the agony

The Agony ride is an annual charity bicycle ride and fundraising event for Christian Encounter Ministries, a home and school for troubled youth. My friend Zoya invited me to ride the Agony every year for the past few years, but I’ve always had an excuse to not ride. Last year I ran (ok more like waddled) the San Francisco half marathon, but I told Zoya I’d rather have done the Agony ride. I forget what my excuse was the year before that. This year I didn’t have an excuse.

The ride starts in a town called Loyalton, which I had never heard of. When I searched for Loyalton the first page of results had the site “Loneliest Town in America.” I suppose that’s not a bad thing– I mean you’d want a bike ride to be in a place without much car traffic…

The ride starts at the elementary school in the lonely town of Loyalton, which also serves as the main SAG (rest stop in bicycle terms) area. There are two more SAG stops, one at Vinton and one at Beckwourth, which actually seemed even more lonely than Loyalton. In fact there’s literally nothing at Beckwourth– the ride organizers bring in trailers and RVs and setup a mini camp there. The entire Agony ride consists of riding to Vinton, then riding to Beckwourth, then riding back to Loyalton. You repeat this loop until 24 hours are up or you feel like giving up.

I had pledged to ride 200 miles, but I honestly wasn’t expecting to ride all those miles. The longest training ride I had done was maybe 50 miles, so I was fully expecting my legs to give out before the 24 hours were up, well short of 200 miles.

The ride starts at 1pm on Friday, but check-in starts at 9am. Loyalton is about two and a half hours from my house, so to arrive at 9am I had to wake up at 6am. I woke up, barely functional, not having slept well the night before. I had stayed up late looking for random bike gear, stuff like arm warmers and bike lights that I rarely use, so I have no idea where they’re stashed away. And I didn’t sleep well, I tossed and turned wondering if I was missing some important gear.

I arrived at around 9am. I was pretty tired, and I hadn’t even started riding yet. I ended up parking next to a guy named Chris. It turned out that it was also Chris’s first agony ride, and he had really only started road biking 3 months ago. I’m pretty terrible at chatting people up, but Chris was really friendly, and talking to him put me at ease. I didn’t really know any other riders at the event, so I stuck with him at the pre-ride lunch. We ended up sitting next to Beau and Aaron. It was also Beau’s first Agony ride, but Aaron had ridden it before. We asked him for advice, and his response was to basically pace yourself and ride at an easy pace at the beginning so you don’t burn out before the end.

That was sort of my plan. I planned to ride a relatively easy 15 mile per hour pace. I figured at that pace my goal of 200 miles would take 13 or 14 hours, so there was plenty of time to take long breaks at SAG stops and even get in a good 6 or 7 hours of sleep. The ride started at 1pm, so I figured I could ride about 8 or 9 hours until dark, then try to sleep, and then ride the rest in the morning. I didn’t really want to ride much at night, I wasn’t sure how many hours the batteries on my lights would last, and besides riding on unfamiliar country roads in darkness sounds kind of scary.

At 1pm the riders gathered to start. I lined up next to Chris. I figured we would at least start out at a similar pace.

Because we all started en masse the cyclists form a long line leaving Loyalton. But the line would soon break up as the fast riders move to the front. I had heard some riders say their goal was 400 miles– at that pace they’d have to average close to 20mph, which to someone who doesn’t bike maybe doesn’t sound all that much faster than the 15mph I was planning to ride, but believe me it’s a huge difference.

I ended up riding with Aaron, Beau and Chris, the only people who I had met before the ride started. At times we were joined by a John and another Mike, but the core of A, B, C, and me stuck together for the entire first day.

