Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What Tahoe Was Like

First, it was a gorgeous, gorgeous day. Brilliant blue skies and bright sun. No need at all for extra layers or gloves or my bad ass legwarmers. The sun got pretty hot later in the afternoon, but it was basically everything you could have wanted out of a summer day.

We started our ride crowded together at the start, waiting for our designated time (6:10), and I did some nervous weeping. Coach Anne says it's good to be nervous - it shows you care - and I decided I just needed to let all the nervousness out and get it over with. Then we shouted our team cheer, got on our bikes, and headed out. It's reallllllly crowded at the start, as you have like 100+ riders taking off at once. I was immediately separated from my team, which I expected.

The Switchbacks
The first ten miles are relatively flat. You go through town a bit and then it's just like campgrounds: tall pines and quiet roads. It smells like heaven. It's worth going there for the smell alone.

There were lots of other cyclists still, from all over the place, though it wasn't terribly crowded. I began to notice rather early on what some alumni had mentioned: that other teams are not as conscious of safety as we are. Some jerk from California brushed by me going twice as fast as me, and I nearly ran off the road - he never said a word. People passed on my right (a big no-no, but if you have to do it for some reason, give some damn warning) and swerved around debris that they never bothered to communicate to me. On our team, we always call out everything - cars, rough pavement, passing on the left, crap in the road ahead, everything. I'm actually not even very good at that, compared to the rest of my team, but I'm stellar compared to half the people on the road at Tahoe. Anyway, I passed my first accident before we even got to the switchbacks. A girl had fallen, and her team was with her. Later, someone told me she'd been taken away in an ambulance.

There's this long slog of a steep climb. I tried not to get impatient, but it did seem to be taking a LONG time to get to the hairpin turns. I mean, that's what makes it a switchback, yeah? So here I am, in my granny gear,  doing my typical super-slow but steady pedaling on this steep incline, wondering when the hell the turns were coming up, because I know it's supposed to get worse than this and ye gods but this is bad enough.

Then, I saw the turn. And I turned. I saw. I whimpered. Because it only gets steeper. Here's an aerial view I found, and if it looks like there's a part of the road that's going down the mountainside instead of up, allow me to assure you that it's some trick of the angle or something. The road went nothing but up. And up and up and up.

When you get to the turns and look up, you can see the riders ahead, like a line of ants marching. Plenty of people passed me, but absolutely no one was going fast. They're just so steep. And it was crowded.

Many people got off and walked it early on. Once you stop, it's next to impossible to get started again on anything that steep, especially when it's so crowded. About halfway up the steepest part, I pulled over (it was almost flat for about 50 feet of road, so exciting!) and caught my breath. Then I got back on because, dammit, I Am Beth Hear Me Roar. Screw you, switchbacks, you will not win! I made it around another turn, then kept the torture up until just before the next (and last) turn. One more turn and one last steep stretch and I'd be done. But I could tell I just didn't have much more in me and there was no flat-ish spot to pull over and gather my strength again. Then this guy in front of me just fell. Not a violent fall - he was going too slowly for that (we all were). Just a very slow, gradual surrender to gravity.

I couldn't move out of his way fast enough - I couldn't do anything fast, besides breathing fast - and I was about an inch away from being unable to go on at that point, so I just let it go. Got off the bike, walked the last bit. You can only fight the good fight for so long, especially when there's a cyclist on the ground a foot in front of your wheel. There's a photographer at the top of the switchbacks and I hopped on my bike and posed for the camera, then pedaled on. So I did my best til I couldn't do any more, but I couldn't do all the switchbacks. I was glad that I did manage to do about 2/3rds or more of them, though. Yay me.

After that was a rest stop, where I saw Coach Anne and my teammate Emmelin - probably some other teammates were there but I didn't stop, just shouted hi to them as I rode on. Coach Tom had warned that you don't want to stop at that first rest stop, because there's a hill just after it. Never give up momentum before a hill. So I just kept pedaling.

There's a steep and glorious descent from the switchbacks, which I had been intending to fully enjoy until the night before the ride. My roommate Alane had done like 10 Tahoe rides, and she told me about the year the guy just ahead of her hit the guardrail on the descent from the switchbacks at 40 mph and died. Yeah, DIED. That was my bedtime story the night before the ride. Nice. So my brakes and I had a little bonding session along that stretch of road, instead of me flying down shouting "Wheeeeeee!" as originally planned. I did get fast enough to build up quite the wind chill, though - my teeth were chattering, even. And my lips are still windburnt from it.

