2010 Rapha Gentleman’s Race Report (In Full)
Photo Credit: Dylan VanWeelden
I have been connected to the Sicilian for more than 11 years. United in life and love and adventure and navigation and challenge. I have watched him rolled out of surgery with his entire ear cut away and then taped back onto the side of his head. I have slept with him under Jesus’ serene gaze in his parents house and spent the better part of 14 hours cutting roma tomatoes to make three hundred jars of sugo.
I have learned to speak and understand Sicilian, a strange dialect of the Italian language.
I have left him for other cities and then found him again in new landscapes.
For this man I’ve learned to be more tidy, to be quieter, to feel the pull of roots at my wayward gypsy feet. I have stopped eating out of pots and pans, learned to cook food that is more civilized and eat it from plates and bowls with silverware. I have learned to feel emotions for old Italian automobiles that never run. I have purchased houses specifically because they have garages for these automobiles.
In return, I’ve asked him to stretch and bend and imagine bigger things and take risks that terrify him.
Two days ago, I asked him to ride 123 miles on a tandem bicycle with me and he said yes.
Love makes fools and this Italian boy is no exception.
Here’s what happened.
Tandem bicycles arrived by trains. Long ones with heart-stopping wheel-bases and beautiful “B”s emblazoned on the front. A man called Bilenky sent a few emails, a man named Bob showed up at my house, and a lady named Natalie put on a multi-colored cycling kit.
This is Stephen Bilenky on the cover of a crazy Japanese bike magazine that my friend Brett gave to me.
By the time my head stopped spinning, there were three custom tandems loaded into the back of my truck and we were headed for wine country.
This story sounds sweet and lovely so far but isn’t. Trust me on that.
Important background: I have never ridden a tandem.
We drive to Forest Grove and park at a winery on a sloping hillside. The morning is cool and bright. Slate Olson greets us. He’s lean and blue-eyed and charming and he hugs me. I should have sucker punched him right then, but I didn’t know any better. I hug him back, chat with friends, stuff jersey pockets, imagine greatness and make last minute adjustments.
Start time is 9:00am. We’re going to own the world. We’re going to climb gravel roads. We’re going to attack Oregon countryside and be shiny.
Nothing can stop us.
For the record, this is not a real race and none of this ever happened.
This is all make-believe. I love you and I’m Alice and I’m going down the rabbit hole. If only I had a pill to make me smaller.
We are a team of six. Six semi-strangers on three tandem bicycles. The third duo arrives with 12 minutes to spare after locking their keys in the car that morning.
No worries. We don’t bat an eye. They chamois up and ride. Slate Olson says a few words and sends us down the road. There are cheers married with trepidation. Slate Olson looks positively giddy.
I should know better than to trust a blue-eyed devil.
We’re the first team to leave. Six people, three beautiful Bilenky Cycles bicycles, 123 miles, three gravel climbs, one unforgivable bout of momentary insanity on the part of Natalie Ramsland.
She’s the reason I’m here.
I’m a big girl with a lot to say so you think I could hold my own against 105 pounds of persuasion, but you’d be wrong. That bitch has mind powers. It took her three days to convince me to do this stupid race and it’s possible I might regret every single one of them.
I look over to my right and there she is, smiling. She will smile for the entire fucking race. I’m serious. The whole race. That woman is indefatigable. Funny and amazing and smart and… chipper. It’s inconceivable.
Here’s what happens when tandems find flat ground: they fly.
And so we soared. 30 miles out and just a little bit of up and we’re feeling it. The magic. The good stuff.
We’re going to win.
Not really, but we’re amazed that none of the teams staggered behind us have passed us yet so we pedal with renewed vigor. We’re not supposed to win and we know it. We’re supposed to suffer and be mind-blowing and make it look good. We’re here on a mission. We are are the Bilenky Cycles Tandem Assault Squad and we’re going to fuck you up.
Not really. But you’re getting the point, right?
They warned us about the first gravel section and so we hold our breath and make the left hand turn and start to climb.
On the front of the bike, Sal grinds out a 65RPM cadence. I comply (having little choice ) with the mashing and sit in for the mayhem.
Pittsburg Road is not gravel. It’s made of rocks. Big rocks.
We find sufficient lines and pound away, occasionally sliding down an unfriendly camber, finding balance in the gutter and reapplying power. The sun is starting to heat up the earth. In front of me, salt lines blossom on the back of the Sicilian’s jersey.
