Quasi-fictional Bicycle Story
The alarm sounded. The figure under the covers moved, rustled the sheets, quickly checked his mental calendar and realized it was Saturday and lay quiet again. Perhaps he was hoping it (the alarm? Saturday?) would go away. However, it didn't, and with the calm resigned nature one acquires from being frightened awake every morning by the alarm, he shut off the raucous klaxon.
I'm the person in that bed. Why do I wake up at six in the morning on a lazy Saturday? From the ceiling in the back room hangs a professional road-racing bicycle. I am a slave to this wonder of exotic aluminum alloy, costing better than two kilobucks. Saturday mornings I ride with the famous (or infamous) Los Angeles Wheelmen, whose sojourns take me and my friends on enjoyable trips all across the southern half of the state. In the two years that I have been a member I've logged well over twenty thousand miles with them. Right now I'm going to tell you about one of these rides, the Oceanside-Julian overnight junket. Now there was a ride. For the uninformed amongst you, the rides are never trivial; the shorter ones accent the vertical aspect of the terrain a bit more than the long trips; occasionally, though, there is a crown jewel that combines both the grueling climbs and the long distances. Each Saturday a ride would begin at a certain corner or park in a town which was convenient to the ride. This ride began in Oceanside, about eighty miles south of La La Land.
Saturday, eight AM: I mount my gold-anodized stallion and push off with five of my riding mates. Today's ride is approximately seventy miles (which in itself isn't much) but when coupled with about ten thousand feet total elevation gain, winding roads with traffic and the possibility of rain, and at the higher elevations, snow, the odds were plainly not in our favor.
Rolling quickly and smoothly out of Oceanside south on California 1, we soon traverse the six or so miles to the inland turnoff. During these few minutes, while sucking in the crisp ocean air and listening to the breakers pound the sand, we shake off the weaker riders and form our own pack, tight and efficient.
Making the turn onto S-8, the county road, we hum eastward; each member of the pack taking the point for a few minutes, keeping the power up. As I cycle through the pack, I can feel the silent energy, the synchronicity of the eight sets of well-muscled legs all spinning at nearly the same rate.
Leaving the county road, we join the main route east, California 78. This road will take us through the coastal hills and up a broad river valley to Escondido, still about ten miles distant but closing at nearly 2000 feet per minute. I feel a drop of moisture on my thigh; glancing to the sullen skies, I wait for the next drop to signal the oncoming rain. But it is a false alarm; a bead of sweat had fallen from my face. I realize now that these boys are keeping a strong pace and that I'm working too hard- I drop the gearing a few inches and feel the lightness in the pedal motion return. Returning my attention to the sky, I wish to see a yawning patch of blue open ahead, but find only darkening skies and temperatures dropping now below fifty.
Escondido has grown tremendously in the last decade. Originally an isolated (Escondido in Spanish means "hidden") town in northern San Diego County, it now seems to be nearly wedded to San Diego itself, the tendrils of population wrapping around it. The traffic slows us down a bit; we bide our time at stop lights, amusing the locals by balancing on the bikes, our shoes still in the cleats. A few of the riders decide to break for refreshment while we continue east out of town.
My yawning blue patch appears. Soon the sun is streaming through and warming my arms and legs; the smell of sun-heated moisture surrounds us. The air warms and dries: there must be a grade approaching. Looking up the strike of the small valley we find ourselves in, I see it ahead. The main highway has skirted this valley now, rising quickly out of town along a ridge, probably taking a mile or two of the route and opening the radii of the turns. We are on the old road - well worn from years of use and now neglect; comfortable because there is little motorized traffic; the silence that returns allows me to hear the small noises off the road, in the grass. I also hear the metallic bite of the Campy, pushing the D'Oro chain from smaller sprockets to larger sprockets, easing the grade and keeping the power transfer optimized; we're on the grade now. Six miles of this will get us to the top of the valley: what lies beyond I do not know.
The hill is called the Ramona Grade: it climbs about two thousand feet. The road always moves slowly beneath my wheels but I am steady and do not dismount. Ramona appears at midday. It is a small Indian town where we stop, the few that are left, and eat quickly, for the journey shall only get more difficult if we wait.
