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.

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