I look down and become acutely aware of my role as the motor. “More power!” he says and I pour myself into the pedals and pretend I’m doing leg workouts. I want to say, “Let’s spin!” but who wants a backseat driver on a tandem? No one. So I shut my mouth and press with angry mashing.
We pass two riders from another team changing their own flat. They over-inflate the tube. Pop! Tire carnage abounds. Our luck so far is good.
Below my nose is a top-tube and below that a water bottle. I cover both with a constant stream of sweat. I feel good. This is going well. We’re going to be ok.
Our gravel climbing debut on Pittsburg Road is encouraging and we arrive at the top together, take on a little water and point the big, long bikes down the other side.
Descending gravel is an art in any case, but on a tandem it becomes a kind of terrifying poetry.
I can sense the Sicilian’s stress and try to relax and make myself into the lightest 135 pound heap of body-weight possible. (He’ll tell me later that I did not accomplish this.)
How do you steer 345 pounds of fast-moving bicycle down a road made of rocks and boulders? Very carefully.
The Colorado duo, Jake and Sarai, have the honor of the team’s first flat tire. The change is speedy and efficient and we’re rolling within minutes. Around a swooping corner, bike sliding left-ways and over, three tandems back in action.
Jake and Sarai again. Another quick change and we’re off. We pass girls from the Ironclad Team bent over wheels, pumping. We pass women from the Rapha team crouched over sidelined rigs, running pretty fingers over their tire lining. We wave and fly recklessly down, riding the fine edge between control and total annihilation. We pass scattered Veloforma riders in white kits looked flustered and furious as they toil over flat tires.
No, really. Three. Jake and Sarai again. This time, we don’t just change the tube – we install a new tire with better sidewalls. We take stock of our tubes and patches. We have three more tubes and four patches total. No more spare tires. We can get 7 more flats and still finish. There are 17 miles of gravel left to ride.
Tandems are funny things. I spend half the day (the flat half) singing their praises and half the day (the climbing half) convinced that two people were not meant to ride the same bike at the same time.
In the stoker position, my job is to deliver power and stay on top of navigation. Up ahead of me, Sal’s job is everything else. Steering, cadence, gear selection, drag brake, handling. Everything.
His failure to execute will put us both in danger. He knows it and I know it.
At the bottom of the first gravel descent, I can see fatigue in his eyes. Mental exhaustion to be sure, but something else is there. Around us, the air is heating up. If it isn’t 100 degrees, it will be soon. And it’s probably going to be hotter than that when all is said and done. We’re not used to this.
Drink, Sicilian! He’s not eating or drinking enough. I know because I’m keeping track.
Eat, Shecko, eat!
There are two reasons I call him Shecko, which is the Sicilian word for donkey (or ass, depending on how you’re feeling). Firstly, he’s a work-horse – literally. He has dragged my ass over hundreds of roads in Oregon, Arizona and California. His draft is my saving grace.
But as strong and useful as a Shecko can be, they’re also stubborn – and the Sicilian is no exception.
Eat, Shecko! Drink!
He’s not listening and none of the food I offer him is appealing. His kit is crusted with salt, face creased with worry. At mile 65 I can already tell we have a problem. Sitting on the back of the tandem, the bike translates not only his weary cadence, but also an uneasy sinking feeling.
Lashed together in suffering like a pair of pitiful, mutant bicycle siamese twins, we pedal on with our group of six and turn our tires in the direction of Otto Miller while the hot, breeze-less day tightens its grip.
Part Two: Paint My Coffin Pink
Eight miles on Highway 30 lead us to the last bits of civilization before the start of Otto Miller. We pass a bike shop, load up on a hearty supply of spare tubes, and cruise into the Texaco for ice, water, PayDays, Gatorade and granola bars.
Each item purchased feels like extra fortification against what we are about to face. If only I select the perfect snack, the perfect drink, the perfect American flag lighter? I stifle my impulse to acquire classic but unnecessary gas station memorabilia and force Sal to drink an entire bottle of water while I watch.
“We’re almost halfway done!” he says, half smiling.
I shoot a look to a tall, thin climber-looking fellow from another team and he laughs. “Yeah, only a little road called Otto Miller to worry about. No problem.”
