My mouth is hanging open like an overhead bin on a turbulent flight, all slack and dumb and gobbing for air. I become aware of a pool of saliva hatching escape plans, gathering near the tongue and waiting for the opportunity to drop over my lip.
I feel it begin to Rapunzel its way out.
Now, I was raised right and normally I’d not let something like that slide, least of all out of my mouth. But at this moment, with my lungs double bagging it and my heart rate techno-beating it, I don’t give a damn. I’m all, “Stand down, guards” and “Fly, be free, young spittle Padawan!”
Out it dribbles in a spectacular line of defeat, and I’m sure I hear it cry out “Tell Laura I love her” before continuing on to kiss my leg and be dashed on the road below me.
I can’t be bothered even reacting to it.
I am breathing so loudly I want to adjust the knob on my internal subwoofer. It’s reverberating around my brain and through my ears and surely the neighbors are about to bang a broomstick on their ceiling and call the cops.
Something’s gonna blow.
I crank on. I decide to turn the camera off, but know it’s too steep to do so with one hand and not fall on my arse. So I climb a bit further, to a slight bend with a MBV (Magnificent Bloody View), and clip out. I turn it off. I am huffing. My face is red. I taste salt.
After about a minute, I feel fine again, clip in, and surge away. Full of energy. Of vim. Of enthusiasm. For about 10 seconds.
Then two things happen.
One, my quads form an impromptu committee, take a vote, and decide their tactic will be short, persistent stabs all over.
Two, an awesome dynamo named Liam flies by, as though carried majestically upon a cloud of extra gears. Nine years old and pedaling like it ain’t no thang. People walking their bikes groan at this development, then one yells “Go Liam!” I am ashamed of my sluggishness, and decide to ignore the United Union of Quads and their picket line. I will not be defeated by this hill. Grind on. Allez, allez, allez!
Air protests at being sucked in so hard. Lungs billow like sails. Heart? Well, it hasn’t stopped, so let’s not bother it shall we? One thing becomes crystal clear—I really shouldn’t have had the extra PB&J sandwich at that last rest stop. The jam is fast approaching the esophagus and requesting a hall pass.
But I will not bow to the Coleman Valley climb. Why? Because I am what’s called a “dumb cyclist”. And by dumb, I mean stubborn.
I hate hills but I love hills. And if, Dear Hill, you think I’m ever gonna walk my bike up your impressive 16% grade, you’ve got another thing coming. I will grit my teeth and hunch over the bars and look at the bloody asphalt below me and as long as it’s moving in an out-the-back direction, I will continue on.
I don’t care if you throw short, sharp inclines at me. I will stand up on my pedals and grind you down. And if I put my foot down at any point, it is with the express purpose of taking a photograph, or simply to say to passing cyclists, “Wow, now THAT’s a vista, and I’m somewhat of a vista expert!”. And all while pretending that I’m not buggered and am actually having a great time. Then I’ll clip in and attack again.
Because I am a dumb cyclist. Isn’t it great?
I crest the top, huffing and puffing, burning and churning, sweating and burping jam. I could use a lot of words to describe this feeling. Pain. Hurt. Stupid. But there’s only one word I can think of.
That word is joy.
Before any of this ever happens—the stabbing quads, the spittle string, or the jam burps—I rent a car in San Francisco. I’ve had 2 hours sleep and just stepped off a plane from New York city. It is now I realize how hopelessly I have prepared for this part of the trip.
I’m completely prepared for Levi’s GranFondo of course—just hand me some Butt Butter and point me to the start. Wait, that didn’t sound right.
No, I’m just not prepared for all that stuff that comes before it, like, I dunno, getting to Santa Rosa. I can’t remember where I’m staying exactly. I did book a hotel, right? And if I’m being totally honest, I’ve never even looked at a map to see where Santa Rosa actually is. It’s definitely in California, right?
I have a quick chat with my GPS lady. While she is not exactly surly towards me, she sure ain’t no ‘let’s swap recipes and start a book club together’ gal. But she puts her aloofness aside and confirms that I am in the right state. After a short disagreement about whether I can touch her while driving, I instruct her to ‘take me past the plonk!’ and off we go. Wrong side of the car, wrong side of the road, but I will make allowances for you Americans and your silly rules.
The no freeway route meanders you through some gorgeous green stuff. And some brown stuff. And some blue sky stuff. And then green stuff that makes booze, and ‘ohhh pretty’ stuff. And hey, there’s a gum tree! That’s not your stuff, that’s my stuff! The scenery actually reminds me of Australia a little. But you know, with less Australians, and practically no kangaroos.
I find these vine-infested hills to be very alluring. Each time I pass a tasting sign I feel a bit tasty myself. But I won’t stop and tipple. I’ve got places to go get lost in, unfamiliar bikes to hit on, and spandex to lay out on a hotel bed.
Drive, Noodle. Drive like the wind! But you know, always within the strict confines of the speed limit.
