With my left thigh cramping and ride support stretched between two groups still out on the road, no man's land was no place to be. 65 tough miles behind me, at the corner of Clark Rd and Highway 1 I climbed off the bike and into the Photo Van with Daniel and Chris. Did I have anything left in the tank – perhaps – but this epic day which began just after 8 am in Sausalito had tested me in many ways I hadn't imagined.
For the Rapha Continental squad and a few invited guests, 35 miles of Pacific rollers and formidable climbing still stood between them and the final, merciful descent into Occidental. The van pulled back on to the highway and sped after the six riders we knew were ahead. We hoped the main support vehicle was with the other group, but we wouldn't have that answer for another four hours.
I don't believe my words can do justice to the magic of this ride. It will live on in my memory, acquiring a mythic status through countless re-tellings. Here's what I remember.
It began on the rocky, root-strewn slopes of Mt. Tam's Old Railroad Grade (from the bottom). First time I'd ridden anything remotely like this on a road bike with 23s. If you had any doubts whether a carbon Cervelo (SLC-SL) could take a pounding, here was an answer. I went down once early on, after the front wheel bounced off a big rock and then a root in quick succession. Scrambling back on I struggled to find the right line, fish tailing in loose gravel and working hard to avoid fallen branches. This went on for some time before the slope eased and the surface improved to more predictable hard pack.
Eventually the path pointed down and we lost a few hundred feet corkscrewing from turn to turn through muddy washes and tumbled stone, emerging on pavement at last for the climb to the summit. It took a few minutes for the reality of the first hour to sink in. I'm not sure why it surprised me so much, I'd enjoyed reading about the unpaved sections the Continental guys had ridden in Oregon. I guess I just didn't think it would happen to me. And now I know you can ride a road bike just about anywhere if you have to.
If Rapha has an uncanny gift for choosing fabric, incredibly they're equally adept at finding great people.
Daniel Wakefield Pasley, who out of necessity was navigating while recovering from flu, is the wordsmith and designer for the Continental site. Quick and funny as hell, he casually demonstrated no-hand trackstands to no one in particular during one rest stop. Slate Olsen, Rapha's new US G.M. since January seemed to immediately fit in. I won't soon forget him hanging back to ride with me down the length of Marshall Petaluma Road and for insisting I get my ass over the backside of the Marshall Wall. That climb owned me, and it was only my unwavering focus on Slate's back that kept me going.
The next vignette provided one of the lighter moments in the ride and might help put cycling's recent doping problems in perspective. After I'd abandoned and the van had caught up with the back of our split, Cole - who sports an amazing handlebar moustache and will ride as part of Rapha's West Coast squad - was pounding his fist into his right thigh trying to relieve a cramp. I reached into my pocket and produced an Endurolyte tablet, and relayed it to Chris sitting in the passenger seat of the Van. We pulled alongside Cole, and Chris said "Take this" Cole didn't ask what it was or hesitate for a moment. He just swallowed and kept riding. The Van erupted in laughter.
We stopped a ways up the road to let Chris capture a pretty pastoral scene with his Leica. I'm looking forward to his images... he shot nothing but film in 35mm and medium format. Brave man. Ira and Jeremy crested the roller we were standing on like an express train heading West.
Cole's situation was deteriorating. He gutted it out for another six miles before signaling for us to pick him up. Now there were five still moving and the pace was picking up with Ira and Jeremy driving on the front.
Our van moved ahead of the riders again and waited at the junction of Hwy 1 and the penultimate climb up Bay Hill Road. The plan all along had been to photograph the riders on this scenic stretch of asphalt as it wound upwards. We didn't have to wait long. Ira and Jeremy were motoring now, and made the sharp right-hander on Bay Hill without touching their brakes. Reluctantly when we didn't follow they circled back to regroup and find out what Chris wanted.
The late afternoon light was getting good - the off-shore haze acting like a giant diffuser. Instinctively I knew I was going to miss some incredible images. The camera I'd packed last minute was somewhere out there, lost with the main SAG wagon. I'd have to settle for watching Chris work.