Forging onward, we use a side road that generally parallels the main highway, again avoiding the traffic. The route now becomes a flurry of ups and downs, the average elevation increasing all the time. The uphills are more frequent, their effort punctuated by the beads of sweat that appear on my brow. My helmet is uncomfortable; I shift its position slightly.
Looking ahead, the clouds are dark and I think I hear the distant sounds of thunder to the east, each peal beckoning my more practical half to turn back and forget this foolishness. The air grows cooler as we press upward and onward; the ground is moist from rain recently fallen. It is time to be more careful, to pay attention to the thin tires and their interaction with the slickening surface; only the skilled rider can keep the pace now.
After reaching the main highway another grade begins. The road is wet but not slippery as I come off the seat, forcing the pedals through their cycle. The going gets rougher, the road steeper, the scenery more impressive. I lose another few inches of gear on the grade, perhaps more than my pride might want to part with; the tires growl as they pull against the asphalt.
The pack crests the grade, a beautiful vista unfolding around us. That's why they make hills, and roads to the top of them, to see scenery like this. The first soft drops of rain hit us as we descend the slope, watching the road beyond unwind and stretch across the valley. Across the valley, the road right-angles and climbs the escarpment of the next ridge.
As we dive down, speeds increase until we know we are nearly running the speed limit. Fortunately the rain is light and does not sting; the real problem is the wind chill generated by our speed. Fingers, arms and faces numb. The road levels off and our speed drops to a safer rate, but the chill remains. The rain does not intend to slacken.
The valley floor approaches and soon we are halfway across the plain. There are only the two of us now, Kevin and myself, partners and friends, alone but together. Up ahead, the ridge before us presents its face; the cap is frosted with white. It says that the last seven miles will be the toughest. Two thousand feet in four miles, a flat stretch, then a final six hundred foot climb in little under a mile, in decidedly inclement weather and getting worse by the foot.
The hill begins with a sweeping, cranking right turn as the road starts to climb diagonally across the face to the mountain. This first portion is straight and very steep. Up out of the saddle, straining the handlebars on counterpoint, Kevin powers past me to take the lead. As he inches ahead, I can watch the frame of his Masi flex and bow with each stroke.
Halfway up the grade, I hear the sound of a semi approaching from behind. I feel and appreciate the roar of his engine and the frequent downshifting to haul his cargo up this hill; I know how he feels.
We reach a flattening of the grade and slowly gain speed as the pavement turns. The rain begins again and now it is very cold. The shoulders of the road are covered with a crunchy, brown-caked ice slush, with some signs of a more recent snowfall. The road itself is clear. The double tractor-trailer roars past us and again we are left alone.
Sometimes I wonder why I ride, what I get out of it, what it does for me. Physically, it tires and sometimes even exhausts me. Mentally, I have many feelings: a sense of power, of accomplishment; the peace of solitude and the beauty of my world.
The final grade approaches and the ache in my legs and arms is heightened by the cold wet air. The last pull is always the worst. From my vantage point it looks straight up. Of course, from my vantage point it always looks straight up. I am tired, Kev the same. The road has ice patches on the shoulders and we ride in the traffic lane to avoid the worst of them. On a road such as this, riding in the lane is dangerous; a speeding car could round a bend and have a difficult time avoiding us.
Snow is falling lightly now; it makes me colder just watching the flakes melt on my gloves. We pass a sign indicating an elevation of four thousand feet. We have 400 feet of vertical distance yet to travel. The next sign, a little further on, informs us that we are now in Julian. The road steepens once more, for a last attempt to defeat us. At the top of the grade, around the bend, lies our destination. I crank on the pedals with a final reserve of energy and goad the bike up the hill. Kevin senses the moment and races to see who will be the first to town. Fittingly, we arrive simultaneously.
The town of Julian is fantastic - it reminds me of the fabled Old West, where the towns had hitching rails along the street and covered boardwalks paralleling. Here, the state highway turns into a friendly country lane, well-paved and looking quite at home with the scenery.
We look for the Julian Inn, our destination. As we unsaddle our icy steeds, and tie them off at the hitching rail, I think of our friends who will arrive soon, hoping that the weather doesn't turn worse.
We straggle into the Inn, find the table next to the hearth, overlooking the street, and are greeted with huge bowls of hearty soup and steaming coffee.
