November 4, 2019 Comments Off on Fire. Fighter.
Jack and I started up the bottom of Deer Creek, and if you haven’t figured it out by then, you’re going to figure it out shortly: Jack Nosco is a competitor.
Which makes sense, because he’s a firefighter. Not a firecompromiser, or a firemediator, or a fireresolver. He’s not a firetalker, a firestrategizer, a fireologist, or a firetherapist.
He’s a fire-fucking-fighter, and he fights fires until he kills them or they die, whichever comes first.
People who fight to kill do not let up because it’s a big fight, because they’re outnumbered, because the enemy has bigger weapons, or because they got ambushed. Once the fight starts, whatever’s at hand, that’s the weapon. And the fight ends when the enemy is extinguished.
Unfortunately, the fight-to-kill reflex also comes to the fore when the road tilts up, and friendly Jack, happy Jack, kind Jack, merciful Jack, used the weapons at hand, or rather the weapons at leg, and ripped mine off. He floated up the longest, steepest, most miserable climb in the Santa Monicas like he was going down an ice hill on skates, complimenting broken, staggering, huffing, gasping, walking riders who’d bitten off more than they could chew, or, more correctly, who had gotten too much gradient shoved down their throats way too fast, way too soon.
He smiled. He chatted. He attaboyed. He fist-bumped. He high-fived.
He tossed me into the meat grinder, blew over the top, and was gone.
But nothing that mattered went with him, because instead of leaving a trail of burned over destruction in his wake, he left hundreds of riders stuck on a steep ramp in various stages of mental disarray except for this one: the mental disarray of quit.
I have never seen so many people so pinned for so long without so much as a hint of quit.
This is what the Nosco Ride has done, at least on one level. It has shown that the power of unity is stronger than the power of tearing shit down. It has shown that one person’s will do to do a good thing can infect thousands, then tens of thousands of others, can cause them to lay aside their own problems and knuckle down for the benefit of someone else.
On another level, the ride shows, powerfully, that charity is a two-way street. Sure, the foundation raises huge sums and puts them directly into the hands of people who are sick. But the people fighting illness are actually the ones who are really giving, not the people parting with their cash.
The gift is their time at a point in life where seconds, minutes, hours have the value of years. Displaying their mental and physical efforts, and most importantly, sharing their words and bearing in a time of greatest stress, are given to us not for their benefit, but for ours.
The true recipients of the Nosco Ride are those who take the time to ease off the pedals and take note of the lessons that are being offered up by the wisest among us, reflect on those lessons, and be guided by them.
I thought a lot about that throughout the day as I went through highs and lows, riding fast, riding slow, passing, getting passed, stopping, starting, refueling, and finally, finishing. But of all the people who fired me up, no one could match the kid in the blue t-shirt, the beginner bike, the sneakers, and slightly askew helmet, who asked this question: “Where do we turn?”
“Up about six miles,” I said.
“What’s the road called?”
“Latigo Canyon Road. It’s right after a little hill. You go left.”
“That road wasn’t on my map.”
“Which route were you doing?”
“The short one.”
“Oh, man. You wrong-turned and are back at the ocean. You have to go up Latigo or back up the climb you just descended in order to get back to the start.”
He had that “Oh, shit” look, but only for a second. “I guess I’m doing the long route, then.”
“I guess you are.”
A bit later we had a flat and the kid passed us. He looked so tired, pedaling squares, but look as I might I couldn’t see any quit.
About half a mile into the bottom of the 6-mile toil that is the Latigo Canyon climb, we passed him, standing in a gravel turnout, sipping on a water bottle. “Do you need anything?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I’m okay. I think. How long is this?”
“About an hour,” I said.
He remounted and started pedaling. You could tell that wherever his rope was, he was getting near the end of it. “This ride is for such a great cause,” he said, trying to talk himself up the hill.
“It sure is,” I agreed. “Us.”
It took a few seconds for that to sink in. Then he kind of dropped his head a little. I didn’t get a good look at his face, but I suppose I didn’t need to. Because after dropping his head, he dropped us, and was gone.
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November 3, 2019 § 6 Comments
It had been an easy day, but it was getting to the hard part of the day.
