Wednesday, April 8, 2009

San Francisco Randonneurs - Hopland 400km

I'm taking a short break from posting segments of my Paris-Brest-Paris report to toss in a ride report from the brevet series that I am riding in 2009. This past Saturday (April 4, 2009), I rode the San Francisco Randonneurs Hopland 400km. This is a route that is relatively new for SFR, having been used only once before in the lead up to PBP in 2007. That year, the brevet started at noon, effectively lengthening (if not doubling) the hours of night-time riding. A small minority of riders preferred the later start, but the majority of riders this year were vocal in their preference for the 6am start. The traditional SFR SR brevet events all start at the Golden Gate Bridge and 41 riders were gathered Saturday morning near the Strauss Statue at the bridge's visitor center, waiting for the start. On different brevets I've made more of an effort to be near the front of the departing pack, but on this day I pretty much let all the riders roll up the ramp ahead of me before I started myself.

The weather forecasts for Saturday published in the week leading up were all so favorable that it hardly seemed like it would be an SFR event. Skies were clear, winds light and temperatures, the further north we went, were expected to be near 70F. Ah, but getting to that northernmost point, and reaching the time of day when it would be the warmest meant travelling through a chilly morning and riding for many hours. Nearer to San Francisco, and therefore the SF Bay, pre-dawn temps were over 40F. Not so just after sunup in the San Geronimo and Nicasio Valleys. The climb over White's Hill after Fairfax, CA largely marks the transition from suburban to rural landscape and on this morning it also marked the transition from 40F, to temperatures that were much lower. Riding down the back side of White's Hill I felt the usual cooling effect as the perspiration generated by the climb up evaporated in the air rushing by as my downhill speed increased. That there was more than an added bite to the cooling was apparent very quickly and frost showing on the roadside grasses gave a clue hard to miss. Bruce Berg announced that his VDO cycle computer was registering the temperature at 31 degrees as we made the turn from Sir Francis Drake Blvd. on to Nicasio Valley road. Nicasio Valley Road got right to business, presenting us with another out of the saddle climb and we didn't much notice the 31F temps for a bit. Until of course we came down the backside of that climb.

Nicasio Valley Road passes by the Nicasio Reservoir at the northern end of the road, but before we even reached the short rise to the Reservoir we were confronted by a blanket of thick fog. This is where the chill really stung. Bruce and I had joined a large group of riders at this point and after pulling the group up toward the reservoir Bruce joined me at the back, behind Tim Houck, John Potis, Bryan Clarkson, Gabe Ehlert and Carlos Duque. As thick and cold as the fog was, our time in it was short-lived and shortly after turning right on the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road for yet one more climb we left the fog behind. I took it easy on this climb, staying near the back of the group and nearing the top while glancing in my mirror I noticed a pretty dramatic view. I told Bruce I would catch up and circled back looking for a good position to take a photo (see the lead photo in this entry above). I took a couple shots and then needed to work pretty hard to make contact with the remnants of the group. The last portion of the climb had finished spreading us out anyway and the downhill run past the Cheese Factory on the way to Hicks Valley only accentuated the gaps. The very first ride I had ever done in Marin County was along these roads, and since 1993 I've ridden out here many times. March and April, even in the dry years bring a gorgeous array of wild flowers along this route, and this year it was more of the same.

The standard route for much shorter, and less challenging rides going from Western Marin to Southern Sonoma county takes riders up the Bohemian Highway. We would make our way eventually to Bohemian, but not without first climbing Joy Road. Joy Road is one of those roadways that is much nicer to climb than to descend with the choice between up and down boiling down to this: Joy Road uphill is steep (some pitches may be 15%) and has a false summit halfway along, and down hill its a nearly five mile run of craptastic pavement. The Hopland 400km route spanning the two counties along here connects several small towns: Valley Ford and Bodega before Joy Road, then Occidental, Monte Rio and Guerneville, after Joy. Our first control was Guerneville and we arrived there shortly after 11am. The Safeway in Guerneville is just off of River Road and off to the one side there is a bike rack and a large planter which seems to attract all the riders as a place to sit while diving into the bags of food they brought out from the store. As Bruce, Tim, Ken Johnson, Carlos and I arrived, there were already quite a few riders there. I had been munching on dried appricots and cashews that I picked up in Valley Ford, and here I added my usual chocolate milk to a V8, banana and some sort of confection from the Starbucks counter. I really should have had more. Too often I cave into the 'I'm not really hungry right now' mindset and I pay for that later. Still, because I had been eating before and had enough to munch on for quite a while, eating small but frequently was working.

River Road is a road that some riders dislike because of the traffic. Along most of it's length, there is ample shoulder but much of that shoulder has rock debris from the hillsides and cliffs on the north side. The rocks are really angular and pretty successful at causing flats if you hit one, as was the case on the Santa Rosa 300km, which also used River Road a few weeks before. This day the traffic was managable and the shoulders largely clear so the run up along the Russian River was they way you like it: uneventful. Sonoma County has some really nice roads, and while Westside Road, which would take us to Healdsburg, has some views of the Alexander Valley that are gorgeous, the road surface often requries your attention. Chris Browder, riding a really nice Della Santa frameset, was pushing our pace a bit and I was struggling to hang on to the back. Chris managed to have more energy than the rest of us all day long, and I recalled that I usually see Chris in the latter miles of double centuries where he comes steaming up from behind always looking fresh and cheerful.

