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The Big Click

Last year, I managed to do Cycle Oregon (with 34,000+ ft of climbing) on a tandem and 2 grand randonnees (3CR, and Natchez Trace 1500k).  After surgery, upheaval and sort of a new body, I can only describe a feeling of “was that me?” in response to thinking about 2014.

This year, I wanted to do a repeat of the Gila Monster 300k in Arizona.  That ride had been the beginning of the end of my health last year and I had been forced to walk to End of the World Climb.  I’d finished by the skin of my teeth alone at about 2:00AM.

Sometimes life is full of curious coincidences.  During the Gold Rush, I hit a rock during a torrential downpour on a mountain pass and only low pressure tires and lots of luck saved me from a major accident and kept me on my bike.  Another rider (probably just behind me) did not have the same luck and crashed – I truly think it was the same stinking rock.  She had impressively soldiered on but had lost too much time off the clock by the turnaround to make it.  We’d had a brief conversation at that point.  It turns out that we had a much longer conversation after the Gold Rush at the finishing party that I don’t remember (which speaks of how trashed I really was after that ride).

Whatever deep conversation we had must have struck an unconscious chord because it does rank as one of the few times I actively sought to figure out who the someone was and dig up an email address and write a letter, the start of which was probably something like “Uh, if you recently rode your bike 300 miles in the High Sierras during a storm, then did we meet at that Elks Lodge in Alturas?  And how is your life?  Otherwise, sorry to bother you and I am not a stalker”.   Chalk one up to my internet savvy, I got the right person.  We corresponded intermittently over a year and a half but never managed to have the stars align and meet again – okay she was in San Diego and I was in Minnesota – not like we were going to bump into each other at the grocery.  We discussed all sorts of esoteric ideas like maybe doing Race Across the West because there are only so many women around that can ride 400 miles on a bike and are  (kind of) sane.

So as I pondered doing a solo 300k Gila Monster, on a lark I decided that perhaps it was time to finally meet up on purpose.   I mean, how brazen do you have to be to ask someone you only remember meeting once to drive 4 hours, pick you up and spend the weekend riding in an obscure part of Arizona, far from any help (or say yes to the suggestion)?   Of course, the forecast for the 300k turned into a big rain fest too.

So when the door knocked at Dad’s house and I opened it, the person staring at me said, “I’m looking for Michele ____”.  Uh, that’s me.  She managed an exquisite recovery saying how my hair was different.  I later found out that I also looked either shorter or taller and a lot less like the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man. 

After getting lost on the way to Coolidge and a near visitation from the Ghost of Food Poisonings Past at dinner, we found ourselves at the start – but that turned out to put us ahead of the 9 people with a DNS.  A crowd of bikes and 188 miles of rain; it sure looked like the start of the Gold Rush…

The Gila Monster is a ride all about mental challenge.  The first 100k gains about 3,000 feet which is a false flat and spiritually draining.   It managed to be grey for at least an hour before the rain started.  I’ve done the section many times; the imperceptible climbing goes in a straight line for miles.  But the desert was verdant and there was little wind.  In fact, I hadn’t seen it that beautiful in several years and fortunately my companion had a camera (which I lacked).    I had had a horrible suspicion that she would simply wipe the pavement with me but every time I looked, she was right behind me not really interested in pushing the pace or needing to drop back.  We kept leap frogging riders with flats – I’ve never seen so many.  The rain got to be steady and light.  Not bad all things considered.  We cruised along at between 12-13 mph, occasionally switching places and chatting.  It’s mandatory to ride single file here and the rain became more persistent so we arrived at the control glad to be done with it.  Another rider passed us going the opposite direction, the first DNF of the day. 

At the control, two more people were DNFing.  There was food provided by Tom B – who is a super nice guy and a great rider.  He gave us an additional waterproof jacket and I really got the first look at her bike – almost the same gear as I had.  Despite the rain, she had the same attitude as I did, “I’m a really long way from being too miserable to quit”. 

After another 45 minutes, we found ourselves at the top of the first section of climbing. Having not had access to a restroom for 100k, we agreed to stop at the Circle K in Mammoth.  We pulled in with another rider, Will, who was also looking for some heat and food.  The same kind of donuts went down our throats and I finally got some caffeine (no coffee that AM in our tiny hotel room in Coolidge).  Will actually wound up buying my donut and was another companion for the rest of the ride.  For the record, I only eat donuts while riding – otherwise, I absolutely hate them.

The next hour or so went very quickly – we actually chatted quite a bit and it dried out a little.  Turns out she and I had almost exactly the same pace.   The conversation was engrossing and I vaguely remember glancing at my computer to see us going between 16 and 18 mph – I didn’t even notice the rain stopping.  I kept expecting one or the other of us to tire or speed up, but we rolled into Winkleman, halfway, at 2:30 pm still together.

At Winkleman were Tom, Carlton (the RBA), and his wife manning a well-stocked lunch stop.  There was plenty of food.  Carlton does such a great job on his rides – and though our little group was last, we were still in front of all the DNFs and DNSs.  There were also several others at the control who left shortly before we did.