As I mentioned earlier, the Agony ride is a charity event for Christian Encounter Ministries, which obviously is a Christian organization, so I guess it’s presumed that most of the riders are Christian. While we were riding Aaron had asked what our favorite verse was. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite verse, but the verse that stuck out to me was from Ecclesiastes, which my small group had been studying. It’s “A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”

The verse seemed relevant at the time. The route we were riding was completely flat, but at times there were stiff winds. After a certain point endurance cycling becomes more of a mental exercise than a physical exercise. It takes a certain mental resolve to keep pushing when your body is agony. Nothing breaks that mental resolve faster than riding against a strong wind. But because we were riding together and taking turns pulling (being the rider in the front), the wind wasn’t breaking my resolve. A cord of three strands is not easily broken; a group of four bikers riding in a line is not easily broken (by the wind) either.

At around sunset I took this picture of the silhouette of our group riding together. After 7:30 pm you can’t leave a SAG station without your lights. It was getting pretty close to that time. I figured I’d pick up my lights and arm warmers and then ride one more loop before calling it a night.

After we had finished our loop after sunset, it was pretty dark. But A,B, and C wanted to continue riding at least one more loop. I was pretty wary about riding at night, but with them I felt comfortable enough. I was worried about running out of batteries, and it turns out my fears were justified. I ran out of batteries halfway between the leg from Vinton to Beckwourth, but thankfully riding with three other people with powerful lights I was able to see well enough to ride to the Beckwourth SAG stop. Thankfully they had batteries at the SAG stop.

We arrived back at the Loyalton SAG stop at 4am having completed 4 loops together for a total of 152 miles. At this point I was exhausted and couldn’t ride any more. It turns out the rest of the group was too tired to move on too. At Loyalton there were sleep rooms, and we all found spots to turn in for the night. I thought it would take me a while to sleep, since my heart rate was high from riding, but I crashed–no wait, bad choice of words for a cyclist–I knocked out as soon as I lay down.

I guess I was the most exhausted, because I woke up a little past 7am and found that A,B, and C were already gone. I ate a leisurely breakfast, stretched, and hopped back on the bike a bit before 8am. At this point there was just under 50 miles left to reach my goal of 200, and I had a little over 5 hours to do it. Plenty of time. Whereas the day before I had spent the entire day riding with other people, I spent most of the second day riding alone. The area around Loyalton really does look like it could be the loneliest town in America. It’s an isolated valley, surrounded by the Sierra foothills on all four sides. Thankfully though, because of the way the ride is set up, you see people riding on the other side of the road pretty often, and you often get a wave or a cheer from them. Because I was alone I rode at my own pace, kind of slow at first, but as I started to approach 200 I picked up the pace, averaging between 18-20mph on my last leg before 200.

I arrived at the Vinton SAG stop with 202 miles on the odometer and a little over an hour left before the 1pm cutoff. I had met my goal, and I was feeling ecstatic. At the SAG stop there was one other rider, Jeffrey. He seemed pretty tired, but I asked him if he wanted to ride with me and try to ride one last leg towards the Beckwourth SAG stop.  We ended up not quite making it to Beckwourth, so we stopped on the side of the road when his alarm went off at 1pm. We were picked up by a support vehicle and taken back to Loyalton for the post ride meal and checkout. It turns out it was Jeffrey’s first Agony ride as a rider, but he was a SAG volunteer a few times before when he was a student at Christian Encounter Ministries. I was thankful that I got to ride with him for the last leg and hear his story. I had known that the Agony ride was for a good cause, but hearing real stories about CEM made it feel all the more worthwhile.

Here’s a picture of me (in front) riding with A, B, C, and John. Notice I’m sorta smiling. This picture was taken pretty early on. I’m sure I was smiling less and less the farther I rode. By the end I could say I truly felt agony, my whole body was in pain. But I could honestly say that I enjoyed myself as well. The camaraderie and support were incredible. Out of all the rides I’ve ever done this one had among the best food and SAG support, but more awesome than that was the fact that all the SAG supporters and fellow riders cheered each other on every chance they got.

My final total for the 2017 Agony ride was 213 miles. I want to thank all of my sponsors. In the end we raised more than $1000 together. To read more about the agony ride, you can go visit the Agony Ride website. And please visit the Christian Encounter Ministries website for more information about CEM.

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