Monday, September 19, 2011

Back to the start

There is wonder and excitement upon experiencing something for the first time. Memories are laid down, and in later years called back up again in the telling of a tale. Even so, approaching something with the benefit of experience, and a measure of focused preparation can often times make the return seem like a new experience itself. I learned this so well this past August when the four year wait concluded and the 17th edition of Paris, Brest et retour was about to begin.

Starting in August of 2007 while still in France, and continuing and building over the next four years I prepared myself in the best way I knew how, and in what ever ways I could for PBP 2011. I left France four years ago struggling a bit to be positive about the experience of PBP 2007, and four years seemed too much like an eternity. In so many ways I had a fantastic experience back then, no doubt about that, but those experiences were also at war with the emotions of having fallen short. True also was the realization that I had made mistakes in my approach to the challenge. Some of those realizations would take a long time to develop however, because I didn't recognize them at the time as mistakes, not for some time anyway.

It is obvious of course that if one wants to successfully complete a long ride, then riding frequently and riding continuously would be part of the preparation. This blog has many write ups of long rides so I won't recount those here. If a short list of the other aspects of preparation for completing PBP is needed, here goes: Learn French, solve nutritional issues, mitigate sleeping issues, learn to be self dependent on the bike. Learning French is obvious, right? The more I could understand signage, directions, conversations, the better off I'd be. I have trouble learning a language because of my difficulty in hearing the language. The more I could hear it though, and learn the cadence, the better I'd understand just what was going on. To address this, I took once-a-week classes at the local Alliance Francaise. This would actually help address an aspect of the last point on the list above, but more about that in later installments. Solving nutritional issues and mitigating sleep issues were both chemically assisted in part, but not entirely. One huge mistake I made in 2007 was in the eating department. Despite the offerings at all the controls, I tried to only eat from the stash I brought with me, thinking that I couldn't tolerate or just didn't like what was offered at the control restaurants. To put a finer point on the nutritional mistake, I approached PBP with no plan there at all. To fix this however, it is a difficult task at best to change one's eating tastes, so the easier way to go is to identify the overlap between what you do like and what is offered, and go for that in a big way.

Sleep is a huge aspect to address when preparing for any brevet 600km or longer. At this point, I pretty much have all the data I need to know that I do better when I start a long brevet shortly after a night's sleep. I went back and forth on the decision to start the 90 hour group or the 84 hour group. My hesitation was largely that I didn't think I was fast enough to finish in 84 hours. The morning start was very attractive, but did I have the speed for this? My decision was finally made to take the 84 hour start *only* because of the morning start. I would have felt better about this choice if I had been riding better all year prior to PBP, but that didn't come to be. July, the final full month for preparation, turned out to be mostly ok, but mixed in that I had plenty of miles, and I had some really good rides where I felt my form really taking shape. I also had at least one clunker of a ride on the double brevet weekend and actually had to DNF on the first day by stopping after 200km at the overnight location instead of doing the full 300km for that day. In the end I put my money on being well rested before the start, remembering the 90 hour evening start in 2007 where napping mid day proved impossible and only frustrated me more than relaxed me.

The final piece of this four part puzzle? Learning to be self dependent. What does this mean? Ah, for me, it meant being more content on my own and never letting the inability to keep up to someone else be discouraging. I've always been able to handle any mechanical issue that might crop up. Flat tires were absolutely no problem, I've fixed those hundreds of times over the many years I've ridden. Through the years I've weeded out certain types of parts and certain practices in maintaining my bike and what remains is well beyond reliable. I know my bikes well and that certainly helps in getting to the finish of a ride. So it is not the physical here, rather it is the mental part of being self dependent. Some riders do well when left to ride a long brevet on their own through the night or into the next day. There are some that even seek that out. I was never one of those riders and always just preferred to be with others. When I tried to ride several different 1200km rides, and found myself dropped and on my own early, it affected me and while I won't say it was a factor in not finishing those rides, it didn't do me any good. Since 2007 though this slowly changed. The old saying is that nothing breeds success like success, and becoming the faster rider in the groups I rode in before bred that success. Now I can simply back off, pace other riders and in the end the rides become better for me when I finish not feeling all trashed.

Of all these aspects to getting ready, it is this last one that played the biggest role, engulfing and overshadowing all the others, and the realization of this was profound.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It didn't look exactly like this from back there

My point of reference is August, 2007. Going into Paris, Brest, Paris in 2007, I had heard many stories about the experience, but I knew nothing first hand. The experience of PBP 2007 for me was many things, but arching over all those things, what it amounted to was something incomplete. Looking back to 2007, while I learned a great many things from the experience both at the time as well as over time, I could only see PBP 2007 and any Grand Randonnée I attempted in one way: only a start.

A piece of advice I had been given in 2005 was that one way to prepare for PBP might be to complete a domestic 1000 or 1200km brevet. I acted on that advice and set out to ride the Gold Rush Randonnée that year. Result: I abandoned the ride in Oroville, CA, just barely 100 miles into the 750 mile route. I had a splitting headache and a broken rack held together by a substandard bolt and a few days later I was laid out flat with one of the worst bugs I've ever had. 2006 was a missed opportunity as I couldn't manage doing even a 600km owing to a bout of ITBS. 2007, in the end only provided the impetus for this blog, and still no finish in a grand randonnée. 2008 was an off year in all regards. In 2009, my best 600km ever was still far from perfect, but I gave the Gold Rush one more try. In three tries at the 1200km distance I had zero finishes. Like any moderately sane person, I did question whether cycling events of this nature were really what I wanted to do. I didn't have the answer to that and the related question of 'did I have it in me to complete the challenge'.