Since things were going so well, the three of us started out and I immediately flatted joining the long list of others with flat tires.  Not a long stop, but a bit.   The next few miles were another pleasure and the only time we actually didn’t travel at the same speed was when we climbed since I had a 36 cog cassette and was consequently a little slower climbing; though she was somewhat envious of my pie-plate like setup.   But I was never too far behind.  We arrived at the End of the World climb at about 5:45 – still in daylight.

The End of the World is a little over a mile long, averages about 10% and has significant sections at 14%.  Last year, I was so exhausted I had to walk the whole thing in darkness.   This time, I had payback and though it wasn’t a simple climb, I made it up without a problem pulling up just as the sun started to fade and still in the daylight.   Both of us waited for Will at the top wondering what to do, but after about 5-10 minutes, he came up behind us.  Apparently, he thought that this was the second to last climb and was very relieved to find out that there was nothing steeper ahead.

The three of us started down the 10% grade on the other side in the now failing light.  I got ahead a couple times, probably because I had brought enough gear for a 1200k and my bike weighed about 50 lbs.  But the three of us rolled into Superior without any trouble.

I wound up changing batteries on my headlight, eating and going through gear for a bit longer than normal, but with basically 100k of flat to downhill, we had all significantly relaxed.  Tom was again there and said hello, loaning us an extra light.  The rain had returned (wasn’t it ever going to end?).  Though it rained for probably 85% of this ride, I never found that to be even remotely a downer.

So we had 25 miles to Gold Canyon, mainly downhill on AZ60.  This turned into Mister Toad’s Wild Ride with 60 mph traffic an unusable shoulder and rain.  My glasses fogged up and I could barely see, but I also couldn’t drop back in the traffic.  We finally got to a lower elevation and the rain finally petered out and the shoulder seemed to improve.  All’s well - right?

About 11 miles from Gold Canyon, I hit something on the shoulder – another front tire flat.  Getting off, we started quickly changing it.  I finally found a long nasty gash in the tube and we found a huge slash in the tire as though I had hit an 8” chef’s knife head on.  It took 2 tries to get a tire boot on and you could see the boot clearly through the gash.  We called Carlton; he had a tire and would meet us in Gold Canyon.  I honestly didn’t think the boot would be able to hold even that far.
Post ride phone shot.  My only photo of this whole adventure.

So we were all surprised when we made it to Gold Canyon without more issues.  There we stopped and got a bit more to eat.  Carlton’s wife dropped off a new tire, which we took with us figuring that it would be quicker to change the tire when it died and there was no more real descending.  We pulled out of Gold Canyon at about 9:30 in high spirits.

The next 37 miles were one of my favorite parts of the ride.  We rode side by side chatting about every topic under the sun.  Usually, I can’t maintain a pace while talking – this time I could and I think it was because I never had to think about how fast I was going.  Will rode behind us; I can’t tell if he was just really bored by the chat or perhaps was in his own world.  But as a threesome we descended into Florence and along the way to Coolidge.

About 3 miles outside town, we passed another rider who had also had tire-slashing adventures.  This turned out to be John, who I had finished the Gold Rush with – that made 3 people from the same 1200k 2 years before.  My tire somehow managed to survive the entire trip too.

So we finished in just under 17 hours feeling very strong, but perhaps glad to be done.    We piled into her Mazda and proceeded to drive about an hour and a half back to Dad’s for a welcome sleep.


The next day, we recovered, bought a new front tire and ate about 4 meals.  The day after, we did a 200k victory lap around the White Tank mountains securing another month in our parallel R12 quests.   Arizona also redeemed itself with excellent weather.  There was some big football game down the street in Glendale too....  We both discovered that each of us had come to the ride thinking the other one would leave us in the dust only to find that we both had a great deal in common and similar problems with the isolation that sometimes comes with not being as fast as everyone else seems to be.

I’ve done thousands of miles all over the country and ridden with some really accomplished riders.  Mostly, I’ve used at least some energy to match their pace and eventually dropped off or ridden by myself at some point.  Riding with someone else can be challenging and ultimately it is always true that you have to ride your own ride.

BUT… there are few things that come as close to perfection as riding with someone who is a match in pace, style, and personality for what amounts to over 300 miles.  When you ride in concert with someone else it can sometimes give you both a better ride than either of you would have ever have alone.  I can honestly say, I've never had such a blast on a ride and this was a ride where is rained at 48-55 degrees for about 12 hours.  I feel like I found a real friend on this ride, a rarity far greater than a simple finish, more valuable than any brevet medal.

I’d had a hard time trying to psyche myself up for the coming year.  It seemed like the sport was making me into a recluse and so many of the people I used to ride with were now gone.   I had mixed feelings about PBP and IronK had no interest in another Cycle Oregon.  I have found since my return from Arizona that my feelings about so many things are much brighter.   Even doing PBP again seems like it might be a really good thing.  Or maybe Race Across the West?  And now the Sunshine 1200k in Florida seems to be something to really look forward to. 

In any case, I’ve already bought my ticket to San Diego for the 600k in April.   I’m looking forward to riding again in all kinds of new ways (even in my spin classes). There was some kind of big click in my head, as though I’d found a cycling soul mate of sorts.   Not many people can inspire like that.  

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So thank you so much, Lisa Nicholson.  We shall ride again.
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