Prologue: Sixtyish mile mark, time unknown
A crunch of gravel, the sharp ting of small stones against bike underbellies, projectile vomited there by irritated and belligerent tires. Bottles rattle in cages. Skeletons vibrate like tuning forks in our soft, beaten bodies. In the key of E-ouch.
“Hey,” I say, looking over at Olivia as she pedals smooth, steady circles, piloting her Crux across the gravel. “Have you ever seen those old ads for the fat loss belt thingie that vibrates your fat away?”
Instantly, she knows what I’m talking about and laughs.
“How much weight do you think we’ve lost so far today?’
It’s a fair question.
This road, man. This road is a lesson in jello-on-a-plate physics.
The tops of our arms are heavy keys on a jailer’s chain, sharp-edge jangling their way across this Idaho moonscape. The washboard road, corrugated and intense, is holding court. It’s taken to the stand and is now doing its level best to school us in the law of the land. To impress upon us—or more specifically our tender derrières—that to come out here is an invitation to be judged. On ability. On perseverance. On good humor.
Good humor. Isn’t that an ice cream? Mmmm…. Ice cream.
We have alternated, Olive and I, between good humor and a dark silence. During this silence, we simply grind on in a kind of intense pissed-off-edness that radiates out in a cloud of ‘don’t talk to me right now’ vapor.
It wasn’t always this way.
No, there was a time earlier, much, much earlier, when we weren’t riding together at all.
Part 1, the first: THE HONEY BADGER RULES
Time check: 7-ish mile, time unknown
As we reach the timing mat at the bottom of the first real climb of the day, I evoke Honey Badger rules. They’re very simple: on a Honey Badger ride, all participants ride together, EXCEPT for the climbs. Climbs are go as hard as you like, but with a regroup at the top. NO judgments, and NO complaining about the waiting. You know why? Because, as you well know, the Honey Badger don’t give a shit.
Olivia agrees to this rule, and over the next few minutes I mournfully watch as she pulls, ever convincingly, away. The Trail Creek KQOM climb segment hath begun.
I feel dreadful. Have right from the start line, actually. Legs, wetsuit-tight and painful. Lungs with a whiskey-air afterburn. I’d held on for a while, rolling along on those pre-gravel miles, trying to will my legs to wake up, to work. Nothing. Sucked dry at the start of a 100 miler. Slabs of useless meat.
A small roller and backwards I went. Not sure if the pace picked up, or I just daydreamed for a second and lost it, but whatever happened the elastic stretched. And stretched. And snapped. Minutes later, I looked up and watched the peloton arc around a far-away bend, wheeling to the left like a mob of sheep being worked by some invisible dog.
Olivia had stayed with me, and we were not alone in this peanut-shelled procession. I felt helpless and wracked with guilt, thinking I was destined to wreck this ride for her. Wreck it when she looked fit and spry, and filled with youthful vim. That’s when I evoked the Honey Badger as a pre-emptive strike. Something that released her from the bonds of me. It would be good for me to be left alone anyway, to work through this weirdness by myself.
I always have terrible starts. It seems to take 2 or 3 hours for me to warm up to stuff like this and then, then I can be a diesel. But fields rarely have time to wait for my engine to kick in—and by rarely, I mean never—so my only choice in this moment is to grind on. That’s the only way. Grind. On. Trust that I’ll hit the zone where my brain switches off, and I stop thinking about pain and myself and where I am, and just ride in a sort of thought-free, delightful numb dumbness.
Victor. Victor pulls up beside me and says hey. Victor, who’d such high hopes for the day, explains he’d hit a pothole just out of town and ‘bang!’ a flat. I’d seen him pull off from the group (back in the day when I was still with it), and now here he was beside me. Itching to catch up to everyone else. He looks strong, I think. I feel weak. After a few words of encouragement to me, he powers away.
I grind on. Helpless. The paved road finally turns to gravel. Ah. Now, now it begins.
Part 1, the second: THROW GRANDMA FROM THE TRAIN
Time check: I’m guessing it’s about mile 10
I am being passed. And passed. And passed. People spin by me in effortless mountain gears on effortless mountain steeds. Most say ‘hey’ in a very friendly way. I say ‘hey’ back but I’m very angry. With myself and, if I’m being truthful, with them. They’ve done nothing to deserve this silent scorn. I have a terrible attitude and the fact that I’m angry makes me even angrier. I frown and furrow my brow.
