My first Saturday morning in the Eastern Sierra began as a delivery of all that had been promised.
This past August 19 may have been Pedalpalooza 2023 to some—a yearly, 50k bike race sponsored by Sierra Eastside Mountain Bike Association, or SEMBA—but to an Easterner like me, the early drive that day up Minaret Road to the starting line was like stepping into Oz. The Mill, both head and foot of the race, was fenced on all sides by towering, emerald conifers. Emerging from the hatchbacks of Subarus and Wranglers were jersey-wearing, smiling folk of all ages. Each one fitter than the last. All holding Yeti tumblers and tire pumps like the talismans of utopia. I wondered—Could these gadgets scrub my proverbial tin clean? Stuff my straw back into its rightful place? With enough tinkering from these magical objects, would I at last become what every Easterner dreams of becoming—a Westerner?
I parked my car down a distance from the rest of the pack. Footloose Sports had kindly obliged my boss’s request to rent me out a bike for the event as it would make for, what said boss promised would be, “a hilarious story.” I was to ride “sweep” with Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun—something of a safety precaution in the cycling world, where you stay behind the slowest biker to ensure that no one gets left behind. And really, how hard could that be?
So, to avoid shaking the confidence of Sheriff Braun or any Footloose employees who happened to be at the race that morning, I hid myself from view. I removed the bike from my car where, absent of a bike rack, it had been stuffed into the trunk, wheel over handles.
I walked my bike over to what seemed like a congenial bunch—all of them flannel-clad and directing a fleet of bikes off the back of their trailer like head of cattle.
I’ve never mountain biked before. When my boss told me the course was single track, I asked, “What’s that?”
They introduced themselves as members of the Santa Clarita Valley Composite Team—a group that regularly races for the NICA league, but travels to venues, such as Mammoth, to train in the off-season.
“We brought up the more advanced kids, today,” said Skip Fairlee of Eugene, Oregon. “It’s a super technical, rocky course. We practice a lot of that stuff at home, so it suits their riding style.”
“A few of the kids finished the Leadville 100 last week,” offered Scott Steele, a native of Santa Clarita.
Skip informed me that the Pedalpalooza course—while typically a 30-mile loop—had been reinvented into a 10-mile “lapper” due to snow on top of the mountain.
Further conversation revealed that sons, Kash Steele and Dane Fairlee, were favored contenders of the race.
I said I hadn’t really ridden a mountain bike before. But I wasn’t too worried, I told them. I was only riding sweep.
Scott and Skip exchanged worried, but—out of kindness—hurried glances.
“Well, there’s a race tradition, you know,” said Skip. “You’re supposed to call SWEEEEP when the last rider goes by.”
“And if you need water,” offered Scott, “We’ll be the guys screaming BOTTLE, BOTTLE, BOTTLE.”
Skip’s and Scott’s departing words were the bode of false confidence that I needed. And, I was hopped up on enough caffeine and adrenaline to animate a sea sponge. So I strapped on my helmet and met Sheriff Braun at the starting line.
The sheriff offered me a smile as we mounted our bikes. She informed me that, to fulfill our duty as sweeps, we only had to complete one lap of the course before another sweep would take over. Then, she added:
“I have to stay with the slowest biker. If you fall behind, I have to keep going.”
A sobering thought, no doubt.
But looking around at the encouraging faces of racers’ families, the camaraderie between the bikers anticipating the blare of the starting horn, and all of them, beneath blue skies and green pines—I saw the West in technicolor. I was ready for this race—this assurance of physical accomplishment—that would mark my mountain town indoctrination. I was feeling good. This would be a story devoid of hilarity. It would be an epic of determination. I would be the not-so-Wunderkind of American cycling—a Lance Armstrong type, before he discovered the magic of intravenous injection.
And then came the horn. Then came the whir of a thousand spokes.
Sure enough, for the first 700 feet or so (uphill, mind you) I stayed feeling good. I was making idle chit chat with Sheriff Braun, even, albeit punctuated by shallow breathing.
It was when the Sheriff rightly suggested I switch gears that everything went to hell. I shifted down—way down. I pedaled, and pedaled some more. I couldn’t move the bike forward to save my life. I scrambled desperately to shift back up, but to no avail. In fact, I only kept shifting further down. I didn’t know this bike from Adam. I didn’t really know any bike, come to think of it.
I turned to implore the Sheriff about the gear-situation. But by then, she was long gone.
It was about five minutes—ages in race time, as I would come to find out—and a good deal of uphill walking before I figured out how to shift the chain back into a higher gear. By then, I had lost the pack entirely. As it turns out, raw determination only gets you so far. Cardiovascular endurance gets you a whole lot farther.
But I soldiered on with my Eastern resolve (which was, admittedly, dwindling to nil with each passing minute).
