Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The paceline is diminished

There is a hook that catches us all, and pulls us into randonneuring. It isn't just being on the bike. There are many things that pull me toward riding brevets, and there are many things that have delivered rewards for having joined the paceline. I certainly love pushing myself to complete longer distances, or to overcome a headwind, or to defeat a hilly course in a time I only dreamed of a year or more ago. Of all these things, however, the biggest draw, the surest hook, is the camaraderie I've found between the start and finish controls.

On the 2009 Davis Gold Rush Randonnee, I had been riding alone for a bit more than 50 miles. The water stop at mile 50 was busy in a way that the road leading to it had not been. I wondered where all the riders had been and how it worked that I couldn't gain on them and they could not gain on me. I left the water stop alone and in just a mile or two noticed a rattle that was more than annoying. After fixing a problem that verged on but was not entirely cosmetic (loose mud flap on my fender) a group of riders passed me as I mounted my bike. 'Hey, Rob!' It was Don Mitchell, whom I had met through previous San Francisco Randonneur brevets. I pushed to catch him and we settled into a pace agreeable to both.

Don and I decided to see how far we could go riding together and it took very little discussion. Hearing back from others today, I found my experience was not unique. Don was upbeat, friendly, basically a sunny guy to every rider I've found who spent time on the road with him. The timing on this ride was perfect. Don had passed me just as the sun was setting. Riding through the night with company was the perfect development and Don had ridden much of this leg before and shared the knowledge of what was to come ahead. We tackled Yankee Hill and the Jarbo Gap after leaving the Central Valley and reached the Tobin control as a team. As the sun finally rose we left Tobin headed for Indian Valley and the next control. On the climb up it was becoming clearer that my energy was fading and Don was finding his legs. He kept his pace down so that we reached Taylorsville together and shared a breakfast.

On that ride and on others later when we'd find our selves in the same group, we would talk bikes, and talk bike rides, and talk about future bike events. We just never got to the point of exhausting the bike topic. Today, finding out about his passing and through that tragic news, details about his life off the bike I find that my hunch that he was a kindred spirit was right. I didn't find out earlier that Don was an avid reader, that he was more than just interested in the environment, that he only used his television to watch DVDs.

The manner of Don's passing angers me. It seems such a pointless way to have lost a fellow randonneur, with the further sting of now losing the chance to get to know someone whose outlook and perspective and greater interests could have expanded my own. Being an RBA, one of my tasks is to review all the brevet cards turned in by the riders at the finish control. When ever I do this task, there is a certain joy to it supplied by finding common finish times. I see two or three or six or seven riders all with the same finish time, and I imagine them having ridden many miles together, swapping stories, taking pulls at the head of the paceline, just making the ride easier and better by being there too. In sharing this sad and tragic news today, those stories are being shared. Just like my time riding with Don, I've found that he was a reliable and steady wheel to follow on the SFR 600 back in late May. His fellow finishers also found him to be ideal company, and I imagine they got a boost from his upbeat outlook.

As I said, I'm angered by this. I will try, I will, to not think about how my own character may fall short of his example when a dark mood overtakes me. I did have the good fortune to have shared some time with Don doing something that we both found paid back a reward many times greater than the investment. Good bye Don, bonne route. You made an impression on many, you will be missed greatly by many.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The weather window

(Note: I started this blog entry nearly two months ago. One thing that makes it ok that I waited to actually finish it, is that well, what I was trying to say is pretty much true for me.)

As I approach two decades of living in the Bay Area, I've seen enough of the change of the seasons to have a working, rough idea of what each season means, and sort of when to expect it to arrive. The transition from summer to fall to winter here is nothing like what I knew back east, and there can be years when you never know if is truly fall or if the fall season happened overnight, and within less than 24 hours summer has morphed into winter. Winter living within the California version of a Mediterranean climate of course means not drastically colder temperatures but still colder temps. More obviously though, there is a greater possibility of rain. Rain is something a Bay Area local just does not think about from sometime in May until sometime late in October. After October of course, rain could show up any time, any day.

Each October I find I need to reacquaint myself with the online sources of weather knowledge. This year, that need came earlier than I anticipated and only partway through October I found forecast rain threatening a long planned bike ride. My adaptation? Fit the rides in where I can. As a result, I've taken to planning more lunch time rides in anticipation of a too wet weekend. Several SF Randonneurs from my club work nearby so I can find riding partners at least half the time when I leave work behind for a slightly longer than one hour trip physically no more than eight miles away, but mentally many leagues away.

In the image above, you can see the Percent Chance of Precipitation spike in the afternoon on that Thursday. On that ride that day I could see the weather changing to the west over the Pacific, and I did manage to get home before the rain began. The lunch time route is barely more than 15 miles, but does include some nice climbing on relatively quiet roads, once it clears the more inhabited areas. Emeryville, where I work is something less than 100' above sea level (probably much closer to 1' than to 100' above sea level). The ride takes me and my companions to roughly 1200'. In October, the more exposed sections of the climb are often hot. Now, in December, those same areas are always chilly. Once the main climbing is over, there is a short run along the ridge line and then a E-Ticket ride down Claremont back to reality. In late November, we had an early cold snap and that descent was often wicked cold. Regular rain now falls and we are more than willing to accept cold instead of rain on the rides.

Now it is late December with a long spell of forecast and actual rain just beginning. I'm still looking for the gaps in the weather, and with luck, another Thursday escape from work at lunch time will have to tide me over for what is expected to be a wet holiday weekend.

Stay dry friends!

Friday, October 1, 2010

The fog does not have feet

My memory of fog draws mostly on the years spent in the midwest. That memory is strongest when recalling fog that moved and changed with the same speed as flowers following the path of the sun across the day. That memory coincides with the fog of Carl Sandburg which moves stealthily, gracefully as if on cat feet. When I was 10, the Fourth of July involved a display of fireworks held in the field across the street and the event had two parts: the display in the evening of the 4th, followed the next morning by the search through the field for any of the unspent firework fragments that might rain down on the field. We would collect those fragments and then Conrad's dad would light them in the driveway as we watched and waited for something dramatic.

One year on that morning after, a fog thicker than I'd ever seen before covered the field. We could hear the voices of all the other seekers in the field, but we could not see more than 3 feet in any direction. Find one fragment and you would likely find more, so when I finally spotted a piece I dropped to my knees to look through the grass more closely and in doing so found that the fog hung in the air about a foot off the ground. Putting my head sideways to the ground I could see only the feet of all the other kids searching the field. By then I had given up searching the ground and instead followed the progress of the fog as it ever so slowly rose higher off the ground, first to the point where only shins and feet could be seen, then when disembodied legs ran beneath it. By lunchtime the magic and the fog were gone.

Moving to the Bay Area in August of 1992, I was expecting something more to do with fog, knowing that San Francisco has some frequent experience with it. It took me a short bit to realize that the daily cloud cover was the Bay Area's most common form of fog, and I was surprised by the clockwork timing it followed day after day, arriving around 7pm each evening as a tube of fog that would gently collide with the Berkeley Hills, then spread out to fill in all the gaps, and finally burning off at about 10:37am the next morning, just in time for the sun to filter through the tree branches outside my office window with the leaves acting as the aperture for a pinhole camera and project images on the office wall. My supervisor at the time told me about camping at Point Reyes and dealing with a completely different kind of fog, one he described as 'howling'. The fog I knew up till then just didn't howl.