As I roll into Santa Rosa I remember the third thing I forgot to look up before leaving New York. The address of the bike shop I’m renting my bike from. After a little side-pulling-over and some non-sexual touching of an iPhone, I work out the co-ordinates and arrive. It’s the wrong store. Apparently I’m looking for the OTHER NorCal Bikes. You Californians are tricky with your two-location stores. I tip my invisible hat to you.
At the real store, I burst through the door, trumpets sound, and I declare my intentions to remove a bike from their premises. I meet Greg, the dude who set me up on this date with the Specialized S-Works Amira.
“Oh, Janeen,” he says. “This bike is the shit!”
These words tumble out honestly, unmolested by gimmicks and brochure-speak. But he doesn’t need to talk the bike up—I’ve seen photos. I’m already in lust. And all he did was dangle that carbon carrot in front of me via email a month ago and I was saying, “What’s up, Doc?” pretty damn smartly.
But I begin to panic. What if I love the bike too much? Will I be able to get away from this place without dropping over seven G’s on a piece of rolling carbon? If it truly is the shit, how can I not own the shit? I deserve shit, don’t I? Again, that didn’t sound right.
Later, in my hotel room (which I find thanks to a well timed reservation confirmation email), I can’t help looking at the bike. Its intense gaze, its rakish charm, its lithe body. It is Zen-like in its composure. I christen it Buddha (even though it has a little sticker on it saying 51-Arnold. You can’t name a bike Arnold. What is this, Happy Days?)
I nod off, but jerk awake suddenly remembering something about race packets. Ok, fourth thing I forgot to do. Where the hell do I pick that up? It would’ve been very helpful to make a note of that before leaving Gotham. I’m bone-weary and dog tired. Sleep tugs at my ankles, I kick it off.
Out in the parking lot, I shake the GPS lady awake as she dreams of longitudes and latitudes and the male GPS voice who never calls. She begrudgingly agrees to find the place for me and we’re off, screaming our way into the stretching shadows of a Californian afternoon.
Line, sign, grin, and within moments I am strolling back across the grass, past the stage and corral for the start tomorrow. This is getting real, peeps. This thing is on!
There are many words I could use to describe this feeling. Excited. Thrilled. Aroused. But there’s only one I can think of right now.
That word is sleep.
Riding a bike that’s well above your paygrade feels like what I imagine it’s like to marry up. At first you’re all “Hey, look at this fella I snagged. Ain’t he awesome! He, like, uses all the right forks and shit.” But then one day he’ll use a word like ‘indubitably’ and you’ll go ‘huh?’
It won’t be that you don’t know what that word means. It will just dawn on you that he’s not using it as part of a joke. And you’ve never heard it uttered without some kind of ironic twist associated with it. Or as part of some stuffy Sherlocky Holmesy sketch. And so you’ll schlub back to your aluminum framed world, and he back to Carbon Nirvanaland, where everyone weighs nothing and they all spin gaily while seeing who can lift whom with one finger
Ok, I switched gears mid cassette there, but you get my point.
Riding Buddha is everything Zen, baby. It’s a long sustained Ohm of carbon wheels turning on blacktop. It’s clipping in to the sound of one hand clapping as I whiz by wineries and locals cheering. It’s achieving enlightenment by coasting on the freewheel whirr of awesomesauceedness.
The noble truth is this. I am a monk who has eschewed all possessions. Yet I want this bike so badly I am tearing at the hem of my robes and whipping myself with the corded belt that holds it all together.
Early on, during the congestion of the start, the rider next to me compares the road to a clogged pipe requiring Liquid Plumr. Little does she know that I am stuck in some kind of otherworld Zen-like state, and I say, somewhat cryptically:
“No. Don’t you see? WE are the Liquid Plumr.”
She, quite rightly, chuckles awkwardly and moves to another position in the pack.
We ride on, one mass of legs turning and gears changing. Cow bells clang, kids cheer, locals yell obscenities like “You’re awesome!” and “Go Fondo!” Oh wait. Sorry. Usually when people yell at me on my bike it’s something like “Why don’t you ride on the sidewalk!” or “Hey, fatass!” or something. I’m not used to people being supportive.
I stand and climb a small hill and have a new awareness – I am fat and Buddha is not. Usually, when I stand to power up a hill, I feel the weight of the bike in my hands. Here, all I feel is the lumbering mass that is my body above it. It is exhilarating and diet-plan formulating. This machine is Helen Hunt to my Jack Nicholson. It makes me want to be a better (wo)man.
The soothing drone of the wheels on the road is a sweet song to me as I pass and get passed. Together we move through low vines, high hills, corridors of tall trees, and beside wide rivers. Conversations pass between strangers, car ups and car backs are thrown down the line.
We stop to eat and talk and I spend great swathes of time being the spokesperson for GoPro. Which cannot be helped. If you saw someone with a camera strapped to their chest, would you be able to stop yourself asking about it?
Oreo cookies have never tasted so good. PB&J on fresh bread is stuck to the roof of my mouth. Every local rider I meet asks the same questions: “What do you think of the ride? Isn’t it beautiful? Are you having a good time?”
