There Will Be Sand
By Hrisafie "Chris" Hadgis
An early morning in late May, 2016. I'd recently relocated to Los Angeles from New York, and was house sitting for a friend in Venice. I’m on my bike, my only mode of transportation, carrying a heavy backpack and a small string bag around the wrist of my left hand.
I swerve to avoid a car, the bag on my left wrist swings into my front wheel. My wheel instantly stops. I fly over my handlebars and land directly on my head and left shoulder. I’m wearing my helmet. I see black, then stars. I’m gasping. I can’t breathe.
My bike lands ten feet behind me. I sit in the middle of the sidewalk; squinting in the sun, helmet still on. Someone calls an ambulance. A short little lady working in a roadside food truck brings me a plastic cup of water, asking in Spanish if I’m ok. A homeless man helps me to my feet. I go to pick up my backpack, but I can’t move my left arm.
Firemen arrive. An EMT takes my vital signs. He looks under my shirt and inspects my shoulder to make sure it isn’t “tenting” or protruding out of my skin. It isn’t, but it’s extremely swollen. I decline an ambulance ride to the emergency room. They call one of my best friends who happens to be a nurse. I don’t know what my insurance will cover and I don’t want to take the risk of the cost of the ambulance.
Every cyclist I know has had some sort of collar bone injury. I survived two seasons of bike racing on the East coast with my collarbone completely intact. And then this.
My prayers are answered when the ER X-rays revealed not a break, but a grade II separation of the collarbone at the left AC joint. I’d damaged the tendons, muscles and ligaments. The injury cost me a new job. I went into debt and was off the bike, away from my happy place, for two months. Money ran out and I had to lean on my family back East for support.
That was four months ago.
Day One: Twentynine Palms
6:30 am: m I’m the lone woman about to ride through the Mojave Desert with eight men; two I hardly know and six I’ve never met. But as the middle girl sandwiched between brothers, gender isn't really on my mind as we start our adventure. Bigger concerns are: will I be able to keep up? Is my five-year-old bike ready? Will my shoulder hurt?
6:45 am: We pump tires, check brakes and gears, and fill our bidons with water and Skratch labs hydration powder in the parking lot of our motel. We anticipate that the weather - the sizzling sun, lip cracking dryness, and exhaustive heat - and not the eight thousand feet of climbing, will be the most difficult element of the ride.
The ride was conceived by a small group of guys that work for the cycling company, Rapha. They had planned and routed this ride via Google Maps in order to ride bikes and not drive to attend their destinations of CrossVegas, a world-class cyclocross race, and the Interbike convention in Las Vegas. While not a member of their cycling club, the RCC, I had done event work for the company previously. And Rapha’s Los Angeles Club Coordinator, Brett, a clean, tidy, Vegan, donut connoisseur, Porsche collector, elite road and cyclocross cyclist, had also relocated to LA from New York and knew of my fondness for long, tough rides.
I’m tired, but excited. I’m immensely relieved that this isn’t a race. I’m happy and grateful to be here, back on my bike. I’m looking forward to the ride, camping out, and stargazing in the desert.
As I bend down to fill my bidons, I notice that Andy, a cyclist, Rapha Cycle Club member, and wellknown, accomplished, professional photographer, has a detailed tattoo of a Matryoshka doll, a Russian nesting doll, masterfully drawn with thin black lines on his right forearm. She has a friendly, inviting look, with a mountainous landscape on her belly and happy eyes, sparkling and alight. Perhaps she’s a little desert deity along for our ride.
These Shoes Ain't Made for Walking
7:30 am We’re only about ten miles into our ride when we hit sand. We find ourselves off road and off course. I don’t know where the support van is, or if it knows where we are.
I have absolutely no experience riding on sand and it’s especially treacherous on a road bike. Road bike tires are thin, slick and offer much less traction and surface area than those of cyclocross, gravel, or mountain bike tires.
