As we rounded the turn my tires slid on the combination of soft soil and fallen leaves. I steered into the slide, held my breath for a moment and then got on the pedals. The rush that sent voltage through me was composed of one third “holy cow, don’t fall now!”, and two thirds “hell yeah!”
I’ve long maintained that there’s little as cool, skills-wise, as a two-wheel drift. Sure, a backflip beats this like the Oakland A’s taking on a little league team, but among those things that we mortals might undertake—either accidentally or deliberately—sliding around on just two wheels is Steve McQueen-level badass. To make the experience all the more amazing, I was tight on the wheel of my friend Jeremiah, a guy who can dust me on a descent with the dismissive air of a high school girlfriend on to her next letterman.
Dude in the black/red/blue ahead of me was on a single-speed Caletti. SMH.
And then I had the strangest thought.
I wish he’d go faster.
Dirk is a mountain biking buddy of ours who provides support on the ‘Hoppers. He saved my beans one day last year.
I have no idea where such an idea came from. It’s not like we weren’t going fast. We were but two riders in a line of at least half a dozen riders total. The fire road we were on was too twisty for me to see more than two riders ahead of Jeremiah, and I could only hear two riders behind me. Looking back, on terrain this varied, wasn’t something I considered.
We rounded another bend and then the sound of brakes. A line of riders. A slow procession. You’d think we were lining up to shake hands with the bride and groom. Just to my right I could see down to Austin Creek and the hip-deep water moving quickly. Hip-deep water riders were slowly making their way across with bikes held high—none of that elegant cyclocross shouldering, not with two bottles in the front triangle. One by one we worked our way back upstream a couple of yards to a spot where the water was merely hip deep, not chest deep. It turns out a 32-inch inseam was just enough to emerge with a dry chamois. Moments before stepping in I joked that my legs wouldn’t be muddy anymore. Silly me.
Drew, Noah and Jeremiah (l-r) are three of the ultra-strong community who have welcomed me.
On the far side there were riders standing around, doing something. I think some of them were emptying the sand and rocks from their shoes—and one woman later told me she brought spare socks in a baggy—but I never really took the time to look around and figure out what was going on. Jeremiah and I walked our bikes back to the road, mounted up and I—I realized I was still in my big ring.
On paper, Old Caz doesn’t look crazy. It was 52 miles and 4400 feet of climbing about 50 percent dirt or pavement so awful it didn’t deserve to be called pavement. You’d think three hours is no biggie. I killed myself to still not break four hours. And this is the event that makes me view any gravel bike that can’t accept a tire bigger than 33mm as not much of a gravel bike. I saw at least four or five dozen riders on the side of the road with flats through the day. And mine was a mid-pack finish. Who knows how many more flats there were behind me? And amazingly, at least two dozen of those flats came on the opening descent of Willow Creek which is the gentlest of the three descents, both in grade and rock content.
I ran 40mm Panaracer GravelKing SKs tubeless for the second year in a row and was entirely pleased with them. They paid big dividends in helping me push through muddy ruts and any time I tagged the lip of a water-filled pothole. I ran the front at 38 psi and the rear at 40 psi and if that wasn’t perfect, it was close.
As we braked to a stop, nearly all of us yelled, “Totally rideable.”
Over the course of the day I had one song stuck in my head, an earworm of XTC’s “This World Over” from the album Big Express. It’s a song with a terrific melody and impassioned singing from Andy Partridge, but I’d never bothered to read the lyrics, with a message apropos to our time. The thing is I couldn’t put the whole song together in my head; I’d get snatches like:
Will you tell them about that far off and mythical land
About their leader with the famous face?
Will you tell them that the reason nothing ever grows
In the garden anymore
Because he wanted to win the craziest race
Rock Lobster’s Yan Mei seemed to turn up, riding strong, every time I wanted to pass out.
I mention that song not for the lyrics but as a symbol of my understanding of that course. But yes, also for the lyrics because it makes me wonder what unconscious process caused me to select that song in the middle of a bike race, a song I’d been listening to for 30 years, yet I hadn’t read the lyrics since record stores were still a thing.
My brain checks out for long stretches. There’s no me. Just the pedals, my hands on the bar, my ass in the saddle. I wouldn’t be able to place the rest stop before the drop to Austin Creek were it not for the fact that the rest stop was where Jeremiah and I met up again after getting separated somewhere in the first mile. It felt like I’d seen him 15 minutes ago, but it had to be more like two hours.
I can’t remember how I got into Cazadero. I wasn’t there.
Miguel Crawford gives last-minute instructions to volunteers. His is a binder full of genius.
It’s an odd testament, but that’s what I love about this event, why it’s my favorite drop-bar event I’ve ever done. In a road race or a crit, I was always thinking. About positioning, about where my teammates were, about who was attacking, about how I didn’t want to go down.
Local women’s team Hella Mello was out in force; this is about half of them.
At Old Caz, there were plenty of riders around me, but I didn’t talk a lot. I recall saying to one of the members of a quartet from the Roaring Mouse team, “Come on, I’ll take my pulls,” as I made my way to the front of a group hoping to make it across to yet another group up the road. But that’s the thing about this event. It tests my ability to descend. It tests my fitness. It tests how well I fuel myself. It even tests my ability to put up with discomfort.
I was in there, somewhere, the whole time, but even on the final climb, back up Willow Creek, there was only ever once question in my head: can I go harder? I passed people and was passed by other people. I kept no count. The only question was my effort, and of what I was capable.
Finished. Image courtesy Noah McBride.
And somehow in that absence of me, I learned something new about myself.
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