I’m in the middle of nowhere California in the pitch black. There are only 5 miles left in the first 100-mile day of our 350-mile journey, but my headlight is out, I’m beyond tired, and completely out of my class. In the moonlight, I can just make out my brother sitting down with his head between his legs.
I never found bike packing or bike touring to be particularly fun. Not in the traditional sense. Riding your bikes for 12-16 hours a day, day in and day out is not like that time your friend’s parents rented him a bouncy castle for his 10th birthday--that was fun. Riding until the sun goes down and then continuing on, while carrying everything you’ll need to live for the next week over gravel, dirt, and dust is different. It’s not immediately fun, not in the way jumping up and down in an inflatable castle is. But the up side is the experience. Some of the most memorable experiences of my life have been spent suffering all day and laughing about how terrible it all was that same night.
In 1962, John F. Kennedy explained to America, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” 53 years later after those fateful words, I would receive a text message from Chris Riekert at 5:36AM, “Ask me about Reno-Mendecino when I’m not drunk.” And while Chris message lacked the gravitas of Kennedy’s booming declaration, the effect was the same. Staring at the screen half-awake, I knew whatever it was I’d agree, and that it would be an idea I would at some point regret before finally realizing how special it was.
“Reno to Mendocino” is an organized ride put on by a group of strange men under the banner of Super Pro Racing. Before the ride, I spoke to a few folks familiar with these Super Pro Racing characters. The general consensus seemed to be that these organizers can not be trusted. It was said that they would have no sympathy for your pain. People threw around some clinical terms, but the basic idea was that these guys were trying to hurt you with a smile on their face.
As the title states, “Reno to Mendocino” begins in one of America’s great wasteland’s Reno, Nevada. I took the elevator up to the Players Spa Suite at the Eldorado Hotel Resort Casino and walked into a dark hotel room. About half of the 50 some odd people dumb enough to ride across the state of California to Mendocino were sitting around the bar at the center of the room. Beer and whiskey were offered after a short handshake. After some short introductions, a few instructions for the next day, we all laughed, making predictions for the few days ahead of us.
The booze might have helped the 49 other guys sleep. I don’t know. I made the mistake of quitting drinking 6 years ago. And so, it took me a few minutes to fall asleep on the eve of my 350-mile, 30,000 ft, 50% dirt road journey.
I was riding with 4 of the strongest, best riders I know. We were on the nicest gravel bike I’ve ever ridden, the Specialized Diverge. And in addition to a custom paint job each had the brand new Sram’s new XT-1 group set. We had the route uploaded to our Garmin 1000’s and we had worn our new Adaux endurance shoes on the car ride out here to break them in. We were far from roughing it, a fact that the 45 other guys at the starting line wasted no time in reminding us. I guess you’re supposed to take the dealer tags off the Ferrari before going to the drive-in, or maybe you shouldn’t even have a Ferrari at a drive-in. I’m not sure, but we looked good.
But even with all the gear and talent we could collectively muster, we still met more than our share of challenges. There were the ones built into the course, like the endless climbing, or moon rock gravel roads. There were challenges of poor chance like nearly 50 flat tires, searing hot temperatures, and broken cameras. And there were the personal battles, including: sleep deprivation, exhaustion, saddle sores, numbness, you name it. Our group was consistently the last of the 50 riders to arrive. We’d come in after the sun had set, sometimes as late as 11, after everyone had gone to bed, and eat cold food and try to open beers without waking anyone up before 6:00AM when it would start again.
Some people complain, and others comment happily about the landscape to keep their mind off of it, but everyone is struggling. The whole point of the event is to challenge yourself. After 50 hours of riding, we sprinted to the finish line happier and more defeated than I remember being in years. Normal life, everyday experiences, challenges of family and business are complicated. These experiences weigh us down, stress us out, and wear our edges down until we meet life with a stoic flatness. By contrast, the physical challenge offered on the “road” from Reno to Mendocino was as simple as it was tough.
On one day, I lost the group and rode alone for 6 hours. Somewhere in that time, I got my fourth flat and was out of tubes. I walked two dirt and gravel miles in only socks. The rocks and and soft ground felt good under my sore feet, a sort of massage. I wasn’t sure if or when I’d find another tube or someone that could help, it didn’t much matter. The only thing that matter was the simple truth--Give up and fail, or keep going and succeed.
Life and its normal challenges are complicated. In contrast, cycling is simple. Make it Mendocino or don’t. Either you have enough to keep going or you don’t. That’s the attraction—a rare opportunity to see what you’ve got. But what you really leave with is not the problem or the solution. You leave with all the shit in between. The stories of that only you and your friends understand, the quiet times you questioned yourself, the best burger you’ve ever had, or the water bottle showers, sunsets, barking dogs, and the most beautiful roads you never would have seen.
As I put on my socks on a few months later, I think back on that ride noticing the numbness in my littlest toes. The challenge and accomplishment have begun to fade. In it’s place is all the shit in between. By the time I’m tying my shoes, I can help but think, “Man, was that fun.” …or something like fun.