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 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