I was on a solo breakaway suicide mission and didn’t care. I was maybe 2 minutes off the front of a twelve man chase group on the final day of our 2010 Monster Climbs trip to the high Sierras. There was really no reason for me to be out front, I was having a terrible weekend fitness-wise.
Friday’s ride up Onion Valley Road was fun and uneventful. Climbing 5,000 feet up the 5th best road climb in the US was very enjoyable. I pootled up alongside my friend MickeyGow, saving myself for Saturday’s Queen Stage.
Atop Onion Valley with my DirtBro MickeyGow
The wheels came off the bus on Saturday’s ride to Pine Creek. I started out feeling average, but instead of getting better as I warmed up, things got steadily worse until I was struggling to produce power going less than 5mph at around 45rpm. It was clear that I had fallen off the Razors Edge.
The Razor’s Edge is that narrow range of fitness where you are working hard enough to keep improving, but not so hard that you get overtired. I was obviously overtired and the more I pedaled, the deeper I dug myself. I bailed on the big climb for the day up Rock Creek (20 miles and 7,000ft) for some quiet poolside rest.
And that’s how I found myself just a little fresher than everyone else at the start of the final day, climbing 19 miles to Lake Sabrina. I knew they’d catch me; it was just a matter of time. Looking at my power meter it was clear I wasn’t producing much more power than the day before, the Descenders peloton was simply taking their time to reel me back in.
Here I’m using my camera to check how far back the chasers are without giving them the satisfaction of turning around. They were still a long ways back…
Ahead I saw a rider, pootling even slower than me. From a distance he looked very fit with good form, just moving very slowly. As I got closer, I could see his kit was Italian – meaning he was either authentically Italian or just a Wanna-be Guido. Then he stopped in the middle of the road and took a piss. Not in the bushes, or even on the gravel in the shoulder, but right there on the tarmac in the middle of the road. This convinced me he was truly Italian and probably from the southern end of that amazing country.
Passing the rider, I said “Buon giorno” and received an undecipherable reply. Looking at his face for the first time I realized who the rider must be. It was none other than Ivan Basso himself, probably on a recovery ride after winning the Giro d’Italia last month! I had just passed (neh, dropped!) one of the most legendary cyclists of our time! The only man to ever challenge Lance Armstrong in the high mountains. Basso was going off the back, unable to maintain my relentless pace.
Signore Basso attacking The Boss…
Don’t you love it how cycling uphill at high elevation makes you a bit batty in the head?
I continued on enjoying the beautiful scenery, watching pine trees replace the chapparel as I steadily made my way upward. I was caught by my team at some point and summarily dropped. Ivan was in the group chatting amicably with a few of my teammates. I supposed they were congratulating him on his Giro win and speculating his chances for beating Contador at le Tour next month.
A little later, my friend MickeyGow caught me up and together we rode the last four miles to Lake Sabrina. It was truly a great afternoon cycling among some of the most beautiful country California has to offer.
The air is chilly at 9,628 feet atop Sonora Pass in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. I’d spent the last hour and a half climbing ever so slowly to the pass and now I was considering the unthinkable – descending the other side.
“This has got to be the craziest thing I’ve ever done on a bike.”
Author’s Note: The events of this story occurred last July 4th. With my Leadville preparations, I didn’t write as much as I’d have liked and honestly, I can’t get this moment out of head, so here it is.
“Whatever goes down must come back up” I chuckled nervously to myself. My iPhone still had no signal, even way up here. If I needed to call the “Team Van” for help, I was going to have to find a payphone and there’s not very many payphones in the middle of the National Forest.
With 26% grades, as narrow as a european mountain road and twisty as a pretzel, Sonora Pass Road ain’t just any road.
Sonora Pass Road is not your average road. It’s so steep I wonder if my bike can make it – up to 26% gradient in places and while it technically allows two-lane traffic, the road is so narrow SUV’s slow down to pass each other going in opposite directions. The road turns so sharply in places that you’ll see cars almost stop going around corners. It’s a true mountain road and it’s beautiful.
