Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rockwell Relay: Panguitch to St George

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” -Lord Alfred Tennyson*

* This was sent to all of us by the Legend of Ivan's in response to Cap'n Rodzilla's pep-talk email.

Moab to St. George – Leg 9

Leg Notes
This leg boasts the steepest and longest climb with over 3500 feet of climbing over the 29 miles. You will start climbing immediately out of Panguitch entering the Dixie National Forest as the high desert landscape turns to mountain. Enjoy a short flat area as you bike around the scenic Panguitch lake at mileage 15.7. Continue the climbing as you reach above the 10,000 foot mark.

Elevation Map – Leg 9

By the time Rodzilla arrives in Panguitch it's after 9am, about 2 1/2 hrs later than we had anticipated. Leg 1 went faster and smoother than we could have hoped. Armed with that false sense of confidence in our abilities and the ease with which we could cover the 525 miles from Moab to St George, we started our second legs, only to be systematically and individually fed a large helping of humble pie. It started with the Fruita Incident, continued with Swedish Matt's debacle with Boulder mountain's never ending climb, treacherous cattleguards and unpredictable wildlife. That was followed by the Legend of Ivan's own trek through outer darkness which felt like it never ended and did in fact last more than four hours. Finally Rodzilla's Bryce Canyon Hill climb that pulled his average speed down to the 14mph range but left him paradoxically upbeat and optimistic. I'm assuming it's the captain's mantle that he's carried on his shoulder from the start. It might also be the fact that his rides are shorter and have less climb than the other cyclists. Whatever the reason, he's the only member of our crew that hasn't shifted gears from 'compete' to 'survive'. My guess is that it's only a matter of time before this race beats him into submission.

As our captain hands me the baton he yells after me: "Go get it! Redemption!" It's the thought that's been in my head, pretty much from the moment that Rodzilla and the Legend pulled me out of the dark corner of La Cueva Restaurant where I collapsed back in Torrey. It's been at the front of my mind and the subject of the dream thoughts that occupy my roadside naps and moments that I doze in the back of Rodney's truck. I feel like Humpty Dumpty, wondering if a miserable night on the most arduous road trip ever has been enough to put me back together again. Physically, setting aside the effects of sleep deprivation, I feel OK but my confidence is shot. I know the next leg would be a test even under the best of circumstances and we are far from that. I feel like I've let myself and the team down and yes, I want a chance to prove myself, more to me than to them, but this is a team relay and the team needs me to perform. Maybe not come up big, those dreams are gone in my mind at least, but get us over this mountain.
The elevation map doesn't even pretend kindness, this is going to be a 29 mile hill climb, only that's not exactly so. The cold, wet Spring has Cedar Break closed to traffic, the re-route takes me only to Mammoth Road (at 8800 feet) then adds an extra seven miles (and incidentally another 1000 feet of climb, mockingly dropping me down mountains only to make me climb them again) for a total of 36 miles and 4500 feet of climb. It would be daunting on my best day. Today it feels somewhere between extremely difficult and highly unlikely.

The mind games I've been playing leave me distracted and as I roll down main street out of Panguitch with Rodzilla's invitation to reach for redemption while it's still in within my grasp if only barely, I realize I've forgotten my gloves. It's a small thing but small things can bother you on a grand scale when you're on a bike for more than 2 hours. I flag the crew down as they pass me and show them my lack of gloves. They pull over and Rodzilla hands me the gloves in the middle of my first big hill climb. He's still animated, still appears optimistic to me on the bike but to the rest of the crew he admits that he's concerned; "I think [the deebs] may be in trouble boys." Is what he says. It's been less than 12 hours since he's last seen me ride and it's not a moment that either one of us has been able to put away or forget. These next 30 plus miles are going to be a gut check for both of us.

