Published on May 29th, 2014 | by Kevin
Tales from the Tarmac | The Cost of Failure
I immediately began to regret my last decision—the one that involved me deeming that smashing a clenched fist on my handlebars repeatedly was a prudent means of dealing with my mounting frustration. But then, as my hand was pounding and later sure to be black and blue, my head suddenly clear, I finally accepted my fate.
I had failed.
While the realization carried a bit of surprise, it wasn’t completely unheralded. Rewind a bit, and the writing on the wall becomes clear, although at the time, it was far from legible through my lens of stubbornness.
Participating in a 600-kilometer brevet hosted by the San Francisco Randonneurs I was on my way from the Golden Gate Bridge, up through Wine Country before heading out to the coast to Fort Bragg and back. Roughly 370 miles, riders were allotted 40 hours to complete the distance, stopping at designated checkpoints along the way, where they were to get receipts to prove their passage.
Riding to the start, at five a.m., stiff legs weren’t the best omen for the task ahead. Fast forward a few hours and a stiff 20-mile-per-hour headwind wasn’t exactly proving to be ideal either. At less than one hundred miles into the ride, it was beginning to look like things were going to be slightly tougher than expected. Looking for a break from the incessant wind, I retreated to a fine establishment in Santa Rosa for my patented headwind remedy—a nice cold beer. Freshly armed with a light buzz and a belly full of fries, the next miles brought smoother sailing and the return of good spirits. Already behind schedule, I forged onward into the wind.
In the monotony of the headwind from Hell, the miles slowly blended together, becoming as indistinguishable as the rows upon rows making up the countless vineyards I passed as I made my way from Santa Rosa through Healdsburg.
Finally, over twelve hours into the ride, I was met with a break from the wind, although it was merely a break from the wind—and not really a break at all, since it happened to coincide with the biggest climb on the route.
Still struggling to find my cadence, some 100-plus miles in, this ride was quickly becoming an exercise in determination (or stubbornness, or stupidity, or, whatever you want to call it—I’m still not sure at this point), with many riders already succumbing to the headwind, and turning back towards San Francisco.
Reaching the crest of the climb, the sun was beginning to fade, and I was thankful for just enough light to let it all out on the descent. If my legs weren’t working, at least my descending skills were on point.
Coming up to the only volunteer-staffed control just as night fell, I rolled into a campground thankful for a warm fire to sit by and a bowl of steaming chili placed in my hands even before I could sit down. It was easy to get comfortable, but I knew the dangers of comfort’s grip. A generous half hour later, I pressed on into the dark, Fort Bragg, the halfway point, some 45 lumpy miles away.
Reaching Fort Bragg well after midnight, huddling in the Safeway that served as the control, I bought a quart of chocolate milk and a bag of gummi bears and shamefully sat in the cart corral, shivering as the cold began to set in. Soon refueled with a midnight snack of champions, at long last, I finally made the turn back towards San Francisco, only all too aware that I was just halfway through with the ride.
Turning back inland from the coast, the temperature dropped precipitously before settling in the mid-thirties. Faced with two choices, teeth-chattering shivers or going faster, I chose the latter despite a rousing protest from my legs, all the while dreaming of, no, lusting after a warm campfire and another bowl or three of chili.
Too tired to hold a conversation with the volunteers, my communication skills reduced to a series of head nods and monosyllables, I soon fell asleep, deciding to rest up for an hour or two, despite already being on the wrong side of time. With two hours becoming three, I woke up just before seven, still in full kit, even colder than before. Unable to even form complete thoughts, let alone conversate them, I wordlessly left camp with knowing looks from the volunteers—fellow ‘rando-nerds’ themselves they knew the situation all too well.
Finally arriving back in Healdsburg, still only partially thawed, I was thankful to stop for the first good coffee of the ride and settled stiffly into a toasty spot on the couch.
