So here we are. The LAST day. Should be noooo problem. Day 4 had the lowest mileage of the ride (150 miles), was pancake flat and maybe we’d even get some tailwinds for a change. Then again, this was supposed to be an “easier” 1200k and we were certainly disabused of that notion very quickly on Day 1. And the description on the website for the final day was suspiciously sparse, revealing few details of what we’d expect on this section. But git ‘er done, as they say, so LET’S DO THIS.
The night before, despite my most charming entreaties, I was given only lukewarm assurances that I’d have a hotel room all to myself. (One volunteer jokingly insinuated that perhaps a bribe might make this a guarantee, but the other gentleman — who took his job very seriously — stoically shook his head no.) So after about 3 hours-ish of sleep, my mystery roommate inevitably woke me up even with earplugs jammed into my skull and a heap of pillows piled on my head — so I decided to get ready early and head downstairs. Maybe it’d be quieter down in the lobby and I could find a corner to curl up in for a catnap. After I rolled my bike into the elevator, the car stopped just two floors down. “Oh, maybe another rando is leaving early,” I thought. But a wobbly drunk guy with his blue oxford shirt untucked from his khakis staggered into the elevator, holding a can of whipped cream.
He blearily looked over at me and extended the can in my general direction.
“Want a whippit?”
He gave me a shrug that said, “Fine, suit yourself.” Preppie Bro was definitely too drunk to notice I was fully kitted up and holding a bike, but he managed to stay upright as he stumbled into the lobby. It was mostly deserted down there at 3AM; all the food had been cleared away and drop bags were slowly piling up. Only two staff members were around, and one said to me, “You must be Jenny,” and handed me a note from our Canadian friends Bob and Jean. They’d taken off ahead of us but left behind a sweet missive wishing us well at the front desk. The staffers went about tidying the room, complaining about the wild post-wedding party and the whipped cream mess they’d made out in the parking lot. “I guess some people can’t handle their whipped cream,” I laughed, as I stretched out on one of the banquettes.
NC Randos Ian, Joel and Jerry had departed even earlier just after 10PM and rode through the night (which in retrospect, was perhaps a wise decision.) Canadian Chester/Spencer popped up and was heading out soon — but he paused to give me a summary of his highs and lows of the past few days: vomiting from the heat on Day 1; broken seatpost binder bolt on Day 2; finally regaining his humanity on Day 3. I bid him bonne route as more riders trickled in. Toshi, looking as fresh as he did in Ft. Myers Beach, was the first of our group to wander in. For our last day together, I gifted him with a spiffy blue San Francisco Randonneurs cap as a token of our new international friendship bonded by salty brows, sweat and sunburn. Roland and Pudu arrived next, with the latter grumpily complaining about lack of sleep and weary legs. Dave was feeling a wee bit moody as well; he and Werner had spent a long, slower day on the bike together, so he was hoping to pedal at a friskier pace today. I suggested he pair up with Toshi, since we’d already bogarted him for most of the ride. They could drop the hammer together and speed off to the finish. Dave wondered whether Toshi would rather stay with our group, but it turns out that he was amenable to the idea and they darted to the finish soon after breakfast. Calista was pretty beat as well and had a sleeping pill hangover, while Werner seemed exhausted and overheated from yesterday’s efforts.
Well, maybe our motley crew just needed some “Moons Over My Hammy” from Denny’s to get us going! Roland had wisely researched the location so as not to waste any time like yesterday’s aimless search for the IHOP, but then I unluckily embedded a gigantic nail in my rear tire. (My blurry photo doesn’t do justice of the inch-long invader, which went in blunt side first!) St. Roland gave me a new tire as a precaution and he and Pudu kindly assisted me to replace everything as quickly as an Indy 500 pit crew. Then it was time for our Last Breakfast together, and I ordered some fried pancake puppies to celebrate.
Morning Person + Man-Child
The last thing that Toshi said to me before he and Dave hurtled off into the distance was, “Mornings are good for you,” and it was true: despite my sleep deprivation, I was feeling pretty lively and chugging along at the front of the group. It wasn’t scorchingly hot yet, my pancake puppies were sitting comfortably in my belly and my shorts were also keeping me cool. (I decided to re-use my most comfortable pair in order to stave off further frotch pain, and they were still a bit damp after hand washing them in the shower the night before.)
