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Part 3 - Gibraltar
The start feels, for several minutes, like a continuation of the approach; neighborhood streets, parks, gardens and Spanish churches. Then, with an easy uphill turn the view opens up wide and huge to the town and coastline below, and the full magnitude of the mountains ahead. There is no shade, just chaparral, grass and a now broiling wind. The sky is a bleached silver blue.
The road continues upward without traffic, sidewalks, guardrails, paint, structure or definition. The surface is broken and pieced together, like a quilt made from irregular and misshapen sections of chip seal and asphalt. The edges, sandy and covered in rocks, are barely discernible.
Ben and Ira move to the front with Hahn following quickly. Aaron has clearly checked out of the pain cave he found himself in on Cloudburst. After 30 minutes of ambitious and sustained effort, perhaps more, my bottles are empty. I’ve eaten two gels and my last banana. Waves of dizziness, panting and confusion force me to back down on the steeper sections, the hairpin turns and quicker pitches. Aaron catches me in a lull. We ride together for a pace until, on a particularly steep turn, I sink. Moving between superb legs and a world with dark edges and hot white light leaking into my head, I surge ahead and wait for Cole to pass me.
Eventually, I round a corner to find Ira on the ground in the first piece of shade since town. He looks worse than I feel. Aaron and Hahn are standing over their bikes, also in the shade.
Ira (rubbing his eyes, shaking his head, then rubbing his eyes again): This is the worst I’ve ever felt and I’m out of water.
Daniel: Is it wrong that seeing you in the dirt, looking cooked and pathetic, makes me happy? I’d get giddy but for fear of falling over prematurely.
Hahn: Where’s Cole?
Ten minutes later and still no Cole. This is odd and out of character. Hahn, feeling good and always inclined to help, mounts up and slowly rolls back down. Seconds later, Hahn comes back around the corner with Cole. Cole has a roadside bouquet of yellow and white wild flowers, expertly arranged and tucked into his shifter and brake cables. He’s been repeatedly forced off his bike by sunscreen run-off and his face is a streaked mess of SPF80, dirt and irritation. He’s still smiling and riding steadier than ever. Rejuvenated by shade, rest and the sight of Cole’s bicycle landscaping, we roll out for the second half of Gibraltar’s parched, achromatized ascent.
The second half is tighter, with more folds and less face. And faintly greener. The ocean, cold and blue, with the Channel Islands in the distance, blinks in and out of view. Jeanette and Dan catch us up in the mini-van shortly after we settle into a collective pace. Everyone but me stops to fill up on water and whatever. I continue, focused and determined. Several switchbacks later I look down to appraise the gap I’ve created. It’s big enough that I can finish alone, or at least that’s the conclusion I’m coming to when Ira passes me.
At one point near the top, in the crook of a wide, flat switchback, several cars and municipal trucks line the road. Looking under a willow tree, hundreds of yards back from the apex, a large compound of homes rises out of the dust. Screen doors, dogs, tree-swings and rust.
I see the top of the ‘Road Closed’ sign. Four more pedal strokes and it’s coaxed into full frame. I’m only a hundred yards from done, for the moment. Ben and Ira are seated just off the road, under what looks like a circular helicopter pad atop a six-foot high cement base. It’s a wide, toadstool-shaped water tank used to help contain brush fires. The top overhangs the base by several feet and underneath it’s shaded and level, an ideal respite.
I join them and wait for the others. First Hahn, then Aaron and finally Cole roll into view. They ditch their bikes and scramble up the short sandy hill to our shaded camp. We’re tired and empty and we’ve been climbing for hours. Clearly Gibraltar is concentrated epic.
"Ben and Ira try their disappearing act but I feel good and match their pace from a few hundred feet behind. Watching them while trying to wait for Aaron, Cole and Daniel to catch-up proves hard to do. Before it becomes too much, Ira, clearly in the hurt locker, begins to float my way. Nice." - Hahn
"But I don't get heat issues. Normally." - Ira Ryan
"With my right eye stinging, I started to drift back from the rest of the guys. Sweat, running down my face and picking up SPF, started my eye afire. The more I rubbed, the worse it got. I tried to pull off the side of the road and flush it, but nothing was helping. I started picking flowers to pass the time and get my mind of this ridiculous inconvenience that had me walking and dancing around in the dirt every quarter of a mile." – Cole