Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Epic Rides...

Hang out with a group of cyclists for long enough, or at least within earshot for an extended period of time and you are, sooner or later, bound to hear the term epic ride entering the conversation. What is this thing of which people speak with reverential tones, a note of awe in their voice, and a certain gleam in the eye? Ride for a few years and you may begin to accumulate a list of epic rides of your own. It is likely to be a fluid list though, at least at first; a ride that you regard as epic one year, may not be looked at with the same regard a few years later. The memory of a truly epic ride, though, is likely to stand out across a lifetime, no matter when in that lifetime it took place.

The idea of an epic ride has been on my mind for some time now, largely I think, because I have to look back many years to find the last ride I was on which I consider to have been truly epic. Anyway I have been compiling a list of characteristics of the epic ride, a list of tangible and intangible elements which, together or perhaps separately, constitute a description of what makes a ride epic. Prior to working out any kind of list I had to overcome the possibility that attempting to define epic ride would be futile. The dictionary might provide a clear definition of epic, one that uses words like narrative and heroic, tangible elements which should have made a definition combining epic and ride easier, but which fails to consider the subjectivity of individual experience. Could a term like epic ride even be defined? After all, what a novice might consider epic would likely be regarded as an easy Sunday cruise to a more seasoned rider.

The list:
  1. This first characteristic has to do with that bit at the end of the paragraph above. Epic rides transcend ability levels, they are not limited to one or another. One need not be a seasoned rider to experience an epic ride, they exist at the moment in which they take place. In other words an epic ride that someone experiences as a novice remains epic even many years later when the rider has become more seasoned. Epic rides are defined as such at the time they take place. Consider it this way - think back to your youth, and the first time you hopped on your bike and rode outside your immediate, familiar neighborhood. Really, that is about as epic a ride as they get. That kid is crossing a boundary, leaving behind everything familiar, everything they have known up to that point in time, and traveling into a realm of the unfamiliar. Twenty years later, that ride might look like little more than a spin around the block, but at the time it was monumental, it was in fact, epic.
  2. Epic rides are based upon the individual experience. This may seem obvious but, though the group does play a role (as I will show later), it is ultimately how the individual experiences the ride which determines its epic nature. As an example, at some point in the mid-1990s I participated in one of the 'Mark Rich Invitational Rides' (I don't think they had a formal name really, that is just what I call them) which rode out to distant points from the San Gabriel Valley every so often. This particular one went out to the Agua Dulce area, via Little Tujunga Canyon, the back over Mill Creek Station on Angeles Forest Highway, and on home down the Angeles Crest. I was pretty much at my cycling peak those years and normally this ride would have been pretty run-of-the-mill, long but standard stuff. Well, for what ever reason, I really struggled with the climb up Little T, and then fighting the wind into Agua Dulce; I was dreading the second half of the ride, and not really sure I would make it. Thankfully, after replenishing my energy at a local store, I recovered and rode much improved the rest of the way. For most of the others on the ride, it was a pretty typical training ride. But because I had an obstacle to overcome, did so, and finished stronger than I started, the ride makes my epic list. Not the top of the list, but up there.
  3. Epic rides tend to also be unsupported, self-sufficient rides. It is no surprise that history tends to bestow the term epic to stages of the earliest Tours de France. There were no teams following the race to support their racers, each man was a team of one, improvising when necessary, but otherwise self-sufficient. Calling for a ride home during what might otherwise have been an epic ride, negates that ride being added to an epic list. Limping home with a busted bike, patched together with bits of whatever found alongside the road or trail, or in a jersey pocket - epic. That said, once the ride proper is done, it is okay to accept a ride home.
  4. Epic rides are not limited by length in distance, nor duration of time. The likelihood of a ride becoming epic increase with distance or elapsed time, but circumstances can make shorter rides epic as well. True, the likelihood of a ride becoming epic increases with length, and distance and time often become contributing factors in turning a ride into an epic one, but they are not hard/fast requirements. Of the numerous 100+ mile rides I have done, only one of them stands out as worthy of being termed epic; of the rides on my epic list, most have been shorter, some far shorter.
