by Corey W. Hilliard
I am a bike messenger from Philadelphia. I compete in alleycats, underground bike messenger races in every city where there are bike messengers. Alleycats are more complex than other types of bike races where one follows a specific course from start to finish. They require racers to plan routes to checkpoints along city streets, through parks and alleys along the way to the finish. None are sanctioned by any national governing cycling association. There are rarely any notices in major magazines or newspapers for the purposes of publicity or notoriety. There is no insurance for accidents or support for damaged bikes. No major financial endorsments for victories. The racing, for the competitors, is purely for the love of bikes.
I decided early on in the process of Joel Metz's idea, The RAID, that I would do the race and send the $20 to register. The purpose was to put on an event that would get messengers from around the world to hang out in San Francisco, California, race to Portland, Oregon, spend a few days there then go on to the World Cycle Messenger Championships in Seattle, Washington. I had tons of time to save up airfare and train to win. I think there's a phrase which begins "the best laid plans...."
Being the owner/dispatcher of Vespid, a bike courier company in Philadelphia, leaves little time for anything else in life so my training regimen went out of the window. No miles of hi speed cutting through traffic. No miles of long slow distance in the suburbs of Philly. Sit and dispatch. The company has been growing, requiring me to do more stuff in the office and spend less time on the bike. Training came in spurts. As the race date got closer, things began to get very busy and I did almost no training at all.
Needing to do all of the paper work and billing for Vespid before I left, I stayed up all of Friday night typing and packing. It didn't help the situation any with my buddies at Drive Sports taking four hours to build and install a front wheel generator light AFTER the shop closed. I wound up leaving the shop at 10 PM. The parts for my bike I ordered a month or so in advance came only two or three days before I was to leave.
My flight left at 8 am the next morning, so immediately after packing my bike and clothes I took a cab to the airport. I left Philly without getting any sleep.
The flight was uneventful. Up in air down in Chicago, up in air down in San Francisco. The newest thing I saw with American Airlines was the in-flight service. Rather than flight attendants serving food, passengers were told to take a snack bag from the cooler before boarding the plane. It makes me want to upgrade to first class next time.
I took a cab to see my old biking buddy from Philly, Frank Mattei. Everything was cool until the cab started to struggle up the steep inclines. I then remembered that I am not the best, nor intermediate of climbers and these hills were ridiculously steep.
After dropping off my stuff at Frank’s place, I went around the corner to the Crowbar late Saturday afternoon just as the local alleycat was finishing. Proving my courier prowess, I began to drink whiskey and beer- I am a hard-core bike messenger racer, not a Tour de France contender. I saw R.E.Load Ellie and Justin, couriers from Philly who moved out west. Although I was to do an ultra-marathon bike race in two days I damn near closed the bar. I still hadn't slept properly in two or three days.
Sunday was spent sobering up. I was supposed to do the “Mountain Lion” alleycat, a messenger race up five of the highest hills in San Fran. If I was to race all along the mountainous coast of California, I needed to sweat the booze out of my blood and get the blood flowing into my legs. I opened my bike box and found my rear wheel, the bulb for the new light that took four hours to install were broken and my new handlebar tape was ripped. (The handlebar tape may seem like a small thing, but I usually wait until the tape is thoroughly unraveled ripped and torn from overuse before getting a replacement roll. I didn't get to ride any miles with fresh tape!) I found a little note at the bottom of the box: In an effort to ensure the safety of the passengers and crew, the Transportation Safety A(ssholes) will inspect all luggage items on the plane. Luckily, Frank knew Mike DeLuca the owner of DD Cycles who was in the shop the day before Labor Day. Otherwise I would have been screwed. I stayed at my buddy Frank's place in SF until the RAID started. It was cool to hang out in a new city, explore and eat the spiciest Indian food ever with an old friend. If you ever come across fried spinach, get it. It's extremely good.
Everyone was to meet at the Golden Gate Park on Monday morning Labor Day 2003 for the start. Trying to avoid as many hills as possible on the way to the start, I got lost. I wound up going an extra two miles up two stupidly steep climbs. I knew while climbing those hills I was going to have a rough time during the race.
