"Only insane people ride the DMD" I've always thought, as I read riders' stories of this 206-mile ride with over 18,000 feet of climbing, done sometimes in hailstorms with snow on the ground and at other times in heat waves with temperatures over 90 degrees. In the early years of the ride, I saw DMD course arrows on Pinehurst and Skyline, roads where I ride often, and just shook my head. As years passed and the course changed, the arrows faded and the ride faded from my consciousness.
After riding myself back into shape in 2007, I decided to tackle the California Triple Crown -- 3 double centuries in a calendar year. I looked at the calendar and picked the "easiest" three: Solvang (late March), Davis (late May), Eastern Sierra (early June). Family commitments ruled out Davis, and I was left with an unenviable choice of Central Coast (late May, hilly and windy), Terrible Two (late June, hilly and hot), Mt. Tamalpais (early August, hilly and hot), or Knoxville (early September, not too hilly, possibly hot). Knoxville became the choice by default. The difficult part about doing Solvang, Eastern Sierra, and Knoxville was the rides' timing. I had to be in shape for a 200 miler in March, for another in June, and another in September. I preferred to have them closer together so I could use each double as a training ride for the next. I needed to come up with an alternative.
I had a fabulous time at Solvang. I rode it very fast (for me -- 19.3 mph) and finished feeling fairly fresh. DMD was scheduled for April 26, far enough from Solvang to recover from it, but close enough to use Solvang as training. Thus, the plan was born: Solvang as a training double for the much hillier DMD, the ride for the insane.
Chapter 1: Not the DMD!
"So, what are doing for an encore," asked my friend Gary after I finished regaling him with the tale of my ride at Solvang. I looked at him and smiled enigmatically. He waited a few seconds and repeated the question. I smiled again. "No," he said, "you're not doing the DMD?!" I smiled and nodded.
There were four weeks between Solvang and DMD. I planned on doing 60-80-mile weekend rides and a couple of hilly 130-milers before DMD to get ready. But my daughter got sick, then my wife, then I felt as if I was coming down with something. Between illnesses, work, and family commitments, the only serious training ride I was able to do was a 120-miler over Mt. Diablo and Morgan Territory Road 10 days before DMD. This 8-hour ride left me exhausted and made my knee hurt. The knee problem and apparent lack of fitness left me concerned about my ability to finish the DMD. Concerned enough to consider not starting.
I agonized for the better part of 10 days whether I should ride. Finally, I decided that I am in good shape from Solvang, I would eat and hydrate better than I had on my training ride, I would ride wisely and not go with super fast groups, and I didn't have to finish if my knee started to scream at me. Not finishing was not an honest option -- one does not start epic rides thinking of bailing out.
On Friday, April 25, I drove to ride HQ at San Ramon Marriott to check in and to pick up my number and route sheet. I wanted to have everything on the day before the ride so I wouldn't have to stand in line at 4:30 a.m. to pick up the number and then spent the next 15 bleary minutes cursing, as I poked myself with safety pins trying to attach the number to my jersey. I preferred to do the poking and the cursing in the privacy of my home. I picked up my number and route sheet, went home, pinned the number on my jersey, and set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. I would start riding with the 5:00 a.m. group.
Chapter 2: Good Morning!
I was so anxious about DMD that I couldn't fall asleep. Then, I woke up in the middle of night and couldn't go back to sleep. End result: when the alarm went off I'd slept a grand total of three hours. After a bleary-eyed breakfast of two bananas, a hard-boiled egg, and a bagel with peanut butter and honey, I threw my bike, shoes, helmet and other stuff in the car and drove to San Ramon. En route, I called Jeff to arrange a meeting at the start. Arrived at 4:30 to see people taking bikes out of cars and milling about. I got out my bike, put on my shoes and helmet, and rode to the hotel entrance. Congregating there were over 100 cyclists, many with their lights on, greeting friends and chatting with family members who accompanied some of the riders to the start. There was an excited buzz in the air. I met Jeff and his wife. One of the ride organizers made a few announcements, reminding us to obey traffic laws and not to ride stupid, and at 5:00 sharp we were off!
Chapter 3: And We're Off!
