Photo: Julie Krazniak breaking it down – photo by @mmcyclist

Today began with a cruise through my past.

It’s been years since I’ve visited the town where I was born, but Santa Barbara remains as beautiful as I remember it. In place of the veil of morning fog that usually begins each day on the Southern California coast, we had sunshine and air so crisp and clean it felt like a just-washed window. The Santa Ynez mountains towered above the Pacific, and I felt a mix of joy and sadness to see the views I took for granted as a child.

We rolled down State Street’s stucco walls and red tile roofs, passed the Wharf, where cars clatter over the boardwalk to the seafood restaurants and tourist shops on the pier. We hung a right on Cabrillo Boulevard, the beach to our left, with palm trees and grassy flats where artists sell their paintings every Sunday. We passed my elementary school’s playground, and rode my old bike commute home from 6th grade. We did not have to climb my nemesis hill, Portasuello, a wall of a road with a grade that, at least in my memory, rivals Coleman Valley road, the crusher at mile 80 of Levi’s Gran Fondo. As a kid, I had to push my candy-apple-red Schwinn 10-speed bike up that hill. In my twenties, I came back and rode it—but not without zigzagging.

We pedaled past the convenience store where I hitchhiked in seventh grade, because my friend and I had eaten too much candy and didn’t want to pedal back up the hill. My mother, driving, spotted our bikes in the back of the teenage boys’ pickup truck, after which they screeched to a halt and threw us out, and sped off. We cruised past the houses of friends long since moved, and smelled the distinct smell of eucalyptus and kelp that always reminds me of California.

The scenery was a good distraction from the pain in my knees. It’s a new pain—not IT band pain that is often the end of me—but under the patella. It hurts particularly on hills. I’ve spent every day now riding in granny gear to protect my knees, and getting dropped repeatedly on the climbs. And part of my journey here has been learning to be okay with that. The first two days, the group fractured, and I brought up the rear. The third day, I was the weak link that the others pulled, pushed, and dragged along. So far, I have not made one pull or done any work for the group—I’m just trying to hang on.

I was not sure I would be able to make it up the climb out of Santa Barbara. I told myself that if the pain crossed over from discomfort into injury, I would hop in the SAG van. One of my goals for this ride was to ignore my ego, and listen to my body. The longest ride I have done in the last 2 years was a 60-mile social ride for Bo Bikes Bama. We sat down for lunch in the middle, and stopped frequently for photos and snacks. It took us 8 hours. The longest ride I have done in the last 6 months? Around 35 miles and change. This is not the way to prepare for the Tour of California.

On paper, I am way out of my league with this group. We have two professional cyclists with 15+ years of competitive riding under their belts. We have women who, in riding season, average five or six rides a week and at least two hours a ride. After me, the next-least-experienced rider has done a 600-mile multi-day ride. On a good week, I make it to two 45-minute spinning classes and ride for two hours on Saturday and Sunday. I can’t remember the last week that actually happened.

But my ability to suffer carries me through the miles. Restraint, I repeat to myself. Restraint. If I reign in the pace to one I can sustain, it will get me farther than trying to keep up with others. PMA, I tell myself over and over, a mantra. A positive mental attitude can trump a well-trained pair of legs answering to a negative mind.

I made it up the climb. And the reward was a sweeping view of this Mediterranean looking enclave on the edge of the blue Pacific. We stood on a cliff and took in what we’d earned.

The rest of the day went downhill from there. And by “downhill” I so wish I meant a long, swooping descent. We found ourselves on a high-traffic road with no shoulder, fighting gusts of wind threatening to shove us into the path of cars whizzing by at highway speeds, just inches from our elbows. It was terrifying, for us and for our support crew watching and wincing. After too many harrowing miles of this, the guys pulled us off the road, packed our bikes in the van, and drove us to a safer place to get back on the course. Good call, guys. In the real Tour of California, these roads are closed to traffic.

From here, we found ourselves riding through headwinds and crosswinds that gusted and shifted and made me realize how unrelenting wind has driven people to insanity. We shifted into different formations, with our pros at the front, bearing the brunt of it. Meredith, Julie, and Abby pulled us through the wind, past manure-scented farmland and other uninspiring places on the way to “Pissmeoff Beach.”

At some point, on some minor incline, I decided to get in the van. My knees hurt. I wanted to stretch them. And so I did. I lay on my back with my feet in the air for a while, hoping to reduce the swelling. And after 5 miles, I got back on the bike. And stayed on it. That quick hop in the van did a world of good, both for my body and my mind. It broke the spell of “riding every mile” and took a lot of pressure off. More importantly, it took away the pressure I might feel on Days 6 and 7 to ride past discomfort and into injury.

Pismo Beach was a welcome sight, as was the tri-tip that our Sag Monkey (he likes to be called that) sliced for us after the ride, and the fresh strawberries plucked from a farm stand by our awesome Rapha guys. Our support crew cannot be praised enough for their thoughtfulness, hard work, and great attitudes.

The support and film crew behind the #raphatoc is nothing short of amazing. They fill our bottles, pump out tires, tune our bikes, and run up with a wheel when we have a flat. They make us rice cakes, hand us snacks, and buy us fresh berries and tri tip and Nutella for an immediate post-ride feast–before dinner. They wash our stanky kits and load/unload out overpacked suitcases. They hang out of car windows to film us and yell encouraging things when they see us hurting. They drive in front of us to block the headwind. Is this what it’s like to be a pro? I suspect it’s better. Thanks guys! You’re our heroes!!

By Kim Cross - Birmingham, Alabama – Competitor, writer, editor, mother, wife, all around bad ass. Learn more about Kim at Spokeswoman.me.