Rugged Hills and Mingling with Redwoods: the 2019 Old Growth Classic

The redwoods hit me with that kind of awe those quixotic transcendentalists describe as, well, awe. It was like this – the trance state incurred by the tree-lined road was jostled by the excitement of entering an amalgam of friends, acquaintances, and randos held together by the common love for the physical-meets-mental journey of a bike race.

The first beat of awe-inspired-transcendence didn’t hit until I squatted in the fairy ring where I’d soon set up camp and looked up into a magnified quintessential view of treeeeees for days spearing into the sky all around, creating this vertical tunnel connecting the Earth and sky—one of the more astounding views in the world—and I was left stumped. Something powerful lurks in this space between trees. This kind of place can be described, perused online, seen in photos, but nothing can capture the feeling of being there other than actually being there, silent at the bottom of a grove, staring up. It’s more than just the smells, the damp air and the sound of rustling needles mixed with the registered visual input, although that mix has its power, it is this feeling of some omniscient matrix seeping from the trees, bathing you in the magic suffusing from the bark, enclosing you with all those sensations that rips you so wide open you become raw with emotion from not knowing whether you’re enamored with or terrified by these monsters—and who knows what can enter once the split happens. And that’s just stepping in it, in stillness; imagine the potential magnitude of trance from suffering up and flying down the gravel roads amidst and through these age-old beasts. Will you shear the magic or enter into history itself?

That entry into the event can’t be glossed over because of the colossal beasts inviting us in. I drove into the park to cheers from the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz crew spending their Friday evening working and volunteering at the gate. After a deeply passionate, informative and important message about how to respectfully camp to the sensitive local ecosystem ending with a signed promise to not leave as much as a crumb that could threaten the single egg of the marbled murrelet, a promise that would drive me to walk around camp with a celery slice in my pocket all weekend, I was handed an ice-cold beverage as another reminder to hydrate in this thick heat. Even for someone with a struggling sense of direction, navigating camp and the event was straightforward. Redwood groves defined the campsites in Little Basin, which is such a special place for so many reasons. I literally pitched my tent in the middle of a fairy ring, that wasn’t a literary white lie, and a fairy ring is a circle of redwoods that sprout up around the trunk of a fallen redwood, often from logging these days, and the sprouts take advantage of the deep root system of the killed tree; the passed redwood in a way is an ancestor that sticks around to help its community thrive. Living things like to keep living. Why we demolish and kill other humans, animals or plants, I don’t know, doesn’t fucking make sense. This is off-topic though, this is a beautiful place full of beautiful people who channel their killer instinct into pedaling bikes and pushing their personal limits. Beautiful.

It wasn’t until late in the evening that any form of chill broke through, so I, along with probably everyone else, was hydrating, sharing meals, making new friends at camp and getting my ducks in a row for the race the next day. There is not much margin for error when it comes to hydration or nutrition on a race this grueling in general … so thank god the heat was there as an unwavering reminder to keep on top of it. I started to think about the race and all the miles I had and didn’t have under my legs from a late but long summer of although grabbing the world by bike, not seeming to grab hold of the actual bike itself—I still felt slow and unable to reliably tap into that zone state we all crave.

To be quite honest, I was scrutinizing the map, looking for subtle dashed lines painting an “out” to one of the climbs even after those “epiphanies” from not too long ago. The same shit comes up, no matter how many times I think I slay it, I still catch myself looking for outs instead of knowing and trusting that I can call upon the bike rider inside of me who has been clawing to get out for a long time. Maybe it’s just nice to know you’re not trapped. Maybe I was still too scared to admit that I cared again. I do. I’m slow, but hell, wait for next year. These stories won’t be podium stories, but maybe closer, or at least won’t have these confessions of doubt. This promise decries any sort of psychological safety net I can set, but maybe it will inspire for many a death stare into the webbing of those said nets and think, is this thing allowing me to go for what I want or is it tangled up with me wrapped inside? Damn, that got insane. Please don’t judge me too hard. Maybe it’s just Maybelline…painting this front.

