the bad place

the bad place

Monday, June 13, 2022

Rule of Three: Number Two

Part Two:

I forget when I first heard about Rule of Three. Likely something on social media. A brand new gravel race in Northwest Arkansas. Teams of three riding 100 miles of three different surfaces: pavement, gravel, and what the region has become synonymous for... singletrack. In the hopes of a free entry and some comp'd expenses, I'd pitched the idea to Tyler: we should put together a team. Him, me... and someone. A pro? Ted King or Yuri Hauswald. Rebecca Rusch. Or how ridiculous would it be to ride with Lance Armstrong? Floyd Landis. The idea kept evolving. What about someone else? Someone who very much wasn't us? Someone who wasn't yet another 40 plus year old white male living their most best mediocre life? Ayesha McGowan. Tara Seplavy. Leo Rodgers. Someone whose presence at a gravel race was a story instead of a privilege. A move forward instead of just more of the same. But like so many ideas, it slowly got overshadowed by other responsibilities and the grind of daily life. Until race day arrived and far from being on my bike, I was just on my phone, watching everyone else's experiences of yet another event I'd hoped to be at. 

When I woke up one morning and saw that registration had opened for 2022, I sat down at my laptop and shrugged as I clicked to confirm my entry. Solo category. Hopefully I could make it. If not, then I'd be making a charitable contribution to what I hoped was a new grassroots race amid an overblown circus of shit. 

Was it? I'm undecided.

More on that later.
photo: Thomas Adams

The stretch between Natchez Trace and Little Rock doesn't hold much in the way of riding or detours. Not that I've discovered yet, anyway. Due north, you have Land Between the Lakes with the Canal Trail and miles of gravel roads, and while I had every intention of riding there on this trip, I was keeping it in my pocket for the return. I'm sure there are trails to ride around Memphis, but you don't hear much about them, do you? And I'd ridden in Little Rock once before and been both frustrated and desperately underwhelmed. I imagine there are some great gravel roads and routes to be found along the stretch, but that's a trickier animal, requiring more planning and intel than simply parking at a trailhead and going. Plus, I was trying to make at least some semblance of haste. Possibly even arrive in Bentonville in time for the first official "shake down" ride on Friday. So I pushed forward and tossed a coin between riding the Northwoods Trails in Hot Springs, AR and the Monument Trails at Mount Nebo. Both total unknowns.

Mount Nebo won. 

There's a lovely kind of anxiousness to solo riding a trail system you've never been to before. Where do you park? Which way do you ride? Which trails do you ignore or prioritize? And in what order? It's a good exercise in "letting go," because as much as you want to do it "right," there often is no "wrong." God, even as I write that, I realize how completely false and stupid a statement it is. There is the potential for all kinds of wrong. Hence the anxiousness. I suppose what I mean is... riding at all is often better than not, so even if you're stopping at every trail intersection to check the map or pushing your bike up the downhill you were supposed to have ridden instead... it's something. Something different. And I like that a lot more than I like knowing every rock and root and subtle bend in a trail I've been riding for twenty years longer than I intended.

Mount Nebo was good. My van wasn't a huge fan of the very steep but short climb to the top, and I kept a wary eye on the thermostat, but I liked what I found up there. A lot of work and money had clearly gone into it. Likely the same money getting pumped into Bentonville. Rock chutes and plating along sweeping berms and bench cuts. A few cruxes that had me walking on my singlespeed, but nothing that left me frustrated or injured. I rode everything it had to offer, some trails twice, and sipped a clandestine beer in the van as I considered my next move. Bentonville was less than three hours away. I could be there in time for dinner and probably weasel my way into the group campsite a night early. Or I could relax and enjoy one last sunset before the clouds moved in... and never went away. I opted to stay, and lucked into an unoccupied campsite.  

That evening I finally swapped the gearing on my gravel bike from the 42x18 that's lived on it ever since I didn't go to Gravel Worlds last August... to something a little more appropriate for Rule of Three. Opting for a 42x21. 42, because that was what I had and honestly just didn't care enough to consider changing it. And 21, because I happened to find a 21 tooth cog in a tupperware cubby in the van. Likely a "just in case" squirreled away before a long ago TSE or some Pisgah Productions race. 42x21. A nice 2 to 1 ratio, as if that meant fuck all to me. 

I admit, riding down the trail to Sunset Point, that it felt the slightest bit stout for singletrack. And it obviously was. But I didn't want to think any more about it. That had been my brief concession to caring. I'd have all day Saturday to ponder it.

I pulled up to the Meteor around 11:30 on Friday, only the slightest bit self-conscious as I circled it three times looking for a place to park; the noisy crackle of the van's overworked CV joints painfully loud. "Oh that?" I silently yelled out the window. "That's just how the van sounds. It's fine. We're fine... we're all fine here now, thank you. How... are you?" 

In the spirit of not trying, I opted not to hustle trying to make the group ride, and instead ordered a beer and walked around to see who I could find. Immediately I found Matt Moosepacks, who used to come in and drink PBRs at the shop and who is both hustling and killing it with the bag game these days. I sat for a little while underneath his tent and stared blindly at the crowded parking lot. 

Once upon a time, my legitimate super power was recognizing faces. Familiar or not. All faces. Someone would pass me on the street and I'd muse, "I know them from somewhere." And after a moment it would come to me... They'd stood in line near me at the grocery store once. Or sat a few tables away at a restaurant. Been on the same bus once. In a crowd at some event I'd attended. We'd rolled around naked together one night...Or something similarly mundane.

But lately, I just struggle to tell anyone apart. Some form of face-blindness that seems to be exacerbated by crowds. Looking straight through familiar faces less than ten feet in front of me. Maybe it's some psychological effect from the pandemic and isolation. Maybe it's just some form of senility that will only get worse. But honestly? I swear to fucking god, everyone just looks like Peter Stetina to me these days. Literally everyone. 

Or else Peter Stetina just looks like everyone. It's one of those. 


Is that you, Peter?


But somehow in the crowd, I recognized Jack. His shock of bleached blonde hair and heavy black framed glasses standing out. Possibly because I'd just seen him at PMBAR, both of us standing on our own meaningless podiums for whatever category it was that we'd raced. So in the spirit of familiar faces in faraway places, I went up and said hi. 