With a lot more years worth of experience with Bay Area fog, I've come to recognize the annual and daily patterns. Fog is more common here on a daily basis in the traditionally understood months of summer, then is less frequent during the Bay Area's version of summer which arrives in September and stays sometimes through October. A summer time ride in Marin county, particularly on Mt. Tam often includes healthy doses of fog. One time a few years back I had the luxury of not one but two rides up Mt. Tam within a week of each other. Both times, the timing was the same as I rode up from Alpine Dam where I'd climb into the fog. The fog would get denser as I rode higher. Eventually, the landscape would be dominated by redwoods, trees that are expert in using fog to it's advantage and largely only source of water during the summer. The redwood trees would collect the moisture from the fog and finally cause localized rain. Exactly 20 pedal strokes from the intersection of Bolinas/Fairfax road and Ridgecrest I rode through a small shower, with rivulets of rainwater streaming down the roadway. Earlier this year, a report was circulated that indicated that each year, the amount of coastal fog was decreasing, threatening the health of coastal redwoods with one more possible effect of climate change. As this particular summer wore on though, it seems that the coastal redwoods would get a one year reprive.

September has morphed into October now, and yet the Bay Area summer has never really taken hold. Fog still has the upper hand and returned a day ago after a short heat spell. When I can get a good night's sleep the night before, I leave the house a little earlier and ride the long way to work. Before the sunrise had slipped later in the morning I did get that good night's sleep and I did that longer ride to work, climbing up Spruce, taking a hard right on to Grizzly Peak Boulevard and headed toward the peak that lends it's name to the road. Before the route leaves the residential portion, I was up into the fog, fog that was as heavy and thick as it gets. All visual input turned grey and indistinct. I recall passing by Centennial Drive and becoming lost in thought, only becoming aware again as I was heading downhill on Claremont. Missing was direct memory of at least a mile of uphill climbing and an equal length segment of some pretty fast and uneven downhill. The 'Wait, how did I get here', totally stunned feeling was profound. Perhaps fog, like the rest of nature, abhors a vacuum and addressed that space between my ears for the duration of those two morning miles.

Down the coast in Santa Cruz, fog is no less of a reality and Summer, true and local versions, has been dominated by it. The September 4th Santa Cruz Randonneurs Monterey Bay 400km gave riders three chances to ride through the fog: morning, afternoon, and late evening. I've always been a rider quick to be covered in perspiration with little effort involved, so much so that I can create little weather systems in the space between my eyes, and my eye glasses. When there is fog outside as well as inside, I'm quickly blinded. On the return from Marina to the finish in Aptos, as we passed by Elkhorn with the slough off to the east, I was loosing more and more visual input. Three or four times I needed to stop and wipe my glasses with a bandanna I kept packed away for just this purpose. Without those stops, perhaps I would have finished under 18 hours, but I admit the rest it provided was welcome.

The terrain on that 400km route didn't provide the opportunity for one of the best fog related experiences I can think of though. Riding up into the hills and mountains in fog is sometimes comforting and eases the work of climbing if you can't see how little progress you are making. That is one of fog's bonuses but the true pay off for me is that moment of riding up and then out of the fog into brilliant sunshine. The summit of Mt. Tam offers this, as does the summits on Diablo and Hamilton, the other major peaks in the Bay Area. On a summertime ride up Mt. Tam once, this played out perfectly. Only the summit itself was free of the fog and a 360 degree view provided the glowing white of the fog layer as a floor contrasted for the most part by the blue sky above, and only interupted on the distant horizon where Mt. Hamilton and the Santa Cruz Mountains poked up in the south, and Diablo poked out to the east. The summit parking lot was deserted save for two cars, and one couple dancing in the open lot in the sunshine, she leading him and showing the moves he should make.

It has been some time since my last posting, and to be sure I've been on the bike a great deal, but this blog had been neglected. I was startled out of that blog writing fog with this message today: "Lets get with it, time to get beyond, 'Beyond 449 KM'. That was some nice writing but it was also some months ago." Paul, I hope this begins to pay off the tab I had been running of late.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Beyond 449km

In the early 1980s, I did my cycling in Southeastern Michigan. The only club I belonged to was the Tri-County Bicycle Association. My long distance aspirations back then focused on the DALMAC ride, a four day event that ended the summer cycling season. The club one year gave priority for DALMAC applications to club members, so to assure my entry for DALMAC was accepted, I both joined the club and attended the February club meeting. For that meeting that year, a rider from nearby Illinois was brought in as guest speaker. He spoke about how he got started riding ever increasing distances on his bike, and as a boy 'distant' was whatever was beyond the water tower outside of town. Then it became riding far enough that the tower was no longer visible. By the time he appeared as the guest speaker for our club that year, Lon Haldeman had ridden across country several times, once setting the record for shortest elapsed time.

There were no water towers in the town where I spent those years when one should be growing up, but nevertheless there was the concept of going further than before, despite the the lack of visual motivators. During those years in the early 1980s a realy long ride was when I would ride from home in Ann Arbor over to Dexter where the Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society would host the 'One Helluva Ride' century, doing the full route, then riding home afterward. For the longest time those 127 miles were the longest rides I'd ever done or thought of doing. It wasn't until, well, decades later that the double century bug bit me, and later still when the disease mutated into an affliction known as randonneuring. Randonneuring offers a stair-step approach to longer distances by organizing brevets of 200, 300, 400 and later 600km in the Super Randonneur series.

Progress seemed stalled for me after finishing my first SR series in 2005. Three tries at going beyond 600km on a brevet came to nothing. In fact, each attempt at at the longer distance fell short of even getting to 600km. In 2005, on the Gold Rush Randonee, I barely made it past 150 kilometers. In 2007, I got further, but still less than 600km. In 2009, all looked good at yet one more attempt at a distance beyond 600km, but alas no, not that time either.

So, what should one think on the eve of yet another try at a ride of 1000km or more? Why would one even want to try such a ride? I can honestly say that I have no idea how to reply to those questions. Even if completing an SR series this year had been a struggle, I would have still signed up for the Santa Cruz Randonneurs' Central Coast 1000km. The SR series though was anything but a struggle, certainly as the season played out. In fact, the longer the distance, the better the experience. Riding the Fleche in April was a joy, the 400km with the Davis Bike Club similarly so, and the 600km with the San Francisco Randonndeurs was probably the best ride over 300 miles I've ever had, by a long shot. As the 1000km approached, I was not thinking of the past, and I was not thinking of the future, but I was thinking of the possible, and what was possible was a great experience.

I had previously met at least a third, possibly more than one half of the riders signed up for the Central Coast 1000km. I began to meet that other half the night before at dinner in downtown San Jose. After Bill and Lois sent us off at 05:30 on that Thursday morning, I settled into a mellow pace and briefly chatted with any rider that would roll up beside me. I kept back from the lead group, knowing I'd never stay there anyway. Once we hit the first prolonged climb on Old La Honda I found a pace not dictated by the pack, and I felt comfortable from then on. I knew a fairly large portion of the entire route from other rides stretching back eight years, but the early miles were all new to me. Stage Road was one such new to me road and I loved it. Inland from the busier California Highway One, it was quiet, with climbs that could no longer be called rollers but were mostly less than a mile long. At the first control in Moss Beach a very large portion of the ride roster was still together as a pack, but a mishap heading south of Half Moon Bay first delayed, and then fragmented the group. One of our riders went down hard and a large group stopped to sort things out. Rescue personnel were on the scene quickly and riders in ones and twos would roll on once it was clear no one else was needed on hand. I was one of the last to leave. On past long brevets I had often been concerned about how I'd fare riding alone. Too often that concern would be corrosive to the point where it would undermine my confidence in finishing. On this ride this concern never materialized, and in it's place was a firm knowledge that if I ever got behind, I could regain the group. There were several miles to cover before we regained Stage Road and I had already begun to catch up to other riders before making the turn of of Highway One, and I caught the main group just past San Gregorio.

Upon reaching Pescadero and the Arcangeli Grocery (artichoke-garlic bread, yum (and I don't like artichokes or garlic!)), I was back on familiar roads and I had also caught back up to Bruce, with whom I had hoped to do most of the ride. It was only later that I realized that through the rest of that first day, I never thought about how many miles I had ridden so far, or more significantly, how much further there was left to the ride. I was free to ride in just that moment. The route through Santa Cruz was one of the most urban sections of the entire ride, and we used that slow section to find lunch at Joe's Pizza and Burgers, eating our meal on the patio overlooking an intersection where it seemed every rider on the brevet had to stop. The enforced slow pace through Santa Cruz and Soquel was welcomed as lunch settled slowly in my belly.