Time is said to heal all wounds, and time also provides new opportunities. 2010 proved to be a turning point for me as a randonneur. A very slow start to the year only allowed me to gain a lot of momentum, and on my club's Fort Bragg 600km, I had what would begin as a series of the best rides of my randonneuring life. The fulfilling thing about a series is that there is a next installment, and while the 600km that year was a breakthrough for me, it turned out to be a stepping stone for the next breakthrough. The Santa Cruz Randonneurs' Central Coast 1000km was that next breakthrough.

Finally finishing a brevet longer than 600km that itself built on a very successuful 600km earlier in the year gave me what I needed to be confident that I could complete the rides, and confident that this is what I was really interested in after all. Still, the plane flight to Paris in August of this year is not the only thing that got me to PBP 2011.

In early January of this year, I was still riding high on the success and conditioning of the 2010 riding season. The season opening brevet for me was the Santa Rosa Cyclists' Napa 200km and I rode it well, and rode it easy, sticking with a friend for much of the route. I can recall though the exact moment of finishing the brevet, and this funny tickle in my throat that caused a cough I could barely control through the post-ride meal on the Bear Republic Brewery patio with all the other riders. That next day was the start of bad cold, one where I gave up counting how long it lasted once I reached 24 days. I barely made it through the next 200km in February, and had no stamina on the Healdsburg 300km at the end of the month. A much smaller rebound cold in early March didn't stop me from joining about 30 other riders doing the Santa Rosa 300km in an all day rain. Though my bike took some wear and tear in the rough conditions, the ride proved to be a building block in that I finished in good spirits and more importantly in good health.

The next test in the qualification process was the 400km and I was lucky to do that ride on the Worker's Ride which resembled more a team event than a brevet. Carlos, Johh, Gabe, Bryan and I rode the whole event as a group and feeding on that camaraderie, I began to ride back into some of the form I lost in January. Yet one more head cold forced me to miss the Santa Rosa 400km, which I wanted to do in order to achieve a double Super Randonneur series for the year. I was well enough a week later to ride the SFR Fleche event, that wasn't a requirement for PBP qualification, it was a ride I didn't want to miss though. In early May the SFR Fort Bragg 600km came rolling around, which would be the final qualifier though not the final big ride I had planned for training. Alas, a broken saddle 160 miles into the ride caused me to DNF and re-mix all my planned rides.

What sometimes first appears as an impediment can often transform into an opportunity. Such was the case with this abbreviated ride on the SFR 600km. Instead of the SFR 600 and the Davis 600 to cap a double SR series, I signed up for the Santa Rosa 600km. This caused me to have to miss the Davis Double Century for the first time in 12 years, but the way things played out I was beyond pleased with this ride. It wasn't my fastest time and was darn close to my slowest, but in many ways it was without a doubt the funnest 600km I've ridden. I rode with Jason, Michael and Bryan for more than half the ride, spending most of the time just cracking up at the interactions of those three. For the remainder of the return leg, I spent some time with a couple riders finishing up the last hours before dawn and then I pushed through a long solo stretch. One might assume that all the flat tires I suffered on the ride would be viewed as a plague, but the final result was that it delayed me long enough for Peg and Sarah to roll by and with that we rode to finish the route, and again it was the best thing.

June was a funny month in the Bay Area, with rare late spring rainstorms scuttling the Davis Overnight. That month I had barely 60% of my mileage in May and as it turned out the same 60% of the mileage I'd have in July. Needing to keep riding and knowing the best way to do that was in the company of other riders SFR ended up packing the July schedule with several 200 and 300km brevets. During a four week period extending into August, SFR had six brevets: A double brevet weekend, the Davis Overnight rescheduled for July, the Old Cazadero 300km and a new 200km, the Morgan Territory 200k. I managed to ride three of those and worked the rest of them. During this time I was having some really great, though much shorter rides that were shoe-horned into the open gaps of my personal schedule.

Closing out my riding before the trip to France, I rode a permanent with Bryan C. going from Berkeley to Davis, and one last run on a favorite, very local route in the East Bay Hills. As so often is the case, reality turned out to be far short of dreams but while I didn't do all the rides I had hoped to do, and I wasn't as fit as I wanted to be I did see a lot of improvement and progress past the setbacks from early in the year. On top of that, there was a great deal of improvement and progress over the last four years. Saying 'I'm as ready as I'll ever be' might focus too much on what I didn't get done in preparing. It served me much better I think to focus on what I did get done. An eagerness and a calm replaced the nervousness I felt four years before. I was really ready. Or so I thought.

Part 3

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The journey is more than the road upon which I traveled

Shortly after addressing the more urgent unpacking details upon returning from PBP 2011, having found an unanticipated moment of quiet I settled in front of the computer and sifted through the early messages from my fellow travelers, and also quite a number of congratulatory postings from friends who had followed the event electronically. I was not the first to upload my photos from the ride and post them so many of these messages had links to albums or even specific single photos. One such post on a social network contained a photo taken by a then unknown to me photographer, of me on the bike at mid day, with much more than a hint of a smile on my face. It took me several viewings before I could place the image within my memories of any of the 1230 kilometers of the course. With some context now supplied, I set to work trying to recall the circumstances surrounding me at the time, such as what I was thinking when the photo was taken. That really wasn't a hard task at all. Though many kilometers remained before the finish, I knew I was thinking, not at all for the first time, that I would finish. All I needed to do was imagine crossing the finish line, and if I could stop there, a huge smile would form on my face. More often though, I'd just burst out in laughter. Two weeks later, just thinking about that concluding moment, that beep from the recording mat, and that smile is there in an instant.

