The Sierra Buttes Lost & Found 2019: Straight From the Mid-Pack

Introduction: We pinged Erin Lamb to write about her experience at this year’s Lost & Found with John’s experience told through the gallery captions. We’re trying new models for event Reportage, so please let us know what you think in the comments! Enjoy!

I lost my wallet a couple of weeks ago, and I’m not searching to find Jesus. I’m pretty sure the wallet fell out of my purse in a parking lot when I pulled some shit out to throw into the back seat. And, the Jesus thing, just not interested. If you’re looking for a feel-good story about stumbling upon the light, then maybe this isn’t for you. This is more of a coming-of-age gravel riding tale dispatched straight from a middle of the pack 65-miler on the Sierra Buttes’ Lost & Found.

I went back to the parking attendant office the next morning to start the search.

“Yo, I dropped my wallet in this lot yesterday.”

“That sucks. How does it look?”

“It’s one of those cloth wallets from the 90’s, grey, Windsurfing Hawaii logo. An ID and some cards with my name on it inside. Forty bucks.” It was a thin wallet that easily fit into my jersey pocket. Plus, I was storing my Sketchy Trails sticker inside. I really wanted it back.

“Let me check the lost and found.”

All of a sudden, anxiety pumped through my system and I stopping caring about my wallet. Lost and Found. Shit, that race is coming up. Fuck, I haven’t been training. Fuck, it’s an eight or nine-hour drive. It’s raining, it’s been snowing, and I sprained my finger  giving some rocks a high-five last week and my gravel bike—an S&S coupled steel Rock Lobster painted in RAL5024 inspired by a combination of Graffiti and Paul Saddoff’s encyclopedic memory that I designed back in my roadie days when I was a hardcore purist and still foreign to the dirt— has cantilever operated brakes. I’m already getting race anxiety for this adventure. Should I bring my little xc bike instead? What bike should I bring? What bike should I bring.

Tara and the Author, Erin Lamb post-race!

That age-old question of gravel racing rings through my head, dampening the stress of the current situation, the lost wallet issue I was trying to deal with. What bike do I bring?!

“Not here, I’d call the police department if I were you.”

There seemed to be so many hooks I could hang an excuse on, and I was tempted to test all of them.

I had registered for the 65-miles back in February with a friend, and now am searching for an acceptable excuse to bow out. Bullshit, right? But, who hasn’t summed all of the negative possibilities leading up to an event? Law of superposition states that all those negative “what ifs” will add down to create this ominous trough of a how-the-hell-did-I-end-up-in-here? type situation.  Let those snowball so bad gives the okay-to-bail that keeps you get through a day as if everything is normal… as if you hadn’t just realized Lost and Found was a week and a half away and you’d only ridden your bike thirty miles or less for the past six months. Maybe the only real excuse was that you’re scared of failing something that is supposed to be fun. Maybe that’s just me, who knows.

I bailed, and then had that come-to-Jesus moment that had me anti-bail, lip up and go ride my bike. And, if you cared, I never found my wallet.

And, because I know most of you care, I brought the Rock Lobster, I love that bike. Good decision, right? My friend and I decided to bring the same type of bike—she brought a Surly with bar end shifters—and ride this adventure ride as if it were an epic, rolling over the start and finish lines at exactly the same time. Without any conception of what the course was like or how long it would take us, we made the ultimate buddy-system pact.

Time to go get lost in the true mountains, the only place where you can find anything good.

6:13 AM roll out of the driveway felt pretty damn punctual after calling a 6AM go time.

The bluegrass with mellow base beats counted the oak trees that punctuated the golden fields of central California farmland, matching the slightly southern midwestern ambience the race weekend would soon assume.

Those oil rigs that appear on the right of the 101 highway somewhere in between SLO and Santa Cruz broke that Zen mode required to get through a nine-hour drive without developing a twitch. Each oil-sucking ant in that pasture of iron skeletons sequentially winked at us with each incessant bow as if to say, “Look me in the eye, this is what it looks like. This is what your world runs on.”  I hypocritically hit the accelerator just a little harder to get back into those rolling hills that accommodate the Zen state. Looking back, maybe it is important to stare at these uncomfort zones long and hard enough to want to get involved with change.

