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Tour of the Unknown Coast
PHOTOS: Brian Vernor | WORDS: Jeremy Dunn
We do not choose which rides we label 'best ever'. They choose us. Of course, from looking back on the ones that wind up with that moniker it is possible to discern a few elements that help the ride earn this title. A perfect sunshine laden day can do it, and generally helps, but more often than not it is an eloquent combination of a few elements that makes this possible. Sunshine would definitely be one of them, but then, let us give that segment the name Weather and the other two Extreme Features and The Company You Keep. It is just as important to note that these are not the be all end all, but they work as a nice guide to helping discern what a ride means and how it fits into the grand scheme of things.
That, however, is for the end of the ride, right now we are at the beginning. And at the beginning is where we see that Cole's hands are working quickly as he unties his dogs from where he has stored them in the back of the van. He is frustrated, but frustrated for Cole is very different from the rest of the world. Still smiling, always that smile, and talking softly under his breath he lifts his aging pets from the back of the van. Handsome Pete and Jonnie Angel stare diligently back as he sets them next to their dish and away from the edge of the road. Everyone else who is doing the ride has gone, clipped into their pedals and moving away from the makeshift campground at Ferndale County Fairgrounds.
It is a bit cool even for California as the ride takes off promptly at 7am. 350+ cyclists pour into the valleys that make up Humboldt County. This area is home to the now notorious Tour of the Unknown Coast as well as being notorious for its Marijuana use and growth. It is obvious why the plant would be popular here, not only because of the slightly slower speed of its inhabitants, but because of the sheer amount of greenery in the area. Almost to a stunning, retina burning degree, every plant reaching up to the sky is the brightest shade of green imaginable.
When Cole makes his way out of the grounds and turns left he is joined by a few other stragglers. Those who could not wake themselves early enough, or pull themselves from their morning coffee in time for the early start. Mike, the man behind the new Moots Headbadge is there, quietly talking to his neighbor, a man with a long beard whom he convinced to undertake this route with him. He is not as jovial as Mike, whom Cole met last night in the dim glow of van headlights. Mike had heard that the Continental Riders were going to be here and Cole's bushy mustache makes him stand out more than most.
As the first hours wear on, the road starts to lean skyward. Cole passes people effortlessly, almost with each pedal stroke. But it is not a deliberate passing, there is nothing but kindness in his nod to each and every rider. A soft "on your left" or a shaking of his head lets the other riders know that he is suffering the upturn of the road with them. Some are content enough to let him pass, others take a moments solace in the windblock that he graciously offers anyone who wishes to partake. Without knowing these people they can at once be taken in merely because they have pedaled their bicycles along the same route and will continue to do so for the remainder of the course.
Towns pass almost unknowingly on the ride. A large mill sits grossly to the right. Riders stop their pedaling to coast and marvel because it towers massively over the town below. Stacks of lumber look as though they have been piled into peoples backyards by the towns residents. The only thing that belies this is the fact that each single log is larger than the houses themselves. And as the turn is made, off the ramp and sharply to the left, the redwoods tell the truth of how the large logs came to be. From this prehistoric forest.
Along the way there has been talk of 'The Wall.' Everyone has been warned of this Extreme Feature on the course by either the ride director at the start, or the legend itself as it was extolled by its former victims. "I had never seen anything like it, you really can't believe that it is real" one former participant remarked over breakfast earlier in the day "I thought I was just going to fall off my bike and die." And now someone is asking Cole if he thinks that this steep pitch goes up high enough, or hard enough, to actual be 'the wall.' "I don't think so," he grins "although, that would be awesome because it would mean we are closer to the finish than we think we are." The other rider groans and gets back to thrusting his bike forward and up the grade.
It is after this climb, a particularly treacherous descent, and a short bridge crossing that Cole has rejoined the other riders that make up the Rapha Continental. They are sitting on their top-tubes, leaning against a fence, or off chatting with the other riders lined up at the toilets that the Tour has put out for riders. And they are glad to see Cole. Having the whole group together feels right, feels better and the jocular fashion with which the riders easily fall into is clearly envious to other riders on the course. This feeling is short-lived though because as the Continental riders pull together and start to roll along that flat stretch that leads up to 'the Wall' riders have falling in behind. In the span of about a mile and a half the peloton has swelled to almost twenty riders, another mile will add about ten more.
It is very apparent that these riders belong together, or at the very least have ridden together many times. Ira Ryan and Ben Lieberson have assumed their customary positions at the sharp end of this stick and Tony Pereira's infectious laugh can be heard further back in the group. New jerseys are in the mix as well. Welcomed in by the sharing of continuous motion and a familiar blur of legs. A time when everyone becomes a rolling mass of movement and color.
There is one food stop left, right at the base of the wall. It has been decided that there will be no stopping for the Continental riders. To carry the speed into the hill seems like the better move and it is communicated back through the group, which immediately starts to slow, but not before gracious thanks are shouted over the headwind. For the ride, for the wind block. Now the climbers in the bunch get their chance to shine as the appropriately named 'Wall' is just that and causes a pulsing in the group, had this been an actual race, would bring words like 'decimation' and 'shatter' to mind. But it cannot last forever, and does not, and soon everyone is back together again pedaling, laughing.
The campgrounds rush up quicker than expect as the final descent drops straight out onto the same road that served as the start gate. The Rapha Continental are gathered around a picnic table in the center of the campground. Halfhearted attempts at hugs and hi-fives are greeted in turn with salt covered grins. The sun is still wearily watching everyone return to the camp to bask in their own version of how much the Wall hurt, how the hard the wind blew, and when the sweat stung each others eyes. And when that phrase, the one that goes 'best ever' is uttered, no one is sure who said it, but at the same time no one is arguing.