Down in the alley

July 24, 2014 § 40 Comments

A new bobble has been added to the weekly Donut Ride, and I contemplated it as the wankers of the South Bay chewed me up and spit me out. It’s a short, steep, nasty little alleyway that comes after a long uphill slog followed by a fast downhill followed by a gradual climb followed by a very short wall.

The point behind the alley is to crush the spirits and impoverish the souls of those who, even at the outset of the group ride, are already broken.

The Donut Ride has evolved into an almost perfect group ride. It is so hard that to properly complete it you must cheat, cut the course, suck wheel, sneak ahead while everyone is regrouping, or all of the above. The climbs are so vicious that hordes of South Bay bicycle owners refuse to even show up. It drops people while they are still in bed.

In common with all great group rides, it crowns a winner who everyone can dispute, but not actually beat. “Wily Greek is a wheelsucker,” we mutter each time he deftly sprints away at the bottom of the Switchbacks. And like all group rides, great or not, you get to declare yourself the winner of something. “I was the first one to the Domes out of the fastest people who got dropped in the alley.” “I was the fastest climber out of the non-climbing sprinters who live in Long Beach.” Etc. It’s almost as good as Strava.

The Donut Ride also contains the race-within-the-race element that so many of us live for: the OTB flailer who nonetheless fights tooth and toenail to finish ahead of the other OTB flailer who said something rude to him on Facebook. Best of all, like all group rides it’s free, starts close to home, doesn’t require an entry fee or a license, and when done properly will effectively wreck any legitimate training plan or racing goal.

The ideal group ride, which the Donut is, will be intense enough to destroy your legs but not make you faster. It will be long enough to exhaust you but not long enough to build your endurance. It will force you to ride either too slow to build your engine, or so fast that you’ll need an entire week in order to recuperate. It will expose all of your weaknesses and develop none of your strengths. Best of all, if you are a Donut vainquer, your victories will translate into little more than DNF’s and barely-finished’s at legitimate stage races.

It is a cul-de-sac for performance, and crystal meth for the legs. Plus, it finishes near several brewpubs which open about the time the ride finishes.

But the hardest group ride in America … Where is it?

My default vote goes to my own backyard; yours probably does, too. After all, no kid is smarter or better looking than your own. The Donut Ride is about 50 miles long and boasts about 5,000 feet of climbing. It goes off every Saturday, with anywhere from 80 to 100 idiots lining up at the start in Redondo Beach in the summer … and less than a dozen making it to base of the Switchbacks-to-Crest climb thirty minutes later, after which the smashing begins in earnest.

But is it the hardest?

The Swami’s ride in Encinitas is horrifically hard and staffed with twisted mutants like Tinstman, Bordine, Marckx, and Thurlow, but it’s shorter (about 30 miles) and “only” has 3,500 feet of climbing. Then there’s the SPY Holiday Ride, a beatdown so vicious that if I make it up the first climb without getting shelled I consider it a total victory: 60 miles, 4,000 feet of climbing, and a 100+ field that is always stacked with state champions, national champions, and group ride champions who live just to dish it out on gang slugfests like this one. The ugliness is sharpened by competition for KOM and sprint awards given out post-ride in the form of BWR Ale brewed by the Lost Abbey.

But is it the hardest?

I don’t know. America is filled with group rides that go off every Saturday, Sunday, holiday, Tuesday, Thursday, and every other day that ends in “-day.”