Which is how I met Katie and Katie (and not pictured Hannah) and how we all ended up hanging out throughout the weekend. 


At some point, I hopped on my bike and rode off to fulfill at least one of my Bentonville rituals: Curry Fries at the Pedaler's Pub, which I sadly remembered being better. And after a few more drinks with KKJ&H at a boojie Mexican restaurant nearby, rode my bike to 8th Street Market and Bike Rack Brewing to meet up with Thomas and Gabbi Adams and some of their friends from Oklahoma. Over Rule of Three IPA's divvied out by instagram friend now met, RayRayRay, we talked about kids and travel and where we all end up. And whether the grass is always greener. And I told them a story about pretty Becky, who, as we sat griping one day long ago about place and circumstance, about our exes and Greensboro, had tried to put it in some perspective. "It could be worse, man" she said, tossing her blonde hair from one side of her head to the other. "My ex? He lives in the Seventh fucking Sphere of Hell these days." 

Where's that? I asked. 
"Fucking Stillwater, Oklahoma, man!" She said, laughing. 

And I thought that... was pretty funny. 

Next up, Rule of Three: Number Three.



Friday, June 10, 2022

Rule of Three: Number One

Whether or not I acknowledge it often enough, I have to admit to being relatively fortunate. In that while my mornings may be often distinguished by the slow ascent through a haze of having imbibed more than I should have the night before... rarely do they begin with the troubling immediacy of having to take a desperate emergency shit in the wee hours of rising dawn.

But this was one of those mornings.

Did I mention that it was pouring rain? That I'd pulled into the race venue in the dark of the previous night, and with no real lay of the land, blindly driven across a giant field, and parked at the literal furthest point away from the port-a-potties?

Well I had. 

And did I mention that among the many things I overpacked for an eight day road trip, a rain jacket was somehow not among them?

Well it wasn't.

Outside of the white noise of heavy rain on the van and ground, the field was quiet. No bustle of arriving cars or racers getting ready for their long day. If other people were awake, they too were hunkered inside their vehicles and tents. And while it wasn't quite light out, it was no longer dark. I could clearly see the portapotties some football field's length away. So. what? Trudge across the field and accept being drenched before the day had even begun? Sacrificing the few dry clothes I had left? No nearby copses of trees to hide behind or in, either. So that if I acquiesced to my immediate instinct and darted some twenty feet away from the van, if any one of my many neighbors were to peek their heads out of their curtains or tent flaps, my crouched, lonely, and clearly distressed form would be not only visible, but unmistakable in its undertaking. 

And what then? Leave it in the field? Whatever the current quiet, it was about to be full of 1000 racers in so many vehicles. So even if deposited at the periphery, I'd still be dropping a veritable land mine. And I have enough Leave No Trace etiquette to know better.

So what? Bag it?

Oh, make no mistake, I've most certainly shit in a bag before. Four times that I can readily think of. Once parked in Joe Freeman's driveway while I waited for him to please wake up and let me in. Twice when camped behind SuperCorsa Cycles on two separate Spring get-the-fuck-out-of-dodge van rambles, unable to make it until Drew walked over to open the shop doors at 9am. (Both of these locales mercifully aided by the fortunate proximity of a bucket.) And once at the finish of my fourth DK200 (now Unbound), being entirely too obliterated and generally heat-distressed to trust myself to successfully make the walk a few blocks to the portapotties. Squatting low in the van in broad daylight while Dorothy stood watch outside. This time without the aid of a bucket. Just crossed fingers that my aim was on point, that I could prevent myself from peeing at the same time, and that these were the good plastic Kroger bags without a tear in the bottom.

And then? Put the bag in one of the few trash cans at the race start/finish? Empty its contents in a portapotty? Leave it next to my van until I could dispose of it reasonably, some 24 hours later?

The logistics were vexing, whatever choice I made. But I was starting to break out in chills.

I was in the process of hastily examining all the grocery bags stuffed in the grocery bag-bag and turning in dire circles like an indecisive dog, when I heard a merciful lessening of the rain... and tore open the van door and sprinted across the field, knowing full well that if I tripped or so much as stepped wrong... it was over. 

Thus began RULE OF THREE.


Until two days before I got in the van and started driving west, I was 99% sure that this would be yet another event that I would be unable to attend. Outside of workload, staffing at the shop has been a particular crux for the past few years. Oh, I've got a good crew. But their very part time schedules don't allow for any real continuous coverage that allows me to step away. But Lee St. Clair was available and willing and suddenly things started to fall into place... and I began to throw together the tentative beginnings of a travel bag. Until Tuesday night arrived and I found myself crossing the North Carolina/Tennessee border, feeling all of my lingering fucks blissfully melt away, I didn't really believe it was happening.

I'd managed to snag a late afternoon ride at the Fonta Flora Trail near Morganton, and some dinner at Highland Brewing in Asheville, and slept that first night in the dark quiet parking lot of Big Creek Trailhead. Waking up to the beautiful noisy rush of water over rocks. Coffee. A quick cold swim. And back on the road, headed to Mead's Quarry in Knoxville to ride as much of the Urban Wilderness as I could before moving on. 

I spent a couple of hours riding familiar and new (but all fun) trails, and followed it, as always with a swim in the quarry. Wishing for what seemed the millionth time that I'd brought a goddamn floaty of some kind so that I could drift lazily in the sunshine and green water and gaze up at the rock walls.

Next time. And I needed to get moving, anyway. 

Halcyon Bike Shop had already closed by the time I pulled into Nashville, so with no real bearings or intel, I chose a brewery called Yee-Haw. And it's not that I regret that decision, so much as I know for a fact that there are better places to go in that town, and wish mightily that I'd found one of them instead. 

But... the tacos were ok and the Pilsner was fine. I sat in an Adirondack chair and watched men in cargo shorts pantomime bending their friends over every time they scored at cornhole. Watched jacked beared men in flag t-shirts buy their very tan girlfriends cocktails, constant vape clouds billowing over their heads. And I tried to intentionally feel something other than my usual misanthropic bitterness. And while that didn't come naturally, I did find it. A man leaning in and whispering something to a woman, peals of genuine laughter erupting from her as she spilled her drink and wiped her eyes. 

And me, smiling like an idiot across the patio at people I didn't know and some joke I hadn't heard. Like a voyeur creep.  

