Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Legend of Wolf Creek

The Cameron Trading Post  
Having just completed our second shift, we pulled into the Cameron Trading Post on the banks of the Little Colorado River just this side of Tuba City, Arizona.  Time to eat, shower and begin the drive to Pagosa Springs, Colorado for the next day's battle up Wolf Creek and the Continental Divide.


As you read, your mind's voice speaks electronically generated words via dozens of (or up to twenty) neurons that make up your entire brain.  Kindly overclock your Texas Instrument and read the next paragraph as if it were narrated by Wilford Brimly (Yes, the overweight diabetic who shilled carb-loaded oatmeal to unsuspecting old people who trusted him just because he talked all folksy-syle) or Gabby Hays (I'm not explaining this kook).  You pick the voice, totally democratic.

"In Nineteen Hunderd and Eleven, the Cameron Trading Post opened its doors at the foot of the historic suspension bridge which spans the nearby gorge of the Little Colorado River.  Today, travelers can stay at the rustic lodge, buy authentic-ish Navajo rugs or simply navigate through the quaint gift shop in a filthy racing kit straight to the water closet and drop a deuce...without buying anything."

Since we DID actually buy gas, Wilford (you're not still doing it are you?), we availed ourselves to the rights and privileges which accrue to the class of paying customers.  Step aside,  you sea of window shoppers, browsers, and looky-loos what, with your opened mouths and closed wallets.

Outdoor Showers

As a member of the tiny subset of people who actually spent money at this place by buying fuel,  Toro felt justifiably entitled to fire up the METAL1 portable shower because there's nothing like public showers in the middle of a big parking lot.  Our "shower" is essentially a bag with a hose which we place on the roof of METAL1 while we race.  It is designed to capture solar energy and yield hot showers immediately after our shift.

Solar Bag?  Hmmm.  Due to a serious design defect, our shower only gathered the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation which spans the cosmos as faint echos from the Big Bang.  Note: while this did accomplish the laudable task of creating all METAL13.8 billion years ago it is wholly worthless for heating water today.  We again need some sciencific facts, so we'll take a MET-angent to explore the nerd-crafted wonder of a Dickie Radiometer.

Why the Big Bang Fails to Heat Water Good Enough: Four Nerd's and a Dickie Radiometer

In the 1950's some eggheads hanging around Johns Hopkins built these giant "antennas" that look like mechanical ears from Wallace and Gromit.  Naturally, the guy named Dickie decided to name it after himself when another guy (whose name did not evoke genitalia) named Peter Roll was standing right there.  Whatever.  So these lonely clowns are working like 80 hours a week, to the consternation of their imaginary wives and girlfriends, when they get scooped by Penzias and Wilson.

Even though Penzias and Wilson sounds like a fancy Broadway songwriting duo, its actually a separate pair of nerds who worked for Bell Labs and nabbed the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics because (get this):

1. they found what the other guys were looking for;
2. which was something they were not looking for, and;
3. did even realize what it was when they found it.

No matter what direction they pointed their monster giant Dickie Radiometer they picked up noise.

This background noise was a bigger mystery to these isolated clipboards than talking to girls.  Totally stumped, they actually climbed inside the Dickie and cleaned off bird shit just to make sure avian fecal attenuation was not 'fowling' the signal (three separate laughs in that sentence, underlined to account for inattentive readers).

Turns out that "noise" is uniform throughout the entire universe and this marks the discovery of what is now known as Cosmic Background Radiation, the major direct evidence cited as proof of the Big Bang Theory.  As before, this CBR is the only energy which our misnamed "solar" shower collected.

You might mutter under your breath, 'that is a long, convoluted and fruitless road to travel for me, as a careful reader, to discover your shower was cold.'  Incorrect.  Keep in mind what the Chinese never said: a pointless journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single misstep.