The road actually starts climbing almost immediately as you leave town. I decide to just tuck my head and keep my cadence. If I look at the terrain it's bound to crush what little confidence I have left. To my surprise the road flattens in spots and even has the occasional down hill stretch. They are short and few but enough to keep my legs from overheating.

The rest of Team SoP leaves me on that first hill and heads to the cabin where 3/4 of our wives have spent the night (Swedish Liz, Red Rider and La Canadienne). Their plan is to take a shower, get some breakfast and re-charge the batteries. Part of me wishes I could join them, at the same time I am happy to be finally covering the final miles I'm responsible for in this race. I'm told by the team that they will meet me somewhere near Panguitch Lake. The plan was always to coax our wives out to cheer us on. I had my doubts about that last part had we been rolling through as early as we planned. La Canadienne is many wonderful things, but happy in the morning is not one of them. I didn't see how rolling her out of bed in the early AM of her 'girls only cabin getaway' was going to be pleasant for anybody. Certainly I wasn't planning on getting off the bike to experience it first hand. If the crew wanted to risk getting in front of that, they could do it but leave me out. That's still my mindset when the boys come back to me in the truck about a mile from Panguitch Lake. They yell something like "There are women a couple miles ahead, good looking ones, probably one that you might like." I nod and tuck my head again. Tuck and pedal, that's been my mantra. I've covered 15 miles of this hill in about an hour and 15 minutes. The hills are only going to get steeper and higher in elevation but my confidence is also coming back. I feel good, maybe even strong and I wonder again how I could go from semi-invalid to climbing mountains literally overnight. I stop questioning it and begin to enjoy myself again.

While I've been tucking my head and concentrating on pedaling at the exclusion of anything else, the rest of our team has been bathing and breakfasting, getting cuddled and coddled.

To look at them you would never suspect the physical and mental beatdown that has made up the last 24 hours of all our lives. I want to resent it, to rail about the how unfair it is and except for two important considerations, I would. First, in less than two hours I will be done and second I still feel like some penance should be paid for not fulfilling my second leg obligations. Missing a hot shower and warm breakfast seems a small price in comparison. Also, the Legend has gone stag to this party, so no cuddling for him, at least he & I are in that boat together.
Unbeknownst to me, La Canadienne is awake and in good spirits. She's donned some strawberry flavoured lip gloss and is prepared to give me a hero's welcome and a little home cookin'. The other side of that kiss, had it taken place, would have tasted of sweat, sunscreen, road dust and desperation. It would probably have been the last kiss La Canadienne ever sent my way, not a good note to go out on.
I look up for maybe only the third time in the last twenty miles to see the team and our cheering section roadside.

I blow a few kisses to my favorite Canadian, give the boys a thumbs up and tuck my head again and keep pedaling.

I'm feeling strong now and determined. The thought to stop and rest a while, get a hug and an attaboy never crossed my mind. Any discretionary saddle time I may have had got used up last night (and then some). My only focus at this point getting to the top of this mountain.

The rest of the team is appalled and apologetic. La Canadienne says she understands but she and Swedish Liz hop in our minivan and chase me down anyway.
They surprise me into a smile, again probably the first one since the Fruita Incident. La Canadienne tells me I'm almost done. I'm actually 18 miles of hill climb from done but I don't tell her that. I reach out and hold her proffered hand for a few feet, thank her for cheering me on and I'm back to work.

The extra 7 miles and 1000 feet of climb were more crippling mentally than they were physically and by the end of my ride I'm again disappointed that I get re-routed before I can ride above even 9000 feet. I push hard on the last few hill climbs , the last as per tradition, guarding the exchange point. The last 1/2 mile is a neutral to 1% grade and I manage to jump out of the saddle and sprint out my last few hundred relay yards. I hand the baton to Matt and I'm smiling again, not in in triumph per se, but more from relief at being finished and no longer feeling broken. I feel, in fact energized, almost sad that I'm not riding any longer. Almost. When I see what's in store for Swedish Matt I'm back to feeling relieved ...

