The Final Stage: too good to go unread. - Lizard Head Cycling Guides
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The Final Stage: too good to go unread.

Valley of the Gods

Words by Matt Muldoon

Five days later, it was the eve of the final stage of our tour- 107 miles.  Up to this point, we’d been blessed with cool but clear weather.  Now the forecast had turned ugly.  As we sat together breaking bread, there were murmurings of doubt among some of us.  Do we really want to ride in a storm?
John, sensing the concern, set his lips in motion. Addressing the group, he said that bad weather makes for the most memorable experiences; that if we’d rise to the occasion and overcome the elements, we’d be rewarded for our efforts in a way that can’t be otherwise attained.

I was one of the doubters.  I get cold easily, and once I reach a critical point, I can’t be thawed through conventional means.  Sometimes my hands get so cold it’s like trying to operate the shifters with frozen bratwursts.

Still, having ridden every mile to this point, to bail now would be a shame.  I’d wait for morning to check the conditions and decide then whether or not to abort the mission.


6AM- I look out the window.   It’s dark.  The reflections of hotel lights glimmer on the wet, shiny surface of the parking lot.  Guides Joe and Nicole are out there, preparing a hearty breakfast for us under a pop-up rain shelter.  Most of the troops are huddled around them, filling their tanks for the journey ahead.  Their determination inspires me.  What the heck, how often do I get to ride in a desert in a thunderstorm?  At least I’ll have good company- most of my tour-mates have opted to brave the elements.

We ride away from Monument Valley in intermittent sprinkles.  It’s not all that bad, and for our efforts, we’re treated to the sight of lightning bolts striking the buttes and mesas, beams of dazzling light bursting through holes in the clouds, vivid rainbows and atmospheric vistas.   We’re backtracking a portion of the previous day’s ride, and yet everything looks entirely different.

At Mexican Hat, Utah, about 25 miles into the ride, we encounter our first real downpour- rain, followed by hale, followed by rain.  The storm cell is a fast mover, and the whole thing lasts just a few minutes.  Nicole parks the Lizard Head van to check on us, and notes that all are in good spirits.  I’m damp but warm, like a host organism culturing a yeast infection.

36 miles into the ride, the rolling profile of Highway 261 is interrupted by the side of a towering mesa.  The three miles of switchbacks that climb 1000 feet up its side are the Moki Dugway, the name a derivation of the original Native American appellation, “Soaky Mud Spray”.   Highway engineers decided that paving this steep, narrow road was a bad idea.  After all, the rest of the highway is nicely paved, how about a change of pace on the side of a cliff?  You know, just to add some excitement.  In spite of the rain, the dirt road is navigable even with our skinny road tires.

At about 60 miles we gather for lunch, which as always, is excellent.  For the past couple of hours, we’ve been riding under partly cloudy skies.  Dark, threatening storm cells slide by in the distance.  Hopefully we’ll manage to stay out of their way.  Some riders who opted for a van ride over the Moki Dugway remount their bikes and resume their journey.

At about 70 miles, my bike decides it has had enough of memorable experiences, and goes on strike.  Apparently it is sentient.  Tour-mate Don kindly offers to let me use his bike.  He is an orthopedic surgeon/national champion pursuit team rider who prefers napping in the van to riding in the weather, so he doesn’t need it.  Equipped an aero-shaped frame, tuck-bars, 3-spoke carbon wheels, itty-bitty sew-ups, and a seat that looks a jawbone borrowed from a pygmy skull, it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.  It’s more like his carving knife.  As I push off into the gusty, erratic winds, I understand how the men of the Powell Expedition felt trying to maneuver their Whitehall boats through the rapids of the Colorado River.  This thing could really use some ballast.  Would Don mind if I poked a hole in the frame and filled it with sand?  I decide against it.

Once I’m out of the crosswinds, though, Don’s bike really scoots, and I’m off the front, alone.  Here I encounter the most intense storm cell of the day.  First the wind hits me head-on.  I’m making maybe 5 mph going downhill.  Hail, flying sideways, is derma-braiding my face.  Hey, free cosmetic surgery!  (Note to self: cancel appointment with plastic surgeon).  Then the wind swings around to the side and I quickly decide to get off the bike before we both land in Oz.  I take shelter on the leeward side a tree and hope the cell will pass away before I do.  Passing time by watching miniature drifts of hail form on the windward side of bushes and rocks, I take stock of my situation.  I’m wet, cold, alone, and about 25 miles from the finish.  Perhaps it’s time to call it a day.  I look hopefully down the road for the Lizard Head sag wagon.

The storm cell blows by quickly, and as it does, it takes my enthusiasm with it.  Its intensity was both startling and sobering.  Back on the bike, I’m weaving down the road, wondering what the hell I’m doing here.  My wife,Joanne, a non-cyclist, pulls alongside in her rental car.  She says we’re all nuts, and for once, I agree with her.  Dispirited, I take shelter in her car, awaiting the van so I can return Don’s bike to him.  Game over.

That’s when tour-mate Jay rides by.  Last night at dinner, it was observed that Jay is always smiling.  And so he is now, a big grin on his face, as if riding through hail storms was the most fun a guy could have.  (He would later remark that he was having a religious experience).  The Lizard Head van arrives and drops off Leslie, who also wants to get in on the fun.

Once again, I am inspired by my tour-mates.  If they can do it, what’s my problem?  How can I quit now, so close to the finish?  Looking down Fry canyon, I am buoyed by the sight of patches of blue sky and sunlight glinting off distant canyon walls.  I resolve to finish what I started.  I pull on a dry pair of gloves and get out of the car.  Joanne says, “If you get hit by lightning, I want to see it!”  She follows me in the car so she won’t miss it, camera at the ready.

The weather stays relatively benign, and Don’s bike makes quick work of the remaining miles.  I cross the Colorado River and pull into the finish area, shouting “Yo Adrian!  I did it!”  I’m like, so stoked, dude, that I don’t even feel tired.  Through the example of their spirit and determination, my tour-mates got me going and kept me going, and I’m so glad they did.  As they roll in, we celebrate each one’s arrival with high-fives, cheers, beer and food.  Wow-what a day!

John told us that if his lips were moving, he was lying.  His lips were moving when he told us the ride would be memorable, which was the truth- which means he wasn’t being truthful when he said if his lips were moving he was lying.  The bottom line is that I’m not lying when I say it was a ride I’ll never forget- and I forget almost everything.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 15th, 2012 at 8:39 pm and is filed under Blog, Featured Posts, Testimonials.
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