The easy part was the 30-mile bike ride and the burrito. The easier part was killing time until the hard part, and I killed it well.
I killed that time like a pro, or rather like a little kid. I went to a park and laid down in the grass. You can do that in California because you won’t be lying down in a nest of fire ants, and wake up with your nuts chewed off.
I looked at the clouds; everything looked like a big, white diaper, giant Pampers floating across the sky. Some were bulging at the edges, and we all know what that means.
I laid in the grass so long that my legs and arms and neck got crazy-quilt imprints from the blades.
There were kids at the park. Most of them were playing lacrosse, something I don’t even know what that is. Others were playing soccer, which is exactly like lacrosse in its mysteriousness.
One sad boy was being “coached” on an empty diamond by his dad as the little tyke unhappily swung at and missed every single pitch. Dad scolded and showed massive disapproval that HIS SON couldn’t hit a baseball. That fatherly anger and disapproval at a little kid, well, that kid was gonna be carrying it around for the rest of his life.
You can be sure of that.
The hard part of my day rolled around, which involved pizza. Giant Bicycles had sponsored a thank-you dinner for all the volunteers and recipients of the Nosco Ride at their headquarters. I wasn’t a volunteer or a recipient, I was an officially designated freeloader.
I saw a bunch of old friends and some new ones, too. One of them was Johnny Walsh, who has been through the wringer. Ever since James Doyle intentionally took him out in a bike race a few years ago, Johnny’s been recovering. His injuries were bad. Some permanent.
But the thing that wasn’t injured at all was his grin. Some people, when they break, they break completely, but not Johnny Walsh. You’ll never break his smile.
We were talking with Jen Audia, a badass cyclocross racer in her own right. We were talking about hard things in life and also about useless things in life, things that we carry around and don’t know why.
“Those things,” Johnny said, “are like a dirty diaper.”
I looked at him.
“Yeah,” he said. “You’re just carrying around a big, stinking, dirty diaper. What the hell for? Why don’t you just set it down? Haven’t you carried it around long enough?”
He was talking in his friendly way, like he always does, but he was talking to me. He was talking to you.
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November 2, 2019 § 8 Comments
There are many benefits to car-ditching and riding your bike mostly everywhere. One of those benefits is realizing how useless most bike stuff is.
When you ride your bike to get around instead of for fun, it quickly becomes a pain in the ass. Before you go anywhere, especially when you live at the pinnacle of a 2-mile climb that REQUIRES YOU to go up Basswood/Shorewood, you carefully analyze a) whether you really need to go, and b) whether you need to bring the things you are thinking about bringing.
As a leaky prostate ex-masters racer-turned-commuter, you quickly learn that you don’t need all of the essential stuff. This morning we went to the Eliel Burrito Ride, a kind of bacon-and-egg precursor to the Nosco Ride tomorrow, and yes, we went in a car, and no, I didn’t drive, and no, IDGAF if you think that’s cheating, Gus.
I took my commuter bike which doubles as my BWR DNF bike. I took it because the Burrito Ride was only thirty miles and I can ride it with tennis shoes, which means I don’t have to travel with two entire wardrobes. The ride was amazing and fun, but below is a list of useless bike racer shit you can leave at home unless you are racing, doing some gnarly ride, or going to a costume party.
- Tight jersey. These make you look fat and they are uncomfortable. You don’t need them when you are riding 15 mph and chatting with ex-pro Brad Huff. Opt instead for: Floppy wool jersey or t-shirt or tank top.
- Cleats and ballerina slipper bike shoes. These hurt your feet and ruin the best part of the ride, which is the pre-and-post when you are standing chatting or walking around with a burrito and beer in each fist. Opt instead for: Sneakers that let you look normal, walk normal, easily hop on/hop off, and don’t sound like a herd of reindeer on a glass floor.
- Helmet. Okay, I admit I wore mine but only because it was going to frighten all the children if I didn’t. Opt instead for: Jaunty cloth cap or flowing locks if you have them.