This photo of me as I near the Tinténiac control on the return route turns out to mean a great deal to me. The meaning is two-fold as well. It is clear (to me at any rate) that the photo captures me absolutely enjoying the moment, and enjoying it as completely as I can. With hindsight from two weeks later, though, I know now what that rider in the photo could not: the best was still to come. Imagine then, enjoying something so thoroughly, and then the experience just gets better.

If you have read the notes that describe this blog, you then know that this was not my first attempt at PBP. In 2007, I fell a long way short of finishing. For the following four years, nearly everything I did cycling related was to prepare for a return to France and to take another shot at Paris, Brest et retour. While falling short of obsessive, my preparation was many faceted, and only grew in determination as the four years passed. I felt I was addressing all the shortcomings of the attempt in 2007. I felt by 2011 I was a better randonneur than in 2007. I believed I knew what I wanted to achieve and I felt I had learned how to achieve that. The second meaning that the photo gives to me though is that despite all my preparation and the strong convictions that gave me, I simply had no real idea what finishing this time would mean to me. Finding out just what finishing did mean to me turned out to be stunning.

In my posts on this blog, I try to move beyond a recitation of riding stats and grocery lists of what I ate. Given that, some of my posts get lengthy and by some standards verbose. Paris, Brest, Paris is just not a one-post-experience, so I plan to deliver the story in segments over time (mostly as I finish them), and this post is then a preface. PBP is also not the sum of the route itself and for me the ride began long before that pre-dawn start on August 22nd and did not end at mid-day on August 25th.

Part two

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Up the slope: the SFR Hopland 400km

Each year, as November becomes December I begin to refine my cycling plans for the coming year. RUSA and ACP brevet calendars are already approved, and the California Triple Crown site has all of the coming year's double centuries listed. Looking back from that point, I could tell why my riding was in fine tune. 2010 had started off slow, but April and May of that year launched me on a run of really enjoyable and successful efforts on the longer brevets in the Super Randonneur series. Riding that wave of good results, I looked out on the coming year and imagined I could complete a double Super Randonneur series in 2011. NorCal brevet clubs listed as many as seven 200km brevets, five 300kms, four 400kms and four more 600kms, all roughly within an hour's drive of my home.

Ah, but it is not as simple as showing up, nor even as simple as planning to show up. The day I completed my first 200km of the year, I knew with little doubt I had caught a head cold after I stopped riding. Little did I know the cold would be so bad that nearly three weeks later I would still be so run down I'd have to miss time at work. I recovered enough to complete my second 200km in early February and managed not to lose much (more) in the way of cycling fitness before the SFR 300km (we'll not talk about actually regaining any fitness during that time). The SFR 300km was harder than expected as a record turnout of over 110 riders faced below-freezing temperatures at the start and a chill through the day. March allowed for a break in the San Francisco Randonneurs schedule, and the double SR plan was to continue with the Santa Rosa 300km put on by the Santa Rosa Cyclists and their RBA Bob Redmond. This was the same course, with minor changes, on which I rode my very first 300km brevet with Christian F., in the company of several other riding friends. On a very windy day back in 2005, we managed to arrive in just under 14 hours. Six years later, the 300km was held a month earlier in March and luck and the weather did not favor us. Despite driving into and out of several downpours on the way up to Healdsburg, I did show up, suit up and ride out with a group slightly diminished in numbers by the bad weather.

With the calendar page now turned to April, I was hoping for both better weather and better cycling form. I got a little of both, more on the weather side of things than the cycling form side of things. Given that, I approached the SFR Hopland 400km worker's ride with a little bit of concern. In the Super Randonneur series the 400km, the third in the series, is where the challenge begins to get steep. For this April 2nd ride, we had seven riders signed up to do the ride and support the main event a week later. Given my results so far, I wasn't sure I could hang on with the group through what was likely to be a 21+ hour ride. I had completed two 400kms in 2010 in under 19 hours, but I knew I no longer had those legs this year.

Bryan, Gabe, Carlos, John, Willy and Gabrielle all waited for me at the Golden Gate Bridge ride start, and spot on 06:00 we began the ride, facing a breeze that would grow stronger through the day. To mitigate the headwind I knew we'd have all the way to Hopland, I also figured the threat of rain that day would disappear by ride's end and happily this proved to be true. Through the early miles our gang of seven would fragment and reform repeatedly until we passed Nicasio on our way toward Bodega. Our groups then coalesced into to two groups, one of five and the other of two riders, with the blessing of the trailing duo that we five could ride ahead at our own pace. White's Hill, west of Fairfax is where the ride begins for me, where the density of population drops considerably and houses, though still present, are harder and harder to see as they are set back further from the roadway with the only evidence they are there being a gravel drive that perforates either the fencing or the woods on the edge of the pavement. Our route this day would take us to Chileno Valley, where I had also ridden my very first ride in Marin, with the Grizzly Peak Cyclists, back in 1992.