Zack jumps into METAL1

Toro took his zero Kelvin shower in the Parking Lot which produced an unceremonious puddle of Superfund Water to contaminate local aquifers and burden future generations.  Dinner was served from tailgate of METAL1, which continued to earn Michelin Stars from riders and crew. The drive to Pagosa Springs was on the dessert menu.  Then we'd face our third consecutive day of climbing and cross the Continental Divide over Wolf Creek Pass.

Joining us for this leg of our journey was Zack who is, hands down, the most intentionally hilarious guy on the team.  Zack was all for the team, he is a young gregarious, avuncular guy, full of energy, bullcrap stories and endurance.  He is unflappable, doggedly determined and committed to having fun during the race.

As we buzzed around the Trading Post eating, being disgusting and getting ready to scramble off to Colorado, Zack asked if he could do anything to help.  I promptly handed him a clump of wet race ejecta to ferry 25 feet to the trash can.  We simultaneously realized how uncool that was and shared an incredulous laugh.  Let's hit the road.

Pagosa Bound

Ed is awesome in the details.  He studies maps, sequences, contingencies and does anything he can put METAL1 in the right place, on time, every time.   We were immensely proud to have him wearing the Captain's Hat and infinitely gratefully he respectfully declined the matching Captain's Speedo.  In the process of being dead on, Ed does this elaborate thinking that exhaustively considers all conceivable possibilities, out loud, like a homeless guy keeping it real with his shopping cart.  Its both remarkably thorough and extraordinarily funny listening to this meandering dither when you are punch drunk from racing and happily digesting a few thousand calories.  I came to call this his "Piglet Routine" where the guy worries himself to death even though for two years all he did was nail it.  Its like Jordan staying up all night wondering if he could dunk.

Zack jumped into the copilots' seat, closed the door on the rational world and the hilarity began.  Ed immediately launched into a rocking Piglet soliloquy about all things which might, but surely would not, happen.  Among, the first words Zack ever spoke to Ed were: "Does someone need a hug?"  Perfectly timing, off the wall and deadpan.  After a nice little pause, the car erupted into laughter and Zack was immediately in the wolf pack.

Our drive to Pagosa Springs was easily a highlight of RAAM 2010.  We'd sunk our teeth into the race with two solid days of racing and it was now apparent METAL1 was riding faster than TT1, every time.  Wow. The post-ride atmosphere was different that evening, more euphoria, more of a sense that we were doing this thing and each rider and crew was ready to throw down.  The sun was setting as we drove past the silent rock sentinels of Monument Valley.  For us, it was radical liberation to be warm, dry, full of food and not presently at war.

Intermittent rain fell with the last rays of light, DH1 was sticking it to 4Mil and adding to our lead.  We drove past 4Mil and started a stopwatch to measure the time gap up to DH1 so we could give those guys some real time intel.  The gap was about six minutes according to all the math dorks in the car who ciphered the lead accounting for relative speeds of the two cyclists and our truck.  That's one small step for geeky engineers and one giant whoosh for METAL who avoids math.

Here is Ryan sporting tiny woman's socks that appear to have little cotton balls on the back

Zack broke out his bag of riffs and entertained us for hours.  It is not possible to recreate that magic but I am not exaggerating when I assure you everybody shed tears of laughter.  Zack has mini-comedy routines about being a country boy, making his wife do heavy manual labor, how Verizon sucks, and a pleasing mix of canned jokes and improv skits that come flying at you in a peripatetic storm.


The big showstopper though was Stanley, the Team ViaSat 2010 Mascott.  You may recall Ron had regaled us the night before with a seemingly unlimited stream of facts and unique experiences.  Well Ron may be living in it but this is Stanley's world.  Stanley is Ron's pet Macaw but that is a criminal understatement tantamount to saying the Beatles were four guys from Liverpool.  You see Stanley is a superhero walking around in a bird's feather suit.

                         "Bring it!"

I started to lift the veil and get Zack hip to the whole Stanley situation.