Pretty soon the road met the California Aqueduct, showcasing innocent water getting channeled to places it wasn’t meant to go and over-salinated along the way.  Out of nowhere, a tiny jet soared over the highway and then swept over a farm field spraying white powder on the agriculture. Helplessly watching what taints our health and underlies the unnecessary agricultural practices that release buckets of carbon dioxide into the environment drives the type of insanity that makes strategic anarchism kinda start to make sense. God, so much is so wrong even though we collectively have enough information to manifest what’s right.

Back to bikes and epiphanies.

5:20PM we roll over some little Sierra Nevada buckbrush and enter our campsite by the river and next to some strangers who soon become friends. A Calfee guy walks over and scrutinizes my Rock Lobster. Still a little nervous about my bike choice, I say, “What do you admire and what do you find flawed about my bike?” Thinking mainly about my regret of building it with canti instead of disc.

“Flawed? About a Rock Lobster? This is a true piece of art. Clean and pure. Timeless.”

At that moment I realized that we were all here because of our love for bikes and the appreciation for joining the collective endeavor of riding through phases of beauty, pain, excitement, and self-doubt.

Wandering around camp to check out the scene and to paint a mental map of the bathrooms, we run into the Radavist himself. John Watson, the environmental anarchist at heart who uses bikes as a medium to spread ideas founded in goodness and gumption, the fast-friend who nicks ya in the ass with a BB gun in between taking shots at drones in state parks, the North Carolinian with enough Southern hospitality to sauté up dinner for whoever is in the vicinity of his campsite. Yeah, we ran into him, and over the tea he made for us we got a tour of his car’s latest additions—a solar panel that charged a fridge, and this amber light strip across the top of the windshield.

“When I drive with these on, as soon as I turn them off the world is bathed in this purple hue.” He turned it on, I was staring right at it. Blinded, I look away just to stare at a row of twenty-eight tiny purple dots in the sky for the next ten minutes. Found some kinda blazing light.

Race day morning promised sunshine and tack. Woke up, rolled out of my far-from-curated car and made coffee. I love that rich dark stuff that most coffee snobs refer to as hosting an unpleasant “burnt” flavor. It gets the job done if ya know what I mean.  I pumped out four Aero Press cups, rode to the strategized toilet before riding the caffeine high through the morning of getting ready for the immanent adventure into so many unknowns: first gravel race, blind to the course—elevation and route— precarious weather conditions, no purposeful training, whatever was left of sealant tires after filling them up with a gas station air compressor in the Eastern Sierras a year earlier, etc. All I knew is that I had a buddy with me, and we were in it together.

I was soon to realize, we were all in it together. Most people sign up for these things looking for camaraderie and personal achievement, to find the wonder in the true mountains. Artifact of my road racing days was this egotistical fear of others’ expectations and judgments. Along the way, I saw that people don’t really judge and care about performance, but people do care if you make them laugh, smile and want to keep pedaling. People do care that you’re true to your word.

Right before the race, I had to visit the crapper again, and this time the port-a-potty was chockablock full of shit. Fuller than I’d ever seen before. Frighteningly full doesn’t do what I saw justice in terms of chunky excrement and dead trees soaked in piss. It was so bad that I had to genuflect and recite a couple Hail Mary’s before squatting. Getting that second poop in before the start went off was totally worth it. Someone, up there was watching because zero splashes back nipped neither my exposed underside nor my chamois. Praise the lord.

The gun goes off! It was crowded, there’s a lot of people out here! Prior to the neutral start, the race was casual. My buddy and I stuck together and rolled over the start timing pad at the same time before turning right onto the gravel.

THAT CRUNCH, that crunch, the sound, the subtle vibration of a tacky dirt road finally graced our souls. A frenetic scramble overtook the crowd and we agreed to pace ourselves. The goal: ride like a T’ai Chi sensei and keep steady, retreating with the others’ energies now, only later use it advantageously and pick up steam where many will flounder.