There were only twenty starters. I was expecting a much larger group of racers. Our bikes were inspected for lights and cyclometers. The lights were for safety, the cyclometers to ensure everyone really rode the entire distance. Our instructions were go to a house on 23rd street in Portland. Along the way in every 150 mile “zone”, we were to get a reciept from a store, copy the name of the town and mileage on our race sheet, turning everything in upon arrival in Portland. We all rode off into the fog across the Golden Gate Bridge. The mist was intense, clouding my visions of the trip several times a day for the next few days.
The group split up at the bottom of the bridge. Joel the organizer told us in an informal speech that we’re on our own and were to have our own route to Portland. Food, water, repairs for mechanical failures were the responsibility of each individual racer. If finishing in Portland was not possible, we were call ahead so no one would be expecting another finisher. I was in the lead for a while until I missed the road for Route 1, the coastal way north. I had get directions from a woman biker in tight pants who I flirted with as I passed earlier. I almost wanted to stop racing to hang out with her. I probably missed the turn for Route 1 checking her out the first time I passed her. I began riding BACK the way I had just ridden until I saw Joel and a few other RAIDers. I figured they knew the area and were going the same way, so I followed them. We went back and forth on little roads near Route 101, the inland route. I was in the lead of the inland group for a while because everyone either stopped for food or mechanical problems. Around 4pm I stopped at a hotel to sleep for 8 hours. I was worried because I thought I could ride most of the whole 750-800 miles in one shot, but only went 80 miles before conking out. I failed to realize carrying food, clothes and tools for the trip would slow me down dramatically.
I left the hotel at midnight, leaving the complimentary bottle of wine and rode through the Sonoma county vineyards. Luckily, I chatted with the woman at the front desk and she gave me a map of the local roads. I kept in mind as I began to ride through the darkness how Joel, a native of the area, said it was illegal to ride on certain sections of Route 101. “If taking back roads, remember to stay close to Route 101.” Many of the roads near the vineyards were unlit, making it difficult to determine which road to take when it forked. Several times I had to stop and backtrack because I had come to a dead end or just had a hunch that the road wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go. Eventually I grew tired of guessing about local roads and jumped on the main highway. I followed the white line on the side of the road dimly lit by my low wattage generator light. I almost took exits off of the main road in the dark as I let my mind drift into a hypnotic trance staring at the line. I rode until sunrise taking care not to get lost in a strange place under strange circumstances in the dark all alone wearing spandex....
When the sun finally came up I stopped at a mini mart/gas station for food, water and coffee. When I came out I called Philly to check on Vespid. As I was talking I saw Eric "Sharky" Young, the only other racer from Philly coming down the road like a mirage. There was no way I was going to let anyone from Timecycle, another Philly messenger company, beat me. I had to end my break and jump back on the bike. We rode together for several miles. I stopped for water and let him continue onward.
The heat and the long hours in the saddle were beginning to take their toll. I needed to stop at the first hotel I could find. Access to the hotel, according to the sign I read AFTER getting off of the highway, consisted of taking a local road paralled to Route 101 for 6 miles. Six miles! I got off of the exit because I wanted to stop right at that moment.
I arrived at the motel mid-afternoon, somewhere in Humbolt County on the Avenue of the Giants (Redwoods). I took a nap in my un-airconditioned room. It had a ceiling fan circulating the air, but didn't make the room any cooler. I woke up from sleep hot and nauseous. I thought I had eaten some bad food from a little store where I stopped earlier in the day. I still had half of a questionable sandwich in my bag, but ate it anyway. I needed all of the calories I could get for the rest of the journey. I slept on floor in the bathroom where it was cooler. I stayed for only 8 hours again.
When I left the hotel at 10pm the woman at the front desk told me it would be dark when I left. Damn if it wasn't dark as pitch and very spooky. It was a good thing my newly repaired light worked well. The giant trees blocked out the moon, stars and any other sources of light for miles around.