Not a lot of people realize that Stanley is 900 grams but don't call him fat...he's just flabby.  Yep, he's just a little off form.  Turns out, this is Ron's fault because, if Stanley just did like 20 minutes of bird flavored pect blasting everyday he'd be ripped and would even regain the ability to fly which he lost 17 years ago in a bloody fight.  17 years ago Ron took on a three year old injured Macaw named Stanley.  In reality, Stanley, the world famous, puzzle solving, chick-magnet, dog-mauling super bird took on a valet named Ron to serve him and record his METAL bird odyssey.  Zack was hitting the roof, more questions than answers, how could any of this be?

Stanley making his head extra fluffy for the ladies and thinking of ways to ditch Ron

So there we were: Ed, Toro, METAL and Zack reviewing the race and marveling at Stanley the BADASS and how on earth I could have possibly obtained this level of detail about a bird I'd never seen.  There is no recreating the uproar but here are a few highlights:


Zack: "He did WHAT?  The bird mauled a dog?  You have to tell me that one."
(its now pitch black outside the truck and I let this one breathe a good 10 seconds before slowing speaking)

METAL: "...there was a trail of blood."
(Insert: four guys in stitches with 30 seconds of incredulous screaming guffaws)

     Stanley: slapping humans around for 17 years

Turns out Stanley is a bird thug.  The trail of blood led to a full-sized dog that required 80 stitches to repair his snout.  The dog wanted a "two pound chicken dinner" and instead got served up a Costco Sized Can of Beak Flavored Whoop Ass.  Stanley ended up with a broken wing and lost the ability to fly, that's how Stanley got his valet, Ron.  Isolated incident?  Nope.  Stanley hangs out in his front yard tree which he does not care to share local felines.  He shells any cat looking for a chicken dinner.  Stanley shears off branches with his beak, then launches them with his bird head.  He nails cats with his vicious avian arboreal assaults.  Sometimes he holds onto the stick, prison-yard style, and fends off attackers with what I call his "bird shiv."

This is just the beginning, Stanley is adored by women and sought out by celebrities.  There is literally too much to say.  After I had Zack in a fevered state of disbelief regarding how much Stanley lore I was sitting on, I dropped the bomb on him.  "Say Zack, here is a photo of Stanley on my laptop."  THAT was a barn burner.  Ron had given me his SD card after day one to grab his race photos which included a Stanley portrait.  Zack was floored.

      "That's two for me and ZERO for Ron!"

Stanley became our mascot and a central conceit of the team.  We discovered him on the road, developed his character and resorted to his tales (both real and embellished) as a refuge from the pain, darkness and isolation that riding RAAM can be.  Best of all it was organic, spontaneous, unexpected and a riotous team-builder for us to share during that brief adventure.

At that point, only Zack and us three were indoctrinated into Stanley folklore.  I had no idea it would ever become anything more than a riot that night.  It did, as in magnitudes more hilarious, when I start getting texts like this from Kevin Hunter during the race:

Kevin:"Give 'em hell tonight.  Do it for Stanley.  He's 900 grams you know"
METAL: "Oh man, that's funny."
Kevin: "Not fat...just flabby"
METAL: "Holy shit you have the whole VH1 Stanley story!"
Kevin: "Zack was killing us last night with Stanley stories"

So obviously, the magic element is the rotating crew that disseminates news and bird legends across the vehicles as they rotate at the end of every shift.  Hard to measure how much this little dynamic added to our fun on the road.  So we laughed like hell and got to our hotel in Pagosa Springs hotel in good repair.

Offload at Pagosa Springs Hotel

Typical METAL1, we grabbed two luggage carts and had both hotel rooms dialed in within 10 minutes.  Try it sometime, it takes practice.  I got some pretty good sleep and headed to breakfast only to find Toro, the Eagle Scout, was already digesting food and data.

He's that guy you go camping with that you unzip your tent flap in the morning to discover he's already made a fire, caught lake trout for breakfast and took photos of bears he chased away during the night a few miles up the road which he sensed because blue spotted tree squirrels only face east when black bears are about to attack.  We had a big satisfying breakfast and learned 4Mil was not reporting any times after Durango.  We found out later they had crashed out because one of their crew fell asleep at the wheel while driving an RV but at that point we did not know this.  Ultimately, 4Mil's disaster just made the entire team appreciate our crew who worked long hours, kicked ass and made us as fast as we could be with no hitches.