Some of the folks passing me are attempting to get their best time for the first QOM/KOM segment of the day. I am not interested, having already NAILED the Queen of Seethe segment. I own that. I have put it on the mantle in the living room of my shame cave. Behold its majesty.
A woman passes on a mountain bike, cranks spinning in a jolly cadence. She’s extremely cheerful.
“You’re doing great!” she says, and instead of saying something positive back as she pulls away, I say:
“Yeah, not really.”
And then I hate myself for saying that. Despise myself. She’s not the first woman to pass me and say something like that—goddamn women and their awesome positivity! Where the hell is mine?!
A short time later, a group of five or so people, also on mountain bikes, pass me and I feel pathetic. Absolutely pathetic. I stew for a bit. One more guy passes me and I just snap. My brain grabs the shitty attitude part of itself, scrunches it up into a little ball of pink matter, and lobs it, Harlem Globetrotter-style over the sharp edge of the Trail Creek climb.
Immediately after that, I do the only other thing I can think of.
I get the hell out of my granny gear.
That guy who just passed? I refuse to let him, and the five people on mountain bikes who’d passed earlier, put any more distance between us. Admittedly, I don’t pull back any of the distance either, but let’s not focus on the small picture here.
Big picture. Digging in. I AM DIGGING IN! I have flung open the cupboard of courage and selected a saucy little canister of ‘pull your shit together’ and paired it with a flagon of ‘let’s crush this climb’ cabernet.
On. Up. Grind.
A strange thing happens.
I start to feel better.
I get the job done.
Part 2: HOW D’YOU LIKE MY WASHBOARD ABS?
Time check: 9:45, 15 minutes before cutoff for first checkpoint
When riding bicycles, just as in life, for every up there is a down. I roll through the first checkpoint and don’t stop. Olivia joins me, having been patiently waiting and abiding by the law of the Honey Badger, and we begin the descent together.
Oh boy, do I feel better. Something has clicked, and not just in attitude. The energy is coming back. I am fast becoming the old, reliable, plod on at one-speed me. Olivia—little Olive—is right there with me and we hit the bottom and strike out into the unknown.
The road at this point is only sporadically littered with corrugated sections. A lot of smooth dirt and we power on in confident rhythm. I completely ride myself out of the funk, pulling for a while, then sitting off Olive’s wheel as she takes a turn. We are motoring now. We are turning the heads of our imaginary audience with our impressive display of pure awesomeness.
We chat in high, spirited voices. Laugh like loons. Reba! We see the Queen herself, on the side of the road helping someone with a flat, and shortly after she rolls by. I’m in the process of taking a photo of Olivia, framed by the trees, mountains and open road—she is free, gravelly and radical.
“Photo op!” says Reba, as she rolls through, and we laugh our crazy laughs. I snag a picture of her fast-accelerating form. Goodbye Reba! I’m so glad you didn’t see me when I was folding like a cheap tent back there. To have been seen would’ve crushed me like a grape. The wine that would’ve oozed from me would’ve been sour and sad. But that was then. This is now.
Now, we are fast and fun. Our matching pink bikes are eating up the gravel and kicking up dust. Rocks fly from our tires like cookie crumbs from Cookie Monster’s mouth. There is nothing ahead but the rim of mountains and the blue smoky sky, a haze that is probably a little bit to blame for the sting in my throat and the burn in my nostrils.
After a spell, we turn right. A guy waves us that way. It is a trap.
Welcome to washboard alley!
The shudder and jar as we work through the next section—picking our way left to right, from shoulder to shoulder—is a fine lesson in line selection and patience. We wheel, we bump, we roll. Onward, and ever so convincingly upward.
Water and a few snacks make their way into our possession at the second checkpoint, and we watch as the Small Potato riders turn and head off on their 60 mile route. Olive and I are down for the Big Fry, so we roll out of the stop and up a small rise to continue on, toward our unknown destiny. Rolling, rolling. On wide roads with the occasional fast-passing car to keep us frosty.
Dead hares and open prairie. This is a big landscape, with room to breathe and suck it all in. The carpet is laid out before us. Brush, rock, shy mountains, and sky.