More impressively, I’d survived three days of riding with Pudu — which was an achievement in of itself. Now Pudu is a special person, a very “special” person. At heart, he’s an irrepressible man-child, with his long hair flapping in the wind (uncut since junior high) and a twisted sense of humor that spans from juvenile to crass to silly. If you’re (un)fortunate enough to be friends with him on Facebook, you’ll likely be the recipient of disturbing Photoshop collages where you’re photobombed by ornery goats and deluged by a feed of random cartoons, surreal images and other detritus that he unearths from the darkest realms of the internet. (And his longstanding username is “Rudawakening”, which says it all.) While a pudu is an adorable little Chilean deer, he is not — he’s like your sarcastic kid brother that uses terms like, “donk” and “tocks” to refer to his Kardashian-esque butt (derived from badonkadonk and buttocks.) But kidding aside, Pudu is all about Fun — and is one of the most entertaining friends to ride with. Yes, I had to put up with endless frotch jokes and references to me being a “disapproval turtle” since I’m constantly rolling my eyes at him. But he’s rarely in a funk, has a heart of gold (and wrenches on my bike for me all the time) and is as geeky as I am when it comes to cycling. And we both love food, although his prodigious appetite puts me to shame; the dude can handily put away a meal (or usually two meals at one sitting) like a champion competitive eater. So if you ever have the honor of being “Pudu’ed”, consider yourself lucky as he’s one-of-a-kind. (And pro tip: if you ever need a favor from him, bribe him with ice cream or a puppy. He’s a sucker for sugar and dogs.)
Canadians Part Deux
So onwards we roll in the dim light of the morning to our first control. Why look, it’s more Canadians: Chris and Carey, the first randos we met upon our arrival in Ft. Myers Beach. They sported matching True North bicycles and Chris wore a fetching wool jersey featuring his Huron Chapter. They were in fine spirits, talking about how they stopped at bakeries for delicious pastries and cappuccinos — which immediately endeared me to them. They also asked me if our American clubs ever got together for awards ceremonies or gatherings. “Nope, we’re just given option to buy our own medals and such from RUSA.” Apparently all of the Canadian chapters meet at the end of the year for a big party — which made me a tad envious of their rando unity. Hopefully I’ll get to ride with the Canadian contingent at PBP at some point as they’ve been such pleasant company during this 1200k.
Personal Record and Personal Reckoning
After a quick stop at our gas station control, we soldiered forth on a rural road past ranch houses and trees draped in Spanish moss. Two adorable dogs ran up to Roland and me as we passed one driveway (one was a shy puppy so he hung back, letting his friend receive all of the pats on the head.) I’m used to dogs barking and nipping at my heels on rides, so it was a real treat to meet such friendly canines.
Around this point, Calista asked me how many miles I rode on the Harvest Time 1000k from last October. I replied, “I think 622 miles?” And she says, “Well, then we’ve officially ridden our longest ride to date!” The group whooped and applauded our achievement, which is truly mind-boggling when you stopped to really think about it. (It turns out hers was a little further down the road, but no matter — ’twas a small technicality.)
As the day grew hotter, I was starting to recoil from the sun like a vampire. Werner was also having a tough time and had his jersey unzipped as he valiantly held onto our wheels as best he could. As we passed through more orange grove territory, D & D drove up in their SUV bearing the last of the cold drinks and rations that would help us get through our final day.
While we gulped down Gatorade and fig bars, Dick pulled Werner aside for some rando real talk. “Now don’t push yourself too hard and ride above your pace; there’s plenty of folks behind you that you can group up with.” Werner was reluctant to leave us — he was worried about getting lost and felt that by keeping up with us, he’d be sure to finish. “I’ll stay with you guys until I can’t,” he said, and a look of determined resolve passed over his face. Personally, as much as I wanted to help usher him in, I really, really, really wanted to get off my damn saddle before sunset for obvious frotchy reasons. I felt rather guilty as he’d been so watchful over me when I’d faltered at times early on in the ride, so I hoped he’d be able to stick with us and not fall too far behind.
It’s Goddamn Hot
Loads of randos were at the next gas station: British Peter; Vickie and her posse; José from Puerto Rico (who I’d ridden with a bit on Day 1); the Canadians; Texas Geof (currently holding the record for mechanicals with 9 flats and broken spokes); NC Tim. Werner was really struggling at this point so I gently suggested he should “ride his own ride.”