One hundred and twenty single bikes and one tandem sped through dark streets of San Ramon to the foot of Mt. Diablo, a 10.5 mile climb to 3,849 feet. We hit the lower slopes of Diablo in the dark. I told Jeff that I would be vying for lanterne rouge prize and he flew off. In the dark I lost sight of him quickly. Ahead of me -- red tail lights; behind -- a river of white head lights. The peloton snaked up the curves of South Gate Road, as a spectacular dawn began breaking. We hit an inversion layer at around 2,000 feet. Air temperature rose, but almost immediately we were hit with a cold wind. The wind gained strength as we gained elevation. I rode and talked with DMD veterans about what this wind meant for the remaining 190 miles. The consensus was a long day of head winds. Eventually, this social climbing brought us to the last steep pitch -- 150 yards at 16%. We were all still pretty fresh and this section, the steepest of the day, did not present any problems.
I saw and talked to Jeff, who started the descent before me. I ate a bit, refilled my bottles, and began descending. As I rode down, I wondered whether I'd see the 6:00 group of fast riders. Sure enough, about 4 miles below the summit I saw about 20 guys/gals racing up the mountain. I hit the inversion layer again and felt warmer, but when I reached lower slopes of North Gate Rd. it became so cold that my feet started shivering.
I rode through Walnut Creek in a small group at a very civilized pace. No one felt a need to hammer with a 4-mile climb up Morgan Territory Road in quickly rising temperatures that lay just ahead and with 154 miles still to go. On Marsh Creek Road, just before Morgan, the tandem caught me, so I jumped into the group it was pulling and enjoyed the draft for a couple of miles. The group broke up as soon as we hit Morgan. I rode at a medium pace on the flat part of Morgan. Then we hit the notoriously horrible stretch of pavement that lasts the entire four miles of the climb. At this point, a couple of faster riders caught up with me and I went with them. The climb has a couple of downhill dips and descending in a group at a high speed, with everyone trying to pick his way around minefields of gaping potholes, was a fairly terrifying experience. At 9:15, we reached the summit of Morgan -- the second rest stop. The leading riders of the 6:00 group arrived 5 minutes after us. More food and drink, sunscreen, and I began the descent.
Though Morgan Territory descent into Livermore area is one of the most exhilarating I've ever ridden, I decided that I would descend conservatively. No reason to crash out of a double century. Whether it was conservative riding or others' superior descending skills, but a couple of people were gaining on me on the lower slopes of the hill. One rider said "Hi" as he went by. I looked at his number and saw "Smith" in big bold letters (numbers had riders' names). Above it was "Sean" in smaller letters. It was Sean Smith from Serotta Forum, with whom I exchanged e-mails after the Solvang Double. "Sean!" I said loudly, "I'm Vlad." He was with the 6:00 group. We rode together and talked for a couple of minutes, but I didn't have the legs to ride with him and told him to go ahead. He said there was a group coming behind us. We waited for them, and the eight of us sped toward Livermore into a headwind. We were cautiously optimistic that this headwind coming from the east would be a tailwind on the westward climb of Patterson Pass, notorious for howling headwinds.
We rode through Livermore together, then Sean pulled ahead. No one was interested in going into the wind after him, so he rode alone. We never lost sight of Sean, but no one in our group was keen on chasing him. So, he was alone off the front about 100 yards ahead. Finally, on a slight downhill, someone took a flier and bridged to Sean, but no one went with this guy either. We rode past green hills, happy California grazing cows and horses, and windmills. Turned south, then west onto Patterson Pass Road. Yes! a tailwind! At the next roller we finally caught Sean. We rode together for a while, but when the road pitched up I found out that my legs weren't so fresh. So, I downshifted into something very small in front and big in the back (36x29) and spun. Sean and other fast and fit guys rode ahead. After 5-10 minutes I reached the "Oh my gosh!" false summit (OMG because when you look up the road from the false summit and see the climbing that remains you say, "OMG!") and water stop. More refueling and re-sunscreening. Felt pretty comfortable climbing the rest of Patterson. Descent into Livermore is pretty unremarkable -- welcome, as are all descents, but straight and the views were not memorable.
Chapter 4: Ugh...
I crested Patterson at 11:30. It was getting hot. I tried to eat and drink well, but rest stop fare was not appetizing and, aside from Gatorade, I hadn't previously tried any of the drink mixes ride organizers offered and was reluctant to experiment on my gastrointestinal system in the middle of a hot and hilly double century. Around mile 85 I began feeling hot and bloated. We were on flat and boring rural roads southeast of Livermore. Light to moderate traffic. Mentally, I was not in a happy place and was riding ever slower. Eventually, I made it to Mines Road rest stop at mile 91. Mines Road (San Antonio Valley Road after the road crosses from Alameda to Santa Clara County) is an amazing, picturesque road that runs from Livermore to San Jose over Mt. Hamilton. It's ~52 miles from Livermore to the top of Mt. Hamilton. At the rest stop, I refilled my gel flask and bottles. Ate a little bit of fruit and set off. After the rest stop, the road starts climbing up the side of a canyon. It's very pretty this time of the year, but the rest stop did not make me feel better and I was not paying attention to the scenery. I was still in that not happy place. It was hotter, I was climbing a 2-mile, 7% hill, feeling bloated, sweating profusely, flies buzzing all around me, and to top it all off, my knee started bugging me. I pulled out my baggy with Advil, took 4 without dismounting (god forbid I should get off the bike), washed it down. I was in 36x29, but no longer spinning. Plodding. Thought that I may be in good century shape, but in lousy double century shape.
