This is How We Die: Rapha Gentleman’s Race Part One
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.
Read Part Two: Paint My Coffin Pink