“Man, that was tough for sure…the heat just killed me and probably everyone else.” Ryan Trebon.
“Death March.” Tad Bamford.
“I went through 14 bottles Saturday and didn’t pee until 10 pm.” Geof Rogers.
“…physical sensations that I have never experienced… the temperatures on the marquees said 99 degrees. But I was shivering with cold.” Ross Karre.
“I should have sucker punched [Race organizer Slate Olsen] right then, but I didn’t know any better.” Heidi Swift.
Just over two weeks have passed since my team and I hobbled across the finish line at the 2010 Northwest Rapha Gentlemen’s Ride, but I’ve only just now regained enough fluids to be able to really face what was, for me and for many, one of the hardest rides I have ever done.
I’ve written before about my love for epic events that have more than a little ’cross in them, and this was no exception. 120 miles? In. 8,500 feet of climbing? Yes, please. 30 miles of gravel? Sign me up! In fact, combine those last two – anytime the route veered up, there wasn’t going to be an inch of pavement in site. And while all of us in attendance would have thought this enough for the ride to qualify as intense, brutal and worthy of our blood and sweat, Mother Nature felt that something was still missing. And so, as roughly 30 teams gathered in Forest Grove, Oregon, in the early morning of Saturday, August 14, she stoked the flames in the sun and prepared a 99-degree day for us to compete in.
The NW Rapha Gentlemen’s Ride began in 2008 when Rapha General Manager Slate Olsen handed out an invite-only offer to about 25 teams to compete in a six-person, unsupported, first-to-the-finish-line team TT. The rules are simple: starts are staggered at three-minute intervals by perceived team ability; no deviating from the course; pack all your own food, water, and repair gear or get it on the road; and the last rider of the team to finish stops the clock. For your trouble you get the most hard-earned t-shirt you will ever own, and the first team across the line gets to add some Rapha clothing to their wardrobe. If all six don’t make it, you’ve lost (but you still get the t-shirt). Each year, the start location, distance and route remain unknown until just over a week out – causing intense speculation among the community – but racers can always expect a minimum of 100 miles and a healthy dose of gravel.
Some teams come to win the race, some come to enjoy it, and some come to survive it. I remember last year when I did this race (attempting to accomplish the first in the list above), burying myself to hang onto the wheel of a teammate at mile 109 of 140, only to look over and see an entire team – who had left an hour ahead of us – having a picnic under the shade of a tree, sipping on cold beer. Someday, perhaps, I’ll learn, but my team and I showed up with the same goal this year as in those previous – to ride hard and take the glory, if we could.
This year’s route wove us in and out of the west hills of Portland, sadistically keeping us always within thirty-or-so miles of the city, but never quite allowing us any closer. My team, along with many, hit the first 40 miles hard, pace-lining along the beautiful forested roads at an average speed of 24mph, feeling like we were invincible. Then the gravel began.
Slate had warned us all that the roughly fifteen-mile stretch of “Pittsburgh Road” was, in his words, “gnarly,” but assured us that a road bike running 25mm Gatorskins should handle the terrain fine. Had I screwed on my ’cross brain before this ride, I would have remembered that pre-riding a course for proper tire selection is paramount to a solid ride. And had I done that, not only would I have pulled out my 35mm ’cross tires, but quite possibly my entire ’cross rig, as well. But at this time of the year I’m still rubbing off the last remnants of my roadie season, and so I – and my team, and everyone else – turned onto this ill-fated, boulder-festooned path with 23mm slicks.
What followed was carnage, pure and simple. As all our teams bounced, jounced and tumbled up and down the rockiest, most rutted excuse for a road I’ve ever put my skinnies on, I know I wasn’t the only one thinking “this would be so much fun on my ’cross bike!” But fun this was not. Pinch flat, after pinch flat, after pinch flat – sounding as if gunshots were being traded in the valley below us. A number of teams shredded tires, and every 10 meters found us looking at a new set of jerseys huddled around an upturned bike, swearing at yet another puncture. Nor were we spared. We suffered four flats within a four mile section of road, two of them – shamefully – mine. We were lucky. “We were hearing horror stories of 10 flats here, and 12 flats there,” said a member of Hup United.
We stumbled back onto the pavement, sure that the worst was behind us. And, as we rounded a bend and were greeted by Mt. Rainier, Adams, Helens and Hood all in one sweeping, cloudless veranda overlooking pristine Oregon farmland, we were able to hold on to this delusion for a just a few moments longer, and decided to pick the pace back up.
And then the sun came out to play. As we flew out of the forested hills and onto Highway 30, which traces the spine of the hills to the west and the Willamette river on the east, the temperature soared. Fully exposed, trapped in an oven, through the haze of heat currents wafting off the concrete highway, we saw a sign read 99 degrees. Our team began to disintegrate, our speed dropping from the high 20s to the low teens, and we only just managed to regain composure after hiding in an air-conditioned mini-mart and drinking gallons of Gatorade and chomping through countless bags of salty potato chips.
From there, the ride became a matter of survival – for us, and for everyone. As we crawled, slipped and stumbled up two more steep, gravel-laden climbs, we passed the shattered remnants of teams, decimated by the heat, constant punctures, and distance of the race. Long, white streaks of salt stained our jerseys, and chills began to replace sweat. One of my teammates threw up at the top of Dixie Mountain, another became so inexplicably angry that he had to go off by himself, sit in the shade and talk himself down.
In the end, only seven of the original 28 teams finished the entire race – many opted (or were forced by organizers) to cut out a twenty-mile section which included arguably the toughest climb of the day, due to its near complete sun-exposure. My team was one of the seven, and at a tortoise pace of 8 hours, 47 minutes, managed to be the fastest finishing team of the day – a feat which scored us a case of beer from each team. Worth it? Hell yes.
The after-party swayed with the gentle conversation of the exhausted, each and every rider justifiably proud of surviving the day. But, lesson learned – 30 miles of steep gravel in a 120-mile day more than warrants the use of ’cross tires and rigs. We would have had few, if any, flats, and screamed up those climbs without a single slip of the tire, sipping beer before the heat of the day and wondering what was taking everyone else so long.
The ultimate reward was handed out to each racer: a fuschia t-shirt, emblazoned with a peacock whose farm we rode by. If you see someone wearing such a shirt, give him or her a hand – it cost them dearly. Also, if you see Ryan Trebon around, give him a high-five as well – he and pro mountain bike racer Jason Sager went mano a mano, racing the whole course solo. Trebon, sadly, lost.
And as for me, I can’t wait to race for just an hour, in the cold, wet, ’cross-blessed rain.
Want more? Check out the tale of the tandems, the first team to start and the last to finish!