Timid, I struggle to ride forward. Anxious to keep up with the guys, but not knowing how on the deep, soft sand, a fear of falling grips me. My shoulder aches. The clavicle separation was the most excruciatingly painful injury that I’ve ever been conscious enough to experience. Falling on it is the last thing I want to do.
I try to ride through the sea of sand in front of me. Hop off. Shoulder the bike. Walk. Heels sink in. It’s like walking over soft bean bags in high heels. Crunch. My $300.00 Bont cycling shoes crack open in the front from the rocks. Pebbles invade my toes. Get back on. Try again.
I’m running 25 inch tires on my wheels, which, on Negrito, (my CAAD10 road bike), doesn’t leave much clearance between the brakes and the tires. This means that on dirt, gravel, or sand - pebbles and debris like to lodge themselves in that petite, precious space and prevent my wheels from spinning.
I flip open my brakes, which helps.
A few of the guys take tumbles. The sand in this section is so deep that it prevents even our speediest riders from motoring forward. Luckily, we all make it through unscathed and within a few miles, we reach gravel and then smoother asphalt roads.
Unexpected sites appear as we head north towards the Mojave National Preserve. Green plants dot the vast, expanding landscape, thick layers of gray clouds cover the sky, shielding us from the desert sun, and shimmering, long rectangular, pools of turquoise water appear to our left. They’re the shear light blue color of weathered sea glass. I discover that they’re evaporation ponds. The roadside manmade ponds 3 create crystallized formations of calcium chloride, also known as table salt, and through natural evaporation, this location creates approximately 60 million tons of salt.
Signs of civilization become infrequent. The impromptu stops we make are to take photos, refuel, pee, and let trains pass. At an old, weathered, iconic rest stop, Roy’s on Route 66 in Amboy, that is multitoned gray like the cloudy sky above us, and flaking and chipping like the desert ground. We use the decrepit bathroom facilities.
While off the bike for a moment to snap some pictures, and sip cold bottled syrupy root beers, I notice a gold chain on Steven’s bike. I’d never seen such a thing; I didn’t even know they were made. “Why gold?” I ask. “Why not?” Steven replies.
Steven is amiable, bubbly, and talkative throughout the trip. He’s a skillful, high-end bargain hunter. He owns four pairs of quality cycling shoes, “because they were on sale,” numerous fancy bikes, and is eager to share his tips on tracking treasures and sales on everything from bike parts, and cycling shoes to rental cars. While we ride, he enthusiastically alert us to potential dangers on the road - mainly cars, and cattle grates. When he hollers, “CAR BACK!”, “CAR UP!” or, “CATTLE GRATE!” at the top of his lunges. I’m startled every time
90 miles later: Camp
2:45 p.m. We turn left off the road and ride down a rutty dirt road to the campsite clearing. An orange sorbet colored horizon greets us.
One of the ride leaders scouted this peaceful place to camp. Google Maps apparently does not show which dirt roads are bikeable.
Patches of baby blue sky in the distance peek through the gray clouds, somewhat enticing, somewhat taunting us as if to say, “if you ride in this direction, you’ll have clear and sunny skies.”
It drizzles, spits, and threatens to downpour.
I’m chilled, not cold exactly, but clammy and eager to get out of my kit.
I strip in my tent, hang my wet kit from a carabiner inside my tent, hoping but doubtful that it’ll dry by tomorrow, and quickly put on my comfy, dry sweatpants and sweatshirt. James, who got his tent pitched first, awards me a 4.5 out of 5 for my tent pitch, as he circles the camp to inspect the others’ tent work. Mine is probably more of a 4, as the tent’s right side starts sagging under pools of rain drops later in the evening. Lesson learned: Pull and stretch the rainfly as taut as possible with stakes so that it doesn’t sag under the pressure from rain accumulation. Thanks to cell service in the desert, Steven YouTubes “how to pitch a tent” for guidance.
James is a lightning fast bolt force of a rider, without an ounce of body fat on him. He has two speeds - all out race pace, or not moving. It’s fun to try and hold his wheel. If you can, you’ll fly behind him.