That night I slept at the Wrangler Camp in the Natchez Trace and listened to nearby horses neigh and nicker throughout the night. Strangely happy to get to plug in the small fan that lives in the van's bulkhead, because even if it meant the night was warm... it meant summer was here. Or close.


Rule of Three Number Two


Wednesday, June 8, 2022

PMBAR '22: "Hey Brother, Have You Heard The Good News?"

Riding slowly down the trail and looking to our left for signs of life, there was a collective sinking feeling. 
The checkpoint wasn't there. 
And while I couldn't tell you where "there" even was... Mills River, maybe.... I knew one thing for certain. The checkpoint most certainly was not. 
So we backtracked for a minute, panic-meandered down a different trail, then stopped while Rich checked and rechecked the map against the passport. And then he broke the news that I already knew. 
This wasn't the right place. 

To which I nodded, shrugged, and grunted.... and proceeded to ride in the direction he pointed. 
Same as it ever was. 

"This way."

"Well, the good news is..." he said as we half-wheeled each other down what I assumed was now the right way, proceeding to think out loud about things I had already zoned out on. 
If the rule of a hypothetical drinking game for the day was to take a swig every time Rich said those words over the next however many hours ... I'd be finishing PMBAR in very rough shape. 

In most of my life, I would be considered a "top," whether I deserve to be or not. Not strong or dominant, necessarily, but still somehow the captain steering or at the very least barking the orders to steer the wreckage of my life into whatever abysmal crevices I desire. Torpedoes be damned. 
But in the case of PMBAR, I admit... I'm a "bottom." Rich's bottom as it happens. Which is particularly funny because as both of us age in our own ways, myself sighing in dismay at the growing bags under my eyes and casting wary glances at my softening pecs and wondering if I'll perhaps need a bra in my golden years... 
Rich's bottom is simply disappearing. To ride behind him these days, is to ask "how did this wiry 90 year old woman get in front of me?"

So much like Ren's pecs... I am Rich's bottom. Perhaps we could broker a trade?

(Yes, I just made a Top/Bottom reference to me and Rich. You're welcome.)

The real point is... that even if I suddenly moved to Pisgah and rode those trails every day and understood them intimately... I would still probably just shrug and grunt and ride in whatever direction Rich told me to at PMBAR. Because that's the nature of our relationship there. 

I was on the road driving west by 1pm on Friday. I can count on one finger how many times that's happened in my many years of trying to arrive in Pisgah before dark. Torrential rains made for slow going, but it all passed fairly painlessly. And by the time I arrived at The Hub, not only had the rain stopped, but the sun was shining gloriously on my pale neck and arms and shitty DIY mullet...
and on whatever it is Rich is doing with his hair these days.

I seriously don't know.

After much debating between Mexican food and expensive burgers, we agreed to drive to Oscar Blues Brewery rather than ride. Which made me a little sad; something something about rituals, smart or not... But also turned out to be a great decision, as the moment we arrived, the sky opened up. Once finally huddled under the massive patio roof, we saw many a people we knew and supped and drank and laughed and questioned the meaning of double rainbows and live music at a brewery. (Seriously... why?)
Then we headed to the start/finish at Smoker's Cove, just because, and drank a little more. And then we turned in early. Or not. I don't actually know, save that our consumption for the evening for once felt, if not tame, then... manageable? 

What does it mean?

Race morning followed suit. Having awoken at 4am from an anxious dream about malfunctioning ATM's, improper bike sizing, and other people's wives, and never really returning to sleep, the 6am alarm I'd set was a breeze. Coffee. Eggs. Bowel movement number one and the realization that we still had over an hour to start. More coffee. Bowel movement number two. So that by the time the race meeting started I was actually 100% ready to start the race. 
That never happens. Which begged the question, "what the fuck is about to happen?"

A quick refresher on the format of PMBAR. Five checkpoints in the woods, the locations of which are given to you at race start in the form of a small paper"passport," along with various rules and off limits roads and trails. Get them in whatever order you choose. 
A far cry from the crowded mass-start of most races, PMBAR tends to begin with everyone sprawled out in a field looking at maps, and then rolling out sporadically and in no particular order. 

"Well, the good news is...."
In the same way that some people pepper their every sentence with some form of "um" or "so" or "you know what I'm saying"... Rich was beginning to stutter. To repeat himself in ways that were losing meaning. Because the good news always seemed just around the corner of another potentially bad decision. And we'd made a few. Which didn't matter much, as I was less worried about our place than I was about our duration. The expectation of podium is meaningless at this race. Anything can and will happen. But the expectation of time spent riding... can crush you. For instance, if you were banking on nine hours, in most cases, that's your "fuck it" point. In that you WILL stop making good decisions past that. Consuming food. Drinking water. Trying. Caring. Which makes the possibility (probability) of two to three more hours less and less palatable. 

One of the more discombobulating things to me about PMBAR has always been that even after three hours of constant riding and pushing, rarely do we have even one of the five checkpoints under our belt. And let's be honest... three hours is pretty much the maximum amount of ride-time I'm able to squeeze in these days. And while the hope is that the checkpoints will come in quick succession after that, rarely does that happen. Which is how five checkpoints located approximately ten miles apart as the crow flies, easily turns into a 15 hour day.

As has happened before, our navigational mishap put us behind a train of riders who, by rights, we probably should have been ahead of. And also landed us in direct contact with three other singlespeed teams on pretty much the exact same course. And gearing. Which meant that now, instead of existing in a blissful no-man's land of ignorance and slogging through Pisgah on our own. We were "racing." 
God, I fucking hate racing. I hate that feeling of pushing hard only to turn around and see the rider you "dropped" dangling 20 feet behind you. I hate the back and forth of passing and being passed. It does nothing to stimulate my fight or flight reflexes and just makes me want to stop and sit and let everyone ride ahead so that I can be back in the no man's land of a long quiet day.
But the one thing I will say about racing, PMBAR or otherwise... letting those moments define the day is always a mistake. Because if given half a chance, people will explode. For all kinds of reasons. Nutrition. Mechanicals. Fatigue. Will to live. So that while it feels like this jockeying back and forth will last forever... mile 40 is a very different animal than mile 70. Give it time.
Slowly but surely, we pulled away from the other three teams until we were once again in blissful Pisgah limbo. With no idea of proximity to other racers. For all we know, they'd found a better route and were minutes ahead of us. Or not.

