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?”

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