James is on schedule and on point at all times; perfect matching kit, sculpted body, with a high-end, super posh stealth rocket of an aero road bike, a Trek Madone. He also loves beer, and has a small, fluffy dog with a big bite named Scooby Doo.
James regularly attempts epically long, wild rides - like “Everesting” Latigo, or riding 149 miles from LA to the start of our ride. Whether to set Strava records, or earn bragging rights, his rides seem like crazy fun. I find him honest and unwavering, genuine and authentic.
4:15 pm: James is in his tent and asleep for the night. Two guys take the van on a fruitless attempt to buy beers for the group. Others go on an explorative hike. The rain lets up for a bit. I’m surprised and delighted to see fluffy, little grey cotton-tailed rabbits dart about when I walk down the dirt road to find some secluded spots to pee. Sheldon - the tallest rider of our bunch, a jovial, jolly giant, father of two, with a full, booming Baritone voice that would make him a great orator - and I hang back at camp and sit on a large rock. We observe how quiet it is, and read the books we brought. I’m reading Hermann Hesse’s, Siddhartha and Sheldon has a book detailing the connection between American and Japanese menswear, W. David Marx’s, Ametora.
No background noise. I relish the calm, the silence, solitude, and the quiet behind the quiet.
6:00 pm: Three of us scramble up a big boulder for a better view to watch the sunset. We talk about how unexpectedly cool and wet the ride was so far and how we expected much hotter dry desert temps to increase the difficulty of the ride.
I breathe in the bright cantaloupe colored streaks shining through the layers of grey clouds. Mountains and desert with gardens of cactus and an assortment of hunter green bushes and spiky shrubs stretch out all around us.
7:30 pm: Someone moves a rock to sit on and reveals the home of a white scorpion. I didn’t know they could be white. The scorpion hurries to regain his cozy spot under the rock. Chatting around the campfire, rain spitting lightly, we realize that not everyone brought their own tent. We need to double up. I offer mine on the one condition that my tent-mate not snore. I’m a light sleeper, even with earplugs.
4:00 am: I’m tired. I feel like I haven’t been asleep for very long. I close my eyes and hope the pressure in my bladder subsides “Sleep now, pee later,” I think. I was having a cool dream, but I can’t remember what it was.
Less than 48 hours ago, I didn’t know this man lying next to me. Now, I know that he’s pale and prone to burning, is originally from the UK, but lives in Portland, Oregon, is wise, level-headed and often the voice of advice and reason in our group, easy to talk to, has a velvety English accent, is soulful, smart, well-read, has a witty sense of humor, a wife who is from Rhode Island, is a proud parent to three cats and, he snores.
I fumble for my headlamp and unzip the tent door. It’s sprinkling out and pitch black. No moonlight, no starlight.
5 minutes later, I return.
Still snoring. I flop onto my sleeping bag, flip over and try to worm my body back all the way down into my bag. Even with my earplugs in, I can still hear him. I wait. Still snoring.
“David.” “Hey, David?” I whisper. “Hmmm?”
“You’re snoring,” I say with a slight lisp thanks to my teeth night guard. I can’t tell if my face is too close to his or not because it’s so dark.
Our heads are separated by less than a foot.
4:45 am: David’s snoring is replaced by the pattering sounds of rain and wind flapping against the tent’s rainfly, like sails billowing on a sailboat.
5:30 am: Still awake. Still trying to sleep. Failing. What was a drizzle is now a downpour.
6:01 am: James hollers from within his tent, “is everybody up and dressed to go?!” “What’s our departure time?” “6:15?” I suppress the urge to throw a rock at his tent. “30 minutes, James!” David calls calmly. David could’ve hurled obscenities and he would’ve still sounded alluring, controlled and polite.
All we know is that we are in for a wet morning. David and I laugh. James’s eagerness, the rain, my night guard, David’s snoring: maybe it’s our sleep deprivation turned giddy, but everything becomes hilarious for a few minutes.