Returning to some semblance of my normal self—well, at least a severely exhausted and sleep deprived version of my normal self—my freshly caffeinated legs finally started to come around a bit, and a slight tailwind helped bring me back on schedule as I returned towards San Francisco by way of the Russian River Valley and some sinfully seductive views.
Giving in to my exhaustion a while later, I stopped for a quick break in a driveway to polish off another bag of gummi bears and a Clif Bar. I laid back and propped my legs up on a fence.
Waking up almost two hours later, I was suddenly fighting the clock again, racing towards the control in Guerneville in hopes of making the time window.
Stomach unsettled and my eyes on the clock, but knowing how important it was to keep up my calorie intake, I scarfed down a double scoop of mint chip ice cream—the only thing that seemed halfway appetizing at a roadside cafe as I calculated the pace I had to keep in order to make the last control stop in Point Reyes, some 40 miles away from San Francisco. After Point Reyes, I’d be home free, with nothing but a few bumps in the road and a strong tailwind separating me from the finish.
Whether it was the adrenaline, the ice cream, or solely just my mule-like desire to finish within the time cutoff, my legs were suddenly turning over with a renewed vigor. Ticking down the turns on my cue sheet, I sped towards Point Reyes, assured I would make it to the control before it closed.
Suddenly though, as I looked up the road, unsuccessfully, for a turn indicated on the cue sheet, I realized the mileage on my computer and the mileage on my cue sheet weren’t matching up. Still pedaling, I pulled out my phone to check my location. Stopping, I was crestfallen to see that my GPS fix had me 10 miles off-course. This definitely wasn’t the time to make my first wrong turn of the entire ride. Flipping around and pedaling as hard as I could, it took me nearly a mile before I admitted to myself it was pointless.
I wouldn’t, no, I couldn’t make it in time.
That’s when the rage set in. Straddling my bike on the shoulder of the highway, I lost it. Sure it wasn’t the first location I’d choose for a breakdown—it was a bit too public for my taste—but at this point, I was pretty far away from caring.
I hadn’t pushed myself this far beyond my means just to fail, had I? I hadn’t fought an incessant headwind for 160 miles and frozen my ass off for another 100 for nothing had I?
Repeatedly bringing my clenched fist down on the handlebars with such force as to actually surprise me, I cursed my luck, I cursed myself, and then I did something I’ve never done before.
I cursed the bike.
My spirit broken, all sense of determination shattered, I solemnly swore I’d never ride again after this. Not a pedal stroke. I thought about throwing in the towel and calling for a ride back to San Francisco.
Getting off the bike I pounded my saddle, stopping when I finally registered the pain emanating from my hand.
With the pain fading, in turn replaced by overwhelming hunger, I got back on the bike and slowly pedaled toward nearby Petaluma to take care of the matter. Sitting over a plate of chicken and waffles at an organic cafe, I finally started to think clearly again. Sure, I was going to miss the time cut. I’d failed. But, with the clear-headedness afforded by some quality calories and a cold brew, I finally made the seemingly obvious realization that the bigger failure would be to give up entirely.
With dusk approaching, I pushed off for the final stretch, my determination renewed.
After a few miles, quickly leaving the city behind me, the euphoria sank in. I wasn’t riding for some time cutoff, I was riding for me—and I was loving it. Riding through the countryside, sun setting over the ocean in the distance, serene doesn’t come close to describing the experience.
I realized that this was exactly the reason I rode, and there was no way I could ever stand to do away with the pure unadulterated joy it was capable of inspiring.
Rolling into San Rafael, just across the Golden Gate from the finish, I stopped to celebrate at a 7-11, the only place in town still open. Unceremoniously feasting on stale taquitos that had been sitting on the rollers for hours, I couldn’t help but smile.
You see, sometimes, it simply turns out that the cost of failure is merely the necessary price for an unexpected reward—a reaffirmed zeal in your love of two wheels and the unmatched experiences they bring.