What a way to spend a Saturday. I can't wait for tomorrow.
Day Two: The Boys Come Home
The crack of dawn came loudly and quickly upon us Sunday morning. Moments earlier (in subjective time, no doubt) it had been around two a.m.; now it was nearly seven in the morning. What an evening!
I do remember the fine dinner: big, thick barbecued steak, potato with mondo piles of butter, green beans, fresh hot bread with more butter, potato salad, the hearty soup, ice cream and cake for dessert with some chocolate pudding thrown in for good measure. Oh, and of course milk. Lots of it. Must have drained several cows udderly.
After dinner, we found a piano and a guitar, and after lubricating ourselves with a few hot rum toddies, we fairly got into performing for the gathered crowd. (Actually, the weather had not been too cruel to the riders; forty out of forty-eight made the inbound trip successfully.) Tonight it was raining lightly outside, I think the outside temperature was around forty, maybe a little less. We made sure that inside the fireplace was blazing, and that our toes were toasty. I hate it when my toes are cold.
I think that the fact that we were slightly enebriated distinctly improved our musical abilities. The fact that the crowd had likewise drank a little improved their appreciation quotient; thus it was a bang-up evening. Kevin even got up on a table in the middle of the room and led the group in several moderately bad renditions of "California Dreamin", "Surfin' U.S.A.", "Help Me Rhonda" and "In A Gadda Da Vida". (I didn't even know there were words to the latter. All I remember was the drum solo.) The last thing I remember is crawling off to bed (a sleeping bag on the floor) at the aforementioned hour. The room was a little chilly then.
The room had cooled further during the night. There was a bit of what looked suspiciously like frost (you know, solid H two Oh) on the window; I hoped it was on the outside of the window. I poked my head out of the bag and checked out my surroundings. Kevin was still asleep or dead; his bag was closed up all the way and he was completely inside. In fact, I think the opening was face down on the floor. He doesn't seem to breathe deeply while asleep and so the lack of rhythmic expansion and contraction of the bag was no clue to his existence.
Ralph, Magilla and Wayne and a few others were visible to my somewhat defocused eyes, sprawled out on the floor and on the beds. I could hear the shower running and hoped that there would be hot water left for me; that thought galvanized me to action. Soon I was standing near the bathroom door, towel in one hand, toiletries bag in the other, ready to pounce (well, mosey with a vengeance, maybe) into the shower. Kinda shivering all the while. Didn't have to wait long, though.
Soon, the hot water was warming me back up. I lounged in the shower for awhile, peering out the window and finding blue skies, and icicles hanging from some branches near the building. But the sun was up, it would warm up the world around and we would all happily ride back to the beach. Yeah. Right.
Breakfast was great. Massive quantities of bacon and eggs and cereal and toast, coffee, O.J. and milk. My kind of meal. I've realized that my kind of meal always involves great quantities of simple foods, high with grease, starch and calories. As we sat there in the dining room, more of the last evening's revelers straggled down, some looking amazingly good, others somewhat zombieish.
Nine AM: Have just finished checking out the bike. Everything looks good: tires are still inflated (good); wheels still turn (good); tape still on handlebars (to be expected). All signs that today's ride would go smoothly and well.
Piled my duffel bag into the truck that will drive it back to O/side; kept a pair of leggings with me that I will wear until it gets a bit warmer out. Either two hours or two thousand vertical feet.
Off we go. What a morning; except for the fact that it is still too bloody cold for this Los Angeleño, the air is sparkling clear, the early morning sun bright and casting sharp shadows of the trees all about us. Kevin takes the lead, I think more than anything else to shake off the cold. We're traveling east out of Julian on Cal 78; drop first about 1200 feet down a canyon, then the road makes a serious bend to the right as we continue to follow the watercourse that cut the canyon. Jeez, it's icy. Everyone tucks as much as possible to keep what little body heat that remains from leaking away; the road is in shade through much of the descent.
Soon, the grade has diminished, the sun is working in full force to warm us, and pedaling meets with some resistance. This morning we start out with twelve riders. Personally, it's far too big a crowd for me. We'll have to blow some away before too long.