Toro Bike Stand

Necessity is the mother of invention...who got knifed by Toro who is now the daddy of Macgyvering Innovation.  Here, he labors in the Room Shop over the now-famous improvised bike stand.  Pretty clever, huh?  Trash cans became ice chests, rags were acquired from hotel staff and our bikes were always race ready when we left the hotel.  Big deal Toro, I know how to whistle.

Third Consecutive Climbing Day

It was a chilly morning and we'd be starting in the morning twilight.  Our parcours this day was pretty exciting and very simple.  Climb from 6300 to 10800 feet elevation.  We'd start in a chilly ravine east of Durango and have the distinct honor of hitting the highest elevation on RAAM as we crossed the Continental Divide at the top of  Wolf Creek Pass.  Jeremy and I were both feeling good and I knew we were going to have a big day.

There would be about 60 miles of mostly up with some drops which inflates the total climbing versus raw elevation gain.  This ride most closely approximates what Jeremy and I do nearly every Saturday.  I was more relaxed for this ride than I ever have been for any RAAM stage, it felt like a home field advantage.  An average Saturday training ride for us is 80 miles with 8000 feet of climbing.  There's a tradition of mauling these rides just after the sun comes up at a pace just shy of death.  In other words, this stage is how we train, why we ride bikes and we take much pride in executing this particular type of riding.  With no disrespect to our competition, there was approximately zero chance anybody in RAAM could climb like us.  Time to cash the lottery ticket we picked up hanging out in the pain cave every week. 

Navigation from Memory

We had to backtrack toward Durango to track down Tynee and the Gorilla.  As we Drove along in the dark, Toro decides we missed a turn.  GPS, map review, driver, crew all bested by Toro's memory as he scanned the terrain and decided this was not the road he had traveled in previous races.  He was right, we fixed it and METAL1's on-time-all-the-record was safe.

The Gorilla, Toro and the introduction of Bike Ninja

Jeremy got the first pull of the day once the Gorilla gnashed his bike to the exchange.

Temps were in the 40's and we'd be climbing out of the gate.  I had to wear cold weather gear, not to avoid pain (impossible in RAAM anyway), but rather to avoid involuntary slowing that travels with being frozen.  Freeze biking is like those Galapagos Iguanas that get all lethargic after dining on seaweed in the frigid equatorial ocean.  No frozen lizards, we got some shredding to do.  Some people call that thing a balaclava.

Au contraire Robespierre, that's my Executioner's Hood.


The sun was warming things up as we gained elevation, this was some brutal and fairly relentless climbing.  We had a healthy warm up heading for Pagosa Springs when Ed decided to get in on the fun.  He backed METAL1 up in some tall grass that was hiding a bent metal snow measuring stick which impaled the rear bumper and then broke off like a bee stinger or something.

No racing allowed until Ed got a photo with his METAL

It was a funny accident but the really hilarious thing was how much Ed was digging getting in on the whole rampage, destruction and brutality vibe.  He wouldn't give up his rusty javelin and was pacing around saying: "this is METAL"  and insists on being photographed with the thing.  Awesome.  Ask me how I would expect him to act and I'd have said he'd fill out insurance forms in triplicate and start getting estimates while we slept that night.  Nope.  He was Ed the Impaler and the mellow, cautious guy that lives in San Diego apparently stayed there.  Ed's enthusiasm was infectious and Chuck (crew chief who was riding along with us for a while) was having a blast too.  Epic Day, under way.

Wolf Creek: Making the Angels Cry

Zack was driving the follow vehicle and that meant Izzy was navigating.  This was their day to shine.  Those guys were right there all day and they accomplished the nearly impossible by causing me to ride even faster than I would have merely driven by my own depravity. Just like Ed had transformed into a brutal minion, Izzy became our Satanic DJ and the soundtrack for METAL1's finest hour.

