The skies opened up over River Park in Lompoc late last night, and by early morning there were soaking wet sleeping bags, soggy bike shorts, and anxious faces. Concerned cyclists wondering just how bad the rain was going to be, how safe (or unsafe) the ride might get, whether or not the ALC leadership would allow us to ride, and just what the heck are we going to do when we get to Ventura late in the day with all that wet gear. Tough way to start a day.
Life offers choices. Stuff happens, we react, and our lives are defined not by the circumstances but by what we do with them. Ride or don't ride? Take a chance of a disastrous day on the road or play it safe and catch the "sag wagon" to Ventura? Put yourself out there in miserable weather that might last all day or "live to ride another day"? There's no right choice, no right answer. There are 2,200 cyclists and each has to decide what is best for him or her individiually.
I'm not really a serious risk taker. I like to have a pretty good idea of what the outcome is likely to be before I jump into something. But I can be a little tenacious, and I latched onto this burning desire to ride every mile of this route...no bailing out on the tough climbs and walking the bike up, no sag wagon rides unless I (dare I say it?) get hurt or have a serious mechanical problem. I've never done much riding in the rain, but I was pretty sure that a day of it would be long, cold, and energy-draining. I knew I had no way to stay dry, had no experience with "rain technique", and that there would be a degree of risk. One of my donors, my good friend Karen, responed to my letter to my donors several weeks ago in which I explained that I felt a commitment to them...if they were writing all these checks, the least I could do is prepare well enough to have a good shot at climbiing every hill and riding every mile. Her very generous reply was "You don't have to ride every mile for me". I appreciated hearing that (and know that the rest of my supporters would say the same thing), and this morning I knew that I didn't really have an obligation to go out in the rain on my bike and that a bus ride to Ventura was a good idea.
So at 7:10 I rolled out of camp in the rain, wondering just how bad an idea this was. My strategy for the day was to ride slowly and cautiously, keep the stops brief, and get to Ventura as early as a conservative and safe pace would allow. On out of camp, a line of intrepid souls headed up the first bit of a hill in a steady rain. The riders all seemed cautious, riding more conservatively than usual, but spirits were high. There was an almost defiant attitude..."damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"...but not quite at full speed. Within minutes it became evident that something was different, besides the rain. Flat tires. They were happening much too frequently (ask your cycling experts to explain it...I still don't get it). It's pretty discouraging to be out in the rain having to change a tube, but on went the line of cyclists, climbing the rolling hill toward rest stop one. The rain, sometimes hard and sometimes light, continued to fall. Trucks whizzing by threw up sprays of water across the riders. Water run-off at the highway's edge offered a hazard. And more flats. About an hour in there was the much anticipated "rest stop one, one mile" sign.
And then, within moments, came a sight that made no sense. Rounding the final bend before the stop revealed far too many bikes and people at the stop, and a vast sea of shiny silver-colored blankets. As we pedaled in and heard the words "welcome to rest stop one, we will be held here for awhile", it was evident that something was wrong. There had been a serious accident (not one of us...automobile) up ahead, and CHP was holding the cyclists back until further notice. It was cold, it was raining, and hundreds of cyclists were wandering around in survival blankets (thank you whoever thought to have those on hand for just such an emergency!) wondering what was going to happen. Finally the decision was announced; the highway patrol was pulling our permit to close a lane of a bridge on highway 101 for our exclusive use (a necessary precaution because the bridge is very narrow with no shoulder) and the ride coud not continue. The hundreds of cyclists were given the option of waiting there for buses to take them to Ventura (bikes to be trucked down) or ride back down to the camp and wait there for buses to take them to Ventura.
Muddy bike shoes, cleats clogged with gunk. Wet bike shorts. Wet jersey. Freezing. Frustrated. Hundreds of people lined up for the buses. Only one logical option...ride on.
There are moments in any difficult day that just jump up and knock you over like an exuberant puppy licking your face. Yeah, we were disappointed, yeah we were a little ticked off about being told "no further", but here we were in the rain DECIDING to ride back to camp, to finish every last mile that the ALC 8 was going to have to offer us. Zipping down the hill, cautiously but with a little more enthusiasm and confidence than earlier, there was again that defiant air, a sense of adventure, and somehow a feeling of conquest. "Pfffffssssssttttt." What's that? Oh no...not ME...not a flat?? Yep...my turn...427 miles into my ride, just two miles from camp, and I was at the roadside, in the rain, changing a flat. The new high pressure road bike tires are a little tough to change. I'm not a kid, and hand strength isn't my thing. But I finally got the tire back on the rim, pumped it up, and was releasing the pump when "Pffffssssttttt!!" Alright...here's what I said..."oh shit". The valve had broken, and now I had no spare tube. Just at that moment my new friend Doug rode along asking "need help?". I explained my dilemma and he gave me his spare tube. It just happens..."got your back". It's constant, ongoing, and beautiful to watch. Thanks Doug! That's Doug and me after I got back to camp. He said "when I saw the look on your face...."
So how do you get 2,200 hundred cyclists from Lompoc to Ventura on a moment's notice? I don't know how they did it, but the ALC folks rounded up buses and got it done. Obviously this doesn't happen really fast, so those of us at River Park in Lompoc had a nice chance to enjoy a leisurely lunch. That's where I met my new friend Justo...that's Justo in the yellow shirt. He's an exuberant and passionate man with great life stories to tell. We shared a wonderful conversation during which he told me that he wasn't using cleats or toe clips. I didn't know whether to think he was crazy or just amazing; riding the hills on this course (or even just doing the miles) you need all of your leg muscles working, pushing the pedals down and pulling them up as well. That's why cyclists wear those funky shoes. I asked why he wasn't using cleats, and he confessed "I'm not a good planner". He cycles, he's an athlete, he's a dancer, but he didn't have cycling shoes. And then he admitted that after the Wednesday ride (90 mies to Santa Maria with the Evil Twins in the middle) his legs hurt so badly that the medical team said he had to take the next day off to try to recover. He was insistent that he couldn't do that, and they told him the only option would be to endure a process called "stripping", essentially a very deep kneading of those screaming sore thighs. Again, life offers choices. "Use your brain Justo...this is gonna hurt! Your donors will understand." He said that he has taken many falls in his years of cycling, but has never felt pain like the procedure the medical team did on his thighs. And he got back on his bike the next morning.
If you talk to all 2,200 cyclists and all 500 roadies and all of the staff and volunteers, you'll hear 2,800 distinctly different life stories and 2,800 distinctly different reasons for participating in ALC 8 and 2,800 distinctly different stories of personal sacrifice and cost to be a part of this. But at the base there is a constant; we ride because we can, and because someone else can't. When Doug offers his spare tube, when Diana pours that water, when cyclist Andy raises those dollars, when Justo says "bring it on doc, I need to ride tomorrow", you get a little glimpse of heaven on Earth. This stuff isn't easy and it doesn't come cheap, but it is incredibly beautiful and so very uplifiting. One more day on the road and it's into Los Angeles.