When we left off it was 3 in the morning and we were standing outside our hotel waiting for our van, driver, and bikes to arrive. I was tired and anxious and not entirely sure how I would manage to get through the experience on just an hour and a half of sleep and some crappy Nescafe.
Our chariot arrived, and by chariot I mean cargo van. There was only two passenger seats in the front so two people would have to rage in the cage (as we affectionately called it) on a mattress and no windows or way to talk to the front. For once I was happy to be on the receiving end of chivalry, as B and Zach agreed to spare Kate and I the motion sickness and terror.
As we were staying at the far northern part of the Dead Sea and the race began at the southern edge, it took about an hour to get to the starting line in a random parking lot. The ride was a bit nerve wracking.. there’s not really lane lines to speak of and it was mostly pitch dark because most of the time we were driving right along the sea. There was also a disconcerting amount of places where the guardrails had been blown away, presumably by drunken party Arabs who plunged to their death in the sea after a night of drinking.
It was during this initial ride to the starting line that we also learned of Hassan’s deep and abiding love for the song What Does the Fox Say. No seriously, motherfucker LOVED that song. I think we heard it at least 20 times along the course the day. He also loved to randomly turn the volume up to ear-splitting 11, which is pretty much the last thing you need at 3:30 in the morning.
We made it to the start promptly at 4am, as requested, only to find that we were basically the first ones there… minus a bunch of Brits who worked for an NGO that doesn’t allow them to drive after dark, so they “camped” in the parking lot all night (and by “camped” they meant “drank a shitload of gin”). We got our team registered and all set up and availed ourselves to the coffee, tea, and snacks they had available while we waited for the race to begin.
The setup was apparently far more elaborate this year than when Zach had did it in previous years and it was a much more casual, thrown together thing. That said, they did pick a parking lot that was basically covered in shattered glass, so it did still maintain that “eh, fuck it..” charm you so often find in Middle Eastern/Asian countries.
It was decided that Zach would go first, and then we pretty much just had to play the waiting game until it was time to race.
Just before 6:00am everyone started to get lined up to begin. The race has several different categories of competitors, from the elite group that contained members of the national cycling team of Jordan (so the people that will in theory go to the Olympics next year), to road bikes, to the “open” category, which was people on hybrids and mountain bikes (and the category we were in).
At 6 on the dot, the race was on! Zach screamed something about doing it for beer and cheese through his face mask as he shot out like a rocket.
The next six hours went basically as follows: one person would get on the bike and take off while the rest of us would put the currently-not-in-use bike back on the van and get situated. We’d then go catch up with our rider and chill along side them until they got tired and then we’d zoom a few kilometers up ahead to get in place to trade off. We started out trying to each do 10km legs, but we fairly quickly figured out that shorter time-based legs worked better for us. The race only had 1, 3, or 5 person team options, so we were a 5 person team with only 4 and it worked better to swap out often and keep everyone relatively fresh. The first few legs for me were a bit rough, as I hadn’t been on my bike nearly as much as I should have leading up to the trip and riding a big knobby-tired hybrid bike was much more of a workout than my typical cyclocross w/ it’s slicks.
Thankfully since we were going slow enough, it was acceptable to keep the back door of the van open so that no one had to sit in terrifying darkness and instead we could all shout encouraging slogans at each other.
The scenery in the desert was absolutely breathtaking. I have a habit of getting lost in my surroundings while on my bike and ending up straggling along at a crawl because I’m too distracted by what’s going on around me… and man, this was a particularly difficult impulse to fight during this race. As I’d never really spent any time in the desert before it was mostly all new to me, and it was also surprising how many different types of desert we’d see in relatively short periods of time… sometimes it was rocky, sometimes smooth sand dunes, sometimes filled with scrub brush.. and everywhere was backed by gorgeous mountains.
There was also an UNBELIEVABLE amount of garbage littered along the sides of the road. Like, obscene amounts of garbage. Zach’s theory on the mentality that leads to this is basically twofold and somewhat related. One, to Jordanians the desert is just a big, vast stretch of “that’s the King’s problem and not mine” so people don’t feel any particular ownership in it or pride in keeping in clean. Two, Arabs put a premium on their personal spaces and keeping them in order, so to them it would be insane to keep an empty bottle or some kind of garbage in their car, fouling up the joint… to them it makes much more sense to chuck it out the window and out of their personal sanctuary.
