Malibu to San Diego–597 Miles–70,640 feet.
Saturday morning, I haven’t spoken to my 12-year-old son in a couple weeks. I have been traveling a lot and arranging a call with his mom, my ex, has been challenging. I never know the exact day or hour that she has him call me and that is how she likes it. My ex and I don’t talk, we have spoken a hand full of times since we separated, and the divorce was over ten years ago. Let me explain that I have a good relationship with my son and I do spend summers with him; however, there are periods of time when I don’t hear from him. I don’t revel with him in celebration when he has personal victories. This is how I suffer.
Wednesday morning, I am waiting at the door for the Uber driver. This scene is routine for me. Off to another city for a week to spread the gospel of cycling’s great products. This morning is no different for me except for the fact this trip will be long (two weeks). I’m going through the checklist of items I needed to pack. I’m heading to the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey and from there I am going on a Rapha Randonnee trip.
Pedals, helmet, seven kits, protein supplement, granola, embrocation and then all of the work stuff I needed to have for the days leading up to the Randonnee. Then I have to mentally check off all the bills I paid, child support, etc. I’m also thinking about the pile of work items that will have to be dealt with while I’m traveling and one last biggie. Taxes are due today and I have to file an extension, this is how I suffer.
Monday morning in Malibu, our group is about to embark on a six day ride with an average of 100 miles a day and over 70,000 feet of climbing. There’s going to be sunshine and there’s going to be an unexpected snowstorm on the third day, we will encounter a ten-mile descent in freezing rain on the start of the fourth day. On the fifth day it rains the entire day. During one of the days I can’t keep my bike from wobbling because of the tremors I am having from being so cold. On another day, five hours into the ride we head into the Angeles forest climbing Big Tujunga Canyon and we run out of water with ten more miles before the next promised water stop, but my body and my mind are working like a machine, I’ve shut off the suffer mechanism.
The suffer mechanism is shut off on Sunday the night before the start of the Randonnee and I’m not alone, the eleven participants, my coequipers are successful professionals, some married with children and all of them have tremendous responsibility they put on hold for this week. Jaime tells me, “I’m answering the phone while I ride, if I don’t they won’t let me leave again.” As for me, I’m not answering the phone, at least while I ride. I don’t want to suffer on this ride. Brad Sauber, the man who directs Rapha Travel, tells me, “this is not an easy ride, it’s purposefully a daunting ride, some will have to get in the van and some grown men will cry because they feel they have failed. But when the ride is over and they’ve had a few days to reflect, they will want to come back.” People go on Rapha trips to leave the everyday suffrage behind for a week. As a reminder of this departure, the support vehicle has a vanity plate that reads “SUFFER,” in other words, should you choose to get into the vehicle and off the bicycle, you will suffer.
I have always been the Lone Ranger when it comes to cycling. Not to say riding in a group is not fun; however, taking solo flight is much more of a spiritual journey, more like an exercise in quelling the noisiness of everyday life and the quotidian tasks. Encouragement and motivation are what can make a great cyclist, but most of us do not have the luxury of encouragement or support. Someone who makes sure your water bottles are full of energy replacement fluids. Someone who just washes the kit you wore yesterday and folds it neatly, your arm warmers and matched and so are your socks. Someone who stays up late making nutritional rice snacks for the eight-hour plus ride. Someone who will hand you a towel the moment you step off your bike so that you can wipe clean the day’s effort from your visage. For most of us our greatest motivation is our survival instinct, surviving a mundane work schedule, escaping the suffrage of middle age weight gain, for most cyclists a long ride will reset the clock, reboot the hard drive, it’s the life line when you’re sinking in the suffocating depths of work and life.
For me a big cup of motivation comes in the form of steaming hot coffee and without the routine of preparation and imbibing, swinging a leg over the saddle is not possible. There are days when no amount of coffee or motivation will suffice. Preparing with the right clothing and knowing that there is a delicious meal or a frosty adult beverage awaiting my arrival can sometimes be the motivation needed. Also knowing that along the way I have the support of a team car or a tour bus to snatch me up when things go horribly wrong. It’s a recurring fear from which I suffer—the cold cold rain is soaking through my layers, my body tremors, convulses as I am descending at speed and the bike is wobbling out of control, I struggle to grip the brakes hard enough to slow the bike and worse is how the riders ahead grow smaller and disappear from sight. The only solace is knowing that I have the support of a car there to offer the question that I am too afraid to utter myself, do I stop? Do I relinquish? Do I surrender? Will I suffer humiliation? One Facebook post I wrote while on tour with Rapha read, “The van is crowded with rain-soaked, abandoned riders.” someone commented. “It’s not the Rapha way.” Though it is the way to map out the toughest course, start the ride regardless of the conditions and endure the distance. What do you give someone who has everything and has won the praise of his peers in the work place? You give them an insurmountable challenge with a chance of failure, that’s the Rapha Way. How much challenge is too much? I don’t think Rapha has answered that question, or at least they’re not willing to say that it went too far, people couldn’t make it or that they failed to deliver. Rapha does offer a concierge service for the stageur. Twenty-four-seven support on hand so that riding beyond your limit is possible and as Sauber suggested, we’re there to “support, protect and encourage.”