Moab to St. George – Leg 10

Leg Notes
After a short climb a long decent awaits you. At mileage 2.1 take a right to pass by Cedar Breaks National Monument on the right with incredible views of the red cliff formations. Take a right at UT-12 to begin the steep and beautiful descent to Cedar City and exchange location at the Main Street Park.

Elevation Map – Leg 10
This leg was supposed to be be Swedish Matt's reward for his Mule Canyon/Boulder Mountain hill climbs. The original map (shown above) had him climbing 500 feet over 4 miles. I had it in my mind that I would accompany him to the top. It seemed silly for me to ride to 10,400 feet and not reach the summit. The reroute has me handing him the baton at 8800 feet, leaving him about 1800 feet of climb over not four miles but more like fourteen. Another sucker punch from a race that has already beaten us pretty much senseless. In the end we have only ourselves to blame for what we're going through but this last detour feels very much like the proverbial last straw ... oh that it were. When I was discussing predicted finish times with La Canadienne's family I mentioned the number of variables that could affect it. I didn't have any idea.

We cut Swedish Matt loose and Rodzilla tells me that the folks at this exchange have less than cheery news re: the final two legs. Apparently the wind, which has for the most part been a non-factor so far has decided to wait until the final 100 miles to make its presence felt. When given a choice I will always start my ride going into the wind and let it blow me home. We obviously have no choice, the wind is coming out of the Southwest at 25 mph, gusting to 40. Our remaining 110 miles will pretty much take us right into the teeth of it. We leave the exchange station with this description (provided by an almost giddy exchange point volunteer from St George). "As you drop from Enterprise to St George it's going to feel like riding your bike in a convection oven. It's going to be 110 degrees and blowing so hard it goes down your helmet and your jersey and bibs until it feels like it's cooking you from the inside." Happy thoughts there and for the first time in the last 30 hours our (up till now) fearless leader starts to look nervous.

Rodzilla stands on a mound of snow at 10,800 feet. It's his one and only King of the Mountain victory. Too bad he didn't get here on a bike.

When we catch Swedish Matt he's laboring mightily on a 10% grade that he should never have been required to see, let alone climb. We're five miles into his ride and we go back to the "tell me what I got left" drill. Like Boulder mountain, the news is grim. Hill, flat, short/cruel descent (because it means another hill), rinse repeat; pretty much for 10 more miles. At this point even the Legend of Ivan, that paragon of patience, begins cursing to himself.

When we finally reach the true summit we pull over for a photo/video shoot. This has become increasingly difficult as the road fills with weekend traffic. In the southeast desert we would see another vehicle about every 5 or six miles, now we have to pull onto the shoulder at freeway speeds and try to stop before we hit a downed tree or roll into a ditch. With Cedar breaks closed, the road we are on is the only artery from Cedar City to Panguitch and Bryce canyon. The motorists we encounter are beyond impatient. They are surly, angry, on a personal vendetta to rid the world of cyclists it would seem. Lots of what I like to call the NASCAR contingent is present, trucks, gun racks and drift boats on trailers aplenty. Swedish Matt averages about oneredneck salute* every ten minutes. One particularly disgruntled trucker actually crowds him onto the shoulder, trying to see how close he can get without actually hitting him. Like a one way game of chicken. This rage against Bike races/riders continues pretty much the entire 25 mile descent into Cedar City. The road is tight, very little shoulder and steep. Swedish Matt is forced to occupy the three feet of real estate between vehicular traffic and the guardrail while trying to dodge fallen rocks, potholes, uneven asphalt ... all while maintaining a 40+ mph speed. So much for his cakewalk. As I write this I realize, if given the choice again I would stick with the Cyclist #1 duties. It's not just the devil that I know, it's probably the kindest leg, despite the hills. No night riding (assuming you don't bonk in Fruita), no miserable cold temps, no death defying mountain descents.