I left the motel with only full water bottles for fuel. I was hoping to find a store soon after getting on the highway. For 2-3 hours I rode in the pitch darkess over mountains on roads with very few cars wondering if I would ever find food. Everything was looming mountains, giant trees, big sky and isolation. As I got closer to each mountain, I scanned the night time horizon for sources of light that would give way to civilization and food. I was riding no longer for first place, but out of desparation and hunger.
I eventually found a mini-mart, loading up on food and drinks. After eating frantically, I learned an important fact about the human body: after you eat all of your body’s energy focuses on digestion. I became cold immediately and had to ride harder to stay warm. A few hours down the road my backpack was beginning to be uncomfortable. I had too much stuff. I pulled over and left two full liter bottles of water on the side of the road. I am totally against littering, but rationalized it by saying either hitchhikers or road workers would drink them because they were unopened. I would find water somewhere else, but wasn’t going to haul that much weight on my back any more.
Riding at night was great because the roads were clear of traffic and the temperature was cooler. The only drawbacks were the "noises" coming from the bushes on the side of the road as I passed. I will never know what they were, nor did I stop to investigate. At one point during the night I passed a slaughter house and heard the most haunting cows mooing. I was hoping to experience the hallucinations that usually accompany long distance riding, but the adrenaline from fear kept everything real. Later that same night, I heard the barking of the seals as Route 101 moved closer to the ocean.
I rode all night into the thick foggy morning until 8 am. I passed a herd of elk. There were two big ones along the side of the road. I pulled out my camera and took a picture of them as I rode. I was still racing so I didn’t want to get too lost in the natural beauty of the national park. Half a mile later, I came across I sign: Danger Wild Elk, Do Not Approach On Foot!
By this time I was very tired and miles from any town, so I had to sit on the side of the road in the Redwood Forest National Park for half an hour. The stark gravity of my situation finally hit me- I was in the middle of nowhere and as much as I love bikes I had no desire to ride. I didn’t want to race any longer. Realizing I had to do something other than be raven bait on the side of road, I got up and walked for two or three miles up the next hill because my butt, back and legs hurt.
At the top of the mountain, I rode slowly hoping to find a town with a hotel soon only finding a diner and an RV park after coming over another mountain. I stopped at Sis' Kitchen for the hungry man breakfast. An inner tube wrapped around the frame and front wheel cinched together was my homemade bike lock while I ate. Not having a real bike lock made me a little nervous about leaving my bicycle outside. "Sis" was an old woman with big glasses and a deep frown on her face. She was sweet as pie and wished me well on trip, but I've never seen anyone with a frown so deep set. A few customers even put up a cartoon picture of her as a cat with big glasses- a sour puss.
I dreaded leaving the diner because the waitress told me casually about the "hill" before Crescent City. There would be no motels or places to stay until I hit this little town. I felt bad all over. I also overheard from another customer talking to his buddy from the Recreational Vehicle campsite across the road the possibility of getting caught in a thunderstorm. I tried to stretch for a while to try to ease the pain of sore muscles. I was reluctantly about to abuse myself even more in search of another motel to rest along the way north.
(I knew there would be some tough roads on this trip, but I was not mentally prepared for all of the mountains I crossed. Each and every one of them were difficult or painful to ride.)
Shortly after getting on the road, just by chance I turned around to see 2 racers right behind me! Eric from the day before and Ira, whose house was the finish line in Portland. The pain went away because I remembered I was in a race and beating those two. Joking around I accidentally knocked a lens out of my glasses. After fixing them, I took pictures of a giant Paul Bunyon and Babe, the Big Blue Ox while speeding along the foggy road. When I caught up to Eric, Ira had taken off. I decided to pick up the tempo, try to catch Ira and draft off of his wheel. At the base of the mountain, I caught and passed Lyndsey, another racer from Canada. I remember telling him we had to catch Ira and the surprised look on his face that we were attacking each other as if we were in a major stage race. (Lyndsey, I later learned, broke his collarbone in the first 50 miles and still finished 3rd!)
