The call was for 50+mm of rain. High of 16 degrees celsius. The Hastings Highlands Hilly Hundred had epic written all over it, in lipstick. Because epic rides are sweet. Right? Or would epic be smeared all over it? It would be up to us to decide: Rodd, Todd, Andy, and your's truly. We'd lost Jamie, Chris, and Pascal before we'd even left town. A quartet / quadtet / quartetto it would be.
We've all ridden Hastings before. It has crushed most, if not all of us. Three of the four times I'd ridden it, I experienced unique biological breakdowns. The first time, Rodd and I chased a fast group until my legs revolted on Siberia Road, aching in a way theretofore unexperienced. Rodd was ok, I was f-ed. The following year I cramped on the same climb, this time tearing my hamstring. It still isn't normal. Then, we were finally prepared, and there was no drama, except missing the start and chasing for 10k. Then, in 2010, a TTT following Todd's dropped chain had me crack for the first time in memory. A new sensation: utter helplessness. There was no, 'Shut up legs!' I had no legs. That's a lot of drama for one event, and that's just my story. With nothing but rain on the horizon, the stage seemed set of a different kind of epic, the contextual variety. Riding for 6 hours in the rain would have to be epic, no?
Richard Sachs: Epic for me is about food and how riding makes me feel. If I know I can eat anything I want and still be ahead of the game, whether it’s weight or calories or good tan lines. Tan lines become important when summer roles around, you come back and take a shower and you can see the difference in the mirror when you’re naked. These things are important. If I go out and come back feeling like I didn’t earn a donut or a pastry, then what’s the point of riding? So epic comes when you drain yourself so completely, somewhere along the line, that you can start eating whatever you can find. Most people wouldn’t understand that, but cycling is a vain sport.
Ok, so, we there was no sun, so that alone might disqualify Hastings right off the bat. Self-drained? Not necessarily. Eat anything we want? Probably. Inconclusive.
Lets move to the paragraph I wrote for the Rapha NE Gentlemen's Race application, in response to the question, 'THERE ARE “UNSOLVABLE” MATHEMATIC PROBLEMS, THE WORD “EPIC” IS EQUALLY IMPOSSIBLE TO DEFINE. OR IS IT?'
We are talking about different beasts here, but for the sake of argument, no, epic is not impossible to define. The trouble with the term is that it qualifies experience rather and quantifying it. No route is inherently epic, but riders often conflate long/hilly/challenging, with epic. You can’t decide to have an epic day, but you can orchestrate the necessary conditions for an epic ride (or you can simply ride in the rain just above freezing without proper clothing for more than two hours pretty much anywhere; that’ll probably do it). There are not degrees of epic; its binary. The experience of epicness manifests only when riders reach a point in a ride where they sincerely question their ability to make it, push on through their suffering, and upon completion, look back and say, “Man, that was epic.” But the thing is, their buddies don’t have to agree; one man’s epic ride can be another’s ride in the park. No matter how long and hard a ride is, its not epic unless you’ve struggled both physically and emotionally, and reconciled flesh and spirit.
Ok, so this is how I understand epicness. On this construal, 50mm or rain and a lot of climbing over 160k was deninitely NOT necessarliy going to be epic. It could be, but it would depend on how things played out with regard to the other elements in the equation: the other riders, the bikes, cars, and perhaps, beasts.
If torrential rain is imposed on you, you might suffer. At the Rapha Gentlemen's Race, this was the case. We, and perhaps all our fellow competitors, were unprepared. We suffered. But we prevailed, and it felt good. In contrast, if you willingly insert yourself into a situation where rain is already happening, or is surely going to happen, you ought not suffer. There is no reason to be inadequately prepared mentally or technologically. You are either in or you are out. In means you put on some knee warmers, a base layer, a jacket, some embrocation if you've got it, and you ride. That's what we all did, pretty much taking care of the potential to freeze.
Ok, so you can be warm and wet, that is certain. But what is it like to ride in constant rain for hours? Well, it depends. If you are me on Saturday, it is not that bad. If you are, say, Rodd, its sucks. While I was able to comfortably pull for a lot of the time, Rodd was having less of a banner day. 5k into the route I recognized the fast section of highway we were on, and decided it made sense to go fast while we could. After all, who'd want to spend more time in the rain than necessary? So I ramped it up to 40-whatever and held a fast pace for a while. Keeping an eye behind me, one of the guys was right on my wheel, so I kept it up. When I finally pulled out, we were four. When the rest caught on, Rodd reported he was forced to chase, and was non-plussed. Ok, not a great start. Strike two came when Todd, Andy, and I pulled out of the first checkpoint without Rodd attached. Seems we all thought one of the other guys wearing a white jacket was Rodd. Wasn't. Once the speed came up, we held it in the wind for a while, then realized Rodd was missing. He emerged soon enough, but had been chasing hard and was quite unhappy about it. I think we've all been there. Two hard efforts in him, Rodd needed shelter, but he didn't need a face full of water. Too bad, there was no escaping that. Riding off to the side a bit meant taking more wind. Viscious spiral.
After I was done being an asshole, things got steadier and stayed that way. One flat in our group was no hardship, and it was nice to ride with Marc, Will, and Stefan from Ottawa. I don't know the names of the others. They waited a lot to keep our pack together, which really was in everyone's best interest. As always, the checkpoints, food, drinks and volunteers were great.
As I state above, epic is subjective. It is somewhat paradoxical that the better we prepare for the rides we take on, the less likely they are to be epic. Yet, we want epicness. This might explain whay racing is popular. Do we just want to suffer? That might be a little too simple. We want to suffer in a particular way, through a particular sort of space. Perhaps we seek the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness. Maybe this contast helps us dig deeper into our ugliness - self-doubt, insecurity, negativity, disdain - and confront it head on. Maybe we need the awe to remind us that we can be better. Tim Krabbé's beautiful book, The Rider, conveys the inner workings of the racer's mind over the course of a race. Here we get a more than a passing glimpse of the struggle that is invisible to the spectator.
Some sort of suffering seems to be involved wherever epicness manifests. Even if we are talking about a long mountain bike ride that covers huge swaths of trail, unless you are not sure you'll pull it off, it won't be epic. Awesome, probably, Epic, not. That term can only be used to convey the confrontation and triumph of doubt.
Herein lies the allure of cycling. For new riders, preparedness is rarely a reality. A 40k loop on an empty stomach can become a desperate crawl to a dep, or a call home for rescue. A flat tire 20k from home without a tube can become a death march in socked feet. There are so many things to get wrong, so many opportunities to manifest epicness. And in failing to prepare, struggling overcoming, in prevailing, the seeds are sown. This is how we grow to love this thing we call cycling.