Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rapha Continental

A Century Ride Around Navajo Land

Was it the electrolyte tablets, the Gatorade, the rest, or the giant Navajo pickle, or the suggestion from a few people that I might want to ride in the photographers' van? Whatever it was, I was a man remade when I climbed on my bike to commence the second half of an epic 100 bike ride with the Rapha Continental riders.

Twenty minutes earlier, I had rolled to a stop in Lukachukai, Arizona, in front of the Totsoh Trading Post. My legs, after about 45 fast, hot miles, felt like blocks of wood. Petrified wood. I wanted to throw up. My body was on fire.

By virtue of my familiarity with country we were in (as a photography tour guide), and my interest in cycling, I was serving as the "host" for one of 25 hard-core Rapha Continental rides; this one, on July 13th, was winding its way around, through, up and down Navajo country, in North Eastern Arizona. Rapha, a premier cycling apparel company, had solicited suggestions for epic rides, and chose mine among 24 others.

It might have made it an easier ride to have scheduled it in spring or fall, but then it was supposed to be an epic ride, one where a rider could achieve "glory though suffering," and in that sense, the timing made sense. For me, at least, I had already suffered some on the ride, if not achieved glory.

The route had begun a few hours earlier from the parking lot of the Thunderbird Lodge, located at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly National Monument. We were to make a grand circle, at the end of the ride returning to its beginning. We would ride through colorful red rock country, past a variety of Navajo communities, including Chinle, Many Farms, Round Rock, Tasile, and Lukachukai. Wherever we met them, people were unfailingly friendly, both those I knew from prior trips, and those we met along the way.

There would be a couple of detours off the grand circle. One was about to take us up a steep, 2,000 foot climb to an elevation of 8,400 feet. The other would take us to an overlook of Canyon de Chelly, and the ruins of a cliff dwelling, once and briefly inhabited by the Anasazi Indians eight centuries earlier.

For the first few miles of the ride, I stayed out in front of the Rapha team, with one or the other of the riders - Cole Maness, Dominic Primé, Hahn Rossman, Kansas Waugh, and Pierre Vanden Borre, each of them young men whom I instantly enjoyed knowing. Dominic, a late addition to the team, brought along his wife, Sherise, while spouses of the others were home, in various parts of the U.S.

We made our way past little Navajo ranches on either side of us. There was a long, red line of sandstone hills on the left, and the distant Chuska Mountains were on our right. Blue skies competed with towering thunderclouds that throughout the day seemed to promise a cooling rain, but almost never delivered the goods.

The pace allowed for easy conversation among the others, but I could feel the effects of the speed, if not the heat, and I dropped back. I glanced at my cyclometer; we were traveling 26 mph. Surely the wind was at our backs - for now.

Rapha had assigned Dave Christenson, a videographer, to film the event. The photographer of cyclists, Michael Robertson (aka velodramatic), would make still images, as would the trip coordinator, Daniel Wakefield Paisley.

Finishing off perhaps 20 miles or so, we reached the first hill, and not much of a hill. Suddenly, I was aware that I was partially cooked. Looking at the five riders before me charge up the grade, it was almost as if I were going backwards. Glaciers were at that moment moving faster than me.

I hadn't bonked. Energy had simply oozed out of me without my knowledge, until that first little climb.

At the top of the hill, the quiet highway was level for the next several miles, until we rolled into the parking lot in front of the trading post at Round Rock. We visited for a little bit with the Navajos who worked there. Soon we were underway again, this time across a series of leisurely-placed rollers. Then, on one of the easy uphills, came a cramp, without warning, in my right calf, powerful enough to twist my ankle inward, lifting my heel, making my toes point down. I pedaled through it, but another cramp came, and then another, now in my left calf. Hahn dropped back, and with a hand on my back, literally pushed me forward for a long way, until the cramps grew bored with annoying me and went away.

We pedaled into Lukachukai, none too soon for me. I was in serious physical distress. The turn-around came when I started in on my pickle, which I purchased at the Totsoh trading post. Jean Ray, my friend who'd driven with me to Arizona, and who was serving as the driver of the photographer's van, offered me a Diet Coke and Gatorade, and Dominic's wife handed me a couple of electrolyte tablets. All of that and a twenty minute rest brought me back from the edge of a place I didn't want to go - the inside of the van. Mostly I think the pickle revivified me, (I did vow to purchase a bottle of electrolyte capsules once I managed to find a drugstore, that is, if I lived to find a drugstore).

Moments before the others, I pushed off from the trading post, ready to tackle, if not conquer, the one significant climb of the day, to Buffalo Pass. I carried some valuable advice from several of the others with me: to set my own pace.

Next Post: Lukachukai to Chinle

(Note: More photographs from the day are here.)

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