Midway up the mountain Mother Nature called. The two cups of coffee and hearty breakfast were taking effect. I had to stop and strip. My grandmother always told me to carry tissues. I felt bad I didn’t follow her sage wisdom that day. Bib shorts are terrible for longer rest stops! Take off your bag, your jacket, your shirt, and anything else you are wearing on your torso to remove your shorts. Mother nature provided fresh green leaves for the task at hand. I was hoping she liked the area enough not to provide poison ivy. Coming out of the bushes I waved to Lyndsey as he steadily rode up the hill. There was a surprised and confused look on his face: I few minutes earlier I was cruising past him up the side of a mountain and then coming out of the bushes getting dressed later on the same mountain. Afterward I rode for another 40 painful miles thinking I would catch up to those three. I stopped near the Callifornia-Oregon border. Upon later reflection, I should have stopped in Crescent City.
I stayed at The Ship Ashore Motel/RV park on the beach. If I had more time it would have been a great place to explore. The first thing I did after locking the door to my room was taking a long hot bath. There was a restaurant with a bar across the parking lot. I felt a little weird going into the restaurant with a sweat shirt and spandex shorts, but I at least looked normal after I sat down. I ordered the biggest steak dinner they had on the menu, the soup and salad as well as a couple of beers to wash it all down. From my table I could see the RV people and a few locals in another room line dancing. I guess it's fun. Looks kind of silly to me.
At 10pm when it was time for my 8 hour check out, I looked out the window to see the wind picking up and decided to stay the night so I could get more rest. Race be damned. I was literally getting sick of this shit. I left the hotel the next morning at 7 am still sore all over, but probably much better than if I'd left the night before.
The woman at the front desk told me the story of her son, as a young boy on a school trip to see the 60 foot tall Paul Bunyon & Babe the Blue Ox statues. Being young and ignorant of male anatomy, said after looking at Babe the Big Blue Ox's testicles- "Look at those big blue onions". A little humor was just what I needed to ease me into the day.
Not too long after crossing into Oregon, I got to a bridge where there was some road work being done and found out from the crew that there were two guys five minutes up the road and a guy and a girl 15 minutes ahead of them. It felt great, the extra sleep allowed me to be fresher and still in good shape with the other competitors. I rode a little harder knowing it would give me a mental boost to catch someone.
Turned out the 2 guys were not the ones from the day before. Erin and Mike were sitting in front of a mini mart looking just as bad as I felt. Rather than pull over, I pointed at them, laughed and kept going. I wanted to stop, but the sooner I got to Portland the better. 10 miles up the road they caught up to me. We rode together for a couple of hours. They were a team from Chicago.
We stopped at a small place near Bandon Oregon for lunch. I got some food and water and continued. Their plan was to have a sit-down lunch. If I stopped any longer, it would only hurt more to get started again. I told them I was going to stop at Coos Bay to give them less of an incentive to catch me. I rode and rode for what seemed an eternity to get to my day’s destination several miles later, Florence, in central coastal OR. Those damn curvy mountain roads were becoming an annoyingly painful inconvenience! I told myself I would be in a hot bath by 8 pm for inspiration to continue.
My bottom bracket was beginning to show effects of the mileage and moisture by creaking every other pedal stroke. I first suspected my cranks were loose, but after checking and tightening the bolts, I gave up and had to suffer the rest of the trip listening to the painful sound of metal on metal grinding for another 300 miles...
I arrived in Florence crossing the metal bridge of the city limits at sunset. I checked into a hotel across the street from first hotel in town. The name Lighthouse was more appealing than Money Saver. I was sitting in full tub of hot water at 7:55. Nice. I later found out Team Chicago stayed in the Money Saver.
After cleaning up, I put on the spandex shorts and hooded sweatshirt, slowly limping the two blocks to the restaurant. There were lots of cute flirty waitresses. I could barely walk to my table I was in so much pain. I ate lots of fresh crab meat, scallops, shrimp and salmon.