*The inclination of operators of diesel trucks to gun their engines at the precise moment that their tailpipe is passing a cyclist, producing an impressive black cloud of exhaust. It's a practice so common I wonder if there's a section in the truck owner's manual about it.

The exchange station in Cedar City is sponsored by the Saints to Sinners bike race:
A 500 mile bike relay from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas Nevada. I think (but don't mention out loud) that this is the wrong exchange station to try to pitch this idea. We're 440 miles and 29 hours into our current race. I've long ago wondered how soon I will be required to get on my bike again. We're supposed to all finish the last two blocks together but even that seems a lot to ask at the moment. I'm pretty sure most of the cyclists who got here before we did, feel the same way. I turn to ask Rodzilla who in their right mind would sign up for that race after what we've been through but I see he left as soon as he saw what this guy was selling. What's really on Rodzilla's mind is the wind which is currently gusting all around us and shaking summer leaves from the trees in the park beyond the exchange point. Swedish Matt is forced to pedal the last two downhill miles out of Cedar canyon at 18mph. There's something fundamentally wrong with pedaling downhill. It demoralizes you and, this is just my opinion, saps more energy even than climbing hills. The race has been more than challenging already. We've been tested and to a man pushed to our limits and beyond but these last 80 or so miles promise to push the Legend and Rodzilla deeply into the red.
Moab to St. George – Leg 11
Leg Notes
After leaving Cedar City make the 1,000 foot climb to the Iron Mountain Pass where early Utahn’s settled in 1850 as part of the “iron mission.” After the pass at mile 30.0 arrive to the quaint town of Newcastle and follow the Bench Road through the ranchlands until you arrive to Enterprise.

Elevation Map – Leg 11

I remembering looking at this leg and thinking 'easy as it gets, on this race at least.' The elevation map makes Iron mountain look like Gumdrop mountain from the Candyland, just avoid the molasses swamp and you get a lollipop at the top. The last 30 hours of reading and cursing the race Bible have taught us different. The climb will be far from gentle on the best of days and the Legend is currently battling a gusting 25 mph headwind out of the southwest. Rodzilla, who has been irritable pretty much since he got the bad news re: riding conditions into St George back at the Cedar Breaks exchange point, is now down right cranky. I'm reminded of Swedish Matt's 1 year old son, Gabe sitting through Elder's quorum during his nap time ... both of them could use a binky and a security blanket at times like these. We pass the Legend and offer him water, a push? Maybe a tow rope? He refuses all of it, tucks his head and ambles on. We pace him for a few hundred yards and Rodzilla disconsolately tells us "He's only making eleven mph guys." We're 75 miles from the finish, it's three in the afternoon and Rodzilla knows, if the Legend, the most compact and wind friendly cyclist on the team, can only go eleven mph hour, Rodzilla the human weather vane on wheels will probably be down in the nine mph range. They close the finish line at 9pm, at our current rate of speed it's gonna be close.

It's Matt who comes up with the idea to 'Give him a pull'. By that he means get back on our bikes and serve as a windbreak for him to draft behind. I'm not anxious to ride again, my interaction with the Saints to Sinners rep confirmed that for me, but I remember the Fruita incident, Swedish Matt's conquest of Boulder Mountain and the Legend's lonely, frozen wanderings in the Grand Staircase Escalante Monument and the decision isn't difficult at all. So we get out of the trucks, dodging flying road debris, tumbleweeds and the occasional dust devil and mount up.

We ride with the Legend until he reaches the top of Iron mountain and then we cut him loose. The lift was more symbolic and emotional than physical. We move faster than he did alone, but only slightly, but gesture is what matters to the Legend and he responds to it exactly as we had hoped. My plan from the start (before I was broken that is) was to ride the last leg with Rodzilla and finish together. It's what I'm thinking as we cut the Legend loose again to battle the wind alone. If I'm going to be any use to our team captain I need to finish the rest of this leg in the truck.

