July 6th at 6pm on the northern edge of the city of Davis was the date and location for the start of the 2009 Gold Rush Randonnée. By completing the Super Randonneur series this year, I had qualified for the Gold Rush Randonnée, a 1200 km ride in 90 hours or less that traverses the Central Valley and climbs through the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the northeast corner of California at Davis Creek. On July 2nd I left work early, not because I had to go home to prepare for the ride and a week plus away from the office, but instead because I had a full blown cold and felt like crap. I went straight to bed, gulping lots of water and gobbling lots of vitamins, Echinacea, and Sudafed. Friday was a day off of work for the July 4th Holiday but I spent that in bed too. By the end of Friday it seemed a miracle was happening: The cold was fading. Saturday I was up and around, though I was a little sluggish and Sunday I felt I had truly dodged a bullet. By Monday at 1pm I was on the Capitol Corridor train headed for Davis, chatting with Christian, Achim, and Max, all of us eager for our rides to begin. Through this all, I was remarkably calm and still confident, which was a striking difference from 2005 and 2007. In 2005 I had started the Gold Rush but stopped at the first control suffering a splitting headache, an severe upset stomach and a broken rack on my bike. In 2007 my knees eventually objected to 24 hours of cold and rain. This time I was not the least bit nervous, not the least bit intimidated by the goal. I wanted to see a lot more of California and I was fully aware that the ride was not completed by any one of the pedal strokes in the first mile.
The game plan I adopted early on was one of moderation. Don't go out hard and fast. Don't attempt to ride someone else's pace. In 2005, I made the first control in 6 hours, 30 minutes. It seemed then that I spent a lot of the first leg riding too fast, pushing to hard out of fear of being left behind. What I've learned since 2005 was that the fear is unfounded. This year, I made little effort to hang on the back of any pack as we left Davis behind. Less than a mile from the start the last third of the pack was stopped at a stop sign as the rest of the riders rolled on. After traffic cleared I hopped out and started pushing to make contact with the pack ahead. Only a handful of riders went with me and I could also see that I was gaining much faster than I expected. Backing off at that point I could see that a few riders ahead were dangling off the pack. I could almost always count on that happening til night fall so I'd always have a rider in sight ahead.
The outbound course through the Central Valley is not a direct one and is longer than the inbound leg from Oroville back to Davis. Not only did the indirect route provide the extra miles needed to reach the 1200km total, but it also skirted Woodland and kept us on rural roads. Because of this there ended up being three secret controls before we reached Oroville. (Controls are checkpoints on brevets and randonnées where riders acquire proof of passage by way of a stamp at staffed controls, a receipt from a store with a time stamp, or record an answer to a question that can only be acquired by visiting a certain location. A secret control then would be one who's location is a surprise to the rider.) Knowing the course is an advantage that can't be dismissed. Not only did I know the early turns this time, I knew that there was little in the way of topography and in the way of road conditions that I needed to worry about. Setting aside the (needless) worry, I was free to look around more, chat more and in general just enjoy being where I was, riding my bike amidst other riders as the sun set on the day. In 2005, worry about the awful road surface on Cranmore Road, a levee road that I had only heard about but had never seen accounted for using up a certain amount of energy. This time, I was free to direct that energy elsewhere.
With the levee road segment over in much less time than it seemed to take four years back, the route headed toward the water stop at mile 45. I arrived there in the company of several riders, but I made no effort to leave when some of them did, nor wait for the others that took more time. I knew I'd end up riding with someone sooner or later. In my pre-ride bike check I had checked all the bolts holding my fenders on the bike, so it was with no small amount of surprise that I heard a rattle develop on my front fender a mile past the water stop. I was certain that it was the bolt that attached the fender to the front of my front rack, which required removing my front wheel, which would only be accomplished easily by removing my front bag. Addressing a loose bolt took on all the aspects of a weekend plumbing project, save for the multiple trips to the hardware store. Finding that I was wrong about which bolt, reassembling the bike and getting all the gear stowed only took about 10 minutes but also afforded me the opportunity to notice that a beautiful full moon was rising behind me and to the right, a direction I wouldn't have looked if not for the stop. I got out the camera, snapped a few photos and then discovered that the approaching rider was Don, who had ridden several SFR brevets this year.
Hooking up with Don to ride through the night was the best development so far. Though we had ridden several the same brevets but never together, on this ride our respective paces were a comfortable match, as was our thinking of when to stop to refuel and when a stop was over. Don would keep me company for many miles, and when my knowledge of the route switched from actually having ridden it to only having researched it out on Google Maps, Don filled in the gaps gleaned from his having ridden the Davis 600km brevet a few weeks earlier. Don and I each escaped the Gridley Dogs who attacked nearly every rider that passed by that night. Upon reaching the Oroville control at 12:35 (nearly matching the 6:30 ride time from 2005) we heard that we were more fortunate than at least one other rider, who had gotten bitten on the leg. Evading chasing dogs was a skill that I had learned in my younger days riding in Southeastern Michigan. I hadn't had to employ that skill in decades, but appropriately just like riding a bike, I hadn't forgotten how.
Just leaving the parking lot for the Oroville control was getting further than my total progress on the 2005 GRR. Don and I left Oroville after 40 minutes and headed north toward Highway 70 and the first long climb of the Gold Rush up to Jarbo Gap. The traffic consisted entirely of empty logging trucks, which while rushing past us at high speed, did all give us plenty of room as they passed. The west to east climb up to Jarbo Gap is punctuated by a long bridge over the west branch of the Feather River, with three sets of expansion joints. Just after the bridge the roadway climbs yet again as it passes Yankee Hill. East bound, there is relief on the fast downhill after Jarbo Gap, a major impediment to a swift return on the inbound route. Once next to the Feather River itself, the roadway goes up hill but less severely, and progress along this portion of the route is noted by passage of the three tunnels that permit the roadway to be near the river at all. Each tunnel is a bit longer than the previous one. With the canyon walls close in, the only view of the sky was straight above until a meander in the path of the river allowed for a longer glimpse upstream and after four hours of riding since Oroville finally the sky was showing signs of dawn just as the roadbed widened and the Tobin Resort control appeared on the right.
I had been teased with a false story that the Tobin Control was serving chili dogs and it was no small let down to note that the menu was oriented toward breakfast foods. As I ate what I could of a bowl of oatmeal, Christian and Achim arrived. Normally these riders would be way ahead but two flat tires and a complete tire exchange had left them behind nearly all the riders to this point. Don and I left ahead of them as the dawn grew more bright. The incline was seldom steep but always present as we rode further up river. Finally we reached the junction of Highways 70 and 89 and we made our left turn onto CA 89 and the road to Greenville and the Indian Valley. Christian and Achim passed us as Don and I finished up a short rest break and I could tell that Don had the energy to hang on their wheels but he instead dropped back to stay with me on the ride up. Once the route reaches the Indian Valley a right turn would leave you just five miles from Taylorsville where the next control was, but instead we headed left for a tour of the whole valley with a stop in Greenville for the information control. All the riders passing through at this point paused for a rest on the steps out in front of the hardware store, and I managed a two minute sleep before Don decided to push on for Taylorsville. At first, I felt energized by the rest, but quickly that drained away and I dropped way of Don's wheel and slowed to a crawl. I stopped, gulped down some Clif Shot Blocks and pushed on and in a short time I was up to speed again and catching up to Don. The route is largely flat around the perimeter of the valley and all along we had stunning views to distract us.
It was late morning when we reached the Taylorsville control but still time for a second breakfast, one for which I now had a growing appetite, itself a very encouraging sign. In spite of several days of laying around as I nursed my cold before the ride, I did not get additional sleep stored up, and in fact I slept less each night so I went into the ride with a small sleep deficit. I had spotted a back room full of cots at the Grange Hall where the control was and made the decision that I wanted a quick nap. Don's company was great along the way, but my need for a nap precluded riding out with him then. It felt like I had just drifted off when the control worker woke me after my 30 minute limit had passed. Before I left I tried to eat again, but the translated Ukrainian saying 'eyes want, stomach can't' came into play and I left my plate half filled with food. Still, riding away from the control toward Genessee I felt stronger than I had all ride. This was to be my best segment of the ride. Genessee was seven miles down the road from Taylorsville and rumored to have a general store where I had hoed to get a pint of chocolate milk. Once in Genessee I could see that the town was a proverbial wide spot in the road, and the store was closed up tight. I had enough food and liquids with me, so the chocolate milk would only have served as a treat.
Genessee Valley follows the path of Indian Creek, rising from around 3400' feet in Taylorsville to about 3800' where RattleSnake Ravine empties into Genessee Valley and the outbound climb begins in ernest. The route continues to follow Indian Creek as it rises 1000' on it's way up to the earthen dam where the waters of Antelope Lake are impounded. I began to catch up to riders along this stretch, passing a few that had stopped in the shade at roadside, and a few others that were chatting as they climbed. Just as I reached the Dam, two riders caught up to me, one passing and the other dropping back a little. The more direct route to where we would eventually go would have taken us across the dam and in a slighty straighter line toward the highest point on the Gold Rush route, but instead of the south side of the lake, the route took us around the northside to the Boulder Creek work area. This control was pretty quiet when I arrived. The riders there seemed ready to rest and just chat, with no one rushing off to resume the ride. I took the opportunity to stretch out, half in the sunshine, half in shade while I ate a bananna, chips and a soda. After a fairly long layover, I pushed off to resume the climb. Boulder Creek is at roughly 5000' and the top of the GRR would be about another 1000' of climbing. To reach that point, the climbing was not hearly as steep, but in hindsight I might have preferred it if it was. Once the highest spot on the GRR is reached, the roadway flirts with the 6000' elevation mark over and over again. This really seemed to take my mental energy away, and my physical strength seemed to follow right along. I had imagined an immediate and fast descent from the high point, but was instead teased by repeated 200' drops followed by 195' climbs and then, in a huge rush, the roadway dives downward and in nearly a blink, I was rolling into Janesville at 4000'
Riding in what seemed like slow motion, I followed the Janesville cutoff and partway along I ran across a somewhat shabby convenience store where several fellow Gold Rush riders had stopped. At last I had my chocolate milk, lounging in the shade outside, just thinking about reaching Susanville for a proper rest. Not exactly the last one to leave, I did finally roll off to finish the leg. I passed Jeff from Washington, but could not pass the next rider. Jeff tailed off the back a bit while we finally reached the turn onto US 395. The route sheet suggested we look for Johnstonville Road where there would be some helicopters, but we were confused by a similarly named dead end street near an airport hanger. Lacking the reliable GRR route markers on the pavement, we pushed on and finally found our turn where sure enough there were helicopters out in the open. It had been some time since we rode in city terrain, but Susanville traffic was mild and at last we rolled up to the National Guard Armory where the control was located. It was about 5:45pm, nearly 24 hours since we had left Davis, and I was taken aback by only having ridden 254 miles.
In order of priority, I ate a pile of spaghetti, showered and changed, and then headed for a cot for a 90 minute sleep. While stripping down for my shower, I was startled to note how entirely covered with salt my wool t-shirt had become, and signs of the same were found on my riding shorts, which also had some blood from where some chaffing had occurred. No doubt the extra salt deposited on my clothing had encouraged the chaffing. No need to worry about that though as what was done was done, so packing up I left to find a cot. Normally a difficult task to accomplish, sleep came easily and in a blink it seemed my foot was being shaken gently and I was told it was time to get up. In the Armory, I could feel a breeze blowing through and knew it had cooled off quite a bit outside as the day approached the golden hour. Given that data point, I decided on putting on a vest, a second layer of leg warmers and given that my butt was already tender, a second layer of riding shorts.
The route away from the Armory and out of town avoids any major streets for as long as possible and traffic therefore was even lighter than before. North of town the route heads toward Antelope Mountain via a run lengthwise along an escarpment that cuts across your line of sight as you leave town. Still a mile or two away from the serious portion of the climb I decided to stop. My clothing felt too constricting and uncomfortable. I had worn this exact set of clothing on the SFR 600km and it felt wonderful. Then though, I hadn't felt so beaten and worn out. I had to admit it. I had zero stamina, and I was laboring to make even slight progress. I took off a layer of riding shorts which helped a little, and resumed the early part of the climb. Though I could not see it from down below, the climb started at just over 4000' and beyond the notch climbed up to 5400' before leveling off for a period. I had only gotten up a third of the way, maybe 600' of the 1400' of the climb and I was at a crawl. First came thinking about stopping, then came stopping. It didn't help that two riders appeared from below looking like they were climbing effortlessly while I was putting everything I had into just making progress. As they passed the asked me if I was ok and I told them I was turning back. Checking traffic up and down hill, I crossed the road and pointed downhill. What took me half an hour to cover outbound was re-covered in what seemed like five minutes heading back, as I passed riders headed up hill in groups of two or three.
Instead of heading directly back to the control, I felt I needed to eat, and eat something off of the control menu so I headed for the fast food corridor on Susanville's main street and I ended up at a Burger King. The restaurant was essentially empty and at first I thought it was that way because it was closed but once I checked the door I found it unlocked. What ensued was a somewhat strange encounter where the staff didn't seem to notice me standing there at the counter dressed in helmet, reflective gear and cycling clothing. After quite some time the manager came out to take my order, and then promptly forgot it until she later asked if I had been helped. I had to remind her that there was more to the order when she finally gave me my food. A friend later remarked that it gave me a small taste of being homeless and invisible. I was happy enough to sit down to eat, even if I was being ignored by everyone there, as standing up waiting I would experience waves of dizziness. Though the overly salty nature of the food was appealing, I really didn't linger long and soon I was making my way back to the control where I planned to grab a cot and attempt to sleep.