We opened up the van's rear lid so he could shoot out the back and then started up the road. Immediately Ira and Jeremy separated themselves from the other three as they repeatedly threatened to overtake us. I could see Ira was getting the bit between his teeth and our presence was becoming a minor annoyance. He was flying. Several times we yelled to DWP to step on it "He's coming, he's coming hard" And then Ira flatted (flat number three).
With my day done, one of my tubes was quickly put to good use. Ira preferring his frame pump to the C02 cartridge I offered up. Clearly he wanted to get going. The change took him all of three minutes.
Moving again, we just managed to stay ahead of Ira and Jeremy. Copses of trees, old wooden barns, moss-etched fencing and vistas of buckled and rippling hills passed dramatically behind them. Being there without a camera was like watching someone else make love to your wife. Editor's note: Of course those of you who like that sort of thing, would never be without a camera, right? I'm sure Chris got great stuff here.
At that point the cumulative climbing for the day was nearing 10,000 feet, but they were far from done yet. A few more miles on Highway 1 led them to Coleman Valley Road, the KOM for Stage 1 of the Tour of California two days later. Again we waited at the corner to be sure the riders knew where they were going. They did.
The first mile and a half of this climb is brutal, as bad as the opening salvo on Stage 3's Sierra Road in San Jose. This was where Ira Ryan dropped the hammer. Out of the saddle he climbed like he had wings, and nothing - not the slope, the photography or other riders was going to delay him from his appointment in Occidental. We got one last shot of him perfectly silhouetted against the Pacific and the descending sun before he was gone. Just gone. Probably the most inspiring bit of climbing I've ever seen first hand.
Jeremy arrived a minute or so later, still moving deliberately. We clapped for him and shoved him up the road.
The final three were a way's back and grinding themselves to a point on the steep Coleman Valley stone. We staggered ourselves at twenty yard intervals yelling and pushing them as one by one, they rounded the corner where the slope eased and started the last undulating six miles to Occidental.
By the time we got into town the riders were sitting wide-eyed in the clapper board-sided lee of a main street building, sheltering themselves from the rapidly cooling evening air. Faint echoes of the climbing violence he'd unleashed still danced somewhere in Ira's eyes. He wore a smile of quiet satisfaction, remarkably similar to his demeanor back in the Sausalito harbor parking lot where we began the day. Ira's one hell of a rider.
Soon our thoughts turned to the other group, and the SAG van that was our ticket home. Thirty minutes passed and still no sign. We climbed back into the Photo Van with DWP and went back to see if we could find them. It was now dark.
We drove about four miles back up Coleman Valley before we spotted blinking bike lights. Not knowing who we were, Luke (riding point) yelled at us "turn your fucking lights down" as we blinded them with our approach. More laughter in our vehicle.
DWP turned us around and brought us alongside the four remaining riders, Luke, Aaron, Seb and Craig. We passed a beer to Craig and then Luke, who took the hand-off in perfect pro style. Well deserved.
And that was it. The ride was back together. Handshakes and hugs, genuine respect and a day that goes into my book as a true keeper.
Postscript. Rapha unveiled some of their new products for Spring today. We got to see two of these garments during the Occidental Continental ride. Slate was wearing the new black gilet with asymmetrical zipper and Luke was sporting a 2008 Stowaway jacket in translucent cream. Both are made from a wonderful stretchy fabric that looks and feels great.
Jeremy Dunn, the handsome fellow in the rapha cap above, hung with Ira till the final punishing climb up Coleman Valley Road. In addition to being a member of Rapha's East Coast contingent, he's the Editor of a brand new magazine – Embrocation. Volume 1, available now, includes a tribute to cyclocross containing artwork, writing, and photos by: Richard Sachs, Molly Cameron, Adam Myerson, Jackson Weber, Hannah Kirshner, Peter Rubijono...and many more. I'm looking forward to a good read, check it out.
Slate's comment reminded me that Topolino deserves some props for making great wheels. My Cervelo SLC-SL rides on a Topolino Carbon Core AX3.0 rear wheel and CX2.0 front wheel. I chose them for their buttery ride quality and light weight. The guys in Bethel, Connecticut should be proud they're also tough and resilient enough for the Old Railroad Grade.