probably got a little long winded here. the short version for anyone who doesn’t feel like scrolling through the rest of this is: i went. i pedaled. it was hot. i mostly survived. i went home. the end.
the prologue to this gravel grinding ride happened last friday, sept. 3. the unrecommended, unexpectedly interrupted, booze cruise home from a movie in the park. mitigating factors: wine, flip-flops, unequally loaded panniers, and a false sense of security. (nothing goes wrong in a few blocks, right?) the upside? the bell volt helmet works marvelously, and probably saved me thousands of dollars and a serious head injury. (my secondary inspection of the ‘uncracked’ helmet revealed a rather large crack on the right side of my forehead.) the downside? had to use a week of my vacation time as my mild concussion/oozing face did not really have me in work appropriate form for about 5-6 days.
i’m sure we’ve all done it, but it was a wake up call for me. will continue to ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS wear my helmet, but no more drinking + biking. shit happens.
in any case, sept. 10th was my 32nd birthday, and i had been looking forward to spending it at the stampede all summer. the head and face pulled itself back together just in time for the occasion, and it was game on.
the stampede is a 60% gravel, 127 mile, 9000+ ft of climbing ride out in the deschutes river valley put on yearly by velodirt. technically, it’s a race, but i think most people were just trying to finish. i knew the last stretch involved a 10 mile descent through somewhat steep gravelly areas, and that some people were doing it last year in the dark, so my overall plan was to get an early start and avoid that situation.
i left town late friday evening with my freshly-cyclepathed cross bike and new wheels, hit the campground just before midnight, and set up camp in the dark. (sounds exactly like last weekend. must get better at leaving town at the anticipated hour…)
woke up the next morning well before the ass-crack of dawn to install a new set of gravel tires so i wouldn’t trash out my new mud tires. i neglected to ask the guys at cyclepath whether they had already done the tubeless set up when i picked it up….and learned at 530 saturday morning with a pile of white drippy latex at my feet, that yes. yes, they had. palm to forehead moment of the day.) attempted to install tube + gravel tire #1, couldn’t get the bead up over the rim, and decided that trashed out new mud tires would be better than wrestling these other suckers in the hot sun all day. left the rear tubeless set up alone, threw a tube into the front, and was good to go….
had lost a good chunk of my planned coffee drinking/breakfast time, but fortunately, my JVA neighbors at the campsite had over estimated the caloric (and fiber…) needs of their stomachs with an enormous pot of oatmeal, and set me up with a nice bowl of bob’s red mill. throw in some peanut m&ms, and all was good.
the sun was out, and when everyone started rolling out just before 7, it was already somewhat warm. the first 25 miles were probably the worst. the climbing started immediately, with no real flats or downhills to get my legs warmed up. just 3000 ft. of gradual up. up. and Up. no way was i doing this for 127 miles… the first rest stop was at 40 miles, and i was SURE there would be someone in town willing to take a $100 cash to drive my ass back to the campground. had settled into this game plan when the descent started. 10 miles of gentle descending on winding gravel roads surrounded by gorgeous views of the desert landscape of the river valley, and i forgot all about the sufferfest. on to 5 miles of paved flats, and i actually rolled into town with a smile on my face. i was making decent time, and there were quite a few folks sitting out on the front steps relaxing. all was well with the world.
ride stats at this point: 4000 ft. of climbing. 40 miles. 1 empty 3L camelbak, 2 empty water bottles. time to restock, reslather the sunscreen, and reslather the chamois butter (except i forgot to pack it. thank goodness the magic purple shorts are invincible. right.)
the sun is still out, slightly hotter, but this is okay, as the second stretch rolls through a nature preserve with trees, streams, and a little change from the gravel covered roads and hot pavement. it was *almost* like mountain biking, much to the delight of many, and to the chagrin of those who dare to bring (and were now walking) their road bikes. maintaining a decent pace with eating and drinking, and was well-hydrated enough to be a sweaty, grinning mess. one short episode of getting lost, but i backtracked and was back on the path a mile or 2 later. still smiling, still in the trees, still not back out in the hot, glaring sun. hit pavement, and a full 10 miles in the heat to realize how hot it had gotten, and slowly and tiredly made my way into tygh valley.
ride stats: 70ish miles, 5500 ft. of climbing. camelbak and bottles are again empty. morale is not quite high, but i am still smiling and imagining finishing before dark. i restock supplies, eat an icecream cookie sandwich and a big bottle of root beer, and continue on.
