Escondido, CA–Lots going on in the world of sports this weekend, but I didn’t pay attention to any of it…I was enduring another hell ride in the L’Etape du California, this one following the route of the opening stage of the Tour de California, the very next day. Some of you may remember when I did one of these last year, and vowed never again…but here I am with my laptop across twinging thighs, still seizing occasionally in wrenching cramps. This year’s was supposed to be a little easier…even if it was 104 miles and nearly 10,000 feet of climbing. I haven’t been able to train quite as hard, but I did get a nice new bike, so that should even out, right?
My cohorts and I–call them Peter, Paul, and Mary (two of those names are made up, but I won’t tell you which)–got a good start, though the misty morning fogged up my sunglasses immediately and I banged over a pot hole that rattled loose one of my water bottles, it dangled off the cage as my fingers fumbled and then lost it to the road. I’d have to ride the rest of the 103 miles with one bottle. That wasn’t the worst, though, for the pothole also caused a pinch flat on my front tire, and half a mile later I was dropped from my group and just about the entire field (getting a flat front tire has become a tradition for me on these). On a new tube but woefully behind now, for the next forty miles I was basically riding by myself, passing or getting passed by the occasional rider. The mind starts going to some dark places at times like these. I envied the cows sitting in the shade on the side of the road. I wondered more than once how many miles it would be to turn back toward the hotel pool. I was hoping the rustling I’d occasionally hear in the grass beside me was a rattle snake that would leap out and give me a life threatening but plausible excuse for not finishing. After forty-seven rough, lonely, rising, increasingly hot miles, I made it to the rest area at the base of Palomar Mountain, catching a small group recuperating there, perhaps the last group on the ride as they’d be sweeping any stragglers who hadn’t reached this point by noon, in ten minutes.
One woman there had a San Diego face, pretty but leathery from years in the sun, putting in more miles on her bike than in her car. Hers was not a state-of-the-art bike, and a stereo attached amid half a dozen various packs on its frame was cranking out Me and My Uncle. She wore a black dress and sensible shoes…her pedals were not clip-ins. Last year when I failed to finish, Bill Walton succeeded. When you can’t beat the hippies, it may be time to get out. Unlike the grinding Walton, this woman looked like she was just out for a ride to the beach, and had a bright smile on her face as she pulled the two exhausted dudes she was with up the hill…leaving me sitting there with an old fat guy and a young lean guy who had been pushing his bike to this point. The SAG truck would be coming by soon and taking them on to the bottom, their day done. Tempting as this was, I took option Number Three, the Short Route. This would make the whole thing 94 miles (short!) instead of 104…though those are ten of the toughest miles I skipped. I don’t regret a thing. I hit the other side as a big group was flying down. I was back in the middle of this thing.
At this point I’d been in the saddle for about six hours, the sun really starting to beat down, and there’s no turning back. The next climb on the elevation map, the innocuously titled Cole Grade, looked simple enough…until you started the long straight ascent, legs on fire, nausea rising. I hadn’t eaten anything since the room service oatmeal and pancakes at 5:45 that morning, and being in the last group meant most of the good stuff at the rest stations was cleaned out. All I had was some goo, my fingers sticky gross from squeezing it down, my throat seizing up in rebellion at the icky intrusion. It’s unbelievably hot, and brief respites of shade were few and far between. I got to one, pushed my bike to the next, tried to get going again but the sight of the road rounding a bend and climbing steeply up the other side was too much…especially when one of the SRAM neutral support vehicles came by, and the guy was nice enough not to judge me too harshly when I asked for a lift. It was only two miles to the top, but again two of perhaps the toughest miles of the whole thing (that makes the twelve toughest miles that I skipped…again, I regret nothing!). Along the way I got to be the guy leaning out the passenger window, asking each of the riders–riders far superior to me–who were strewn about the side of the road if they were “good?” The next day, with temperatures blowing past 100, the pros cracked along this very same hill. World champion Phillipe Guilbert got dropped from the peloton here. “It was like a blast furnace” said pro Jeff Lauder of yesterday’s stage. “It was nice on the climb up Palomar, but as we descended, you could just feel it getting hotter and hotter and hotter. It was like going into hell a bit.”
At the rest area at the top I forced down some food, a couple of banana pieces and half an oatmeal cookie. The thought of eating made me sick, but everyone around up there said that’s exactly when you need to. Popped some Advil, spread on some sunscreen, dumped a water bottle over my head, and clipped back in. Only twenty-some-odd more miles left, with but a few rolling hills, but even these are no joke after eighty miles. There was a long descent, but even hitting speeds over forty mph it was along a highway with cars and motorcycles flying by, so there was no relaxing…especially with this image still in my head:
At the bottom, however, I crossed the border of Escondido again and breathed easier knowing it was just a little bit longer. That little bit, however, turned out to be another seven miles, only now on city streets with stop lights. I’m not sure if you know this, but clipping back into your pedals when all the muscles in your thighs and calves are twisting into tight, painful knots is not easy. Another rider I hung with for a moment in the shade of a seemingly abandoned “Worship Center” parking lot was over the whole thing. “If I see one more hill I’m going to kill somebody.” There were fortunately no more hills, but many more long city blocks and some questionable signage, and at the last turn I had a totally irrational but gripping fear “what if some prankster turned this to point the wrong way?” I’m sure I’d have killed somebody if I would’ve had to turn around and double back at this point. Fortunately, such cruelty was only in my head, the course itself was cruel enough, but I eventually wheeled across the finish line. My cohorts all made it, and they all did the entire course (I actually finished ahead of two of them, but only because of extra cruel fate causing them two flats just two miles from the end…I can’t imagine the rage I’d have felt). I’m in awe of them, and everyone else who finished this thing, particularly the pros who did it yesterday in less than half the time it took us.
Here are the highlights from yesterday’s stage, which will give you an idea of the course: