Extra bike tube… check. Tire changing kit… check. Water… check. GoPro… check. It was 2:30am. I gathered my gear for my 80 mile bike ride. The day of our Yuma Grand Fondo, a ride that had been in the works for weeks had arrived.
“If you are going through hell, keep going.” ~ Winston Churchill
Hell of the West (or the Yuma Grand Fondo) – San Luis, Arizona to Palm Canyon road July 26th, 2014
I strapped on my helmet and Shimano shoes. One guy was late, we should have started at 3:00am. We set out from the Post Office in San Luis at 4:00am. I knew that missing that extra dark hour could make or break us.“Be safe!” Brent and Troimen shouted at us, our 8 tires sped off into the dark.
Mile 1 to 20
Lights flashed around like Christmas lights; our little four person peloton began the 80 mile journey. The first 20 miles were easy. I do 20 mile rides often, cruising at 15-24 mph, we didn’t want to over-exert ourselves too early. Stephen had done rides longer than this, 10 years ago. The other three of us had never experienced a ride like it, but we put in a lot of miles this year. Except me. I twisted my ankle three weeks ago and hadn’t been able to run since. I also have a hard time riding in 106-degree heat. Even our Thursday evening 6:30pm ride is about too hot for me to stomach at 110 degrees.
“I know you can do it,” Brent said the night before.
I knew the guys would be worried about me. I’ve been riding a lot this year, but not like they had. I also didn’t know when I would have the chance to do an 80 mile ride again with such support, and I knew it would be an extreme test of my my endurance. It would test my year’s bike training and my mental preparedness that I havn’t used since the Camino de Santiago last September, pushed to the limit. The Camino taught me how to play mind games to get myself through things that I thought I couldn’t do. It taught me about adrenline. It’s all a mental game.
What I’ve learned is that when you think you’ve given all that you’ve got, you’ve still got a new level, a new gear, that you haven’t tapped into yet. That’s the gear where your body goes numb, and as if creating an anesthetic to your pain, your limbs continue on autopilot.
In single-file lines we sprawled out into the Yuma sunrise. Our first near crash happened around mile 36. Feeling good, we were chatting dangerously close to the grating on the side of highway 95. With a one-handed slip, Steve was sucked into it, nearly losing control of his little carbon fiber frame, swerving and sputtering around while I nearly plowed into his back tire, causing Stephen, who was behind me to nearly crash into us both. Disaster was narrowly avoided. We cruised on unharmed.
A bit further ahead the road curved and we tucked in tightly together. I could hear the wheels on the road in the morning silence, a blanket of calm that sets in just before sunrise. Suddenly the side of the road on the right of the yellow line disappeared, forcing us over the grating. Stephen was the last one in the line and didn’t see it coming, we lost him for a minute.
Josh and Stephen had scout out the night before, dusting and checking for dangerous things along the route. We were almost to the “Big Guns.”
Our first pit stop was about halfway through the ride, at 41 miles. It’s a common 30 mile ride out to the “Big Guns” and back. The guns guard the entrance to the Yuma Proving Grounds.
I felt fine until I got off of the bike for our first break. I almost instantly felt sick to my stomach. I decided to sit for the break, worried that if I tried to eat much else I’d lose the food in my stomach. Karla showed up too that morning for extra support, water, Gatorade, and a sign.
Like a zombie, I climbed back onto my bike. I felt better after the break. Steeve shared some of his energy drink with me and we cruised onward into the last 37 miles of the ride.
“This isn’t THAT much more than what I regularly ride on Thursdays, it’s more than half complete, I got this,” I told myself.
I kept pushing, secretly, I thought that I might only make it to mile 60. I knew the other guys could do it, I wasn’t worried about them, but I am not them.
We could feel the sun’s deadly rays beat down as it peeked over the mountain range on our right. Our cool blanket of stars had given way to the most dangerous component of the ride: the heat. To our left we cycled by government owned military land. The Camino del Diablo teased us from off in the distance, a famous stretch of desert where immigrants from Mexico commonly died. The desert’s summer temperatures aren’t something to play with. People’s bodies can literally bake from the inside out.
The cicadas began their high-pitched serenade and asphalt began to soak up the new sunlight.
By mile 55 I felt like I was trapped in a hot box, an oven of slightly humid air and a cycling shirt that was suffocating me more with each mile.
I wished I’d brought my tank top cycling shirt, and the tube of sunscreen I’d used that morning. Thinking we would be just missing the 100 degrees, I thought I’d be okay in my cycling shirt. I had filled up a 2 litre Camelback twice now, and chugged my water bottle full of Gatorade.
I found a new gear with each sweet sip of liquid sugar.
“I’m not sure I’m gonna make it to 80.” I finally admitted around mile 50. It was what I had been trying not to think or say. “Just give me 5 more miles Kaysha, this rough section of road is psyching you out, just another 5 miles to where the pavement smoothes out and turns into rolling hills.” “Okay,” I said from behind chapping, cracking lips.
Now began the mental test. How many different ways could I twist the oncoming challenge, the heat, the miles, the raw skin where my saddle was rubbing. My neck was shooting pain down through my back and shoulders. It was twisted upwards in an unnatural position, looking forward from the hunched position I was in. My left hand’s pinky and ring fingers had gone numb. “We’re over halfway, I’ve only got 20 more miles of this.” I thought, as I made it past the next 5 miles. Nobody told me when we hit 60 miles.
It was just the beginning. “I ride twenty miles easily all the time. This is nothing.” I tried to forget about the pains in my body. The heat was taking me over. Goose bumps dappled my arms. I’d stopped sweating in the slowly fading humidity.
“Ya done?” Brent asked. As I pulled over for a moment.
“She owes me 6 more miles,” Stephen said.
“At least get to 60 miles, Kaysha.”
“You get back up on that horse!” The words rang in my head, words yelled at me by my first horseback riding instructor when I was 12. I’ve ridden horses my entire life, and those words have always fluttered through my mind. “I cant stop now, I’m nearly there!”
I swung my leg back over that metal horse and pushed on. “Drink more water!” They kept telling me. I was practically nursing my camelback as I rode. “Throw some water on her!” Stephen would tell Brent and Angela, who followed us along the stretch of road. The ice water warmed and dried up as it made its way down my back. We had been riding at least four hours. I didn’t know what I needed anymore. I was probably delusional; it was at least 97 degrees. The road began its slow ascent up towards the last steep hill before the Border Patrol check point. “I dunno if I’m gonna make it ….”
“Would it help if you paced behind Brent’s truck?”
So there I was, around mile 65, cruising behind the H3’s exhaust pipes. On the one hand the truck was eliminating the wind I was riding against, but on the other it was heating up the air to over 100 degrees. I didn’t know which was worse. His draft allowed me to catch up to the others though, who had moved forward as I stayed behind the truck. At one point we all paced behind the truck for a few miles. Brent was becoming increasingly worried about me, half expecting me to stop each time I pulled up my bike next to the truck for a break, or water, or for the emergency tyre pumping. Two of the bikes got flats at the same time.
Stephen’s bike picked up a nail. He bobbed along for a bit. Road bikes don’t have suspension, and Stephen and I were on older aluminum bikes which don’t absorb any of the roads bumps like a carbon fiber bike does. The road had turned into rolling hills with great views of the mountains off to our right.
It was recently repaved and provided some ever so small bit of comfort. I was pretty sure I was starting to heatstroke as my goosebumps continued. I chugged my water, but knew that if I was going to make it, the shirt had to come off. Folding down the straps of my cycling bib I unzipped the shirt, taking on the next 15 miles or so in my sports bra. I was in the middle of nowhere, what did I care. Oh yeah, the Border Patrol checkpoint station coming up over the hill. I didn’t care.