Leading luxury cycling trips ten years ago in France was a different state of affairs for me. The role of the leader was to make sure everyone rode at his or her ability level, were comfortable and happy. The role of Ben Leiberson, our Rapha Tour Leader, was more of the GC guy, he understands his team and all his or her strengths. Leiberson also has the hard-man quality and ability to ride through the storm showing little sign of weakness. I kept comparing my abilities as a strong rider, someone who can go the distance, but when the shit hit the fan I was one of the first to get into the van. For the record it was day five and I knew that we’d be riding a hundred miles the next day; there’s always more riding to do on these trips. In fact, if you feel that the rides aren’t long enough or hard enough, you might want to consider trying your hand at classics racing on some world tour team—maybe you missed your calling.
My calling, I thought, was to be le grimpeur, though I feel as though I have been banished to a climber’s purgatory, an inability to climb with the best, to falter on the final steeps of the climb. It’s this deep yearning hunger to climb higher, steeper, more difficult ascents. So far there has not been a mountain too high or too steep. There have been, however, many riders who have squashed my hopes of a KOM. When I was living in the Pyrenees, Pau, the village that sits at the base of the epic climbs of the Tour, Tourmalet, Aspin, Marie Blanc, to name a few, I was younger, lighter (145 lbs.—20 lbs. lighter than I am now and 20 years older) outclimbing the best was not a problem, though less experienced and unable to ride smart. Fast forward 20 years and I have a pound to offset each year of experience.
Many of the cyclists on this Rapha Randonnee are the same as me; they are chasing their youth, trying to capture a youth-filled victory. Jaime, my Colombian friend and riding partner on this trip tells me he is preparing for a trip in June when he will travel to Switzerland to ride with his friends. This same trip last year proved unsuccessful for Jaime; his preparation wasn’t ample and he got dropped. However, this year Jaime has been training hard and during the day that we climb Mt. Baldy, he rides away from me, ascending into the fog like a hawk, effortless, and before too long he would be descending back down the mountain, before I reach the summit myself, descending on his prey, devouring my ego as if it were a small field mouse. This trip proved to have loads of climbing, as much as 17,000 feet of climbing on one day, and averaging 9,000 feet most days. Not unlike most of the accidental tourists on this trip, I was left wanting, to climb more, ride more, feel stronger. When a cyclist embarks on a weeklong tour, each day the rider grows stronger, more confident and can endure longer distances. I start to think about those long training days in Pau again, when I was just 18 and it didn’t matter when I left for the ride or when I was returning. All I needed to do each day was ride and ride and ride.
Clinging to the memories of this ride will be my base fitness for the year, both my physical fitness but also my mental fitness. I will be able to go much longer without suffering. Most of the guys are already planning their next Rapha Randonnee in as little as three months from now. For some, completion of these six hundred miles means a patch they can sew on a bag, store in their office desk, frame it and or mentally check off the list of accomplishments like getting an MBA, becoming a medical doctor, making the first million. Some are counting on the next trip as their lifeline, the reason to work their ass off for the next while. As for me, it’s like an addiction.
Growing up in Seattle and spending time at the OK Hotel, I can still hear the songs of Alice In Chains played at ear shattering volume, so clearly sung, “What’s my drug of choice? What have you got?” For me it’s just one ride, then another and another, my addiction involves self-induced pain and exhaustion followed by euphoria and then depression. Addiction is about the comforting routine, the process of acquiring the drug, the anticipation, the moment you partake and the high you feel when you’re doing it. Everyone along for the Randonnee are addicts like me, only I am the Junkhead hanging out on the street corner, unable to control the yearning, broke and broken. I will have to settle for gran fondos and group rides, stringing together familiar rides, Mount Soledad, PCH to Pendleton, Great Western Loop, Palomar Mountain, Swamis, repeat. For those of you reading this, you’re most likely in control of your addiction and limit yourself to a binge session once or twice a year or you may be like Doctor Ray who was on the Randonnee, a specialist in his field and a remarkable cyclist, who can only go a couple months without a fix. You may also get off from the anticipation of the ride and the group atmosphere; there is a rush in showing up for the circus of a Randonnee, knowing that failure is imminent. Watching the traveling road show is exhilarating. Everyone wanted to join the circus when they were young, to race in Europe, but not many got the chance. If you are like me and need to escape your own reality, then you will need to sign up for a Randonnee so you can turn off the suffer machine.
Images: Max Houtzager, Terasu