“The air cleft by our flight beat in our faces, roared, whistled in our ears, tore at us, nipped us cruelly in its anger, tried to tear our heads off our shoulders. We had hardly strength to breathe from the pressure of the wind. It seemed as though the devil himself had caught us in his claws and was dragging us with a roar to hell. Surrounding objects melted into one long furiously racing streak… another moment and it seemed we should perish.”
- Anton Chekhov
I had little idea what was in store for us as we rolled down from Arroyo Seco into the Salinas Valley. I had just enjoyed 5 hours of the best riding of my life, and I was already beginning to plan for the meal I’d soon be enjoying 45 miles up the road in Salinas. Those flat miles should fly by pretty quickly…
Randonneurs, more than most, prepare for changing weather conditions, with fenders, lights and extra layers, but the drastic change from sunny calm on Indians Road to savage headwinds all the way from Greenfield to Salinas came as a shock to my system. The crosswinds first hit us when we entered the valley heading east towards Greenfield, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was just looking forward to hydrating and eating something at our first control, a Mexican bakery, but sitting in the control looking out the window I saw flags whipping ominously in the sky. We had intended to make up time in this section after falling behind schedule on Indians Road, but once we hit the road heading north it became clear that that was not going to be the case. A roaring wind was facing us down, straight on, and we were riding into it at about 9 or 10 miles an hour with the rider on the front taking major pulls.
These flat valley roads had barely any cover, save a few farmhouses, and almost no landmarks to chart any kind of progress, and so we slipped into a seemingly endless struggle forward, a kind of primal man-versus-nature drama played out against an invisible, howling enemy. When we made 90 degree turns, we formed ragtag echelons that often disintegrated into every-man-for-himself battles to the next turn, where we’d regroup to face the headwind again. It reminded me of watching pros race through the desert in Tour of Qatar, but in super slow motion.
Headwinds simultaneously bind us together and alienate us from one another. Little conversation is possible in a headwind, unless it’s yelled, and there’s none of the riding side-by-side and joking around that usually helps flat miles pass quickly. Each rider is off in their own little world, facing dark thoughts like, “Why am I here?” “This is pointless.” “This wind is never going to end.” “I think I’m going to bonk soon.” It’s hard to keep morale up when you can barely communicate and everyone is giving their all just to go 10 mph. At the same time, headwinds force us to rely on each other more than at any other time in a ride. Without the team, each one of us would be barely able to progress at all, but as a team, we can forge onward at a decent pace and get plenty of time to rest before the next turn. Though this section would prove to be our eventual downfall in terms of completing the Fleche, I think that it brought us closer together as a team, and for that I’m thankful.
We stopped to rest every 30 minutes or so, sometimes sitting in the dirt or getting water from a gas station. During these stops members of the team seemed to be in a kind of stupefied daze. Indians Road was a distant memory and we were trapped in a dusty, unpleasant valley. At one point some kind farmers offered us a ride, and I’m sure we definitely looked like we needed one.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Salinas, the wind started to die down and the idea of eating at In-N-Out breathed life into the team. We’d survived and we were going to be rewarded with our first full meal of the ride, almost 11 tough hours of riding in. We banded together for 4.5 hours to face down the wind in the valley, and that’s one of my favorite memories from the flèche.