Moments after riding up from the trail and rejoining the pavement, I could see the pop-up tent at the edge of the biker bar’s parking lot. The cool wind of relief washed over me. Checkpoint Four. I was assured I’d finish.
“You need to take your socks off.”
“You need to take your socks off before we’ll punch your card.”
This wasn’t a metaphor for what the ride was busily doing to me. I needed a hole punched in my rider card at each of the four major sag stops to be counted as a finisher. It was partly to make sure everyone was taking care of themselves, but partly to ensure that no one tried to cut the course, and while the Rock Cobbler’s course was a tangle of road, jeep road and singletrack, making course-cutting possible, in practice, if you deviated from the established course, unless your phone number began with 661, there was no way you were going to fake this thing. But why the hell did they want my socks?
“Why do you need my socks?! I don’t really see me riding without my socks.”
“We don’t want your socks. You just have to take them off.”
“I don’t think I’ll be doing that.”
“That’s fine. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. But if you want your card punched, you gotta take your socks off. You can put them right back on. Sam just wants to mess with you a bit.”
Sam would be Sam Ames, the organizer, the guy who dreamt up the Rock Cobbler, the sadist who went out of his way to concoct the hardest event he could devise. I’d been nervous about Checkpoint Four, but for all the wrong reasons. I’ll get to that.
“Oh … well, in that case.” Whereupon our protagonist sits down in the camp chair and asks, “Can I do them one at a time?”
I got that first sock off and when that dry, high-70s breeze hit my piggies, the feeling was luscious. Eddies of air swirled up under and between my toes and for a moment I pictured myself beside a swimming pool, ready to jump in. I had to admit it was a pretty genius requirement. Then one of the guys manning the checkpoint told me that last year the organizer had required everyone do some pushups somewhere on the course in order to get their cards punched. That was decidedly less attractive.
I’d been thinking for the last two hours, maybe longer, that it would be really nice to have a chance to dump all the sand out of my shoes. The only rides in my life that have ever seen more sand enter in my shoes were ones in which my feet got wet—stream crossings. So I brushed out my toes a bit, downed a Coke and then worried my socks back up my damp feet.
If I hadn’t been wearing my helmet, I might have taken a moment to shake the sand and dirt out of my hair. And to scratch my head in disbelief. I probably needed that even more. I heard about the Rock Cobbler from a buddy who did it last year and I felt like I’d missed something epic, like if the Beatles had reunited in the 1970s. In big strokes, the Rock Cobbler is a 100-mile mix of dirt and pavement in roughly equal measure but complicated by 7000 feet of climbing. The event starts and finishes in Bakersfield, California, and your reaction was no different that anyone else’s: Bakersfield? Really?
When I talk about organized events and races with friends, the conversation inevitably turns to just what you get out of the experience. What someone gets from doing a fondo is decidedly other than the draw of a crit, right? I’ve heard multiple times in our comments here that people would rather do Levi’s GranFondo on their own, not pay the hundred-plus bucks and have the road to themselves. Honestly, with Levi’s, while getting enough water might be tough, navigationally, it’s no harder than driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. However, with the Rock Cobbler, navigating this thing on your own without some sort of flip chart with photos of each turn? Not remotely possible. I’d rather rebuild the transmission in my Subaru than try to do that course without all the signs, cones and course marshals.
I struggled with two turns—exactly two—and got no further than 100 feet from the correct course before being helped back in the direction I was meant to head. Given some of the opportunities for mistakes there could have been, if the signage had been cut by half there would be riders in Tehachapi right now sucking moisture from cacti and wondering when the climbing would end.
A fine start
We rolled from Lengthwise Brewery in Bakersfield a few minutes after 8:00. There’d been a mandatory rider’s meeting in which Sam explained the course, reiterated the rules, like how you had to be to Checkpoint Four by 4:00 pm, otherwise you’d be marked “AMF”—Almost Finished. They’d shuttle you back to the start rather than have you riding through washes after dark. And if you made an ass of yourself by running a light or stop sign (there were precious few of those), your number would be removed and you’d be disqualified, what with the event being run on open roads. Could the idea behind the event have been any more straightforward? I don’t see how.
We rolled north and then northeast on bike path that paralleled the Kern River, out of Bakersfield and into the oil fields of Oildale. The air was clear and the temperature was gradually ascending through the 60s. Once we hit our first dirt the climbing began, a sort of two-for-one bargain, if you will. There’d been rain the day before so tire selection and pressure had been big topics of conversation for at least a few of us. I’d elected to go with a 35mm Continental tire and run 55 psi front and rear. I knew the road sections would be fast, but I was also concerned about how much of the course would be hard pack glazed with loose sand. That turned out to be the case for more than 75 percent of the unpaved portion of the course.
The first truly steep ramp we hit, which I estimate to have been in egregious excess of 30 percent caused most riders to walk. I made my way up slowly until a smaller woman in G2 jersey sprinted ahead of me, hit her brakes and swung her leg over to dismount. The lugs on her right shoe weren’t terribly worn. I know this because they passed mere inches from my nose. Somehow, I made it around her and reached the top without dabbing. Of course, I was so gassed that I soft pedaled the next 100 meters. It still gave me a gap on the walkers, but that was the last time I’d have the juice to gut out an ultra-steep ramp like that. I’d encounter at least three more over the course of the day.