              You play Highway To Hell while Toro's cranking out 500 watts...the arm's going up

A few hours into our shift the main event was center stage.  Wolf Creek Pass is a fun climb because it glowers and towers above you as you make your puny-human way up the valley leading up to the summit.  As the grade increased the follow car transmuted into METAL2, everybody grew horns and channeled Ronnie James Dio.  Toro and I normally trade 5-7 mile pulls, outside Pagosa, Toro called for decreasing pulls as the road tilted up: 3miles, 2miles, 1mile and for the summit 1/2 mile pulls.
Toro telling me: "that sucked, five miles of climbing. You are taking about 9 miles here, its mostly down then we are switching to three's"

Shorter Pulls based on Hilly Terrain

This is how we became one unit.  Shorter pulls puts more pressure on the drivers and crew but it also gets them all fired up.  You see them more and the bikes are maxing at 15MPH, they have to find places for exchanges, they throw bikes faster, they run to the bike rack and are even more critical to putting time into rivals.  Everybody was on FIRE assuming their assigned job with precision and speed.

Hitting the teeth of the climb, Izzy and Zack start blasting Metal Tunes.  Dark clouds above, temps are in the 30's and there is snow up the to the edge of the roads.  Riders and crew started screaming and hollering because we all sensed this was a once in a lifetime moment.  All seven of us stayed line-of-sight up to the summit.

                  I am actually laughing here from Izzy's METAL narration and song choice

As I rode up toward some dead animal in the road Izzy gets on the METAL2 P.A. and scratches out a sinister "feast on his flesh!"  I nearly fell off my bike laughing and immediately redirected that energy to my pedals.

With the summit in site Toro calls for half mile pulls.  METAL1 and METAL2 are spitting gravel, snow, blood and guts and those guys nailed every exchange.  It was a RAAM clinic, Toro and I were throwing everything we had onto the road.  You ride, jump in, barely pass the other rider, jump out of the truck and onto the bike and hit the gas a few seconds later. 

Above 9000 feet elevation, its real now.  Were getting some wind and then an icy rain starts trying to cool the METAL.  No chance.  Izzy again, "You guys are killing this mountain so bad...its making the Angels cry."  Oh my.  The heat of humor and passion of battle burned my core.  Izzy literally stopped the rain, I did not feel it anymore.  Did he just ad lib that?  Do I need to pull over and shake his hand?  No, he's ViaSat Crew just throwing in his unique contribution.  Each rider and crew brings gives it his all which has the cumulative effect to transform a mere trip into an Epic Journey.

This was our optimized assault, time station data confirmed: Team ViaSat was the fastest team up the mountain.  Our story is more than facts because the experience was transcendent.  The script and cast I can only relate to you here in shadow form.  As such, it will likely fail to convey what we left on that mountain. We improvised, fought like hell and worked together.   There was a powerful willingness to sacrifice the self for the team, the technically perfect execution of rapid rider exchanges at altitude, in weather and under the pressure of high expectations.  All this was done with riotous humor, frequent war cries and METAL music to rouse the dead.  For those there that day, we found our seven individual contributions became one, this is the one Legend of Wolf Creek.

Toro took the summit prize on his roady and I took over shortly thereafter for the long descent down to South Fork Colorado, or as Denner calls it SoFoCo.  We switched to TT bikes for the rest of the day.  Time to tear down this hill and stomp some flat 'ground and pound' before calling it a day.  We were getting calls about Tobias being sick and that DH1 might be late.

Beavers Don't Speak Sign Language

It was pretty odd to switch from 1/2mile pulls uphill to one that was over 15 miles straight down.  I was regularly touching 50MPH coming down the backside of the Continental Divide.  I saw an animal (a Red Beaver, as Zack later clued me in) sort of pacing in the road.  I thought about bunny hopping the beaver at 50MPH on a TT bike but...that's just stupid.  So do I go right? Left? Hit the brakes?  No.  The best way to communicate with a semi-aquatic rodent is to waive your arm around.  Now I'm bike racing AND removing the communication barriers between man and beast.  Well, some beavers aren't cut out to be Koko the Gorilla so I gave up and just dodged his furry meanderings.  Zack was kind enough to narrate the tale by yelling out the window "beavers don't speak sign language."  Texans.