“It’s kind of counterintuitive, but if you go slower now, you’ll go faster overall.” By going at his own pace, he could maintain his energy and not burn out (one lesson I’ve learned myself the hard way.) Both Pudu and Roland chimed in with words of encouragement, and Werner nodded and agreed he’d take it down a notch. We bade him good luck and rolled out with the addition of Peter and José to our group.
It’s Still So Goddamn Hot
Peter had a crackling red sunburn on his arms, but he was still cheerful and as a finisher of PBP and LEL (if I recall correctly) — I’m sure he’d get to the end even if he turned into a cooked lobster by the finish. I asked if he was going to drink a nice cold beer at the hotel and he said, “No, I want nine shots of whiskey, all lined up in a row.” I laughed and thought it was great to find another cyclist who spoke the same language of brown booze!
For the next few miles, I chatted mostly with José, a vivacious dynamo who’d held on despite a rough first day; due to pushing a bit too hard in the beginning and the torturous heat, he’d endured an ugly cycle of puking, sleeping and riding, puking, sleeping and riding some more. But he slowly persevered and made up the time on Day 3 and squeezed in a solid night’s rest.
The unrelenting heat of the day bore down on us, and José and I began fantasizing about food. He was desperately craving a frozen fruit smoothie, while I wanted sushi…a mojito…and a salad…We were like prisoners on death row contemplating our last meal, but all we had were extra portions of heat, heat, heat and crosswinds.
Then, to add insult and injury to my tender vittles, we hit a patch of dusty gravel road — hey, this wasn’t on the cue sheet! Every bump was painful reminder of my delicate condition and I was supremely relieved when we finally reached smooth pavement again. Sightings of a frolicking stampede of cows and a bus packed to the gills with watermelons helped break up the tedium of this stretch. But we were all terribly thirsty and alarmingly, there was no real sign of civilization — i.e., a gas station. The Canadians were smart and we spotted them camped out in the shade of a tree, taking a nap to escape the toxic rays of the sun.
I Got the Watermelon Blues
Then we turned left onto this horrific road, CR 17A, that was 7.5 miles of pure agony. There was very little shoulder to ride on so tons of weekend traffic — including large, loud semi-trucks — zoomed by a bit too close for our comfort. Plus, of course, we were riding into an ugly headwind. The noise and heat wore us all down until we saw a miraculous sign for an upcoming roadside fruit stand. Roland thought it might be too far off our path, but fortunately, it was just several hundred feet from our course. Wayne and Melanie were just about to leave, as well as Minnesota Michele, all temporarily revived by the fruit stop. Jose negotiated with the proprietor in Spanish, who offered us a large watermelon for $10. Calista was a bit wary of that price as it seemed a bit high: “I’ve seen them for sale for $2.” But Jose said, “It’s fine, it’s my treat. He needs to make a living, and we need to live.”
Now, I absolutely loathe watermelon (actually, melon of any kind; I’ve actually drawn a comic about it.) While I’ll admit that it tasted ok right there and then, water from a dank puddle on the side of the road would probably have tasted as sweet as a piña colada to me in that moment. As a doctor, José had mentioned earlier that the fruit was really good for rebalancing the pH of one’s blood, so I followed his advice and gagged while eating my medicinal slice. But I did buy a peach to try and cleanse the taste out of my mouth afterwards.
Yo Quiero Taco Bell!
Just as we turned off of that godforsaken road, the humid skies partially opened up and selfishly sprinkled us with only a minute’s worth of rain. Blessedly, our Circle K control was not too far away and we saw other tired randos clustered out front when we arrived. As we stood in line for our receipts and stamps, Pudu declared, “Ok, I’m pulling a Stephen and we’re having a real lunch break at Taco Bell.” (He’s a fellow Bay Area rider who enjoys relaxed lunch stops on brevets, especially at this restaurant.) I turned to José with a big smile: “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” And he grinned back and said happily, “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” right back, which sounded way better with his authentic accent.
The Ninth Circle of Hell
60 miles. Just 60. Fucking. Miles. Left. I didn’t really enjoy my Taco Bell as I was tired of eating, tired of applying chamois cream to my nether regions, tired of heat and headwinds. All I wanted to do in that moment was take a big belly flop into a gigantic pool filled with beer and float on my back into oblivion. But being abandoned at this Taco Bell was still a much worse fate, so…let’s get this “party” started.