6:10 am: Most of us are still in our sweats, huddled under the protection of the back of the van commiserating about the rain, and eating a breakfast of trail mix and tortilla wraps made with banana, Nutella, and almond-butter. James suddenly springs out of his tent, fully dressed in his pink and grey striped RCC kit, cycling shoes, helmet on and buckled, bounding towards us like Tigger from Winniethe-Pooh, ready to ride.
James is like a lively, energetic boy, waking his parents and siblings and bolting down the stairs in the wee morning hours to see what Santa had brought for Christmas. The rest of us run back and forth between our tents and the protection of the opened back of the van to change into our kits. We break down our tents and pack up our sleeping bags in the downpour, load up our trusty van, hop on our bikes and hit the road.
The Flight of the Saddle
When it feels like we’ve been climbing a false flat for hours on this weird power zapping gravely asphalt, people fall quiet and the only sound is the infrequent whoosh of a car passing. I try to focus on the road, the surroundings, on my pedal strokes, and do my best to ignore a really uncomfortable pressure in my upper left thigh where it connects with the side of my crotchal region. I chalk it up to the rain dampening and displacing my bibs and chamois.
We’re riding in a tight, wind-blocking pack at this point when I hear a distinct “boing!” pop sound from under me like a piano string breaking. I instinctively raise my right hand like I’m in a race to alert the other riders, “Mechanical!” I think for sure that I have a rear flat or broke a spoke.
Everyone safely swerves around me and they immediately flock to the support van for snacks of Trader Joe’s sugar cookies, peanut butter filled salted pretzel bites, and PB & J bars. I drift over to the side of the 6 road to inspect the damage. Only, I don’t see anything. My spokes look fine. My tire is intact. I hail Ben who seems to have the most mechanical wherewithal.
Ben is an uber fit, cat 1, and aspiring professional cyclist. He has a mustache and a mullet, dons mixed matched fancy cycling socks with abstract designs. Ben is soft spoken, kind and helpful with all things bike related. I like it that Ben pauses to take in what you’re saying, and thinks before he speaks. “Well, the good news is that you haven’t broken a spoke and you don’t have a flat.” “It’s your brake.”
My rear brake somehow unhinged itself from its proper place and thought that now would be a good time to reach out and kiss the rim thus making the popping sound and preventing my wheel from spinning.
With a small Allen key, Ben is able to MacGyver the unruly brake pad back into its proper place. “And your saddle isn’t straight.” “What?!?”
My saddle was slightly askew and pointing towards 11:50 instead of 12:00 o’clock. I thought I’d have to ride the rest of the 100 miles with major pain in my lady parts. My saddle somehow meandered a few millimeters to the left since yesterday’s ride and that, and not my chamois was the culprit of my crotchal discomfort.
We all carry onward. I’m lost in thought with a renewed appreciation for precise saddle placement, when we come upon more sand. Miles (forty to be exact) of deep sand ravines, and rutted uneven road stretch before us. This isn’t smooth, flat, sand that looks Bahama beach soft. No, this is sand that has had flash floods create deep, snaking crevasses and craters through it. It looks more like a minefield than a road.
Mind of Sand?
A sinking feeling comes over me. I swallow my fear and do my best to follow the guys and pedal forward.
I try and fail to ride over the uneven, rutty beach of loose, soft, sticky sand, with deep ruts and rivets. Within mere minutes the guys are off and I’m alone.
I’m hardly moving. I hate this. I’m unable to keep up. I enjoy pushing my own limits, testing myself, and doing hard rides, but I’m outnumbered, not because of a lack of fitness, or because I’m the only female, but rather, I don’t know how to ride in the sand.
Like an inchworm, my progress forward is slow and belabored. I almost want them to just leave me here so I don’t have to worry that I’m the cause of the delay. The disheartened voice grows louder in my head. I can see the I-15 highway parallel to us, just off to our left, like a beckoning asphalt mirage.
I eventually see the guys huddled around the van far ahead of me. I know why they’ve stopped. I want to run up to them and advocate for myself, “Guys, guys, guys, I’m swear I’m not this bad a cyclist, really.”
