East vs. West

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Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet…
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!
Rudyard Kipling didn’t know he was writing about riding bikes, but he was. Put in “when two stoked riders sit wheel to wheel” and he’d have it exactly.
Tom’s story about Grinduro Scotland got me thinking about my own experience at Grinduro California, and how it was like the weird parallel universe version of his—some things were the same, like the format and the high level of stoke, but some things were nearly polar opposites: the scenery, the riding surfaces, the weather.

Do British gravel riders also exhibit a fascination with burly industrial machines?

Tom tells of low clouds, lashing rain, cold wind. I know that feeling—it’s my hometown of Pittsburgh in March. Dark, damp chill that gets inside you unless you pedal fast. The weather in the opposite-world of the Sierra Nevada of California, and lot of the mountainous western US, can best be described as ‘freezinghot.’ (I can’t take credit for that term; it comes from long-distance hiking blogger Carrot Quinn.)
Hot desert-like landscape, complete with rattlesnake; later, on top of the mountain, actual snow.

At night, or in the shade, it’s freezing; but the moment you roll into the intense sun, even in winter, it’s hot. Sometimes the two alternate rapid-fire until your nerves are tingling in confusion. Wind and sun together form true freezinghot conditions, as when climbing up an exposed mountainside in a stiff headwind—a common theme in the western mountains.
I don’t know about the UK, but in California, mysterious men in orange jumpsuits are often seen.

On a wet and raw day like Tom had, moments of being warm and dry are treasures. But warm and dry can go too far. Out West, the lack of water in the atmosphere can get to you, for those of us not used to it. It does strange things: you may be sweating buckets and not know until you’re seeing stars, since all that moisture just disappears. Having a proper pint after a ride can be an adventure—all those desiccated cells in your body suddenly get refilled with alcohol. And the heat! It’s not really ‘warm’ often, out there; that word implies shelter and soft comfort. On long stretches of gravel, too-bright white reflecting the sun’s evil rays, it can feel like you’re an ant traversing a sidewalk, and a bratty kid with a magnifying glass has chosen you for his next victim.
Fortunately there was a nice swimming hole at the end.

Tom had deep mud and slick roots in a dense forest to contend with; dark, slimy, primeval forest. That kind of riding is near and dear to my heart. But California served up loose gravel and dusty dirt, occasionally sand, baked reddish clay, some big and bone-dry rocks. Theoretically, sand and deep dust work the same on a bike as does mud, but I’ve never been able to make the skills translate all that well. Dust just does not behave the same. Then there’s the exposure. In a few vertigo-inducing spots, it looked like one false move might send riders tumbling all the way back down to the basecamp, a good couple thousand feet. No sheltering trees to catch you, here. The views can be spectacular, but one had best keep the eyes on the trail. And of course, the elevation itself means there aren’t enough oxygen atoms in the air to breathe properly.
Costumes like these, involving lots of foam padding and/or fake fur, are best worn to sunny events — they get really heavy in rain.

But some things were the same—and this was the essence of the gathering, and of any good group ride. Rest stops where the camaraderie was just as nourishing as the food. Pushing hard and testing limits for a while, then easing up to take in the surroundings and chat with fellow riders. The wide variety of bikes chosen for the adventure, and stories told about their provenance. A wee dram or toke from secret stashes shared around. Staying afterward to meet up with old friends and make new ones over good local brews.
Purple haze at the afterparty.

For a while on my western ride I got to roll along with some California locals, old friends and new. They told me they have the same sort of culture shock riding in the East—this mud is so slippery! And there’s logs everywhere! The air is so dense and wet, I can barely breathe! Taken out of our native environment it’s a bit of a struggle. But these are minor inconveniences on the path to a good time. It’s always worth the effort to expand one’s riding range, to go wheel to wheel in unknown territory, to make new connections with friends yet unmet.
Campbell Steers from the Voler/Clif/HRS/Rock Lobster ‘cross team teaching a crayfish to drink beer.

 
The most-photo’ed participant turns the camera on the audience.

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