- Barbie food. This stuff is good in a pinch on the Pacific Crest Trail when you’re out of food and about to eat your dog, but for 99.9% of all rides you don’t need gels, Gu’s, electrolytes, electro-shocks, whatever. Opt instead for: Two hydrogen atoms for each atom of oxygen.
- Tights. More vaso-constriction down there, pain to the soft parts, and a major hassle to remove quickly when your prostate starts to leak. Opt instead for: Pants, short when warm, long when not.
- Fast tires. Studies show that you can’t go fast with a flat tire. Do you really need the Vittoria Paperthinz made of silk and hummingbird feathers? Opt instead for: Gatorteeth Heres-da-Beef commuter tars, 75-psi, lined with Kevlar, and studded with more thick ribs on the tread than a Trojan.
- $7000 e-drivetrain. Sure, the new 13-speed e-Tapped that now lets you roll a 9-tooth cog with a 54-tooth chainring is sexy. Not. Opt instead for: Mechanical shifting which always works. Sexiness points if you can do it with downtube shifters. Break-the-Stravver points if you can do it with a lever to manually shift your Campy front der.
There ya go. Yer now ready to actually enjoy yer ride!
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July 8, 2019 § 6 Comments
I showed up for what I thought was going to be a mellow Cali Riderz group cruise on Saturday. I was still tired from the Holiday Ride beatdown and hollerfest.
When I got to the parking lot, George said, “You ready to race?”
“This is the annual Alameda Corridor race.”
“We give the women a five-minute head start and then chase them all the way to O Street and PCH along Alameda. It’s about 13 miles. Whoever gets there first gets bragging rights for the year, and the smack has been nonstop since they beat us last year.”
“What about all the lights?”
“You gotta stop for ’em.”
“Five minutes is huge over 13 miles. Do the guys ever win?”
“They haven’t in several years.”
About this time Michelle rolled up. She was crying.
“What’s wrong?” George asked, alarmed.
“I’m so sad,” she said.
“Then why are you crying?”
“I’m just thinking about how sad you boys are gonna be when we kick your butts again this year.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’d obviously wound up in the middle of a war. “This thing been going on a long time?” I asked.
“Decades,” George said. “Decades.”
We rode a long way to the start, picking up riders along the way. When we got to the restaurant parking lot where the festivities were going to begin, there was a crowd of riders. Part of the crowd included Travis and Joselyn, on a tandem.
“What are they doing on a tandem?” I asked George.
“Travis is going to pace the women.”
“We’ll never catch him.”
“It’s better than their Plan A,” he said.
“What was Plan A?”
“To get paced on a motorcycle.”
“How does this usually work?” I asked George, getting nervous.
“Last year we didn’t go hard enough at the start because of all the lights. After the 91, there aren’t any lights and you have a clear shot, but there’s only five miles or so left, so if you aren’t picking up stragglers by the 91, you’re never gonna catch the leaders.”
“So we sprint after every light?”
“We have to.”
“What about the other riders in our group?”
“What about ’em?”
The women left, timing their departure perfectly with a green light. Five minutes later we started and rolled immediately into a red. From there we sprinted after each light for what seemed like forever, more than ten or fifteen full-gas efforts from a complete stop. After a while it was just me, George, and Michael.
By the time we got to the 91 we could see a few rear blinky taillights. We went even harder. With less than a mile to go we saw Travis and Joselyn and Shermadean. The rule was that you have to finish with at least two women if you’re on the women’s team, and with two men if you’re on the men’s team.
With a quarter mile to go they broke up. We barely passed them at the end.
After we caught our breath the women advised us that it didn’t count. “The real race is in November,” they said. “When we have all our strong riders.”
“What was this?” I asked.
“Just a little warm-up. To let you feel good about yourselves.”
I don’t know how good I felt. My legs just ached. It was, however, one of the most fun rides I’ve done in ages, seasoned with plenty of spicy smack. I tried to keep my mouth shut, which is hard. November is way too close.
April 14, 2019 § 2 Comments
It is hard to keep going.
The road doesn’t always seem like it’s going to end.
And when it does, the finish may be … not good.
Some people keep pushing while others fall by the wayside. It’s not a matter of superiority. Often it is simply a matter of being unable to quit. Always, it is a kind of perverse doggedness, seen by some as an attribute, by others as a foul curse.