And the bike. Of course, the Rock Lobster, and with earlier lessons from cramped hands after other gravel races with its old Canti brakes, I splurged and treated myself to some Paul Component Mini Moto v-brakes, had to go purple to match the style I had going on my bike, which is a couple of pink and purple stickers that token two of the best things in the world: mountains and harmlessly ribald humor. And holy hell, while having braking power is just amazing in and of itself, on that course it proved to be a savior. Another sweet addition to the Foldy McLobsty was a PNW dropper seat post.

At first it was kinda awkward to use because I didn’t know where to put my hands while descending and keeping a pulse on the seat height, but like other situations in life where you may not know where to put your hands at first, they end up being worth it, and I felt more control rolling [and sliding] down the steep and sandy descents. Though I was left with one want after the ride —a cassette with more than a 32-tooth cog and a one-by ring in the front… next year.

The race morning corralling-action followed the same flow as the whole weekend—straightforward and non-stressful, a testament to the expertise, effort, and heart that the MBOSC staff employed to set up and execute this weekend. Again, kudos. Plus, the toilets that lined the start line remained stocked with TP, clear of long waits and relatively clean; nice job MBOSC for not underestimating the volume of shit dropped prior to a bike race. And the water faucets. And the showers. It was incredible.

The climb out of Little Basin is paved and offered the opportunity to hold a steady pace and take the kind of warmup that although dropped me to the back of the peloton, saved my legs for some form of magic two hours in. Feigning that I didn’t care, I knew it was something I needed to do because I actually did care. Apparently, the front group in the pro fields went out hot, super hot, so hot you’d think they were biting the bit not for the W of OGC, but in anticipation for cross season. Yet, I wasn’t going for that, I physically couldn’t, that would be incredibly delusional to think it a possibility last Saturday, I was just chasing myself the whole time.

Pace yourself, patience is a virtue, patience is a virtue, patience is a virtue I repeated over and over again, a phrase that would later haunt me as the ironic cadence is a virtue slapped me in the face while stroking at 20rpm through molasses just to make it up the climbs without getting off the bike, a real knee slapper.

As the first pavement turned to dirt, the iridescent eye of half a peacock feather stared me back me, and I swear it winked or something because I felt a beat reminiscent of the ripping sensation the redwood ring offered my soul the evening before. Did anyone else see that feather? A fucking peacock feather, only half of it, only the eye. Maybe someone lost their race day amulet, if that was yours, I hope you found something else special that day.

The top of the first climb opened the first door. It was the Chalks, the section of the course that drove me to scrutinize the map, looking for a subtle dashed line offering an out. It was an exposed section and Friday’s heat, the type that drives people to seek indolence, dramatized the fear of facing a treeless sandpit. But hell, I got there and it was a really fun part of the course! I found myself for the first time in that ride in nature-bound solitude, untainted by other humans, yet still made sweeter knowing that they were out there pedaling too. The path of deep decomposed granite cut into a ledge laced with chaparral roots to the left and dropped off at a cliff that opened up into a valley of nothing but trees framed by the roiling fog of the California coast to the right. The decomposed granite got softer and dropped at a steep descent to the coastal highway. I don’t think I was the only one who got the front wheel caught up and ended up hurtling off my bike thinking, “That’s not falling, I jumped off!”

Dropping from the redwoods towards the coast surfaced the soon to be lost within the folds of time words of Carrie Stevens Walter, a poet and founding member of the Sempervirens club: a group born by the noble desire to save the redwoods. Emblazoned with the tenacity, perseverance, strength, passion, tactic, and fight to realize their vision that stopped the last of the original old-growth trees from being logged with the rest while coining the campaign phrase, “Save the Redwoods!”

…From deep ravines and summits dark with

     From rugged hills where laurel and madrone

Mingle with redwoods, or where wild wood 


     Creep through deep glens no human foot has 


Float resinous odors on warm, soft gale

     To meet the sea-winds and ocean dews,

These meeting forces mix, dissolve, exhale

     And spill their incense over Santa Cruz…

I grabbed a wheel and got whisked along the coastal flats, taking a pull here and there, and dropping back again as we turned back towards the groves. The second rest stop, like the first, kept me going with their peanut butter pretzels, hydration options and offered an opportunity of exchanges and camaraderie to break up all reels of conversation going off inside the head. I think shit like, I wonder who at this rest stop will relate to that stupid joke that the rut on that descent made me think of? 

