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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