I let my mind wander back to the last 1903 Adventure Ride, when I felt stronger and performed much better. What has changed? Just several more months of a daily commute to work by bike, 20+ miles a day, 5 days a week, with the occasional dirt ride thrown in on weekends for good measure. That, and a ton of beer down the gullet. Hell, that winning combination should mean I'm stronger now! Alas, such ironclad logic doesn't seem to figure into it. So much for hard science and the empire of the rational. I fight the cranks, and the miles limp by.
I arrive at the base of the last climb, a gravelly one that is only moderately steep. Up ahead at an intersection, Dave B. spins in a lazy circle until he's sure I see him, then heads right at the fork toward the cars. I'm motivated now, because I realize the end is near. I double my efforts and reach the fork quickly, where I repeat Dave's gesture, waiting for Jeff to appear. A turn left would mean an additional climb back up to make the correction, something I'm sure neither of us would appreciate.
Then Jeff appears, and I waste no time lingering. There is beer waiting at the cars, and my pace quickens at the mere thought of an ice-flecked bottle or can of hoppy goodness. It's all about motivation.
After we regroup, some of us head over to Brewer's Alley to celebrate this blissful bit of torture.
(Big thanks go out to Joe for brainstorming yet another brutal masterpiece! Props are due Jay, Jon, and Dave B. for hanging so tight with the Outlaw that at times they appeared to be riding a quad.)
Ride data can be found here, courtesy of Dave B., who rocked the hardest gearing with a monstrous 50:18.