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Stage 2: The Longest Day
The only thing to do at the edge of Lake Tahoe is marvel. Marvel at the scene before us. The lake appears like some sort of premonition in the early morning. A glowing, smooth pane of glass resting neatly on a bed of nearly perfect snow. The snow is everywhere. Not so neat near the edge of the road where it has browned with the passing of cars. Still, with that to your back this little world of Lake Tahoe looks perfect.
Surreal was the word that kept being spoken. The whole things looks so surreal that it makes everything uncomfortable. The air, warmer than it should be. The snow, whiter, brighter than anything you have seen before. Yet when we step into the coffee shop the smell of coffee and eggs puts the picture right back into perfect.
This sensation continues as we roll out of Tahoe City. We are all joking about the drive from Oregon to California and how, just one state over, California exists as a strange dream that just keeps getting better and better. As soon as you cross the border, magical things begin to happen. The sun gets brighter, the air warmer, the hair more golden and flowing, the shorts shorter, magical things I tell you. We imagine out loud to each other how this is pretty much the ideal spot to start a Tour that should (fingers crossed) someday fill the void of a Grand Tour in the United States – and for all intents and purposes this place certainly looks the part. If nothing else, it really is grand.
Early on it is apparent that we are being judged by Tim Johnson. He regards pretty much everything that we do with a watchful eye. He has just last night met some of these guys: Cole Maness, who generally has no problem wooing others with anecdotes of, well, whatever springs to mind; Slate Olson, who will offer his own particular brand of humor to each situation, generally unfurling as a loving jab to the ribs; Pierre Vanden Borre, and this is the first time that Pierre and I have ridden together since the days of the East Coast Continental; Pete Rubijono, here to provide some comic relief (and the strength of ten men) and after a recent relocation to the West Coast from the East it will be a great way for him to see what his new coast holds in store for him.
The thing that is striking about this first day of riding, this slow traipse out of Tahoe and over the hills, is just how amazing the vistas in California are. They do not stop, they do not quit, and here we are, just taking part in whatever comes at us. Which, initially is just a nice helping of altitude, pines and snow.
I feel like I am dying at the back of my pack of peers. This is not a good feeling and causes all sorts of doubts for the coming days. I voice my concerns out-loud when we stop for the first time, stripping off clothes and sweating like a stuck pig. Chad Contreras, our SRAM NRS Hero, looks over at me and asks how I'm feeling. "You look a little un-customarily, uh, red.", he says politely. I look down at my feet and decide to just tell the truth: "I feel like I'm going to have a heart attack." Everyone laughs, which makes me feel a little better. A swig of water and we are back on the bike. Even though Slate had agreed with the sentiment when the bikes roll out he is off in a chase for nothing, one of his customary fake town line sprints. Do not be fooled he is trying to goad you out.
When he goes Tim looks at me and starts to lean forward on his bars. "Wait for it" I say, but mostly because I do not want to chase. "He's going to wave it off in a second." The words have barely left my throat when Slate sits upright quickly and motions with his left hand, looking back at the same time. It is an open hand and he waves as if telling everyone behind him not this time guys, maybe next. Tim laughs and says: "I think you guys have ridden together a few times before." He is right. Slate and I ride together all the time, in fact, over the last couple years you could say that we have become 'riding partners' and friends because of it.
But as Slate had been gathering items around the office the week before we left, he casually threw out: "I can't wait to ride with PVB, I love that guy." It struck me then how these two people could be so closely involved in a project, riding around the country with mutual friends and experiences, but still had never actually ridden together. The collective experience had transferred among the riders to a degree where I thought that everyone had been riding together for years.
The first thing I noticed about Tim's riding (and maybe he did this first so as to get us all a little more loose and comfortable with himself and each other) was that he was very 'touchy'. On the bike. He would ride up next to you, closer than expected and then he would do something – reach out and touch your shifter, or purposely bump his bars into yours – something that usually causes people to react in a negative fashion. But, since this was The Pro on this ride, we accepted anything and everything that he did. By the end of the first day I cannot say that we were 'touching' each other, but we were more comfortable as a pack. It also helped that Cole was the one to shout out and shove Tim back, making us all laugh at the jocular fashion in which they palled around.
