This climb is pretty civilized, but it’s also 20 miles long. By the time we’re over it, I’m over it: I dump my bike unceremoniously on the rocks and stumble off to stuff my face and drink the view—Lake Tahoe in dreamy blue haze far below.
Sean’s moving my bike out of the way when he notices the headset is loose. After many years of watching my eyes glaze over at the first mention of mechanics, most of these guys would rather fix something for me than watch me make it worse, which suits my version of feminism just fine. Sean tightens the headset and, being both generous and thorough, starts checking the rest of the bike, too.
“Uh, you might to look at this, actually,” he says.
“Don’t care, do whatever,” I reply around the last of my sandwich.
“No, seriously. Do you have a 10?”
One of the pivot bolts has loosened to the point you can see daylight between pieces of the frame. To fix it takes a tool nobody’s carrying, so I face the prospect of a long, baby-head-strewn descent on a bike coming apart at the seams—or on foot.
I’m cry-laughing at my options when a pair of riders appears over the hill behind us—the only other people we’ve seen on the trail all day. After a suspenseful few moments of rummaging through his pack, one of them presents Sean with a 10 millimeter Allen wrench.
I will end the season with my trail karma deep in the red.
I thought sea level might help, but—apart from dropping things out of my pockets—I’m having all the same problems I did at Lost and Found. It’s a beautiful day and the course is a treat, but with a number on I just want to get it over with.
Being not especially athletic, my best strategy for doing this involves spinning slowly up climbs, then riding the descents at a speed at which I can’t actually see anything and a wreck would end in the hospital. Every time I careen past someone fitter than me I hear echos of my former self watching the podiums for my first race, circa 2008.
“It’s not fair,” I’m hissing at my boyfriend, who’s (quite correctly) ignoring me. “She was behind me the whole time and then she just passed me going downhill! Does that even count? It’s just gravity!”
I’m glad, truly, to be better now both at losing and descending. But I still miss those days—back when riding bikes wasn’t cool. From my sample size of two, it appears that organized gravel events are my petty, contrarian hell: something I want to do that the Popular Kids want to do, too.
In the evening the beach is awash in craft beer, peppered with Ibis and Thesis bikes (Ibises? Theses?) posed against driftwood and the sunset for Instagram. In the gentle surf, a pair of yoga-bodied blonde chicks splash naked arm in arm, while various indistinguishable bearded men mill around their string-lit Sprinter vans pretending not to watch. I’ve been trying to study pelicans through my binoculars and now I have to put them down so I don’t look like a creep. I do recall graduating middle school, but I’m so irritated with the whole scene I could spit.
They’re out here, too, though, my Freds, my people. They were the retirees trundling the 60+ miles on un-ironic hybrids; the red-faced couple on a tandem. We don’t speak apart from brief congratulations at the finish, but I decide they’ve dated since high school and met in marching band. I love them as fiercely and unjustifiably as I resent everybody else.
The much-hyped, new-to-us trail is too technical for me: I’m walking more than I’m riding. It’s also bitterly cold, occasionally raining, and, by the time we get back to the car after getting lost and riding in circles for an extra 45 minutes, almost dark.