Before I really knew it, we were finishing Clawhammer and beginning the final climb on Pressley (I think these are the right words). I had sprained and possibly fractured my wrist over a month ago helping my mom move the world's heaviest and last remaining cathode-ray-tube television and was in a rough place descending Black to the finish line... but we made it. And rolled across the finish line in Second place. Behind Chris Joice and his teammate, which we'd pretty much expected. While once upon a time, Chris was a solid competitor, but I could usually count on finishing ahead of him... these days I audibly curse when I see his name on the start list. And he knows it. Fucker. 

Yeah, yeah... laugh it up.


Scott Smith and his partner finished behind us, having made the same epic mistake we had very nearly made ourselves... blindly hiking up Laurel to snag the mandatory checkpoint. Mistake, because outside of no actual mandatory checkpoints this year, there also was no checkpoint on Laurel. Even though there's always a checkpoint on Laurel. 
The lesson being: read the passport.

I don't remember the order we ended up snagging all the checkpoints in. Or the name of most of the trails and roads, even though I've been on all of them. But I do remember that mistakes aside, this was one of the most enjoyable PMBAR's I've ever had. My fitness still felt lacking and I failed to eat the way I intended to. But I was never in the hole. Never 50 yards behind Rich barely able to turn my legs over. Never feeling like crying as we pushed our bike up yet another unridable mountain.
So much of my perception of Pisgah is based on riding events, with a capital "E." Hard events. Really hard events. So that rarely is riding there a pleasure. There's often the satisfaction at the end of a long day of "being done" and "doing well" (or not.) But the day itself is often spent hunting or hurting or holding on for dear life. It seems like I'm constantly grinding up the same soul-crushing hills or bouncing down the same brutal rutted trails... and never really touching "the fun stuff." Because I know it exists. 
While there was still a shit ton of terrible (Bradley Creek cough cough) we actually rode some legitimately fun trails. Squirrel, Spencer. Trace Ridge. The New Black. (I think we rode these trails?) And I felt, if not an affinity, then an affection for Pisgah, for the first time in a long while. 

So, the good news is... that next year is going to be absolutely soul-crushing. Watch.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Nutmeg Country: The first part.

The woman across the room flashed me. 
Not a top flash, mind you. A bottom flash. A front bottom flash. Full and pronounced. With no provocation or introduction. I considered flashing her back, as that seemed to be the vernacular, and it seemed rude not to, but instead just walked up and pointed to the worn paperback of Gogol's Dead Souls in her hand, telling her I'd always wanted to read it. "It's okay," she said dismissively through a row of lip piercings. She was seated on the floor with her back against the wall. Her head was shaved and beneath her grey sweats and hoodie, I could see heavy tattoo work on her hands, throat, and scalp. Her face was angles. Sharp and long. She pointed at my stomach and asked, "How did you get those?" Those what? "Abs." I looked down, realizing I was still clutching my t-shirt in a hand and walking around in a state of post-ride undress. I laughed and leaned in against the noise of the room to tell her. She cocked her head to the side and cupped a thoroughly pierced ear. I tried again, but she shook her head. "Write it down. It's way too loud in here," handing me her beaten paperback and a pen. But I was having problems. Numbers and letters looked the same, and I kept mixing them up. I felt drunk. And had vague memories of an edible. What was it? How strong? Too strong? I crossed out the gibberish I'd scrawled on the inside of the back cover and tried again. A nonsense equation when all I needed was a word. "Hey... it's okay," she said, tilting her head to one side and looking at me with jet black eyes. "No, I've got this," crossing through another botched attempt. I heard her sigh loudly as I tried again. 
"Hey... nevermind," she said suddenly, brusquely taking her book back and getting to her feet. She towered over me, fantastically tall. "I'm out."
And then she glided away and I tried one more time to tell her where I got my abs, yelling into the suddenly empty room...


A truck horn blared nearby.
I opened my eyes slowly and pulled my head out from beneath the blankets, rolling onto my back and looking up at the roof of the van. Stretched my feet to each corner of the mattress and watched the already dwindling threads of story fade away. 

What the fuck... was that dream?

Though to be fair, I legitimately do have great abs. They're just currently hiding under too much skin. 
I pulled a tattered curtain aside and peered into the relative quiet of the Walmart parking lot. Beneath a turning maple that had done very little last night to hide me from the glare of streetlights. I was substantially less into my jaunt than I'd intended, but as I get older, I like driving at night less and less. Add to that the anxiety that the van's headlights might just (and certainly have) decide to just... stop working...  
When it gets dark, it's best to just find somewhere to hunker down.
The intent was to be somewhere north of Hershey, PA, but instead I'd wound up in Winchester, VA. It meant my drive would be longer today, but I was ok with that. Because it also meant I could get my morning coffee at Hopscotch. Years ago, I discovered this strange and startling punk rock oasis of a record store/coffee shop, and it's become a ritual ever since. A fresh red-eye, a sticky bun, a bag of good dark roast, and a moment of cultural and musical reverie, and I was off... alternating bouts of Baxter Dury, 108, and Lightning Bolt with podcasts about NOMEANSNO, Kid Congo Powers, and Penelope Spheeris. 
Eight hours later, I pulled into Cold Spring Farm, in Colchester, Connecticut. Site of the Nutmeg Nor'easter version 5.0. 
I parked my van in the field and went to find my friends. Whoever they might be. 

Well shit... look who I found.

I first officially met Benedict back in 2016 when I was asked by Bikerumor to cover Specialized's relaunch of the Sequoia: their a-bit-late-to-the-party entry into the already shark-jumped category of "gravel." The resulting article (if one could deign to call it that) is the kind of hot mess that chagrins me on a literary and journalistic level, but that I still stand fully behind if only because it pissed off so many fucking people. 
We stayed friendos, and would occasionally see, sup,  and stay together at various events through the years.

I later met Arya (then Namz) at the Philly Bike Expo during a particularly messy time, and we subsequently bonded at NAHBS in Hartford, swapping t-shirts and doing a deep dive on the pitfalls of polyam, silly hardcore kids, and who even knows what else.  I am, (and I quote)... her "favorite emo boi." I accept. Honestly, I'm just glad to be a "boy" and not a "man"...  because I feel so very old these days. 