It looked like the road dropped off a cliff going over the far side of the pass. I had already climbed the Eastern side with 3,000 of elevation gain. The Western side was 4,000 feet of gain. My legs were tired from a week of hard riding in the Sierras, yet I was resolute.
Quickly and without thinking much about it, I got back on my bike and rolled down the Western side of Sonora Pass. My bike zipped down the steep road and soon I was carving asphalt corners at 40mph. To my left, the road dropped into oblivion. A narrow gorge had been cut over the past several thousand years by a rushing creek far below. I could hear the water crashing downhill, cutting its way through granite channels in dense, green forests. This was now the Western Sierra, much greener and lush than the Eastern side because of the rain shadow the high-altitude ridgeline cast.
With 2,000 feet to go and legs tired of climbing, I decided it was time for a movie-stop.
Looking down the valley I would need to climb back up.The farther I went down, the more anxious I got about the return climb. I saw every corner and steep section as an obstacle for my return. I eyeballed my odometer wondering when I could turn around. The road finally flattened out and if I wasn’t mostly out of water I would have turned around instantly. Out here in the middle of nowhere, the next services were 6 miles ahead so on I pedaled, all the while getting more and more nervous about how far I was getting from home.
Heading down the road I would inevitable need to climb on the way home.
I finally made it to a general store at some kind of fishing camp which was crowded with all kinds of tourists. I wobbled my lycra-clad way in on cleats and purchased some water. I received plenty of odd looks, I don’t think many cyclists make it out this far. The only thing I could think about was that monstrous 4,000 foot climb ahead of me. Would I be able to handle it after 50 miles? I was quietly freaking out…
It’s rides like this that help you develop an unhealthy relationship to your bike.
Outside, while filling up my food and water bottles some fat guy slurping a big soft-serve cone observed that I didn’t really have to purchase bottled water, there was a perfectly good tap out back. And wasn’t it all these environmentalists who forced us to spend money on essentially a free resource. I smiled, shrugged and kept filling my bottles. He kept at it and after another minute or so I was ready to unleash all my internal anxiety, fear and stress on him by beating him resoundingly with my bicycle. But then how would I get home? I corralled my emotions and rolled back to the highway.
Finally, I was heading home. Six miles back to the base of the climb, then I stare fixedly at the altimeter knowing I need to top out at 9,628. That seems like a long way when you’re only in the 6,000’s. I make every hundred feet of climbing into a victory and audibly cheer myself on with corny exclamations like, “Good job, one hundred feet!” and “Hooray, you passed the 7,000 mark!” It was a major victory getting to the “1,000 feet to go” point. With each pedal stroke I knew I was closer to the top.
This video was shot while climbing the Eastern slope. Some of the country’s best fly fishing is down there.
I rounded the last corner and was back at the pass. I stopped to refill my food bottle and a very grungy looking backpacker shot out of the woods, crossed the road to me and asked wildly if I’d seen a group of other guys hitch a ride. I said I’d only just gotten here and he dashed off, running down the trail. About five minutes later, a very grungy looking young woman came running out of the forest and crossed the road with her backpack flapping as she ran – had I seen a group of guys catch a ride? I told her about the first guy and she started yelling names in all directions, calling for her friends. I pointed which way the other guy ran and she dropped her pack and took off at full speed down the trail yelling at the top of her lungs. I still have no idea what their deal was.
An older woman approached me as I readied to roll back down the Eastern side. Her husband stood off at a distance looking embarrassed, but she had a thousand questions. Had I really ridden up the road? Was I some sort of professional like Lance? Did I have special gears? She said her husband thought I was a “strong man” for riding my bike up here. He pretended to examine a tree off in the distance while she got her answers. I wasn’t strong, I told her, just stubborn. I thanked her and set off down the road home. They followed me for a couple miles down the descent and then passed only when they could give me wide enough berth. The husband goggled me and the wife waved excitedly. Wow, cool.