For the next several hours, the route was an entire mixed bag: suburban sections, winding roads through redwoods, flat sections through agricultural fields, and the indistinct terrain on the outskirts of semi-small towns, with none of those sections establishing themselves as the defining terrain. Our small group would grow and contract as we picked up riders, and lost others along the way. Past Hollister, CA 25 became more and more rural just as the late afternoon/early evening light gave texture to the hills on either side of us, and the mountains far in the background. Near the Pinnacles National Monument was our first staffed control, and the stop here served to bunch many of the riders together as the sun set. Midway between this stop and King City I had a momentary low point. I knew too well that it was only momentary, and I knew too that way back in Moss Beach I had stashed a chocolate bar in my handle bar bag. Lastly, I also knew that chocolate can solve many things and what it solved first was the gap that had grown between me and the rest of the pack. Before our first planned stop for significant rest there was a climb from our valley over into the Salinas Valley, with a long downhill into King City as a reward.

Experience on very long rides tells us that before rest comes food, and for us that meant a late night visit to Dennys before checking into the King City control. My second meal of cheeseburger and fries for the day, plus a tall milkshake still didn't erase the caloric deficit I had created to this point, but it had to help. Mike and Todd were already at the Dennys when we arrived, and more riders came in as we left. Even at midnight, the control was active as other riders rolled in as we checked in, got our drop bags and headed to the hotel room to clean up and sleep. Sterling and Lois greeted us, and stamped our cards. Added to the novelty for me of being able to eat huge quantities of food on a long ride was the unique experience of falling dead asleep within minutes of my head hitting an unfamilar pillow. And so ended Day One's 230 miles.

Sleep on long brevets is a luxury, and three hours plus of sleep is a decadent indulgence. Even still, it was dark when we went to sleep and still dark when we left King City that same morning into a disturbing headwind. Plans based on weather, even fairly consistent weather often never match reality. The favored plan for most riders here was to use the northwest tailwind to advantage in getting to King City, then hiding out and sleeping as the wind died toward sunrise. Trouble was the wind never died. Though it was a challenge to quite see it this way at the time, the difficulty the morning winds presented us allowed for stark contrast to the visual and wind aided blessings of the afternoon and evening to come. The morning miles were a time for teamwork, and our group would grow as we made our way to Marina, CA where we'd begin a more southerly trajectory. One fact of topography I had not anticipated but should have, was the transition between the flat miles of the Salinas Valley and the return to the coastal roadways of Central California. Several waves of steep, though thankfully (relatively) short climbs made for a bigger appetite once we reached the Safeway in Carmel. Our group of course grew larger during that rest stop but once past Carmel Highlands it fragmented completely into ever forming combinations of riders.

By late morning, the marine layer of fog had been forced west as the inland areas warmed, and the battle between fog and clear blue skies waged overhead on Highway One. This only added to the drama of an already dramatic coastline, and also had the magic benefit of making us feel faster on the bike as the roadway climbed each rise along the cliffsides north of Big Sur. As we traveled further south though, the magic was revealed to be a steady tailwind. The day to this point was nothing if not a study in contrasts, with the headwind, overcast, and flat, straight miles being traded for near constant climbing and descending under sunny skies as the roadway zig-zagged to follow the irregular coast line. An uncharacteristically straight and flat segment just north of the town of Big Sur gave us one last chance to experience the boost of the tailwinds before we slowed for a mid day rest at the Big Sur Village Pub. Coastal California often has summer weather that leaves you feeling too hot in direct sunlight, but instantly chilled when the sunlight is gone. As we sipped our pints of beer, Gabe, Ken, Bruce and I made shade enough for three make do for the four of us, but once back on the bike and south of Big Sur the fog struggled to reassert itself and our warmth now was only provided by the effort needed to climb 'The Dolly Parton Range' of hills and mountains we encountered next. Our moments in the sun became less frequent, and more short lived and the setting sun only hastened the fog finally gaining the upper hand.

Ragged Point was the last control before we reached San Luis Obispo, and I later agreed it was an aptly named location. We arrived too late to make use of the outdoor concession stand which offered a menu geared more toward peasant food, and we seemed to grubby and smelly to the eyes and nose of the young waiter working the more upscale, indoor restaurant. His manager though was happy to serve us but the whole exchange resulted in a very long stop. Ragged was exactly how I felt as we left just before full dark arrived. Having arrived alone, it was odd that I left then in the midst of a double digit sized pack of riders. As we neared San Simeon Bay, we also neared the 400 mile mark on the ride. The darkness and the accumulated miles all had their affect on each of the riders and while we rode as a group it was not in the style we might have at mid day. I found it much more comfortable to dangle off the back of the group, using my own headlight to light up the pavement rather than using the light from the lamps of others. At one point I let the rider ahead of me know I was stopping and would catch up, and after shifting fluids I had no trouble catching up to the group that had gotten over a mile ahead of me while I stopped. Once past Cayucos the roads we used felt far less remote and streetlights were far more common.

Arriving in San Luis Obispo after midnight, we could not get the full feel of the town. That would have to wait for daylight the next morning. Though tired, I didn't have trouble staying alert and was glad not to have to seek caffeine just to complete the last 20 miles, and this no doubt made it all the easier to be sound asleep the instant after my head hit the pillow at our overnight stop. That sleep was first delayed by downing a plate full of calories at the Denny's down the street from the hotel, then by organizing in preparation for a quick departure the next morning. Fog hid the sun that next morning but it was still complete daylight when we rolled out of town just after 6 a.m. I knew and had ridden our route from SLO to well past Guadalupe. We even copied most of a detour I had made eight years before when we sought a 2nd breakfast in Grover Beach. Ken, Theresa and Kitty stayed a bit longer at their stop but Bruce and I pushed on toward our next control at Casmalia. For the longest time the only other people we saw were those working the fields we passed, until we were passed ourselves by two packs of club riders in pacelines, riding with purpose, tight and fast.

From Casmalia back to Highway One north of Vandenberg we climbed over a ridge and had a sweet run down into a valley. Unfortunately we had to climb back out of that valley to get to Vandenberg, and then travel from ridge to ridge until we dropped down into Lompoc. Doug and Laurie had found the Starbucks outlet before us and were just leaving as Bruce and I arrived. Susan passed by as we tarried there though we would later pass her south of town. From Lompoc the route did a simple out and back along Highway One to the summit of Gaviota Pass. The climb up to the pass was never steep, and seemed nothing like climbing a pass, but our progress was slowed by the ghastly pavement surface. Just how much of a climb it was was made known to us though on the return back to a point just south of Lompoc. Ever since our stop at Joe's in Santa Cruz for lunch 48 hours before, we had not had the chance to see many other riders on the route but this out and back leg gave us the chance to see a dozen riders ahead of us and well over a dozen behind us. Hello's were called out across the road as we passed (and cheers too when we saw Gabe among the riders, Gabe having found a way around some Achilles problems of the night before), but once we made the turn at the end of our two-way section on to Santa Rosa Road, the last riders we saw for the rest of the day were Susan as she passed by in Solvang as we ate lunch, and Mick who we briefly saw ten miles or so before Arroyo Grande. Santa Rosa Road was a joy: scenic, quiet with rolling terrain. I still consider it a highlight of the day and the entire route, but it couldn't hold a candle to Foxen Canyon. Foxen Canyon's steep sections were a challenge, but the tough sections were the longer, less steep sections. Our reward for the climbing, the steep and the less steep, was a ten mile plus downhill out of the viticultural region and into the agricultural region.