I consider myself ridiculously fortunate to know them both, and to have watched what they have done individually and together grow, evolve, and flourish. Substantially. From reluctant poster children for brands that wanted a piece of their burgeoning charisma, to the fiercely independent (and always extremely kind) bastions of... whatever it is that they are. Because tropes aside, they are both wholly unique. And are heavy forces of inspiration to multitudes of new and seasoned riders. Myself included. 

This would be the fifth installment of the Nor'Easter, but the first that I'd made it to, despite years of trying. And because I like to ignore emails and fly blind, I wasn't even sure what to expect, save that I was ready to roll with any of it. Even front bottom flashes. 

One thing I did expect: a certain dress code. Oh, to be sure, we are all sui generis, with our own myriad and complex lives and tastes. But we are also all stomping up to the barn in our Blundstones and highwater Carharts to fill dangle-mugs with coffee. And while some of that is a bromidic paint by numbers costume... some of it is honestly just finding your crowd. Which was kind of the point. Because while a love of bikes is a common thread for most of us in "the industry" that doesn't mean you feel at home there. As in... while a Tool t-shirt and a soul-patch can at times be more palatable than a wicking Under Armour button-up and a goatee... both are still a far cry from a crooked Los Crudos patch randomly spotted on the street. (In Wilkes-Barre, PA of all places.) 
You know?

Another thing I expected: lots of Crust. And I was right.  

I'm told that attendance was nearish to 400 people. Out of that, I would wager that at least 200 of those were on Crust bikes. And out of that number, I would guess a nearly fifty/fifty split between Evasions and Bomboras. With a healthy smattering of Lightning Bolts and Romanceurs in the mix. Toss in some Rivendells, Panasonics... Surlys, All Citys... a few Fireflys...  and a notable and singular Fast Boy that made my chest hurt. 
But you know... I actually really like Crust. I do. I've liked them since they were just a patch on a hat and an oddball fork. An occasional stem. Maybe a handlebar. Rumors of a frame. I like their branding. Their ethos. Their colors. Their videos. Their Onlyfans. Shit, I even like their bikes, despite sometimes struggling to tell them apart. Are they great? I mean... they're fine? My Bombora is literally everything I need it to be. I've ridden it a lot of miles in a lot of different places and you know what?... it's totally fine. 
Like all the bikes I own.
Totally fine.

One thing I didn't expect at the Nor'Easter... The level of organization. Things were dialed. Parking made sense. Camping made sense. Food made sense. There were ample porta-potties and wash stations. Talks. Presentations. Rides. Coffee. It's not that I didn't think Ronnie and Arya capable of this level of coordination and structure. It's just that I sometimes forget that just because I struggle wildly to effect any kind of order and peace in my own life, some of my friends are actual adults with their shit together. 

That first night, I wandered from fire to fire, introducing myself to strangers in a forced attempt to crack the shell I've been building over the past few years. And perhaps that meant I was messier than I've been in a while. Nothing untoward, mind you. Just butting up against the decorum of suggested quiet hours. Because while some of you perhaps needed sleep... I needed this. Needed to get away. Needed to be anonymously social. Needed to be outside. Needed to ride my bike all day. Needed to stay up late by a fire talking to people I didn't know about cacti and the lime-cycle and about what inspires us to keep moving.

Every so often someone tells me that I'm living their dream: Chasing my passion. Owning my own business. Doing what I love. I literally do not know what they are talking about. Because regardless of what I occasionally broadcast to the world, what I really do, with very few (though occasionally dramatic*) exceptions, is work all day, a minimum of six days a week. And the nature of that work, however romantic it may seem, can be extremely frustrating, thankless, and monetarily fruitless. 
And maybe once upon a time, that toil was "rewarded" with trips to races or events that I could never afford myself; energizing respites from the often depressing vacuum of my own market... These days? Like so many of us....
Je suis mort. 

Enough so that even driving five hours just to wake up in a Walmart parking lot in Virginia felt like a coup. 


*Ummm... I maybe went to Portugal.

Friday, October 15, 2021

PMBAR: Back to Playing the Crying Game

My butthole was destroyed.

Nearing a paltry seven hours of constant riding, hiking, pushing, fording, falling, and carrying, with too many more to come, I was already raw. And outside of the rivers and creeks and wet trails, the uncommon fall humidity was ensuring that my kit, particularly my bibs, never dry. So that all of the spandex-filtered trail detritus, grit, and salt I'd been slowly accruing in there was now colluding with that moisture to sand down all my sensitive bits. And I was becoming hyper aware of all the places I'd missed during my application of chamois creme. Places outside the normal purview. Enough so that by the time we finished however many hours from now, some blood stains in my post-race boxer briefs were a given.

So you can imagine my mood. 

Versigtig, ek's nog steeds fokken giftig.

Yes. I realize that it's been almost two years since I've written a thing here. Or anywhere, really. What can I say? My spark went out. Or rather... I let it. For the past few years, like all too many of us, I've just been sleep walking through the days, and through increasingly destructive patterns of intentional isolation, too much work, not enough travel, an excess of empty bottles, and very sporadic pockets of any real quality time on the bike. All of which leads to a decided lack of spirit, much less any feelings of creativity. And the process of crawling back has been a bit like trying to start a fire with so much wet wood. Doable, but difficult. And yet, well... here I am... watching the exhausted Moleskine notepad I just lit with a match burn in a pile of relatively dry kindling. Who knows? Maybe something will catch.

For the first time in too many weeks, things were actually falling into place. The Van of Constant Sorrow was not only drivable, but capably so. Oil leaks were fixed, wiring issues were solved, wheel noise was gone. (I even had fancy new bumpers and a legitimate hitch rack. Like a big boy.) I had full coverage at the shop for the weekend. Childcare was handled. My bike was ready. And I was getting out of town at a reasonable time. What? The? Shit?

Arriving just prior to dusk, I met up with my other life-partner Rich and we secured our usual primo camping spots at the start/finish. Then we rode to the HUB to pick up our numbers, and missing the beer cut-off, headed on over to Oscar Blues Brewing in the pleasant chill of a mountain evening. Even the shit show of a college homecoming and multitude of drunk white yuppies (yuppies are still a thing, right?) and the cringingly loud band covering Steve Miller's "The Joker" that greeted us couldn't dampen my relatively dry spirits. 