The official route, originally designed for a noon start, takes riders into Healdsburg. This works then but a 6am start has riders in town at around 1pm which seemed unnecessary, with Cloverdale not too far down the road. I expect that the route will stay west of town in future versions of this route, and most riders commenting after the ride seem to agree with that suggested change. West Dry Creek is little better than Westside, pavementwise, but just like Westside, the scenery is fabulous. Except for a little bit of confusion on the right way to leave town, the official route wasn't so bad, and as we crossed under US 101 we cleared 100 miles for the day so far, and we were out just over seven hours total time. This portion of the route is familiar to me as the first few miles of the Santa Rosa 400km and 600km routes, so I knew there were some rollers along Dutcher Creek Road that would spread out the group. Just after we left Dry Creek for the right turn on Dutcher Creek, Bruce and I fell of the back of the group but we could keep them in sight. Ahead, we saw the group pick up another rider that turned out to be Theresa, whom I had first met in the days just before Paris-Brest-Paris in 2007. Theresa was riding very well that day and while I was working on keeping contact with the group, she found the energy to take photos while riding within the pack, a trick I can't seem to pull off well.

Our whole group, which was up to seven riders now, decided to stop with me when I announced I wanted a break in Cloverdale. Like so many other points along the route this day, once we stopped, several other riders showed up as well. Gabe, John and Bryan were one group that stopped, and we saw them at every stop we made all day. They were all riding well that day, keeping a tight group and always smiling as they arrived at each successive stop. I had great company on this, and so many other days, but I still envied Gabe's group's cohesiveness and clear enjoyment of the ride. In Cloverdale, the route picks up CA 128 and after a very brief somewhat flat run, the climbing starts. I had first driven that road many years before and my very first thought then was 'what would this be like riding a bike? Probably tough but still fun.' This was my third time climbing this segment of 128 on a bike, and just as I had thought way back when, this was indeed an equal mix of tough work and fun. Pretty much the fun on this climb though is the anticipation of Mountain House Road. Mountain House from the south begins with a screaming fast descent, interupted by a very short gravel section that can't seem to ever stay paved, and the rest of the length of the road is alternating climbs and descents through what is knock-your-socks-off beautiful scenery. This was scenery I didn't know existed until the 3rd time I had ridden Mountain House, and that was because the first two times on that road it was pitch dark.

Along Mountain House, Bruce and I again dropped off the back of the main group though we could still see them until I decided I just had to stop and take some photos. This too was something I always regretted not doing enough of on rides and if I wasn't improving on the other facets of my total ride experience, at least I was on this count. In looking back at my PicasaWeb albums I found that I had taken a photo on the 2007 Davis 600km in nearly the same spot. This time I think the wildflowers made the difference. All the riders from our pack plus more were waiting at the Hopland Valero station. In 2007 on the 400km, we had arrived there at 11:50 and standing in line for the bathroom we managed to get locked in the store when they closed. It was long before closing time this time though and we gathered up all that looked good to eat and drink and sat in the warmth of the front porch of the store. I had a hankering for a fountain soda drink and got a nice big one to sip as we all chatted and told stories outside. Christian F. arrived toward the end of our break but was quick enough through the store to be ready to leave with us as we headed out.

Hopland marks the northernmost point on the route, but is quite a bit futher than the halfway point for mileage. It is also well beyond the halfway point in elevation gain, which is a good thing as others in our group were showing signs of fatigue. Had we needed to climb back over Mountain House Road, the ride would have been a much tougher one and it is tough as it is, but our route took us along the wide paved shoulder of Highway 101, which for the most part is a down hill run along the Russian River between Hopland and Cloverdale. The wide shoulder on 101 is nicely paved and is separated from the car and truck traffic lanes by a rumble strip. A couple of times I managed to drift onto the rumble strip, and even my Grand Bois tires couldn't soak up that jarring experience. Even though the stretch on 101 is only eight miles long, by seven and a half miles I'm always more than ready to get off on to quieter roads. Before we could get off of 101 though, Ken had his first flat of the day and once rolling again we crossed under 101 after the exit and made our way along the Geysers Road headed back toward River Road. Here the course overlaps a few miles of the end of the morning loop on the Terrible Two. Our group fell into a serious paceline which we kept up until we reached Geyersville. While stopped there Bruce noticed that his wind vest was missing, and slowly it dawned on him that more than just his vest was missing. He had also left behind is fanny pack. No more than 60 seconds after he was preparing to ride back to Hopland, up rode a group of five riders who had taken turns carrying his '12 pound bag'. Bruce, as you can imagine, was escatic. After the excitement of the return of the prodigal fanny pack, we rolled out of town in the late evening light and resumed the paceline work, and kept that routine up for miles until midway along Chalk Hill road where it was then late enough that we needed to put on reflective gear and get our lights ready.