When you’re moving at a snail's pace, up to your ears in sand, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve podiumed - your palmarès don’t count. Instead, I, the Lanterne Rouge desert rider, sheepishly approach their congregation, inwardly hoping that I’m not the only one having a miserable time and that they’ll decide to let those of us who want to ride along the highway, take that option.
Jake, a marketing manager at Rapha, mustached, tattooed arms and legs, casually perched on his saddle, one foot on the ground, knowingly looks at me, asks, “How’re you doing, Chris?”
“Sure would like to get back onto some road.” “Could I ride along the highway and meet up with you guys if you want to stay off-road?”
No luck. We can’t divide and conquer. Brett encourages me to take a lift in the support van. Seems the majority of the group want to stay on the sand and off the side of the highway, which appears the only other riding route option to get to Vegas. I oblige. “But only until we reach a flatter section or more asphalt,” I say, more to myself than the others as they swiftly ride away.
I can’t hide my disappointment as I begrudgingly put my bike and myself in the van. I understand the need to keep the group together, but I’m embarrassed and sad. This wasn’t the plan. I had no doubts in my riding ability if we were on a regular road. This feels like a cop-out. I want to ride the entire to way to Vegas. More so, I do not want to be seen as a weak link in any way.
12:15 pm: From the front seat, I gaze out the open window and take in the scenery. I attempt conversation with Andy, manning the van at the time. He seems pensive and reserved; I’m a little intimidated around him. Andy has kind eyes, and attractive, boyish features. He’s talented, intelligent and an accomplished professional photographer. Born in Russia, but raised in New York, Andy is now based in Seattle.
An avid cyclist, he regularly works with professional male and female cyclists as well as race car companies and drivers. If I had started cycling earlier in life, I would’ve aspired to become a pro cyclist. I feel a bit like a shy fan around him.
Silence. Stare out. Sand. Cactus. Mountains. Ahead of us, Sheldon struggles to stay upright. We creep along behind him.
Andy becomes even more interesting as I learn that he surfs and is not only a self-taught professional photographer, but he is also a trained and licensed pilot. He cycles, surfs, and he can fly planes! Maybe getting off the bike for a few miles isn’t so bad.
Sheldon falls several times. He now resembles Pigpen, dust completely covering his once black bibs and red jersey. He smiles back at us to assure us that he’s ok.
At a rest stop after the ruttiest sand section, I remark, “you took those spills like a champ. You’re a total trooper, Sheldon.” With a deep breath, he replies, “Thanks. I always think about how I’d want my kids to behave or handle any given situation.” I admire that immensely. The world needs more parents - more people, like Sheldon.
A Little Encouragement Goes Miles
1:15 pm: When we all re-group and discuss the options of either riding alongside the asphalt highway to Vegas or off-road on more sand, the group leaders decide for more off-road. I smile and try to sound positive though I’m quivering, nervous and dreading a replay of my earlier failure to conquer the sand. David, my tent-mate, is an accomplished cyclocross rider and racer and assures me that he’ll ride with me and give me pointers.
Having David and later, Ben, riding with me provides an unexpected and most welcomed sense of friendship, ease, comfort and belonging. Behind my Oakley sunglasses, my eyes fill with appreciation and relief to have their patient help and expertise.
They tell me to shift down, keep pedaling, scoot my butt back on the saddle, and they both emphasize repeatedly that I need to keep my hands on the top of my handlebars to gain control of my bike. I try. And try. I’m fine gearing down, riding with my butt back in my saddle, but it’s scary, uncomfortable, unnatural and against my every instinct to have my hands so far from my brakes on uneven ground.
My hands rebel. They won’t stay up there. “You’re going to fall,” chides my inner critic. I push back against the voice, “Shhhh, I can do this.” After about 5 or 10 minutes, to my shock, my hands are there! on top of my handlebars. I’d just met Ben and David and yet here they are. Not micromanaging me, but, they’re present. By my side, sacrificing their speed and perhaps their own fun. If there’s something greater than immense gratitude, that’s exactly how I feel. I’m concentrating too hard to tell them in that moment.