Though the sun had set, the fog had not returned as the day played itself out. Still, we needed to stop twice to empty out our bags and layer up against the chill. The route took us around Santa Maria to the East, then into Arroyo Grande from the South East. I had neglected to look at the terrain for the last leg and was surprised at what seemed like an endless climb away from Arroyo Grande. As Bruce and I slowly made our way higher, we called out to each other while continuing a conversation. Out of the darkness from one of the houses we passed in the night a voice called out and asked us how far we had to go that night. Our reply of San Luis Obispo seemed to be taken in stride, and we kept climbing. The clear night sky was over though, and the closer we got to SLO the more we could feel the fog lowering itself onto the landscape. At mile 620, with just two turns left to make before the ride was over I got my first and only mechanical on the ride. Bruce found no other way to react than to laugh at the irony of being so close to being done and having this flat. We had caught up to Mick and were less than a quarter mile away when I got the flat. I really didn't hustle to complete the repair, and probably avoided screwing it up by taking my time. Back on the road we made those last two turns and at 23:32 we rolled into the final checkpoint.

For the full route, we had ~31,000 feet of climbing over 625 miles (including the morning detour for food). A full set of photos can be found here. Thanks to Bill Monsen for the use of his photo of Bruce and myself cooling our heels while a flat tire is repaired in the background.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The 2nd San Francisco Randonneurs Populaire, July 17th, 2010

The San Francisco Randonneurs would like to invite you to participate in our 2nd Populaire, to be held on July 17th, 2010. This is a free event, though registration is required. The Populaire is intended to introduce riders to the sport of randonneuring. Most of our brevets are 200km in length, but the Populaire, at 115km, is only slightly more than half that length. More information, and a link to the registration form is here:

Last fall, on our first populaire, we had a great mix of long standing club members and riders brand new to brevet riding. Should be a similar mix this time around too.

Self portrait with stink eye

This photo is from early on the first day of the Santa Cruz Randonneurs Central Coast 1000km brevet. I'll be making a more extensive entry in a short while, but for the moment I'll summarize the the whole experience with a single word:


Friday, June 4, 2010

Next up ...

It hardly seems like a year has passed, but it has. Time as come round again for the San Francisco Randonneurs overnight 200km brevet to Davis and back. A write up of last year's ride his here. On that ride we had several riders drive up from Southern California just to participate. We had 17 riders then and this year we have about 10 more than that signed up. I'm guessing we'll have about 25 riders this year. Given the attendance on other brevets this year, 25 riders sounds really small. Well, it is, but there are reasons. One is that the brevet starts at 8pm, not 7am. Pretty much all but a couple/few hours of the ride will be done in the dark. That puts people off. That said, though, there is something quite special about riding through the night.

The route and time of day were chosen to not be too much of a physical challenge but to offer great practice time for navigating in the dark but while still fresh and without the looming knowledge that there are so many more miles to go after sun up. I've done 600km brevets that started at 8pm and on this ride it will be nice to know I'm done by 7am.

It's often impossible to re-live any experience, but I'm hoping to have just as much fun on this year's version as I did last year. It was great to ride into sunup with Jaime and Jim, and before then it was a blast to hammer through the darkness and catch that lead group on the flats between Vacaville and Davis.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Braxton was never there

It may be a form of hell, to have experienced something wonderful and from that point on all efforts to return to that perfect state fall short. If this is true, then I think I've been quite lucky. I've never had that perfect ride, one where everything fell into place as it unfolded before me, where the energy I found ready for use at the beginning of the ride was still there near the end, or where the weather read your mind and provided what you needed: warmth through the night, tailwinds during the day. I've had glimpses of it though, this perfect ride. There were glimpses of it on the recent San Francisco Randonneurs Fort Bragg 600km brevet.

Northern California and the Bay Area in particular have a rainy season that has some predictability. In most years, that rainy season is from November to April. March, and more so April are months when the length of daylight increases and the frequency and even threat of rain decreases. Many years, May is a glorious month when the rain has ceased, some heat has arrived and yet the nightly visit of the marine layer of fog has not established itself. 2010 is simply not one of those usual years. Rain has been a frequent visitor this May, behaving itself perhaps from the view point of cyclists who work M-F and play S-S by making appearances for the most part on workdays only. One wonders though about the element of chance when an unlikely heavy downpour shows up the day after a big ride, as it pretty much did this time.

On Saturday, May 22nd, 58 riders milled around the Strauss statue at the Golden Gate Bridge visitors center waiting for the 06:00 start of SFR's 2010 Fort Bragg 600km brevet. More first time 600km riders were in the mix than in year's past, and 58 riders was as many as any two or even three SFR 600km fields before. With such a long ride ahead, there was a commitment apparent to be ready and leave on time, and as the clock allowed the group left the gardens at the visitor center behind and began crossing the orange vermillion colored bridge. The forecast covering the route had waffled all around and by the evening before the ride had settled on including wind, cold and perhaps rain but on this morning skies were completely clear and the wind calm. There were plenty of riders in our group that know the first 20 miles like the back of their hand, despite the many dozens of turns and street name changes before we clear residential Marin and climb over to rural Marin. On the mostly flat section after Camino Alto and before Fairfax, I catch up to Gabe, Bryan and John and chat with John about last year's version of this ride. I let the group pull away at the top of White's Hill as I tend to some business and then I chase Craig and Lori on their tandem down the hill and toward the redwood forest beyond Lagunitas. Sir Francis Drake Blvd. through the State Park is an exercise in shock therapy from the jarring one endures due to the plentiful potholes. It seems I'm the only one that takes the bike path through the park to get off of the horrible pavement. Data point: I left SFDB just ahead of Craig and Lori, and I return on the far side of the park just as they pass by. It's longer on the path, but oh so much nicer than the roadway.

Bolinas Ridge offers a way to warm up on the climb and also a great view of the beginning of the Point Reyes penninsula. From Olema it is just a couple of rolling miles to the first control in the village of Point Reyes Station. As I pull up to the Palace Market, my first good luck omen appears at my feet: A folded $20 bill. Cool Breeze! Most of the riders head toward the Bovine Bakery, with almost all the others going into the Palace, which is where I go. I had hoped to ride off with John, Gabe and Bryan but they are gone when I come out so I chug the milk, scarf down the banana and stow the chocolate bar for later and roll out of town. This begins a stretch of about 150 miles where the wind picks up and for the most part I ride alone. Having left the Bridge as nearly the last rider, I wasn't counting how many people I passed, and subtracting the number of riders that later passed me so I have no idea where anyone is and where I am among them. That is the seed that grows into a nearly blossoming doubt when I ride through Petaluma and see exactly *zero* other riders at either of the two approved control locations. That is until I spot Kley arriving at the Safeway from the wrong direction. He had passed the turn without knowing it and had to backtrack, but he hadn't seen any riders either. Kley leaves before me and again I ride alone through Penngrove, Santa Rosa and into Healdsburg. I must fully admit to really wondering if I was on the wrong route when I pulled into the Healdsburg Safeway at mile 87 and again find zero riders there. It's not until I bought some soup, soda and chips and settle in outside that any other riders show up, and amazingly I'm ahead of the tandem.

On any windy and/or flat ride, you can prove the existence and presence of a tandem by simply watching the activity of all the other riders at the rest stop as they rush to leave. Such was the case at this Healdsburg control as I joined about six other bikes when Craig and Lori rolled away from the Safeway. And then a funny thing happened. The tandem got dropped before we left town, and after doing a short pull at the front I got dropped too and watched the group sail off into the now stronger headwind. For many miles I could catch a glimpse of them more than a mile ahead when I would top some small rise north of Geyserville. Way off in the distance behind I could see a bike gaining on me, and just at the short left turn to go under Highway 101, a few miles before Cloverdale, Craig and Lori catch me, and I was happy to grab their rear wheel for a little relief from the wind. We all stopped in Cloverdale to stock up before the big climb out of the Alexander Valley and across the mountains of the Elk Range. The climb ahead will take us from just under 400' to an inch or two over 1200'. A great deal of this climb will be shaded and all of it will be protected from the northwest wind and it gives us a chance to chat a little along the climb. I was sure that I would be dropped by the tandem on the climb but instead I kept them just ahead of my front wheel. The thing about riding with a tandem is that if you are climbing with them, then the last you'll see of them is at the crest because you'll never hold their wheel on the downhill. This is of course just what happened as we zipped through Yorkville and enticed another group of riders to join our group. That new pack kept a pace that I just couldn't hold so I pulled off and honked down that chocolate bar I'd picked up about 90 miles back in PRS. I knew it then but much later I'd also be glad that I hadn't pushed on to Boonville for a stop. I would have paid for that in the long run.

Heading northwest on Highway 128 there is a very misleading sign that on this 600km route, it's hard to decide if the deception is in your favor or against it. After a prolonged but not too steep climb riders will pass the famous truck on cheese icon on a road sign that further promises 2 miles of 8% downhill. It may be 8% but it is barely one mile long. While I reserve the right to re-think this, I'll lean toward this deception being in my favor. There will be a long, long flat stretch through Boonville and beyond, and there won't be a two mile climb heading home (not right there anyway) but I did want more of a return on all the work I'd just done.

Ken had made the link to the group of riders that had dropped me earlier, but later he had also fallen off the back and I passed him unseen as I rolled through Boonville, and he then later passed me as I pulled off east of Navarro for a nature break. On each and any ride, energy ebbs and flows and right then Ken's was ebbing ever so slightly and it was easy to catch him. As I passed by he didn't seem interested in grabbing my wheel so I rolled on ahead and pulled into the Dimmick Memorial Grove State Park where SFR has set up a water stop. Bruce, Jack, Tom and Alayne are all there greeting the riders and offering food and drink. Jack has set up a small shrine in memory of Tom Milton. Tom Milton had begun riding with the San Francisco Randonneurs earlier in the year, first with our 200km in January and eventually signing up for another 200km, our 300km, 400km, Fleche and also our 600km. After each ride Tom would send me a thoughtfully worded comment on the ride just completed. Tom was enthused about all the new riders he would see, many of them much younger than we are, many of them not looking exactly like your typical randonneur. We both thought that was great. I had ridden with Tom in late April on the Davis 400km brevet, and one week later, Tom passed away while riding the Devil Mountain Double Century as he climbed up the 'backside' of Mount Hamilton. This ride was held in his memory, and several riders carried his brevet card through out the ride.

After so many miles solo, I preferred to ride with someone so when Ken was ready we rolled off together to do the 54 mile out and back leg to Fort Bragg. Last year the group I was with arrived at Dimmick around 5:20 or so. This year I was a few minutes ahead of that pace. Alas, Ken had a cleat issue he had to deal with and he sent me on ahead instead of having me wait. I recalled last year doing that out and back leg full of energy and able to power up any of the modest climbs. This year not so. The effort of all those solo miles into the wind kept my pace at this point pretty modest. Just shy of Fort Bragg, just as I began to lag Ken pulled by and slowed so I could take his wheel. We rolled up to the Safeway on the south side of town well ahead of sunset.

Fort Bragg, as it's name implies, has miltary roots but those are far in the past. Established in the mid 1850s, it derives it's name from one Braxton Bragg, who it seems never visited the place. Braxton Bragg was a Captain in the US Army, later in his career a General in the Confederacy. He seems to have impressed some with his efficieny, others with his orneriness and others still with his timidity and lack of creativity. Early in his career he so impressed one of his subordinates that said subordinate chose to name this military outpost in Northern California after Bragg. Someone else back east also saw fit to name Fort Bragg, NC after our man as well, and to round out the set, there is a ghost town in Texas which also is named for him. I know nothing of this as I eat a bowl of lukewarm clam chowder in the Safeway control, but as I roll out of town I do wonder about Fort Bragg's past. No riders had arrived while I was in the Safeway until just as I was about to depart. While arriving in town I counted about 8 riders leaving town, and I knew there were about 4 or 5 ahead still at the Safeway. Now leaving town, the stream of arriving rides has increased from a trickle to a mild flow and riders, all in groups pass by northward as the sun sets. The last riders I see have just crested the climb away from the Navarro River where our time on Highway One in Mendocino County begins, and I head off into the Tree Tunnel once again alone.

I'm in luck when I return to Dimmick as there is a fire, hot food, friends to greet me, and a handful of riders with whom I might ride the next leg. Alayne hands me some hot tea, Bruce gives me a warm cup-o-noodles soup and Jack hands me a blanket to use as I sit near the fire. Gabe, Bryan and John arrive about half way through my stay, and others begin to trickle in til we have a crowd at the fire with more riders already sleeping in the tents. Bryan and Gabe have it in mind to sleep a bit so John is left to ride alone. Instead, Michael and I choose to ride with John and around 11:30 we pull out of the campground. John sets a determined pace with Michael and I in tow and we complete the moderately flat stretch to Philo in good time. Outside of Boonville John has a stash of liquids purchased and hid on the way out so we stop to 'shift fluids' and I eat John's only caffeine laced Clif Shot in an effort to stave off the oncoming sleepiness. We roll through a mostly quiet Boonville and begin the climb toward Yorkville. Yorkville itself is at the bottom of a downhill and after the previous climb, we all get chilled now that we are no longer pedaling. On the way up the local road name changes from Anderson Valley Road to Oat Hill Road and as we near the top of the climb where Mountain House Road connects from the north, I have a bit more energy than before. What's left now is a fast and curvy descent into Cloverdale. Once there John decides to make his stay short while Michael and I linger inside where it is warm.

After too much time has passed we decide that there are no longer any excuses for staying. Eric joins us as does Ken and we four set off for Healdsburg, and the next control beyond in Guerneville. Except for a few nature breaks, the route is uneventful. At the Cloverdale control I had made my only food mistake of the ride, when I took Eric's recommendation and had a gas station mini-mart 'pizza pocket'. My stomach rebelled and it was only by the time we had reached River Road that I was beginning to win the battle. Bananas and ginger cookies turned the tide and a pint of chocolate milk sealed the deal and as we rode on past Occidental I felt much better. The last control out on the course had been moved from Marshall to Point Reyes Station. The Marshall Store opens much later in the day so even though the control is 10 miles further, it makes much more sense. Nevertheless, we stopped twice between controls to take care of minor business. Though I just love the Blondies served at the Bovine Bakery, what would serve me better was a bowl of potato salad from the Palace. As we sat out front of the Bovine, the village was filling up with day riders, cyclists who drove out to Fairfax or perhaps a bit further to nearby Nicasio and rode over to PRS. The motor driven day trippers were also beginning to arrive. Our group of four pushed off once more and left the more undulating terrain behind and tackled the series of climbs over Dixon Ridge, White's Hill, Corte Madera and finally the climb up out of Sausalito. Before that last climb though things got quite noisy when my rear fender broke. I'm pretty sure the crack began when I hit a pot hole coming down off White's Hill and the rattling roadway along the way completed the break. Checking to see that I didn't need to remove the fender completely, I caught up to my group and we tackled the remaining climb. Once at the bridge, we put Eric up front. He had done pretty much all of the pulling from Cloverdale on to Fairfax so it was appropriate that he be the first to arrive of our group.

At 13:57 we arrived back at the Strauss Statue at the Golden Gate Bridge. I've done four 600km brevets now (way behind my friend Joseph who has done 10) and until this year never the same route a second time. The SFR 600km is reputed to be the harder of the 600km routes presented by any of the four Northern California brevet clubs. Last year in better weather with company the entire way, I finished in just over 34 hours (34:08). This year, with much colder weather, many miles of headwinds and too many miles ridden solo, I completed the course in 31 hours and 57 minutes. It wasn't the perfect ride (see the above referenced food error) but again there were glimpses of that. Being in the right place at the right time to join up with Michael, Ken and Eric was one of the best things to happen on what was a great ride. Riding the Anderson Valley with John and Michael under a canopy of stars was another blessing.