I zipped through the bottom of the climb and saw our media truck in a gas station.  They had stayed the night in South Fork meaning they were only 15 miles from us when we climbed.  While there was no way to know this in advance, ViaSat media should post up on this big climb in the future.  There is plenty to see as the crew is executing frequent exchanges, the bikes are moving slower and the scenery is breathtaking.  I suppose the same thing goes for RAAM media which was also absent.  They missed one hell of a show.

Rain, Heart failure and Heartbreak

We hit some flat terrain with a cross to tail wind, it was raining intermittently but not enough to soak through to the socks (my standard for too wet).  I was suddenly stricken with nausea, cold sweats and chest pressure.  Great, diaphoresis and a heart attack?  I was able to spin up to 32 miles per hour due to the tail wind and then I backed off to ascertain whether I needed to stop racing.  I felt the same resting as working, ignore it.  While this was an alarming experience that has never happened before or since I decided it was merely the result of these three days of violent effort.  I was simply on my limit of exhaustion which is comforting in that I had left nothing on the road.  I could still ride fast, barely.

This episode also represented a fork in the road, RAAM had started taking its toll and the remainder of the race is marked by physical decline.  Hard racing, lack of sleep and rushes of adrenalin corrode your well being and become more disabling as the race progresses.  You never feel great again, its managing the decline which is one definition RAAM success.

Now we start hearing Tobias is sick, dehydrated and DH1 might be late.  While they subjected us to chaos the day before, they actually did take over at the appointed time.  Today that was not going to happen.  Cussing ensued.  Not due to anger at DH1 but more the feeling that we had spilled guts for the team with the assumption we'd let fresher legs take over as planned.  Its RAAM and you deal with it.  DH1 had been hanging out at some hospital and they even had our media with them to cover Tobias' trip to the ER.

So we resigned ourselves to riding until they arrived which was about 15 minutes late.  We had ridden past our planned stop for gas and showers, no chance we would back track.  Tobias was set up to take the first pull.  We found this astounding.  The sick guy is riding first?  Anyway, the awesome part is that our getting off the road got all screwed up and Toro had to ride in DH1 after the exchange with Tobias.  Cussing ensued.  Ryan's got the first-hand dish on this chapter but my understanding is, he gets in the car, blurts out a little explicative-laden tirade and then calmly turns around to Denner and says "Oh, hey Ryan."  Classic.

Just to keep the screwed up theme going, we got Toro back and the follow vehicle had taken off with Izzy (our crew member to pick up) and we ended up waiting, chasing, and finally meeting up to pick up Izzy.  Then, cumulative cussing ensued.

Izzy jumps on and we head to Ulysses Kansas

As ever, we'll leave off in a parking lot.  Our adventure will resume on the Great American Plains as we ride in Kansas. 100% time trial bikes and one of my favorite days of RAAM.  Izzy is the coolest guy out there and brings the super-low-key humor to a new level.

The Legend of Wolf Creek Video

Click here to watch

We were fighting so hard that day I am amazed we took any pictures.   In fact, we have no video.  I slapped this "movie" together from the photos as they appeared, in raw form and in sequence coming off the camera.  Rather than just point you to a gallery with 250 pics, I've tried this approach to make it more interesting and a faster read.  Obviously, we were too busy to contemplate taking the best or most dramatic photos.  We were racing.  Still, I am pleased we have at least some of the last section of the climb.  A big thanks to Chuck for squeezing off a bunch of good shots.  Please enjoy and make allowances for our inability to get better media and my laziness in not making a more polished production.  Think of it as a Backstage RAAM Pass you were unable to scalp for anything of value.

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