How do you evaluate their difficulty? The following criteria, for sure …

  1. Length. Should be more than 40 miles, less than 70. It has to be long enough not to simulate any race you’d actually do, but short enough that it can be completed before your wife goes completely apeshit at another wasted weekend on the bike. Also, it must be long enough so that you perform all chores and kid-activities with a glum face and lagging step.
  2. Elevation. Enough to make it hard, but not so much that the only champions weigh less than 130-lbs. Ideally, the elevation is spread throughout the ride rather than dumped at the end like the LA Holiday Ride, which is a joke. Having at least one 20-minute climb to obliterate the chubmeisters, the old people, the “just getting into the sport-ers,” and juniors is ideal.
  3. Number of riders. 30, minimum. Having somewhere to hide and suck wheel is crucial for a group ride. Too few people forces everyone to work, which reduces or eliminates the ability to name-call and point the finger after you get shelled.
  4. Wind. The more, the better. Wind is the great unequalizer, because it strips the skinny climbers of their watts/kg advantage and grinds them up into little rat pellets. Wind, preferably cold (although frying-pan hot furnace blasts are good, too), increases the chances of crashing and quitting.
  5. Elements. Freezing rain/brain-scalding heat/crushing humidity are always a plus. Especially in SoCal, where eternal sunshine cultivates softness, a good dose of terrible weather does wonders for separating the wheat from the cadavers.
  6. Pavement. Shitty road surfaces, hairball descents, off-camber paving, unannounced changes from tarmac to gravel … anything that will cause a flat or a crash or potentially crack your frame gets extra points.
  7. Quality of field. This is hard to evaluate, but generally, if the average age is “gets an annual prostate check,” then you’re playing with a worn out deck of cards. One good way to evaluate the field is financial stability. The more people living with girlfriends, out of cardboard boxes, sleeping on couches, the faster and more brutal the ride.

I’ve heard lots of stories about “our local group ride is the toughest,” and would like nothing better than to find out for myself. Is the real badass group ride yours? Post the info in a comment or shoot me an email, fsethd@gmail.com, with a link to the Strava segment if there is one. Extra points if the ride is so badass that it’s not even on Strava. It certainly won’t be any fun to go check it out in person, but it might assuage those late-night worries, i.e. “What am I going to write about tomorrow?”

Yeah, but they were double overhead yesterday. And hollower.

August 4, 2012 § 4 Comments

Over the course of today’s visitation to the Swamis Ride insane asylum in Encinitas, I experienced three full body shudders. These occur just prior to getting dropped. My entire body shakes, my eyes fill with giant black flying saucers, and the bike shimmies uncontrollably. Once I was shoved back up to the tail of the peloton, the second time I was “attaboyed” just in time to reconnect, and the third time, a quarter mile before the final sprunt, I exhaled with the death rattle and shuddered backwards to the chase group.

When we hit the coast highway at ride’s end, MMX was there waiting. He’d made a brief stop at the church and continued ahead of us on his own. “How was it?” he asked.

“It was hard beyond belief. I can’t believe I didn’t get shelled on Elfin Forest.”

He shook his head. “Nah. That wasn’t hard. You oughta be here when Bordine’s really throwing down. That’s when it’s hard.”

“Oh,” I meekly answered.

Nature abhors a monoculture

Cross-pollination and the wide dispersal of seed is a fundamental biological concept that ensures diversity, which in turn assists survival of the species. Biking’s no different. Getting out of your normal group ride and sampling what others have to offer is about as intense as it gets.

When you roll out the first few times on their turf, you have all the cards stacked against you. They know every intricacy of the route, the sprint points, the rest points, the places where, if you go too hard, you’ll pop, the places where, if you go too easy, you’ll get caught out and shelled.

The locals smell fresh blood when you show up, and use their tactical knowledge to your disadvantage. Plus, they want you to go home and show your mates the gaping wounds and smashed ego that you got at the hands of your betters. The best legends are created by visitors.

Most troubling when you’ve gone to sample someone else’s wares is the uncertainly of who’s who. You don’t know the riders, their tendencies, their strengths, and where particular riders like to put in an effort.

In the beginning it puts you completely on the defensive, but as you fall into the routine, realizing that you’ll be lucky just to hang on, it becomes thrilling beyond belief. Kind of like using your left hand, but, like, way more awesome than that. Even after a week of beating the Facebook drum, the only people who wanted to venture out of their usual stomping grounds were Bill Holford from Long Beach, Gerald Iacono, I, and Marc Spivey, who had driven the battle wagon.