By the time I, again, mounted my bike, I had reached an exposed portion of the course—a stretch of single track from which spectators below, at The Mill, had full view. I was horrified. If this was Oz, I was not the intrepid Dorothy. I had been cast as Munchkin #5, ostracized from the Emerald City—a distraction to the main plot at worst, and comedic relief at best. In either case, I was with legs too stout and unskilled as to commandeer the full suspension I had been entrusted with. At this point, I will extend my full apologies to Footloose Sports.
Worst of all, there was no jovial welcome committee to this unfortunate, Munchkinland hellscape —no saucepan-sized lollipops or pint-sized ballet number to cheer me on.
But then, there it was. From below, I heard Skip and Scott at the starting line.
“SWEEEEEEP” they called. “BOTTLE, BOTTLE, BOTTLE.”
I knew, then, that I had to keep going. I dodged upturned roots. Jagged rocks with insidious intent. I breathed in through the nose, and out from the mouth. I kept calm for another few miles before I reached a fork in the course. Unfortunately, there were still no chubby Munchkin fingers to point me back in the direction of that oh-so-illusive yellow brick bike path. And this, as it turned out, was not so good. There were identical mountains in every direction. I was not in Massachusetts anymore.
I looked around for some sort of trail marker. I kept an ear to the ground for the sound of spinning wheels. A few moments later, I could have sworn I saw the blur of a pink jersey through the trees. Even now, after the fact, I cannot be sure if the promise of that jersey was anything more than mirage. I was getting tired. I thought of Dorothy in her field of poppies—mistakenly but gratefully succumbing to her opium-induced sleep. The situation was dire. With no Sheriff Braun in sight, I followed the jersey.
I spent another 2 miles, weaving in and out of birch trees and my own near-hallucinations, before I heard the soothing stylings of Tyler Childers, and that fine sound of sliding metal—the pull of a beer tap. Salvation was beyond the corner. Surely, I would finish last. But so what? I’d finished the lap.
For a brief moment, I was on top of the world. That is, until the race announcer informed the crowd that Caleb Smith of the Pro Men’s category (the eventual winner) was, at minute 42, rounding out his first lap of the race. I had completed the lap in a hot 31. At least some of it, anyway.
I waited it out, at a safe distance behind The Mill’s patio. When at last, enough cyclists had rounded out Lap 1, and there was sufficient commotion to distract the onlookers, I slinked back to my car. Careful to avoid Sheriff Braun. Careful to avoid Scott and Skip. Careful to avoid the community that I had been a part of for less than 72 hours, and already, was ashamed to face. I was no match for the big and powerful West, nor the thick-muscled hearts of those who lived there, conceived and grown at 8,000 feet.
But after a good bit of self-pitying in the The Mill parking lot, I came to the same realization that has bolstered my fellow Bostonians for centuries—only a few hundred feet away, back at the event, there was an opportunity for daytime drinking.
I went to the bar and got a beer. I heard two girls beyond the lip of the patio. Laughing and talking, despite their breathing, which was shallow like mine—the difference being that they had actually finished the race. I introduced myself as a reporter from The Sheet, short-lived truth though it may be. They introduced themselves as Keelan Nygren and Brooke Davis—highschoolers from the Newbury Park and Conejo Composite teams, respectively, who had competed in the Sport category of the race.
“I bike more recreationally, and I’m not very competitive,” 15-year-old Davis told me. “But I love this course for the give and get. You get a lot of uphill, but that means you also get a lot of downhill, which is less stressful. It’s really solid riding.”
As for Nygren, she was happy to have gotten the chance to enter a race with her mom. The 16-year-old was especially glad to compete this year, after sitting out Pedalpalooza 2022 with a broken wrist. And the worst part of the race for Nygren and Davis? They had forgotten to start their Stravas at the start of the course. It was only after our interview that I learned the two girls had podiumed—Nygren came in second, and David in third. It hadn’t come up in conversation.
After that, I watched the awards given out for each category within the race. I watched the congratulatory handshakes offered by Sheriff Braun to category winners. The earned metals of hyper-fast parents placed on their children’s shoulders.
Even the 17-year-old, Caleb Smith—winner of both the Men’s Pro Class and the Men’s U18 Fast Lap—was ever-the-humble competitor. Far more interested in debriefing the course with his UCI buddies than in any prize money or top-of-the-podium photo op.
And at the risk of sounding didactic, I will leave you with this post-Pedalpalooza 2023…
Community comes in unsuspecting places. Knock back a beer, or two, if a beer is what you’ve earned. Don’t forget to start your Strava. In no un-simplecertain terms, finish the bike ride if you must. And if you can’t, there’s a shortcut beneath one of the lifts. You just didn’t hear it from me.