In a race as long and brutal as The Rock Cobbler, you will have an epiphany. Mine came around mile 25 but I didn’t fully understand it until I was standing in the middle of Hollywood Blvd the following night.
The movie McFarland USA was having its red carpet World Premiere at the El Capitan Theatre. I was there. Sunburned, comatose and not exactly in the mood to talk to anyone, let alone be a charming and engaging interviewer of the stars and creators of the movie.
Based on the true story of the 1987 McFarland High cross country team, Disney had the actual runners who inspired the movie on the red carpet. I spoke to several of them making sure to ask the same question: “For the kids who hate running, what advice do you have for them to survive the mile in gym class?”
Turns out two of the guys were P.E. teachers and coaches. One even replaced Jim White (Kevin Costner’s character) at McFarland High and they all echoed his words.
“You gotta do it so you might as well wake up and have a positive attitude. If you hate it, you hate it but if you love it, you can be a champion. It’s all in the attitude.”
Go south from McFarland for 25 miles on the 99 and you’ll be in Bakersfield, home of The Rock Cobbler.
I got tipped off to the race back in November with a simple email from a buddy.
Let’s do this!!! We got time to train. Same guy that puts on the Bakersfield CX races, organized dude.
A month later, I finally worked up the motivation to register and thought about putting together a structured training plan. The Rock Cobbler would be my ticket to getting back into legit shape. For the last six months or so I’d been in an funk on the bike. Sleeping in and eating were my new favorite hobbies and not even the devious, juvenile fun of cyclocross season could fully snap me out of it.
By mid-January I finally starting riding with regularity and a twinge of mild panic. But there was no reason to get nervous. No matter how good of shape I was in, The Rock Cobbler would be an ass kicking. And that’s the beauty of cycling. Even when you’re at your best, you will still be a human punching bag. There’s simply no way to escape it.
On race day, we arrived at Lengthwise Brewing with plenty of time to prep before the mandatory rider meeting. To say that Sam, the ringleader of the madness, is an “organized dude” is a huge understatement. Starting with his first pre-race email, every facet of The Rock Cobbler ran as smooth, if not smoother, than any event I’ve ever participated in. Every ‘i’ was crossed and every ‘t’ dotted. When the meeting wrapped, I retreated to the car for some heated seat joy and a get pumped session with The Sword.
We were rolling just past 8am. The first 12 or so neutral miles ticked off quick and the race was on. At least for some people. Not entirely confident about how much wattage was in the cottage, I stuck to an easy, manageable pace and watched my friends vanish up the road.
Chugging along, the first seeds of doubt started creeping into my head. Why put yourself through the wringer if you feel like you’re just going through the motions? Why even try riding that hill? Look at all the people walking. Get off your bike now and save yourself the trouble.
So that’s what I did. Then I got to the top of the hill and was greeted by a dude dressed as a taco.
The absurdity of the scene made me laugh. It takes a special kind of idiot to wake up on a Sunday morning and put on a taco costume just as much as it takes a special kind of idiot to wake up on a Sunday and go pedal a bike 100 miles.
Somehow, we all manage to find each other.
On the descent that followed Taco Guy Hill, things started coming together. A short distance later, on a random, nondescript turn, it clicked like a cracked safe. In the split second of air my bike caught as we transitioned from pavement to dirt, a switch was flipped. By the time we sank into the soft dirt back on Earth, Goose had talked to me.
Riding bikes was suddenly the best thing ever all over again.
And it couldn’t have been a more perfect day for a ride.
I caught and passed a small group and took another rider along to the next group up the road. We all worked together and miles quickly piled up. We pushed it on the rollers and through the orchards to the first Checkpoint Charlie. After a quick stop, it was game on and we stayed together until splintering on the first big climb. At its base, I turned to the lone female in our group and said, “Any time you need to drop us go right ahead.”
She chuckled, then proceeded to leave us in the dust a couple miles later. We wouldn’t see her again until the out and back climb. She was on her way back and we still had to go a long way out.
The first 54 miles of the Rock Cobbler turned out to be warm up for the main event that would be happening on the course’s back nine. Things kicked off with a steady, grinding eight mile climb that turned to dirt once it ran out of road. From what I could remember of the elevation profile, this was the biggest climb of the day so the last 38 miles had to be a cakewalk back to Bakersfield.
Then I realized Sam designed the course with all the cruelty of a fraternity pledge master.
As our Garmins crossed mile 62, we started scanning for the next Checkpoint Charlie. Surely it’d be in a nice shady spot at the bottom of the descent we were cruising down.
Nope. It had to be at the top of one final 15% wall perfectly centered under the blazing sun.
After getting our bearings back, we returned the way we came. An hour and fifteen minute climb transformed into a 20 minute descent. Back at the aid station, we refueled for the homestretch and had a mini-dance party/karaoke session with the volunteers. I still clung to the naive hope that we were entering the easiest part of the day.
For while it was. Then around mile 75 we crossed paths with a mountain lion. There could be no better omen of what was to come than a goddamn mountain lion sitting in the middle of the trail enjoying a nice little Sunday Funday. Eventually it disappeared into the brush and the group of us that bottlenecked a safe distance away made a break for it.
Before we bolted past the mountain lion that was lurking in the brush to our left, I flipped on my GoPro just in case any of us were mauled. (Can’t let potential YouTube gold go to waste.) I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to realize it was in still photo mode so this is all the evidence of Puma concolor that we got.
Once we made it through the Crucible de Cougar, the course had us hanging a u-turn and going by it all over again.
No worries though. We were on the homestretch. We had to be. Then my buddy Chad noticed orange cones speckling the hillside.