I calmly struggled up the first climb, buried within the eccentric peloton. Maybe I’m getting too into this T’ai Chi mindset, but the crowd became a Chinese parade dragon strung together, snaking up the switchbacks at bitchy-pitch grades of the climb as one. Woah, cheese alert!

The course was a perfect blend of mostly tacky dirt, loose gravel that didn’t buck up as dust when assaulted by knobby tires, and enough mud patches to call up echoes of Belgium cross race sagas I’d only been regaled with, never having raced cross myself. Each rough and tough part of the race opened up to incredible vistas of nothing but trees and mountains, not even a powerline in sight.

The terrain started climby, and at the first stop part of me felt content and somewhat okay with the idea of making a turn for the 35-mile course… anyone else have these thoughts while racing? But, having signed up for the 65-miler, I didn’t voice this aloud and bring down the vibe and confidence of our concerted goal of finishing it. As we rolled towards the spectacular first descent of the longer course, bypassing the short course turnoff, Hunter whispered into my ear, “You buy the ticket, you take the ride.”

The rest stops became the countdown; those intermittent destinations were easier to swallow, beacons of hope full of familiar faces. At the halfway point, the excitement from being ensconced in wilderness and adrenaline from navigating up and down dirt on a rigid bike started to fade. I wasn’t sure how my body would handle the next half of the race. My back was sore, I’d been pedaling for a respectable three hours, and by that point, I already had to reach over with my right hand to shift into my big ring because of the sprained left finger. The feeling of strength and the “hell yeah” pedal strokes oscillated with that doubtful voice coming from an evil-eyed gremlin that said, “Ya really think you can keep this up for another couple hours?” Riding with a friend, we wordlessly pulled each other out of the transient funks, to the perfectly placed rest stops.  Rolling out of the 30-mile marker aid station brought us to gravel roads winding through farmland and the realization that the climbing was pretty much done for the day. John Denver met us at this point of blissful discovery along with whatever unluckily soul was next to us, as we broke out in unison, “Gravel roads, take us home to the place we belong, Pooooorrotola, blah blah blah blah, take me home oh gravel roads.” That was a quintessential post-rest stop high before that soul-sucking rolling section over the momentum-sucking pine-needles.

Around mile 45, winding through the beginning of a pine forest, three dudes rode by from the 104-mile race and one yelled, “Looking good ladies!” So obnoxious. And, FYI, it feels pretty patronizing, like you’re assuming that it is cool that a woman can be out there pushing strong. Would you say the same to a guy going the same pace looking strong there? Probably not.

“Looking fannnnntastic, men!” I snarkily yell back instead of the “Go fuck yourself” that rolls through my head.

The last rest stop brought back days from North Carolina, where pickle juice was a thing before it was a thing and whiskey survived as the drink of choice only for the old and crusty. Yet, just as crème rises to the top, this pickle juice and whiskey pair are now the trendy staples for gravel riders for the powerful healing powers that motivate a tired mind and uncramp bitching quads held within these golden liquids.

The last stretch of the ride we were still riding together, totally inspired by a huge net loss in elevation from that moment to the finish line and the trusting friendship strengthened by pulling each other through this athletic and mental challenge. Once hitting the pavement, we channeled our inner roadies and hammered to the bitter end. And, just as we had promised, we crossed the finish line at exactly the same time, and surprisingly full of energy.

Sitting back on the lawn in spandex overalls, my favorite outfit, cheersing ciders and slamming delicious food into our mouths to the live music blasting country twang under what felt like a Midwestern sky, epiphanies sank in. I caught a glimpse of the beauty that gravel surfaces— that sense of ability on limitless terrain, the adrenaline, the fun, friends and this eclectic community of like-minded bike nuts that come with it.

Follow Erin C. Lamb on Instagram!

If you see a photo of yourself from the event, feel free to download it from the Dropbox! See the 60-mile course on Strava.