  5. Weather often plays a factor in making a ride epic. The more extreme weather conditions are, hot, cold, rain, snow, wind, all can be contributing factors in making a ride epic. At the same time, extreme conditions are not a requirement; epic rides can take place under perfect conditions. There is no doubt that Andy Hampsten's ride up the Gavia during the 1988 Giro d'Italia, with snow falling all around, obscuring the view any more than a few feet ahead, was an epic ride. One might even argue that Andy's ride that day moved beyond the realm of epic and into the realm of legendary. But that is another story. Extremes of weather can be all it takes to turn an everyday ride into an epic one. Rain is a relatively rare occurrence in these parts, and snow even more so. Rides that I have taken during during storms, therefore, tend to be more memorable and epic in nature.
  6. Epic rides are hard rides, but it is not a requirement that they be difficult. Look, if you are having a great day, so much the better. There is nothing wrong with riding an epic when everything clicks.
  7. This may be stating the obvious but, epic rides must go beyond routine. I don't believe those laps we race during training at the Rose Bowl twice a week, no matter how fast the peloton goes, nor how many professionals are there pushing the pace. A particular night may be memorable, but epic? No.
  8. At first glance this point may seem to contradict point number 2 but, epic rides are usually also group rides. I say this based on the idea that the epic aspect is enhanced by the shared experience that takes place on group rides. I think several factors come into play here. First, on most any group ride rivalries and competition usual conspire to push individual riders up to, and maybe beyond their normal limit. A second factor surrounds the camaraderie amongst riders. Bonds created through the shared experience are some of the strongest connections we make during our lives. I was on a team training ride once through a mountainous area with a lot of ups and downs in the road. One rider broke his chain and no one carried a tool to repair it. He could coast down the hills just fine, but going up was of course another matter. We ended up trading off turns pushing him up each hill. We all were able to share in that experience; overcoming that incident, shared by each of us in turn contributed toward the creation of an epic ride. That one 100+ mile ride I mentioned in point number 3, was an organized century I did with a small group of buddies. On a ride of such duration it is unlikely that one rider will be the strongest for the entire ride, and as such riders end up helping each other out, contributing individually to a group effort. The concept of being a part of something bigger than ourselves is very often one of the main facets of an epic ride.
  9. Challenge. Simply put, every ride on my epic ride list involved a challenge to meet, or obstacle to overcome. Sometimes that means excelling, and exceeding expectations, other times it may mean simply surviving. I feel fortunate enough to have lived my entire life within close proximity of numerous mountain ranges and, as a result, mountains figure into every one of the rides on my epic list. Now, of the various factors I have listed this is the most problematic for the reason that not everyone is geographically situated within striking distance of a range of mountains. I have no doubt that people who live in the middle of the Great Plains, or the steppes of Russia, have epic ride lists which do not include miles long climbs. I am also sure that, were I to transplant to such a region, I could easily slot a flatter epic ride into my more mountainous ride list. What this says is that you don't need mountains for challenge; challenge can come from any number of directions, any of which could be a valid building point for an epic ride. An epic ride can never be an easy spin through a park - ease is one factor that has no role in the definition of epic.
This kind of brings me back full circle - that original dictionary definition: A narrative of heroic proportions, or that contains aspects of the heroic in the telling. The narrative part is pretty clear; every ride is a narrative, the story unfolding as the miles pass by. The heroic part is met by overcoming a challenge which takes the rider beyond the norm.

Alright, so what is at the top of my epic ride list? It was supposed to be a group ride, but the day dawned grey and threatening rain, so at the appointed time only a trio of us were committed. We rode from Griffith Park to Santa Monica via Mulholland Drive; it rained from the time we clipped into our pedals, to the time we arrived at Ye Olde King's Head for lunch where air conditioning made things even more uncomfortable. It rained the entire way back through the city center and Silverlake, where my front wheel found a gap in the roadway and decided to lodge itself in there rather than keep rolling. It was a sudden and hard hitting, but thankfully temporary stop, and we were rolling along again soon enough. The conditions were poetically miserable, our bikes had to nearly swim through some intersections, pouring rain and spray back up from the road blinded us, it took days to completely dry out, people who saw us thought we were absolute nuts. But it was the most fun I have ever had on a ride.

So there you have it, I have given you my opinion about what factors go into making an epic ride. Assuming you have read all the way through, do you agree? What about you, in your mind what makes a ride an epic one? Can there ever really be a true inclusive definition, or is it too subject to the vagaries of individual perspective? I have left the list off at 9 characteristics,round it off for me by providing a tenth.

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