The slog started in 2012, in an industrial parking lot in Carlsbad, California. How it finished and all that stuff, who started, who quit, who purple-carded, that has all been catalogued somewhere and mostly forgotten.
But in 2019 the slog continues, still rolling out from an industrial parking lot, but now accompanied by well over a thousand riders and the extraordinary infrastructure and planning that it takes to launch the annual Belgian Waffle Ride. Most people rightly think that the ride is the slog. Those who have completed it know that “slog” understates it by orders of magnitude. Those who have won it stay mostly silent. The beating speaks for itself.
The bigger slog, though, is the focus, dedication, and sense of purpose that have driven the ride’s progenitor, Michael Marckx, to keep pounding on. Because the moment each year’s production ends, the next year’s begins.
The gran fondo world is a competitive one. Iconic rides such as Levi’s Gran Fondo once sold all 7,000 spots in a matter of hours. Today that same ride is not much larger than most others, and smaller than many.
The Belgian Waffle Ride, however, continues to attract, year in and year out, well over a thousand riders–and more than the numbers, the breadth and the depth of the event continue to grow. Tour de France riders, current professional road racers, international caliber ‘cross racers, and local talent of the highest order fill out the fast end of the BWR’s ranks every single year.
Why? Because the BWR’s course, which changes every year, can’t simply be cobbled together by looking at a map and “going out and doing it.” It’s a ride where an overarching plan backed with coordination by local, county, and state agencies is the backbone upon which the event is hung.
People who want to combine the speed of road riding with the rough-and-tumble battery of sand, rocks, and lots of dirt know that this is the only ride in America where you can get all of that plus well over 12,000 feet of climbing in a marked, supported, turnkey adventure. And it really is an adventure in the true sense of the word: You have no idea how it’s going to end.
This is all by design, because the one thing that Michael has hewed closely to in every single edition of the BWR is that it will be like no other day you spend on the bike, even if you do it every single year. The difficulty, the changing course, and the variations in your own preparation will leave you spent–hopefully intact, but you do sign a waiver.
Slogging your way through eight years of vision to consistently produce a better event is its own kind of mania, especially when you consider that the BWR is executed by a tiny handful of people supported by a vast staff of volunteers. Leaving aside the difficulties of obtaining permits, some of which in past years came through on the eve of the event, and forgetting the vagaries of weather which can be catastrophic, putting together something of this scope means dealing with an infinity of details, not to mention personalities.
Why the singular focus? I’ve never asked Michael, but I’ve ridden with him enough to know that the BWR reflects his approach to cycling. Don’t take the easy way. Don’t tap out when it’s grim. Do your part.
The BWR is as far from the easy way as you can get. Tapping out is of course up to you. And when the ride fractures into grupettos early on, some will do their part and some will sit in for as long as they can. Yet the DNA of the ride is one of a slog, some fast, some less so, and some riders wrapping it up long after the sun has set.
After years of watching the BWR issue forth and then issue forth again, I can also say that it reflects Michael’s obsession with quality. It’s not enough to have a good ride where things mostly go right. The ideal is almost like one of Plato’s forms, an idealization of “ride” in which reality partakes of the ideal to obtain its identity.
Each year is a new attempt to reach perfection, to deliver something better, harder, more challenging, yet still more satisfying than the thing that went before. The willingness to slog is more common than we recognize and the annual BWR roster proves it. But the willingness to slog coupled with the drive to slog in perfection … that is a rare, rare thing, and it’s the ethos of this ride.
April 6, 2019 § 11 Comments
We are a concatenation of memory.
Without it we don’t exist, with it we are formed exactly as we are. Memory is a trap and a lie but it is also the touchstone of truth, sunk deep inside the paradox of never knowing which memories are real, which are only imagined, which are distorted, which are piecemeal, and which are the poisonous and mortal byproducts of nostalgia.
Memory is how we shortcut having to relearn, but also how we shortcut having to relive pain, beauty, happiness, and regret. Memory can be burnished, exercised, buffed, smeared with suntan oil and posed for competition, but it by definition degrades, crumbles, and does so randomly without even the courtesy of keeping the good and chucking the bad.