Eventually, the road levelled off. I was able to ride faster. Faster speed brought relief from the heat from air movement. Advil took effect and my knee felt better. My mood improved. I noticed many cyclists were going in the opposite direction. Dozens and dozens of them. Couldn't figure out who they were -- no numbers or wrist bands indicating they were part of an organized event -- but it was good for the brain to see so many people on bikes on this very remote road. So, now feeling fairly chipper, I pulled up to the water stop at mile 103. Water stop crew said the riders going the other way were doing the Mt. Hamilton Challenge, a 118-mile ride that starts and ends in Santa Clara. I thought if I were doing that ride I'd be done in 15 miles. I was just half-way through. The steep back side of Mt. Hamilton and Sierra Road (y'all have heard of Sierra Rd.?) lay ahead. Dumped cold water over my head, which was wonderful, took on more liquid and gel, and pressed on.
With flatter terrain and feeling cooler, I picked up the pace and rode as aggressively as my legs allowed -- my brain no longer hindered me and the bloatiness abated. I reached the rest stop at Junction Cafe at mile 115 before 2:00.
Chapter 5: Ahh, the Scenery!
Jeff was at the rest stop, looking pale. He was having GI problems. I ate a bit of a turkey and ham sandwich, which I didn't find appetizing. There were two massage tables set up for any rider wishing to take advantage of a free massage. But I was afraid I'd pass out or cramp or wouldn't want to leave the rest stop if I had a massage so I opted not to have one. The tandem pulled into the rest stop a few minutes after me. I heard the captain declare that if they made it up Hamilton they would finish the ride. He was willing to push the tandem up Sierra Rd. I also overheard that Hamilton climb started at around 6-mile marker and lasted, relentlessly, for 5 miles. The sixth mile would be flattish. I decided to take some Perpetuem drink in one bottle, water in the other, and filled my gel flask with a mix of vanilla and espresso flavored goos. Jeff's stomach seemed to settle and we left together. We rode together until the first significant roller, where I had to let him go. Knowing what lay ahead I needed to ration my energy. Riding through San Antonio valley alone was really nice. This time of the year, it is an especially beautiful and serene place. The surrounding hills are still green, there are numerous streams running through the valley. Wildflowers are in bloom. More happy California cows and horses grazing peacefully. Very little motor traffic. A happy place.
The road turned uphill at mile 6.5 marker. Mindful of what I'd heard at the rest stop, I knew that this wasn't yet Hamilton. But the climb went on and on. After climbing for better part of a mile at 7% now I felt pretty miserable and thought that maybe this was it, The Climb. And the farther I climbed the more I thought, this was it. As I was coming up to a left turn, I saw a SAG car approaching from the other direction. Just about to ask the driver whether this was Hamilton, I looked around the bend and saw that I was cresting and that I'd be going downhill. Not Hamilton yet. Drat.
A too-short descent, followed by a quarter mile of flat and the road reared up again. I saw Jeff unclipping and heard him asking a SAG driver for water. He said he was OK. Certain that he'd catch me in a few minutes, I told him I'd plod on and shifted into the now familiar 36x29. Official line is Hamilton is 5.5 miles at 8%. I think the actual climb is a bit shorter, unless you count the long roller I had just ridden. I settled into an unpleasant, but tolerable cadence of 60-65 rpm. The grade felt about how you'd expect an 8% hill to feel after 128 miles. I stood up occasionally on hairpins and steeper stretches, but mostly I sat and pushed. My speedometer read 5.2, 5.8, 5.4, 5.7... Fairly quickly I figured out that at this speed 5.5 miles would take me an hour. "OK," I thought, "I feel all right, I'll just keep plodding at this speed and if it takes an hour, it takes an hour." I realized that my choice was either to stare at the road for an hour or take in the scenery and enjoy this climb. I chose the scenery. It was spectacular. Since you gain elevation quickly at 8%, almost immediately I saw amazing views of surrounding hills and valleys, soaring birds, running streams, grazing cattle, wildflowers, and ponds. If a place can be described as inspirational at a point two-thirds through a double century, I was there, in a happy place. The road snaked behind me and below. I kept looking over my shoulder and down the hill for Jeff, but did not see him. On the way up I passed a few riders on bikes and others resting in the shade by the side of the road. This inspired me to keep going and vow not to dismount. I kept climbing higher and higher, feeling as if this were an epic Tour de France stage, but where were the fans lining the road, screaming encouragement, running next to me and pouring water over my head -- and, more importantly, pushing me up the mountain?
