A Case for Suffering: Climbing up the walls
Eighteen pairs of circulating lower limbs, synchronized by spirit in pursuit of distance. Upper bodies still, mostly, though some gave way to the rock and teeter under the pressure of tempo.
We were a beast on the road, at first a bit uncoordinated, then all so familiar with each others’ hind quarters and rear hubs that we could call ourselves a legitimate peloton.
Six days. Almost 700 miles. Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, powered by bike and the will to survive. Some were seasoned veterans of thousands of miles. Others had never ridden a bike for 100 miles in a single day ever before. Every one of us, among this spectrum of capability, was determined to ride until we dropped.
This was the “Ride to Vegas,” a pilgrimage of sorts for Specialized, which had invited some of its dearest friends, in the form of its top dealers, and assorted other fluff (myself included), to join them in sharing its passion: a really long bike ride.
Equal parts suffering and pampering, agony and bliss, but ultimately and unequivocally exceptional in every way, the ride is known to possess transformative powers. Riders go in one person and leave a better version of themselves. You know the saying, “What rides to Vegas, rides away much faster.”
The route and the weather were equal parts paradise and epic slog, while the support was never anything short of perfect (Guided by Western Spirit, satiated by leapfrogging minivans filled with foodstuffs aplenty, driven by massage therapists that would cure us every evening, and supported by Zane Freebairn, Specialized mechanic extraordinaire, we were feeling mighty pro.)
Day 1: Salt Lake City to Nephi, ~110 miles (Some of us threw in some bonus miles to climb Mount Nebo.)
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Day 2: Nephi to Fish Lake, ~103 miles
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Day 3: Fish Lake to Escalante, ~110 miles
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Day 4: Escalante to Cedar City, ~120 miles (due to alarming knee pain, I hitched a ride in the support van for some of this day. Read about it below.)
Day 5: Cedar City to Mesquite, Nev. ~115 miles
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Day 6: Mesquite to Las Vegas, ~120 miles
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As for the riders, chatter matured throughout the week that this was one of the strongest groups, as a whole, ever, in the six-year history of the ride. Sure, everyone had weak moments and strong spells — sometimes those sensations vacillated within the same day — but what was most remarkable was the fact that the strong used their collective strength to keep the group together, rather than blowing it apart. You don’t get that on every group ride.
Nor do you have the opportunity to absorb observations like these, all of which make a great case for the benefits of suffering.
Colder than Hell
Day 3 included a trip over Boulder Mountain, then a passage through a dreamscape: the Hogsback region of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The petrified dunes of lumpy, rust-colored sandstone are dotted with green junipers and vermilion cliffs of the Escalante Mountains to the north, and the long, dark silhouette of the Kaiparowits Plateau on the southern horizon. A labyrinth of deep channels and canyons stretches like spider webs all around, and a sinuous ribbon of road surface named the Hogsback snakes along a ridge with fatal dropoffs on either side.
Could it be the perfect road?
Drip, drip, drip. The rains started to fall as we rose from the red rock valley near Torrey, into the alpine architecture of volcanic Aspen groves of Boulder Mountain.
Ascension brought descending temperatures, and the inner warmth brought on from the climb couldn’t entirely stave off the damp chill. We had many miles to go; we were only getting colder. We crossed paths with one of the support vans and donned another layer. We should have gone with four.
As we climbed higher into the mists, the riders began to drop like the water from the sky, faster and harder. Soon it was down to three strong and, perhaps, ill-advised, souls: myself; Rich Bartlett, who is as solid a man on or off the bike that I have met; and Joe Howard, a Texan with saturated arm warmers and grit.
Higher, colder, quieter we rode. We each turned in on ourselves, mustering the strength to push through the agony. At least I did. I knew I needed the company with which to suffer, because that made everything slightly more palatable. You hurt, I hurt. We all hurt together.
And then there were two. After falling and rising with hope around every curve, Rich and I finally spotted a speck of sun far in the distance. With a flick of our chins, we pointed; we intended to get to that pocket of ecstasy as fast as possible. At 205 pounds, I couldn’t fathom how Rich had climbed beside me. But now I knew it was my turn to dangle, sitting in his spray if I needed to and enjoying the ride if I could. There were only 50 more miles of hellish wetness to absorb. I couldn’t do it alone; I couldn’t have asked for a better partner than a man who wore jerseys with his name on them, with Block Bikes across the chest, a man built like a block of concrete.
We plunged downward, through a thousand beestings of hail, through layers of frigid air, into pockets of tepid mist, and back again. As we fell into the town of Boulder, we fell into harmony. The shivering had stopped, braking was conceivable, and supple flesh replaced the wooden logs that rotated beneath us.
We were now headed for Hell’s Backbone, the Hogsback, and on to the town of Escalante, across what may be one of the most exotic and gorgeous stretches of road in North America. And we were doing it on a perfect machine. It was magic. When you come from misery to such a place of beauty (not to mention the hallucinogenic qualities of mild hypothermia), the juxtaposition is divine.
We later learned that our support van had suffered a flat tire, and that most of the 18 riders hitched rides from the mountain in the guide vans because they were so cold. Rumor has it that one rider, who shall remain nameless, but who has likely designed a bike you have ridden in your lifetime, had to be undressed because he was so incredibly cold and lost the use of his hands.
