We weren’t supposed to even do the ride. We had made our plans to head to Europe on September 8th, immediately following our wedding on the 4th. Sometimes those ticket change fees are worth swallowing though, and this was one of those times.
660 miles, six days, Morgan Hill to Las Vegas.
We got the invite to take part in Specialized’s fourth annual ride from Morgan Hill to Las Vegas ahead of Interbike to raise money and awareness for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation early in September, and there wasn’t much of a decision to be made – Europe…or a brutal, monster, crazy six day bike ride from Morgan Hill to Las Vegas? Well, I guess if you put it that way, it should have been a little tougher decision, but there was no question: yes, was the answer, and 700 flight rescheduling dollars later we had shifted our tickets to Europe for the end of September, and we were officially headed to California to take part in what we were told somewhat forebodingly would be a ‘life changing experience.’
Specialized founder, Mike Sinyard (left), is the man behind the idea, the adventure, and the cause.
While we weren’t so sure it would be life changing at the beginning (it eventually would), we did know that it was going to be an incredible adventure, but also a chance to be a part of something a little more than just me, myself, and I. Since Specialized began their partnership with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in 2007, the company has donated almost a million dollars to the foundation, and the Ride To Vegas, is the marquee effort the company partakes in to raise awareness for both the Komen Foundation and the sickness that affects millions of people around the world each year.
Day 1: Morgan Hill to Turlock State Park, 212 km
“You don’t go camping much, do you?” asks 24 hour mountain biking World Champion, Rebecca Rusche, jokingly, after nearly 8 hours of riding after the first day’s ride from Morgan Hill to Turlock State Park, about 20 miles east of Modesto. Rebecca looked at me slightly askance as I explained that, no, I did not have a head lamp, nor have I ever had a head lamp. I thought back a moment and realized, well, I guess that just makes me a stereotypical roadie…I’ll take hotels, host housing, and the occasional car for my night’s sleep thank you very much.
Tent? Tent?! 2009 World Solo 24 Hour Mountain Bike Champion, Rebecca Rusch, shows us how it’s done.
I readily admit that I have never finished a 130 mile, 10,000 feet of climbing, nearly eight hour ride by pitching a tent and crawling inside for my evening rest. Ashley and I, both far more exhausted than anything we could ever recall, laid on our backs on an inviting picnic table for a long while, before mustering our collective forces to do battle with a recalcitrant tent that required the intellectual acumen of a six year old to put together. Unfortunately, between us, we were operating around the level of a five year old, so we jousted with poles and tried to be as quiet as possible while we battled with inanimate objects. Soon enough though, our home was made, and we were in it…asleep.
The first time we came to Morgan Hill, we slept in a hotel, but by the time of our final trip to California in 2010, we found ourselves happily ensconced on Aaron Post’s couch.
Getting ready to go. It would only be about ten hours and just under eight hours of riding before we’d make it to camp.
Rewind almost twelve hours, and the 2011 Specialized Ride To Vegas started on a perfect September morning, and I had a whole bunch more energy. We headed northwest into San Jose before turning right. The turn involved craning one’s neck upward at a painful angle to understand what was about to come – a lot of uphill – and for the first part, a lot of really steep uphill courtesy of the infamous stretch of pavement known as Quimby Road. I had plotted the route before doing the ride on my favorite mapping program, www.ridewithgps.com, and it let me know, in no uncertain terms, that the climb was steep. For some reason though, it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t lying.
Yes, it really was steep.
I was somehow startled to find that the climb was actually steep, like Europe steep, like Mortirolo steep. Poor Ashley had her week long adventure through California initiated with a knee popping 5 kilometers at over 10%, and I hadn’t done much to warn her about it. Sorry about that, darling, you did great! Nothing like steep roads to invoke a new look that I hadn’t seen before – that I can’t believe you talked me into this look from your…wait for it…wife! Yes, we were newlyweds, and for some reason, we had decided to honeymoon on bikes.
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a seat in the middle of the road were Ashley’s hard earned rewards at the top of Quimby.
