“The next road over is in much better condition,” the farmer on the side-by-side offered as knelt in the mud calmly inflating my rear tire with a handpump. After explaining that we were a bunch of loonies actually seeking out the exact worst roads to ride on this rainy Saturday in the Central Valley, I got back on my bike and chased after the dozen hardmen that were somewhere up the road, halfway through the 2015 Tainthammer gravel road not-a-race.
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Starting in beautiful Los Banos, California, the Tainthammer is an annual celebration of the worst possible roads in the Central Valley. Murphy Mack is the evil genius who has driven around all the less-desirable corners of this great state, noting where the roads become less paved and more pothole and taking every rutted washboard dirt alternate route.
Around eighty of us left from the high school at 8am, rolling neutral through town before the truck pulled away, leaving us on a long stretch of pavement going north. A ripping tailwinds kept us near thirty miles per hour, and a group of two dozen formed, with a crazy tandem (man-dem?) duo hauling ass on front. Carnage ensued when the cement gave way to wet dirt, with people fish-tailing and crashing into each other at high speeds. By the time we hit the first rest stop an hour in, a lead group of seven had formed, with the tandem surprisingly still at the front, Chris Jackson, Ron Shevock on his single speed, Eric Colton, some others, and myself. The group grew, split up on muddy stretched, and reformed several times, until at extended grilled cheese and bourbon stop at the sect rest station allowed a larger chase group to catch on. Somewhere along the way, Ron decided to ride some cow trail, crashed, and broke his front brake lever, but the roads were flat so he was still there motoring along. So was the tandem, despite laying it down going around a 90 degree turn in one of the early mud sections.
More tailwind pothole madness re-reduced the front group to a dozen again as we hit a long dirt stretch at around mile 60. At this time my rear tire gave up its seal with the rim and went flat. I had been nursing it along by quickly inflating with floor pumps at aid stations since it was leaking slowly, hoping to make it all the way around the course, but now I was left alone on a farm road to throw a tube in.
The farmer rolled up to me as I was putting the tube in, curious what all these crazy folks were doing riding skinny tire bicycles across the muddy landscape. “What do you do for a living?” he asked as I got the tire back over the rim. “Geology”. “What’s that mean?”. “You know, groundwater stuff.” He paused, though not too long. I knew what was coming… “You’re not one of those environmentalists, are you?” he declared with disdain. I assured him that I was in the water supplying business, and he relaxed, admitting that he was all for conservation and owned the land he farm, so he knew he needed to take care of it to pass on to his children when they grew up. We chatted about Cal EPA wetland designations and endangered Fairy Shrimp while I pumped my tire, and he explained that in order to not have wildlife regulators shut down their operations they spray pesticides on their ag ponds so no critters take up residence. I agreed that it was a strange world, and he wished me well as I remounted and took off after everyone.
Closing the eleven gap proved easier than I could possibly imagine, because twenty minute later the most heinous two mile stretch of peanut butter mud stopped everyone dead in their tracks. Everyone but me, that is. Looking at the Strava Playback feature, it seems that the mud clearance on my Niner RLT9 combined with good line choices and mudding skills allowed me to ride at least half a mile farther into the goop than anyone ahead of me. When I too finally bogged down and had to get off and walk, I had already caught all but four people, and had them in sight, walking forlornly through the grass on the side of the road. Chris Jackson busted his derailleur hanger trying to ride, and had to jump in the truck with Murphy, but that was not the last I’d see of him. I shouldered my bike and trudged on, remounting before the others and riding past them as they shook their heads in disbelief that I was with them again after flatting. I really couldn’t believe it myself, as I was doing math in my head that if I kept stops at the two remain aid stations under a minute then I could catch the leaders with maybe ten miles to go if I really motored.
I broke through the mud onto glorious smooth pavement, passing Murphy as he kicked Chris to the curb, throwing him on a spare bike. After some time spent chasing me in a cruel headwind, I stopped, lubed my chain with a small bottle I carried (never do a Murphy Mack event without spare chain lube), and let him catch me. We spent the next two hours trading pulls, though for long stretches before the last rest stop the trades were more like long gifts from Chris since I was fading, having used my water to clean my drivetrain enough to operate when I got onto the pavement. At one point I flagged down Murphy to ask for more water, but all he had was beer, so I shotgunned an Oskar Blues pilsner and continued on dry.
Once the final aid station appeared like a mirage on the endless headwind washboard levee road, I regained strength, refueled with Clif Shot, Blocks, and grilled cheese sandwiches, and hit the road for the final twenty mile. More headwinds greeted us for eight miles, but now I could pull my share, and we made quick work of it. It was joyful to finally head back north, and from there on we cruised quickly to town, only getting lost for a few miles on the way.
Tacos after were great, and I iced my knee since it had been hurting for the last hour of the ride. My dad came in only an hour after me, which was pretty awesome for him, and then I got on the podium with Chris and we went home with a bunch of Oskar Blues beer! He and I were both signed up for the Rock Cobbler gravel grinder down in Bako the next day, and he manned up and got 5th in a strong field, but my knee was destroyed, so I used the discretion I have gained from a decade of racing (wow, has it been that long?) and quit early, doing what turned out to be a ridiculously scenic drive back to SB over Highway 33. See you all the SLO Ride to Hell- there's still some spots available, so register now!
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