"The Face of Chaos"and Dr. Mike. And me.

We drank too much. That's a given. But less in that sad way we've all been drinking too much lately, and more in a pleasant spirit of muted and cautious camaraderie, a thing I've simply not been a part of for a bit. So it felt, if not triumphant, then... totally fine. 

The next morning brought only mild headaches and plenty of time to sip coffee and gather our gear for the 8:30 start. Shuffling around in a state of decadent unpreparedness among what seemed to be too many fully kitted racers all ready to go. At which point Rich informed me that he was wrong, and that we actually had less than 15 minutes to get ready. Not 45. Which, if you've ever seen me before any race start, just meant that I was now completely in my element. Let rapid entropy commence. 

Five checkpoints, three of them mandatory. A few rules regarding off limit roads and glamour paths, but otherwise, bag them however you see fit. Once again, I left navigation completely up to Rich. Not only does he relish such things, but I just have no clue. I should. But I don't. It's like a mental block with Pisgah. Directionally it's less of a nautical star to me and more of a möbius strip. I can no more point north when I'm there than I can tell you which trail is Buckbeak and which one is Bearbutt. (Pretty sure it's the one with the wet, off-camber roots. Wait...)

After a cursory look at the map and some vocalizing of intent to the ether, (or to me, for all the good it does) Rich folded it away and said "Let's go." And thus began an eleven and a half hour day of occasionally riding, often pushing, sometimes descending, but always struggling. During a podcast one time, I erroneously stated that typical PMBAR mileage is in the range of thirty. I was apparently on crack when I said this. We were looking at a minimum of seventy five, and that included teleportation. 

How to Train Your Butthole.

It had rained for over a week in the mountains, so everything was wet. Even the gravel roads had a spicy element of hot, sexy, drag. Soft spots that made you work harder than you wanted to move forward at a snail's pace. Parts of trails were drying, but the roots were still ice-slick with humidity, and staying clipped in and upright on some bench-cuts was proving difficult. For me, anyway. A multitude of micro-crashes and stumbles was getting in my head. During one fast gravel descent, while trying to shove a food in my mouth with one hand, the other slipped off my handlebar. I somehow managed to catch myself and steer my bike into a ditch, thus turning a day-ending and possibly life-changing crash into a minor skirmish. But it did a number. Cuts and bruises on my hip and elbow. My ass. My confidence. And my ego.

"Aren't you, like... @thegravelassassin or something?" Rich asked. 

"No. I say you he dead."

Somewhere near hour nine, Rich broke the news to me: ten hours probably wasn't in the cards. "Do you think we'll make it in before dark?" "Hopefully?" he shrugged, offering me a handful of gummy bears. But by now, I was done with gummies, even if I was out of food. I'd gagged twice on the last handful. I think one of the things that makes PMBAR so difficult comparative to other races is nutrition. It seems to be harder to eat and drink in ways that make sense. I don't know. Maybe some of that is the singlespeed. Those times when you can settle in and spin (and eat) just don't exist. Climbs that on a geared bike would be a great place to soft pedal and root around in pockets or open packets are, instead, full body endeavors:  Out of the saddle exercises in strength and leverage. Flat sections? They don't exist. This is Pisgah. And descents? Don't do it. (See above). And some of it is just stubbornness. We call it "packless PMBAR" and it basically means carrying as little as possible based entirely on our hubris of self-expectation. For example: Lights? If they hadn't been mandatory, I wouldn't have carried them. And I'd have been a very sad boy for the last hour of riding. 

I can't even tell you where we went, save that all of it was familiar. "The wheelchair ramp." The Butthole. Pilot. Clawhammer. Squirrel. Bennet. Some of it was glorious. Some of it terrible. All of it was beautiful. I may not know where we were, but Rich does. And I'm thankful for that. And I'm thankful for him dragging me along when what I want to do is sit in a creek and make cry-y faces. I seriously don't know where he gets his energy. It's not from food, because from a nutrition standpoint, I absolutely consumed more calories than he did, and I was STILL falling apart. I think Pisgah is just one of his happy places. I'm still looking for mine.  

Endurance racing is, in too many ways, just a mirror. And mirrors, for all their simplicity, are complicated things. Because you never know what you're going to get, even if it's all just a spectrum of the same fucking thing. There are those days where the angles align, and some trick of good light presents a you that seems, if not close to, then at least pointing in the direction of the who and what and where you want to be. And there are others, where every grizzled line, shadow, and blemish staring back at you are just another sobering reminder that beneath a veneer of time spent on self-improvement and growth, you are still the shit show you expected.

PMBAR, for whatever reason, has always been the equivalent of me in a gas station bathroom, illuminated by dim but glaring fluorescent overheads, and staring in dismay at my increasingly scabrous face. A juxtaposition of simultaneous gaunt and bloat. In that all of the positive habits and actions I try to cultivate in my life vanish in the face of adversity and I'm laid bare. Pouty, it turns out, rather than pensive. Melodramatic, rather than melancholy. Unstable... rather than stoic. I felt useless, because I had nothing to offer. No wisdom regarding route or pacing. No amazing fitness to carry us through. No sagacity regarding nutrition and hydration. I was Rich's old, fat, temperamental dog who he mistakenly thought would be fun to bring on a ride. And currently I was lying in a manure filled mud puddle refusing to budge. 

Strong boy.

Somewhere on Maxwell, I realized we were done. The final climb before the descent down Black to the finish, I'd been here many times before. Though now Rich was fading. I suspect most of that was the dawning dread that we were finishing after dark. And the emotional exhaustion of having to haul me around for a day. Even with lights that wouldn't stay in place, (because poor planning) the descent down the new Black was a damned treat. A buff and fast bench cut where there used to be a rutted out chute of rooty horror. I approve. And then we were there, crossing the line to a smattering of applause.

"Fourth," Eric told us. Meh... it didn't matter. We were done. Wait, what? Fourth overall? Second singlespeed? Alright, we accept. A minor victory in the face of our decrepitude, especially considering we had rolled across the line assuming that everyone had already finished. A cursory (and very painful) wet-wipe and bottle water clean up next to my van. Podium shots in the dark. Then drinking lots of Crank Arm beer and eating the simplest, but most delicious post-race burritos in the business. Swapping stories of woe with the mud encrusted husks of people crossing the line over the next few hours. 