From the point where we reached Windsor, CA, the route would be in suburban areas and the roads would be north-south or east west until we reached the open space between Petluma and the areas south of Santa Rosa/Rohnert Park. Just as we made our turn onto Ludwig for the short leg over to Stoney Point Road, Ken had another flat. As it was for the first flat, I really wasn't too unhappy to have to stop and I took the time to eat a little and rearrange items in my handle bar bag. Once Ken was operational again, we all rolled off for the run into Petaluma.

Our control in Petaluma was the Safeway on McDowell, often used on SFR brevets for this very purpose. Talk among our group was of having hot soup at the Safeway, but alas we arrived too late for that. I ended up roaming around the store several times with nothing striking me as just what I was craving. This is where things sort of fell apart for me on this ride. I didn't eat enough and I didn't eat the right things and moments after our pack left for the final leg to the Bridge I was experiencing nausea. My energy level would ebb and flow and at first I'd be way in front on the climbs and a moment later I'd be struggling to keep up with the tail end. The hills really strung our group out, and I worked to keep the last three riders in sight. I caught them finally once we made the turn onto Nicasio Valley Road, with my stomach settling down enough to find an even pace. The climb up Dixon Ridge, cresting at Cici's Memorial has so often in the past been a momentum killer for me. Even though the last couple of times up that hill haven't been as bad as usual, I had no expectation for what would happen at this point. As the incline increased I was able to keep up with the group and after some shifting around for position, I found myself in the front of our group. I wanted to keep a good pace if for no other reason that to confirm I was getting over the nausea and had found my rhythm again. A moment later I looked back and all three other riders were fading off the back. To say I was surprised by this turn of fortunes is an understatement, and I wanted to ride it out as far as it would go and by the time I reached the crest no one was yet in sight. I cruised down the back side, past the golf courses and under the foot bridge, and finding Sir Frances Drake Blvd. clear I crossed over and stopped for the other riders to keep up. First Bruce, then Kitty showed up and we began to wonder about Anthony until a motorist pulled over and told us our rider was stopped on the side of the road up the hill. Turns out Anthony had merely dropped a chain and he soon joined us.

With the 'leftover' group intact we rode east to clear White's Hill and drop down into Fairfax. Again on White's Hill I was able to climb with comparitive ease and it took some dawdling in Fairfax for the others to catch up. The route sheet for any SFR brevet that begins at the Golden Gate Bridge and heads north will always be dominated by the sheer number of turns and street name changes that cover the last 20 miles of the ride. That section is daunting for out of town riders and their best option is to hook onto the wheel of a local also on the brevet. It is a route I know well, even in the dark though and as our group traveled through the post-midnight streets we began to pick up a few of the stragglers from the earlier fragmentation of our group of 12. Ken Shoemaker and Ken Johnson were with us to make our group temporarily six, until Kitty and Anthony dropped off on the climb up Camino Alto. From this point most of the route back is on a bike trail until we hit Sausalito. Both the trail and the streets in that last Marin town were empty and we could ride at our own pace. The last grunt of a climb is from sea level in downtown Sausalito up to the level of the Golden Gate Bridge. Not huge by any standards but when it is at the end of 250 miles, and it is often windy, it is a significant climb. We crossed on the East Side of the bridge, having to stop twice to trigger the request to open the gates. At last we coasted down the ramp to the Visitor's Center area at the Bridge to find Mark Behning, and Scott and Melissa ready to check us in.

In spite of having a great weather day, weather still played a part with the early morning and post midnight chill. The elevation gain is pretty close to that for the same distance on PBP, and yet this seemed to be a very hilly ride. Certainly, PBP doesn't have a Joy Road type climb or even one like the climb to Mountain House. My time was nearly two hours faster than in 2007, and this was my 2nd fastest 400km, but the funny thing was it was one of Bruce's slowest 400kms. I have no idea how this will relate to how the 600km will go at the end of May, but so far this season, my times are all closer to my best for the distance and for the route, than they are to my worst.

Results for the 400km are posted here: http://sfrandonneurs.org/2009-results.htm#400K

There are links within the results to other photo albums and write ups of the ride, one really good one from the front of the pack posted here.

4 comments:

Jim G said...

Nice report Rob, I enjoyed reading it! (and it makes me wish I was out there too) Did you mean "Camino Alto" vs. "Camino Pablo"?

Gabe said...

Thanks for the compliments on our groups riding! Great write up! I think the "fanny pack/bum bag" story definitely is a keeper. I did not realize that the time from realization of his loss to our arrival was so small. Maybe we could incorporate something like this into future brevets, ala "the french technical trials". Hauling some load relay style, not for points, but for camaraderie's sake :) My ride experience mirrored yours very closely, especially at the end there. See you on the 600k, which will be my first.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

rob hawks said...

Thanks Anonymous, however I sort of feel the opposite, that my entries aren't as good as time goes on.