You’d think by now I’d know better, but it turns out when it comes to bikes and climbing, you never learn. You might get faster, but you never get smarter.
And so when John and I decided to take a day away from our keyboards and internet tethers, I naturally decided we should go ride the Figueroa Mountain Loop, one of the local climbing rides. I’d done it before, but John never had. I’ll admit it right now: It was all my idea.
I wanted to ride to where the world couldn’t reach me. That part was easy. It was getting home that was the hard part.
We packed the bikes in a rented Honda Accord. My secret superpower: packing bikes into rental cars. There was a parking spot in the shade, a sure sign of a lucky day. We changed in the parking lot. The tourists looked confused.
We rolled out at noon, pushed along by a screaming tailwind. We knew eventually we’d pay for that, but for now, we felt giddy like kids let out of school for the day. We were out for a bike ride. We were going to climb some hills. What could possibly go wrong with this?
A cattle guard and a windmill announce the start of the first round of climbing. It’s a rule around here that the steepest section of the climbs always comes at the bottom. We begin the steady upward grind, and soon John rides several switchbacks ahead, his helmet glinting in the sun. It’s the kind of climb where I can see where I’ve been and how far I have yet to go.
As we climb, the valley stretches out below us. We’re in the neighborhood of the San Andreas, and the terrain rises and falls like an unmade bed. Tall grasses glint gold in the summer’s sun, and the cattle gather in the shade of the scrappy live oak trees. The shift from oaks to pines demarcates the rising elevation as surely as the lines on a topo map.
The pavement suddenly ends and the road turns to dirt. There’s no obvious reason for this. Maybe they thought it would be more epic that way. My tires slip and skip over the marble-sized rocks. There’s no tree cover as the road wraps around the hill’s contours. The summit taunts us, hanging just beyond reach. It feels exactly like the adventure I set out to find.
Always on the hard climbing rides, there’s the point of no return. You reach the first summit, and a descent beckons. Follow where it leads you, and you’ve no choice but to climb home. We descend into a narrow canyon whose walls rise up steeply around us. A trickle of water crosses the road at the canyon’s lowest point, a determined hold-out from the previous winter’s rains.
Then the road turns inevitably up again. It’s a long, steep ramp whose gradient never slackens. I dream of switchbacks. Dried yucca flowers hang from their long stalks in the careless way of teenagers gathered on a street corner. Scrub pines cling precariously to the sandstone cliffs. I ride up a convection oven’s wall, baking all the way. My legs turn to stone.
Eventually, I reach a flat clearing and the welcome shade of the pines.
– Where does that road go? he asks me, pointing upward.
– That’s where we’re going, I say.
His expression turns comical in its disbelief. There’s a road straight ahead that looks like it descends homeward, but in a cruel trick, it doesn’t. We’re not yet halfway to the summit. Our legs are already wasted and our water bottles close to empty. The only way home is up.
The day’s final climb reveals itself slowly like a high-priced stripper. Around each corner, a little more road appears. It feels like a bad dream. My bottles are nearly empty, the road unrolls infinitely. I pick a tree and ride to it. Then I pick another tree. I want to beg for a lift to the top from a passing car, but there are no cars. There’s no one.
Imagining the descent is an essential ritual of climbing. You dream of that glorious moment of release, when gravity switches sides and goes from being your hated enemy to becoming your new best friend. You picture letting the bike go, and feeling the wind rush over you as it cools your overheated skin. There can be no better feeling than this.
The reality is never like you imagine. There is no freedom in driving a bike down a steep hill. It’s work. You two-step through each switchback locked in the bike’s embrace. Cracks reach up to grab at your wheels and the banked curves of your dreams turn out to be menacing off-camber hairpins mangled into improbable angles. Your hands cramp on the brake levers.
We’ve finally made it to the descent, but there’s still another climb. It stings like a stiletto, short and sharp. I think about walking. Surely, it would be easier than pedaling. I curse the bike, curse the road, curse the sky. The road doesn’t give a shit.
It’s a relief when the descent finally ends. The road flattens as we reach the floodplain of a dry river. A strong wind funnels up the narrow canyon into our faces. Headwinds sound like Belgium: cold and shivering. But in California at summer’s height, the winds blow hot. To ride into the valley’s winds is to roll down the throat of a dragon. Your skin parches and cracks. You think your hair must surely be on fire.
By now we’re out of water. I took my last precious sip somewhere upslope near the barbed wire fence and after the last cattle guard. Now every cell shrivels under the unrelenting sun. The road shimmers and dances in ways that can’t be real. I don’t have a computer, so I can’t know exactly how far this road goes. Maybe we’re close to town. But also, maybe we’re not.
When salvation comes, we nearly miss it. There is no flourish of trumpets, no glowing light from the heavens, just a driveway with a gatehouse and a guard. There are cars parked outside, and some kind of event, a wedding maybe, is happening on the other side of the gates. It doesn’t have anything to do with us.
I look longingly at the rows of grapevines, wishing the irrigation system was running. By now I’m willing to take my chances with reclaimed water, which in the dry heat of California’s valleys is what’s used to water the crops that aren’t really supposed to be here.
He sees it before I do, bright and green and coiled along the fence line: A postcard from suburbia with its green lawns and two-car garages and afternoon barbecues. Right then that green garden hose is the best thing I’ve ever seen. I fill a bottle and pour it over my head. I keep waiting for someone to interrupt us. You can’t do that! But no one does.
There’s still a headwind. And it still feels like a breath of fire. But I can do anything with two full bottles of water. Two full bottles! I can ride all day now.
The flat road feels interminable. I wonder what the cows are thinking. They stand there watching us without giving anything away. The biting scent of cilantro from a nearby field seasons the air. The heated wind pushes us backward. I cower in the drops and cling to John’s wheel. There’s nothing in my head, not even a Journey song. I stopped believing a long time ago.
When it finally appears, the town is a surprise. I was pretty convinced we’d never get there. It’s an old cattle-ranching town that’s been prettied up for the wine-tasting crowd. A flagpole stands in the middle of the crossroads. There are potted geraniums and picket fences. There’s also a grocery store with an entire wall of refrigerators. I want to crawl inside one and never leave.
It’s a weird thing to walk into a store during a long ride. I’d seen two cars in the past three hours. I’m not quite sure what to say to these clean, shiny people waiting in the check-out line. I hand the cashier my wadded up five-dollar bill that looks as disheveled as I feel. She’s wearing a striped dress and a black scarf spangled with sequins. It’s nice. I feel grimy, and it takes all my concentration to walk on the polished cement floor in my carbon shoes.
We sit on a bench in the shade. At the table next to us, they’re drinking beer and swapping the stories, the way you do on a Friday afternoon when there’s nothing much going on. We still aren’t home yet. There’s another flat road and another headwind to go.
A short, steep climb separates us from the car. I consider just sitting down right there, and holding my bike out in the hope that maybe someone will just take it off my hands. Certainly, I don’t want to ride the thing any farther. Tourists crowd the sidewalk. Cameras around their necks, they look like extras brought in by the production company. Stand around. Look lost and overawed by your surroundings. And, cut.
Then finally we’re back at the car. I sit on the curb under a tree. I think if I stare at my shoes long enough, maybe they’ll crawl off by themselves.
Who’s fucking idea was this? I ask.
He gives me that look, like are you kidding me. And then we both crack up.
And there we sit, still in our kits in a parking lot surrounded by tourists with their cameras and baby strollers and suitcases and souvenirs and we’re laughing like idiots.
We’re laughing because we made it home. And we’re laughing because we just can’t stop.
Riding bikes is pretty stupid sometimes.