John Haddock is a bucket.

"Ow. My butthole."

Apparently only 25% of the field finished this year. On a beautiful, clear day in October. That says something. There are longer day-races, to be sure. And harder ones. But not many. And we weren't even "racing." In that while yes, we did ride consistently, we were never in the fight or flight mode that comes from actual competition. Even when we knew that Jarz and Haddock were probably only a few minutes ahead of us. Meanwhile, I've aggressively chased Rich up and down these very same hills in races like the 111k that we're pitted against each other and felt fresher. So I can't quite put my finger on what it is about PMBAR that makes it so challenging. Fuck. I guess I better come back next year to figure it out. 

Incidentally, I tried to snap a few pictures of my butthole in the port-a-potty that night so that I could see the extent of the damage, and I even considered including them here. But they were honestly so visually disturbing that I just couldn't. Imagine taking a close up of your 45 year old butthole on a good day. Now, imagine its worst day ever. Imagine it.

Hey... have a great weekend!

I am awaited in Valhalla!


Monday, October 28, 2019

Van of Constant Sorrow, Part Four: A Nose for Emnity.

I could feel the thread unraveling. And I was compounding it. Worrying the ends with fractured starts and stops. When a dismissive wave of a hand and a "Ha! Nevermind. I'm drunk" would have sufficed, I was starting to expound. Tripping over an increasingly muddled vocabulary. Dyslexically swapping the order of words to create nonsense sentences. Then repeating iterations of the same theme with decreasing levels of coherence. 
All in the name... of an extremely inebriated and bizarrely timed rant regarding "the pathetic and desperate sexuality of men over forty." 


Who even knows why. Maybe it was a thing someone said. Or maybe it was the ubiquitous mirror of middle aged men wandering around, not so discreetly checking out the ass of everything that walked by. Or maybe it was just a thing that often and unkindly occurs to me in those times I overexamine my own august and ripe, and likely suffocating, tendency toward romanticism. But what I was ultimately trying to get at was... 

... god... men over forty are so fucking gross. 

case in point
But I digress.

After forcing Rich to ride with me to Pedaler's Pub for curry fries and beers, we went back to the race start/finish to watch the pros ride their mountain bikes around in circles for the Fat Tire Crit. There we found the beer tent and met up with my friends Thomas and Gabbi, who had recently moved to Bentonville and who were helping out with the event. Incidentally, you might remember Thomas and Gabbi from such films as "That Long-Ass Marriage Proposal at The Dirty Kanza Awards Ceremony One Year." Congrats, you crazy kids. 

By the by, check out Thomas' company, Maker and Racer... then buy stuff.

Once the races were over, we jumped in Thomas' "not as cool as mine but maybe it consistently starts" van and headed to a venue called "the Holler" where Gabbi joined us for more drinks. At some point I got up to order more beer and some well-deserved nachos, and returned to find Rich already eating a nearly full plate of them, apparently abandoned by some nearby patrons. FYI, Rich may have a million theories and practicums regarding weight and nutrition and race-performance and recovery... but uneaten-mystery-nachos-left-by-total-strangers-who-might-for-all-we-know-have-the-plague-or-mouth-leprosy is pretty much his go-to once beer four is in his system. 
It was somewhere during this time at the Holler that I delivered my soliloquy regarding the grotesque decrepitude of my cis species. The rest is a blur. We apparently made it back to our hotel that night, because we woke up there a few hours later... pulled on our kits... and headed to the race start.
And started.

It wasn't until mile 20 that my hangover began in earnest. Manifesting itself as a crushing headache, exacerbated by dehydration, the stubborn refusal to drink anything from my bottles, and likely precipitated by a good bit of frustration regarding our current predicament. 
Not angry frustration, mind you. More... exasperation. 

"Hey Rich... a guy just passed us wearing Peloton sweatpants."
No comment.
"Hey Rich... Peloton. You know, like the...
"Like the indoor bike, I got it."
"Yeah. Like that. Like the indoor bike. Peloton...  Sweatpants... "
A groan.

We'd already made the decision not to race. We were just there to fuck around. Stick together. Enjoy a long ride on fun trails. But we'd still kind of fucked up. The start was a long road, greenway, and gravel grind out to the trails of the Back Forty in nearby Bella Vista, where we would work our way back to Bentonville on the very extensive network of amazingly accessible single-track. And I wasn't trying... but a race start is a race start. You just kind of hang on to the train. But Rich wasn't hanging on. He was, if anything, drifting back. Some of it was gearing. I'd opted for the "I'm too lazy to change out my 34x19 and I'm sure it will be fine, whatever, fuck it, I hate everything." While he'd thoughtfully opted for a 32x19. And that's Pisgah gearing. Which is great for climbing, but shite for flat. And this start... was flat. So everyone was passing us as we just putzed along. Including Peloton Sweatpants. At a point, I tried to encourage Rich to step it up. Just because. But...
"I'm pegged," he said (and no, I don't think he knows what that means. Shhhh.). "My heart rate is 170."
"What?! No way. I'm at 136." 
Thus began a consistent and nonsense comparison of our heartrates for the next few hours (and days), wherein we discovered that I tend to operate at almost exactly 30 beats a minute less than him, whatever our effort.
And no... I don't know what that means, if anything. Because Rich has destroyed me at more events than I care to remember. But whatever the case... at that moment, I was barely working, while he was already... ummm... "pegged."
So I backed off... and as we casually cruised along, we watched rider after rider pass us. In various states of overdress, involving large flapping jackets and plastic bags protruding from their shoes. And giant backpacks. So many giant backpacks. Which was fine. Because who cares. Not me. See? I don't care. At all. Hardly. Pffft. It just meant that by the time we hit the trail, we were in a really bad place. Like... really bad. Really. Because as is too often the case, a very curious cross-section of people with seemingly very limited handling skills had seemingly worked very hard to get up toward the front... only to then seemingly display very poor trail etiquette by refusing to let other riders pass. We were now somewhere in the middle of a very long conga line of dabbing and dismounting at any and every root and rock in the trail that maybe looked kind of wet. Or you know... dry.  
Which was fine. If anything it was... funny? We weren't racing. (Oh, did I mention that?) But riding a single-speed really slowly up a hill is wayyyyyy harder than riding one quickly. And this train was riding up hills really, really, really slowly. 
And look... I'm really not trying to be an asshole... but I literally cannot understand what the fuck it was that people were carrying in their hydration packs. This was a fully supported 50 mile race that never passed more than one mile away from "civilization." But throughout the day, as we worked our way on and up, we passed multitudes of riders who looked as if they were doing La Ruta completely unsupported. Daypacks full of picnics and supplies and... what?
It reminded me of this...