Once back at the Armory, I was bleary eyed enough to not really notice who was there and who wasn't, though I knew I wasn't alone. Tom's wife, working that control and other points on the route realized I probably needed suggestions on what to do next at any given point and got me a cot in a warmer side room where it was also both darker and quieter. I slept like a rock for over 7 hours and woke up around 6:30 am when the pain from a sore throat would let me sleep no longer. I browsed a little at the food table and when asked what I planned to do I offered to stay and help out which was welcomed when it was realized that some of the staffing was thin and riders might show up earlier than expected. Though the rush came much, much later than we were first let to believe, there was still enough to do through the day and during slow moments I sat and watched Le Tour on the the satellite TV one of the volunteers had temporarily moved from their house. That was great! Also through the day I got to re-acquaint myself with a tandem riding couple local to Susanville whom I had first meet a number of years ago when they were riding their very first double century at Davis. Now, they've completed 50 of them. I also got to meet and chat with just a whole bunch of really nice and generous people. It was a day really well spent, and didn't end for me until around 1:30am. Sleep was not so luxurious that night and I only slept about 2 hours total. It was a lot busier over night and a lot noisier. I had some friends working the Alturus control and after calling them I had arranged for a ride all the way home from Susanville, and they arrived around 4am to pick me up. Dan, a Gold Rush finisher in 2005, and his wife made space in their crowded car for me and we left Susanville for the climb up Janesville Grade as the sun rose.
We passed quite a few riders climbing the grade, just reaching the top as my friend Jack arrived there. I passed along news to him of our friend Bruce who had to go to the ER overnight as his ride was stopped short due to bronchitis. It's hard to pick 'the prettiest spot' on the ride, but I'd have to say that the section from Antelope Lake down to Taylorsville is a contender. Passing more riders, we approached the next control after Boulder Creek as the route flattened out a bit and rolled into Indian Valley, following Indian Creek. Just before the edge of town we passed Chris, a rider I had first met on the plane flying to Paris in 2007. As we passed, I thought I could sense that Chris was almost going to flag us down, but I never saw the thumbs down sign so I remained silent and we pulled into the Taylorsville Grange Hall parking to stretch our legs and grab a more proper breakfast. As we got out of the car, Chris rolled up and asked if we knew where the town welder was located, as his frame had cracked under the stress of climbing Janesville Grade. Chris' bike was toast, and I was really doubtful that a welder who probably specialized in repair of farm equipment and snowplows could do the more delicate job of tack welding a cracked bottom bracket. Chris, being just a bit taller than me, rode a slightly bigger bike but not so much bigger that raising the saddle less than an inch wouldn't address almost completely. After some quick measurements, and some nearly quick swapping of pedals, seat and seatpost, we had Chris riding up and down through town testing out the fit on my bike, and then off he went.
On our drive down to the Feather River Valley we rolled into the Tobin Resort where the next control was. We only needed to stop long enough for me to run in and leave a spare tube with the check-in staff so Chris would have the right size tube if misfortune visited him. In a matter of 10 or 20 minutes, we would pass riders that would eventually finish the Gold Rush more than two to three hours apart. The climb on Jarbo Gap, the last climb on the ride will do that, as will the heat that sometimes affects the riders in the Central Valley. With my bike now out on the course, I was being dropped in Davis at the finish instead of at home. Having about 10 hours to wait for Chris to arrive, I pitched in however I could at the finish, making calls, checkingin riders, making sandwiches and cleaning up. In the end, I stayed overnight waiting for the baggage truck to arrive so I could get Bruce's gear and bring it home when Willy dropped me off on his way to Pacifica. Chris did in fact finish, maybe 45 minutes later than he had planned originally. Given that we could not raise the bars to the level of his saddle height, he did have a little discomfort leaning forward more than he is used to, but otherwise I understand my bike did a pretty good job getting Chris to the finish.
I had high expectations a week before the Gold Rush. I had been riding well, and had found a level of confidence that I usually fall short of preparing for other rides. When the cold hit me, I scaled those high hopes back. I still thought I could finish but that's not what happened. I signed up for the ride with the intention of seeing much more of California, and on that count I succeeded. There is more to see, and more for me to accomplish. This will certainly not be my last attempt at a 1200km randonnee. I'm expecting to see many of you in Paris in two years.
Many thanks to Don Bennett for the additional photos of the inside of Tobin Control, the train in the Feather River, and Indian Creek in Genessee Valley. See a whole bunch more photos and video taken by Don on the GRR here.