For several years now my cousin, Randy, has been daring me to join his group of hyperactive frat house throwbacks in an annual ritual--the 73-mile Tecate to Ensenada bicycle ride. This year I said "no problem" with the usual bravado, knowing I could conveniently schedule another unbreakable commitment for May 18. But this time my cousin took the initiative. He entered my name in the ride that attracts thousands of bicycle nuts eager to navigate the hot, dusty, mountainous course that cuts across the northwest corner of Baja California. He even paid my registration fee. When a brown packet containing an official T-shirt and number--1003--arrived in the mail, I knew there was no turning back.
To my surprise, the ride turned out to be an intensely gratifying experience. I understand now what drives people to push themselves far beyond normal levels of comfort and endurance. Don't get me wrong. I have no plans to sign up for the next available triathlon. But I watched myself and thousands of others sweat and groan and reach back for strength we hoped, but weren't quite sure, we had. And that was fun.
Butterflies Got Worse
We arrived at Tecate, a dusty border town about 60 miles east of Tijuana, at 8:30 that Sunday morning. Already, the sun was scorching. We all had the butterflies, but mine got worse when Randy remarked that of the six times that he and his group of former law school classmates have made the ride, he was sure that this would be the hottest trip. At 9 o'clock, a block of about 6,000 men, women and children--and their bikes--began to funnel ever so slowly onto a badly paved two-lane road, out of the village and into the mountains.
We are all in our mid-30s and spend most of our time behind desks. But we soon found that there were big differences in our levels of physical conditioning. As soon as the race began, our group of eight riders became separated. The five fastest roared ahead. One--a deputy district attorney from San Diego--got sick (someone said he ate too much ice cream the night before). I would pass him much later; the other four I wouldn't see until Ensenada. Randy and I rode together and we soon joined up again with another of our team's stragglers--Kirk, from Salt Lake, who was billed as a longshot to finish the ride. The three of us would make most of the ride together.
As it turned out, everyone would finish, though hours apart and in varying degrees of physical discomfort.
The main danger was dehydration. It wasn't far beyond the first aid station that sirens could be heard approaching and soon an ambulance was whizzing by, most likely with a hapless biker who had forgotten to refill a precious water bottle. By the time we reached the 2,000-foot summit of the ride at 11:30, the temperature was in the mid-90s. Riders swarmed like bees, 10-deep, around the water tanks set up at roadside for refills. In the middle of the crowd was a collapsed man. People were dousing him with water. "He says he's dizzy," said a woman. He was helped to his feet and stood there wobbly-legged, glassy-eyed. I wondered if he would push on. And for an instant I felt a rush of fear: Would my ride end that way?
They ran out of water before we left that stop. A lot of riders were still arriving and had to go cold turkey until the next stop, six miles down the road. Not a pleasant thought.
Drafting Didn't Work
We rode on, down a hill and into a furnace of desert wind. We tried drafting--the technique of riding single file, wheel-to-wheel, to reduce the effect of the buffeting wind. It might work for the pros; it didn't work for us.
At the halfway stop, we sucked down electrolyte fluid, water, bananas and orange slices. I don't remember much about that way station. I was too hot. But I do remember being irritated by another rider, a chunky older guy outfitted in top-of-the-line riding attire, who was screaming in my right ear about how he had endured cramps at Mile 27 and what a wild and crazy guy he was to be on this ride. Not many miles later he would pass me in the back of a "sag wagon"--one of many pickup trucks used to haul the weary or broken down to Ensenada.
Strangely, despite the fatigue, we didn't want to stop for long. Partly it was fear that if we sat down, we would never get up. But even at that point we could taste the sensation of finishing the ride. We wanted to move on.
The next leg was eerily quiet. Nobody talked much. The joking had stopped. There was just the sound of the wind and the whir of spinning sprockets and chains.
We passed more and more riders collapsed on the roadside. Many were lying in the brush with no shade, feet propped up on a bush, hands over their eyes. Some no doubt would resume the ride, but others probably would pack it in. And the ranks of stragglers began to grow--walkers who most likely had succumbed to a leg cramp or were simply too tired to pedal.
My cousin said it looked like Gettysburg--a tattered army on the march.
Hitching a Ride