Just a quick descent after that, we met another California classic – Mt. Hamilton. Unsurprisingly, Ashley was a broken soul as she reached the observatory. She flopped to the ground, drank a Coke, ate some food, and did her best to revive – luckily for her, there were still almost 100 miles to go to go in search of new levels of exhaustion.
Almost to the top – the Observatory at the top of Mt. Hamilton is just a little bit further.
Mike Sinyard, the owner and founder of Specialized, gave a friendly warning about the descent off of Mt. Hamilton – don’t mess around. It was one of those warnings, kind of like the profile of Quimby that I had disregarded – oh that doesn’t apply to me. Well, in this case it didn’t, but it did apply to Ashley. Ashley, still really just getting started with bike riding and racing, has made some big leaps and bounds, but she’s still learning heaps on each ride.
The amount of effort just to get to the top of Mt. Hamilton was significant. Good thing there were only 80 miles to go after the summit.
Descending has been an aspect that she has improved greatly in and continues to do so, but, unfortunately, it seems that in the process of becoming a better descender, at some point, you need to fall down to find out where the outer limits are. In Ashley’s case, she went down twice in the span of 100 meters on the descent of Mt. Hamilton.
She came in too hot on a switchback, missed the turn, hit a rock, punctured, then fell over. No big deal. The second happened just after getting a new wheel and is still a mystery – turning fine, no worries, wham, back on the ground, and this time the derailleur is dead, the shifter is banged up, and more importantly, Ashley has her first real case of road rash.
The whole group poses for a picture halfway through the first day.
She got in the van, and it looked like that would be it for her. 15 miles later though, and there she was, bike fixed, ready to go. I couldn’t believe it. I had just contemplated joining her in the van. Somewhere in the course of the 2010 season, I had gone from racing my bike full-time to not riding my bike at all, and these feelings in my body were unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and not pleasant. I felt a bit untough in the moments before Ashley got back on her bike to do battle with the final four hours of riding. I sheepishly forgot that I was about ready to throw in the towel moments before and continued on.
The mountainous first third of the day soon flattened out into the fields of the Central Valley.
The rest of the day involved a lumpy section to cross the spine of mountains that separate the Pacific side of California from the Central Valley. It was hard, undulating, and hard? After that, the hard just kept on coming, but it wasn’t all that hard anymore. It was flat. The only difficulty was avoiding car-sized potholes in the agricultural hotbed and just getting to camp.
She rode great all the way in, while I struggled through the worst case of cramps I’ve ever had. I don’t know what happened, but they made for a day that could never be described as boring. I adventured through so many new hitherto unexplored regions of pain on that opening day. I wish I could do those cramps justice with a great new word that meant something like 583 different cramps in one ride.
Flatness was the name of the game for the latter part of the day. Fields replaced mountains, and the suffering began in earnest.
It was a fantastic first day though. Even through the crashing and cramping, we had a blast. The food waiting for us in the camp from Western Spirit was incredible, our tent (once we got it set up) was awesome, and we figured, hey, maybe we can give this camping thing a try.
Day 2: Turlock State Park to Dardanelle, 158 km
Ashley makes friends quickly. It’s one of her great abilities. In this case, the soigneur, Troy. Troy gave Ashley a great massage after her opening day’s abuses, and immediately Ashley wanted more massages. I can’t fault her for it though – she got tossed into the very deep end on this trip, Marianas Trench deep end. Before this ride, she had never ridden much more than five hours, and certainly not more than five hours over consecutive days. Usually, a long ride was followed by a 15 hour sleep and a day spent in bed. This week though, she was going to get at least five hours a day, all the way up to eight per day for six days.
The early morning sun got the day off to a pleasant start. The reality of the day’s difficulties was only a little further up the road…
After plodding up about half of the infernal 60 mile uphill to the night’s campground in Dardanelle, we found one of the welcoming red Specialized vans waiting for us. Ashley leaned her bike against the van, sat in the passenger seat, grabbed a Coke and a handful of Troy’s Twizzlers and asked for a quick massage.
“You really are a princess, aren’t you?” was his response. Of course, the answer is yes, and of course, she was availed of her request. It’s like that with princesses. Don’t get me wrong, she’s alarmingly nice about it, to an extent that you forget that you’re being princessed, but the fact remains, she’s spoiled senseless, and it’s nearly impossible to turn her down. Troy was her latest victim.