Calista and José took off without us as Roland and I were taking our time finishing up our lunch and getting ready. We were just about to throw our legs over our bikes when Roland said, “Hang on, I gotta brush my teeth.”
“What? COME ON,” said Pudu in exasperation.
“Don’t worry, I’ll catch up.”
So Pudu and I headed out together but managed to miss a quick left turn; another rando with GPS had made the same error so we re-routed ourselves back on course. It was then that I felt a disturbance in the gastrointestinal force, and the Taco Bell Rebel Alliance was staging a coup down in my stomach.
“Uhhhh, Jason — we gotta stop for a bathroom.”
“Are you serious?!? COME ON!” he yelled at me, clearly annoyed.
His pissiness was kind of funny — but there was no time to make any jokes, I had to make a serious beeline to the bathroom. When I emerged, Roland had found us and our little trio set off for the most difficult part of the entire grande randonnée.
We turned left onto West Farms Road, then south onto SR31. Welcome to 27.8 miles of sheer HELLISHNESS. Roland gave it the nickname of Mordor and it was here that we began to mentally unravel in the burning afternoon sun. The pavement shimmered with heat waves, and for a while, we trudged silently through the crosswinds. But then our madness compelled us to keep talking, just talk about anything and everything, so that we could withstand this Ninth Circle of Hell. Suddenly, we cracked — and in our delirium, everything became downright hilarious.
Pudu and I started talking in fake “rage comic meme” voices.
“CLOUDS! STUPID RAINCLOUDS Y U NO PEE ON US! Y U HAVE SUCH BLADDER CONTROL.”
“PEE ON US!”
Then he and Roland dug deep into the archives of their youth and started singing the lyrics to the Beastie Boys, “Paul Revere.” (I suggest you listen to it while you read this section.)
“One lonely Beastie I be
All by myself without nobody
The sun is beating down on my baseball hat
The air is gettin’ hot, the beer is getting flat.”
Pudu would sing a bit, then Roland chime in with the next lyric — until they reached the end of their memory banks — but they sang almost the entire song. I said, “Can you now sing the whole, ‘Licensed to Ill’ album, please?” Anything to distract us from this awful heat.
Then I said conspiratorially to them, “I think Dave and Dick are cannibals. They’re trying to slow roast us alive and they’re gonna eat us for dinner at the end. That was their plan all along!”
I also let out a series of deep sighs and piteous noises. “SIGHHHH.” “OHHHHH boy.” “UGGGGGGH.” For some reason I found this to be hysterically funny — along with the whole absurd situation of riding during the hottest part of the day — probably because that part of the brain that would normally censor these sounds had melted away.
“HEY GUYS I’M SIGHING OUT LOUD, AHAHAHAH!”
Pudu and Roland: “AHAHAHAHA!”
We’ve all gone cuckoo!
As we turned onto SR 31, we could see rain clouds in the distance and little did we know we’d just entered Purgatory. Occasionally we’d get a brief bit of shade from a stray cloud and we’d all collectively say, “AHHHHH.” But then it’d dissipate just as quickly as it appeared, and Pudu and I would go back to shouting in our rage comic meme voices.
“HEY CLOUD STUPID CLOUD Y U ONLY SHADE US FOR A MINUTE PEE ON OUR HEADS!”
I saw a lonely house on the side of the road with a tree in the front yard.
“HEY GUYS GUYS WE MUST STOP NOW.”
Pudu and Roland patiently accommodated me and let me whimper in the shade for a minute — although Pudu said, “Make a bummed out face,” and proceeded to post a photo of my sad sack self on Facebook. Roland looked at his Garmin and said, “Uh oh — you don’t want to know how hot it is right now.”
“Ughhhh…how how is it?”
“Well, it might be a little hotter from the Garmin being in the sun, but it says 106 degrees.”
One other rider (whose name I never caught but had been boomeranging with us on this stretch) stopped to join us. “Is there water here?”
“No, just shade.”
“Ok, I’m gonna push on.”
As did we — we also zigzagged with the Canadians Chris and Carey, who had lost their perky mojo and were crawling along like we were. But 10 miles in, we saw a mirage in the distance — could it be? No, it was real, there was a volunteer staged on the side of the road with an umbrella and coolers and lawn chairs. MY KINGDOM FOR A COKE! I sunk down into one of the chairs with a Coke in one hand, popsicle in the other, ready to ask someone to administer my last rites.
