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There's something surreal about driving into a small central California town at 4 a.m., turning toward the high school, and coming upon 1,000 or so people on bicycles milling around in the dark.
It's a surreal beginning to perhaps the most surreal of California sporting events, the Davis Double Century. An annual 200-mile ride through the hills of California's northern Central Valley, the DC -- as it's called by aficionados -- is a pageant of such pointless obsession, irresponsible excess, and glorious vanity that it almost makes the other big event that shares its May weekend, the Bay to Breakers, pale by comparison.
Originally launched in 1969 as a long-distance bicycle race, the DC evolved over the years to become what it is today: a vision quest for Everyman. People travel from all over the country and from as far away as Europe to do the ride. During recent years finishers have included an 85-year-old retiree, a 10-year-old schoolgirl, a man on a unicycle, and thousands of other people who have all accepted as an article of faith that if they cycle 200 miles in a single day, the rest of life might not seem quite so hard.
It's "the delight of doing well on a ride more grueling by 100 miles than any I have previously done," explains George Adams, of Massachusetts.
"It's a personal test," says Jeff Hall, 54, of Davis, who's ridden 21 Davis Double Centuries. "It's an electricity-type thing."
Many of the participants start at 1 a.m. Saturday to give their marginally conditioned bodies sufficient time to complete the ride. In a typical year participants continue straggling back to town late into the night, their salt-stained, pain-stretched faces piercing the air like ghosts.
At the finish line, riders receive a patch about the size of a Big Mac patty, a shout of encouragement from the handful of townies hanging around Davis High School, and a bowl of warm soup over gloppy rice billed as "dinner" -- a seeming slight given what the cyclists have just accomplished.
Then the agony of having ridden 200 miles at full tilt begins to seep beyond the riders' legs, shoulders, feet, and other body parts that actually participated in the effort, and into their fingernails, their eyebrows, and their hair.
But even the daunting knowledge of exactly what I was getting into didn't stop me from mounting my bike for what I hoped would be my ninth Davis Double Century.
I remembered that during the final 10 miles of my first DC 18 years ago, I cursed myself over and over again: "If you ever think of doing this thing again I will kill you where you stand. Do you hear me? I'll kill you."
But I didn't kill myself. And I was at the starting line again the following year at age 16, anxious to shave a couple of hours off my time.
Three years later, the speed-dulling effects of a scorching ride got me sent away from my dormitory at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Earning a trip to the world championships required success at 10-mile time trials, and an eight-hour-50-minute DC had sapped my short-distance speed. "You do stupid thing," was the assessment of our Polish-born coach.
A few years later I lay on the ground at the 170-mile mark of the ride as a nurse hovered over me trying to keep me from death by hyperthermia. In my delirium I almost resented her for denying me the sweet intoxication of unconsciousness.
It was with these memories that I piled into my car at 3 a.m. Saturday and joined hundreds of other Bay Area cyclists for the brief drive up Interstate 80 to Davis. Like the dozen or so people I asked during the ride, I found it impossible to explain to friends and family why I would continue to do this thing.
"I just had to give it another go," said one 50-ish woman who was later forced to give up after having insisted on starting this year's ride with a serious case of the flu.
"It's the camaraderie," suggested Jack Kenward, a Davis Bike Club member who helps run the dozen or so aid stations along the way.
But as I rolled out of Davis at 5:30 a.m., and 12 or so hours of pedaling spread out before me, the real answer emerged with the sunrise. The Zen nature of the endeavor settled back on me like a familiar garment, and I remembered what it was like to look forward to endless, dreamlike thoughts as my brain was ever so slightly deprived of oxygen. I anticipated the Tantric rhythm of the Double Century's long uphill grades. I remembered spinning my pain-dulled legs along meandering foothill streams and across the sun-scorched Central Valley until the texture of the landscape was the only thing in my mind. And I knew that the exact same thoughts were occurring simultaneously in a thousand other brains -- connected yet separate.
At mile 80, just as I had fully worked out this Zen/New Age Double Century explanation for the benefit of skeptical friends and family, my bicycle frame broke --an irreparable catastrophe. I waited three hours for a ride, then squished into the cab of a pickup with Rick, a laid-back yet pleasantly talkative electrical engineer, and Jim, an oddly effusive Oakland investor who had given up the ride because of stiff winds.
From the window of the pickup we watched a father and his 10-year-old son continue toward the 100-mile mark through pouring rain. We heard on Rick's CB radio that a 69-year-old man had been airlifted to a hospital in Santa Rosa following a crash. We watched swift-moving bicycle peletons dive from the foothills onto the patchwork of valley farm roads near Davis.
Rick, a non-cyclist who had volunteered to help support the event through his local CB radio club, maintained a serenely bemused expression on his face the entire time.
"This is a pretty interesting thing they've got going here," he said -- summing up, better than I ever could, this surreally seductive California dream.