It’s 10.30 at night here in California and in precisely six and a half hours our alarm will go off on a routine that will continue for the next 28 days. Up at 5am. Breakfast at 5.30am. On the road by 7am. The early starts are necessary because otherwise there simply wouldn’t be enough daylight hours to complete the 115 mile plus days required to cross this continent in a month.
We should be asleep by now but of course sleep never comes when most it’s needed. Banging doors, whining air conditioning, whirring minds…
You’re going to be stretched further than you thought you could endure.
The words of ride leader Mike Munk are still ringing in my ears from this afternoon’s safety briefing. With temperatures in the mid 90s Fahrenheit over the first few days, dehydration was a very real danger he’d warned. Water was going to be our biggest friend. Without enough we’d end up in hospital attached to a saline drip. None at all and we’d end up dead. Not quite the life-changing adventure Rose and I and the 20 or so other cyclists gathered in the motel meeting room had been anticipating.
I’ll introduce you to the gang along the way. But for now let me say that as health and safety briefings go it was pretty extreme. After listing every which way of falling or getting knocked off a bike Mike warned us that as soon as tomorrow lunchtime our minds would be so addled from the effort of riding in such extreme conditions we’d start behaving like Goofy. Not a mad metaphor given that Disney’s Burbank studios are just the other side of LA.
“I want your dream to become reality and not turn into a nightmare,’ he said towards the end of the briefing. Too late Mike. Too late.
Drive through banks, drive through chemists, drive through launderettes, drive through restaurants, drive through funeral parlours…
Okay I made the last one up. But all the same nobody seems to walk anywhere much in this part of America so the locals spend an awful lot of time sitting on their backsides. And so will we over the next month as we saddle up and pedal 3,000 miles across the US. Which means we have to pay special attention to our, ahem, nether regions.
Without wishing to ruin your Easter with talk of hot cross bums scrupulous hygiene is called for. For starters we’ve got to make sure we’re squeaky clean down below, then smother our cheeks with chamois cream and finally wrap them not in cotton wool but padded shorts.
In the old days that meant slaughtering a goat-antelope, tanning its hide and sewing the resulting soft leather into the gusset of one’s riding breeches. Now it’s pretty much all synthetic and the only thing that gets slaughtered is your wallet.
I paid £220 for a pair of Swiss-made ASSOS T.cento s7 bib shorts (think lederhosen and the Sound of Music and you won’t be far wrong on the look) which is an eye-watering sum of money by any reckoning. But then a sore backside can be eye-watering in a different way. And in any case if they perform as the manufacturer promises it’ll work out to just over 7p per mile. Question is will they?
Search the sales blurb for an answer and all you’ll find is the usual pseudo-scientific hyperbole. Here’s an excerpt.
The unique insert is a small masterpiece that has been specifically designed for ultra-long-distance missions. Ergonomically shaped, it uses higher density memory foam shock absorbers and features a very special ASSOS invention, kuKuPenthouse. In the front section of the insert there is a low volume circular inlet that accommodates the male anatomy in cocoon-like comfort, yet holds everything securely.
Sounds like a load of old bollocks – literally when I’m wearing them. Which I did today for a 40km training ride. To be honest they didn’t feel significantly more comfortable than the pair I wore on the same ride yesterday and cost only a quarter of the price. But hey it’s way too early to say if I’ve been sold a bum steer. The proper road test begins in little over 24 hours. I’ll keep you posted.
Although there the similarity ends. Our Chevy Tahoe with its huge gas tank can go days between refills. We can manage only a few hours between meals. And while eating fast food and filling a vehicle may take roughly the same time only the car can be driven straight away. The body takes much longer to metabolise a meal into the energy it needs to keep going. And so it is that endurance athletes (I use that term only loosely to describe myself and Rose) have to eat little and often to stop running out of energy and hitting the wall or, as cyclists call it, getting the bonk. Our bonk prevention strategy involves posting box after box of energy bars and gels (more than 40kg in total) from the UK to the hotels and motels we’re stopping at along the route.
As you can see from the picture below some of the boxes contain packets of powder that look suspiciously like cocaine or heroin so I’m a little worried they (and quite possibly I) won’t reach their final destination. Note to Hollywood movie moguls reading this: if I am thrown into prison for drug smuggling can Brad Pitt play me in the film version? Rose wants to be portrayed by the actress off Homeland.