He’s being friendly so I resist the urge to throat-punch him and we saddle up and shove off instead.
Otto Miller Eats Babies
By now, the climb of Rapha lunch-ride legend is looming big and dark in my gut, but the ride out to the turn is serene. Country roads flanked by golden fields and lazy trees. We’re in the company of other teams. We’re chatting. We’re calm.
We’re totally fucking bluffing.
Because the truth is, we’re worried. At least I am. My pilot is fried and I know it. I don’t know what to do so I do the only thing I can: I pedal.
And then we turn.
If there was any doubt that we are about to leave a lung and a few years of our lives on this evil road, it is erased by the first pitch which serves as a virtual kick in the teeth to all of our tandem dreams and any hope we may have every foolishly harbored of enjoying this godforsaken ride.
I can hear Sal swearing up front. We are grinding a humongous gear and I am terrified to ask if I can get a fucking shift.
As it turns out, I can’t get a shift. Because our triple isn’t happening. At least not with the derailleur. The bicycle clicks and ticks and groans underneath us as Sal tries to drop it in.
We keep grinding.
“We’ve got to stop and drop it down.” I finally plead. “I can’t push this gear.”
“Goddamit!” We lurch to a halt.
This is the part where my hand becomes a derailleur. I grab the chain and show it to the little tiny ring at the bottom. “And stay there.” I say.
I’m talking to my drive-train now so you can be sure that nothing good is going to happen from here on out. Also, starting from a stop on a tandem on loose gravel in a low gear? Not recommended. Sal is tired of waiting for me to clip into pedals. I am tired of being a human derailleur.
And we are only a quarter mile into the climb up Otto Miller.
And we are so fucking tired of this all. Believe it.
I can’t tell you how slow we climb Otto. I can’t tell you because there are not words to describe that agony.
I can tell you what I saw. Natalie and Bob K on a tandem up ahead, chatting. Happy. Smiling. Ironclad girls next to me looking weary, helmets hung on their bars. Hammer Velo stragglers stopped and resting in the rare shade. Passing cars full of photographers.
Directly in front of me? Pockets full of uneaten food. The top of a cue sheet. Logos.
When we pass riders from other teams, I watch them climb out of the saddle with envy. I wonder how I would be faring on my own bike, a light little sweet ride. I wonder if I am pedaling hard enough and betting that Sal thinks that I am not.
Here on the back of this tandem I am absolutely the biggest letdown of his life. This heavy girl who can’t put out enough power. Dead weight. A bicycle burden.
He hates me.
At least, that’s what I convince myself of. If I’m not pedaling hard enough then why are these rivulets of sweat rolling down my forehead and diving off the tip of my nose onto the top tube? Why are my quads imploding? I have to be doing my part. I can’t do anymore. I resist the urge to translate this whole, painful fiasco into a gigantic relationship metaphor.
This explains nothing. This means nothing. This is just climbing Otto Miller on a bike that was not meant to do it.
“This is ridiculous.” Sal stops the bike.
He has just broken the most important rule ever. Never tell the truth. Doesn’t he remember? You have to lie. You have to make yourself believe that it’s important and possibly normal to be out here on the hottest day of the year on a double-bike on a gravel road. That all makes sense. Getting to the top is inevitable and wonderful. The only thing that matters.
Why did he just shatter our bubble of delusion?
My shoulders drop. It is ridiculous. I have no counter.
But we have to keep going because there is no alternative. You don’t stop. You don’t walk. You don’t turn around. You just keep climbing because you signed up for this shit and now you have to pay for your hubris.
I hate him. He hates me. We hate everyone and everything. But, most of all I think I hate Slate Olson and Natalie Ramsland. This hour is dark and they seem easy enough to throw under the bus. To hell with them.
The top of Otto Miller will appear at mile 80 and we’re at mile 75.
This is the best day of my life. I want a cold beer and a shotgun. I’m definitely losing my mind.
Reaching the top is so hard that when we finally crest, we are so empty and beaten that we are incapable of feeling joy. I make a mistake and think we’re stopping when we’re not and Sal yells at me in front of a crowd to keep pedaling. Ice cold cokes and snickers bars at the Checkpoint are small consolation.
Sandwiches and cold water seem like a gift from god. This would be amazing if I didn’t know that we still faced a ten-mile grind up Dixie Mountain. This would be amazing if we were sitting at the finish line.