But Pudu can be a hard taskmaster, and before I could unwrap my frozen treat, he said, “COME ON, let’s go. Let’s not drag out the finish and stop every couple of miles. Get outta that chair!”
NO I DON’T WANNA my inner voice wailed. But fine, whatever, I’ll do what you say because STUPID RUSA CUP. Because he’s a mean jerk, Pudu laughed as I almost tripped when I stood up. But I held my chin high trying to reclaim any remaining dignity I had left while I returned my uneaten popsicle back to the cooler.
The volunteer told us there was a gas station about 15 miles down the road where we could refill our drinks. Ok. SIGHHHHH. Back to the winds of war.
Oh, I forgot to mention that by this point in the ride, the hub on the rear wheel of my Mavic wheel needed mineral oil. So anytime I coasted, it would emit this super loud, buzzing sound like a spastic Chris King wheel (but not like happy-go-lucky honeybees, these were murderous, angry bees.) Do you know how irritating that was? REALLY irritating. So I had to keep pedaling even when I didn’t want to which made me even more tired. But we made it to the gas station and the proprietor was a compassionate soul who didn’t charge us for ice and let us collapse on his picnic table out front. Even now we could find some glimmers of humor with our situation. I told Pudu that with his pointed skullcap and deep tan, he reminded me of a rugged, windburned Mongolian warrior returning from a battle on the steppe. We bumped into another cyclist (who was dressed in civilian clothes) that knew one of the pre-riders. His praise for our efforts and overall enthusiasm helped rally us a bit, so we roused ourselves after 20 or so minutes and returned to the road.
When our trek on that horrible road finally ended — Pudu and I had reached the point where we were saying, “Fuck you, road!” and giving it the finger — we started seeing signs for Ft. Myers. We started to get a whiff of the proverbial barn, and ramped up the pace when….stoplight. Then another stoplight. We caught up to Wayne and Melanie at one intersection and shared our frustration with these interminably long lights. Pudu and I were still in loony bin mode, so we started randomly yelling at cars as they drove by. Not confrontational yelling — more like the odd, Howard Dean shriek from 2004 Democratic presidential primary. And that made us laugh and feel better for all the stopping-and-going when the end was so very near.
After debating whether we should turn on Summerlin Road — nope, we wanted Summerlin Square road — Pudu decided to turn it up to 11 and I held on for dear life as the smell of the barn in his nostrils was pulling him towards the finish like a magnet. I faltered just before the final mile and Pudu relented and let us slow down.
“Ok, Jenny. Go ahead and lead us in for your first 1200k finish!”
While I didn’t admit this to the guys at the time (so I’m doing it now), I choked up a little bit when he said that — what a sweet gesture. I thought about how much fun it was to ride with such great friends for 760 miles, despite the agonizing heat and wind. There were so many good memories: when the server in Key West called Jason a lady because of his long hair, to that one time we had a tailwind on Day 3, to Roland singing his improvisatory songs based on our current conditions: “Hello, headwind my old friend…You’ve come to mess with us again.” (Sound of Silence, Simon & Garfunkel.) And now, our triumphantly sweaty trio was done at the time of 86:52 and had arrived safely back at our Ft. Myers Beach hotel. Our Bay Area buddy John greeted us at the finish, as did Dave and Dick, who took our photos and organized a mini awards ceremony for our group (plus Wayne and Melanie) in the lobby.
So now we could relax, drink beer, eat pizza, shower — and oh, run back to Cape Cod Seafood Company for one last meal. Full of lobster rolls, we returned just in time to see the final riders come in — including Werner, who conquered his demons and finished with an hour to spare. Two noble randos, Geof and Tim, had taken him under their wing and helped shepherd him back to the hotel. It was a touching moment, especially when his wife and kids ran out to give him big hugs. That’s when you realize how we’ve been sucked into a completely weird and crazy sport that defies explanation — until you reflect on the lasting friendships and wild adventures and how overcoming hardships makes it all worthwhile.
Adieu until August…and my first Paris-Brest-Paris!
And last but not least, I earned my RUSA Cup (which I ordered on the plane back home to Oakland since the results went up so quickly!) Roland presented me, Calista and Mike with miniature stainless steel shot glasses as stand-ins until our actual cups arrived — because he’s cool like that.