Rich and me? We wandered on. We steamed ahead. We chose to go. You don’t really know what warmth and beauty are until you shake hands with misery.
She didn’t know she was the strongest rider in the group. She didn’t know that a number of us were more in awe of her efforts than we were of the “strongest” riders in the bunch, those that could be found churning harmoniously at the front of the group rather than drifting delicately off the back, like a baby duck, as she would. It’s lonely on the road with only the sounds of a Ford Econoline 16-passenger van chortling behind to keep you pursuing the horizon line. But April Marschke kept pursuing.
We were mesmerized by that fact, of course. After all, she had never ridden a century before, yet she awoke each morning — as far as I could tell she was always smiling — ready to do something she had never put her body through, on consecutive days, over breaking terrain. And for what? Because she wanted to. I was more impressed because she wholly embodied the person I wished to be: a person whose standards of what was possible knew no bounds and, therefore, was never fueled by the inferno of ego, but rather the slow burn of a willful soul and a powerful resolve. She did more than I did.
So what if she was off the back at times; it can be peaceful back there. Who cared if she couldn’t take a pull when we cruised along the flats; hard is relative, and riding nearly six consecutive centuries would be like asking Dan Hughes, four-time winner of the Dirty Kanza (who was also on the ride, as owner of Sunflower Outdoor and Bike), to do something preposterous that he had never done before. Hey Dan, want to impress me? You’re going to have to go out and ride six Dirty Kanzas in six consecutive days. 1,200 miles. On dirt. Then I’ll take notice. Until then, April is my inspiration.
Transformative. What is true for the mind is true for the body. You think you can, but you never know. And then it happens; you start, you finish, and all that other stuff in between gets swept into the muscles and memory like fuel for the fire. You’ve climbed a single rung on the ladder. If you keep thinking and doing, eventually you reach the top of a wall. Turn around and see what you’ve climbed. You’re on the second floor. It’s a concept of progression we’re likely all familiar with. When you see it in person, over 700 miles, within a tightly knit cycling family, it is captivating.
A good punk band
Pain: Some want some; some can only run.
Flavors sharp and mild, piercing and dull.
There are those that relish the fruits of perseverance in the face of pain. And there are those who crumble, collapsing inward under the weight of what is uncomfortable.
There can be ecstasy in agony — on the other side at least. But whether we fold or only furrow our brow, we learn something of what it means to be alive, just by feeling. If we’re willing to enroll for hard lessons.
After my breakaway with Rich, where we pummeled each other just to keep from freezing, I realized only the next day that my seatpost had slipped. I had ridden hard for hours with a saddle height a half-inch too low. The following day, the left knee recited a poem entitled, simply, “Ouch.”
With every pedal stroke, I inched toward debilitating pain. And then I could go no more. If I was to ride again on this trip, I thought, I better set that ego aside. I jumped in the support van, only to be convinced to ride again that day, downhill, in support of April and Heather Rizzi whose ankle was giving her fits.
Over the course of the next two days, from all the moving, shaking, shifting, posturing, flexing, and pedaling, I developed some hefty saddle sores. From all the sitting on the saddle, unable to stand because of my knee, my sit bones slowly but steadily began to feel like they were fracturing. The ache and the chafe were excruciating.
Daggers in my taint, that’s the only way I could think to describe the pain. Dan Hughes could only respond, “That’s a good punk band!”
I was looking down the barrel of 120 desert miles on the last day, into the cauldron — something only a select few were asked to do, as the rest of the bunch were transported into the Valley of Fire to make the last day more bearable. I would wake in darkness, muscle on my chamois, and saddle up. “I’ll be there, climbing up the walls.”
And then I would shrink in pain for the next seven hours.
There is ample evidence to suggest that I’m a masochist: I prefer cyclocross; I write this column; I’m a board member for a member-based organization. And now I can add to that list the sixth day of the Ride to Vegas. In fact, I’m certain I’ve never voluntarily stayed in such a state of pain as long as I did that day.
Some of us like to conquer demons, attach value to fortitude, attempt to derive strength from tenacity, unlock the door to the house of the unknown. Some of us, maybe, just like to tell good stories after the fact; this often means living through hell. Some of us see our lives as experiments, and are willing to push into uncomfortable places in the name of science, discovery, and introspection.
Some of us just wanted to ride our damn bikes to Vegas.
I was all of these things on this day. Though most people would call me senseless if they knew the severe displeasure I was feeling — at times I would collapse onto the saddle with sighs of deflation after holding a levitated position for as long as I could — I was proud to have lived through it. I grew stronger, albeit after the fact, when my loins had recovered. I know myself better; what was once an unknown sanctum in my catalog of experience is now a familiar, though horrid, precinct.
And now I know what it looks like from the top of this wall.
Editor’s note: Velo managing editor Chris Case has spent enough time racing parking lot criteriums to know there are far more enjoyable ways to spend time racing and riding a bike. In his quest to find pain and pleasure in equal measure, he has sought out the most unique, challenging, and captivating competitions to test his mind, body, and equipment. Follow along with his experiment to ride the best and most difficult courses, the iconic and the emerging, the most punishing and most promising, on- and off-road. Live vicariously through him, poke fun at him, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @leicacase. Questions or concerns for his well-being? Send him a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Specialized covered trip expenses for Chris Case’s Ride to Vegas.