Riders and cyclists lounge like corpses, talking quietly. The waking dead. The atmosphere is optimistic weariness. Those with yet-uncrushed spirits attempt to cheer up their vomiting, cramping comrades. Our other two tandem teams look solid and enthusiastic. The couple from Colorado is crushing it. Ryan Trebon comes flying up Dixie Mountain, sits down on a chair and says, “Fuck my life!”
This isn’t going to end well.
Sal is attempting to pull off a rally. He downs a Coke and some water but leaves the sandwich I hand him half eaten.
I recall my own brushes with serious bonking and his stinging advice, “It’s all in your head! You have to be stronger than your body.”
I decide not to offer this particular form of encouragement at this moment in time.
We pedal away. Dixie Mountain awaits.
Part Three: Pour My Ashes in Slate Olson’s Coffee
Famous last words. Remember them well: “All we have to do is get up Dixie Mountain and we’ll be ok.”
All we have to do is get up Dixie Mountain.
It’s true. But what does that mean? Pedaling uphill for over an hour.
Stuff yourself away. Tuck yourself inside a pocket. Turn yourself off. Cross your eyes and shut your mouth and pedal. Numb yourself to everything. Sever your body from your senses and make it pedal. Just get through it. Just get it over with. Just survive.
There are ways to do things that are this hard. There are ways to trick yourself into enduring that kind of extended pain. You have to reach into your bag of tricks and pull every single one out until something works.
You have to get to the top of that hill. That’s all.
But first you have to get to the hill.
Peacocks and Double Mechanicals
I’m told that there were peacocks along the route. They touted this as if it should make up for everything else. “Yes, but there are peacocks!!” They even put a peacock on the T-Shirt for the ride. Fucking peacocks!
Will I hate peacocks forever after this? Probably not, but certainly for a few years.
I didn’t see these birds along the road, though I am told by other racers that they were real. What I do know is that instead of seeing these amazing birds on Pederson Road, we suffered a double mechanical. At the exact moment that the Natalie-Bob Bilenky Machine lost their timing chain, Sal and I suffered a rear flat.
We stopped together in the shade and began to work on removing our rear wheel (a complicated task with a drag brake involved). Sal walked back and forth between the two disabled bikes muttering and looking for tools. He tinkered with the brake and put his hand on his forehead. His face pinched and I thought, for a second, that he might actually cry.
Which is when it hit me.
Sal is really sick.
Sal has severe heat exhaustion. How is Sal still functioning? Why did I put us in this situation? Why didn’t I pedal harder? Can I pull him back from this? Will he ever forgive me? Should I take him to a hospital? Should we keep going?
What the fuck are we doing out here?
Luckily, I’ve mastered the fine art of panicking while remaining completely calm so I reveal nothing. Maybe we can nurse this thing up Dixie Mountain. Maybe we can coast down the other side of the west hills into the finish line at Chris King. Maybe if he has enough water he’ll snap back?
Maybe I’m delusional. Maybe we all are. This is stupid.
Abandoned and Alone
With the bicycles repaired, we start up the long, slow grade. We’ve agreed to stay together since we are sharing tools. Our third tandem team has long since gone up the road on their own. It’s just the four of us now – and we need each other.
Slate Olson drives by us in a big sprinter van and says, “I love you guys!!”
Team Beer boys gather in the shade to rest on the side of the road and cheer us on. We’re going to do this. I can feel it. We’re going to make it. We can make it.
Sal pedals in fits and squares, stopping every few strokes to get a rest. We’re going uphill. We have to keep turning the cranks over. When he stops, I kick in a mini turbo boost to encourage him to keep spinning the pedals. It’s a study in gut-wrenching inefficiency. It hurts and it is awful and the bike is telling me that the Sicilian is nearly dead.
Three miles in, our chain drops. Natalie and Bob stop up ahead to wait for us and look back just as we’re shoving off.
At that moment, our chain snaps. At that moment, Tony P. rides by them and they begin chatting. They don’t see us stop a second time. Caught up in framebuilder conversation, they don’t notice that we’re gone. They have the chain tool. They ride away.
And there we are. Just the two of us. Sal as sick as a dog, swearing like a sailor. Me, as useless as ever. A bicycle that we can’t pedal.
Our finest moment.
