Who knows what true loneliness is - not the conventional word but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask. The most miserable outcast hugs some memory or some illusion.
Kevin: Miles 1-15, and loneliness thereafter
Riders and eskape artists talk a lot about how social riding is, what a great community you enter when you get your first bike, and how it expands their social circles, but there isn't a lot of talk about how intensely lonely cycling can be.
Let's overlook the negative connotations of loneliness but not traipse so as far as to go whole hog (the Hilly Billy Roubaix starts with a squealing pig, who I was saddened to hear has passed recently) into the glory of solitude. The hills and woods of rural West Virginia have plenty of both.
The mass start of any race requires your sphere of awareness to be both totally zeroed in on your front wheel, and also aware of the rest of the field the same way you're aware of the temperature.
At about 10 miles in, the biblical rain of the morning reared its head for a long mud-bog that is also known as a road in this part of the country. We passed a motorist who slid down a ditch, the car ass-end up, looking desperate. One knows not to expect help for that kind of thing from cyclists.
The idea of the "big ride" is lonely. You'll devote yourself to it. You'll suffer physically, and the roads vary, but coming from the city into a sparse rural landscape requires an adjustment. Things are both bigger and smaller at the same time. All that stuff you hear about finding your place in nature, and realizing that place is so small as to be practically nonexistent, comes to bear here. Your whole life you spend locked in the center of your own universe. When that center is infinitely small, your universe collapses, and all there is are the numbers ticking by, faster and faster, on a tiny screen.
After about 15 miles, on a gravel descent that could be best described as sketchy, my brakes stopped working. I rode into a ditch, bailed, walked a mile or so to the first checkpoint, where I got a ride to the start line.
After I pulled out, I was left with the hardest part of this event: the three-hour wait for my team mates, or really anyone, to return to the start. I listen to other people talk about how their carbon wheels were too expensive for this race so they had to pull out. I try in vain to nap in wet clothes on nice leather car seats. I finish my flask way too early. This is the most challenging thing I do all day, and I do it alone.
Marko: Miles 15 till some other mile- Into the Mud
"Life is so uncertain: you never know what could happen. One way to deal with that is to keep your pajamas washed"
At mile 15 it was getting easier. The body was giving up. The body is weak. The mind shall prevail.
A few days before Hilly Billy my body was begging me not to go. I was feverish and coughing like a baboon in Alaska. My woman was always making a valiant effort to reason with me and dissipate my craving for racing.
By mile 15 it was plain to see that there was plenty to conquer, and I sure wasn’t the conqueror. The sad piece of flesh that was struggling before the start, barely managing to put on some new fancy tire under the pouring rain, was shivering of discomfort and protesting loudly.
“Hadn’t you decided you were going to ride easy with your friendsters? Didn’t you tell them – we’ll all ride together. Asshole, why don’t you just enjoy yourself?”
In this bush hideth the culprit. Oh how I enjoy the mud in my eyes, the squeal of thy brakes, the jittery dance of my wheels through the sticky mud, the bitter taste of my lungs falling apart, overtaking fat men and old women struggling at the back of the race, the futile fight to be faster.
Oh yes, by mile 15 my body succumbs to the adrenaline and starts to churn out some energy into my bike. I’m actually enjoying myself and making up some ground. The ride is lonely, but overtaking feels great; I remember my glory days when I was fighting for the win and start imagining absurd triumphant scenarios in my head.
Alas, the adrenaline euphoria is short lived and on one of the numerous climbs my body wakes up from its’ slumber and delivers a lash in the back and another one to my sugar level. But no, stupid body, you are weak, my stupid mind is stronger. It knows how to do this; so many times it has coerced my body into much more than this.
And thus it goeth. The rain and sun join in the body vs. mind fight and intermittently trade blows just as the sky is crying buckets and splattering romantic sunshine on muddy velocipedes dotting the muddy roads of rural Hilly-Billy land.
Finally I find someone that is moving at my neurotic pace. A mountain biker that fires dirt into my nostrils on the downhills where I’m struggling with my “I don’t want to flat” overinflated tires, but then I pull him back on the flats and we kind of work together.
He talks a lot. Too much for my state of mind.
Maybe 13.76 miles to go and our bonding starts to fall apart as we catch up with a sizeable group of riders. On a slight uphill the entire group splinters and I am left hanging off the back with a good view of the backside of a nice lady in a green kit. I struggle try to get hold of her behind but no cigar. She leaves me stranded in the mud, and I can see her partner dragging her further and further away.
I am alone. Some pretty muddy hills. The rain has cleared out, I am hungry, and I am bonking. I go through all my pockets and start devouring all my remaining gels, gummy bears and enjoying myself. There are some weird markers on the road, they say 15. 15 miles to go? Didn't that guy say that it was 15 miles to go half an hour ago?
Sometimes I wish I was using some kind of bicycle laptop that will tell me what my speed will be for the next three miles and what I should eat at the next aid station, and which chainring is best for me. But then again. Life is so uncertain. Why not a cycling race.
Another coed team slaps me out of my morose slumber. We’re on a stretch of boring road, they are moving fast, and I feel like shit. Sprinting as if I was about to cross the finish line I gracefully reach the slipstream. And I stay there, for a while. I shamelessly don’t even try to take a turn. I am hanging on.
Minutes tick-tock by and slowly the gels, caffeine, adrenaline, mud and slipstream start to rejuvenate my blood cells. After maybe half an hour of wheel sucking I unsportingly inch away on one of the steepest ascents of the day. The weather’s getting better, and so is my engine. On the following descent I’m churning a big gear and riding like there’s no yesterday.
No fever, no USA, no Gadhafi, no bananas in the world (who was eating bananas and biking 50 years ago? anyone?) no westvaginiah candy shops. Everything gets lost in a blob and I ride in trance as mission. Or some kind of transmission. And before long there’s my next co-ed team. The large behind and elderly gentleman. Briefly I wheel suck them. But I mean no harm. I have the energy. I fly by them like a turkey vulture.
Or do I? Where is the finish?
And then I hit a big road that I recognize and I realize I’m much closer than expected. The heart starts pumping more blood into my reproductive organ, I’m accelerating, the wind is too slow and before soon I catch my gadget idolizing mountain biker. He moans something about something but I manage to overtake him before the words enter my ear. And then a sweet finale. A little muddy grass circuit before the last short sharp climb.
This was the best part of the race. The cross race where I entered the grassy patch with the mountain biker on my ass and managed to drop him riding for broke after 5 hours of racing. And then the uphill finish almost kills me off. But it doesn’t. And there’s the banner.
At the finish I hear some people say that it was a hard race. I think of the face of the guy I saw riding only a day ago on a nearby West Virginia road. He was well on his way to finish RAAM. That’s the Race across America. A really hard race.