We still have four hours to go?
What about that 60 mile climb? I’m not kidding. The profile for the day’s rigors from outside of Modesto into the heart of the Sierras looks a lot like one climb would – up. Except instead of the x-axis detailing kilometers somewhere between 1-10 miles or so, it goes all the way out to about 80. It was never really steep, but it was never really easy either. The early goings rolling hills were a bit rough – you know how rolling hills are nice, because they, well, roll? These didn’t really roll, they just sort of marched up. There would be a hill, then a small flat section, then the next uphill, followed by another brief flat, followed again by more uphill. It was like this for hours. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was amazing in its intent not to allow the tiniest bit of respite for as many hours as possible.
Team pee break!
Luckily for us, the strategically placed red Specialized vans provided the downhills that the terrain wouldn’t. Not downhills I guess, but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a Coke and any snack you could ever dream of is equivalent to a descent in my book. When the red vans weren’t keeping us buoyant, our team of riders was doing it just fine. The great conversations, sometimes funny, sometimes serious, all the time enjoyable passed the hours nicely.
Sometime in the latter part of the ride, 60-year-old NASA man, Randy, planted a potent seed in my head: the desperate need for a hamburger, or many of them. Tired silence was broken in the Sierra Mountains by Jimmy Buffett’s Cheeseburger in Paradise. As soon as the word massaged my aching ears (everything on me ached), the rumble for my much loved junk food began to grow. In my exhaustion, I felt like I could already taste it. I’d have to wait a little while longer though – exactly 24 hours actually.
Ride to Vegas coordinator, Nikane Mallea, presents an interesting other option for bike based movement for the ride. What was that tale about motorized doping and Fabian Cancellara?
All of their help couldn’t stave off the misery forever though. I felt much better on the second day, but the cramps were still there; Ashley was wearing thin too, but it was ok, we only needed to make it to about 88 miles. That’s how long the day’s ride was! Except it wasn’t.
At our collective worst, while wondering if we were going to make it to camp without the aid of a motor, we passed Confidence, California.
Right about 88 miles in, the sign for Dardanelle came into view – 10 miles to go. The number ten cracked an already cracked Ashley completely. She had been holding on to that number all day, and to find out that she still had almost an hour of mostly uphill riding to go? You bet she jumped in the van…and cheerfully waved back to me as the big red van sped by.
Doesn’t look warm, does it? It wasn’t. I’ll call it refreshing.
I arrived a little while after Ashley and found another night of camping ahead of us. A bath in the frigid waters of a creek below camp would be our shower for the night, while a friendly next door camper provided the charge for our nearly dead bike computers from the lovely luxury of his RV. This time around, the tent went up remarkably quickly, and we even put the extra cover on top. Moving on up.
Looks warm, doesn’t it? I melted the soles of my shoes. See the top right of the image for my soon to be roasting boots.
Ashley was in a bad way after the ride. Her attempts at eating were futile at best, so I got her a big plate of food, expecting her to wake up in the middle of the night ready for some eating. Sure enough, she woke up and commenced eating…a whole five bites…then it was back to sleep. Calorie replenishment? Sure thing. That could wait til the morning.
Day 3: Dardanelle to Mammoth Lakes, 154 km
When we arrived in Dardanelle, in the middle of the Sierra Mountains, it had only been the week before, while blinking sweat out of my eyes, I said at least five times: I can’t wait to go to Europe – I’m so tired of being hot. This past summer in Louisiana was mostly unbearably hot, and I’m just not into hot, especially not Louisiana’s special trademarked version of hot. I like it cool, you know, like the Giro di Lombardia’s crisp blue skies, light breeze, and falling leaves? I got my wish that morning when we crept out of our tent and into a particularly cool morning, no that’s a lie, cold morning in the mountains. In fact, I found myself chewing on my sweaty Louisiana words. Somewhere along the way, we had careened past warm, then cool, and finally dropped firmly onto cold. The early fall morning in the high Sierra mountains made for a frosty wake up. I think I can speak for Ashley as well when I say we felt…elderly that morning.
