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by Peter Flax
June 17, 2016
Photography by Gani Pinero Photography
When I rolled into the rest stop at mile 65, things were looking up. Sure, my legs felt like burnt toast, but two cheery young women were clanging cowbells and proffering awesome snacks.
In the span of five minutes, they handed me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on artisanal bread, a homemade rice ball filled with stewed meat, and a miniature frittata with Parmesan-Reggiano in it. I made a joke about wanting a beer and one of them slid me an icy PBR. I slumped on a cooler, contemplating the hard miles ahead, and a young man I had not noticed sitting a few feet to my left started playing an accordion in a way that struck me as organ music.
The two women staffing the station exhorted me to get back on my bike and catch up to the lead group, which they said was only 10 minutes ahead of me. Of course I was aware that the group was being pulled along by pros from the UnitedHealthcare and Rally Cycling teams, and that a middle-aged guy with salt on his shorts, a PBR in his hand, and legs like mine was not going to shut that down. The only question was how to explain it to my two roadside angels.
“Could you hand me another frittata thing, please,” I attempted. I felt ready to get back on the bike, though I did not know that I’d be facing a debilitating calf cramp a few miles up the road.
Such specifics did not come into focus until the afternoon, but I foresaw the general contours of the script in the morning, when roughly 150 of us rolled out of a winery and into the streets of Healdsburg, California, and then out into the Sonoma County countryside. I was here for a charity event called the Velo & Vines Century and a product launch of a new endurance road bike from Diamondback. I knew that there would be a good cause and a new bike and 100 beautiful wine-country miles, some of which I’d wind up riding alone.
The bike is worth a mention. I cannot utter the model name or itemize the full spec at this date — it’s under embargo for the moment — but I can say that was designed for all-day comfort for long rides and had smart-seeming details like hydraulic disc brakes, thru-axles, and 28mm tires. The bike had lovely curved seat stays that are designed to quiet vibration from the road.
I certainly felt comfortable for the first hour or so, as I sat near the back of a tidy group of 40 riders. I surveyed the field, taking note of the domestic pros and elite racers, the fast bike-industry people, and especially the riders who looked like I felt — serious riders who were likely over their heads. In a way that didn’t strike me as pessimistic, I tried guessing who I might be riding with in a couple hours. As we rolled past vineyards alit with morning sunshine, I talked to an affable guy with hairy legs on a BMC and a fellow who everyone later joked might be the world’s fastest dentist.
It might be worth mentioning how I was not exactly prepared for this ride, but that would be making excuses for what happened when the group hit the first real climb of the day. Truth is, there’s no excuse for the way I came off the back with five or six other riders. I just didn’t have it. On the bright side, our little B-team worked together nicely and we pulled into the second rest stop just as the leaders were rolling out. My plan was to quickly fill up my water bottles and go to the bathroom and try to catch up — which is another way of saying I spent the next 90 minutes riding solo.
Fortunately, the bulk of that stretch was on a ribbon of freshly paved tarmac called West Dry Creek Road, which gently curved and undulated past scores of perfectly coifed orchards. Rather than staring at a wheel, I was absorbing the landscape around me and enjoying the most perfect cycling road in wine country that I’ve ever ridden. And the truth is I had a lot on my mind, too. My father is in the last stages of pulmonary disease — already in hospice, already thinking out loud about the timing of morphine — and though his declining health weighs on me constantly, I find that I can best sort through my emotions about the situation when I’m on the bike. Pedaling puts me in a state of mind to turn down the chatter that fills the rest of my life and think about what really matters.
The author, on left, seeking solace and a good wheel soon after getting shelled from the lead pack.
Around mile 55, I rolled up on the friendly, hairy guy on the BMC, who told me he’d flatted out of the lead group. The two of us rode two abreast for most of an hour, and our conversation meandered like the farm roads were were on. We marveled over Neilson Powless’ emergence at the Tour of California, debated the hardest climb on the Markleeville Death Ride, and talked at length about the struggle to balance work and family time. He asked for advice about how to talk to his wife about shaving his legs. I could tell he was strong enough to ride away from me, but I don’t think he was in hurry for a long solo effort.
We were still together when we hit a steep little grade a few miles after that PBR-fueled rest stop. The sun was blazing in a cloudless sky and it felt close to 90 degrees out. My companion was effortlessly slipping away from me, so I got out of the saddle to close the gap. A sharp cramp seized my right calf, radiating pain from my foot to my butt. I sat back down immediately and dropped to a smaller gear and just tried to ease my way through it. I suddenly felt bad in a way I’ve experienced in the last ten miles of a century, but I was still 30 miles from done. I honestly didn’t feel like chatting any more, and I told my new buddy to ride his own pace. Five minutes later I was alone.
The riding after that was terrible in a beautiful sort of way. My legs were shit and my heart was racy and I drank two water bottles and still felt thirsty. I pulled off the road and sat under an oak tree for a few minutes to regroup. When I got back on the bike, my legs weren’t any better, but something had changed.
As I spun along, I thought about the kids getting helped by this ride — the beneficiaries of the UnitedHealthcare Children’s Foundation, who get financial support to get access to medical services that their family’s policies don’t cover. I thought about my father, struggling to breathe after a 10-foot walk. I thought about the five cyclists who had been killed in one horrible crash only four days earlier in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The ability to suffer on a bike under a hot sun and finish a ride suddenly seemed like a privilege. And I also was reminded that more often than not, you can simply ride yourself out of a bad patch simply by not stopping.
On a choppy stretch five or six miles from the end, I couldn’t help but admire the bike I was riding. I haven’t always been a fan of bikes that mute feedback from the road, but it was obvious how much abuse my upper body had been spared on this ride. My hands and arms and shoulders felt unnaturally fresh. I was digging the wide tires. I didn’t really need disc brakes for this event, but I do feel like they make a ton of sense for people who tackle big rides — people whose needs have almost nothing in common with the preferences of professional road riders.
And while I didn’t have enough time or presence of mind to discern any performance impact of the thru-axles, I did enjoy thinking about how 90 years have passed since Tullio Campagnolo invented the quick-release skewer, a component that seems as vulnerable to product recalls as ever. All in all, I like the whole idea of this bike — one configured to tackle long days and mixed surfaces without a trendy subcategory designation.
In the last few miles of the ride, I wasn’t thinking about thru-axles or my dad’s illness or what I would eat when I got off the bike. I wasn’t really thinking about anything. I was just turning the pedals. I rode past a few horses resting their chins on a wooden fence. I smelled freshly turned dirt. I felt my body working and straining. I was getting exactly what I deserved.