On May 9, 2009, Alex participated in the annual “Tour of the Unknown Coast”, and his beautiful account of the ride is posted below.

This last weekend my friend Matt and I drove down to Humboldt California for “The Tour of the Unknown Coast”. One hundred miles, around 10,000 feet of climbing, and billed as “California’s toughest century ride”. (Note that there are rides/races longer and/or tougher than this in California; double-centuries etc. and of course stages in the Tour of California).

The words “ride” and “race” start and finish with “r” and “e”, just a couple of letters in the middle different, sometimes those two letters make a huge difference, other times not so much. Last Saturday I did my first “race” in a couple years. There wasn’t really much separating this from a real race: numbers, a mass start, neutral rolling support (awesome!), it was timed, a King of the Mountains competition on the first climb to get the fire lit, prize booty for the winner. Not to mention the fact that Humboldt Locals refer to the ride as “The Tour”, and a couple of the local shops represent with their full racing squad of 10-12 riders.

The event has drawn famous names like Lance Armstrong and Tinker Juarez. The Director, Vic Armijo has put the race on since 2004 and the man knows how to do a superb job. Vic has combined his passion for riding and organizing with the green hilled coastal beauty of Northern California to produce one of the most inspiring, challenging, and exciting rides I have done; and many others at the ride agreed, most I talked to had done the ride at least a few times previous (Ashland bike shop owner of Cycle Sport, Alex Hayes, was on his lucky 13th edition). I know it takes something special to get me out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and travel to a 7 a.m. start time…

I’m writing this report the day after the ride, in hopes you will read the most direct account. Before it becomes a fish story, you know, the climbs get longer and steeper, the winds get stronger, the descents get crazier, yadda yadda yadda.

The ride starts and ends in the coastal town of Ferndale, Ca. Pre-race getting going with food, driving, getting my number, deciding exactly how much clothes to put on, wishing I could get my “morning movement” on its way through before we hit the road, check bike, then get to the start line and look as cool as possible with hairy legs as to assert some sort of presence without bringing too much attention to myself (yes, in most cases bike racing is generally narcissistic, masochistic, and fashion forward.)

I saw a few friends from the OBRA racing scene who I had not seen in a while and it was nice to have some familiar rear ends to watch during the first part of the race. The group rolled out, a big number of u, not sure yet exactly how many, perhaps around 100. The first thirty miles were pretty flat, taking us east at a good clip through the low coastal delta and through the scenic “Avenue of the Giants” that winds its way through massive redwoods, perhaps the true long endurance organisms. We all chatted, ate food, started to shed layers and get the legs warmed up. A few of us getting a feel for the rest of the pack. After some of the first little rollers the group was a bit smaller as riders started to fall behind the pace.

Through some sections on the tree lined Avenue of the Giants the road was rough and chunky, adding a bit of a Paris-Roubaix meets Smoky the Bear feel to the ride. The sounds of bikes, bodies, bones, bottles, and brains rattling for the next few miles. Though it did serve to loosen everyone up for the traditional “nature break” where we all quickly dismount for a pee. This is a fact of riding the bike for more than five hours at a time: you learn to eat, drink, pee, and change clothes while on the bike. My release required a bit more than most, my morning movement was on its normal schedule. I quickly dashed into the woods, knowing that the group was only stopping for mere seconds then would be back on the road at race pace, and travelling in the draft of the group saves energy. You have to do what you have to do, and I knew what I had to do would be worth it. A few minutes and a couple of rocky “toilet paper” uses later I was back on the road, a bit lighter though now and a few minutes behind the main group, I would have to work on my own to get back up to the group.

I made contact with the group at the base of the first major climb, Panther Gap, an eight mile smooth switchback slice of climbing ecstasy. The first rider over the top of the climb would be crowned “King of the Mountains”, regardless of their final finishing place (a sort of race within the race). Besides a sweaty tiara the winner would receive a set of new tires, some socks, and a free entry into next year’s edition. Think of it as an economic stimulus check for spending lactic acid.

Up climb the group started to separate based on determining factors of: number of miles ridden uphill that year, ability to detach muscle synapses from brain receptors, and power to weight ratio i.e. who has eaten the least amount of ice cream.

On the way up I was grateful for Devony, the smiling happy woman in the neutral support car who patiently took my jacket, gloves, arm warmers, the sun was makng a grand and beautiful appearance today. The weather was perfect for riding bikes, Vic must have some good connections with the gods!