The grade relented around mile 2 marker and I shifted into my 36x26 -- woohoo -- and sped up to 8.5 mph. In half a mile I reached a water stop, where I was greeted by a volunteer energetically ringing a cow bell. I smiled broadly as I pulled in and said, "MOOOO!" More cold water over the head, more drink and gel, and off I went. Though the road seemed steeper out of the water stop, I felt cooler and climbing seemed easier. I felt as if a load had been lifted. It had been. I left my helmet at the stop. For a millisecond, I considered continuing bare-headed (it felt so good), but turned around to retrieve the helmet. The next half mile of climbing felt as tough as the lower parts. I was back in my lowest gear. But I was somewhat rested from the water stop and inspired by the fact that I was almost at the top. This part of the climb passed relatively quickly and I was at the top. There, I realized that I would definitely finish this ride. By successfully plodding up Hamilton, I had come upon the strategy to conquer Sierra. Just plod at 5mph. Be patient and pace yourself and you'll make it. As I plunged down Hamilton, I felt confident in this game plan.
Chapter 6: Down And Up
I hadn't been on the south side of Hamilton in 12 years and had forgotten just how long that road is. I remembered one valley in the middle of the mountain out of which I would have to climb. There are, in fact, two valleys and the climb out of the lower valley was two miles long. Hello 36x29 again! I received an unpleasant surprise as I climbed that two-mile hill: Both knees started to hurt. I gulped down more Advil and continued. To get over the hill and the pain sooner, I rode faster, so this climb ended fairly quickly. I continued the descent to the next rest stop, about two miles above Silicon Valley floor. More gel and drink, and half a banana. Talking to one of the volunteers I learned that Sierra Road is a stair-step climb, so there would be places to "rest." He also said that the next rest stop was only 8 miles away. "Pish," I thought, "I'd be there in no time." But as I rode toward Sierra I realized that its 3.5 miles at 10% at 5 mph would take good 40-45 minutes, so it would take me over an hour to get to the rest stop.
Approach to Sierra is flat and residential, then you make a turn east toward the hills onto Sierra and you see the climb. It's impressive. I could see two residential blocks that looked as steep as the very top of Diablo, then the road turned left, and who knows what lay ahead... "OK, let's do this," I thought, as I shifted back into 36x29 and stood up. I paced myself up the first two blocks and around the turn, where the grade relented. I sat down and plodded. When it got steeper I stood. When it got easier I sat. I passed a few people riding and a few people walking. More grazing cows and eucalyptus groves. It was hard but definitely doable. About a quarter mile from the top I saw two riders, one passing the other. As I went on at my pace I caught and passed the slower one and was making up ground on the second. I passed him about 40 yards from the summit and was pulling away when he began to sprint (!), the fool! Showing that I was no smaller fool, I sprinted too, even as I shouted: "Don't do that!" But he put in another dig, which I matched (proving that I was the bigger fool). He relented and said disgustedly, "fine, you can have the KOM points!" Embarrassed for both of us, I shifted into the big ring and sped away to Pet-the-Goat rest stop half a mile away. More caffeinated gel and goopy drink and off I went.
Chapter 7: Time Trial, Baby!
I rode away from Sierra in the big ring, happily thinking that even though 46 miles lay ahead I was as good as done. I encountered a couple of steep rollers that humbled me back into my 36 -- as in: "whoa, this is steep and it hurts, time to shift out of the 50" but I felt good and rode aggressively. The descent of Sierra/Felter Road is quite steep and we were cautioned to look for a sharp right onto Calaveras Road, so I braked more than I would have liked, but it was good not to miss that turn. Calaveras Wall is just a tenth of a mile, but it is steep and is longer than I'd remembered it. As I stood up in my granny gear, I felt cramps coming on. I convinced myself to pull up and dance on the pedals and that warded off the cramps. Over the top and it was back into the big ring and off to the races. I could smell the barn, uhm..., the Marriott, and even though I had another 40 miles to go I felt I had the legs to ride hard.