Comparatively, Rich and I looked naked. 

Maybe it was a practice run? Getting ready for a big event that required carrying lots of gear. Or maybe... they were all just carrying multiple spare tires. Because from the beginning, we saw rider after rider on the side of the trail, repairing flats. I mean... it happens. And you feel bad. But you also feel judgey. Because maybe they should have considered something a little better, right? Maybe something with some sidewall protection, huh? Maybe they should have thought this through? Maybe they should have... fuck. 
Rich flatted dramatically on a trail called "the ledges." I saw the rock,  just after he hit it... jutting out of the tangled mass of concoidally fractured sandstone and shale. The kind of Paleolithic axe-edge that the thought of accidentally falling on gives you Where the Red Fern Grows shivers. Even with a boot, the aftermath was a mess... a rubber hemorrhoid grotesquely protruding through the sidewall of his tire. It took a while to even patch it.
Fortunately, I was in a good place.

Not long before, we'd turned the corner and found an oasis. The bacon wasn't done yet, but they had these. And more. I was ready to pull up a chair and start heckling for the next hour, but we'd worked our way through A LOT of riders... and the idea of having to pass them all over again... won out. We drank and rolled onward. Until Rich's mishap. 

Oh hey there, cowboy.

You pegged?

Rich wasn't the only casualty. The Ledges took out so many riders. From our vantage point on the bluff, we could see people all along the trail dealing with tire issues. And once we were moving, we passed a slew of the people who'd just passed us (and who had likely had the same judgey thoughts about our tire choice that we'd had of theirs). Less than a mile after spending upwards of fifteen minutes taking in the scenery while Rich fixed his tire, I felt the tell-tale wobble of a flat on my Cysco. Damn. I pumped it up and hoped for the best. Fortunately, the Notubes sealant inside did its job and I had no more issues for the rest of the trip.
I haven't verified it, but I heard a rumor about a statistic that at last year's Oz Off Road, only four of the pro-men didn't get flats. Yeah, you read that right. Only four didn't get flats. 
To Rich this was unconscionable. There is too much money on the line to allow racers to be taken out by one errant rock on a notoriously dodgy section of trail. But to me... that's just riding. The risk is inherent. And if you're in it to win it, you'd consider just running this section. Or... just carrying a giant expedition hydration pack full of enough gear to spend the next week exploring The Ledges.
Apparently locals don't frequent this particular section of trail. Because that's potentially an easy $80 day.

We hit another aid station less than 15 miles from the finish, and once again, I wanted to just sit in the sun and drink beer and eat meat. Which we did for a little while. But eventually that low-level anxiety of having to pass all the riders we'd just passed got the better of us. And we rolled out. So close.

The not-so-many expressions of Rich.

It was beautiful and  sunny, but days of nonstop rain had definitely left their mark. Sections of greenway were still underwater. At least one hub-deep roll through a tunnel that was probably knee deep when the first riders came through hours before. 
The trails, which I have to admit were amazing, alternated between being probably too sloppy to ride to "absolute perfection" (ugh) But the beauty of the Bentonville singletrack is that the money and infrastructure is there to fix them. Even if the event caused some damage, there's resources (cough, Waltons, cough) to put into getting them right again. So that events like this can happen, even when they probably shouldn't. 
We actually rode with one of the Walton sons for a good part of the morning. I'd had this hunch. A rider decked out in full Rapha keeping pace with us as we worked through the sea of massive hydration packs. Connecting random facts in my head. "Huh. Rapha. You don't see a ton of mountain bikers wearing full Rapha kits.. Maybe the occasional classic jersey, but not this full get up. Huh. Didn't the Waltons just buy Rapha? Huh... didn't I hear this group of riders talking about "local knowledge" a little bit ago. Huh... you know what? I fucking bet this is one of the Walton boys. 
And sure enough.
I mean... good to see someone actually put their feet where there money is. (That's a saying, right?)

Though I have complicated feelings about that all. I appreciate what is happening in Bentonville. It makes for an amazing destination and it is inspiring to see wealthy people invest in their community. But... imagine if even just some of that money, instead of being directed at making Northwest Arkansas a mountain bike Mecca, was invested back in communities where Walmart has historically taken a giant shit on the local economy and drained the lifeblood of the community. Helping build a network of trails in, say, some rural South Carolina town where small independent businesses can no longer thrive in the shadow of the Super Center. Helping make these places potential riding destinations where local businesses could take advantage of the sudden flood of entitled white men and their two wheeled mid-life crises. I mean... how hard would it be?

Think about it.

I don't even know what our time was when we finished. Five hours? Six? More? I do know that we were apparently second to last out of the singlespeeds. But I was ok with that. I'm really enjoying this not-racing thing of late. (I forget... Did I mention that?) True Grit. Rooted Vermont. Oz Offroad. I would stop and take pictures. Drink beers wherever they were offered. Not stress about time or place. But still feel a nice tingle in my legs of a long day on the bike. I got nothing to prove these days. I mean... pffft...  until I do.
We basked in the sun at the finish line like drunk little cobras. Until it was time to put some food on top of the multiple beers we'd imbibed, lest things start to go south.

I have no real rituals when I travel... and if I do, I try to change them out of spite, because rituals become routines, and god, I fucking hate routines. But there are still places I like to revisit when I'm on the road. And when I'm in Bentonville, much like my curry fries at Pedaler's Pub... if possible, I like to get coffee at Onyx, eat some food at Tusk and Trotter... and get cocktails at 21c. So I dragged Rich to the former for burgers... and then made him sit with me in the roomy gloaming of the 21c bar while I drank damned good Gin and Tonics... wandered around looking at art...
...and tried not to think about the fact that we were now on the downhill slope of our odyssey.
Reality was nigh.