RIP Paul Sherwen

I first read of Paul Sherwen’s death in another blog I follow, A Dude Abikes. Sherwen, for those who don’t follow bike racing, was what we in the US would refer to as the “color commentator” for BBC and Eurosport TV broadcasts of bike races. Analogous to American football broadcasts, they employed a retired bike racer (Sherwen) to provide inside commentary along with a broadcast journalist (Phil Liggett). Though unlike the usual team, Liggett was also a former bike racer.

Liggett and Sherwen always provided colourful commentary along with sight-seeing opportunities and European history lessons. We could always

PAU, FRANCE – JULY 26: Geraint Thomas of Great Britain and Team Sky Yellow Leader Jersey / Sunflowers / during the 105th Tour de France 2018, Stage 18 a 171km stage from Trie-sur-Baise to Pau on July 26, 2018 in Pau, France. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

count on a shot of the riders in a field of sunflowers during the Tour de France. Since I’ve never had cable or satellite TV, access to their broadcasts was always an adventure.

In 1992 I watched their TdF broadcast from a cafe somewhere near Markleeville, CA., home of the Death Ride. When I first heard of the Death Ride, I thought one had to be nuts to try it. I may still be right. The ride is ~200 km (129 miles) on California highways, climbing 15,000 feet while summiting five mountain passes. The low point of the ride is about 5000 feet and the high point over 8700. The best part is that it’s a closed course for the most hazardous parts.

I changed my mind about the crazy part when I went cross country skiing and camping in the area. As we drove over Carson Pass on our way to the trailhead I was amazed by the beauty, and thought it would look even better on a bike. Over the next few days of backcountry skiing and camping, I began to hatch a plan.

I decided to get my feet wet in 1991 with the “two pass option”, riding about 50 miles and crossing two passes, to find out what riding at altitude was like. I’d never ridden anything higher than the Santa Cruz Mountains, at about 2000 feet.

I learned an important lesson. Arriving the night before the ride I had no time to get used to the thinner air. I was tired and had no appetite. It was hot and dry. It was not my most enjoyable day in the saddle.

In 1992 I arrived in the mountains a week early, hanging out at Co-op Camp Sierra. The camp is at about 4300 feet. After hiking, swimming, and a little bit of riding, we moved north to Markleeville. (Note to self: if you make this drive again, go down to the Central Valley, drive north through the valley, then back up into the mountains – your passengers will thank you for it.)

We stayed at Sorensen’s Resort near Pickett’s Junction. A couple of days before the ride I decided to scope out Ebbetts Pass, the highest point of the ride and the only part I’d never seen. Somewhere along the ride I spotted a cafe with a satellite dish. I saw bikes parked outside and a lot of people wearing funny clothes like mine. I asked the proprietor if we might tune the big screen TV to the BBC. He agreed readily and I spent an enjoyable chunk of the day with strangers, enjoying the Tour de France broadcast with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. (Were you wondering if I’d ever get back to him?)

The morning of the Death Ride I was up before dawn and headed to Turtle Rock State Park, the start point. As the sky got light, the strains of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner reminded anyone who was sleeping in that they’d best get up to start riding soon.

Some folks jumped on their bikes at the first strains, others wandered out as it played or as it ended. Some of us stuck around, waiting for it to get lighter. As the sun came up, The Jefferson Airplane got me on the road:

As we headed toward Monitor Pass, it began to sprinkle lightly. This seemed like a good omen, a little something to keep the heat down and counter the dry desert air on the leeward side of the divide. We went up and over Monitor Pass and down to the Nevada state line, then turned around and went back over the pass in the other direction. So far, so good.

As we turned toward Ebbetts Pass, the earliest riders were coming down. They warned us that it was cold and wet up there. Climbing the pass wasn’t so bad. At the top, no one stood around to rest or enjoy the view. It was time to head down. Employing my modern version of the age-old technique of stuffing newspapers in your jersey for insulation on chilly descents (I used a plastic grocery bag – no ink to run, and waterproof), I was back on my bike after a quick snack and collecting the sticker to prove I’d made it to the top. Collect all five and your receive an enameled pin to prove you did it. We were cautioned that there were corner marshals before all switchbacks, urging us to slow down. I’d seen them going up, when slowing down was not a problem.