North from Nicasio, our route would bisect at least two of the four historical Rancheros which themselves surround Dos Piedras, later known in English as Two Rock, and always known as a prominent and visible feature on the landscape in what is now southern Sonoma County. Though all of the terrain there is beyond scenic, one of the more picturesque portions is on Chileno Valley road, named for the young Chilean husband of the stepdaughter of a Spanish soldier involved in the effort to contain the presence of the Russians, settled at Fort Ross in colonial California. Save the names of paved roads in the area, none of this history is evident to us as John and Bryan, the two strongest riders this day, pull us toward Bodega. The open terrain past Valley Ford allows us to see our other riders, though the terrain's huge rollers is what also splits us up into five groups of one until we finally reach shelter from the wind and relief from the climbing on Bodega Highway where we roll into our first control.

At this point it is still very early in the day, not much past breakfast time really, yet I wanted to have a bowl of chowder at the Bodega Country Store before resuming the ride. (Note: The chowder was fantastic!) While I felt just a bit more than full for a few miles after our stop, the choice proved to be very wise. A larger meal at this point would offset the big chunk of calories about to be burned, because just ahead was Joy Road, a defining feature of this brevet route. Joy Road begins in open fields and ends in a forest of giant redwoods. The climb is brutal, because it is both mentally and physically draining. False summits crush the spirits of riders tricked into thinking they have reached the end of the climb, only to find that a longer, steeper pitch is in their way. This is my third time riding this route, though clearly not my best effort on this climb. Only Carlos, surpisingly, is behind me. I had assumed I'd be DFL on this climb, but I later learned that Carlos had been running a monthly marathon for quite some time and the divided focus meant he was not nearly as fast this season as he was all the previous year. The top of the Joy Road climb does not end abruptly but before you've slowed your breathing you are at full speed, charging downhill and in danger of missing the right turn that takes you rattlingly downhill into Occidental.

The descent into Occidental and the slightly downhill run along Bohemian Highway toward Monte Rio and the Russian River helped us work off the effects of the previous long climb, though we had separated from Carlos at this point. It was his luck, though, as the remaining four of us had a less than brief encounter with the local CHP officer. A stern lecture discussing the emotional effects of his having to 'scrape us off the highway' after our failing to come to a stop that was not complete unless it concluded with a *feet off the pedals and on the ground* motion was delivered, and punctuated with the statement that we were 'now in the system'. The glorious thing about bike rides though is that with just a few miles you can pedal just about anything out of your system, which was largely true for us by the time Carlos had rejoined us and we made our way to the Guerneville Safeway, our next control on the route.

From Guerneville to Healdsburg the scenery is undermined by the higher volume of faster traffic on River Road and then the craptastic pavement surface on Westside road. Even still, it is scenic in the river valley. North of Westside road, our route kept to the west bank of Dry Creek, a tributary of the Russian River. The terrain is rolling in the Dry Creek valley. Our path though was toward Cloverdale and the Alexander Valley so we would not be tracing Dry Creek to it's source on Snow Mountain. Dutcher Creek Road is the kind of road that doesn't have serious hills, yet the multiple climbs are always enough to put a kink in a paceline that had worked smoothly along Dry Creek Road. Instead of fighting this we took the opportunity to 'shift fluids' and reform our paceline at a more moderate pace. Approaching Cloverdale, John won yet another sprint to the city limit sign, relying on the double advantage of stronger legs and the knowledge of where the next city limit sign will be. Though it isn't an official control, we all agreed to stop at the first Mini-mart in town, knowing we had a series of stout climbs ahead on Oat Valley Road (CA 128) and later on Mountain House Road.

The climb away from Cloverdale is shallow at first but in short order follows a serpentine course and of course gets much steeper. A big chunk of elevation gain happens early and serves to make sure you are tired enough that the shallower climbing later will still keep you at a slow pace. Our group spread out here and sorted into three groups. Gabe, Bryan and Carlos were mostly in a group in the lead, and while I kept them in sight I was not close enough to be considered in their group. Remarkably, John was lagging way behind. Once we crested the main part of the climb and approached the turn on to Mountain House road, we all pulled off and waited for John who in just a short time came steaming by not wanting to stop. Sure enough, on the even hillier terrain on Mountain House John was once again leading the group with me tailing off the back. Once or twice I closed the gap only to fall off the back once more when we hit another uphill ramp. The landscape along Mountain House Road could easily be the most gorgeous area on the entire route. The early April new green of the grasses on the hillsides only added to the beauty.

Because of the imposed change to the standard 400km route, we now had a stop for the Hopland control, followed a scant 3 miles later by another stop for an informational control. In the last year or so I had been able to almost completely solve one of the biggest problems I'd face on long brevets: eating, eating enough, eating often. At the Valero mini mart that served as our control in Hopland I shoveled the food down. Two slices of pizza made up most of the meal but that was not the full menu for me. It was great to have an appetite so far into a ride, and better still to be able to satisfy that appetite. Luckily the group did not want to rush off right away (I was not the only one with a full to overflowing plate to finish). Also the ride to the next info control was on a very, very gradual up hill with a tail wind so 'assimilating' the meal was not an uncomfortable ordeal. Later, with the bookkeeping issues completed at the info control we rolled down hill back to our turn on Old River Road which would take us to Highway 101.