Memory leaves us with the damp and misshapen grains of sand that, formed early into castles, gradually dry out with old age and fall in upon themselves, leaving nothing but a smooth and level surface, inseparable and indistinct from the other billions of grains on the strand.
I remembered yesterday, or rather it was yesterday when I remembered, wheels spinning along roads I first rode in March, March 1987 … what were you doing then? Were the things that mattered to you then the things that matter to you now? How were your legs then? How were your lungs and heart? How many miles had you ridden, races had you won, defeats had you washed down in all their bitterness?
Did you know in March, that March, what lay ahead? Did you even suspect it? The births, the deaths, the marriages, the divorces, the illness, the recovery, the exploration, the plodding dull traces that you would fall into for decades, grinding out shit so that you could buy more shit, the mere possession of which forced you to grind the night soil even more?
March in those days was free from a melted nuclear plant a mere 60 miles away from this quiet city. Its poisonous fumes now circle the globe and the only thing that the world does in quiet complicity is watch while the powerless-that-be dump another daily hundred thousand tons of cold ocean water on the smoldering core that will burn for a million years.
March in those days was ruled by an emperor who presided over the bloody murder and rape of Asia, later venerated as the titular head of state, the tit that he sucked dry from cradle to grave, as honored in his butchery as in his dotage.
In that March, that March of those days, I was young! I wore no helmet and encountered nothing for it other than the wind through my hair, I was tied to no man or woman, I had no future, my past was too brief and irrelevant to merit mention or much thought, and the only treasure that poured through my fingers was the golden treasure of time, of today.
March in those days these streets were filled with bicycles, old people and young people and in-betweens, pedaling furiously in the fickle temperatures on their way to work, to school, to the green grocer because there was such a thing! Kobori-san sold fresh in bundles or singly, in season, imports unknown, and your teeth bit through the vegetables and fruits with zest.
Somehow the cold and snow and sleet, the last spurts of angry winter gave way to April, and my memory tells me this: It was thirty-two years ago that I first pedaled out west of town towards the mountains, direction a small town called Fubasami whose kanji I couldn’t read and from there to the even smaller burg of Okorogawa, equally indecipherable to an illiterate, and from there to the fork in the road, one way up the sheer mountain climb into Kiyotaki and Nikko, the other way a path I never took, not once, to the purgatory of Kobugahara and the copper mining village of Ashio.
The deepest memory trigger of all is smell, and if you have never read Jitterbug Perfume then you have missed the greatest trick your mind can ever play upon you, the trick of remembering through the flash of scent. Yesterday I ascended into the lower reaches of the cedar forests and wasn’t struck by the flood of memories that come from inhaling the deep wooded scent, no, I have been congested for decades and am blind to smell, mostly.
Instead I was struck by how much I love the cedar, the true emblem of this forest nation, so different from the cherry blossom! Cherry flower, fie on thee. You come briefly, in full beauty, you beguile us with a shimmer scarcely of this world, then you are gone as quickly as you came. Your bole is small, what house or temple was ever built from cherry? Your fruit are tiny and scarcely worth gathering, the sweet meat surrounding a bitter and hard pit that lies in wait to crack the enamel off your teeth should you bite it by mistake.
But cedar? Give me your cedar over your cherry flower any day, evergreen, massive, as useful in youth as it is after 400 years, wood that lasts forever, upon which giant temples, massive homes, shrines of antiquity, all were built. Give me your cedar in rows thirty miles long stretching all the way to the temples in Nikko, so giant and towering, silent and strong, green and sheltering whether rain, snow, sleet, or sun beat down. Give me your cedar whose high branches are home for birds, whose forested floor is home for every creature, cedar, imperious and impervious, mighty, enduring.
As I reached the road’s fork I turned left, towards purgatory, and the road does what it had been doing from the moment I left home, it tilted up, only this time it was a kick. For more than an hour prior there had been no traffic, not a car, not a truck, not a scooter, nothing but perfect tarmac laid out seemingly for bicycle tires alone. There was no memory here as I’d never passed this way before, but a few miles later the road dropped down, connecting with the road to Furumine Shrine.