Ascending Ebbetts Pass
Yes, that is the same jersey 26 years later, Grand Teton National Park

Going down was a problem. The brakes needed feathering to scrub off speed as well as to scrub water off the rims so they would actually function as brakes. It was also a way to keep fingers moving so they wouldn’t stiffen up too much to apply the brakes when really needed. Breathing on the fingers for warmth had to be done fast, so the hands could be back on the brake levers before the next switchback.

The lunch stop was welcome this time and we headed back out on the road. Coming down a few thousand feet did not make it warm and dry. The rain had entered the valley and was with us the rest of the day. Sorensen’s Resort was on the way to Luther Pass, so I stopped into our cabin, dried off, changed clothes, ate a banana, hugged my future wife, and got back out. It might have taken all of five minutes. Dry clothes felt great for the next few minutes.

After the last two passes, I showered and changed into dry civilian clothes and signed the commemorative poster as a five pass rider. Since it was still raining, I don’t know if you can read any of the signatures. We used a silver Sharpie so it was somewhat waterproof. After one last great meal at Sorensen’s, we headed back to the Bay Area. I think I’m ready to do it again.

 

Be Like Mike (or Betty and Graeme, or Robert)

Is it possible to live one’s own life vicariously? I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading the summer’s blog posts and watching/listening to/reading all the links. What a summer! I guess you call that reminiscing, or nostalgia, not living vicariously. (Did I really do that?) Anyway, I’m itching to get back on the road. Anybody want to take me to New Zealand or Australia for the winter (here)/summer (there)? I’m ready to ride.

My daughter showed me this video yesterday. I hope the tandem cyclists from our summer trip see this.

Bicycling magazine used to have an annual contest to win the bike of your choice. You had to do or write something for your entry. One year was “Baikus”, short poems about bicycling, though they did not have to follow the formal structure of Haiku. I sent two entries: one called “First Ride”, about my daughter’s first ride, when I let go of the saddle and watched her ride away; and another called “Last Ride”, about my imagined last ride resulting in death from massive heart attack while riding down a mountain road, found with a smile still on my face. In the poem I would be, like Jiminy Cricket, 93.

I’ve since decided 93 may not be old enough. I might want to stick around long enough to break Robert Marchand’s Hour Record for the over 105 age group. (And I noticed that the original song said “I’m no fool, nosiree, I want to live to be 93”, but the safety cartoons all ended up at 103.)

Hats off to Graeme, Betty, and Robert! May we all continue doing what we love for as long as we love it.

An open letter

to my Cycle America community. To jog your memories, there will be one photo from each week, none of which have appeared here before:

Dear Friends,

trailer loaded, ready to head to ride start-WA

We have now been back in our respective real worlds for longer than we were away in our circus world. We used that metaphor during the trip because it seemed apt – we rolled into a new town every night, set up our tents, and were gone in the morning before most people were up and about. We didn’t put on much of a show, but…

Einstein in Jackson, WY

It’s also timely because I spent three days of the last week in Baraboo, home of the Ringling Brothers and the Circus World Museum. It was also where, for me, the two worlds intersected. My friends, my son and his wife, and my boss all came to Baraboo when the Cycle America Circus rolled through. It was my reminder that our circus world was fleeting, that the other world beckoned. It was the best of times…

Devil’s Tower, WY

And now we’re scattered across the globe doing whatever it is we normally
do; though even that is new for some – Ally went from being a student to being a nurse during those nine weeks. Mike stayed away longer than the rest of us to ride down the west coast of the US. How’d that go, Mike?

Did anybody do a Johnny Paycheck when going back to work?

Needles Highway, SD

I miss that world. I missed the daily routine of riding already by the first Monday I was home. I had my day of rest and was ready to ride again. I’m still looking for anyone who wants to pay me to ride my bike. From the headwaters of the Mississippi to the delta seems like a good route. Who’ll drive sag?

The jersey that got us in trouble in Belgium-Northfield, MN

But I also miss all of you. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna get all hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya on you. If we all lived in the same town it’s not like we’d all be hanging out every night after work (those of us who do still work) or be drinking coffee together every morning at the corner cafe (for the retired among us).