At this point, with the exception of the occasional, barely audible "it's not fair, this wind, it's not fair" grumble, Rodzilla has stopped talking all together.

Moab to St. George – Leg 12

Leg Notes
What better way to finish the Rockwell Relay than with a 3,000 foot plus decent into St. George. Pass through the cedar and juniper rich mountains south of Enterprise and then descend down through the ancient volcanoes near Veyo. The route follows the St. George Marathon route into downtown. Obey all traffic rules and stoplights in St. George. If desired the 3 team members can meet up with Cyclist #4 near the top of Diagonal St. to finish the last mile of the course together. Go through the 2 roundabouts and then you will immediately see the finish line. Victory! You have made it and deserve a good rest and time to relax. The St. George Town Square park is the ideal place to sit, lay down, or wade in water to cool off and get the rest you need. Congratulations!

Elevation Map – Leg 12

Rodzilla's last ride is the stuff of epic poems. I wish we had more thoroughly documented it. It's the kind of moment that demands an over the top soundtrack like Wagner's Ride of the Valkyre or Rossini's William Tell Overture. Unfortunately sleep deprivation and road fatigue have beaten the urge to record what's happening out of us. Besides that, what actually transpired was a surprise to everyone, not least of all Rodzilla himself. We arrived at the final checkpoint, sponsored by a St George bike club, just as they were pulling down their signage and shade canopy. Not an encouraging signal for a team that already feels beaten. The information we've gleaned re: our position in the race has been sketchy and all over the map. Anywhere from seven to thirteen teams behind us. No way to know which, if any of those teams have dropped out completely. The fact that we are apparently closing down the final exchange point is downright depressing.

There's at least one other team out though, we know this because we've been playing leap frog with their support vehicle, a gold colored Toyota Tundra (in fact let's call them team Toyota) for the last 450 miles. Their anchor man turns out to be a cyclist almost as big as Rodzilla (I noticed 'Zilla pulls a Swedish Matt and never stands close enough for us to eyeball the height differential, he may not win the race but he wants to hold onto his 'largest man on a bike' title). The dry hot wind has Team Toyota's anchor feeling mean as well and the two stand in the shade and complain to each other like a pair of old ladies over a backyard fence. At some point they make a pact to ride this race out together. the Legend of Ivan actually arrives a few minutes before Team Toyota's #3 cyclist and Rodzilla holds his horses until his new found escort is ready to roll.

This ride is mostly descent but there's a 1000 feet of climb as you leave Enterprise. Rodzilla charges up the hill and into the wind, flanked by Team Toyota's big man and a rover, one of team Give's (they of the cyclist with the broken neck) members who came to ride, not to give up. He's been playing point man for Team Give 2 and his remaining Team Give 1 members since Boulder Mountain.

I won't lie, I was worried for Rodzilla. It's hot, windy and he hadn't been acting like himself for hours now. As they reach the top of their climb I see that things were going to be OK, rather than surviving the hill they are powering through it. They reach the top and begin what will be an off and on 35 mile descent into St George.

Rodzilla was made for rides like this, as the grade goes flat to negative he starts rolling like a runaway freight train. Soon his ride companions are drafting off him and struggling to keep up.

As Rodzilla disappears down the hill I think to myself we better roll and don't spare the horses or we aren't going to beat him to the finish line.

