Tuesday, June 17, 2008

No Coastin' for Bold Men*: The 24 Hours of Big Bear (Part 1)...

(In which now-gimmicky cinematic filming techniques à la Memento and Irreversible1 are borrowed to inject excitement into a long and otherwise urbane race recap. This one goes good with a cold one; I suggest a nice Russian Imperial Stout such as the gold standard, Old Rasputin, from North Coast Brewing Company. That, or a heady, hopped-up red, such as the one under whose influence I type these words, Hop Head Red Ale, the bitter brainchild of the Green Flash Brewing Company. Morrison had it right, at least when it comes to good beer: the West is the best.)

"The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action."
—Bruce Lee

“It’s getting bad out there.”

Rick has just turned in his second lap, a slow one for him. He looks tired. He manages a cherubic smile, his trademark if you discount the goatee, deep laugh, and erstwhile Pinoy ‘fro. But there's something wrong with it, this smile. It looks a little off, a little strained, like there’s nothing behind it. His words come out in a neutral tone, soft and weightless. If I didn't know Rick well, if I hadn't ridden with him many times before, I might be tempted to dismiss his warning as a paper tiger. But I know better.

I accept the baton, fumble with it, then manage to stuff it into a zippered pocket in my shorts. I jog out from under the harsh yellow light of the pavilion and into the darkness, where my bike, leprotic with flecks of drying mud, waits among others on a community rack. The time is 11:16 p.m. (EDT).

Forty-five Minutes Earlier:

I’m sitting at the start/finish line waiting for Rick. Surrounded by other riders, I pass the time by retracing in my mind the tricky spots of the course, most notably the quarter-mile rocky downhill, aka the "forearm-fryer," that is sprinkled with loose baby-heads. I’m anxious to ride, to get this night lap underway and over with. The light on my helmet, a NiteRider TriNewt, is heavy. I can feel it pressing on my head, as if my anxiety has assumed a physical form and now weighs on me like the Sword of Damocles. Earlier, I spent a good part of the night wrestling with the decision of whether to go out with just the bar lamp mounted or to go with two lights. In the end, I decided having a back-up on a course like this one was crucial. To deal with the extra weight, I’ve tightened the straps on my helmet to the point where they feel uncomfortable. There's a throbbing in my neck just behind the condyles of my jaw. I readjust the buckles, but there’s no sweet spot. The tightness of the helmet threatens me with a headache whose origin can be traced back to the acrosonic wailing of a newborn in the tent next to me last night—what the hell were the parents thinking?

Forty-five Minutes Later:

On the bike now, I enter the woods on a long and winding ribbon of dark, damp earth to take on my second lap. The trail is rocky, not a bed of rocks by any means—not here at the start—but enough to make the ride far from a smooth experience. The jarring and jolting is relentless, it travels up the steel frame and fork to tear at my body like lingchi. I do my best to balance speed with control, eyeing each upcoming rock with the goal of avoiding pedal strikes as the fixed cranks spin like a perpetual motion machine. On the first lap, I kept a loose tally of the number of times my pedals hit something hard, and lost count after twenty. The bane of the Karate Monkey, besides its portliness, is a comparatively low bottom-bracket. This, along with the 175 mm length cranks I'm running, has me overly concerned about an involuntary pole-vaulting whenever I approach a bumper crop of rocks.

The two-light system illuminates the trail nicely, giving me time to adjust to the topography well in advance. The efficacy leaves little to be desired. But the goddamn heavy helmet lamp delights in pushing my helmet down and forward, where it comes to rest on my sunglasses. The bridge of my nose becomes just that—a truss for the poundage perched atop my head. I deal with it, sacrificing one comfort for another. But I curse myself for not trying out the light as a helmet lamp before the race.

Soon the rocks give way to the first patch of goopy mud. Like a rotten spot on the earth's skin, it's as black and sticky and treacherous as a prehistoric tar pit. The best strategy seems to be to ride straight up the middle, through the really wet stuff where, beneath six inches of wheel-swallowing, diarrheic water, lies a relatively firm bed of mud. It works. Most of the time. When it doesn't, the threat of a mud facial looms large: during my first lap, my front wheel was swallowed by a huge puddle of pudding, forcing the rest of the bike up and forward in a slow motion arc, taking me—still pedaling in denial—with it, and bringing my junk to within an inch of the meat-mallet2 stem clamp before settling back down safely on two wheels. I avoid that mistake now by wheelie-dropping the big puddles and grinding the rear wheel through it all.

A little over two miles into the loop, after a short climb that, oddly, has many a rider spinning out and walking, the trail turns upward. The slope isn't dramatic by any means, nor is the terrain rough. But the climb is long, and even seated, I quickly and easily catch and pass a number of geared riders who have shamelessly resorted to the granny ring to stay in the game. I say to myself, what the fuck was Rick talking about...things are getting bad out here? Everything is pretty much the same, it's just harder to see it.

I grind through the long climb mostly in the saddle, and the trail levels off more or less for a couple miles. Small mammals scurry across the path ahead of me, nonplussed by the sudden advent of concentrated daylight. Eventually, I enter what is surely the shangri-la of this race: the hallowed pine-forest section. Here the mud and rock give way to a rich and loamy layer of black dirt and soft pine needles that slaloms left and right through bermed corners in the fractured shadow of a grid of identical conifers. It is, hands down, the most enjoyable part of the course. And the most scenic.

At this point, I've had enough of the goddamn helmet lamp. The situation has deteriorated. The excessive weight, combined with choppy sections of trail, mean that my sunglasses are slowly vibrating down the slope of my nose—walking the plank, as it were. Riding fixed, I'm reluctant to take a hand off the bar every couple of minutes to poke them back into place with a deliberately chosen middle finger. And the forearm fryer is approaching soon. I'm pretty sure I'll need both hands on the bar to negotiate it. I weigh the pros and cons; more light and aggravation vs. less light and peace. Peace wins.