Wind farm – Pepin, WI

But we had a community for those nine weeks; a loose-knit one, perhaps, but we shared something I will never forget. We shared fun, we shared miseries, we shared deeply transforming moments.  We found out what we were made of. Some of you, who had done this before, may have had no doubts about it. But I bet most of us had moments when we weren’t really sure what we had gotten into, weren’t really sure we could do this. But we did. And we probably knew that all along but it seemed too arrogant to say out loud, just as voicing the fears seemed too insecure to say out loud.

100 miles is just a number – almost a century in Ontario

We ate some great food and some food that we may not have eaten had we not just ridden 80 miles. We saw the USA in a way that most people never will. We didn’t fly over flyover country. We didn’t cross the plains at 80 mph (~130 km/h for those of the metric persuasion), staring at the ribbon of pavement and ignoring all else. We did wake up sober in Nebraska (or close to it – Nebraska, I mean). Climbing mountain passes didn’t mean just stepping harder on the accelerator.

Cycle America International Bobsled Team – Lake Placid, NY

We did all that, and we did it together. I, for one, already think about a reunion. It’s entirely possible we will never see each other again. I know some of you are friends in real life and do hang out. The rest of us? Maybe we’d feel awkward, not knowing what to say. Maybe we’d need a long ride together with margaritas to follow. Maybe a short ride, but actually together as a group, like the brief stretches when we were together for ferry crossings or through construction zones.

End of the road, Gloucester, MA-only one way to go

And maybe doing it again in 2020 doesn’t sound crazy after all. (Don’t tell anyone here I said that!) If those of you with the wherewithal to do it again do it, I’ll meet you in Baraboo with a case of beer. Or we can find an Irish pub and Mike can show the bartenders the proper way to pull a pint of Guinness.

See you on the road!

Love,

Steve

Maybe a motor next time?
Maybe Hogwart’s next time?
maple
Home again

 

The Last Roundup (Blue Spoon to Little Village)

“It was a fine fall morning; early and cold and sweet as cider. It was one of the prettiest times of year at one of the  prettiest times of the day…” (Ken Kesey, Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear)

And so we met at the Blue Spoon Cafe in Prairie du Sac, WI.  Breakfast (for me) was cakes bluespoonand eggs with coffee. It was about 35 degrees, no wind, a bright sun low in the sky. By the time we finished our breakfast and were ready to hit the road, it was over 40; still pretty crisp, but with a promise of warmth to come.

We (the stalwarts of the Half-fast Cycling Club) headed out, crossing the Wisconsin River and making our way to the Merrimac Ferry.ferry (For Cycle America folks, the morning route was more or less the route from the July 26 posting “I will never wear shoes“, only in reverse.) We wound our way up the switchbacks of Devil’s Lake State Park and on to lunch at the Little Village Cafe in Baraboo, home of the Circus World Museum (and former home of the Ringling Brothers). Lunch was a grilled chicken sandwich with pesto accompanied by an Argentine Malbec, followed by bourbon pumpkin cheesecake and espresso. No pictures of food. I’m not that kind of guy.

Leaving Baraboo the temperature was over 60 degrees. The wind began to pick up, out of the west, meaning we’d have a headwind early but a tailwind to push us home. The afternoon is the hillier part of the ride, so it was a good thing we were well-fueled. We headed up Happy Hill (and were happy), Freedom Road (where we felt free) and Swiss Valley (where we saw Brown Swiss cattle).  Rollie and I waited for the others by an old stone barn foundation with a silo in the middle. Since I’m used to seeing silos outside of the barn, I decided it’s really the top of an ancient and long-buried castle.

You can see the slits for the archers to shoot through at the top of the parapet, and the lookout tower above. After crossing a busy highway (with only a few feet of milled pavement – see the August 6 post “Back in the US, back in the US, back…”) we crossed onto a bike path for the last few miles. We saw a bald eagle perched above the river, which looked much better through the viewing scope than in the accompanying photo.eagle

Back to the Blue Spoon for drinks and hors d’oeuvre on the patio overlooking the river (just upstream from the eagle) and then it was back home for dinner, driving into the rising and nearly-full moon. Today was probably the most beautiful day of the month, a perfect day for what may be the last ride of the year that is just for fun and not to get somewhere. We’ll see how many of the Half-fast Club are up for the New Year’s Day ride.