Against the Wind (no poker content)

by Lou on April 7, 2008

“Are we having fun yet?” That’s what another rider asked me about 10 miles into the Stagecoach Century, and out-and-back course in the middle of nowhere that began and returned to Ocotillo, an isolated desert enclave about an hour or so east of San Diego, and about 20 miles from El Centro.

“Not until the winds die down,” I said as I took a swig from my water bottle and continued to peddle on, uphill into a 20 to 30 mile per hour wind that was blowing straight at me, though sometimes when the road turned it came at an angle from north-northwest.

I signed up for this ride because it sounded like a great day of riding on isolated roads with only two stop sign for the entire course, and I had aspirations of doing the entire century ride—50 miles out and 50 back, for a total of 100 miles, or at least 60 to 70 miles, depending on how I felt and how the weather was.

The temperature was in the upper 60s early in the morning, so that was not a problem at all. But the wind was another story, and I can’t recall ever riding into that sustained combination of high wind while going uphill. There was no way I was going to ride 100 miles that day. None.

The online promotional material described the Stagecoach Century as a “challenging course,” with the out-bound leg up hill and into a breeze, but the return promised the wind at my back the entire way. To tell you the truth, I’d have preferred having the wind at my back on the way out, to push me up the hills, while allowing gravity to pull me back to Ocotillo on the return leg.

I stayed at the host hotel the night before the ride, so I picked up up my rider number and bag of goodies there. They told me I could start anytime I got to Ocotillo, and that the majority of riders would begin at about 7:30 a.m.

I got out to the course early, just as the sun was coming up. My thought was to get started before the desert winds kicked up. “The wind was blowing all night,” one of the volunteers told me.

But I was there, and there was no reason not to begin riding as early as possible, so I pedaled off into the desert along with a few other early birds, heading north by northwest. Ocotillo is just at the base of mountain passes that separate San Diego from Imperial County, and wind speeds are accelerated as they are sucked through the relatively narrow pass.

You don’t need to know much about physics to realize that it was a windy spot, and the sustained winds abated only occasionally. In any event, they were more than offset by gusts that tore through at a lot higher than 30 mph.

I’m used to windy weather. I live in the Coachella Valley, where we have strong winds too. But if I were home, I would not ride in that sort of gale. I’d have bagged it until later in the day, or like a wuss, skipped riding entirely.

The first rest stop was at the 10 or 12 mile mark, and I briefly stopped there. The porta-potties were weighted down with sand bags to keep them from blowing over—what a story that would have been if they did manage to blow over with someone inside it—but standing inside one, you could feel it shake and rattle in the wind and I was happy to get in and out of there in a hurry.

I found my peddling rhythm on the hills, which weren’t all that steep except for some short sections, but the wind continued to blow, and thay were the story of the day. By the time I reached the second rest stop, at the 25 mile mark, I needed to refill my water bottle, feast on orange slices, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, a Cliff Bar, and I came to the irrevocable realization I wasn’t going one more mile into that wind.

I turned my bike around and headed back to Ocotillo. Now the wind was at my back. I wasn’t eating sand any longer, though I could still feel grit in my teeth. I literally flew back to the starting point, and I’m sure that my return trip marked the fastest 25-miles I’ve ever ridden—though I surely paid the price on the outbound portion of the ride.

Cycling is all about suffering, or so cyclists are fond of saying. I suffered on this ride, and so did everyone else who rode it with me. Despite the winds, the better riders still did 100 miles and probably averaged more than 20-23 miles per hour all told. It took me about four hours to go 50 miles, including time at the rest stops. That’s not really a meaningful average though, because it seemed to take me all morning to traverse the first 25 miles and no time at all on the return leg.

I’ll try to post a picture later in the week. Will I do it again next year? Yeah, Probably. But I’ll get in an early request for calm winds.

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