The imagined ideal for brevet routes would be scenic landscape on pristine pavement with low traffic. Oddly enough US Route 101, a divided highway with highway speed traffic from Hopland to Cloverdale, nearly meets that ideal. Certainly, it is not as picturesque as Mountain House Road, it's near neighbor to the west. Still, this segment of Highway traverses some very nice countryside, highlighted by Squaw Rock and the Russian River that separates US Route 101 from the rock. The pavement along this 8+ mile segment has always been at least ok, and now it is pretty good shape save for the major earth movement near the aforementioned Squaw Rock. On this day, traffic is light, the wind is at our backs, and the terrain is generally a down hill run. Despite all this, I always appreciate finally exiting the highway and gaining the Geysers Road. Along the Geysers Road, the pavement isn't managed nearly as well as back on 101, and the terrain, somewhat tortured by constant micro-movements of the earth gives us an undulating and often bumpy ride. All this is acceptable due entirely to the increasing strength of the tail wind.

As the Geysers Road approaches the outskirts of Cloverdale, our route begins a short series off west, south, west, south turns. It is there that we learn to appreciate the tailwind we have and no doubt will have for some time. I trust that I am not alone in hoping the tailwind survives the transition from day to night when winds often do cease. The further south we go, the wider the valley opens up for us as we pass through an entirely agricultural landscape. In the fading daylight we make one quick stop short of any towns to take a breather and attend to other business and then we roll on to our habitual SFR 400km non-control stop in Geyserville. Somehow, we run afoul of a curious man 'attending' to the recycling bins at this store when we discard our used containers in the bin he just emptied. We puzzle on this as the group heads out on CA 128 toward Jimtown and Chalk Hill road. It has become full nighttime before we reach the crest of the Chalk Hill climb. The down hill run from the crest is made more of a challenge by the large metal plates placed across the roadway at odd angles, and this only serves to warn us that we are leaving behind wider open spaces and heading toward more residential landscape with each passing mile. From this point on all the way to Petaluma we will pass through small towns with fewer and fewer open land between them. The flat terrain and the tailwind help speed our progress toward the Safeway control in Petaluma.

On a Saturday night, a while after sundown, the usual looks we randonneurs get when we descend upon the 24 hour Safeway store, this time in Petaluma, come from the younger patrons in the store there only to search for the beer aisle. We know they are looking at us because of the extreme effort put into *not* looking at us. I was headed to the rear of the store to find the chocolate milk rack in the big windowed cooler, but before I reached it a shopper walking the opposite way stopped in his tracks and pointed at me across the stacks of Doritos and Pepsi. I imagined several different statements he could have made, all on the 'you are totally nuts' theme, but instead he uttered only three letters: "PBP?" That I was surprised by this is of course understatement, and the ensuing conversation was also of course a highlight of the evening. It turned out our fellow shopper was a double century and brevet rider whose work schedule had forced him off the bike. It was easy to tell that he would have loved to be out riding with us, even at that hour, and he made that clear by escorting us to the check out aisle and paying for our food. Our ride was over 15 hours old so far and this encounter was just a fraction of that time, but it put the remaining hours and miles in a positive context. It just isn't that common when the people we meet show an interest at all in these long distance rides.

The D Street option of departing Petaluma involves two quite noticeable climbs. Though in daytime the terrain and the vistas across that terrain feel open, after nightfall the roadside hills and the scrubby live oak trees close in on us as we make our way past the ranches outside of town. The wind is still in our favor, but various issues cause our group to divide, combine, and divide again in new pairings. We all made the crest of the climb before any of us rolled down toward the Cheese Factory. The impounded waters of Nicasio Creek behind Seeger Dam hide several old ranches, but as we pass by on our way toward Dixon Ridge we don't even see the lights of the remote and exclusive homes near the hill tops north of Nicasio. Once or twice we encounter nocturnal birds hunting prey, and the encounter seems more of one that is felt rather than seen. San Geronimo Valley is the last rural section on our route, with the descent down White's Hill into Fairfax as the demarcation from rural to residential. Fairfax is the first in a chain of towns we'll pass through, and possibly the most lively in the hours just after midnight. On Dixon Ridge, White's Hill and later on the Corte Madera climb I feel my legs coming back. Bryan is still ahead of me on every climb, but the gap is not quite so big. I take this as a sign of some sort of progress after a winter of long and frequent head colds.

The tidal effects on Bothin Marsh in early April are not so severe as during rainier months so our crossing on the bike path toward Sausalito is dry. With no tourist or even local traffic we are able to ride as a pack two and even three wide until we cross the squeaky wooden bridges that span the channeled ebbing and flowing water. There is a small rise on Bridgeway on the route as it reaches Sausalito and on the backside of that rise is our final, though temporary control. The attendant at the 7-11 seems put out that after 2am he doesn't have the store to himself. No matter, he is polite to us as we buy an eclectic array of food items. Bryan, Carlos and I do not have a ride back to SF so we continue on after a moment of rest and complete the extra five miles back to our car or our home in the City.

This is the third time I've ridden this route, and clearly the most fun I've had. I did miss knowing that there were dozens of other riders somewhere on the course, but that didn't distract me from enjoying the ride-long company of an excellent group of riders.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A fine and pleasant misery revisited

Water is a chemical substance that is vital to life. Without it, humans and all other terrestrial life forms fail. Applied to seeds planted in the ground it promotes growth. How vital is it though to the sub-species of humans known as randonneurs? Is it really necessary to apply water to a randonneur to promote 'growth'? More to the point, on last week's Santa Rosa 300km Brevet, was it necessary to apply so much of the stuff to all the participants?