The Last Day. I left hotel at 7:30. I threw away everything except for tools and rain jacket. The really nice stuff I mailed home. If it wasn't absolutely necessary, I wasn't going to carry it. Socks, blinky light, duct tape, writing paper, carabiners, dragon doll, ripped spandex shorts, jerseys, helmet, shoe covers, three inner tubes and plenty of other stuff I can't remember didn't make the trip. Success depended on the vitals only.
It was getting harder to get back onto bike. As I was planning my route the night before, I learned from my Oregon map, purchased in northern California, central inland Oregon is “flat and perfect for seeing Oregon by bicycle”. (I had maps of California and Oregon when I was preparing for the trip, but left them on the table back in Philadelphia.) I immediately decided to go inland where the roads were flat. NO MORE HILLS PLEASE! I was beginning to doubt my ability to make it to Portland. I started to wonder how I would get to Portland if I couldn’t ride. Will power accounts for a lot during a trip like this, but I was in intense pain. Portland was 169 more miles according to the sign at the hotel. That's a long way to go when I feel great. Pure Hell in my condition that morning.
Leaving Route 101 to go inland was a bit of a gamble. There would be fewer stores and places to eat. It is even more of a sparcely populated area if I encountered any problems. I noticed immediately the reduced amount of vehicle traffic, especially the double-load timber trucks. They had been passing me all hours of the night and day for the previous few days.
I saw signs on the side of the road and on people’s lawns urging others to “Say no to the merger”. It was interesting to see so much grassroots angst about the business world in such an isolated rural area. My addled brain could only think about large multi-billion dollar businesses in tall office buildings. Protests against mergers seemed strangely out of place.
I stopped in Low Mountain Pass, a small blip in the middle of nowhere for an hour talking to an Indian/Pakistani man at his grocery store and his burned out old white guy buddy selling Native American stuff on a table. I sat in the shade of the trees on some homemade benches with them resting while eating and drinking all I could cram down my throat. They told me the people in the town were either 1) avoiding the "Government" 2) hated George W. Bush 3) would talk my ear off about both or 4) just free spirits with a few rednecks thrown in. It is a mostly nice place, but as the locals say "ten houses makes a town in these parts". His grocery/gas station and the coffee shop next door was "downtown". “The Merger” he told me was a proposal about who would have control of the local electricity. The extremely politically active residents were against it. The guys gave me perfect directions to make it from the mountain valleys to Territorial Highway, the flat, straight-as-an-arrow farmland road to Portland.
In Corvallis, home of Oregon State Univ. a biker pulled up to me at a red light asking if I was going to Portland. I was surprised he knew where I was going. He was way too cheery to be one of the other racers. I turned out he was the only bike messenger in the town. He was all excited because he'd heard about it on the messenger web site and recognized my name. I felt special for a brief moment until he said "You're doing great, only 80 more miles to go". OUCH! Thanks for the reminder.
The road through the Willamette Valley was flat as a pancake, but the farmlands had no shade and were about 25F degrees hotter than the coast. I stopped twice to sit on the side of the road when I did find shade- eating, drinking and wondering why I volunteered to be out there in the middle of nowhere monumentally suffering. There were no slower moving cars to motorpace. There were no riding companions to give words of encouragement. There was no promise of television or print coverage of the results in the media. The few relatively brief moments when I did see other competitors hardly provided the spark to inspire competitive energy for the duration of the ultra-marathon trip.
In a small town about 30 or 40 miles from Portland, I saw a man standing on the other side of the road with a walker. He had some type of cripling palsy which prevented him from walking let alone ride a bike. His plight would be horrendous anywhere, but he was in a small town in the middle of nowhere which compounded his infirmity. In that brief moment I realized how lucky and blessed I was to have the ability to drop everything and take a trip across the country to ride a bike for fun. So what if my legs hurt, he will never experience that kind of freedom. I decided to finish the ride without complaining of my petty problems and difficulties.
I made it to outskirts of Portland at sunset thinking about stopping at another hotel, but was too close to quit. I also didn’t want to run out of money staying at another hotel.
