While the climbing is certainly a challenge, the weather provides its own set of challenges. In my experience, heat and wind have always thrown their wrenches into the works. This year, it was the cold. Dear God, the cold.
The forecast called for a chance of thunderstorms before 11 AM. I drove my car through a few isolated showers on the way to the event, but the start was dry if a little cold. I debated whether to bring my jacket, and I thank myself I decided to wear it on the way out.
The first 25 miles was uneventful: one major squall and a couple of showers to drench my socks, but nothing I couldn’t bear. At the SAG stop at 25 miles, I was getting quite warm in my jacket and the sun was starting to peak out, so I took it off and stowed it in my jersey pocket. I didn’t think I’d need it again. I was wrong.
I really wanted to bag the 100 mile course, which summits Mt. Laguna before heading back. There’s a turnoff for the 62 mile course where I could make the decision to do either course, based on how I felt.
There are a couple of things to note about the turnoff: first, it comes after a long descent into Pine Valley, at which point my wet socks and shoes rendered my feet without any sensation; second, going straight affords a view of the beginning of the long climb up Mt. Laguna. A sane person would evaluate these conditions and say, right, we’re turning off for the 62 mile course. But I am not sane.
I might have had an idea of what I was in for when I saw the sign that said “Warning: Snow Plows in Use.” But there wasn’t any snow, so what was up with that? The second warning came in the form of an old man at a turnout, dressed in heavy jacket and gloves, who looked at me in my cycling shorts and jersey and said, “What are you, a Canadian?”
Yes, it was cold, and getting colder, and I was heading uphill so I stopped to put on my jacket.
I plodded on. I began to see dribbles of snow and thought how nice, maybe my son would like to come up here and play in the snow. I kept at it. A squall of hail pelted me, and I thought, how cute! Hail!
A good 30 minutes passed and I didn’t see any other riders. I wasn’t entirely sure where the turnaround was, and it’s always reassuring to see other riders headed in the opposite direction to confirm that you’re on the right track. Four miles passed and there was a porta-potty but no official SAG stop, so I kept going. I still didn’t see any other riders, and my doubt increased, but I was headed up, so I figured that up was where I should be headed.
Then a sturdy rider passed me. I asked if we were on course, and he said yes, should be about 5 miles. I looked at my cycle computer and it showed somewhere around 48 miles. I watched him ride confidently onward and I felt a little reassured. I would have felt better if I could have kept up with him.
Not soon after, the road began to descend, and I had serious reservations. It was cold. Really cold. I couldn’t feel my fingertips or my feet. The descents were pounded by wind and hail, and without the exertion of climbing, I could feel my core temp dipping. The road was littered with debris from last night’s storm and patches of slush. Not even counting car traffic, the descent was nothing less than treacherous.
I started to feel like I was making a major mistake: wet feet, fingerless gloves, and only a windbreaker to protect me from the weather. This was a classic wilderness survival mistake.
I passed a fire station and I seriously considered stopping there to ask for help. But I figured this would probably result in a ride in an ambulance, and I have pride, so screw that noise. I kept on.
The road continued its descent, and now I began to feel that the mountain didn’t want me there. Like, it seriously wanted me off. I began to think of those folks who died on Mt. Everest in 2012 and how their deaths were the result of disrespect of the mountain. I thought of my Boy Scout survival training and Les Stroud and I realized that I was in a very bad situation.
Finally, I stopped. This was enough. I was heading back. I crossed the road. I plunged my hands inside my jacket to get them warm. I couldn’t feel whether it worked. I fished around my jersey pocket and got out my candy orange slices and popped one into my mouth. Despite its being between my jersey and my jacket, against my body, it was cold and nearly impossible to chew. I finally swallowed it down and grabbed a Powerbar from my other pocket. It too was cold and almost inedible. I broke a big chunk off with my teeth and managed to swallow it down.
I began to warm up and the food gave me a little bit of energy. I stood there for a while. A man in a white van stopped and asked me if I was OK. I gave him a thumbs up and said “I’m all right.” Every once in a while, a good person shows up. It gave me some spirit.
Feeling a little warmer, I started off. Just then, as if the mountain were confirming its wish to get me the hell off, the sun broke through the clouds. I can’t describe how amazing it felt. It was as if angels had descended on me.
Then the clouds came back, but two cyclists came toward me. Buoyed by the sun and the bit of food I had eaten, I made a very bad decision. I turned around again, thinking I could follow the cyclists to the turnaround.
I couldn’t catch them, and the weather renewed its assault, worse than anything I had yet experienced. I could barely keep the bike upright in the wind, and my hands immediately turned to ice. I stopped and turned around once again. I was beaten.
Normally, my pride would dictate my mood and I would feel dejected. But under these circumstances, the right decision was to turn around and leave Mt. Laguna to its rage. I wasn’t meant to reach the turnaround and to do so risked death. I was at peace with everything, and even a little bit happy that I understood my limits well enough to tell Pride to go suck it.
But there were still 8 miles between me and the relative safety of Pine Valley, and most of those were downhill. As I negotiated the twisty mountain roads, a continuous shower of hail pelted me. You know how when it hails it’s usually the size of baby peas and it lasts like 2 minutes and it’s gone? Well this was just bigger than the size of sand and it was indefinite. At downhill speed, my face felt like it was being sandblasted.
My hands were so cold, I couldn’t feel the handlebars, and my feet couldn’t feel the pedals. There are 3 points of contact on a bike: hands, feet, and butt, and for the most part if one of those gets messed up you’re a bit screwed but it’s recoverable but when two are out of the picture, you’re headed for the deck. I had to stop every quarter mile to warm up my hands. My feet were a lost cause.
Cars marked with Alpine Challenge passed me a couple of times with bikes on their roof, and I knew those were cyclists who hadn’t made it. The SAG support is a testament to the organization of the event, and thank-yous are truly inadequate for the volunteers who give up their Saturday to help us out.
But all I could think was those riders were sitting in a nice warm car, and I obsessed about being warm. I’ve never felt such a primal need for anything. I wanted to be in my car with the heater on. I wanted to be home in bed or in a hot shower. I just wanted to be warm.
Finally, as I descended off the mountain, it became not-cold-enough that I could continue descending without stopping, though I had very little bike control. And just like that, I was in Pine Valley.
There’s a SAG stop at Pine Valley. It’s just a guy who’s opened his house to cyclists and there is minimal food and drink there, and I’ve never stopped there before. This time, I stopped. He had a space heater! I put my hands in front of it for the longest time. Other riders came and I reluctantly relinquished my spot. We traded stories about the cold. One guy was shivering uncontrollably. The homeowner related a story about a cyclist who had just come by and almost crashed before reaching the stop. The cyclist denied he needed help but accepted the homeowner’s invitation inside the house to warm up. He ended up on the SAG wagon back to the start.
I got on my bike, and as I rode into the wind, I began to shiver: big, convulsive shivers and teeth-chattering that was so violent I couldn’t keep my mouth closed. Thankfully I started up the ascent out of Pine Valley and began to warm up.
Once out of Pine Valley, I got warm enough to shed the shivers and keep my hands on the handlebars. When I got back to the start/finish line, my cycle computer read 97.49 miles. Just 2.5 short of a century, but I feel I can award myself an “honorary century” on this one. And I don’t say that lightly. Also: just shy of 7 hours. That’s a hell of a long time in the saddle.
|2014 ALPINE CHALLENGE|
|Riding Time:||6 hours, 58 minutes, 20 seconds|
|Average Speed:||13.9 mph|
|Max Speed:||45 mph|