Go South, young man

I advise you to go south and try this ride. We started with a big group of about sixty, including a whole host of folks who seemed as if they were built more for comfort than for speed, and by the time we reached the church for our first rest stop, public urination, and collection of discarded lungs, there were only about thirty riders left. At 22 minutes we were strung out into a nasty, single line of pain going up Levante. By the time I got close enough to the front to see who was there, at 24:29, I saw Todd Parks drilling it on the point. He swung over, an Elbowz dude took a ten second pull, and I hit it as hard as I could for thirty-two seconds. Elbows came through again followed by MMX, who ripped it for the remaining 24 seconds to the top.

By this point you’re barely 25 minutes into the ride and completely gassed. It is a nasty, murderous power climb that the riders ramp up on so quickly you will pop off the back unless you give it 100%.

When we turned left on Rancho Santa Fe, Elbowz and a CashCall dude sprinted off. Parks went back to the front and began lashing the whip, stringing it out and sending people off the back in droves. CashCall and Elbowz came back, we regrouped, and turned right onto San Elijo.

Would you please quit doing that horse thing?

By now I was flatter than a day-old bottle of beer, and breathing like a draft horse pulling a locomotive. Todd went again, MMX followed, Scott Holland attacked them both, Steven Davis followed Scott, while Andy, David, Kelsey, Victor, MMX and I huddled and pedaled. Scott detonated, and then it was Steven flogging the wankers. Everyone swarmed as we approached the final kick before turning off onto Elfin Forest, and by now I was ten or fifteen wheels back and had no idea who was doing what. All I knew is that it really, really hurt, and then came full body shudder No. 1.

Some saint heard my panting and saw my shuddering, grabbed my ass, and gave me a hard push. How’s that for friendly? Without it, I’d have been done.

Onto Elfin Forest Rd. it was a thin, grueling line up to the first bump, a downhill, and then Monster Media John took the controls in hand and switched the dial to “fry.” At 41 minutes in, people were lunging for John’s wheel like drunks after a G-string, bikes swaying, shoulders hunching, necks craning, and wheels bouncing over the poorly shod road surface that was pitted with cracks, holes, bumps, lumps, sand, rocks, birthday cakes, tutus, and tire irons.

Towards the front, but never actually at it

We hit a long 3-4 minute downhill and numerous riders swarmed towards the front as if they were going to finally stick their noses out into the wind and start swinging, but each would ease off just at about fourth or fifth wheel, leaving the same guys who’d been doing all the work to keep doing all the work. Some things are the same in every group ride, everywhere!

I nosed back up towards the front and found one of the hitters, a guy with a bright red Isle of Man jersey, rotating through with Todd, Monster John, and CashCall.  I rolled through for a 30-second hit that seemed like an eternity, followed by CashCall and a dude in a B+L kit with blue and white shoes. No one behind him, so I grabbed his wheel and got back into the three-man rotation. Pretty soon it was my turn again, and after a few seconds Isle of Man and Thor the Teen Wanker came blowing by. They were reeled in, and then Isle of Man dude strung it out.

A surge followed, and just before I popped Steven said, “We’re almost at the top!’ even as my second full body shudder wracked me from head to toe.

From that point on I was stuck in the middle of the swirling wankoton, needle gone far beyond red and buried deep in the purple. When we hit the sprunt 7 or 8 minutes later I had no idea who won or even who had been driving the train. I got smattering views of Todd, Monster John, CashCall, Isle of Man, Erik, Steven, MMX, B+L, and some dude in gray and red, but it all blended together into a miasma of blurred vision and gasping breath until, shortly after the sprunt, some wanker clipped a wheel and tumped over at about 3 mph.

I stopped to help the poor schmo, who was unhurt but feeling pretty stupid.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

The rest of the ride was more of the same. Before leaving, I’d turned on the Strava app on my phone. Over coffee and oatmeal, I checked to see how the ride had stacked up. Hmmm…MMX had set a new course record.

“You should have been here yesterday,” indeed.

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