And then there’s the dangling Butano loop, the one that lollipops off the course. I embarked after refilling my bottles and taking a piss in the port-a-potty. At this point, it was two or so hours in, and my legs still felt good, actually they felt great. I started passing people and thought, “What the hell, when was the last time you’ve been able to drop people, let alone two hours into a long ride?” I kept going and felt for the first time in ages that I was breaking into that coveted zone that finds the intersection of excess and want – then relentlessly follows the threshold between a bonk and heavy-legged reality, and you know what’s going on but don’t want it to stop, so all you focus on is only giving yourself exactly what you need to ride that line of in-equals-out, where the lactic acid equilibrium, beat of the pedal stroke and heart all play in symphony as the mind loses traction while just knowing the wheels won’t. That was when it went from math to mind fuck, from integrating the power versus time curve to transcendence, and no, I’m not talking about transcendental calculus here. Literally, that cadence knocked my perception right on out of my skull.

Lucidity set in. You see and watch the details of everything. I mean, you can watch a spider web quiver and focus on the sparkling dewdrop hanging on a single silken thread while not losing focus of your chosen line on the trail.

Yes, I switched to second person, I know, it’s a faux pas, but stick with me for a moment here, I had no choice, this part of the race felt super out-of-body, and I know you relate to these moments too—perhaps it’s why we all ride. Why we meditate, why we get high, how we try to find ourselves lost in an omniscient vantage that can’t be broken. Remember that cavity the trees pried open, and into which the peacock eye winked? It’s there and now beating with your cadence deep in the redwoods, in these old-growth trees, some of the last remaining in the world that saw what went on one hundred years ago, that saw what went on over a thousand years ago. And now it’s all coming at you too fast, but you can’t stop because you’re a bike racer and engaged in the level of movement that gives you no choice but to keep pedaling as the trees come alive, wait duh, they’ve always been alive, but now you’ve sustainably tapped them, and find yourself riding through the stories permeating from the rings, which actually don’t count the years in stripes in a one to one basis for these old and ageless idols, but do indicate something along those lines. Those stories crawled out when they saw you there, cracked open, ready to receive.

You’d have to have been here two thousand years ago to witness the seedlings of the most elderly trees that stand today. Two thousand years ago just scratches the surface of the 60-million-year-old heritage behind the forest, compared to the 2.5 million years when our ancestors first arrived, and perhaps now overstaying our welcome. This forest existed through many trials of their capricious Earth. It saw and persisted through fire, drought, ice age, and offered embrace while living alongside the first humans to venture in 12,000 years ago, so recently. This literal harmony lasted until other humans came in and flexed that human urgency to own a few hundred years ago. Missions were established and the newcomers exploited the curious human nature to drive the extant in and under their control. Then they killed, spread disease before getting defeated themselves by the new newcomers, who still own this land who threw out incentives to really drive their claws into the soil, knocking the domino that would instigate demise. And, at the same time, the gold rush was starting, so it wasn’t hard to convince hordes of suffering humans to head west—we all want to chase a dream if we can find one.

Let’s go west. Let’s play with the human desire to explore and achieve and search. Let’s sell the land, create laws that make it easier for our pons to proceed. Federal land acquisition laws put in place to encourage people to move west while chanting Manifest Destiny provided the loopholes the cunning and selfish could grab onto and swing into money while throwing natural and human groups into a calamitous demise. Five waves of scramble characterized by fraudulent and sneaky purchases and rampant logging crashed through the redwoods. The once 2 million acres of California redwood was reduced to 1.5 million acres by the turn of the twentieth century, and by WWI only 100,000 acres remained. Wait, what the hell!? That’s merely 5% of the original forest.