The final climb turned out to be the most brutal of the entire Rock Cobbler. On the elevation profile, it wasn’t any bigger than a pimple but what a mean and nasty pimple it was. We’re talking prom night and in the middle of your forehead. Bright red, rock hard, and ready to explode. It wasn’t even a climb. It was a multi-pitch hike-a-bike that culminated with a push up a 35% grade to the summit that was so slippery it felt like it was paved with ball bearings.
At the top, the volunteers assured us the hard stuff was behind us and all that was left was the final run to the finish. And what a run it was. Coming off of Mount Pimple, the course routed us through a crazy, twisty chalk white canyon that was straight out of classic Star Trek. Railing around each turn I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Captain Kirk brawling with a lizard man. It eventually spit us out at Hart Park, home of the annual NorCal vs SoCal cyclocross showdown. Who knew such an incredible trail was hiding behind that damn run-up?
We climbed out of the park and rolled into the final Checkpoint Charlie, cruelly positioned next to a packed honky-tonk that sounded like they were wildly re-enacting Urban Cowboy inside. Adding misery to misery, our task at this checkpoint was to remove our shoes and socks before getting our cards punched. It was a silly task but was it psychologically brutal. Grab a chair, let your aching dogs get some air, have an ice-cold Coors if you like…
Luckily, we didn’t fall into that trap and kept going. The final 12 miles on the bike path back to civilization would be over before we knew it. So of course Sam had take us off the path and onto a route straight out of a Family Circus dotted line cartoon in the Sunday paper. At this point, it wasn’t surprising that there was one more twist.
We slogged through it as best we could and enjoyed the waning moments. With two miles to go, I had my first and only crash of the day trying to plow through the sandy river bed. I laughed as I un-pretzeled myself from under my bike. It was a nice reminder that The Rock Cobbler wasn’t done until it was done.
It was done when we rolled under the balloons at the finish. We showed our completed punch cards, verified our names, and that was that.
The ride back to Lenghtwise was smooth except for getting two flats. Always a nice parting gift.
The after-party was a fog. Starving but lacking the motor skills required to eat, I picked at a pile of the best mac ‘n cheese ever as I sipped the best beer I’ve ever tasted. Between bites we managed to swap semi-coherent war stories and laughed at the awesome ridiculousness of being handed heavy ass hammers as trophies. A couple times we yelled out “hammer fight!” but there were no takers. Everyone was too exhausted or too into their beer to bludgeon a stranger.
From start to finish, The Rock Cobbler was an incredible event and the Bakersfield cycling scene is a hidden treasure. The terrain, roads, and people are as good as any you’ll find anywhere.
Can’t wait to do it again next year.
Set Up Notes: A 1x was decently suited for the Rock Cobbler course. A five mile stretch of pavement 30 miles in had me cruising in the 40 x 11 at 25mph. The only spot where the absence of a larger chain ring was really noticed was on the 8 mile return decent following the day’s biggest climb. Then again, getting to take a breather and coast at 30mph isn’t a bad thing. Gearing was plenty low though the 36T cog did see a lot of use. If you’re in it to win it, a double would be the way to go. It should be noted that according to Neil Shirley’s report for Road Bike Action, second place finisher Burke Swindlehurst ran a 42 x 11-36. Their race came down to a sprint finish with Swindlehurst crossing the line 0.2 seconds behind Shirley.
Here’s what Swindlehurst had to say about running a single ring:
@themunson Sorry, I'm off-the-back when it comes to twitter these days! 1x worked great. 11-36 cogset w/a 42 up front. Worked like a charm!
— Burke Swindlehurst (@slctbird) February 24, 2015
Tire selection was on the big side. Next time around, I’d likely opt for something narrower but the Nano’s are so much fun to ride. 55-60psi was good for the pavement and hard pack and manageable on the rough stuff. Don’t know that adding Stan’s to the tubes actually helped. The rear tire started going soft with about a mile to go and was flat soon after the finish. The inside was soaked with sealant and the culprit looked to be your run-of-the-mill goat head.
Sam specifically mentioned to not run even think about running tubulars in several of his pre-race emails. He clearly knew what he was talking about. Crossed paths with a rider whose race was cut short very early thanks to using tubulars. He was on his third flat and all out of sealant.
The Ergon CF3 post was my secret weapon. I had zero lower back pain. If you can hunt one down, get it.
A road bike? Don’t even think about it unless you’re a semi-crazy pro like Nate King. He was the only one on a road bike to finish.
In my pockets to start:
2 GU Roctane gels
2 Rip van Wafels
2 Bonk Breaker Bars
2 Skratch Labs hydration mix packets
2 Bottles of Skratch mix (on the bike)
Nutrition Notes: Thanks to sporadic bouts of impersonating a triathlete, I knew to keep eating and drinking throughout the day even if I wasn’t feeling the need. Tried to pace it so that my bottles were empty by the next checkpoint. The checkpoints were fully stocked with a variety of goodies: GUs, Bonk Breakers, Fluid hydration mix, oranges, bananas, Pringles, Mountain Dew and tequila just to name few.
In total I think I ended up taking down 6 or 7 GUs, 2 or 3 Bonk Breakers, 1 Rip van Wafel, 1 banana, half an orange, an 8 oz Mountain Dew, a handful of Pringles and a random piece of mandatory chocolate. I drank 4 bottles of Skatch Mix, 3 of Fluid, and 3 with good ol’ H2O- enough to have to take three potty breaks. Never felt hungry until five miles from the finish (a buffet was waiting) and didn’t have a single cramp until Monday night. Go figure.