Washboard. Corrugated. Doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s demoralizing. It comes and it goes. But mostly just comes. Shudder, shudder. Rattle of bones. On and on and on. Cars pass us, barumping over it like it’s barely there, showering us in a cloud of ‘haha, you suckers’.
We plow on.
At checkpoint three, we see Reba again, chatting to people as they fill bottles and eat their Idaho potatoes. She’s mingling and smiling and it’s so great to see her hanging out with as many people as she can. I can only imagine what a relief it is to see this going off as she dreamed it.
I snag some gels and snack bars and once again, Olivia and I head out, finally on the ‘lollipop’ part of the course. We’ll loop around and come right on back to this checkpoint to eat and restock before pushing homeward.
If nothing else, we’re setting a good pace and rhythm between the two of us. All the agony I felt on that first climb is long gone. Now, it’s just all business. Olivia leads, then I. We swap positions over and over, the one in front entrusted with picking the best line through the minefield of corrugations and rock. Occasionally, we come across another rider and pass with a quick glance and an occasional ‘hey’. At other times, we’re the ones being ‘hey’ed at. Here, someone taking a photo of the view, there, two guys fixing a flat.
A lady on a gator, dusty-legged and throttling, passes us and yells out how we’re totally crushing the boys behind us. She powers off. I don’t think we’re really crushing anyone. We’re just riding. A bit later we come across her again, stopped by the side of the road, and politely wave as we go by. A short and steep little start to a climb hits us. Its corduroy surface is rutted and rude, and we both inch our bikes away from it—well, we attempt to. Gator lady chooses this moment to ride up beside us, slow down and make a joke, all the while pushing us directly into the worst of it, at the worst possible ‘I need more traction’ moment.
Her joke is typical of vehicularly entrapped people:
“I can give you a tow if you like!”
She has no idea how much we both hate her in that moment.
Climbing on, we watch as her dust, and the dust of all the gators that are continually buzzing past us, slowly rises up into the already hazy air. Midway up the climb, with Olivia pulling away, I can’t help myself and stop to photograph the vista to my left. Try to imagine what this must look like on a clear day, without the smoke interference.
When I catch up with Olivia, we begin a glorious downhill section where, despite the abundance of washboard that shakes our vision like we’re insignificant snowglobes, we just crush it. A rare touch of the brakes from time to time, but mostly just roll.
I feel like my bike has a motor, it’s so effortless.
The vibrations actually become quite soothing as I stand to spread my weight. My hands are in the drops but I’ve perfected the act of actually not holding on that tightly, so the experience is more a pseudo-massage on the already jangled nerves of my left hand. (Sadly, still in the de-tingling stage of ulnar nerve compression recovery from a particularly intense 100 Miles of Nowhere assault this past June).
It feels surprisingly good. And also unsurprisingly awful. But in a very good way.
Olivia has just about had her fill of this, and she tells me in a pretty blunt fashion. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. We laugh and giggle at random stuff, and groan and swear almost in unison at times at the ridiculousness of the road. But spirit is everything at the moment, and although these bursts of frustration launch from our mouths, like pigeons startled off a ledge, we’re keeping each other going.
After re-visiting the third checkpoint, at the end of the lollipop, we strike out fast toward the next checkpoint, hit that, then strike out toward the final one in quick fashion. We know, we just know and remember, that between us and that next checkpoint is a turn that signifies the start of some of the smoother dirt we rode in on, and we just CAN’T WAIT to get back to that.
In my mind, we’re already there.
Our bodies and bikes quickly hip us to the what’s what: “You ladies are nowhere near that turn. Get through this, and maybe we’ll talk.”
The search begins in earnest. Find the best line; identify the smoothest strip of gravel, the least burpy surface. It is a concentration constant, and one that is as mentally exhausting as it is physical. I shower the road with a blanket of expletives that bounce off the gravel and back up into the air above us. I don’t care who hears it. I don’t give a Honey Badger.
Finally, the turn. A whoop and a holler and a wave. Elation rolls over us and we turn. We turn. We turn.
Part 3: AND THE WIND CRIED LOLZ
Time check: How the hell would I know? You think I’m looking at a watch?!