Josh stayed back and rode with me for a good 5-10 miles over the rolling hills, we’d chug up the hill then coast down the backside. He told me stories, and sang some songs and gave me more positive pep talks. I had taken off my shirt in the shade of a large mesquite tree, downed more water and put a cold towel around my neck. I was refreshed enough to pedal forward at a semi-normal speed. It was over 100 degrees for the last stretch. I’d made it well past the 60 miles I’d committed to, and by mile 76, how could I stop? Getting off my bike again for a moment my thighs spazzed out and I couldn’t walk for a minute. I drank more water.
On the other side of the hill I coasted into the Border Patrol checkpoint station, met by two smiling agents who wished me a safe journey, and surely thought I was insane. I was alone by this point, the guys had moved on ahead. “Is this our stopping point?” I asked as I cruised up to King Rd. where Steeve and Stephen were resting.
“Seven more miles!” they said. They were the longest seven miles of my life. I might have said that at one point during the Camino de Santiago last year, but this heat brought the suffering to new brutality. I was about to vomit and my legs were about to give out. I foresaw myself swerving and crashing into the pavement. I didn’t have anything left, I felt sick.
“MORE WATER!” they yelled.
“Josh, push her a bit!” Stephen said when I stopped pedaling as Josh bounded forward in the front of the group, seeming to have endless energy, still. He fell back to where I was, and rested his hand on my backpack. Josh was like a cycling Angel… helping me along when I knew it most. I coasted along that way for a few miles, feeling as if I didn’t deserve to hit mile 80 if I couldn’t do it myself. I began pedaling again eventually, after chugging some more Gatorade and water. It was 104 degrees. We could see Brent and Angela and the truck looming ahead. Or were they a mirage?
“Is that it?” I asked.
My sweat stopped long ago, and my skin was baking in the sun. It was the last mile. “Hey Steeve, come back here!” Stephen shouted ahead. Steeve fell back behind me, and Stephen motioned that I go forward, “this is your mile Kaysha, you earned it.” I pedaled ahead, in front of the three guys who got me through my first 80 mile ride. Not being drug, pushed or walking the last mile (which at one point I was almost ready to do). As we neared the truck, I slowed for the last time that day. I unclipped my right shoe, Stephen and Josh sped on past. They had decided that since they were so close, they might as well do a century ride.
I was done. I pulled my bike over to the side, and Brent grabbed it from me, I lay my head into the seat of the truck for a moment while everyone packed up Steve and my bike into the truck. I don’t remember much else of what was happening. But after some gummy snacks and another bottle of cold water while we followed Josh and Stephen towards Quartzsite in the truck, I began to feel human again.
Stephen started doing the same things I had been doing, after about 10 more miles of riding. He was wavering along the white line, he was coasting. I knew that feeling. I wanted more than anything for them to complete their 100 miles, they deserved it. But by this point they were toying with some seriously extreme elements. 105 degrees, hours of exertion behind them, it was barely safe standing out in that heat, which was now bouncing back up from the black asphalt. The desert creatures had long since gone into their hiding places for the day. Even rattlesnakes aren’t out in this heat.
They made their 100 miles. By the time I got out of the truck, our small army of helpers was busy moving things around in the bed of the truck to make way for the final two bikes. Stephen and Josh bent over their bikes, resting on their elbows on the padded handlebars that had just brought them 100 miles. We became machines on these two wheels, dangerously slicing through the wind on 16 lb creations of the lightest man made components we could afford.
Cycling provides a new type of adrenaline not awarded in the same way that a sports car, or horse or super bike allows, but through the power put into it by our own bodies.
Our chase crew was starving. My body finally remembered that it was hungry, too. We ate at a pizza parlor in Quartzsite before driving the hour drive back home, drinking water and reliving our moments on the bike. Looking back at at the route as we drove home, there was a lot of the road I didn’t remember, too tired to look away from the white line in front of me.
It was hard to believe as we passed by the landscape we had just cycled through, that we had just ridden our bicycles through that same stretch of road in some 7 hours. I’ll never look at that drive the same way again.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” ~Nelson Mandela