After my first 600km brevet in 2005, I was hungry for a week, tired for a week, and leg sore for a week. This time, in spite of nearly 180 miles of headwinds, cold temps that do not belong in May, and riding the distance over 2 hours faster than I ever have, well, I feel great. I rode my bike to work the very next day, and really feel great and have felt that way ever since finishing the ride. I can get used to this! Somehow I have to find space for more than ten rides in my 'Top Ten Best Rides'. I'm not leaving this one out.

Photos by Eric, Theresa, and me. Eric's full 600km photo set can be seen here

Thanks so much to Bruce, Tom, Alayne, Jack, Ely, Mark, Mark, Sterling, Heath, Tim, Jason, Gintautas (and kids), Todd, Ken, Scott, Russ, JimG, Richard and Carlos. All of you contributed to making this a great event for the riders.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The voice of the turtle is no longer heard

The few readers of this blog that I have, and the handful of people that may stumble on to these pages know pretty well that the discussion here is 100% about cycling. I do have other passions, passions that have lasted as long or longer than cycling has for me.

in 1963, across the street from our house on Wedgewood Drive in West Senaca, NY was a large open field. The street was teeming with kids, and we tamed that field with surreptitiously borrowed lawnmowers, rakes and shovels and for summer play we built dugouts on each side of the baseball field with wood scraps we liberated from the building sites near the woods on the far, far side of the open fields. Playing baseball was already an entrenched pursuit for me when my family moved from Western New York to Southeastern Michigan. I kept that pursuit, as well as a fledgling fanaticism for Willie Mays and the Giants, but it was impossible not to become a fan of the Detroit Tigers, the long standing home team in my new home.

In the mid-1960s the neighborhood was packed with families and there was an endless supply of kids who would play baseball every single summer day until well past sundown. On summer nights when I'd return from hours of playing baseball and the Tiger game would be on the radio and Ernie Harwell's voice would be in our kitchen. That voice was a part of summer nights for decades in my parent's house, and when I lived on my own in Ann Arbor, I'd tune in the game every night, and when my evening job would keep me away til 8:30pm, I'd tape record the game as I went for a run, and play the whole tape once I settled in.

After moving to Washington, DC in the late 1980s I went without the broadcasts until we got a car with a pretty good radio and every once in a while I could pick up the broadcast from Detroit. Jon Miller, the announcer in Baltimore (now with the Giants in SF) was a big fan of Ernie and would try to get Ernie to announce an inning while Ernie's partner, Paul Carey did the middle innings on the Tigers broadcast whenever the Tigers played in Baltimore. A move on my part to California in the early 1990s ended any frequent broadcasts I might listen to, though I still followed the team. When the internet was still somewhat new and local radio stations still had control of their radio broadcasts of baseball games, I once again could listen to Ernie on the 'radio' through our home computer. That opportunity ended too soon and the last I heard of Ernie was a recording of his guest appearance on the national broadcast of the 2006 World Series.

I was able to meet Ernie Harwell in person twice, once at a book signing in Ann Arbor, and once more at an autograph day at Tiger Stadium. Both times he easily made me feel comfortable in his presence, and he conveyed a sincere appreciation for my being a fan. He was such a warm and gracious person, and there were and are far too few like him. Now there is one fewer.'s tribute to Ernie his here. His farewell speech when he was fired by the scum that owned Tigers then is here (Ernie was brought back in 1993 when the team was sold.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

The "post big ride bounce"

Back in 2002, I was invited to join a group of riders doing a multi-day ride from San Ramon, CA to Malibu, CA. The last day's ride would be the only day when the distance was under 100 miles for the day, and the full ride distance would be 440 miles. That ride was a blast and the first time I had done a multi-day ride in 14 years. On that trip I met a bunch of great people, had a lot great food, got to sit on the beach, drinking a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale while staring out on the Pacific with Morro Rock to the south, and had my socks knocked off by the gorgeous terrain that makes up Big Sur. I came home feeling the wonderful exhaustion that comes from a great trip, and by mid-week after returning to work, I could feel a strength on the bike that was an echo from younger days. That's the post-big-ride bounce, right there. That April ride ended up giving me a boost that lasted through the summer.

In the intervening years, my cycling seasons have been getting progressively fuller, including more miles and more big events. Some of those years have been minimized by respiratory maladies, and other year's I've been luckier, but not entirely lucky on that count. This year, I've had my fair share of colds, plus a little bit more, but mostly the colds have been minor and not as frequent as the worst years. I did have to miss the San Francisco Hopland 400km this year, and as a make up ride, I signed up for the Davis Bike Club's 400km. Earlier in the month I rode a fleche that covered roughly 230 miles. During the Fleche I felt wonderful, and the week after I felt pretty darn good, though I didn't have much chance to make use of that on the bike. Two weeks later came the DBC 400km.

This was the first time I've done any version of the Davis 400km, having done the Santa Rosa 400km as my first 400km, and two different versions of the San Francisco 400km (one of those versions twice). My first 400km remained the fastest one I'd done until this year. I did that first 400km somewhere around 19 hours. And then came the infamous SFR 400km through the Central Valley, in 2006. Ugh. 25-30+mph headwinds for six hours and a finish at 2:15 am. The other SFR 400kms used a different route, challenging in it's own way and finish times were just as late. On the DBC 400km though, there was next to no wind, headwind or otherwise, and far, far less climbing than on the current SFR 400 route, which has somewhere between 13,000 and 14,000 feet of elevation gain.

My friend Charlie gave me a ride up and back to the ride start/finish. His riding partner for the day did not show, so we decided to ride together after the first control. I had a small energy dip early in the ride, but the stop at the first control proved to be just the tonic I needed and from that point on, the ride was a joy all day long. From Davis, the route heads west, then south to Vacaville, then west again to Fairfield before cutting through the Vaca Mountains toward Napa Valley, with a stop in Calistoga, and then looping east and north of Healdsburg on the way toward Lake Sonoma. The return route is very similar, but is more direct on the leg toward Vacaville, and differs on the route between Vacaville and Davis.

This 400km felt so much more like the Fleche events I've done, riding with some of the same people for the full distance, never pushing to the max, leisurely stops at controls. The end result? My fastest time for a 400km, at 18:38 (I did finish toward the back of the pack, when usually I'm smack dab in the middle). This week, I've again felt that post-big-ride bounce, and this morning I finally overcame sloth and took the long way to work. I time the first portion of this route from home to the highest point, as a means of gauging my cycling fitness, and I've kept a record of the times. In looking at this year's chart I can see where I've had a cold coming on or where I'm just getting over one. On today's ride to work, I never pushed hard to the point where I couldn't sustain the pace, and the ride felt effortless compared to the first version back in January of this year.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The wanderings of Oblio's dog

California has an extensive calendar of double century rides, and it was the double century that first lured me into long distance riding. Doing my first Davis Double Century in 2000, I was thrilled to be riding amongst hundreds of other riders. I still do several doubles a year now, but in 2002 many of my friends were 'graduating' to even longer rides. In 2003, these friends nearly disappeared from club rides with modest 100 mile distances. They were off riding something called 'brevets', basically qualifiers for a ride in Europe called Paris, Brest et retour. This cycling niche was known as randonneuring, based on the french word randonneur (the masculine form of the word for someone that commonly engages in hiking, but applied to cycling in a specific manner). By August, those friends had disappeared completely. They were all off in France doing a single ride of 770 miles, hopefully within the 90 hour time limit. All fall and into winter I heard countless stories of the PBP experience, and I was completely intrigued. In 2004, I decided to test myself as well when I signed up for a rather unique version of randonneuring known as a Flèche.

