“Now is no time to think of what you do not have.
Think of what you can do with that there is.”
I’m planning to ride SBT GRVL two weeks from Sunday. It’s a big event…140+ miles, 9,000+ of climbing, all at an average elevation of over 7,000 feet above mean sea level. I’ve never tackled anything quite this large before. It seemed like such a good idea last December when I registered. Now that I’ve tasted gravel at SWIGG (55 miles) and Bohemian Sto Mil (100 miles) and learned how badly it can hurt me, I realize that this is going to be a significant challenge…almost certainly the most daunting of my cycling life.
Then again, maybe not. I won’t know until I get out there. What I do know is that I’m going to be on the bike a long time…maybe 12 hours or more. There’s a strong chance that I might not finish. If I do, I know it’s going to mess with me…both physically and mentally. It’s not the intensity of the pain so much as it is the length of time you have to deal with it. The little gremlins of doubt will make their appearance as I suffer through the first long, steep, uphill grade and they will get louder with each successive hill until I am finally chasing the sunset back to town.
If you’ve ever done this sort of thing yourself, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, no explanation is adequate. There’s something about gravel. Maybe it’s the hills or the fact that you can’t relax for even a moment on this stuff like you can on pavement. Conditions change too quickly. Let your guard down and you’ll be following it down. You think falling on pavement is bad? It all leads to a sort of tension that builds from the start and never really lets up.
“The old man opened his eyes and for a moment he was coming back from a long way away. Then he smiled.”
Mostly, though, gravel is about being as alone as you will ever be in this world. When I was out in the back of beyond at Bohemian Sto Mil, I felt things I haven’t felt in a long time…things that were in some ways cleansing while at the same time absolutely terrifying. I ran through the gamut of emotions, often touching all of them on a single hill. Then the next hill would rear its ugly head and I’d go through it all over again….and again…and again…and again. Yuri Hauswald, winner of the 2015 DK200, perhaps said it best. “People are pushing themselves so hard that it’s inevitable they’re going to have a spiritual moment or some type of reckoning with themselves. You’re going to unwrap some emotional shit out there.” Indeed.
Townes Van Zandt sang that living is mostly wasting time and for most of us I suspect it probably is. Most people get up, go to work, come home, go through the motions. They convince themselves that multitasking is the key to life. Do a lot of things…quickly. Move on to the next batch. They never figure out that they are condemning themselves to a shallow existence. It’s like bowling with tubes in the gutters.
Gravel is not that. Gravel is where you realize just how sad that sort of life is. Out here, you are solely focused on one task and life is as deep as it is ever going to get. The things you feel are so searingly real that you wonder if it’s them and not the mountain that is taking your breath away. Out here, there is nothing to shelter you from your demons. You really have no choice but to stare them down. Maybe they’ll beat you in the end, but you still have something to say about it. Out here, you find out what you’re all about.
So I’m going to give it a go one more time. Like Santiago in Hemingway’s classic, I’m pretty sure I don’t understand what I’m getting myself into. Also like Santiago, I don’t really care. This is my 60th birthday present to myself. This is la vida, and to a guy like me it’s night and day better than a pool table or a boat.