We're now out in the backside of San Diego County; completely unlike the coastal region, we're on the desert side of the Peninsular Ranges, mountains (more like hills) that run from somewhat south of Los Angeles across the border into Mexico. I think the highest peak in the range is that of Mount Laguna, about ten miles south. The road is smooth, lightly traveled at this hour, and no ice at this elevation. The terrain consists of rolling hills, dry washes, occasional trees and cacti. The rolling hills give us a little work; soon we've separated the group and regained a five-rider pack. Almost a good size.
We arrive at the "scissors crossing" where Cal 78 and S2 cross. Executing a stylish, en echelon left bank turn at twenty-five miles an hour, we crank out S2 traveling north toward Lake Henshaw. Just to the east of here is the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It has some really nice little campgrounds, both improved and not so much so. It can be absolutely stunning on an early spring morning or a late September afternoon, drifting into evening, with your feet up and not a care in your head. I like that.
The air temperature felt in the high fifties, still cool but manageable. While riding, I'd stop pedaling to remove one legging, then pedal to catch up, and remove the other. Once off, I stowed them in a back pocket on my jersey. We were flying along, pretending as if we'd all had full nights of sleep and wondering how long it would last. Because of the fine weather, however, our spirits were buoyant, which gave us a certain mental edge.
We are traveling against the watercourse of this valley, slowly and steadily gaining altitude; I feel it in my thighs, a mildly leaden tug. I drop a few inches of gear to make it feel better. Spinning the pedals is always easier than fighting each and every revolution with gargantuan thrusts. Kev has inched away from us until he's nearly a hundred feet ahead. Showoff.
Kevin is an interesting guy to ride with. I've known him for ten years, since we were little kids nearly, and he's always acted like effort was the last thing he wanted to be involved with. His idea of a good time is to sit in front of the tv, watching old reruns of "Emergency!" while polishing off quarts of ice cream. I should know: I sit there with him, working on my best imitation of a couch potato. But then you get him out here, and the guy flies. He's always the guy I'm catching up to or falling away from. His bicycle suffers from a terrific lack of proper working parts because he doesn't every seem to have any money to buy new components. Although his bike says "Masi" on the downtube, I think that it's some sort of bastard machine that has its roots in twenty club members' garages. Even the two sets of brake calipers are different. His sew-ups have been resown so many times that they're mainly stitches holding the air in, along with a lot of rubber patches. It's amazing. He's also the one to have the most interesting things happen to him, so that he has the best stories at dinner. Like the time he was heading down Cal 74 from Mountain Center, toward Palm Desert, and was chased by a coyote for half a mile. Of course, that's what he said. He tried to prove it by pointing out puncture holes on the rear tire, but couldn't decide which puncture holes were made by the coyote.
We're coming up to the junction of S2 and S22, coming in from Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea. A little caravan of Good Sams (motorhomes) seems to be coming up the grade from Borrego; we'll be passed by them in a few minutes. We roll through the intersection, on a mild uphill grade. We'll reach the summit of this route in twenty minutes or so and then it'll be clear sailing down into Lake Henshaw.
Just as we reach the crest the motorhomes rumble past us, one smelling distinctly like someone inside is burning tires. You never know. Maybe we'll see them again. They pick up speed and pull away from us, leaving us alone for the approach to California 79 and the turn to the south.
The sun is up high in the sky now; it feels about seventy-five out- perfect riding weather. We unlawfully blast through the facing stop sign at Cal 79 on our downhill run, banking left and now having the lake, somewhat more shrunken than usual, on our right. The mountain just to the west-northwest of the lake is Palomar Mountain, where the Hale Observatory two-hundred inch reflector resides. Looking at our maps, we democratically decide to stop for a bite somewhere in the next ten to fifteen miles.
Once around to the west side of Henshaw, we start up the little grade that takes us out of this valley and then drops us down into the San Luis Rey river valley, which we'll follow all the way to the ocean. The effects of last night's overindulgence are showing; my pace is off, I have a mild headache and my skin tingles, like I have prickly heat. All signs (to me) that I didn't get enough sleep and that what I did get wasn't good enough. The other four are once again slightly ahead of me, chugging up the grade, and I'm the caboose. Still, I idly concentrate on watching their cadence and they do keep a smooth rhythm; I find that I am thirsty again and that I now have no water left in either of my bottles. Spirits somewhat dampened (isn't it ironic that the lack of water can do that?), I downshift again and press on, hoping that they'll have mercy on me and wait at the hilltop.