Flèche is the french word for arrow, and this choice of word to name the event comes into play if you imagine a target, with arrows flying toward the bulls-eye from all directions. The arrows represent the individual routes each Flèche team submits to the organizers, and the target is a central location with a specific meeting time where all the teams end up. The path the arrow follows in this case needs to be at least 360km, and the time of the 'flight' is no more than 24 hours and no less than 23 hours. The whole endeavor is said to derive from the efforts of several friends who on Easter weekend would travel the distance between Paris and St. Etienne, roughly 360 km, in order to meet up with other friends where they would share an Easter breakfast. The current organization of the Flèche has teams made up of riders on between three and five bicycles, and at least three team members need to finish the distance for the team to get credit for completing the ride. The team aspect is of course enormous, and plays heavily in guiding the make up of teams. At minimum, at least one team member knows all the other riders and more commonly, all team members are well acquainted. After all, the team will spend 24 hours in close company as they ride across the day and through the night aiming toward the finish target.

Now well into this posting, no doubt there is curiosity of just what the point is when the entry title mentions somebody's dog. Wondering about the point of this all is quite literally exactly where this tale is going. When a randonneuring club hosts a Flèche there are often enough teams that it is beginning to get difficult discerning one team from the next so the teams adopt names, quite often with the name being some word play on Flèche, or arrow. Aging children that grew up in the 1960s or 1970s may remember a movie by the name of 'The point!' which told the story of Oblio and Obio's faithful dog Arrow, and of course there you now have it.

On April 3rd, my team, known as Obio's dog, left Berkeley, California at 07:15 and over the next 24 hours we would travel through Hercules, Vallejo, Rockville, Fairfield, pass west of Winters and then head toward St. Helena, Calistoga, Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Nicasio, Fairfax, Corte Madero, Sausalito, finally stopping at Crepes on Cole, south of the panhandle portion of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Our route was 233 miles long, gaining over 10,000' in elevation along the way. When we began, skies were overcast and temperatures were in the mid 40sF. By mid afternoon we had found sunny skies and sunshine fueled warmth had found us. Through the night, haze nearly obscured the moon and stars and temperatures slid into the upper 30s F, but the cold temps were offset by the disappearance of headwinds, a fair enough trade in my book.

Team chemistry, as alluded to above, is very important, and in our case one might wonder if it was alchemy as we ended up with gold. Bruce served as captain, and we used a route he would be riding for the third time. Phil joined us this year for his first ever Flèche, and Carlos and Robbins were riding their second (consecutive) Flèche. This would be my fourth and Bruce's fifth Flèche event. Randonneuring stories often become more compelling when the tale includes overcoming difficult conditions and circumstances. I'm afraid I will have to disappoint the reader on this point. We suffered no mechanicals, and except for a brief period (which certainly felt long to Phil) we all were feeling comfortable and confident of completing the route. As I said, I've done four of these events now, and darned if they just keep getting better each time.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The world is not (a) flat (tire).

Years ago, I once remarked that a (then) recent spate of flat tires on my bike was remarkable. My feeling was it was beyond odd that I'd be getting so many flat tires in such a short time. My friend Charlie responded that he viewed it as perfectly normal and expected. To him, getting flat tires at more evenly distributed times would be far more remarkable. I must admit that this perspective still leaves me scratching my head. All I know is that I am something less than overjoyed when ever I get a flat, be it the first or the Nth in a string. Flat tires, if you'll permit my slipping into vernacular, suck.

Let me, for emphasis, repeat that. Flat tires suck. They are certain to suck the life out of the moment, out of your momentum, and they can suck the life right out of your ride. How can I be so sure? Well, not that I really needed confirmation of this, but I've had more than what I consider my fair share of flats recently, and I've had them on three different bikes ridden in three different locations in three different circumstances: dry conditions on a commute, wet conditions on a commute using a different route, wet conditions on a brevet, and dry conditions on an entirely different brevet and route. The flats on the brevets have really taken the steam out of those rides, and changing a flat in the rain is only adding insult to injury.

The bad run of flat tires has taken me on a bumpy and circuitous emotional route. I was a bit grumpy but resigned to the reality when I first started getting the flat tires on my commute. Given the route the odds are in favor of getting a flat at some point, and frankly it has been a while. After several of those though, the flat tires on the first brevet really hit me hard. I was already late when I had the first flat, and having to change a totally grimy tire in the rain was hard to take. In short, I was pissed. By the time of the second flat, things had changed and I was back to simply being resigned to the reality of it all. Having caught up to several riders and having had the chance to ride along, chat, eat, etc. made a big difference.

Another flat on a commute had the sting taken out of it by the knowledge that the recent rainy weather had ended, and taking the long way to work always gives me a bit of a lift. On the most recent brevet, the Santa Rosa 200km, I had not one but two flats before the first control, which comes early at mile 10. By this time, I was hardly phased by the second flat, and just set about changing it out and getting back on the road. I had lost 25 minutes very early in the ride so I had little hope of catching anyone. A flat, or even two late in the ride is quite different in that there are always riders behind that you can ride with after fixing your flat. Get one at mile 10 of a 125 mile ride, and there is no choice but to chase, and chase solo.

It will of course tempt fate, but I think my string of flats is ending. So is the rainy season, the end of which is a bit early but not impossibly early. I managed to commute for over a week without a flat, and I got through an entire 200km permanent without flatting as well. We'll see what gives this weekend on the SFR 400km.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The SF-Mill Valley-SF-Healdsburg-SF 300+km brevet

This is a tale in which luck, both good and bad, plays a major role. At many points a rational person would question 'why do this'? It is at those points however that I would say we are most ill equipped to present a cogent response.

Before I began riding brevets, I never really considered voluntarily riding in the rain, and after I began riding brevets my perspective changed to one where if it had to rain, I really wanted to be well out on the course before the rain began. The reasoning was that at that point I'd have no choice but to finish. In successive years I was given first hand experience testing out that perspective, first on a 200km brevet and later on a 300km brevet. So far as I could tell, it worked well enough to keep as a working perspective. Of the two brevets I've ridden this year, I now can say I have the supplemental experience of starting brevets in the rain and I can toss that old perspective out the window. Turns out each has it's upsides and obvious downsides, and it just doesn't matter. Rain is rain.

On the Thursday before the ride, the number of riders signed up was pushing 130. There is always a lot of wobble with the final total, with some riders dropping out due to real life rearing it's head, and new riders signing up when real life unexpectedly just got out of the way. I promised myself that I'd complete on Thursday as much of the last minute prep work that goes into organizing the brevet as was possible and leave Friday night to preparation for my own ride. That just didn't pan out as planned and if anything I was more harried getting out the door at 4:30 Saturday morning than ever before. Arriving ten minutes behind on my objective I was relieved to see that no riders were waiting for the brevet cards yet, but those ten minutes still took time out from my own preparations. On the way over I had emptied my jersey pockets of everything so I wouldn't be driving with an uncomfortable lump poking the small of my back, and in the process put my wallet in clear view on the dashboard. That was handy when paying the bridge tolls.

As I unloaded my bike and arranged all my gear, I was really disappointed when my Sam Browne Belt and reflective ankle bands were not exactly where I had put them and I spent too much time just looking for them than it should have taken to completely get ready and ride off. Richard was parked right next to me and, bless him, he had an extra belt and sure enough the act of loaning me the belt provoked the discovery of my own gear. The rolled up belt had fallen out of my car and rolled under his car when I was first emptying my gear out. I finally headed over to the ride start and experienced more alarm when other vital items I knew I had packed proved hard to find. We started the pre-ride meeting late and I kept to the 'script', hitting the vital points about routes, road surfaces and what to do at the penultimate control, and with a rushed 'SFR Oath' the crowd left with me tailing behind.

Our Russian River 300km route follows the Lower Marin Bike route, and halfway along this stretch, when I was just catching up to the main pack the thought struck me: you have no wallet you dope! I pulled off the path onto the gravel apron and confirmed my stupidity. No wallet. It was left in plain view on the dashboard, and I had to go back or deal with a broken window and canceling credit cards, atm cards and all manner of fun. Some how my anger at such a stupid move didn't give me extra strength to fly back to the start, and my wheels rolled along as if axle deep in molasses. It was 7:10 by the time I arrived back at the Strauss Statue, and in order to keep the delay from growing, I decided to drive back to Mill Valley to a point just short of where I turned back and resume the ride. In the end I didn't gain much (or keep from losing as much) time by doing this and it only complicated matters later in the day, but from this point on I knew I'd be riding solo while the other 109 riders were off up ahead, with no clear idea of when I'd catch anyone.

