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“It never gets any easier, you just go faster” - Greg LeMond
“It never gets any easier, you just get slower and chunkier.” - ToddMy path to the start line of the Rock Cobbler began at another one of California’s marquee endurance events.
Last May, while attending San Diego’s Belgian Waffle Ride as a spectator, I crossed paths with a long lost buddy by the name of Big Ern who moved from LA up to the Bay Area over 15 years ago. It was the kind of chance meeting that had us doing double takes before picking up the conversation right where it left off. Over the course of catching up, a seed was planted that I’d come out of mid-pack racer retirement and we’d hang the following winter at Bakersfield’s Rock Cobbler, a timed ride that was around half the distance of BWR yet twice as gnarly.
As we started to exchange numbers, we discovered we still had each other’s info from the flip phone era when a text message cost a nickel and social media had yet to exist. Back then, when someone moved away, that typically meant they’d relocated to parts unknown.
The prospect of pinning on a number to do the Cobbler could be the motivation I needed to get back on the bike and visions of a summer full of epic rides danced in my head. I really didn’t intend to ever stop doing “real” rides. It was just something that slowly snowballed over the last few years as life, responsibilities, and new hobbies distilled what used to be a training schedule to its simplest form- easy spins around Griffith Park followed by leisurely breakfasts and a lot of laughs with friends- especially when we’d remember we used to ride 4-5 hours before “earning” breakfast.
Well, summer came and went and I only got on the bike a few times. More often than not, that bike was electric and the rides were errands and the weekends I’d planned to fill with adventures up in the San Gabriel Mountains were replaced by playing in an old person baseball league under their shadow.
That was OK though. When the season ended, there were still four months left to do a Rocky training montage. Plus, there was always a chance Big Ern forgot about the whole plan.
Of course when I woke up the morning Cobbler registration opened, a message from Big Ern was waiting for me. His registration was locked-in and now it was my turn to commit. Surely paying $160 smackers would be the spark I needed to get serious.
That did not happen.
I’ll spare you all the excuses but there was a morning where it was cold, it rained a few times, we had a lot of Thanksgiving leftovers that weren’t going to eat themselves…the next thing you know it’s a week before the Cobbler and the grand training plan turned out to be a lone shakedown ride up to the trails around JPL to make sure I still remembered how to ride a bike off-road. Only crashed a couple times so I took that as a sign that I still had it. This guy was as ready as he was going to be.
Now is probably a good time to be a responsible adult and say that what happens next is a completely foolish endeavor that no medical professional would ever endorse, especially for someone who is untrained, 40 lbs heavier, and has settled firmly into the have-you-scheduled-your-colonoscopy-yet? age bracket since the last time they did the Rock Cobbler.
Back then, the Cobbler was still a new event, only in its second year and was a word-of-mouth thing that attracted almost 200 people foolish enough to find out what the crew behind the most difficult race on the SoCalCross calendar had cooked up.
Now in year ten, the Cobbler has grown to 1,000 riders and has a well-earned reputation as one of the most devious and grueling events a cyclist can do in a single day. Due to the exponential growth, the field would be broken up into wave starts and my luckiest break of the entire ride happened before it even started. The random draw put Big Ern in Wave 1 and I’d be in Wave 3.
With Big Ern at the start
With our plan to ride together suddenly separated by 30 minutes from the gun, I used that opportunity to move down to the shorter Pebble distance of only 52 miles and 5,400 feet of climbing vs the full length version that measured out at 81 miles with 8,500 feet of elevation. While I felt like I was copping out, I could rest easy knowing all the devil magic that makes the Rock Cobbler the Rock Cobbler was slated to happen in the first 52 miles.
As the first three waves rolled out, I used that bonus time to sniff out where the free breakfast burritos were hiding, enjoy a cup of coffee, and soak up the energy of the starting area. Along the way, I ran into a couple of old faces and made a new friend who noticed my All Hail the Black Market/Hodala Wizard Staff Arm Coozies.
It was going to be a good day.
Our Pebble wave was the last on-course and it was a borderline serene feeling to know that the only objective for today was to get back to the finish before sundown. My legs felt great on the ride out of town along a bike path and I didn’t collapse on the first climb of the day so things were trending in a positive direction. Even the first hike-a-bike section had me smiling. It was the perfect amuse-bouche for what was surely going to unfold.
At mile 13, a dude in a panda costume brought our group to a halt and invited us to warm up with shots of Fireball whiskey. Only three riders at a time could go through the next section of the course which sounded ominous until we realized we’d be riding through someone’s house. A semi-sketchy dropoff dumped us into the backyard where we went around the pool and were instructed by a dude dressed as a hot dog to take it easy through the living room. Seriously. We rode through a house. A very nice house that was blasting Metallica on a Sunday morning and it was glorious.
We really rode through a house.
I made a quick stop at the first aid station to refill bottles and was on my way. While not in a rush, I was making good time and was feeling even better. Maybe I should have stuck to the full length route because this was shaping up to be a piece of cake.
Then the trail started to go up and I realized why so many riders were running giant cassettes. My trusty Rock Lobster still had the same 36T cassette I had the last time I did the ride when I was in a shape that wasn’t round and (as I’d soon find out) the course was much tamer.