I stopped at a mini mart, dropping my bike on the trash can next to the door as I went inside to get a MountainDew-Extra-Caffinated Soda/Pop/Drink/liquid- anything you drink and then go. I didn’t have the slightest concern about the bike or its possible theft. I felt like stir-fried shit, but I desperately needed a boost to get me to town.
Did I forget to mention that I was wearing the same shorts from two days before? The jersey and socks were a day ripe when I left that morning as well. Anyway, by this point in the ride I no longer cared what other people thought. I was in too much pain, but focused on getting to Portland. I was in another world until I saw the look on the woman's face when I came in all kinds of funky, paying for my drink with exact change. At that moment I realized a few important things: 1) I stink. 2) I look weird as hell with the tired crazed look in my eyes. and 3) I was wearing loud spandex.
Portland, I found is surrounded by lots of little hills. Yes, they may be considered beautiful by some, but I wanted the ride to be over. At the 24 miles to go sign I climbed a hill. At the 23 miles to go sign another hill. Twenty-fucking-two miles to miles to go and yet another hill. A few motorists gave me the hi-speed drive-by and loud horn along the final miles. I began to yell obscenities long after they had driven away. My manners were fading. The speed on my computer read a blazing 13 miles per hour. As much as I considered myself to be a fast rider, my speed was pitiful. I was becoming increasingly angry and impatient about my eventual arrival to the finish.
More hills came and went. Then a thought occurred to me while on the road into town- what if the finish is on a hill? Sure enough Ira's house (guy from day 3) was on top of a hill. I arrived at 10 pm happy to have finished the ride from hell. I drank a beer (Gatorade? Hell no brew please!), pinched some chewing tobacco and ate lots of food. I talked and rambled on with some of the other finishers and then slept on the floor of our host's house, the finish line. I was the 9th finisher out of 13 (5th soloist). Everyone, exept the winner who continued onward to Seattle and Ira, finished on Friday feeling just as bad if not worse than me.
I spent the next day in a dream like state, hanging out with the other zombies. We ate breakfast at Ira's and then again at a diner nearby. Our metabolisms were roaring and food was the only thing on our minds. We went to a biker party in the park, getting congratulated by the rest of the gang for doing something so inconceivably hard as to be crazy. Jon, a racer from Ireland, Eric and I played bike polo. I got to score a dramatic diving goal in my first game of bike polo ever. Team RAIDers lost both games. Good times. Rough riding.
I wished I had arranged for my flight to leave later so I could enjoy the city and go out to a party, but I didn't expect to take 5 days to get to Portland. They have a nice transit system there. Probably one of the best I've seen in the country. I took a trolley/train to the airport that night. I ate some sushi while waiting for my midnight flight. I put myself through Hell and was going to enjoy one very nice meal. My body almost broke down while going to the connecting flight in Dallas. Walking was extremely painful. The gate was on the other side of the airport. I've always been strong and vigorous, but just then I was looking for the wheelchairs. I arrived in Philly at 11 am Sunday morning. The overnight flight was pretty cool to do.
The Cycle Messenger World Championships which was to take place the following weekend meant nothing to me when I got home. I wondered if I would ever ride a bike again. My left knee was in pain. My left Achilles tendon was swollen, tender and possibly permanently damaged with tears. I lost the sensation in my left little finger. My entire life revolved around bikes and I overdosed. Physical recovery would take months. Mentally, I will never be the same.
My prize for finishing the ordeal: a black T-shirt. Considering there will never be another race like it again, its value is like a golden Grail. Like I said earlier, it’s not for the money, but for the love of bikes.
There are lots of memories in my head from this trip. The disposable camera didn't come out too often and many of the pictures came out fuzzy or underexposed. I will never forget how terrible I felt during the rough parts and the sense of camaraderie and accomplishment at the end with the other finishers in Portland. Pictures of a beach or sky or any place along the way could never do justice to the emotions or sensations I would feel seeing those places. If I ever went back, I would take a month to do the trip. I would have a chance to savor all of the spectacular sights, people and places along the way.