It doesn’t look very steep in this photo, does it?
I rocketed off Sonora Pass quietly confident. All my stress, fear and anxiety were gone. At the end of the day, I had ridden 92 miles and climbed 9,700 feet in 7 hours and 42 minutes. I was solidly on track for Leadville the following month.
With the climbing over for the day, I can appreciate the serene meadow. Our cabin is in the hills in the distance.
Cyclocross is cool because the race course has such varied terrain – grass, pavement, sometimes mud and usually a little sand. This was not the case at yesterday’s race. The second race in the SoCalCross Prestige Series was held at a motorcross park way out east in the desert.
This is an example of what normally goes on at the MX park. You could see motorcycles flying into the air in the distance as we raced.
As we lined up, the race official announced, “Course conditions are sand, sand and more sand with a little wet sand thrown in just to mix it up.” He was unfortunately not joking.
He blew his whistle to start the race and took off with 14 other Cat 4 racers. I counted myself in 9th place going around the first turn and felt pretty good. I settled into my rhythm for the first lap, trying to focus on my dismount/remount form. I wanted to be smooth which was really hard in the sand.
I learned pretty quickly that a good Cross racer can push himself right up to the razor’s edge of his Red Zone without going 1 millimeter over – unless he really needs to, of course. My average heart rate for the race was 92% of max – that’s average! I hit max HR several times, probably in the running sections.
Can you see me? Carmichael kit and not looking at the camera – doh!
My only crash happened right away. Entering the first section of barriers I didn’t unclip my back foot before I stepped down which resulted in me face planting just short of the first barrier. I think I made some sort of sound and a clear “Oh!” was heard from the small crowd. I never stopped moving though, just picked up the bike and ran through the barriers.
Completing the first lap, I passed through the finish area where a race official was waving a cowbell at us. In my oxygen-depraved mind, I translated this to mean we were starting the bell lap – this would be the final lap. I was still feeling pretty good so I hammered the second lap, passing several racers. I even shouted encouragements to some guys who seemed to be going a lot slower that they should, especially for being on the final lap. Boy was I surprised when I completed the second lap and saw the official holding a sign saying “2 laps to go!” Turns out she had just been encouraging us along; I was dangerously close to my Red Zone and only halfway done! Zoinks!
I settled down and focused on recovering a little, which means I probably slowed down to 88% of max or so. I got passed by two or three racers and as soon as I got my breathing under control, I cranked it back up again, intent on catching them.
Cyclocross courses usually have a mix of grass, pavement, mud and sand. This was ALL sand.
There are a lot of technical skills for racing Cross like how to smoothly dismount and remount your bike so you can jump over barriers, for example. I passed one guy who stopped to clip in while I just rolled on, clipping and rolling at the same time. That felt good. With the sand, it was really hard to focus on form though because the bike would stop rolling as soon as you stopped pedaling.
Racing Cross is very exciting. There’s always some near-disaster to attend to. Here’s how a section of the course might have gone:
Back on the bike, clip in and roll down this super steep section – sharp left turn at the bottom in deep sand, don’t crash! Ok, max power! Here comes a steep moto-jump, I can make it, lowest gear… Bike slipping in the sand – over the top! Pick up speed, into that hairpin, more deep sand – screw it, let’s just run – off the bike, carry, run, run, running is hard! Put the bike down, swing on – clip and full speed! Someone is right behind me! Here come the barriers, coast in… Off the bike, over the barriers – one, two! Bike down, swing on, clip and accelerate!
I focused on catching the guy in front of me, trying to make every action smooth and carry as much momentum as possible. If I caught the guy, I’d pick the next guy. Sometimes I got passed and at some point I realized I was catching guys in the single-speed group who were racing on the course at the same time as us. Poor bastards, at least I could shift down.
Racers struggle for traction on a deep course.
The final lap went very smooth, but I was very ready for the race to be over. I crossed the line in 9th place – solidly in the middle of the pack. For my first race, in a sandlot – I’ll take it.
