Throughout the 2015 season, Herbalife presented by Marc Pro — Strava up-and-comer Chris Harland-Dunaway will provide an insider’s perspective on the trials, tribulations, agony, ecstasy and adventures of racing on a domestic elite team.
Words from CHD: The branch lay right there. I could swerve hard to the left as I climbed, or roll straight over it, as my friend and teammate, Keith Hillier, had just done. I decided: Roll it.
It was not much of bump as my front wheel passed over the branch – we had been riding over twigs, sticks, ruts, washboard dirt roads, flat stones, and fir chaff all day. We were in the middle of a huge ride, out into the wilderness of Big Basin, on our road bikes. This is the sort of foray that Keith and I have cultivated into an art, forming lengthy email chains about potential roads we could explore, poring over satellite images together.
“Look at this, look at this – the road that goes into that clump of eucalyptus… But it looks like it comes out on the other side!”
“Hey, so I used Route Builder to outline the general route – but then checked these state park maps to cross reference. I think this loop is doable! Maps attached.”
“I heard that one OG, Jobst Brandt, talked his way past the farmer at that one gate and connected back to Hwy 1!”
This ride is not possible. But let’s try anyway.
These sort of excited conversations were always going on in the background of whatever we were doing. I was working at YouTube and when I had a bit of time between work, out came the satellite images, as I tried to put together a ride that had never been done before in the lead-up to what Keith and I called, “Epic Thursdays”. This was solely because Keith reliably had work off from REI every Thursday.
So far, our rides had taken us past old relics like defunct missile silos from WWII, an eerie old county prison, along 19th century milling roads, through California’s web of state parks, and a couple times, into bad situations. Memorable ones include hiking several miles through knee-high bramble because an old forgotten road we spotted on a map was… old and forgotten. Or the time we raced each other down a single-track trail and I crashed into a thicket of poison oak.
But this time I rolled the branch in the middle of Big Basin State Park and so began a most astonishing adventure. We’ve all done big rides where you ride a long way and really push yourself, maybe hit up some mixed terrain. But adventure rides differ because you’re presented with hardship or some obstacle, or there is a degree of mystery that swirls around the possibility of completing the ride. Best, and most important of all, you never know what exactly will happen or what you will see.
As I rolled over the branch, I had no way of knowing that the innocuous detritus would become the genesis of one of my most memorable adventures. My rear wheel passed over it and I heard a terrible sound. The sound of springs and metal straining on metal, of spokes colliding with bicycle components. I looked down and could almost see it as it happened – part of the branch wedged in my rear derailleur, and in slow motion, ripped it off the bike.
I unclipped and jumped off the bike immediately, as though this terrible thing could be undone. I wished I had taken the line around the branch, this wasn’t happening, this couldn’t be happening. My rear derailleur hung loosely from my now useless bike. Keith and I stood staring at it, in the middle of Big Basin wilderness late in the winter afternoon. The sun was getting low in the trees.
The next phase was complete acceptance and trying to figure a way out.
“I’ll start walking, and when you get to a place with service, call Alicia and let her know what’s happened and then call a taxi to meet me at the top of China Grade,” I said to Keith.
Here’s the thing about Keith. He’s a mechanic. He’s not your run-of-the-mill bike wrencher; he’s a truly creative and industrious individual. He routinely salvaged key parts from doomed components and bikes at REI and Beeline Bikes and used them to fix other bikes.
“Oh, check this out, I saved this from that old Huffy that guy brought in,” he would routinely say in some form or another as he produced a rare and critical nut or bolt from his drawer and fixed another bike in seconds.
Whether at his work, or in Big Basin, his creative approach is always the same.
I could take out the chainbreaker, take off the rear derailleur, and convert your bike to singlespeed.
Genius! Keith set to work, and in a few minutes, he had rejoined the chain with a master link he always kept in his saddlebag, just in case.
“Okay, so the chain is slack and it’s on your 28 tooth cog. Pedal as smooth as you can. If the chain skips down to the 11, stop pedaling and don’t force it, because you can break the chainstay.”
Beggars can’t be choosers.
So we set off again. I was pedaling as smoothly as mechanically possible, but the bumpy dirt climbs made it impossible for the chain to stay put, as it skipped to and fro up and down the cassette. The noises were awful and disconcerting, and the bike, in every practical way, was still un-rideable.
I started running with my bike alongside me up the hills, as Keith rode ahead and then waited a few minutes for me to catch up. It was painstaking. I was going to get caught in the dark, in the middle of this cold forest.
But then, Keith started talking again, the tone in his voice musing at the possibility of a different solution.
If we can use a stick or something, we could imitate the first derailleur. We just need a little force to push the chain back into place so it doesn’t skip. We’d be combining two technologies with 100 years in between them, but it might work.
Keith took out his frame pump which he had duct tape strategically wrapped around. Duct tape can fix anything. He placed a stick from the side of the road up against the chainstay and the seatstay and I held it while he taped it to the frame. He stood back.
It looked highly dubious.
We both held our breath as I climbed onto the bike, clipped one foot into the pedals, pushed off, clipped the other in, and started to pedal.
It worked. Inexplicably.
It was a moment of Keith’s ingenuity forever more remembered as “The Caveman Derailleur”.
It is a beautiful feeling to be given back the ability to ride a bike when you have run along dirt roads alongside your machine, pushing its useless carcass.
We started climbing fast now, racing the setting sun. After we reached the top, we rode along a flat plateau overlooking Big Basin, now bathed in golden hour light. As I descended I held the bike at an angle to the right of my body, to keep the slack chain from clattering against the spokes of my rear wheel, which could have been a source of more disastrous consequences.
Finally we reached Highway 9.
It’s a long gradual climb for 6 miles, with some excellent vistas over the Santa Cruz Mountains, densely carpeted with redwoods. Highway 9 has been the site of most of my bonks. Keith and my Epic Thursdays deserve immense credit for the huge gains I have made over the years in metabolic efficiency and overall endurance physiology. I remember a handful of terrible bonks on Highway 9, where I could barely hold 200 watts, I wanted to barf, and I was lightheaded. Meanwhile, Keith pedaled next to me, checking his email and playing a tower defense video game on his phone, patiently waiting for me to get it together.
This time up joined the annals of hard times on Highway 9, because we had decided on a singlespeed setup on the 28 tooth cog, I was spinning 100rpm and barely putting out any power.
Keith called his wife, Jen, and she drove up to the Skyline fire station to rescue us at a moment’s notice. We piled into the car, mentally frayed and physically exhausted, with the adventure over, at last.
As with all adventures, you just want to escape, but strangely, I always find myself relishing the total removal of civilization’s safety and support. You are shaken awake from the notion that nothing can go wrong. Its just you, your bike, the road, and whatever friend you’re with. Just remember to always bring duct tape and a mind open to every creative possibility.
Check out CDH’s adventure route: strava.com/activities/243491087.
Ride on routes you’ve yet to explore and chronicle your adventure with photos. Complete an adventure ride that’s two hours or longer between now and April 7 and unlock the ability to purchase an exclusive Adventure Challenge kit.