For now we’re more worried about whether we’re properly physically prepared for the journey ahead. We’ve put in the distance but will we be fast enough to keep up with the more experienced riders and average the required 16 mph? A chance meeting with ride staff Mike and Karen who, like us, are getting a few last minute supplies at a local bike store doesn’t do much for our confidence. They are whippet to our mongrel.
Later we console ourselves with a carb-loading meal at the Japanese restaurant just over the road from our hotel. And that’s when it hits me. We’re raw. Like sushi. Not just undercooked but uncooked. Let’s hope it’s not that kind that kills you if not properly prepared.
Burt Bacharach and Hal David were right. LA is a great big freeway.
But as such it isn’t crash hot for cycling (more hot crash) so we hire a Chevy Tahoe for the 40 mile journey from LAX to the start line at Costa Mesa. The vehicle is a supersize SUV (think Sherman tank then order the go large option) and swallows our two Evoc bike cases and four kit bags with trunk to spare. With eight lanes of traffic in each direction the Interstate 405 seems almost as wide as British motorways are long. America is a big country. In more ways than one.
Too tired to assemble our bikes immediately after check in and too scared to venture out even on side roads that have four lanes each way we don’t need much persuasion to embark instead on some essential carb loading. Without being too unkind to our hosts carb loading is something the Americans do very well if the bodies on display at nearby Newport Beach are anything to go by. Which reminds me: did I pack the spare tyres (or tires as they say over here)? It’s the carb burning they don’t do so well. But with 3,000 miles of pedalling ahead of us Rose and I reckon a burger, fries and cola won’t hurt. And it doesn’t. We wash it all down with milkshakes. And for pudding pop a couple of the cookies thoughtfully provided by the hotel kitchen for guests with the early evening post-lunch/pre-dinner munchies. I weighed 71.4 kg before I left the UK. Watch this space for my weight in four weeks time. I could well be taking back some unexpected excess baggage.
While you were sleeping
The Plough cut a furrow across the field of night.
Owls hooted and screeched in it’s wake
Feasting on the shiny seeds of light that Orion cast from the pouch hitched to his rhinestone belt.
The snow was mostly gone. But it lingered in the tramlines where tractors had trodden two months earlier. Then the ground was sticky and the tyres left what, from this distance, looked like the parallel prints of a finger painting.
We followed one of the grooves towards a drift of sheep. For the first half-mile they appeared as white woolen flakes sticking together for warmth and huddled against the hedge line for protection from the easterly wind.
But close up they resolved to a slushy grey. Winter coats tie-dyed with a combination of red clay streaks and blue woad farmers’ marks. Worsted darned with threads of bramble from close encounters with the field boundary. A woven landscape of which we were a part. Warp and weft.
Across the valley, behind a curl of woodsmoke, in a patch of the cloth with the sun still on it, the sheep were scattered. Pearls from a broken necklace rolled across a green carpet.
And in the field at our feet a stooped apple was festooned with mistletoe and garlanded with wool. Nature’s Christmas tree for anyone bothering to wait a while. There, under a priceless chandelier of white berries, we kissed.
Hands held. Eyes locked. And in that one moment physical and emotional landscapes entwined.
Molecule by molecule the mountain is dismantled by the soft but irresistible rain. The beech tree has snagged a scrap of night in its boughs and is holding it hostage to the day. Black wool on a wire fence stirred by the wind but unable to escape.
The rain cloud necklace will not pull him down. Nor the winds that whip and slap his granite face. But this is demolition on a geological span and the fan of broken rock at the mountain’s foot shows elemental forces cannot be resisted.
A lupin flames and flares among the scree, a terrestrial reminder of the fire below. White splash on silver. A heron patrols the loch. His lonely watch a blink in time. The keys to the glen passed from generation to generation.
The cloud is lifting. Now only cobwebs cling to the valley sides. Rejoice! The mountain top survives.
The tree tops are immersed in molten copper. Cast with the the horizontal rays of a dying sun. But the death of day breathes life into the night. And the blue black shadows, born short and shy in the seconds after midday, rush ever faster towards maturity. Across field and valley, through farmyard and village to a vanishing point where, after the pale hours of a summer night, tomorrow will send them into a reverse journey from the infinity of dawn to the oblivion of noon. And where just a second later the cycle will begin again.
But for now the sun has gone and the shadows have melted away like my fair weather cumulous friends and I am left alone in my Garden of Eden.