Next Sunday’s race is in Irvine and lots of other racers commented on what a great course it is. I can’t wait.
I couldn’t stop staring at the cover of Velonews. The February 2009 edition had just been tossed in front of my while I sat munching a sandwich in my kitchen. The cover depicted a wet, slimy, muddy and yet intensely focused cyclist – I was completely captivated. What crazy sport was this? Cyclocross – what’s that? Road bikes in the mud? That’s just crazy.
February 2009 cover of Velonews – it started everything. Courtesy VeloNews
Although… That guy is really having a good time. I wonder what it would be like to race cyclocross…
So, after the glow of Leadville was fading and Coach Colin suggested I look into the cyclocross scene, I said, “Hey, that’s a great idea.” Only, I didn’t have a CX bike, people to ride with or the faintest idea of how the sport really works. But still, I thought about that guy in the Velonews cover.
My two closest riding partners both have road, mountain and track bikes. I tried in vain to piqué their interest in giving CX a try. Nope. I can’t get the Descenders to get on their mountain bikes, much less give Cross a second thought. I signed up for a local cyclocross clinic and made myself go even though I didn’t want to after my buddy bailed on me.
I hope my bike gets this muddy someday. CC gzahnd on Flickr
The clinic (put on by SoCalCross) was perfect. I was able to borrow a Cross bike and spent some time learning how to get on and off the bike – yeah, I thought I knew that already too. Getting on and off fluidly is important as you run up stairs, jump barriers, etc. It’s key to keep your momentum going and not actually stop.
Cyclocross loves lots of sharp corners. CC coda2 on Flickr
We practiced carrying our bikes and running up hills with a bike on our backs – then it was time for a few practice laps. They had set up a micro-course around the soccer field and we toured it twice to get a feel for the barriers, sharp turns, run-ups, etc. My favorite feature was a 90-degree turn at the bottom of a steep hill.
Mud, snow and look at that face – what more could you want? CC static-photo on Flickr
After the second practice lap, we re-grouped for a mini-race. We lined up, someone yelled go and we were off. I was immediately “Game On!” – completely electric as we hit the first turns. I’m familiar with criterium racing so I tried to stay in the lead group. We got to my favorite turn and I became convinced it would be impossible to make the 90-degree turn at speed. I had to decide whether to overcook the corner and roll off the course or just go for it. I decided that crashing wouldn’t be so bad on grass so I just turned as hard as I could, in a pack of 6 or 7 guys (and a few gals). I made the turn, but fell back a little.
The second race lap was more fluid although I really screwed the barriers up and had to hammer like hell to get back to the leaders. It all got strung out in the last bits, but I finished somewhere in the top third, I’m sure.
I really wish it rained more in Southern California. CC rcousine on Flickr
Can you tell I had fun? It was a BLAST! Cyclocross is the sport you’d pick if you were nine years old. It would go something like, “Road races makes baseball look fun and forget about the track – please, round and round all day? Mountain biking sounds kinda cool, but what about those guys over there playing in the mud and jumping fences with their bikes? I wanna do that!”
ONly a 9-year-old mind would want to race like this. CC spicybear on Flickr
While joining by buddies on the track would be practical, I just had no passion for it – I had to make cyclocross happen. And I did. In short order, I got a great deal on a Cross bike, connected with several local CX racers and got invited to a weekly local Cross workout. And now I have 6 CX races on my calendar between here and December.
For the third year in a row, I’ll be riding the 150-mile MS Bike Tour next month to raise money in the fight against multiple sclerosis, and do you know why?
I ride for my friend Blake’s dad who has struggled with this debilitating disease for the last 17 years. It may have taken away his ability to walk or eat on his own, but his spirit is still strong and he enjoys spending time with his grandchildren. I ride for my friend Mark’s mom who is in a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis. And I ride for the 400,000+ Americans stricken with MS who need help fighting this disease today.