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. MLB.com'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.)