Then began what I like to refer to as The Stuff No One Talks About part of the ride. Because all that stuff between the switchbacks and the hellacious climb up Spooner, like 65 miles of stuff? IT'S REALLY REALLY HARD OH MY GOD. There was at least one other hill I had to walk up, though I don't know where/which - somewhere between the switchbacks and the rest stop at mile 25. It's the length of the inclines that are so brutal - every hill just goes on and on. There's nothing like that here, to train on. It's just harder. And I kept running out of breath much sooner than I am used to, which must have been the altitude. I just ran out of steam so fast, every time I had to put in some real effort.

But eventually I made it to Mile 25 rest stop (more like 27, according to someone with an odometer I talked to) and filled up my camelbak and my water bottle, used the bathroom, ate some fruit, and hoarded some granola bars. Then I texted Coach Anne before heading back out. She had asked me to text her at every stop along the way so she knew where I was. She planned to meet me at King's Beach, where the lunch stop is, and ride the last 30 miles with me to the finish line.

Truckee Trip
This was my favorite AND most hated portion of the ride.

A few miles after the rest stop, there was a sign pointing to the turn-off for the 100 mile option. I didn't know  it would take me to the bike path instead of the road, but I'm so glad it did. Very few people took the path - most opted for the road instead - so it was a quiet bit of heaven.

It was like this for miles. I loved it. How could I not? Rushing water and trout jumping and shady pines. It was so great, I want to go back and camp there. If only it had stayed so pleasant.

(A side note: My coaches said they were so so proud of me, for taking the 100-mile option instead of just continuing on the shorter path around the lake. But they know me well enough not to be surprised that I did. I mean, like there was any chance I would willingly take the shorter route? Dude. Go big or go home.)

Sadly, the pretty bike path ended after I don't know, like 5 miles? Then you're dumped onto what is basically a wide-shouldered highway which you follow all the way out to the rest stop at Truckee, where you turn around and come back along the same route. It's not picturesque, and cars and trucks zoom by. Not long after I got on there, I saw Coach Anne and Emmelin again, on their way back from the Truckee stop. They shouted words of encouragement at me, and a couple of miles later I saw more teammates coming back from Truckee, the Bufalinos. I thought Truckee would be only a few miles, but after a while I started to wonder. It wasn't long until it was just me on my side of the road, but there was still a steady stream of riders on the opposite side, coming back from the rest stop. In the last 1.5 miles or so before the rest stop, I really began to panic, because no more riders were coming from that way. I would have cut it short and turned back, except I really needed to refill the water.

I did finally get there. Thank god. It felt like forever. But after reapplying sunscreen, eating some salty boiled potatoes (which are nowhere near as tasty as the alumni led me to believe) and visiting the portapotty, I had to go back.

And this is where it was awful. Soul-crushing. The depression began when I realized I was the last person out of Truckee. As in: the last person, out of like 3,000+ riders. LAST.

I TOLD you I am the slowest. Of everyone. Ever. All-time slowest. Proven.

I started down that terrible highway all alone. I just kept telling myself to suck it up and eventually I'd reach that pretty pretty river path again. But it was ages of incline - not terribly steep, but just enough to make you dislike the road. Cars and trucks whizzed by, kicking up the dust and gravel. I'd forgotten my sunglasses, so I just squinted against it and thanked God for my freakishly long eyelashes. And then the wind began in earnest.

I'll admit it: it broke me. I soldiered on for a while, singing Tom Petty at the top of my lungs for a bit (why not? there was no one to hear) and pep-talking myself. But once the wind came, all I could do was feel sorry for myself. I got off the bike for a bit, because I just didn't care anymore about making it up a stupid little hill that just made me want to die, and I texted my despair to Coach Carrie (we texted all day, she couldn't come to Tahoe but she's my morale-booster-in-a-pocket) as I wept on the side of the road.

It was about 5 miles out of Truckee, I think, and I had just been standing there, texting Carrie or drinking water or something, and I heard a twang-like popping sound come from the rear of my bike. But then a support van was there asking if I wanted help. They were the last support van out there, they said. No riders behind me. I wiped the tears away and asked if they could just take me back to the bike path. Sure, they said - it's just a few miles up the road. So they loaded my bike in the van and off we went.

My rear wheel was next to me, and I thought I heard another little pop, and I remembered the broken spoke from the day before. So I checked and found two loose spokes. I know you can ride with one broken spoke for a while without danger, but I was pretty sure you shouldn't ride with 2 broken spokes. The support van were more food-n-water people, rather than bike mechanics people, and they didn't know either. So we decided to take me to King's Beach, which was the next rest stop and where the nearest bike mechanic could be found. Once that decision was made, I got out my phone to text Coach Anne and let her know what was going on.