I can tell everyone wants everyone else to have just the best day ever. I can only speak for myself. I haven’t stopped grinning. And I have to say, if you can still grin while entering a portapotty, you’re having a good time.
When we hit the coast, it kinda hits back with a gusty wind that’s all “Hi, I just had to rush over here to meet you!” I get what it’s up to. It’s going to do everything in its power to make you stop and take a photograph. So I oblige.
It’s gusty as all get up as I fly down that road. The deep dish pizza wheels on Buddha are trying to teach me a new truth – hang on or you will turn into a sail and fly over the countryside on your left there. I hang on. Tight. But I don’t slow down any. Roads like this, scenery like this, opened wide in front of you, you have to gun it. It is the law. Open the throttle and book it on through. I stop one more time to take a photograph. This is stunning. Why am I not living here?
When I turn off the highway, Coleman Valley climb rudely and unexpectedly delivers a very convincing throatpunch. This is where Spittlegate occurs, and further on up the road, after kicking a few more climbs in the lady balls, we’re at the top. Descents thrill me and my grin is so wide it’s getting out the chisel and adding more wrinkles to my already laugh-ruined face.
The flat-out terror of flying down a mountain in a tunnel of trees with ever-vigilant eyes on potholes and sticks. The bump, the air whizzing past, and me just hanging on to this throughbred and hoping it won’t hurl me to the tarmac. I can imagine it, flesh tearing, that thought that flashes through your mind mid-air ‘this is gonna hurt’. The hands-out, grab-at-the-air before tearing it up on the asphalt. But I don’t slow down.
There are many words that can describe this feeling. Terror, fear, holding-on-for-dear-life-edness. But there is only one word I’m thinking of.
That word is Wheeeeee!
Baby (my bike back in Brooklyn), is going to hate me. She will be sulking in her corner—after putting herself there, I would never do such a thing—and obsessing about how I’m out riding with another bike. Green eyed. They should put that in the Specialized Dolce Elite reviews “Gets jealous when you ride other bikes”
I still love her. I think. I am trying to decide as remove my hand from Buddha’s saddle and watch it go off into the crowd of bikes at the bike valet area. It’s not you, it’s me? No, that’s no way to end it.
The Medio is done. The Medio is done, though I am not. I realize I’ve left my ID in the car, so I ride the 8-mile round trip to go get it. It’s not that I need my free beer. It’s more that I know I have to take Buddha back and I don’t want to get off. Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn! I’ve grown accustomed to its pace.
To extend the ride even further, I spend half-an-hour trying to find the parking garage where I parked the car. This is unintentional and a little nerve wracking. I didn’t mean to lose the car. But that’s what pre-ride excitement does to you: makes you forget the most basic of rules. When you drive in a strange town, take note of where you park the car.
There is much relief when I find it, although the GPS lady doesn’t seem too thrilled. I pick up my wallet, and then ride off again knowing this is the second to last time I will be pedaling on my master.
But now let me tell you all that I know about Paella.
It’s the name of a dish once mentioned on Fawlty Towers by Manuel, who wanted to cook it. The sentence ends there because that’s the end of my knowledge.
Consider me enlightened! Holy smokes, it’s tasty. It’s like a garbage plate of awesomeness. And my belly is more than excited to receive the bounty that is also the Fat Tire. I sit and eat and contemplate the day.
I don’t really know when I become obsessed with cycling. It has been a late-in-life revelation. Although I have always owned a bike, and traveled with a bike, I have never used it as a basis for making decisions. Now, whenever I go anywhere, one of my first thoughts is always “What’s it like to ride there?”
I can tell you what it’s like to ride here. It’s amazing. It’s a stupid grin-fest of an experience. Flying along roads lined with massive trees, zipping over bridges, beside rivers and up mountains. Cranking it by the ocean in this beautiful landscape and you just can’t help but beam like a maniac. Stony faced? How would you even manage it out here?
There is solidarity amongst us all. We few, we happy few. We band of brothers and sisters of the ride. The air is filled with so much energy you can feel it. Of course that could also just be the wind. I watch as a tent blows over and a guy is enveloped. He pops up out from under and to the delight of everyone, has not spilled his beer!
And I finally get to meet Greg from Twitter, a guy who I don’t know from Adam. (It should be noted that Adam just happens to be the name of a guy I’d met the night before and who rode the Fondo as his first ever century. I can’t help but wonder how he did?) Greg and I compare thoughts on the event. As a local, he is curious to hear an out-of-towner’s perspective.
I am chuffed. High on paella and GranFondo fumes. It’s been a hell of a day. A hell of an experience. It has poked me in the motivation. I must do better, I must become better. It has stoked the fire of life. The joining together of strangers to experience the thrill of the ride, the sharing of the moment with nothing but the sound of fun freewheeling behind you. The wind in your hair, the sweat on your brow, the bugs in your teeth.
There are many words I could use to describe why we share this feeling. Freedom. Human. Love. Kinship. But there is only one word I’m thinking of.
That word is bike.