My focus is forward. I hear David: “You can do it. Stick with it.” I try to stay on his wheel and follow his lines through the sand. Ben, on my left: “There you go, Chris! You’re getting it.”
Thanks to Ben and David’s coaching, my off-road confidence slowly builds and my enjoyment grows significantly.
Within thirty minutes, we catch up to the rest of the guys who have slowed for our sake. While I don’t suddenly become a cyclocross superstar like Katerina Nash, or Katie Compton, I’m just slightly more knowledgeable and a little less afraid. Pedal, pedal, pedal. I’m with the group. Then I feel a springy sensation under me and again, I lose speed. “What the...?” My rear tire is soft. “No, no, no…” Damn. A flat.
2:45 pm: Flats suddenly spread like a highly contagious cold. Ben gets one. I get one. And then just after we fix mine, David gets one. We’re up and riding again for mere minutes when Ben gets another. When we finally reach asphalt again, we fly. Like an orchestra bringing home a concerto - the music playing the musicians and not vice versa - our bikes ride us and carry our unified, tight pack to the tune of 30 miles per hour over the final fifteen-mile stretch into Las Vegas.
4:30 am: A tsunami of sound and sensory overload strikes as we ride through the lights and glitz of Las Vegas.
We ride down the main strip; honking cars and combustion engulf us. We look for our hotel, dazed and disoriented in a maze of sidewalks that turn into stairs over streets, with hordes of tourists, families and chain restaurants, and giant, extravagant hotels in the shapes of pyramids, and castles. I feel like we’ve slid down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, shrunken into mini-cyclists riding through a board game of towering, fake, cardboard hotels.
We arrive. In the lobby, a man with thinning grey hair and glasses stares and snaps several photos of our sweaty, lycra clad group as we walk our bikes up to check in, helmets still on. I imagine it’s not every day that nine smelly, dirty, cyclists with their bikes, check into the Monte Carlo in Vegas with no plans to gamble. We disperse into small groups of shared rooms to enjoy hot showers, change into comfy casual non-cycling clothes, and quickly catch cabs to a stadium to watch the world-class cyclocross racing at Cross Vegas.
7:00 pm: Our nine desert riders disband: The Rapha employees peel off to their work commitments at the cross race, the RCC members grab a bite together, and I’m left at the gate of the entrance to the race. Inside the sports arena music is pumping. There’s energy in the air, like the feeling of a carnival with games, vendors, giveaways, and happy crowds. I soon see the friendly, big-hearted crew from Pedaler’s Fork who are in the process of imbibing a healthy quantity of beers. Though new friends from cycling, they greet me with warm smiles and embraces at the stadium gate entry.
Wout van Aert hammers back from a fall on the stair section to easily win the men’s pro race with a huge time gap over the field.
The women’s pro race however, proves extremely exciting as the race comes down to three ladies truly neck and neck with each other. The race is won by smart, perfectly timed, expertly executed moves and maneuvers. These cross racers sure know their way through sand! They had a fifty-foot sand pit, ours was over 50 miles.
Four of our original nine desert riders take the support van back to Los Angeles. Sheldon stays with his wife who met him in Las Vegas. The other riders fly back to Portland and onto other plans and commitments. The sandy winds are gusting up to 40 miles per hour as we leave. We’re grateful to be off our bikes at that point, observing the pale, hazy yellow setting desert sun from behind the van windows.
The Ride Changes You
The next night, home at my apartment, I sleep for 11 hours. I remove my tent from its stuff sack the following morning to air it out before returning it to my closet. Rain water, sand and dirt sprinkle out onto my apartment floor. Negrito, usually mat black, is now camouflaged with tan wheels and light brown patches of sand and gray grit stuck to his bearings and bottom bracket. The rain didn’t wash everything off. Some things stick, others fall away.
I grab coffee at my favorite local spot and walk out onto Venice Beach. I take in the ocean in front of me and I appreciate the ease of crossing the sand barefoot.