Riding the ACA Western Express Bike Route, 6-13-17
Having passed the night peacefully in Plymouth, I can now disclose the undisclosed location. It was the big lovely gazebo right in town. It became clear that cyclists stopped there often enough that it was no big deal, and so we joined their ranks. It got chilly at night but that was just a bonus as far as I was concerned. No one said “boo” to us and so we had a peaceful night. The guard kitty patrolled and we slept.
The next morning the warm sun made it hard to shake awake but we managed, snacked up, and hit the trail. That is when the fun stopped. Right outside Plymouth we hit our first staircase of the day. I find that grades of about 5% or even 7% are fine–even sort of fun. They give you a good feeling of strength without having to achieve high speeds. I am happy just finding the right gear combination and slogging along at a calm pace. But many of the grades are much steeper and far harder to take on. The bikes are defiantly overloaded–with food mostly–but I am going to have to reconfigure and mail some things home. But what has two thumbs and is the other problem? This guy! I am not a climber and I am not going to suddenly become one–even though I have to come to some agreement with the more level-challenged parts of the earth’s outer crust.
Climbing requires one of two posture options. The celebrated one is standing. That uses different muscle groups than sitting and that makes for a nice change. It also though is quite tiring and I find it winds me a lot faster than sitting. Remaining seated though requires very low gearing–that means the smallest chain ring on the front and the biggest one on the rear cassettes–for me that means 26/34 while Rami has 22/34. If you have not ridden in that configuration before, let me assure you that it leaves one looking and feeling a bit like the Roadrunner right before he shoots off down the road. The catch is that the shooting down the road never actually happens. Instead, the legs spin and spin: lots of pedaling and flailing signifying nothing. But when the road is steep, low low gearing the only way to move–albeit a slow way. I suppose one has the option of staying in a higher gear ratio–say 50/12–and standing and pushing that way. I am pretty sure that that would shoot my kneecaps off though. But they would at least fly down the road at a higher rate of speed than that which they are achieveing still encased in my skin. Sorry kneecaps. Just FYI, this is partly why there will be a big boom in kneecap replacements in a few decades when all those fixie rider chickens come home roost in middle aged bodies. Bargain basement here–buy the right stock now.
The other wonderful gift of the modern miracle that is low gearing is the magical instability that low speed creates. One of the hardest rider excecises people work on is slow riding. Being able to keep a bike straight at say 3mph takes remarkable skill. Just like a track stand (when you stay on the pedals and keep the bike stationary by balance), slow bike skills are great to have. I am ok with my road bike, on a level, when I feel like it, and when I fail I can say, “no, that was just how long I wanted to do this track stand.” When I am pushing a loaded bike up hill on a few inches of shoulder, I am not always a wizard the 3 mph straight ride. Instead, I am THE man when it comes to awkwardly fighting with my front end to keep it in line. This skill I have carefully honed is making riding next to passing cars a special pleasure.
And this is what the whole day climbing out of Plymouth was. An occasional flat or even a downhill, but mostly being near tears and hating life trying climb grades of 40 or even 60 percent. Ok, they were probably only 10% or 14% but they might as well have been 60. Can’t be done is can’t be done. We rode, we walked, we sat, we rode again, we walked again, we sat again, we napped in a guy’s driveway, we got bitten by ants while napping in a guy’s driveway, we rode again. The whole day. We sat for a little while in Fiddletown early on and felt like maybe we were not confronting hell. I am not sure we were all that convincing though. Even the giant fiddle on the curious town building could only raise a small smile.
The weather was dreadful too–just too cold or too hot–impossible to get right. Arm tubes on, arm tubes off, sweat dripping down face, face cold from wind. The good news of course was that this part of California is beautiful. We were crawling out of the golden hills and heading into piney mountains and it is great. But climbing. Maybe I am not eating right? Maybe the can ditch things on the bike? Maybe it is altitude? Who knows, it is just so damned hard.
Here are the fragments of thought that pass though my mind when I am suffering up hill. “Chairs are nice. Your legs don’t move when you sit in one. Hot tubs are warm. You can rest your legs in them. How many miles is it back to San Francisco? It is mostly downhill and flat that way. That pickup truck has room for bikes. So does that one. Ooh! A van–our stuff and us can fit in there and there probably is air conditoning. That’s a nice house. If I just stopped here and never moved again, could I live there? How could I make a living? Grow olives? Run a coffeeshop? Tend to dying cyclists?” But then the ground levels out or better yet, drops, and the monologue changes. “One gear higher? Yeah I think so–good burn in the legs. Push harder–not maximizing hip swing enough. Zoom. Into the drops–get more aero, butt higher, try to rest your chin on the stem–that’s good, 40 mph is good. Jeepers the gears make a terrible noise when I drop them. It’s hot. Am I going that slow that the flies can actually keep up? That pickup truck has room for bikes.” See what happened at the end there? Every decline ends and the staircase is again before me. A sport designed for Sisyphus.
We made it most of the way when we ran against the California weather. In this case, not in a storm or something like that. Instead, it was in the form of rain a while back that had washed out part of the road we needed to take. More spirit deadening gifts from Jello Biafra–he is the governor of California–right? Some folks thought we could make it past the rain-washed road. No problem. Jump the barricades and just stick to the half of the road that is not washed out. We will recognize it when we see it–it will be the part that still looks like a road and not a landslide. Others said it was not possible to get by. Still others told a tale of a detour–one of the most distressing words in the English language. Confused and exhausted, we stopped at a quiet little store to ponder our dilemma over bottled lemonade. The owners were lovely. We were close to our goal for the day–a stealth camp somewhere that would leave only about 25 miles or so to Carson Pass where the climbing abates. But we were also tired and it showed. They offered to allow us to camp out behind the store, and I think I agreed before the sentence was finished. Then, they offered us a lift past the blocked road (a problem that I was already deferring until the next day). Again–we were yessing as soon as the offer came. Next thing you know, we had packed up the stuff into a pickup and then drove over hill and dale, until we were past the road failure and a nice parcel of miles ahead of where we planned to be. When the day was over, we were at Carson’s Pass setting up camp on the porch of the visitor station there. More angels appeared–this time in the form of a family taking in the views, fishing, and scoping out a future ride. They provided us with some water–I was melting snow to cook the pasta we bought at the store–and even gave us some ichthyic delights. A great end to an odd day that went from wanting to kill us to suddenly jumping us 20 miles ahead of our plan.