You think what the hell as you look up into some of the last remaining old-growth trees, searching for eyes to stare into because you feel the penetrating life force. You knew these facts, but now you felt them piercing your body. A drop of sweat tickled your brow as it rolls beneath your sunglasses, and wishing it was a tear, maybe it was, you brushed it off while reaching one last steep pitch, crawling through that molasses. At the top, you look down towards some fun. Deep in another world while maintaining that sense of lucidity, you have no idea how close you are to eating shit, and ride the trust in your bike and in your reaction time along the redwoods and verdant ravines until you reach the road again, thanking hell for the people of the past and present who keep these places safe and thriving.

And then I find myself at the same feed zone and have this complete Twilight Zone moment. What the hell just happened? I tried to relay my experience, but the receiver must have seen the glaze plastered over my eyeballs because he said, “Donny, you’re out of your element!” All I could say was, “My name isn’t Donny.” “What the hell, you really are on a different planet, that’s one of your favorite movies,” my good friend that I didn’t even recognize replied as he rolled away. It took me a few hours before I realized what the hell he was talking about.

Having heard that the rest of the course was fuckin’ steep, I refilled a bottle with mix and opted again for the salty snacks and rode a chill pace along the fern-lined stream. Once the path got steep again, after making all the preceding climbs sans dismount, I set a goal of grit for the first time in god knows how long: I was going to embrace the 20 or something rpm at knee-beating torque in order to make it up without getting off my bike, 32 teeth and all. It felt amazing, don’t’ get me wrong, I wasn’t going that fast, but hell, to push that hard felt damn good. My back ached and my foot hurt—see, I have this corn that doesn’t work well in my cycling shoes and I’m too much of a lazy miser to get another pair— and of course the quads and triceps hurt from output, but I didn’t care, all I cared about was keeping my wheels weighted for traction and pulling myself up those hills, it’s that sensation some call pain that only a bike rider gets to experience. Lucky us, hey? Someone yelled at me, “Way to kill it!” and without thinking I said back in jest, “Ya gotta kill it till it kills you.” Maybe that was just a bullshit response, but it made me realize how scared I had been about blowing myself up on a ride or race. Conserve and pace… but fuck it, at some point you just gotta roman candle yourself up a hill until it blows back at you or you just fizzle out. At least your blow-up is productive that way.

Oh, and something cool. The entire weekend was full of positivity and authenticity. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I did not hear one derogatory or insulting word about anything from anyone. To be honest, this was the first bike event where I heard nothing offensive or objectifying about women. It’s inspiring to watch this change happen in real-time, and uplifting to see organizations like MBOSC offer the circumstance to support the positive shift with such challenging races and fun events.

Not quite back to the real world and still deep into thinking I was so far away from the end of the race, I saw someone holding what looked to be a cold beer. With no idea about how close I was to the end, and even though I had been poisoned in the woods before (grabbing Whiskey thinking it was water just before getting blown out on the trail) that cold beer looked so tempting, and never having been good at resisting peer pressure, I cracked it and holy damn, Will Ferrell is so right, ONCE IT HITS YOUR LIPS. I drank what I could, then ripped up the climb thinking, I just have to go this hard until I’m out of eyesight because holy fucking hell this time I know it’s an unsustainable pace. And then I saw Amanda and Scott emerge along the trail, cheering, and I felt like Dorothy yelling, “And, you were the Tin Man!” as reality began to settle. Then the hill crested and as I prepared for another trail descent I hit asphalt and asked the course marshals, “Is it paved the rest of the way?” And they gave me this look that could have meant anything from, “You idiot, the race is over” to “You idiot, you have a gnarly 10 miles of single track ahead of you.” It was the former.

And then it was over.

But it wasn’t because the event went on! And there were showers!  I rolled back into the quiet hum of my tree-bound camp, took a beat to meet their gaze again, then headed back into the event and was met with so many familiar faces of friends. We shared stories of the ride and laughed about stupidly hilarious things that make the world just a little more fun.

Thank you MBOSC for putting on this race and providing an opportunity to gather crazy bike people into these worlds of friendship, two-wheeled triumphs over tribulations and just laughter and smiles. These races make you feel like you’re a part of a meaningful piece of our culture that knows some secret that mere pedestrians may not experience. Bikes are rad, MBOSC did an amazing job, this state park hosts magic and was the first state park to exist, and thank god for people who channel their tenacity outside of the bike and channel it into things like saving and preserving these sacred places.


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