The Best Coach Ever

I found a text from Coach Anne, which she'd sent just as I was getting into the support van: she was at King's Beach and was riding out to meet me. Doubling back, adding another 20 or more miles to her ride, because she didn't want me to ride alone anymore. If my bike had been working and I had still been crying like a baby at the side of the road, it's the only thing that would've put heart in me and saved me and got me back to fighting strength. It was being alone on that miserable stretch that was making me so despondent. And Angel Anne was coming for me.

I just love her, is all. She's so great.

End Game

I sent her a message saying I was being sagged to King's Beach, don't ride all the way out here. Need mechanic, have broken spokes, I said. Sorry! She told me not to be sorry. But I always feel like a failure when I can't keep going, no matter the reason.

King's Beach is beautiful. But I don't know if I can ever enjoy it, since its the place where I began to fear my bike for the first time. I can't disassociate the place from the feeling of suspecting my bike might actually hurt me. I mean I'm sure it's a great spot to have a cook-out and a splash in the water and all, but it will always be a place of heartbreak for me. Kind of like getting dumped at the Eiffel Tower, or something, you know?

One of the Bufalino girls, Christina, had to bow out after the switchbacks because her lungs were burning so badly. So she and her non-cycling family were driving along the route to cheer on the remaining Bufalino cyclists and planning to drop Christina a couple of miles from the finish line, to ride across it with her sister and father. Very kindly and generously, they loaded up my bike and myself too. And that's how I spent the rest of the day: cheering along the side of the road with them, then riding the last 2 miles across the finish line with my team.

I got to see the rest of the course from the car, except the bit that goes into Incline Village. Too bad - apparently the residents there come out every year, sit at each stop sign, and tell the cyclists to come to a complete stop. If you don't, they take down your bib number, give it to the police, and you get a citation. For real. I'd been looking forward to cheerfully saying "Oh do get a life, won't you?" at each stop sign in that town. Alas. From the car, the climb up Spooner looked hellish. I doubt I could've done more than the first few miles of it. And the descent looked just awesome. God, I wanted that descent.


Anne tells me that as soon as you're too scared of your bike, the ride is over. You can't ride like that, she says. And Gary - a teammate, incredibly inspiring survivor, all-around great guy and soon to be TNT coach - said that if my wheel had failed on that descent, it would be the kind of thing that would make me never get on a bike again. I know that both of them are right, absolutely.

But. Coach Tom had two spokes break on the ride as well. And he kept going. He's a veteran of this ride, and a far stronger rider and more skilled cyclist than I am. And his wheel is undoubtedly of a much higher quality than mine, and stronger. But still. It's in my head now, that maybe I could have done it. And maybe I should have.

But I didn't, and that's that. As I said, I could tell that I couldn't have done all 100 miles in the allotted time anyway. So no matter what, I would have failed by my own calculations.

The whole time I was riding, I swore to myself that this was the stupidest thing I've ever tried to do, Whose bright idea was it to ride a bike here? Dumb dumb dumb, and I for one had seen the error of my ways.

Anne said she expects me back in Tahoe next year. I told her she's crazy. She said Tahoe owes me. It can keep owing me, I said, no biggie. You're not done with this place, she said. We'll see, I said to placate her.

I don't know. I really don't. Except one thing I have learned: Coach Anne is always right.


izzydarlow said...

The Tahoe ride, especially for TNT participants, is an allegory for surviving cancer. As far as I'm concerned even more so than any other century ride you could participate in, in this country - roll with it, it's not as cliché as it sounds.

Tahoe is highly challenging, for even the most hard-core cyclist.

Of the entire team this spring your experience most closely resembles the struggle to survive cancer, and as such I doubt you'll ever forget what that struggle entails. I think it's a rare opportunity of perspective to have suffered as deeply as anyone afflicted with cancer, to have done so voluntarily, and to emerge wholly changed - which is what you are Beth, changed, not broken. The climb out of Truckee was merely the place you realized it. Though I'm sure your rendition of Tom Petty will forever echo through the mountainsides of the Donner Pass. It will become a legendary phenomenon as future riders of the pass report hearing a lone voice on the wind singing "learning to fly".

You have to return to Tahoe. If not to extract revenge (or whatever vindication you would seek) by completing the ride sans mechanical difficulties, then to be the first to report that lone voice on the wind. Legends don't start themselves you know!

Anyway, congrats on your resolve to get more of a performance bike (from your newest post). You've clearly been infected by the cycling "sickness". To borrow a phrase, Live to ride - Ride to live.

Rock on!

Beth said...

:-) Thanks. And it's been hard for me, but I'd rather go through it a hundred times than face cancer. That's where the comparison really breaks down.

I suppose I will have to do Tahoe again one day. I hate that it won this round.

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