Veyo Hill

We pull off in Veyo, the last town between us and the finish line. The road drops into the town at a 6% negative grade. I stand roadside with a water bottle feeling like a chipmunk waiting to be flattened by an 18 wheeler. Some things you have to experience for yourself, they can't be explained, handing a water bottle to Rodzilla when he's coming in hot is one of those things, but I will try. I would imagine standing in a valley watching an avalanche drop down the mountain toward you would be similar. At this speed Rodzilla absolutely thunders down the road, he's more a force of nature than a bike rider; the air feels like it's being torn apart as he passes. He flings a half full water bottle in my direction and I brace for impact. The bottle narrowly misses my head, but I cringe and Rodzilla misses high on the bottle grab, nearly pulling my right arm from its socket. I'm reminded of the time some friends of mine tried batting mailboxes from the back of a speeding truck like we saw on the movie Stand By Me. It felt the way they described it, like somebody looped some rope around your wrists and attached the other end to a galloping horse. They only tried it once before deciding although sounded fun and looked exciting in the movie, in practice it was too painful. They didn't give up though, after their initial attempt that they would stop the truck and bash the mailbox* while standing next to it instead. Had I experienced the near amputation bottle exchange earlier in the race we would have had to come up with a similar solution for Rodzilla (making him stop and bashing him with a baseball bat would probably be unproductive but with the way my arm felt the thought was tempting).

*La Canadienne points out every time we are mistreated by motorists on our bike rides that I am receiving my Karmic just desserts for a deliniquent youth. I deserve the abuse, she does not. If she thought it would make a difference I'm sure she would ride without me but motorists, especially those driving diesel pick-ups, are apparently not governed by Karma

Veyo hill (made famous by the St George Marathon, see above) is the last hill to climb, or so Rodzilla is told. But of course that's a lie. When we're done Rodzilla threatens to tattoo "that's the last hill" on the forehead of the next person who dares utter those four syllables. We catch 'Zilla and his entourage (now about 10 cyclists including the fragmented remains of Team(s) Give) as they climb Veyo hill. I ask Rodzilla if he needs anything more before we bolt for the finish and he responds with his own prayer to the diety of scatlogy. He's been pushing into the red for the last thirty miles, the placement of this hill, so close to the end, feels like it might finish him. Talking to him about it later he doesn't remember the conversation. At the time his world is going from red to black as his heart rate soars close to 200 beats a minutes and his quadriceps scream at him to back off, but of course he doesn't. He holds the wheel in front of him and manages to pull out in front again as the road levels. This is the last time however, Rodzilla will ride with the peloton for another 5 miles or so, and then, risking a breach in protocol, he puts the hammer down, opens all four barrels of the carburetor and pushes his foot to the floor. Momentum = mass x velocity. What we are observing is momentum cut loose with minimal forces opposing it. Have you ever seen video of the running of the bulls in Pamplona? What happens here is kind of like that. Like a herd of bulls crazed with testosterone and cut loose on a narrow cobblestone road, the one man Rodzilla train storms down the mountain toward the unsuspecting denizens of St George.

I tell Swedish Matt (again) we better hustle or he will catch us.

I call dregger and tell him we're coming in (hot) and ask him to meet us and film the finish if he can get there in time. He arrives, I hand him the camera and we mount up to ride to Rodzilla. I assume we'll have to go at least a mile, maybe two, and the question in my mind is "How far do we want to ride before we stop?" Before I can give it voice, the question is answered by Rodzilla who is stopped at a red light not two blocks from the finish line. Unlike the famous Spanish bulls, Rodzilla obeys traffic laws (out of necessity he later admits, the traffic never allows a charge through the intersection) but he looks as irritated as a crazed bull at a red light. The light turns green and we barely have enough time to make U-turn and latch on to Rodzillas coattails. Later when I ask what happened? We were supposed to finish together and that came very close to not happening, if it indeed did, Rodzilla responds: "The light turned green and I just started accelebrating*."

*Accelebrate: verb The involuntary charge to the finish line of a race, disregarding fans, well- wishers and teammates who will only slow you down. See also: accelebration noun

We manage to link up with Cap'n runaway freight train and the accelebration begins. Rodzilla finishes the race the way I hoped to finish LOTOJA 2010: both arms raised to the heavens and bellowing a war-cry of victory. True, we've probably only beaten half a dozen other teams but we finished and at the moment we couldn't be happier with the accomplishment.

Next up: Rockwell Relay Day 3, Epilogue

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