Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Guided by tail lights

Can it be an SFR brevet if there isn't a threat of rain? Not worry this time, as there was a 20% chance of rain in the form of isolated thundershowers in the forecast for Davis and Vacaville. Like so many other SFR brevets this year and last, the rain never happened on our 230km overnight brevet. Instead however it was mild all night long, and we enjoyed mostly clear skies with little of the drop in temperature that normally comes with that at night.

May is often a busy time of year for many long distance cyclists and June didn't seem to be any less busy. There was a lot of churn on the sign-up list for the 230km overnight brevet with many riders finding they had over booked themselves this weekend. A few days out from the ride, I figured with the attrition we'd end up with 15 riders when nearly 30 had signed up at some point. I was wrong though as 17 riders signed in and rolled out of the Hercules Transit Center at 8pm on June 13th. We had daylight for only a short time and when we reached Vallejo, there was no question we needed all our bike lights on. For me, the route is all preliminary warm up miles until we reach the right hand outbound turn on Lake Herman Road. I first rode Lake Herman Road on the SFR Williams 400km in 2006, and I've enjoyed revisiting that road many times. After a short climb at the beginning which is really an extension of the climb up Columbus, Lake Herman engages in a roller coaster like series of hills as it angles toward Benicia, CA. A left turn onto Lopes after a quick glimpse of the Moth Ball Fleet anchored in the bay and the route hugs a line of hills to the left with the Suisun Slough and Grizzly Bay well off to the right.

The entire pack of riders were largely together until late along Spring Street when first one group made a traffic light and the rest didn't, and then Kitty hit a pot hole and the riders ahead of her didn't see that happen and rolled ahead. I had begun to hang back when I realized the group behind was no longer in sight and Jamie G. from San Diego joined me for the run along Lake Herman and Lopes. Jamie and I could see the lights of a small pack of riders about a half mile ahead on Lopes, but on that road a gap that big is seldom closed. We had nearly caught them once the roadway becomes a boulevard but shortly after that it was time to stop at the first control at the Gold Hill Tower Mart. I pretty much stayed there until all the riders were in, and most of the riders had left. Kitty, Louise, Ken, Bob and Mark formed a group that on other rides would be considered small, but on this ride represented > 33% of the entire ride. As we rode through Cordelia on our way to crossing over Interstate 80, I scoped out places for our return control. The Tower Mart was supposed to serve as control number 2 and number 5, however though not posted anywhere on their doors, the store closes overnight until 6am on Sundays. No matter, as there were plenty of places on course just a few miles ahead and the Arco Quick Mart looked to be the best bet.

Pittman Road, which took us north across Interstate 80, gradually becomes less developed as you pass by Solano College and changes its name to Suisun Valley Road. A right turn toward the east on Rockville takes you further into an agricultural landscape but after too few miles amid the open fields our route again took us into the residential verges of Fairfield, CA along Mankus Corners Road and Waterman Blvd. Our group of six had begun to spread out until the lead riders backed off the pace but later on Lyon Road we spread out again and it was now Kitty, Louise and myself as we closed in on the Vacaville control. For all the times I've been on Pleasants Valley Road, which is one of my favorite Northern California roads, it's funny that more than half of those trips were during darkness.

After three miles on Pleasants Valley we turned east on Foothill road and were quickly in Vacaville and Control #3 on South Orchard. Ten riders were already there and with the arrival of my group there were only four more were out on the road behind. I selected a chocolate milk, paid and upon reaching my bike outside I saw the lead pack departing and on the spur of the moment I decided to hop on my bike and ride off in pursuit. I could see their tail lights a quarter mile ahead and did not need to check my queue sheet for a number of turns as long as I didn't drop too far back. Finally at one of the northbound turns the pack hit an incline and I was able to catch up to Tom H. who was only 50 feet off the back of the pack at that point. Just as quickly as I had caught up, the pack hit a fast descent as Tom and I were still climbing and immediately they were a quarter mile ahead. I had a bit more speed over the low crest and again found myself alone as Tom had drifted back, riding his own chosen pace. The terrain undulated a little here and my view ahead of the tail lights I was chasing became punctuated by each roller we crossed.

After a long northward leg on Timm Road the route turns 90 degrees west and Timm Road takes on a second name. As I watched the pack ahead make the turn and disappear from view I estimated the time it took for me to arrive at that spot and I was less than two minutes behind. Once around the bend myself, I could see that there were two options, each a likely choice but neither afforded a sight line that would show me which road the riders had taken. A quick check of my cue sheet on my handle bar bag and I was headed off on Timm Road once again, after confirming the choice by spotting the signpost across the road. By now I was closer to 3 or 4 or even 5 minutes behind the group ahead and they were definitely out of sight. Without knowing how far behind the next rider was, I decided to see how I felt pushing my own pace just a bit in order to try and catch the lead group. Timm Road ended its run and the road took a turn to the east and became Allendale Road and after a half mile of riding I could see the road go under Interstate 505 a long way ahead, and sure enough I could spot a snarl of red lights going about my pace. The wind was at my back here so I let it push me and riding along, I changed pages on my cue sheet. Ever so slowly I could see I was not just keeping the lights ahead still in sight but they were becoming more distinct.