We love bicycles and each other but not today. Not at all. This is all wrong.
A Summer’s Evening Walk
We walk and kick rocks and I make phone calls. Among those dialed: Natalie’s husband Austin (our emergency support crew), Natalie (no answer), Slate Olson (no answer).
I text Natalie: “We are stranded. Broken chain.”
I consider calling my mom. This is a mom moment, right? “Hey, Mom – it’s me. Yeah, we’re just on this remote gravel backroad in Oregon with a broken bike and I’m pretty sure Sal is thirty minutes away from heat stroke. No no – everything’s fine. We’ll get outa this one – don’t worry about it. Just wanted to say I love you.”
Finally, a text from Natalie: “We’ll be right there.”
They appear minutes later, chipper as ever, and I attempt to distract Sal from unleashing the Sicilian fury on our well-intentioned teammates.
The chain is fixed just as Slate Olson appears with the sag wagon. Sal is frustrated and fuming. “I’m done. Let’s put this thing in the van. This is over.”
It’s up to him, but when he looks at me to ask me what I think, I say words that I will regret for a long time: “I’ll do whatever you want, but I can still pedal.” I want to finish Dixie Mountain at least. And I know Sal is reacting out of frustration and anger. I think he can keep going. It’s all in your head. Isn’t that what he told me?
(For godsakes, Swift. Put this sick kid in the fucking van already!)
“Fine.” he is steely faced. He gets back on the bike.
We finish the climb. We finish the climb with anger and bitterness. We finish the climb with empty hearts and empty water bottles.
We finish the climb, reach the checkpoint and Sal climbs off the bike, walks behind a tree and vomits for ten minutes straight while Slate and I exchange worried glances.
“Will he hate me?” Slate asks.
“No. I hate you. But Sal will hate me. Without doubt this is my fault.”
“Should you go check on him?”
“Are you kidding me? I’m not going over there! I don’t think he wants to see me right now.”
Slate takes the bullet and visits the vomiting Sicilian to advise him that, if we’re going to try to finish, we should get going, because the sun is going down.
We have been riding bikes for eleven hours. Eleven hours! We can’t stop now. I want to finish but remain quiet and let the Sicilian decide for himself. Miraculously, after another bout of vomiting, he throws a leg over the top tube. We are reunited with our team and we cruise in tandem formation down Skyline toward our impending glory.
And then we flat.
Bob and Natalie again. We’ve resolved to ride in as a team, so Sal and I stop and circle back. We get off the bike and while I’m chatting with the flatted team, Sal sits down in the road.
Not on the shoulder of the road, but in the lane of travel itself. His face is a study in delirium. His eyes are rolling in the sockets. He’s dry heaving.
“Baby, you have to get out of the road. We’re on a curve, you’ll get run over.”
I am moving him when the sag wagon appears behind us and pulls over. I make a head-chopping motion with my hand and signal for Slate to come and collect the wounded. Sal is done. There is no glory in this sickness. He has ridden himself to the brink and it’s time to take him home.
This game is over.
You Just Need a Little Salt
Once in the van, we attempt to feed the Sicilian salt. He chews potato chips slowly as we descend Rocky Point and the entire city appears before us with mountains soft and white against the pink sky in the background.
Flying down Highway 30 toward the finish, Sal speaks up, “Slate. Can you pull over? … Right now?”
An amazing amount of vomiting follows and I have more time to reflect on every poor decision I made throughout the day. Every warning of heat exhaustion that I failed to notice. Every careless, stubborn resolution to keep going.
Back at Chris King, I send him home with our rescue crew and then wait for the two remaining tandems to arrive.
They are the last to finish. It is 8:45pm and all of the kegs are empty. The party is over. Slate is announcing winners and thanking people as they roll in, so they receive a standing ovation. I gather the troops, load up the truck, stop for beer and provisions, drop Natalie and Austin off and head back home where my living room fills with tandems and helmets and gear and torn up bodies.
Upstairs, Sal continues to vomit until I finally threaten to take him to the emergency room.
In the morning, he’ll awaken refreshed and renewed. He’ll look good enough for me to ask: “Do you mind if I write this?”
“You can write it.” he says resolutely, “But I better be a hero by the end of the story.”
He’s finally smiling.
Sally, you’re definitely our hero.
As for you, Gentleman’s Race? I’ll be back for you. Mark my words.