A Former BMX Pro Struggles to Gain His Stride on a Tour Down the Pacific Northwest Coast
By Taj Mihelich | Photography by Sandy Carson
My head was full of second guesses as I watched the luggage handlers toss my bike box onto the conveyer. Had I packed the right stuff? Was my bike set up properly? Could I actually ride more than 800 miles with absolutely no training?
I had to laugh at how far over my head I was about to be. I'd spent my entire life on bicycles, but they had been an entirely different kind of bike: BMX had been my living for nearly 20 years. It wasn't racing, but rather the body-busting, jumping-off-ramps-and-stairs kind of BMX. A spine surgery two years ago had forced my early retirement.
Without BMX, I had fallen to simply riding for transportation, but I feared my occasional mile-long ride to the grocery store had done little to prepare me for what my friends had planned.
This ride had been loosely organized by my buddy, photographer Sandy Carson. He'd tried for weeks to convince me to come along on this, his dream trip, but I'd kept declining. I'd reminded him numerous times that I didn't ride road bikes, and that the idea of grinding away in the saddle while getting sunburned day after day did not sound like fun. But finally, his guilt-trip attack changed my mind.
"It's my 40th birthday and no one will go with me," he pleaded.
It was only then that it occurred to me that Sandy and I had been friends for over half of our lives. We met when he moved to the United States for his own BMX career. He is, in fact, quite a legend in the sport. Over the years, he has slowly expanded his cycling to include pretty much every kind of bike, his BMX skills translating well.
Last year, on a whim and with no training, we entered our first mountain-bike race. I dropped out, but Sandy finished sixth against top racers on a borrowed bike.
He managed to drum up some other friends as well. When I learned our buddy Seth Holton was coming, it only made me more nervous. Seth is another BMX rider turned two-wheeled Jedi. At home on the hilly streets of Seattle, Washington, he works as a bike messenger. He's also the kind of guy who will work all day in the saddle and then head out on an epic road ride, or a mountain-bike ride, or a renegade whitewater rafting trip, or even a free-climbing adventure in the mountains. His cycling strength and thrill-seeking nature are legendary, and I knew I'd be way too slow to keep up with him.
Our old friend Nick Coombes, from Liverpool, England, would be making a rare appearance in the States to round out our group. When I heard Nick was coming, I hoped maybe I'd have a non-roadie friend to keep the pace slower. Sandy chuckled at this notion, informing me that Nick had become an Ironman-level triathlete.
My three companions had started the journey in Seattle, riding south to Portland, Oregon, where I would join them for the rest of the tour down the coast to San Francisco. I arrived in Portland and set about building my bike. I had a sturdy steel bike equipped with disc brakes, 28-millimeter tires and two chainrings up front combined with a 10-speed mountain-bike cassette in back to help me handle the hills. Sandy had repeatedly warned me to pack as light as I possibly could. He told me he was planning to bring his carbon race bike and just one change of clothes in a saddle bag. My one tiny pannier was bursting with my minimal gear—just one change of clothes, one riding kit and one tube.
I met the guys the next morning, kitted up in my sparkling new spandex. The first thing I noticed is that Sandy was actually riding a steel touring bike with two huge panniers and a handlebar bag. He had extra food and clothes with him, as well as four different cameras. At least the extra weight would slow him down, I hoped.
Portland to the Coast
I immediately started to worry about the hills. I could keep up on flat ground, but the others would drop me on every climb. No matter how hard I worked, I just couldn't keep up. That's what I get for turning fat, I thought. We were still climbing out of Portland and my burning lungs made me wonder how I could possibly make it through this whole trip.
Once out of Portland, however, things started to level out. We stopped a few times to check our phones for a route, but I was surprised how little the guys cared where we were going. This would be a recurring theme for the trip; no one had thought to bring a map, and cell coverage was sparse. We spent a lot of time guessing and hoping we were going the right way. Back at breakfast, it had been decided that we should take Nestucca River Road out to the coast. I had no idea what that meant, and I wasn't sure I could handle much more climbing.
After several miles on a busy freeway, we somehow ended up on the right road and immediately began a long, gentle climb. I watched the guys pull away from me. Soon, the hills got steeper and they completely disappeared from view. I had to admit it was a nice road, as far as roads go. We saw few cars and were on a beautiful wooded mountain, but I was hardly in a mental state to enjoy the scenery. I was focusing everything on keeping my legs moving.
Occasionally, I'd find the guys waiting for me on the side of the road, laughing and joking with each other. I'd pull up and they'd promptly take off. We'd been climbing for most of the day and I really was starting to think I couldn't make it. Could I really get knocked out on the first day?
Through tunnel vision and gasping breaths I found myself irate that my buddies were laughing, giggling and jumping off their bikes to take photos. I couldn't understand how this was fun to them and I couldn't have cared less about the view. I just wanted this to be over. Eventually, I passed them as they were taking photos of some stupid tree, and I put all my remaining energy into the climb. I charged until they were long out of sight, but soon I became so lightheaded I involuntarily slowed to a stop. Legs shaking, I staggered a few faltering footsteps away from my bike and slumped against a fallen tree. I sat there for a long while, waiting. Nick rolled up first. They had stopped to climb down a hillside to explore an old truck wreck off the side of the road. And now they were off climbing mountains for fun.
With a bit of coaxing from Nick, we started off again, trusting that Sandy and Seth would catch up. I was stoked to realize that after just one more turn the road finally started to go down. I thought we'd conquered the mountain, when suddenly the road went straight up again. I was hurting and exhausted, but I was so determined to get to the promised hotel room that I wouldn't stop pedaling. Nick encouraged me to find a comfortable pace and just stick with it. After another huge climb—by my standards—we started to go downhill again. Sandy and Seth caught us as we began the descent. Despite my fear that the road might shoot up again, we were able to continue descending for almost an hour. It felt amazing to just coast, and I couldn't help but feel my grumpiness washing away. Suddenly, the road turned to gravel. Everyone slowed down, but the BMXer in me refused to be bothered by mere gravel and skinny tires, and I let go of the brakes. I got a good rush, skipping down the rough road, but I soon realized it was very difficult to bunny hop over the sharp cement transition of a bridge on a road bike with a heavy bag on the back end. While I pulled over to fix my flat, Sandy and Nick dropped their bikes and scaled down another mountainside to splash in the ice-cold Nestucca.
A few miles later, we rolled into an old campground and found a spigot to refill our empty water bottles. After a few energy bars, I could have happily gone to sleep right there on the ground. It was beginning to get dark and we'd already done the longest ride I'd ever been a part of at some 85 miles, but we didn't have any camping gear and had to get to the nearest hotel. With no map and no cell service, all we could do was follow the road. Ten miles farther, we rolled into a small town to discover the nearest hotel was still 12 miles away on the coast. I was sure I'd already hit my limit. Still, we didn't have a choice, and I just wanted to get it over with. Seth agreed. He wanted to get off the darkening road and into town.
We found a hotel just as it became completely dark. We piled our bikes inside and made a run for a small bar, hoping it wasn't too late for food. A few beers and some fried bar food later, I was feeling relaxed. I didn't know if I could do this again tomorrow, but I'd made it through today. The guys congratulated me on riding my first century—and then some. I told them their idea of fun was stupid, but secretly I was pretty proud of myself.
Finding the Stoke first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Paved. We’ll deliver the remainder of this feature article over the course of the next few days right here on pavedmag.com, but should you wish to see this story in its original format—or simply want gratification of a more immediate kind—the entire issue is available for download on the Apple Newsstand.