I thought long and hard about this over the 156 miles we rode that day. Probably too long, and certainly too hard, but I came to the conclusion that Tim's plan had worked. Now, late in the day, when we were all starting to get tired if someone accidentally bumped bars with another, the inclination would not be to automatically freeze, like the case had been previously. Tim was teaching and we were learning, no matter if you liked it or not.
At one point Tim was riding next to Pierre and it looked as though he were whispering in PVB's ear, he was telling him something, explaining. Looking straight ahead as if he was concentrating on the horizon, Pierre slowly started to rise and slid back a little on his saddle. His shoulders pulled back a bit and the hunch that permeates the majority of our riding stances (except Rubi, nobody can touch Pete's style) suddenly disappeared. Tim then lightly tapped Pierre on the shoulder, pleased, and rode off. I watched Pierre ride like this for a while, wondering what kind of heinous secret Tim had just whispered in his ear. A tinge of jealousy arose in me, for I wanted the secrets as well. As Tim drifted back and past I looked from him to Pierre who was now riding away from the rest of the group, straight off the front. "What?" Tim said, almost casually, "I told him about his pelvic floor and how to utilize it. He's not fully using his pelvic floor. It is really hard to do." I could only shake my head in disbelief. Here we were three, four hours into our riding and already Tim was changing everything that we knew about riding bicycles together. A new way of breathing? At 30 years old, that is not something that you just go and re-learn.
"The plate isn't going to clean itself" someone says as we all stare at our lunch in front of us. You know that point where you are so hungry that you aren't any more? Where the food looks pretty good, but you know that you are going to have to go back out there and get on your bike? That is what we are currently dealing with here in Nevada City, California. That and locals that look as if they just stepped off the set of Sons of Anarchy.
Minutes ago we were rocketing down from Truckee, away from the fabled and fateful Donner Pass. It had been the biggest winter that these parts had seen in a long while. The sides of the road were stacked high with snow and as we whipped our way through the white valley we'd catch glimpses of things buried underneath. Be it a truck, a house, or maybe a man and his dog, they would be framed in little white alcoves, surrounded by towering banks of snow on three sides and dug out seemingly by their own volition. The effect at 45-50mph turns the whole thing into a strange cyclotrope dedicated to highlighting the locals. The added effect of the air passing by these little pockets gave the whole thing yet one more reason to call the day bizarre. Whoosh - dog and owner - Whoosh - entryway to a house - Whoosh - dugout car - and we just continue to rocket towards the bottom picking up courage and momentum all the while.
We were not even halfway through the day at this point either. Even to rush through it in words makes it seem long. We still had yet to be stopped at gunpoint outside the military base, divert to a gravel road, see a family partying at a watering hole, hear the shooting range nearby, get lost and ride a dyke to get back on course.
This is not to trivialize these things, to pretend that they did not happen would be absurd. But the effect that this long day had on our brains was a funny one.
"Remember when we rode on that dyke, next to the fields of alfalfa?" someone would say to no one in particular. "Yeah, that was right after the day when we stopped next to that humongous hole in the road." "No, I don't think so. Wasn't that the day that we descended from Tahoe down straight into the heart of summer? Same day?" Well, yes, it was that same day, but the length of the day coupled with whatever could be stacked into that day caused our minds to simultaneously break it into smaller, more manageable segments. Things that we could process more easily.
Thank the heavens that they don't let the Tour of California racers stop more than they do, could you imagine what would happen if a few hundred half cracked bike racers got lost on their way to Sacramento and had to try their hand at riding alongside a broken up waterway in the middle of nowhere? The long grass alone would be enough to eat some of those racers alive. The sheer beauty of these places is too much for people to handle all at once, it needs to be broken up into little bits for us to process, together. Thank goodnesss going into Day Two that we still had each other.