About three miles in I was off the front of the group and making way to claim first to the summit of the climb. At one moment taking my focus from my labored breathing to get an amazing view of the hills below shrouded in early morning fog, blue sky above, my legs, body and mind were all happy to be together and wanted nothing else, interesting that it sometimes takes a certain level of challenge and pain to get to this.

At the top of the climb a couple volunteers handed me up some energy gel, which when riding one thinks of simply as “calories” which are good, needed, fuel. I was on my way down. I had opened up a gap somewhere aroun two or three minutes, which left me in a moment of decision:

A) Slow down and wait for a couple people to bridge up and join me so we can work together along the windy flat sections, using a paceline and drafting to lighten the workload or…

B) Power on alone and hope I make my breakaway stick for the next 60 miles to the finish, knowing that the group behind may be working well together and if they caught up to me have some fresh riders ready to make an attack.

I thought, then decided to ask my Grandpas, I figured if anyone could see how the race was unfolding it was them on their wings flying above. This may sound cliche and sentimental, I find inspiration drawn from my blood to be powerful and wise. And they have been with me on all my rides, training and past races so they know me pretty well.

And the image they put in my mind, and the look on their faces when I asked, were big smiles and they simply said, “Go! Why would you do anything else. Just go!” and so I did. The looks on their faces were calm and confident.

Descending like a bumble bee in a windstorm trying to rush back to the hive, twisting on steep, fast, bumpy road. Adrenalin my pollen, sweat and smile my honey. I was happy to be making this descent solo so I could choose my own line and not worry about others in front of me. Although I did more overcooking than a teenager behind the broiler at McDonalds. (overcooking is a cycling term referring to coming into a corner with too much speed, narrowly avoiding launching off the road)

I finished the descent, crossed a steel trussed single lane bridge, saw a white arrow markig in the road and started to plow my lonely furrow west toward the Unknown coast through the smooth rolling hills. After a few miles I was not quite sure I had taken the correct path, I didn’t see any more road markings, signs, etc. for a while. I told myself that “No, Vic is not going to spend two weeks marking every mile of road just to reassure my under-oxygenated brain”. I was reassured when the road started to parallel a beautiful river and I noticed my direction was going with the current, down stream, towards the ocean, westward ho!

One thing I know, it’s easier to be in pain when I am surrounded by beauty, and for some reason, and perhaps this is the masochistic and narcissistic side, it’s easier for me to feel beauty when I am in pain. Such was the case for the next miles as the rolling roads along the Matol River, through the small town of Petrolia with the locals out waving.

The next miles were alone. Along the river, over the river, above the river, green, blue and cool. I told myself I need to come back here in sometime and just explore. Beautiful country.

After some miles I looked back to see a lone rider approaching, he was around a minute behind me though I knew it would be another six or seven miles before he finally made contact. Again, more choices:

A) I ease my pace a bit knowing that if he had some energy he would catch up and we could work together, and be confident in my climbing to know that once we hit the wall I could attack and solo in to the finish

B) Though if he was on the edge and used all his energy trying to bridge up and had no energy me slowing down would be for naught and I would have lost some of my lead over the main group.

I saw the Beach! The eight mile stretch of beautiufl hell, strong north headwinds attempting to mush me backwards, I had to be persistent. A mile later the lone rider, Nelson, connected and we made our way north along the coast. Wind whipping our faces, as we ground our gears and teeth. Trading pulls and resting in each other’s draft. Nelson was making some strong pulls and I was happy he bridged up. The next seven miles the wind was relentless, the road a bit rough, and it all mkes you just a tad crazy, which is good, because the absurdity of it makes it all feel easier too. The neutral support car made a check-in and gave us some calories and fluid, yeah!

The last stretch we could see the Wall looming ahead, a long steep pitch. Check the link below for pictures. I could write tomes about the rest of the ride, but I’ll make it simple: We hit the bottom of the climb, Nelson and I separated and I opened a gap that I would hold until the finish. Steep, hot, sweaty, lots of pain, smiling, newspaper man named Jose out taking pictures leap-frogging me in his truck setting up at picturesque switchbacks. The last section called “Endless Hills” really were endless, though very bucolic and pretty, reminding me of roads through the hilly country side of Swtizerland with narrow roads and amazing views.

The last bone-jarring miles into Ferndale were fun and fast. I finished with a time near five hours and ten minutes. I enjoyed taking in the warmth and congratulations of people at the finish line.

The amount of time it took you to read this was shorter than the amount of time I spent grinding my way up the infamous “Wall” near the end of the ride, a 20% grade beast rising up then switchbacking from the Lost Coast Highway like a cobra preparing to strike…

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