That I remembered, but how? It went along a river that I’d been along before, and the giant torii that began the giant climb also rang my memory bell, but when? How? For what? I vaguely remembered hiking the mountain trails once, up above the shrine, but with whom? Alone?
And what about you? What were you doing in the mountains three decades past? Were you in the mountains at all? Were you skiing? Trying out the newly invented Board of Snow, the one with a rubber line attached to the tip that you held onto while “surfing” down the slope?
Were you camping? Snuggling in a tent? Fighting fires? Getting lost in the Sierras, stumbling along some rocky route in Sangre de Cristos, hiking the Rainbow Trail, angling for fish in some freezing stream?
My memory’s skein has nothing here but a big hole. I remembered the road, the torii, the trails above the shrine but what fit into the hole was simply the junk and detritus that I invented to fill it. This is memory at its worst, refusing to accept the hole as an empty thing lost forever, and filling it with shit, or worse, with photos from an album, or worst of all, with 1’s and 0’s.
Where my crippled memory still walks with a steady gait, though, is in its rejection of memory aids. I had no compulsion to stop as I pedaled and snap pictures with my phone, because I had no phone. Why do I need pictures to remind me of the past? The past is gone, and if it wasn’t strong enough or sweet enough or bitter enough to imprint itself into my web, then let the whole thing rot, I will save the strands in the web for something that matters, like death.
Oh, and this memory! How did I pedal these roads in a 52/42 x 13-21, gearing bolted onto a steel frame with 36-spoked wheels? Today the plate on the back was a gigantic 25, and the saucer on the front a tiny 36, little children’s gears, things that a baby could ride to the top of Everest with, and here I was, barely turning the pedals on this endless grade? I tried to remember what it was like to have legs and lungs that thrashed mighty gears up beastly climbs like this, but nought.
The road forked, which is what roads and lives do. They fork. And in the middle of this one was a shop selling noodles and ice cream, and so I dithered because the road ahead was long and steep and my stomach was growling and surely there was nothing between here and there. The proprietor ran out and motioned me in, pointing to of all things, a bike rack and a sign that said “Kanuma Friends of Cycling.”
He was old and said, “I don’t know you. I know all the bicyclists who come here. Who are you?”
I told him that I remembered. I remembered when shops like his didn’t know about bicycles or care, I remembered when drivers gave us a half-berth and a honk, I remembered when “cycling” in this provincial prefecture was as novel as piercing low body parts, but I didn’t remember him, either.
He smiled because he had been trumped, and he laughed. “We used to not care, it’s true. But we are friendly now because bicycles are good business!”
Ah yes, business! Why love a thing because it breathes and hugs you tight, why love a thing because it nurtures your soul and your legs, why love a thing because it makes you a woman or a man, strengthens you when you are alone, succors you when you are ill, accompanies you on the high roads, bombs you, heart in mouth, on the low ones, pumps you with speed and terror, thrill and disappointment, why do any of those things matter when it is good business?
Good business, too, is the smoldering nuclear bomb, exploding daily far beyond the lifespan of humanity itself. Good business is human trafficking, air pollution, harvesting life until it becomes extinct, Monsanto! Monsanto is good business, welcome Monsanto along with the bicycles! Park your Round-up here and tip a few grains into your green tea because, you know, it is good business!
My teeth sunk down into the cold soba noodles. They were good business too and my stomach growled appreciatively. A few coins later I got ready to remount, pointing my bike towards the tunnel, where clearly there was nothing ahead but bad business and much of it.
“Not there!” the host shouted. “Nikko is that way!”
“I’m taking the road to Ashio,” I said, but I thought “and bad business.”
“That road is farther. Much farther. And steeper. Bad roads. No bicyclists go there. This way is shorter and better.” He motioned precisely in the direction I had no intention of taking, reminding me of a similar occurrence outside the village of Shimogo, also thirty-two years ago, when I had ignored local advice and almost died on a snow-covered trail stuck high in the Fukushima mountains in April.