Rebecca gets warmth from two of the rides three soigneurs, Troy Lyon and Doug Thralls (not pictured is the equally awesome, Donna). I don’t think we would have made it without their help.
As always, Ashley and I were last to get going and a quick moan about the frigid cold was replaced by wow, this is one of the more beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Then, just as I finished that sentence, Sonora Pass reared up before us, and reared up is the operative term. The sign read 26% up ahead, and I thought that had to be an exaggeration – this was a major road, right? They don’t do that kind of stuff unless it’s a paved goat track, farm road, or military road, right?
Holy crap that climb was steep. I thought they had to be kidding when the sign said 26%.
About 2 minutes later, I realized it was the honest truth, and I was honestly struggling. Single digits for gradient suddenly became reason for a small celebration, but even through the struggle, the views were somehow worth it, at least that’s what I kept trying to convince myself. The quiet, perfect road wound its way quickly upward, a beautiful rippling flag along the mountainside, bathed in glorious morning sun. I just sighed audibly as I wrote that.
Not long after cresting the summit and enjoying the expansive views of the descent from the nearly 10,000 foot pass, I found myself stripping my many layers of warmth off. The cold was long gone – in its stead was a beating high desert heat, and once again, I was eating my words. We went from well below freezing to nudging toward 100F (37C). From the base of the descent to the night’s resting place in Mammoth Lakes, we still had 75 miles in front of us – 75, hot, windy, hilly miles.
Like every other day, we settled into a rhythm in separate groups. A faster group plowed on ahead, while a group more intent on enjoying the local colors (brown) meandered its way through the day’s final expanse. Once again though, the last two hours were the worst.
The lovely view from the top of Conway Summit…after this, there was a bunch of downhill to come.
We came off of the thrilling descent to Lake Mono, best described as any number of extreme superlatives, only to be met by an ornery cross-headwind and a gradual gaining of altitude, which meant simply we were riding mostly flat roads at speeds normally reserved for a climb like Sonora. The ride took on a completely different feel from this point forward. I think it was best described by Mark Twain in Roughing It. Writing about the area around Mono Lake, he penned a harsh picture when he called it a: “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert… the loneliest place on earth.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was certainly lonely, and it certainly wasn’t beautiful in the traditional sense of the word.
Ashley called it a day not too long after that. She had managed an incredible sum in three days though – 280 miles in 19 hours of riding with over 25,000 feet of climbing. That’s about double anything she had ever done before in three days of biking. My hat goes off to her. The rest of the ride for me was a mostly quiet slog to the final 3 mile climb to Mammoth Lakes. The town limit brought with it a McDonald’s.
That would do just fine.
I rode to the hotel, picked Ashley up on my handlebars, borrowed Mike Sinyard’s helmet for her head’s safety, and rode right back on down to McDonald’s. One Big Mac, two cheeseburgers, two large fries, and two large Cokes later, and we were back at the hotel basking in the joy of a hotel room shower followed by a bed. Two nights of camping along with 22 hours of bike riding made this the most appreciated shower and bed that I can ever recall. I can say thank you to Specialized for allowing me this newfound appreciation for the most basic of things. I like it.
Ashley swore she wouldn’t be able to ride the next day. I told her she’d be just fine. And these are my words from that tired evening in Mammoth Lakes: She’s mad at me that I won’t stop typing and go to bed. She says that she’s going to take me camping more often, so that I can’t work. I told her that I was writing about her, she smiled wearily and joked, ‘Oh, well in that case, just write nice things,’ and fell back to sleep.
Three more days to go.
Of course, big thanks goes to Specialized for giving us the opportunity to take part on such a great ride. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
The next set of big thanks goes to Michael Robertson of VeloDramatic.com for the privilege to post some of his wonderful shots from the ride. Thanks, Michael!
Western Spirit specializes in cycling adventures, and they took care of us in amazing ways. The infrastructure, the food, the support they provided was nothing short of perfect. Thanks!
And finally, as always, check out our Flickr page for much more!
Questions? Comments? Want to yell at me? You can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org