i had heard stories about this part from various other riders i had seen along the route to this point. ‘an optimism-crushing climb.’ ‘totally demoralizing…’ i was trying to block this info out and keep a positive mindset–how hard could it REALLY be? there weren’t any mountains in sight, and the depth of the rive r valley didn’t seem to be any worse than the west hills. the verdict? it was 4 miles, 1500ish ft, and wouldn’t not have been so bad if i hadn’t already ridden 70 miles in what was now (per report) 100 degree heat with 430pm sun hitting me in the side of the face (should have worn sunglasses…). folks started to crack on the climb, and i passed 3 guys who had gotten off to walk, and 1 that had gotten off to get a few minutes rest in the shade of a guard rail. i stopped pedalling at least 3 times to rest my head on my handlebars, and kept getting back on, mostly because i knew i wouldn’t be able to keep riding if i walked, and the next rest stop was 20 miles away.
FINALLY. at what seemed like the top of the climb, donnie, the ride organizer, was waiting at the top with a cooler full of gatorate, water, and beer for tired riders. having already learned my lesson on this one, i stuck with gatorade, but beer definitely seemed to be the beverage of choice for those just cresting the climb. i stopped and stretched. i had my head doused in water, and my bottles refilled before setting off for what i had been telling myself the entire climb was going to be a glorious descent.
i mentioned this to donnie, and he very sadly shook his head–‘it’s nothing but rollers from here to grass valley (i.e., rest stop #3). this is a rough section of road, no matter how you look at it.’ i put my head on my handlebars one last time, scrolled through the remainder of my happy thoughts, felt another wave of dizziness, and rolled on forward. appearance at this point? i am no longer sweating. my fresh water is no longer cold, and i no longer feel any relief when drinking it. i’m chewing on sour gummy candy and a power bar to give myself something to do, but i feel like ass. none of my mental tricks are working. 5 miles seems like an eternity, much less the 40 that are still to go at this point.
i convened with a group of guys who were also feeling rough. we were at the point where no matter how you do the math, we were going to hit the gravel descent in the dark. we pulled out our maps, and decided to cut out gravel sections to grass valley in favor of paved to make better time. it was no longer about ‘doing the route,’ and more about ‘making it back in 1 piece.’ i had no plans to crash my bike a second time in 2 weeks, and since i was currently riding in wavy lines on flat pavement, i had already decided that i was going to be walking any gravel downhills.
donnie passed by in his car, checking on us and other riders. on the first pass, i gave the nod that i was ok, but in the coming few miles, knew that there was no way i should be pedalling the last 30 miles out of grass valley. maybe if i knew people at the campsite that i would be able to call. maybe if i was consistantly riding with people i knew and trusted if this ride hit the fan for me. no and no. i was working on my back up plan of paying someone or taking a cab from grass valley back to the campsite when donnie passed by again to check in.
DONE. FRIED. i told him i could make it to grass valley, and even though it was only 3 miles, it was a LONG. 3. MILES. of FLAT. PAVED. ROADS. i kept wanting to pull over and just lie down on my handlebars again.
reaching the grass valley market was a high point of the day for sure. the final day tally? 99 miles, 8100 ft. of climbing, and that horrible, horrible feeling, of knowing that you really need to eat and drink something, but that the thought of both just makes you feel ill. i filled up my bottles, ordered a cheeseburger and fries to bring back to the campsite, and went outside to lie down on a picnic table. I force fed myself a powerade and the french fries, packed everything else up, and waited for my ride.
i started feeling better in the car, at least until the driver started seeming creepy. (donnie was picking up piles of riders at this point, and had started taking volunteers from people who had already dropped out and quit or had finished to help make sure no one was lying on the side of the road along the course. I had gotten a ride with one of these guys….). began with all the requisite small talk, which morphed into an awkward conversation about all the places he’s seen me around town, but how he had always imagined I was younger than 32. my gut feeling is that he was just an awkward dude, and though beggars can’t be choosers, I was really glad to arrive back at the campsite.
forget the kegs of free beer. forget the small parties happening around the fires. forget the celebratory birthday whiskey. i grabbed a hot shower, clean clothes, and curled up in my sleeping bag with a cold, mushy cheeseburger, and passed out.
the end. survived. everything else stressful in life seems pretty minor for those hours/minutes/seconds that all you REALLY need is a cold sip of water and a flat place to lie down. one of the best/awful feelings in the world. i feel a little guilty about quitting, but i imagine i would feel way worse if people i didn’t know were squandering their evening searching for my carcass on the side of the road because i didn’t know where my safety limits were.
Happy birthday to me.