As we made our way up a trail through private ranch land, a cowboy was posted up on a four-wheeler to keep an eye on the proceedings. He asked how it was going and when I replied that I was just out enjoying the day, he looked right through me and said “It’s about to get a lot f*cking harder.”
It was a statement of fact said in a tone that could scare the sunglasses off Rip Wheeler and at that moment I knew I was about to go through some stuff. I looked up through the storm clouds that were starting to break and could see a speckled line of cyclists seemingly descending from the sky and accepted my fate that we were going to be heading up for a while.
Welcome to Hard Times
Up ended up being a three mile push-a-bike along a trail that was slathered in ankle deep peanut butter. It was the kind of slog where making conversation with those around you was out of the question so everyone trudged along in silence. I kept myself occupied by questioning some life decisions and thinking through the logistics of a helicopter rescue. It was during this time that I really thought about quitting because what was the point of any of this? If I were back home I’d be getting ready for second lunch. Instead, I was in the middle of nowhere telling myself that I could dip into my stash of emergency gummy bears as a treat if I ever made it to the top.
When you’re really going through it, the only thing you can do is keep it positive and be your own cheerleader. I kept it going by quietly working on my impression of David Goggins. And when that wasn’t working, somehow my brain reminded me it was Burt Reynolds’ birthday and what better way to pay tribute to him than by attempting a feat that was almost as ridiculous as shuttling 400 cases of Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta?
Eventually, the trail stopped going up and we were treated to such an impossibly gorgeous view that it felt like we were inside a Bob Ross painting. It was the perfect spot to stop and use the tongue depressor that was mysteriously included in our rider packet to pry the mud off our shoes and bikes. I gave a fig bar to a rider who’d bonked and helped a few others get their bikes back into rideable shape before the descent that awaited us.
The only problem was that peanut butter mud was still there and immediately re-clogged my bike to the point the wheels stopped turning after only a few hundred yards. I stopped to dig out more mud and found strands of aluminum peeling from my front rim. Not good at all. I cleaned everything as best I could but my front brake was jacked to the point of being unusable. But that was OK. I still had a rear brake that sorta worked and I was used to walking by this point.
There's a brake in there somewhere.
Once things dried up a bit I was back to riding my bike and realized how much I’d missed getting out there and experiencing the fun and misery of a real challenge and that can only happen when you get off the couch and stray far from your comfort zone.
I was so in my head about this minor epiphany that I missed a turn as the course meandered through a maze of an orchard. I followed tire tracks for a few more turns but when I realized I should probably stop and assess the situation after a couple miles of not seeing the arrows that marked the route. At first I thought about permanently living in the orchard. There was no way I could find the spot where I strayed from and an infinite supply of oranges would keep me from starving but then I realized it was 2023 and proceeded to spend a few minutes signing up for the Ride with GPS app and loading Cobbler course. Soon, a nice AI voice confirmed I was indeed lost and helped me navigate back on track.
This was a bummer.
The miles started ticking away but the Cobbler crew had one final trick up their sleeve.
Looking at the ridiculous and impossibly steep “run up” from the ground, it didn’t look that bad but then I noticed what was probably a second leg of that run up lurking over the horizon. The course marshals were kind enough to confirm my suspicions.
“We’re doing both parts, right?”
All I could do was take my next serving of lumps and enjoy it.
A newer rider stood at the base of the first leg and was trying to coax himself into starting. The guy was genuinely scared. One wrong step could lead to a pretty bad fall. It seemed like he’d been there for a while so I asked if he could use a hand. He nodded yes and I channeled the charm and positivity that I used as a teenage swimming instructor to coax kids into jumping off the high dive into talking him up that hill. I pointed out the line we’d be taking one step at a time and patiently waited for him to follow. We spent over 20 minutes getting up that hill but it was OK. I wasn’t in a hurry to be anywhere. Plus, it was a chance to repay some of the kindness that others had shown me when I was just starting out.
The descent from the run up rewarded us with a jaunt through section locally known as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. As I railed from one steep berm to the next, I marveled at the fact that I’d made it so far without crashing.
Right on cue, I crashed so fast that I was still marveling as I slid to a stop and began to feel all the places where the fine grain gravel had drawn blood. Good times.
Once I un-pretzled myself from under my bike, getting to finish was only a formality by this point. The only annoying thing was that I was somehow stuck at eight miles to go for what felt like 20 miles. I couldn’t help but laugh as I scampered through the final obstacle, a ball pit filled with shin deep water that was ice cold. For the second time, I’d be finishing the Cobbler with wet feet.
Even mountain biking icon Tinker Juarez had to go through the ball pit.
I rolled through the finish line and high-fived my wife. I knew better than to go in for a hug in my current state. I was gassed but still had enough energy to stand in the line for the post-ride spread. As we waited, a guy came up to us and said, “Hey! You gave me the fig bar. You saved my life man. Really, you did. Take my beer tickets. I owe you.”
Well, that was more free beer for me and the dessert table was loaded with Twinkies.
Was this heaven?
No, it was Bakersfield.
And I’ll be back there next year with Big Ern ready to crush the full distance.
Training starts Monday.
This time I mean it.
I earned this Twinkie.
This was the opposite of an easy day.