Sunday, August 28, 2011

Back to Hell

We took off in to the morning darkness with wheels whirring softly on the pavement.  The lights on our bikes did little to illuminate our way and we picked our path by feel and avoidance of the specter outlines of people and bikes and road.  The Hotter N Hell started at 6am this year, an hour earlier than normal, which was probably the saving grace for hundreds of riders, ourselves included. By the time we got to the start line the riders were already passing through and we joined in to the mass of wheels and gears.

The beginning of the ride was a dream world.  Hundreds of blinking and flashing red lights stretched to the horizon like a bizarre Christmas parade.  The mass of riders moved in disjointed harmony, moving in the same direction yet unsynchronized, an amateur ballet, a flock of birds that knew the rules but couldn't react in time, complete with otherworldly calls in the darkness of "CARRUP!" and "SLOWI-SLO-OH-OWING!" echoing back down the line and barely audible "onyerleft".  It was harrowing, yet magical.  Perhaps the real magic of the morning was the 75*F temperature, a purely blissful twist against the typically blistering days.  But dreams always end and fade away.

The sun broke against the sky and dispelled the tranquility of coolness.  It stayed reasonable while the sun stayed low.  We divined the time as much from the position of the sun as from the jetsam on the road:  at first there were the lights that had rattled loose from handlebars and shone like beacons on the still dark road; then we crunched over sunglasses that had slipped from sweaty hands as the dawn gave way to daylight; and the innumerable water bottles that counted away the miles, many at first and then lessening through out the day.

That relentless sun soon turned our dream world in to a convection oven.  There is no escaping the heat.  The road simultaneously absorbs and radiates the energy back on to all who dare traverse it.  The breeze blows hot on overheated faces and offers no relief.  At best, standing quietly under a shady grove of trees will minimize the rate of heat exhaustion but even that is still borrowed time.  The organizers of this year's ride wisely had triage units at the rest stops ready to recuperate those who lost the battle against the sun.  Arrays of cots rested below clothes lines that supported chilled intravenous bags and weary riders waited as the fluids worked in to their bodies.

We passed through Hell's Gate at 10am with the temperature already climbing to the triple digits.  Riding in these circumstances requires a careful compromise, riding on a razor's edge between an aggressive pace that will bring on dangerous exhaustion versus an easy pace that lets the body bake for too long.  Merely being present means that the riders are continuously heating up and losing moisture at an unrecoverable rate and the only way to finish is to find that balance of effort versus ease.  In some ways it is harder than a steep climb up a mountain because there a rider can rest and then resume the climb when a little energy has returned to legs and lungs.  In the cruel heat of the day, there is no recovery and the countdown clock to heat stroke is always ticking.

We kept the pace and eventually crossed the finish line.  To minimize our total time, we skipped rest stops unless we were out of liquids, which happened several times during the day. Consider that we all carry three liter hydration bags in addition to water bottles and that gives an idea of the heat.  We saw trailer loads of bikes and riders who had been picked up from the side of the road where they'd given up hope of finishing under their own power.  Hell is always open and it had claimed those souls.

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