MT. BALDY, CALIFORNIA – The guy giving the mandatory orientation for this year’s L’Etape du California tried to break the ice in front of a crowd of skinny, fit people and me. “How many of you did this last year?” A number of hands went up before he incredulously asked “And you’re doing it again?!” This got the laugh the guy wanted but it was a nervous, tense kind of laughter. On the drive to the Ontario Convention Center we could look up and see Mt. Baldy up, up, up and off to the east, with a ring of clouds around it. It looked like goddamn Mordor. I’m going to ride my bike up there, twice. The L’Etape du California is the exact Stage 7 course the pros will ride on the upcoming Tour de California, a grueling penultimate stage where the undisputed overall winner will be crowned after a tortuous mountain finish. The course climbs over eleven hundred feet in seventy-eight miles.
The loudspeakers were playing Ain’t No Mountain High Enough when our wave of riders click-clacked into their pedals and rolled onto the streets. Very funny, you jerks. I was tired before we even got to the base of the mountain. The first climb is a relentless 3000 feet over nearly 17 miles, but at this point I still had my wits about me and didn’t succumb to around-the-next-bend syndrome, where you think there’s just got to be a downhill section around that next bend only to have your soul crushed to see the road keep rising into the far distance. We made it to the top without problem and feeling pretty good. Now comes the fun part, the descent…until my front tire bangs off of some unseen something and I don’t think much of it until the next hairpin turn when my tire didn’t dig into the road but warbled and skidded–this is it, was my instant thought, I’m road rash–but I miraculously stayed up and, the nice thing about these organized rides, a support truck happened right along and fixed it up way faster than I ever could.
Going downhill fast through beautiful mountain countryside is what it’s all about but it was at the bottom that the leg cramps started. I shook them off at the next rest area. I ate PB&Js and gorp and that nasty goo stuff – once I ran out of the vanilla paste flavor I had to go with the cuttlefish and asparagus one. My thighs were barking as soon as we started up the second climb…twenty-four miles up, up, up. It was getting hot. We got passed. We passed others. I passed a guy on a huge bike…most bikers are little and so are their frames, but this thing was very tall and so was the rider. Only when I looked up and saw the goofy, determined face did I realize it was Bill Walton.
The sun is beating down, we’ve been riding for four hours and are only halfway through with the toughest parts still ahead. Around-the-bend syndrome kicks in: Are those vultures circling overhead for me? Soon the side of the road is littered with dudes. Some just lying on their backs, giving thumbs up when the passing riders ask if they’re okay. By this point I’ve got little hydrogen bombs going off inside my thighs. The quadrants of my quads are lighting up like a Simon machine. When asked what he says when his legs start hurting on a ride, pro Jens Voight coined a catch phrase by answering: “Shut up legs.” I tried that, but I’m apparently not as authoritative as Jens Voight. I got off at a rest stop and realized I must walk like Frankenstein’s monster. Somehow I made it to the top of this mountain and for a few glorious moments I’m going downhill again, all the way to the final rest area before the last climb.
At this point I couldn’t walk anymore but with a little rest and Gatorade I thought I could take on the finish. It’s just four more miles to the top of Mt. Baldy. Unfortunately, it’s also another nearly 2500 foot climb over those scant four miles. Back on the bike and with legs barking in protest I passed the people of this little ski village cheering me on, “Almost there! You’re looking good!” I screamed curses at them in my head. The road goes up and up, and then it really starts to get steep. These last four miles are cruel, mean spirited, and evil. I try pushing my bike. I try getting back on. I get to the 5000 foot elevation sign and my legs stop using diplomacy and quit. My brain realizes it’s just three more miles but they might as well be 3000, so I fail. I turn around and am soon flying back the way I came. As I ride by the cheering villagers on the way back, I feel shame…but oh god, going downhill again feels so good, and it’s still another twenty or so miles back to the starting point and the medal I (shamefully) accept, and the buffet of crappy fettuccine alfredo that I eat the hell out of. I didn’t make it to the top, but damn it, all together I rode 90 miles and climbed 9000 feet. It took me over nine hours. The guy who finished fastest did it in 4:40. In a couple of weeks the pros will probably do it an hour faster than that.
My buddy made to the top triumphantly, amidst what he called a triage of devastated bodies, like a scene out of Gone with the Wind. You know who else made it? Bill Walton. All seven feet of old guy with bad knees… for the second year in a row. Something to be inspired by for next year… when I’m home sitting on my couch!
Skip over the first 2:20 of this video to get an idea of what I went through:
Much less arduous will be Grote2Dax’s column tomorrow!