Here it was again April, again spring, again high in the mountains, and again local knowledge advising me against bad judgment and poor choices and bad business, and here I was again, utterly unchanged, ignoring facts and seeking something better, eagerly vying for the chance to throw my money and my life after what could only be very, very bad business.
The climb began slowly and slowed down from there, yet I had the confidence of a full belly and the memory of the map graven in my head, huge squiggles closely bunched together for twenty miles or more, up, up, up, bad business at ploddingly slow speed all the way. These are the times that you reflect on your chances if you flat or fall and bust your skull or break a leg. No cars, no trucks, no people, nothing, you will bleed out or go into shock and die and become a local headline. “Cyclist Ignores Warning, Dies.”
“Cyclist Hits Head without Helmet, Dies.”
“Cyclist Loses Way in Mountains, Encounters Snowstorm, Dies.”
Those headlines all reverberated but were drowned out by the counter-headlines that would never be published:
“Cyclist Ignores Warning, Has Ride of His Life.”
“Cyclist Rides without Helmet, Enjoys Incomparable Happiness.”
“Cyclist Finds Way in Mountains through Force of Memory, Pedals in Glorious Spring Weather”
A good wet memory smacked me hard, the memory of exploring these roads three decades prior without a phone, just like today. You can have adventure. You can have security. You cannot have both. After a time the road fell, then fell, fell, and fell some more. Turns were punctuated with loose gravel, sand, and carpeted cedar needles, and I have another question for you.
When is the last time you took a road whose end was unknown? When is the last time you wandered? When is the last time you were … exposed? The road went from tiny and narrow and twisting to impossibly so, the speckling from the sunlight hiding treacherous holes in the pavement, sudden tiny bridges over cascading mountain streams, brakes rubbing and burning and smoking, hands exhausted from the clenched brake levers, hoping that the tires held and yet enjoying the Paradox of the Terrifying Descent: It is terrifying, yes, but contains the kernel of joy from going downhill rather than up, and its corollary: The worst descent is better than the best ascent.
I have ridden more roads than you, likely.
I have ridden more miles than you, likely.
I have ridden more crazy rides than you, likely.
I have ridden more hidden roads in Tochigi Prefecture than you, certainly.
And I can tell you this: The leg from Furumine Shrine to the bottom of the climb up to Ashio is one of the most exhilarating, challenging, beautiful, gut-wrenching, spectacular pieces of bicycling I have ever done in my life or ever hope to do, and all of that before the third major pass of the day had even begun, a climb that put everything before into the deepest shade.
At the bottom the road does what such roads always do, which is go again up, this time the final climb to the pass at Kasuo. For a mile I climbed, slowly, out of the saddle, on a grade with only a few gradual turns until the road became so steep that the switchbacks began, and at the first switchback there was a sign with a number: Curve No. 1.
What would you think when you saw that? Well of course you would wonder, “How many more?” and I can tell you now without spoiling it because the chance you will ever ride this road is zero, the number of numbered switchbacks to the top is 38 … but that’s not really true because there are an equal number of turns that are simply not numbered.
These numbers reminded me of the lettered curves up the fabled Irohazaka climb, which pales in comparison to this monster. At the top the only thing that awaited was silence; this high up it was dead winter with the door ajar just so to let in the rays and tendrils of spring, here a chickadee calling, there a woodpecker hammering on the early feast. In addition to winter and exhaustion, the queen descent awaited, as poor a road with as treacherous a surface as you could wish on your poor 25mm tires, pot holes, stones, gravel, sand, speckling, off-camber switchbacks, collapsed guardrails, and another 30 hairpins to the bottom for ten very long kilometers.
What should I more say than that the road spread out at the bottom into another untrafficked, perfectly paved highway with a howling tailwind and a gradual 10-km climb to the tunnel that dropped you down into Nikko? The day was mostly spent, my legs were wholly shot, and the final 45 km though downhill came with a stiff, in-your-face headwind. From start to finish it took 8.5 hours, including well over an hour at the noodle shop and at the convenience store before the tunnel.
In those hours I relived the things I have lived before, memories soldered to new experiences which, at day’s end, had become memories themselves, memories to be written down here and shortly thereafter, except in fragments, to be forgotten, forever.