Pour My Ashes in Slate Olson’s Coffee: Part Three
Photo Credit: The Amazing Jose Sandoval
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 Butte 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.