Headwind. Dammit! This is supposed to be the reprieve, where we can shimmy-shake hustle and make up time. Instead, I’m so crushed by this headwind development, I fall back into my funk swamp.
It hits me hard. Words form at the back of my throat only to die in my mouth. I don’t have the energy for it. Olivia senses the sudden RIP of my speech and, after offering to shelter me until I feel better, says nothing more for a while. We change direction slightly and her tiny body offers no protection at all in the crosswind. I try echelon it a little to the left of her rear wheel. I do appreciate the gesture, but am pretty rudely silent with it.
It’s pointless, so I pull up beside her and we do what people do in this situation.
We ride. We just…ride.
A short time later, when I’m somewhat recovered, Olivia and I are chatting—doing math actually, trying to determine how far to the next checkpoint—when we sense a guy behind us. I glance back and he asks if we mind if he sits in.
“Sure!” says Olivia, and I am astounded at how cheerful she sounds. I glance back at him again, ever so briefly. He looks kinda wrecked.
We keep chatting, Olive and I, riding amicably side-by-side as he takes the gift of Olivia’s draft behind us. Two more gents join in the procession soon after, and Olivia and I pull this rag-tag bunch along for a while. A long while, actually.
“Wanna pull off?” I ask, and Olivia and I announce our intentions and drop back.
“Thanks for the pull,” says one guy as they come through. This lasts all of about 15 seconds, I swear it was that short, and then they just… disperse. All three spread across the road like scattered dandelion to the wind. Two guys conversing side-by-side, the third… I’m not sure what’s going on with him.
I’m momentarily confused, and for some inexplicable reason, slow just as we reach a small rise. An unceremonious shelling occurs. They pull away, all rag-tag.
Now, just Olive and me.
“What happened there?”
“I don’t know,” says Olivia. “They just broke apart.”
I guess it doesn’t really matter, as I don’t have the energy to keep up with a group on anything resembling a climb right now, anyway. Rock with wheels on a climb, that’s me.
We go back to counting. Doing the math. How far to the top of the climb that’s up ahead? Olivia works it out, and we keep counting it down. We are close. Bending our minds to it, we power on. Finally, it stretches up before us and I attack it in slow motion. Bah, slow motion, fast motion. What does it matter as long as you get to the top?
Part 4: THE BRIDE WORE BROWN
Time check: 82 miles in or so
Standing at the snack table of the final rest stop I discover a glorious secret.
There. Do you see it?
It’s a giant jar of Nutella, worked over by the heat and the sun to become a dribbly container of molten awesome. I cannot form a coherent sentence, partly due to tiredness, but also excitement at having seen it.
I point. Blabber. Practically jump from foot-to-foot with giddy joy.
“What? What?!” says Olivia, scanning the table, then seeing my glaze-eyed delight as I pick up the jar and extract the knife from it.
“What can I put it on?”
In my mind, I’m screaming these words in a desperate intensity, but my voice is actually coming out at a reasonable volume.
She scans the detritus on the table and proudly pulls a packet of Graham crackers from what I consider to be thin air, handing me one with glee. I ladle that brown, and precious liquid onto it, as though fixing cracks in tile with putty.
I break it in half and pass a square to Olive. Nutella glistens on my glove and I care not a jot about the sweat or the dirt or the grime on the heel of my hand. I lick it. I LICK IT ALL OFF the material! It is the most amazing thing ever.
Silence. Chewing. Every bite and a little tail of Nutella falls off the edge of the cracker. And then finally, no more bites to speak of.
Fueled and filled with a new sense of impending joy, knowing this is the descent, and that right here below us, just a few more rolly sections and we’ll be zooming over that finish mat and into the arms of a… hopefully chocolate milkshake.
Definitely a shower.
These greyhounds have spied the rabbit! They’re leaping off this line in hot pursuit.
I roll off first, then Olive soon behind. We drop down from the crowded trees and burst into the open of the Trail Creek descent and catch a sudden glimpse of the view before us. It drops off, deep down to my right and I scan ahead to see the road carved into the side of the mountain, curled snug to its bosom and heading on down the valley. I screech to a halt as Olivia continues on down, down, and out of sight.
The GoPro, patiently hanging from my bars, is kicked into a final burst of battery-draining action and I push off and pin it downward.
