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.