After what seems like ages, I make it to the top of the hill. Kevin was the first to the top, some ten minutes ago; immediately he finds a patch of grass, takes off his jersey and sprawls out, soaking up the rays. Dave and Magilla arrived next then Wayne.
Down we go again, west on Cal 76, past the S7 peeloff, watching Palomar rise to the north. I kick it into high gear trying to keep up with these downhill racers, spinning better than a hundred revs per minute. A few miles further, the right-hand turn to Palomar, county road S6, makes its climb up the mountain. We stay on the main road, fairly blazing along.
At high speed, sew ups make a high, mechanical hum while rolling. Almost sounds like small turbines; the tires are inflated to better than 120 pounds and are glued to the wheel rims with a very nasty smelling adhesive. Only problem with this is if the ambient temperature is high, and the macadam is hot, the glue has an annoying tendency to soften; then, while screaming downhill and using your brakes to keep the speed to a dull roar, hitting a tight radius turn can actually roll a tire right off the rim. This, as you can imagine, can be very unhealthy for the rider. It also wrecks the rim more often than not, which makes for a long walk back.
We've left behind the warm smell of the piñon pine and come into the quiet serenity of oaks down in the valley here. Rolling past the S6 turnoff to Valley Center and Escondido, we're in groves of avocado and navel oranges, two of the greatest fruits the world has ever known.
Soon, we start the approach to Pauma Valley, a little village in the middle of an Indian reservation, I think. Either the Pala or the Pauma Indians. Whatever they are, it feels really weird. Every house and shack we go by has a couple of Indians sitting out on the porch, with a couple of mongrel dogs sitting next to them. All watching us. I try not to watch them back, instead I look at the road in front, Magilla's back wheel, anything else. We keep up the pace, although my blood sugar is waning.
Soon, we have traveled through Pala, where the S16 road separates and goes north to Temecula over the west flank of Palomar. That's the normal way for bicycles to travel north or south as opposed to getting on Interstate 15, a few miles to the west. Down here, the San Luis Rey river has quite a bit of water in it; I can hear it cascade through the rocks occasionally, effervescent and sparkling. The valley widens gradually; I 15 is just up ahead. So is food.
Here at the intersection of Cal 76 and I 15 there are a few truckstop type cafes and some ranch markets. I stop at the market and get a few oranges, some peanuts, an avocado, a roll of bread, cheese and a quart of milk. We all find a shady spot under a live oak, spread out and relax for half an hour or so. What a feast.
Stomach settling and hypoglycemia fading, we have about sixteen miles left to go, all downhill (more or less). Passing I-15, the afternoon sun is warm but the sea breezes have reached this far inland and are keeping the temperature moderate.
Soon we roll through the horse farms of San Luis Rey Downs, which used to be somewhat isolated and traditional in a quiet way, but now is tinged with a bit of the Yuppie mentality. Too many BMWs and Z cars. Used to be pickup trucks and Mercedes (what's the plural for Mercedes?). Back at our lunch stop we picked up a few more riders, making up a veritable high-speed freight train, usually single-file but on the wider parts of the highway creeping into double-file. Double-file is very dangerous as soon as someone wants to change his rank in the file; suddenly it's triple-file and if someone dumps it ahead, there's nowhere for the inside rider to go. I've seen it happen and it usually means a lot of bent wheel rims and road rash.
We power our way down the broadening coastal valley of the river, not all quite in sync, all in mid-range, keeping the rpms up. Bonsall is left behind, then San Luis Rey, where the mission is, rolls past. The traffic slows us down, stretches the pack out a bit, non-invasively interacting with the motor vehicles. We're almost within sight of the end of the ride; the traffic is heavier here as we approach Oceanside, now rolling through suburban tract home developments and corner minimalls.
Eventually, the parking lot where I left the car is in sight- we sprint the final three hundred yards. The car has not been towed; the equipment van is here, and a few riders are milling about. They all took the direct route back, which was nearly twenty miles shorter. My legs feel like Jello; there's a big, satisfied grin on my face.
What a weekend.