After a few hours we did not see many other teams too often, though there was a few individual riders and one particular other team in our group named BAT that we would leapfrog from time to time. The team was comprised of middle aged guys, and as we kept seeing each other we engaged in plenty of friendly shit talk. Ahhh, shit talking, the international language. It was all in good fun, and we were actually very happy to have them because it made us far more competitive. We had gone in to the race with the attitude of “meh, we just want to have fun and finish”, but as the day ran on and we saw that we were doing well, the desire to win kind of took over. It helps that Branden is insanely competitive and hates to lose.. this became important as the race went on.
So, we took turns blasting across the alkali flats and listened to What Does the Fox Say approximately 49 million more times and found a camel skull and raged in the cage. I also got the unique experience of biking by a dead-but-not-totally-decomposed camel, which is a smell I will not soon forget.
As the race went on, thanks to ol’ Iron Lungs Branden our lead continued to remain sizable, and though we’d still see our main competitors pretty regularly we figured we had it in the bag. The race ended in a city called Aqaba, which is also a special economic zone within the country that is all duty free, to encourage tourism. When we reached the border of the special economic zone, we had to stop at a checkpoint. Since we were in a van that had a company name on it we were forced to stop so that Hassan could go and file tax paperwork so that he wouldn’t try to sell off his bikes tax free or some such nonsense. Thankfully Zach was aware that this was a possibility, so he hopped out of the van and grabbed the bike from Branden so that someone with fresh legs could start a leg in case we were significantly delayed by paperwork. Hassan went in to the building w/ some officials and we then had to spend several very tense minutes watching group after group of cyclists and support vehicles get waved through and sent on their merry way without a question. Thankfully Hassan had his documents in order and handled things with the quickness and we were able to get going and catch up with Zach, who hadn’t lost any ground.
It was mighty suspicious then that suddenly, out of nowhere, another team of 5 and their support vehicle materialized between BAT, the team we had been leapfrogging all day, and us… they definitely did not pass us at the checkpoint and we hadn’t seen them all day, so they definitely cut in somewhere in an attempt to cheat. We consulted with BAT who had also noticed this and were wondering what the fuck was up, and they shared our conclusion that these fuckers were trying to cheat… which is just… the hell? There’s not a cash prize, there’s literally nothing at stake but pride.. what a stupid competition to cheat in.
They were real smug assholes about it too once they realized that we knew they were fucking around, shooting us shit eating grins and laughing at us and shit. This only served to make us not only competitive but angry as hell, and we were going to show those sons of bitches what was up.
As we started to come in to the city, the race kept getting tighter and tighter. The race was to end on the grounds of a (completely INSANE) resort that isn’t even open yet (and won’t be until 2025), after taking a loop around it’s golf course in the desert and several lagoons (what did I say.. it was insane). Branden was set to take us home and we all thought it was basically over when he turned a corner and a. saw a sign that there was still 6km inside the resort to go and b. was blasted by the first significant headwind we’d experienced all day.. and it was a killer.
For the last 6km of the race, any member of your team can be riding, so Kate decided to hop on the other bike to follow B in case some horrible mishap took place so that all our hard work would not be for naught. I took great pleasure in seeing the cheating asshole come around the corner and smack right in to the headwind and basically lose all momentum and struggle to even peddle. Haha. Fucker.
Meanwhile, Zach and I had to go to the finish line with the van and there we spent several nerve wracking minutes waiting for the racers to come in to view around the final corner.
Finally, in the distance we could see a black jersey snaking along without anyone right behind them.. it took a little bit to tell, but HOORAY! It was Branden! He did it!
Please enjoy this very terrible video that Zach was far too excited to take properly, which also gives a good idea of how windy it was:
Moments later, Kate also triumphantly crossed the finish line and the Dead2Red was over (well, for us.. there was still lots of teams behind us and some poor straggler didn’t finish for another 4 or 5 hours).
At this point we were like, 90% certain that we had won our division, but we would have to wait until later at the awards ceremony to be absolutely certain… but regardless, we were grimy and triumphant and also very ready to get to our hotel and check in and shower, since we all smelled in a way that people should not be able to smell.