In 2005, as a freshly minted randonneur, I enjoyed a wonderful run of spring weather when I completed my first SR series. In fact, all those brevets were definitely on the warm side as spring weather goes. Ah, but in 2006, right from the start, things changed. The first brevet of that year was the 200km, and I chose the San Francisco Randonneur's 200km for the first time. To put it mildly, that 200km was wet. Along the way on that ride, I doubted many times that I was doing the right thing by continuing. Each moment of doubt was separated from the next by actual thoughts of 'gee, this is kinda fun. Who'da thunk!' As a still newbie brevet rider though, most of the doubting moments were fed by the knowledge that I was riding by myself most of the time which, forgive me, diluted my confidence. I did learn a lot on that ride, mostly that I could persevere, and if not finish in style, at least I could finish.

What I learned on that 2006 version of the SFR Point Reyes Lighthouse brevet came in darn handy when in 2007 the SFR 300km became a ride that now lives in club lore. The growing body of knowledge regarding riding in the rain alas was not enough later that year when I attempted Paris, Brest Paris 2007. As a club, we in the San Francisco Randonneurs have been dodging rain storms since 2007, and until last year we didn't really have rain on a ride that warranted mention. For that stretch of time, it seemed the rain would abate the night before or arrive the next day, but wouldn't end up soaking the ride or riders.

Ok, so it is now 2011 and I have a few more years of experience, and I'm coming off a pretty good 2010 as far as brevets go. It's a mid March Saturday and I'm driving up to Healdsburg for my 2nd 300km of the year, on my way hopefully to a double SR series and every 5 minutes of the hour plus drive up the weather changes and at one point the rain is so fierce that I have to cut my speed in half due to the downpour. Nevertheless, I checked in to get my brevet card, and set up my bike and in a fit of optimism I stowed my rain jacket and rainmates in my handle bar bag, trusting that the intermission in that day's programmed rain will be a lengthy one. We left the City Hall parking lot in a loosely organized group, with more than a few riders still suiting up, and still others just pulling in to park. A few sprinkles and I still hoped for a break. Alex and I begin to chat but less than a mile from the start he decided to pull off to put on a jacket and I don't see him again for many hours. The first ten miles for me are punctuated with a stop to shift fluids and then another one to put on the rain jacket when the sprinkles just refused to go away and instead got better organized into a rain shower. I finally caught the two groups of riders that had passed me as I was stopped, just as those groups are beginning to fragment. In the end, Kevin S. and Thomas V. arrive at River Road at the same time as I do and we form a loose trio on the trip out to the sea at Jenner, CA. River Road/CA 116 is the usual mine field of sharp rocks fallen from the hillsides of the Russian River valley, and the climb up to Goat Rock State Park from the Highway One bridge over the river is just as slow as I expected it to be. Once at the top Thomas begins to pull away and then Kevin passes me and pulls ahead as we experience a brief gap in the rain.

The first control is at Diekmann's Store in Bodega Bay, and it is dismaying to arrive there just ahead of a group of riders that had started the brevet up to 20 minutes late. They all look fresh, in opposition to how I'm feeling, which is leaden legged and lethargic. Kevin and I rolled out together though I knew that I would shortly be dropped despite Kevin's plan that we should stick together to better work against the wind. I just did not have the legs to keep up with Kevin on the Valley Ford rollers and that last nasty southbound roller before Tomales, CA put Kevin out of sight. Thomas and his friend Sean caught up to me just south of Nick's Cove and I pushed just a bit to hang on with them as we passed through Marshall, CA and picked up Clayton. The terrain along Highway One has been described as the closest around to that which matches PBP terrain: lots of rollers, no seriously big climbs. The advantage that Highway One enjoys though is a near constant view of the Pacific north of Bodega, and of Tomales Bay south of Tomales all the way to Point Reyes Station, CA. I've ridden it many times and in all kinds of weather, yet on this Saturday there is a new element: Frequent casual streams rush across the lanes trying to find the lowest ground. In fact, that is the sound track for the whole day: running, rushing water.

Clayton and I ended up losing Sean and Thomas and made the long arc around the marshy southern end of Tomales Bay and pushed north through Inverness, CA. Mt. Vision's northern flank presents a ridge that must be cleared before Sir Francis Drake Boulevard enters the rumpled, treeless and windy landscape of the Point Reyes peninsula proper. Unlike the SFR Lighthouse 200km, the Santa Rosa 300km route does not go all the way out to the lighthouse. I call it a toss up as to whether that is a good thing or not, as it still goes out most of the way and is still way, way hillier than you think it should be or even is. The SRCC group had enlisted a friendly and really helpful couple that staffed the control and handed out warm cups of cup-o-noodles. That control was the one spot on the route where it seemed the most riders intersected. Clayton and I left together and once again I found my self gapped immediately and trailing behind. I managed to close the gap by the top of the Mt. Vision ridge on the way back, only to be riding alone as Clayton needed to stop for water. I figured he would catch me by Point Reyes but instead I rode solo all the way to Valley Ford before he caught me. I peeled off at the Valley Ford Market to quickly shift fluids, and I could see Clayton way off in the distance as we both tackled different parts of those Valley Ford rollers. The penultimate control on the SR 300km is a repeat visit to Diekmann's Bay Store and Clayton was already there ordering a basket of cottage fries. I felt the need to keep moving in order to stay warm so my visit there was short and this was the last I saw of Clayton on the ride. Once again riding solo with no other riders in sight ahead, I worked my way north past the CalTrans workers dealing with a washout, passing the still arriving heavy machinery on the way.

The run down the hill from Goat Rock State Park to the Russian River was the last free ride I got. Gone was the tail winds I enjoyed heading north (unusual as those winds are for northbound travel on Highway One). Highway 116 and River Road was largely vacant of traffic which I know was the trade off for such bad weather. Full dark had already hit before I made the turn off onto Westside Road, but the darkness there was in stark contrast to what I had on River Road. Westside's uneven and irregular pavement was littered with hundreds of branches and leaves from the overhanging trees which was only one factor that made those last 17 miles such slow going. The only rider I saw since leaving Diekmann's Bay Store back at mile 146 was James C. walking along in the dark just two miles from the finish. James had gotten a flat tire, but his hands were so numb from the day long rain and now dropping temperatures that he decided that walking three miles was better than stopping in the dark to fix his flat. I knew he was staying warmer walking along so with his permission I rode on toward the finish. From having done the route in 2009 with my friend Bruce, I knew where the hotel/finish control was, but not which room. Upon my arrival there I met Cro who was doing circuits of the hotel looking for the control room. He finally went to the front desk oddly located at the back of the building to find out which room it was and naturally it was the first room we passed coming in, but the furthest room from us at that point.

After checking in, returning to my car to get a change of clothing and then taking a hot shower, I had a fit of shivers that lasted about ten minutes. It was nice to finally feel warm once the shivers ended and to hang out and watch the later riders finish. Thinking back a week later and contemplating the ride, I have to say that without a doubt, I was never once miserable on the ride despite nearly 13 hours of rain on a nearly 15 hour ride. I may be stingy with that figure as other riders felt the gaps in the rain lasted much less than an hour over the course of the day. I know that it was my past experience riding in the rain that let me know what I was in for and that I could deal with it if I wanted to. My time of 14:55 (not sure exactly but I know it wasn't 9pm until some time after I checked in) was really not so bad considering the conditions and the day long inability to climb any of the rollers with any verve. I won't go out of my way to ride many hours in the rain, but this ride tells me that I can get through the dark weather and remember better the things I would not have seen or experienced if I had decided not to ride.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Getting back to the point of this blog

(Photos courtesy of Masayoshi Kobayashi)

In looking back over 'recent' postings to this blog, I noted that while entries became sparse after last summer, on top of that the last entry that had to do with a specific ride was in early October, and the ride it chronicled was a month before that. I began this blog as a way to record and ruminate on my preparation for Paris, Brest, Paris 2011. So before I provide a new entry that recounts my most recent brevet, I might as well at least mention all those brevets I did do but didn't write or comment about.

The cycling year 2010 for me was a very good year. There was room left for it to have been great, but very good is still a lot of progress. High points for 2010 were the longest rides of the year: The Flèche Norcal, the Fort Bragg 600km and the Central Coast 1000km. On all those rides I had a great appetite, and energy through out the ride. Those rides only take me through the first half of the year though. I filled out the rest of the year with mostly 200km brevets and permanents, plus I traveled with Bill Monsen down to Santa Cruz in early September to do the SCR 400km. My cycling year did not end in September though. The San Francisco Randonneurs had the annual Winters 200km which I got to ride with all the other riders for the first time (in the past I've worked the brevet at various controls). Like a dope, I forgot vital cycling equipment and had to miss the November Two Rock 200km, but I filled in November and December with 200km permanents, the latter being the Del Puerto Canyon 200km perm, ridden with a bunch of friends.

Coming off that very good year of 2010, January looked to be a great status check to see just where I'd be starting as I ramped up for PBP in August. For 2011, two other brevet clubs joined SFR in listing January brevets so there were three different 200kms to choose from. I rode the Santa Rosa 200km from Healdsburg to Napa and back on the 15th. That route is one of my favorites for a lot of reasons, and it has some features that ordinarily I'd dislike (it isn't very hilly and after a while flat terrain can cause certain problems). I rode that brevet at the pace of my friend Bruce, who was returning to riding after a long layoff imposed by construction projects. The weather was fantastic, and I felt pretty darn good all day. I didn't feel so darn good the next day, and on the Monday after, a holiday and day off from work, I was spending the day in bed with a head cold. At the time I didn't know that cold would end up lasting the better part of four weeks. Yes, four weeks. Seems that cold was in fashion and lots of unlucky people had a version of it. ugh.

Due to the aforementioned head cold, I missed our inaugural 2011 Lighthouse 200km brevet, run during fantastically wonderful weather with an SFR record crowd of riders. As the three weeks until the Two Rock 200km passed I wondered if I'd be healthy in time, or even healthy again. As it turned out I managed a grand total of one ride of 15 miles that whole span before riding the Two Rock. My time on that ride didn't totally suck, though it should have given what nearly four weeks of no riding should have done for my form. There were then two weeks until the SFR Healdsburg 300km and I got what riding done that I could to prepare for that. The arrival of the date for the 300km brought with it 100 year cold temps and the threat of snow at sea level. I didn't believe it would be that bad, and it didn't snow that weekend. Instead, it was bitterly cold for the Bay Area. We still had a huge crowd of over 100 riders complete the brevet.

Oh, that 300km. The cold sucked the life out of me and even though I had put the first head cold in the rear view mirror and managed some training rides and a couple of mid-week lunch time rides in the hills, I did much worse and had my slowest ever 300km time of nearly 16 hours. I was the last one to Marin Brewing Co. for our traditional late dinner after the 300km and everyone had been there for over an hour by the time I arrived. By Wednesday after the Healdsburg 300km, I had a new head cold but thankfully this one lasted only five or six days. To be sure, you don't recover from nearly four weeks of a head cold in a week or two, and when you get yet another cold things just don't progress at all.

Since the SFR 300km, I've had a few signs of progress finally: a little bit less of a feeling of exhaustion when I complete the climb on a lunch time ride, and a small bit of spark in the legs when riding the flats and getting up out of the saddle. I've noticed some benefits of the resumption of a stretching routine too. Stretching just seemed too onerous when I was dealing with a three week old sore throat and headache and I guess I convinced myself that since I wasn't riding I didn't have to do the stretching. Wrong. One bonus during this recovery was getting back to a Sunday morning hill ride with Bruce M. and Rich. It had been six months since Rich could join us for an early morning Sunday ride in the hills. That was a treat to have him back with us, smiling all the time. Now, though, head colds are not what is keeping me and many of my fellow riders off the bike. Northern California is dealing with quite a lot of rain, and it's not the 30% POP kind. Today's storm had high winds and high rainfall totals and there were rain storms right before and more lined up behind it taking us through the next couple of days with wet weather. No weather window involved here.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The San Francisco Randonneurs 2011 brevet schedule is online here. Our first event is on January 22nd. If you have interest in riding this event, you might want to hurry. For this ride only, there is a rider limit (due to NPS rules) and while we aren't full yet, we will fill up before the date. Registration can be done online or via paper/mail here. Note too that the calendar below is just the start. We are in the planning stages to add four more events for 2011, two of which will be at the 100km distance (Proposed Populaire dates under discussion are June 25th and October 1st. Check the SFR website soon for exact dates.)

2011 Schedule
Event/DistanceDateStart TimeTime limit
Point Reyes 200kSat, 01/22/20117:00 AM13.5 hours
2 Rock/Valley Ford 200kSat, 02/12/20117:00 AM13.5 hours
Russian River 300kSat, 02/26/20116:00 AM20 hours
Healdsburg/Hopland 400kSat, 04/09/20116:00 AM27 hours
Fleche (360k +)Thu, 04/21/20118:00 AM24 hours
Ft. Bragg 600k Sat, 05/07/20116:00 AM40 hours
Davis Night 200kSat, 06/04/20118:00 PM13.5 hours
Point Reyes PopulaireSat, 06/25/20118:00 AM7 hours
Old Caz 300kmSat, 07/30/20115:00 AM20 hours
TBA 200kSat, 08/06/20117:00 AM13.5 hours
Point Reyes PopulaireSat, 10/01/20118:00 AM7 hours
Winters 200kSat, 10/08/20117:00 AM13.5 hours
Del Puerto 200kSat, 11/05/20118:00 AM13.5 hours

Monday, January 3, 2011

On being an RBA

I'm way behind on the postings I intended to make, and further behind on the ones I should be making to this blog. Still, this one is pretty easy to throw up there and is no less meaningful for it's ease in composing.

In late 2007 I applied to become the Regional Brevet Administrator for the San Francisco Randonneurs, replacing Todd Teachout who had served in that role since before 2003. The learning curve, as in most things, was steeper at first, and the 2008 brevet season was a modest success even if it was smaller in comparison to 2007. There often is a big drop off in participation in the year after PBP, and for SFR this was no exception. That plus bad weather for our first two dates kept participation low.

Nevertheless, I was glad to be contributing in a more meaningful way to the sport I loved. 2009 was a big step up, with many more rides listed and new routes added. Participation picked up noticeably, and with successful runs of a 400km, 600km and Fleche, I was pleased at how things turned out.

I enjoyed what I was doing for those first two years, and was glad to contribute at a higher level than before. Still, with another expansion of the schedule, and in the end nearly twice as many riders as the year before, and easily twice the amount of work as before, I remain amazed at just how much fun it was to be the SFR RBA last year.

What makes it so much fun? There isn't just one thing. Seeing all the new faces is a huge thing, and seeing a lot of past riders return is another. Getting the huge amount of positive feedback is both gratifying and flattering. One more thing that makes it such fun is seeing the big burst of volunteering to equal the increase in ridership. It is, to say the least, impossible for one person to carry this off, and SFR has been blessed with a strong core group of volunteers. Having Richard McCaw lead the volunteer organization is great. Having Carlos Duque manage the website and providing counsel is another huge note. Jim G, managing our increasingly active email discussion group, Greg Merritt working tirelessly to refine our cue sheets, Bruce Berg and now Roland Bevan organizing the now annual Fleche event are also vital contributors to both the success of SFR and my enjoyment in being RBA. Joining that list will be Ely Rodriquez as coordinator of a very important event for SFR, our annual populaire.

With all this making 2010 such fun, it's impossible not to look forward in 2011 to what should be just as much fun.

I. Am. Stoked!