A couple of glimpses at my route sheet and I had names of the next two turns in memory. It turned out that I hadn't needed to do that as the terrain became completely flat which told me we had cleared any of the rollers nearer to the Vaca Mountains to the north west. The pack ahead would now be easy to keep in sight and had made a turn to the north on Meridian Road. I checked my watch to see how far I was behind. Less than two minutes now and closing fast, as I too made the northward turn.

Finally, one more turn on to Silveyville road which I set up to take with as much speed as I could but also on a trajectory I felt would be clear of gravel. I was now less than a quarter mile behind. Instead of waiting for my present pace to bring me up to the pack I pushed harder to close the gap sooner and finally I was on the back of the group, which was pulled along by Todd, Richard and Tim. I hung toward the back next to Ken J., Carlos and Jim, and pulled out the chocolate milk I had bought back in Vacaville as the group made the final turns which brought us to roads I was much more familiar with. Richard pointed out Putah Creek Road to the left as we passed as the road we'd take later after leaving Davis. I had been on Putah Creek Road just a week before on a day ride to Lake Solano with my son. A five mile east bound run along Russell was completed with the pack of ten riders spread across our lane and after crossing Highway 113 we were in Davis proper with a run up Sycamore to take us to the turn around control at Safeway.

At the Safeway, the group went about the business of refueling and putting on an extra layer in an unhurried manner and just as we were leaving I spotted two extra bikes, belonging to Kitty and Ken who had arrived while we were all inside. Our group of ten slowly warmed up as we headed east along Covell. The route leaving Davis did not overlap the outbound route for about 30 miles, but instead followed the somewhat classic route along Putah Creek which glances off the southern boundary of the Winters city limits. The pack was moving along at a wonderful pace, led by Tim but some of the riders were showing signs of overheating. I was in need of a pee break so I let the other riders know I was going to stop just before the end of Putah Creek road. Everyone else was happy for the break. Jim, Jamie and I decided not to match the pace of before and while those two waited where we first had stopped, I rode with the group to the turn at Pleasants Valley and let them know what we were doing. As I turned back I thought I heard the word 'flat' but wasn't sure as the group pulled out of sight. After a few more minutes of rest, Jim, Jamie and I rolled off only to stop about 500 yards down the road where Tim was working on a flat with Carlos and Richard keeping him company. We found the rest of the group waiting around the next turn and we started out slowly until we three sorted ourselves toward the back of the pack and let the others pull away.

At what felt like a much slower but still deliberate pace, our small group of three was more able to chat as we headed south along Pleasants Valley. I had ridden this road many times on so many rides, all of them pleasant memories. Jim, Jamie and I chatted about bikes, rides and all things related and the 13 miles were over much more quickly than ever. Being nudged up against the foot hills of the Vaca Mountains, we didn't have much in the way of trouble with the southwest wind. Until, that is, we reached Cherry Glen and then Lyon road on the way to Fairfield. The wind slowed us a bit and the road noise from the Interstate made our conversation a little harder to achieve until we reached Hilborn road. The cross winds became more forceful along Abernathy and Suisun Valley Roads and the (now) 'open control' in Cordelia was a stop that came none-too-soon. I was surprised to see all seven riders from the lead group still at the control and we overlapped our stay with theirs for about 15 or more minutes. I took advantage of our longer stay to add a layer of clothing and with a while left before sunrise, we headed south toward Lopes Road.

Louise and Albert had arrived at the control while we were just rolling out and they must have buzzed through that stop because they passed us about where the Tower Mart was and they were moving along at a nice clip. I wondered to myself if they might not be able to catch the lead group. By the time we reached the right turn off Lopes Road and on to Lake Herman Road, we were able to switch off our head lights. Though the generator hub drag is low, we convinced ourselves it was now just that much easier to climb the rollers on our way into Vallejo. The town of Vallejo was quiet and we had Columbus, Spring and Solano Roads all to ourselves and after a brief stop at the left turn onto 5th Street, we were also able to take up the entire lane there due to the complete lack of traffic. After bucking the wind just a few miles back, it was interesting to note that the cross winds on the Zampa Bridge were so much less than the night before when we had been buffeted back and forth. South of the bridge, the little town of Rodeo was stirring as we finished the last few miles of the ride and after one last climb over to Hercules, we would have been able to coast into the finish, if not for the late changing traffic light. Bruce B. was staffing the finish control and greeted us with coffee, juice, bagels, donuts and warm cheer. Most of the early finishers were still there, with the Tim H. led first group finishing at 6:18, Louse and Albert finishing at 6:33 and our group pulling in at 6:52.

143 miles Turnaround in Davis in 4:45 Lots of great conversations along the way, and lots of great company. We had riders come from as far away as San Diego and Los Angeles for the ride, and I think they had a great experience.

For a different perspective on the same ride, see JimG's write up here (and note where I stole the photos for this posting!)

No comments: