Friday, April 25, 2014

Boontling can't describe it

Certain hills are forever defined by your first experience climbing them by bike. Try as you might to overcome this, each subsequent climb of that hill is (at least a little) ill flavored if that first experience did not go well. Irony is often best illustrated when the hill in question is a simple one for fresh legs but fate always provides you with a set of tired ones. Dixon Ridge, the final climb on Nicasio Valley Road, a feature of so many San Francisco Randonneurs brevet routes is a case in point. I never know if that mere bump will crush me. The Santa Rosa Cyclists brevet calendar for the last three years has featured a ride affectionately known as the 'Hubba' that is nothing if not heavy on long climbs, traversing twice the mountains that separate the Anderson Valley from the middle landscape of the Russian (nee Slavyanka) River Valley. Upon first hearing of the new route from Bob, the Santa Rosa RBA, I felt more than a little intimidated.

The first two versions of the event passed without my joining in or even considering riding it. I knew too well that in February, when the ride was usually held, I'd not be in very good climbing condition, and I'd be over-matched by the west bound climb on CA-128 and by Mountain House, let alone the Boonville-Ukiah climb (in that direction). In 2007, I was having a pretty good year on the bike, better than in the previous years. That year I did the Davis 600km, which traversed Boonville-Ukiah in both directions, and it wrecked me. I remember, with over 200 miles in my legs already, nearly passing out on the return to Ukiah, twice feeling lightheaded and wobbly on the climb up 'homebound', so my 'Super Randonneur' series that year ended with a less than stellar ride. (This was my last shot at the final PBP qualifier in 2007, so there was no second chance.)

Last year, in 2013, I finally overcame my hesitation in doing this ride and signed up, traveling up with Kevin and Jack. It likely was the fantastic start to the year on the bike I had had up to that point that convinced me the idea of finishing this ride wasn't fantasy. As per usual, Bob had great weather for the event and thus a great turnout. Similar to the Napa 200km brevet, this route needed to meander a bit in the early miles outside of Healdsburg in order to reach the 200km distance requirement, so the route heads east-northeast through the vineyards at the north end of the Alexander Valley before any of the climbing even begins toward Cloverdale. Beyond Cloverdale though is the real climbing, first up CA 128 and the county line between Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, followed by more climbing through the Yorkville area on the way into the Navarro River Watershed. Arrival in Boonville leaves the riders perplexed that there wasn't much more of a downhill coast to enjoy and in fact county road crews seem complicit with the fraud, with 'official' road signs suggesting an 8% downhill lasting two miles. Lies, simple lies those. After the control in Boonville riders reverse course for less than a mile and then hang a left past the solar powered brewery where the longest but perhaps not steepest climbing begins over the Boonville-Ukiah road. From early on in the climb riders can look back out over the Anderson Valley, a place rich enough to have it's own language, but ironically the language is not itself rich enough to have the vocabulary to describe the views. The peak of the climb is one that is not clearly defined and in fact the road undulates for some distance before the double descent (the first at 8%, the second at 10%), dumping riders in the southern outskirts of Ukiah, CA. A control at the Safeway in town gives riders one last official stop before the route heads south for good, and the finish 50 miles later back in Healdsburg. Along the way riders first meander downstream on the east side of the Russian River, then cut west through Hopland heading for the ascent of Mountain House. This is where the steep climbing is, but fortunately the scenery is so stunning that you are distracted slightly from the agony in your legs. From Mountain House Road and CA 128, there is the (mostly) downhill run into Cloverdale, followed by a run along Dry Creek Road past vineyards then on to ride's end at The Bear Republic Brewery.

While the ride for me on the 'Hubba' in 2013 was a great ride, maybe some mistakes were made, so this year I wanted to improve upon the success of last year. Out of Healdsburg it was easy to hang with the lead pack which may have had more than half of the riders in in it from the start. On the lead in to Geyserville though the greyhounds took off and I happily let them go. Last year I tried to chase that group all the way to the switchbacks on CA 128 leading up to the county line. This year I kept to *my* pace, and avoided a repeat of becoming overcooked before the real climbing began. There still was a sizable group going through Cloverdale but on the last little bump going out of town I drifted ahead and ended up riding from the turn onto CA 128 and pretty much on into Boonville solo. The pack, led by a tandem, was never far behind and at the end of each long downhill section they would have nearly caught me only to drop back on the climbs. I admit that I knew they were there and I was doing my best to delay when the would finally catch me, but this turned out not to be until the control in Boonville. I did not want to rush through there, and while Matt and Michael were there I chose not to rush and leave with them. My feeling was that trying to keep their pace would overextend me. Patrick and Megan were at the control too and they looked to be ready to leave at about the time I was, but no sooner did I ask them if I could ride with them but they disappeared. I thought they had slipped out but it turns out it was me that slipped out. I missed spotting them around the corner of the building.

Leaving town I trailed Metin past the corner onto CA 253, aka Boonville-Ukiah road. The road name put me in mind of the country roads between small towns in southeaster Michigan, named for the two towns the road connects when between the two towns, but by the name of the 'other' town while the road is within one town.

Leaving the center of town in East Treestump, MI you'd take Boondocks Road, which became East Treestump Road when you reached Boondocks, MI. Of course, the comparison falls apart here as the road in question remains Boonville-Ukiah for its full length. No matter the name, this year I was finally not in over my head on the climb and was able to thoroughly enjoy the views along with Metin's company on the way up. As previously mentioned, once at the top the road rises and falls repeately over the course of a couple miles, then rushes downhill in much more of a hurry with two distinct segments to the descent. Weighing possibly twice what Metin weighs, I was able to fly downhill under the influence of Aristotelian gravity rather than Galilean gravity and I reached the bottom of the hill far ahead of Metin. Mike and Matt had arrived just ahead of me and were just acquiring lunch at the Safeway deli counter when I came in but they turned things around quickly and left while I still sat and ate. Jason pulled in a short while later but he doesn't spend long at controls so he and Bob and a few others organized a small group to leave town and we set up a paceline for the run along River Road with the Russian river just to our west. Partway along there the tandem with Craig and Lori came roaring along with Sue and several others, and we had possibly 15 riders in a pack heading into Hopland. Just past Hopland of course is Mountain House Road, a favorite of mine and a simply beautiful stretch of challenging roadway. Even with the lack of winter rains, this portion of the world looked lovely. The group formed by the two earlier pacelines began to split up and I held back in order to ride with Bob, and Lori on the back of Craig's tandem, in order to form a trio of RUSA RBAs (Bob/Santa Rosa, Lori/Fresno, and me/San Francisco). The conversation was meandering along with the road, often funny, often about the difficulty of the climb. Toward the very end Bob sprung to life, rushing by me gasping 'don't lose, huff, huff, the tandem'. Only a few beats later did I put it together. We wanted to be with the tandem when they reached warp speed on the down hill into Cloverdale, and we especially wanted to be in the lee of the tandem along Dutcher Creek and it's rollers and on Dry Creek for the final run into town.

As we passed the Dry Creek General Store I tried to remember how we would get into Healdsburg and make our way to the finish control, but just could not remember. Bob had to explain it twice before the penny dropped but then I had it. As happened on so many brevets this year, as the group I was with approached the finish, Carl would be riding back out for more miles, having finished long before us. After all my 'hard work' trying not to keep up with Matt and Mike, it turned out our group arrived barely five minutes behind them, with our group finishing the 125 miles in 8 hours, 11 minutes. Despite finishing more than an hour faster than it took me last year, I felt far, far better after this ride than I did last year. Regardless of how I felt after either ride though, Bear Republic beer made everything even better anyway.

Ride date: 3-15-14

Host Club: Santa Rosa Cyclists

Total km: 200

Km remaining needed for K-hound: 8,500

Photos by Metin Uz, and a full gallery can be viewed here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

and mere oblivion, sans teeth ...

Photo above copyright Jim Hsu

Additional photos by Patrick Herlihy

With a longer sweep of time as a yardstick, perhaps the second most popular brevet route for the San Francisco Randonneurs is the Russian River 300km, an event and route hosted every year since 2003, and first held as a RUSA brevet in 1999 and there is reason to believe the route was used as a Paris, Brest, Paris qualifier before even that year. The 300km distance is the first level of selection, where most but not all of the riders successfully completing the introductory 200km events move up a notch on the difficulty scale. Half again as long as the 200km, that third 100km tests riders in a way the first two do not. The route the Russian River 300km follows is not in and of itself a difficult one, with barely more climbing overall than some of SFR's 200km routes have. Instead, the late February or early March date when the ride is held often has dished up weather that can severely challenge riders. Most notable of the 'weather' dates was the 2007 version of the ride, where riders left the start under cloudy skies and only as the first riders approached the 'mental' half way point in Healdsburg did the skies open up, tentatively at first and then with gusto. By ride's end, participants had to dismount and cling to the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge in order to keep from being blown down. The event in 2011 narrowly missed a snowstorm by 24 hours and instead faced 100-year record cold temperatures. In other years, it was merely hours-long rain, or simply strong winds.

Through 2013, I have done this route seven times, missing the event owing to illness in 2009 to break what would otherwise be a long string begun in 2006. In the early years for me, with only one outlier, the route would take me well over 15 hours to complete. Sometimes early season lack of fitness or a winter respiratory illness would be the defining reason, other times the weather, and still other times I would put myself in a hole from the start through some stupid move such as the time I left my wallet on the dashboard of the car and then 8 miles into the ride it dawned on me that I had done that, then having to return to the start and throwing away more than an hour. In 2013, all the usual impediments fell by the wayside and I had an outstanding ride, finally finishing a 300km on any route in under 13 hours. Best of all on that ride, second only to the company I had all along the route, was the way I felt at the finish, which in a word was fantastic. Approaching the 2014 version of the Russian River 300km, I had zero expectation that I could meet or exceed my experience in 2013. In fact I had doubts I'd even be able to keep up with Michael and Matt along the way.

At the start, held at the Golden Gate Bridge Pavilion plaza, under the watchful eye of Joseph Strauss an SFR record turnout of riders gathered, ready for the day. The weather is and will be wonderful for this day. I'm feeling a little bit more frazzled with all the pre-ride duties and with a little more confusion than is usual we get started late. Mike and Matt asked me to join them but they left with the first riders and I'm off the back. Once off the west sidewalk of the bridge there is more room and I'm able to work my way further up the pack, looking for Mike and Matt and checking in with riders along the way. The first fifteen miles of the route are ubran/suburban with way too many traffic controls to really get and keep a good rhythm. Somewhere around Ross I've finally caught them and shortly after that our trio finds Jason, riding fixed, and Carl. For roughly the next 200km some permutation of these five riders will be together. In order to reach 300km, the route follows Sir Francis Drake Blvd. out past Samuel Taylor Start park to Platform Bridge Road and then to the not-so-secret control.

This is no hardship at all. After so many years of brutal pavement surfaces through the park, the State found some money to reconstruct the roadway and the experience now is dreamlike: a smooth, undulating and winding road through Marin redwoods. Our group, which has picked up Steve along the way is the second pack to reach the control, where things are calm for now. Later reports noted that very large groups converged on the control, even with it being over 30 miles into the route. We pushed on toward Petaluma and the Safeway control on the east side of US 101.

This stretch, between the Petaluma and Healdsburg controls suffers by comparison to what precedes and follows, and has been mentioned as front runner for the least favorite portion of the route, largely because of the transit of Santa Rosa and Windsor. Still, there are scenic portions and our group worked well through this flatish section and managed to catch (with the help of that great leveler) the lead group on the edge of Windsor and we arrived in Healdsburg together. Many riders, especially in the lead group, chose to make short work of the control at the Safeway, grabbing something to eat and drink on the fly. Others still decided to sit down on something other than a bike saddle and take a bit more time to partake of 'lunch'.

I'm feeling pretty good at this point, perhaps better than I have a right to feel, but there is no need to complain. The wind is light, skies clear and Westside Road and River Road will take us through vineyards and redwoods out to the mouth of the Russian River at the coast just south of Jenner, CA. Though not nearly as extensive as the rebuild of Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Westside Road featured a mile long section of reconstructed road where there once was the most notoriously bad pavement. Quite likely because our strict attention was no longer required in avoiding potholes and cracks in the pavement, each of us now could enjoy looking across the vineyards with the Mayacamas Mountains as a backdrop to the east. Paralleling the Russian River downstream, there was little in the way of climbing as you might expect, but the mileage and that last, annoying bump before the river crossing tends to split up the group. I'm left in no-man's land between the faster, stronger riders I just can't seem to catch, and a trailing group who perhaps have more sense than I do as I still try to bridge up to Carl who disappears on the climb up toward Goat Rock State Park. This stretch of coastline always gets a reaction from visiting riders from out state, or out of state and even from me as I have yet to tire of landscape and views here. Ten miles further south is our next control in Bodega Bay, and the fragemented group only temporarily reassembles. Not wanting to lose the flow I've reached on the ride so far, after a very short break I roll off, promising to soft pedal. Why is this a promise so often broken? On the way toward the Valley Ford mega-rollers, in the canyon just south of Bodega Bay Carl blows by me and it is the last I see of him until after he has finished and turned around to ride the last bit of the route in reverse. 300km won't be enough for him this day.

Each year, riders new to this route worry about arriving at the next control before the Marshall Store closes. Tony's just south in Marshall is open later but it isn't nearly as inviting as the Marshall Store and it's chowder (and beer!). Both options are favorable to the last option of mailing a postcard from the post office across the road. Having stopped along the way from Bodega Bay to eat, Matt and Mike have caught up and we arrived at the Store well ahead of closing time, the earliest I've ever reached the store, and this allows me to relax as I enjoy what I consider a well earned bowl of chowder and a cold Blue Moon. On my first visit to the store as a control on a brevet, I was skeptical about indulging in that menu. Now however, I've elevated the choice to a requirement for the ride. The store management has agreed to stay open a bit later than is normal to allow later riders to stop and eat, offering just the chowder and what packaged foods there is usually for sale and nearly all the riders today make the 'cutoff'. Jason and I rolled off at a leisurely pace to allow the food to better settle, and this becomes a crucial smart decision for me. Without the need to try to match a faster pace for the next so many miles, I'm in a better position to enjoy the last 40 miles without stomach issues.

Upon reaching the turn off, before Point Reyes Station, returning riders are faced with the following climbs: Nicasio Reservoir (mild, short), Dixon Ridge (double climb, annoyingly placed), White's Hill (in the easy direction), Corte Madera Grade (newly repaved on the uphill, still potholed and ragged on the downhill) and lastly the climb up Alexander to the Golden Gate Bridge. Steve, Jason, Mike, Matt and I roll along ticking off these climbs, each with our own reaction to each hill. For my part, all the climbs through the Corte Madera Grade are painless in a relative way. While some are tiring as we inch closer to 300km, we regroup more than once so that the pack stays together. Until that final climb however. I think because I had managed the other climbs with somewhat relative ease, the others assumed Alexander would pose no problems for me. On the first part of the climb while still in town too many wheels were too close together and in order to stay upright I had to pull off and the other riders moved along. After restarting I made it most of the way up toward the final road cut before I gave in to the need to eat one last time before the finish. Matt too had fallen off from the others but on his part it was by design as he needed to stop at his car parked on the north end of the bridge and he waved me on as I called out. Saved from meltdown by my brief stop, I regrouped and crossed the bridge feeling much better even though I lost sight of the riders I had been with all day. A milestone of sorts for me was having to cross the bridge on the west sidewalk, required because the sun had not yet set, and after looping under the bridge on the south side, I pulled in to the finish only a minute behind the others, at 18:04 for a ride time of 12:04. Despite the unplanned stop in sight of the bridge towers, I felt great, better than I've ever felt after finishing this route. From the beginning of the string of times I've done this ride, it has presented itself to me in a progression of stages as first new and full of promise, then at times raging in an adolescent way with stormy behavior, then later still with a more reasoned expression with a hint submerged threat, and finally without the teeth to bite. Still, the climate at the bridge at sundown nearly always includes a cold breeze if not a hint of fog and I was chilling fast so we all broke up to get our cars and head to the post ride meal at Marin Brewing Co.

Ride date: 3-9-14

Host Club: San Francisco Randonneurs

Total km: 300

Km remaining needed for K-hound: 8,700