Boy howdy, that’s quite a drop-off. Since the smoothest part looks to be right on the edge of the road, I’m given quite the eyeful down this mountain’s blouse. I jump from smooth to rough, corrugate to rut. At times, the shudder is brain-dinging, so I bribe my way from smooth over rough to smooth again, kicking up a fine powder of dust. All the while my heart cries ‘wheeeeeeee!’ and my organs cry poor as I locomotive my way down.
A sudden, odd sound and my water bottle flies out and rock-clatters to the ground at speed. I’m tempted to leave it there, but realize I don’t have a lot of water, opting to fill only one bottle at that last rest stop. Rolling to a halt, I look back up at it, dead on the road. Sigh. I’ll have to turn around. Bugger.
“Do you want me to bring it to you?”
The angel that yells this out to me must’ve seen the dread-look on my face at the thought of having to go back up there to get it, and doesn’t even wait for my answer before scooping it up and freewheeling down to me.
“Oh, thank you, Sir!” I say, and tell him he’s a saint or a gentleman or a prince among men or some such thing, and I mean it. Grateful is just a word, but at times like this it is the sun, the stars, the honest Nutella on a crisp, truth cracker.
A fat bike rolls by. I swear, this is the 5th or 6th time I have seen this guy—it’s hard to miss a fat bike with aero bars. Admittedly, many of those times I’ve jealously eyed the enormous tires and wondered what his ride has been like on the washboard. Is it comfy and cush?
Rolling on for a while, I decide to turn off the camera and save a bit of juice for the finish. Twenty seconds later, I completely kick myself as I roll up on a wedding party, bridesmaids holding the white train of the bridge as she delicately makes her way back to the car. Her dress has a dirt tail, but the whole party seems giggly and happy. I wish I’d caught that on film.
Side-to-side, a flurry of stones, a jangle of arm fat and forearm flesh. It happens suddenly, I am off the dirt and onto pavement and it’s instant bliss. This, I know how to do. It’s fast and insanely fun, and when compared to the previous surface is smooth as a cue ball. I tuck in. Roll. The smile is broad and planet-sized.
Olivia is waiting in the shade of a tree and we roll on back to town together. The pace is high and steady. There is a sense of the end, the glorious, delicious end. I talk to myself about the things I’m going to eat, the glory of the shower I’m going to take, and the beer I will drink, though admittedly I just want that cold milkshake right now.
And then we see it. The finish mat. We pass over it. My Garmin says 7 hours and 24 minutes. I had said many hours before that we would aim for 7 and a half.
“When we cross the ceremonial finish,” I say. “Let’s hold hands and cross together.”
And that’s what we do, though somewhat shakily.
Epilogue. Some days are diamonds. Some days you grow stones
Such a horrible start. Such a joyful end. And all that stuff in the middle, the filling in my delicious Twinkie.
You may read this and think I did not enjoy it. That the toughness of it somehow weakened my spirit and dulled my lust for such folly.
It did not.
The challenge of a ride—of any kind of hard ride—is only partly physical. It’s been my experience that I can ride through any kind of physical discomfort, within reason, and that the biggest battles I have do not occur within the muscles of my legs, nor the flesh of my body.
The biggest battle, the one waged long and fought hardest, occurs within the brain. The suck v.s. strength. The ‘why?’ grappling with ‘who cares’? A constant roll of it around in your skull as you pit all the synapses and neurons that carry fortitude and stubbornness against all the synapses and neurons that carry evil thoughts of self-loathing and easy-road taking.
Some days, the battle is short and furious and retreats quickly. Other days it’s long and lasts hours. It can occur in the last 30 miles, and as today proved, the first 12. The only constant is the will to recognize the challenge, embrace the struggle, and accept the outcome. Whatever that is.
This ride was hard. It was exactly and perfectly awesome. Its toughness is what made it strong, and the days preceding and the festival after is what made it magnificent.
So, when next year rolls around and the time comes to ask yourself, should you make the drive? Should you lube your chains and check your tire pressures? Should you weigh your bike choice against the sensitivity of your sit bones and agonize about long-fingered gloves or none at all? Should you be at Rebecca’s Private Idaho next year? I have but one thing to say. Get ready to grow Idaho potatoes on your dirt-covered faces, because shit yeah, camembert, you should be there.