My riding seemed off the whole time until I began approaching Samuel Taylor State Park, where I finally found a rhythm. For about 5 minutes. Intermittent rain on the west side of White's Hill kept the roads wet, and wet roads always help you hear the air rushing out of a puncture. I have grime in my hands that three days later I still can't scrub off after changing that flat, and all the while that I was dealing with the repair I was worried about making Tim wait for such a straggler at the secret control. From this point nothing got any worse and traversing the park on terrible pavement was uneventful. The black clouds above were a perfect illustration of my mood, which only by small degrees began to brighten to the point where I could at least notice a rainbow that seemed to arc to the ground just around the next bend in the road. Tim seemed surprised to see me arrive at the control and assumed I was riding sweep. I was pretty far off the back to be riding sweep that day, coming in about 30 minutes behind the last riders. Filling up on water, I took off toward Petaluma into a headwind.

The control in Petaluma is a Safeway store on the east side of town and is reached by traversing town crossing some less than scenic ground punctuated by plenty of stops. As I reached the Safeway, Glenn and Jon were just locking up their bikes getting ready to go inside. I headed straight to the chocolate milk, grabbed a banana and headed for the checkout to get my receipt for the brevet card. The person just ahead of me in line had obviously seen all the other riders during his shopping and remarked that I was a bit behind my riding buddies. I had arrived there at 10:28 which is about an hour and a half behind when I usually get to this point on the route. We chatted a bit, and my usual reluctance to talk to strangers eased quite a bit. I think finding Glenn and Jon at the control and this easy going conversation with another shopper both helped to turn my mood around, even though the headwinds I faced on the next leg tried to undo that progress.

That next leg is a bit of a let down until getting well past Penngrove, and past that point the fast traffic undermines the scenery a bit. Santa Rosa is next on the route and the landscape is almost entirely suburban from there all the way to Healdsburg. Healdsburg is a small town on the Russian River with a pretty downtown, and is nearly surrounded by vineyards. Our crowd of over 100 riders is best handled by the deli at the Safeway and the outside seating at this location really makes for a better than expected break. I've had adequate meals at this control and meals that didn't rest well in my stomach, but the baked potato soup was an inspired and fabulous choice. I broke my two month long rule of no soda and added a bag of salty chips to my lunch. I had arrived feeling completely cooked and Gabe, John and Bryan later remarked that I simply did not look good or happy, but upon leaving the control I felt great. I shared some of the break with Karen, Nattu, Bill, Amy, and a number of other riders who provided great company, and I caught Bill and Amy for the ride on Westside Road through the vineyards heading southwest on the way to River Road. For me, this is where the money part of the ride begins. Traffic largely disappears until River Road and even on that road, the further west we go the more traffic eases until it is nearly gone where we turn south at Jenner.

River Road is not over in a blink, and along that leg I began to hear a ticking sound and really couldn't tell where it was coming from. I stopped and just guessed at checking the rear tire first and sure enough, a wire was clicking on the fender with each revolution. Amazingly, it had not punctured the tire so I rode on, vowing to keep an eye on the tire, and balancing worry it would go soft with amazement at my good luck that it hadn't yet gone soft. I had just passed Clayton on his single speed when I picked up the wire in the tire, and he stopped to offer support. I passed him again once I was rolling. Fifteen miles later when carving the turns and curves on Highway One, the tire began to get soft and Clayton rolled by as I swapped out the tube. I had to admire Clayton's mood. He seemed completely content and enjoying the whole day. Clayton and I both joined the biggest group of riders I had seen all day at the Bodega Bay control.

The route continues south of Bodega Bay along CA Hwy. One, but the roadway leaves the views of the coast and angry surf behind and travels up a canyon and over a series of nasty rollers. To offset the change in terrain, it was here that the cloud cover disappeared in a snap. The chill in the air was hard to miss but the bright sunshine on the green hillsides gave warmth that didn't need to be physical. From Bodega Bay all the way to Marshall, I saw no other riders until the Marshall Store came into view. Mid-day sunshine is a joy of course, but there was something to the quality of the late day sunlight on a late February afternoon. At the Marshall Store, the penultimate control, a bigger crowed than in Bodega Bay went about the tasks at hand, finding or stowing away brevet cards, refilling water bottles, putting on reflective gear or heading inside for a bowl of warm clam chowder as I did. Jonathan was resting and eating while I came in and he told me about two crashes on the nasty train tracks north of Petaluma, which I had completely forgotten about since last year. Jonathan was a little scraped up, but in great spirits and his company at the store was a plus.

The now clear skies allowed for one more visual treat after the sun set as I completed the portion of the route on Highway One. A full moon was rising over Black Mountain as I neared Point Reyes Station and headed toward Nicasio Reservoir. I played leap frog with Karen and Nattu for a short while and then passed Becky and her posse before Nicasio. It was good to be back within and around more riders after pushing alone into the morning headwinds. A brief chat with Veronica as we neared Dixon Ridge let me know that Jason was just up ahead. I could see his tail light and I wondered if he was riding fixed again this day. I couldn't catch him before the top of the climb but Jason and several other riders were waiting at the bottom on Sir Francis Drake. We had now reached the point where the route ahead was a repeat of the morning route, but in reverse. I lost time rooting through my front bag looking for the bag of Clif Shot Blocks I knew were in there and I managed to catch only a few of the riders that had passed me while I was stopped by the time I got to White's Hill. This part of the ride is so ingrained in my memory and reaching this point on any ride that shares these streets never fails to infuse me with a sense of impending completion. It is still 15 miles to the finish from Fairfax, but the ride seems 'over' at this point, even though there are two climbs to be faced in those 15 miles.

A pack of riders seemed to form between Fairfax and San Anselmo, but a traffic light turning red separated Mick, Jason and myself from the rest and we began the climb up Corte Madera while the others caught their breath at the traffic stop behind. Mick stopped to adjust his lighting and Jason and I forged ahead. We waited at the end of the bike path just north of Sausalito for the others to catch up and Jason shared the last of a packet of Clif Shot Blocks and some of his water. We had cooled off too much while waiting for the group that never showed, so Jason and I rolled off once more, pushed up the Sausalito Lateral and found the big red button to call Bridge Security to open the gates for our crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge's East Path. At 21:22 we rolled to a stop at the Visitor Center plaza and found a large crowd of riders, volunteers and friends waiting.

I had been hoping for most of the day to catch up to Bruce, but he had finished ten minutes ahead of me. Greg had been waiting longer, and Sterling had finished his volunteer shift and I had already begun to get the shivers now that I had stopped turning food into heat, so we packed up as quickly as shivering hands would allow and headed toward Mill Valley and my car. I took Greg's bike off the roof of Sterling's car, leaving mine inside and those two drove off to dinner and I got set to do the same. There was one small delay though. Barely a mile away, I came to a stop at a red light, with a cop car to my right. When the light turned green, I left, and immediately the crusier's lights went on. I had no idea why I was being stopped and admitted as much to the officer, who then told me he believed me, but that was no excuse for proceeding straight on a green left arrow. Doh! Oddly enough, the whole tide turned in my favor when the officer asked me if I had been drinking because my eyes were all watery. Normally, that is where a bad situation gets much, much worse. But I had an answer. I explained that I had been on a long bike ride, and still being in bike clothes with a bike in the back of the car supported that story. When asked, I explained how long the ride had been, and the officer seemed impressed. "Mr. Hawks, I'm going to let you go with a warning, but please, please be more careful." I was and have been since that point.

Photos by Greg Merritt and Brian Chun.

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