I pull off the trail, propping the Monkey against the bole of an obliging pine, and go to work on dumping the helmet lamp. I'm slow and clumsy in gloves. Several riders I passed earlier now pass me. One asks, "Enjoying the fixie?" as he sweeps by, and, in my concentration and haste, I can't tell if he's being friendly or sarcastic. Whatever, I'll catch his polite- or smart-ass on the next climb, and then we'll see who's enjoying what. I jam the light and mount into my bladder pack, zip it all up, strap it on, and take off again, carving through the pine grove with renewed vigor, a little more peace, and a lot less light.

Approximately Three Days Earlier:

The Outlaw sends me an email asking me to join his fixed-gear team for Big Bear. He's pretty sure, he tells me, that we can beat one of the two other teams competing in our class. Joe has already run through a string of better and/or more experienced riders before coming to me, in the waning hours before registration ends, with the offer. Most either had obligations or didn't find the idea all that appealing. I have to decide quickly, because time is running out and if I decline, Joe will need every minute to track down and convince the next hapless fool that riding a 24-hour race on a fixed gear is a good idea. We go back and forth with the emails, with me trying to secure a 19t TomiCOG to match up with some 34t, 165 mm Sugino cranks I have on order. Finally, foolishly, I simply say "yes." The Outlaw ends his last email with the dubious phrase "Death or Glory!"

It isn't until a little while later, when I check the Granny Gear site to have a look at our competition, that I realize we're racing in the SS/Rigid class. SS, as in single speed. As in freewheel equipped. As in "not fixed." As in "coast on the downhills and gnarly stuff." Joe's plan, his winning strategy, is to race fixed against two single speed teams. Of course, he failed to mention this up front, and I can't help but think I've been duped into something that's pretty far over my head.

I spend a sleepless Wednesday night wondering if perhaps I've been duped into something that's pretty far over my head. Since Lodi two weeks ago, when I raced fixed—rode fixed—for the first time off-road, I've straddled the saddle of a mountain bike exactly one time, and that was for a single-speed ride at Rosaryville on a 26er. For about ten miles. Not exactly specificity training by any measure. It'll have to do.

Approximately Three Days Later:

Rick was right. It is getting bad out here. The second half of the course is a nightmare. It seems the darkness and drop in temperature have spawned a layer of dew that slimes the rocks and makes even the once-dry sections of trail damp and slippery. Pair up this development with mud-clogged knobbies and you've got a recipe for carnage. Whenever I deliberately ride the off-camber edge of a rock to avoid getting slotted in the "v" it makes with another outcropping, the tire gives in to gravity's seduction and slips abruptly into the gap. If it's the front tire, I get the bonus of a pedal strike that jackknifes the bike toward the opposite side.

I stay loose and try to take things with as much speed as possible. I pass several geared riders at the side of the trail who are frantically digging at their rear derailleurs, trying to dislodge the lumps of sludge that cling to the delicate mechanisms like caramel on a candy apple. Right now, I'm thankful not to have that "advantage."

Between miles five and six, I arrive at the top of the aforementioned forearm fryer, the one part of the course that consistently works the adrenal cortex just as hard as it does the flexors lexor digitorum superficialis, digitorum profundus, and, lest we forget, pollicis longus, among others. Oh, and then there's a little thing called the cremasteric reflex that kicks in about a quarter of the way down that we won't get into here (suffice it to say that, for men, it gives us a wee bit more clearance for getting back off the saddle). This sketchy downhill leaves no room for hesitation; like a horrible sin, you either embrace it utterly, giving yourself over to it, smiling idiotically in the face of doom...or you leave it the fuck alone. On a fixed gear, the chasm between these two options is even more vast. Two words describe this downhill: steep and rocky. Steep as in fast and relentless. Rocky as in loose and everywhere.

I start down the slope with speed, balls out (cremasteric reflex notwithstanding), banging a pedal here and there as I try to glom a line, any line, that will get me through this run intact. Unconsciously, I employ a counterintuitive strategy the Outlaw imparted to me days ago, pedaling against the force of the front brake which I feather vainly for control. Somehow, this sloppy gonzo approach pays off, and despite the soccer-ball sized boulders I punt off into the woods, I manage to maintain control down to the bottom. There, I see Julie, of team The Wild Bunch, negotiating the last bits of technical terrain on her single speed just before the course dips left into a creek bed. I call out to her as I roll past, saluting her for her dogged perseverance. Then I drop down into the thin stream that signals the end of this epic interlude. At least for this lap.

[End, Part 1]

Most photos by D. Ross.

*With apologies to Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers.

1. Apropos of nothing, one of the most disturbing movies I have ever watched.
2. Damn, that would have been a fine name for the team: The Magnificent Meat Mallets.


riderx said...

Good report so far, looking forward to the rest. Hopefully I can cobble mine together shortly.

But hey, I didn't dupe you, you must have just glossed over my original email. It said "Ricky, Dan ("the kid" from Scotland) and I are looking for a 4th fixed gear rider to race single/rigid at Big Bear." Nothing sneaky there!

b1umb0y said...

Another absolute masterpiece! I wish I could have been there to cheer you all on!


PS. Sweet glasses!

Todd said...

Great writeup as usual, I'm looking forward to the second installment.

As for your TomiCog dilemma, you should have asked me. I don't have a 19, but, I have an 18 and a 20 you could have used. I was freewheeling it that weekend.

ankur said...

Looking eagerly for the secon installment.


Anonymous said...