Calaveras Road traces the ridge next to Calaveras Reservoir. More lovely green hills, cows, birds, flowers, lots of slight rollers, snaky curves -- a perfect road for aggressive riding. No cars, a few bikes going in the opposite direction -- I had the road to myself. With 5 miles to Sunol, Calaveras begins a two-mile long, fairly straight descent. It was great fun. There was plenty of daylight. I knew I would make it to Sunol before sunset and set a new goal: get to Palomares Road in daylight. The ride from Sunol to Palomares is through Niles Canyon Road, a narrow and very busy road. It would be great not to have to ride it in the dark.
The first two of the five miles that remained to Sunol, the grade of Calaveras was taking care of my speed. I was going steadily at 26-32 mph, depending on the terrain. After I crested and descended Calaveras Dam I had three miles of flat into Sunol. The scenery was so pretty and I felt so good that I went into time trial mode. I put my forearms on the bars, got as low as I could, and went for it. I smiled giddily, as I hammered toward Sunol with decreasing mileage markers flying past. It was still plenty light out when I reached the Sunol rest stop. Volunteers offered soup and hot dogs, but I didn't want to mess with my caffeinated gel and Perpetuem diet that was proving successful and was in a hurry to get to Palomares before dark.
Chapter 8: Cycling by Braille
I spent less than 5 minutes in Sunol before hitting the road again. As I started off I discovered that my right knee had tightened up during the rest stop and pedaling was uncomfortable. I was also riding downhill into a headwind, through a canyon with a full creek running through it, and it was getting dark. The temperature was dropping quickly. I wished I had put on arm and knee warmers in Sunol, but didn't want to stop there. I reasoned that I'd be climbing in a few minutes and that would feel warmer. I resolved to stop at the top of Palomares climb to get dressed. The ride through Niles Canyon was unpleasant, but mercifully short. I got to the bottom of Palomares in daylight. The southern end of Palomares is in a deep canyon. A peacock was wailing. Frogs and crickets were singing their songs. It is quite dark there, but there was enough daylight to ride without headlights. I had turned on my tail light back in Sunol. "Let's see if I can make it to the top of Palomares without headlights," I thought. I felt good enough not to need my 29 for this climb, using my 26 only for the steepest parts and 23 for the rest. I turned on my headlight with about a mile left on the climb not because it was too dark for me to see the road, but I was concerned it was too dark for drivers to see me. I reached the summit of Palomares, got dressed (knees felt much better with warmers on), turned on my helmet light and plunged down the northern side of the canyon. This descent is completely straight and though it was dark, with my light blasting through the darkness I felt safe going 40mph. Not smart, but safe.
At the bottom of the descent I switched back into time trial mode and passed two riders along the way. Feeling strong, I continued to ride hard all the way into Castro Valley and turned right onto Crow Canyon Road. Crow Canyon is bad enough in daylight. In the dark it's downright scary. Many cars traveling in both directions at 50+ mph, blinding each other and making a cyclist difficult to see, and an extremely narrow shoulder to boot. This was the only place on the ride where I felt unsafe, though Niles was no picnic too.
It was getting close to 9:00 p.m. and I set a goal to get to 200 miles before 9:00. Mission accomplished -- I hit 200 miles at 8:58. The next goal was to get to the finish by 9:30. Desire to get off Crow Canyon as quickly as possible led to me ride harder and, finally, I turned right onto Norris Canyon Road. I exhaled, relieved to be off Crow Canyon.
Norris is a two-mile long, stair-step climb, then a descent into San Ramon. A quarter mile ahead I saw a cyclist's tail light. I made him my target and engaged in a low-speed chase. You can only make up ground so fast as you chase in 36x29, you know. I chased and chased, making up ground at a snail's pace to the sound of whirring gears, frogs' croaking, and crickets' singing. Eventually, the rider disappeared. I looked up and, thanks to light pollution from San Ramon, saw the outline of the hills and realized that I was just a couple of hundred yards from the top. Excited that I was about to crest the final climb of the ride, I accelerated and went down, down, down the other side. I rode fast through housing tracts and saw the tail light again. I sped up and chased the guy all the way into the parking lot of Marriott. I got to within 20 yards of him, but couldn't quite catch him. When he saw me, he ran into the room where we were to check in to make sure he checked in ahead of me. Funny. I would have been satisfied with unclipping my foot first.
I went inside and checked in at 9:27. The man at the desk told me that 70 riders were still on the course. Ouch. That's a lot of riding in the dark. Ate two of the four kinds of pasta on offer. Delicious. Picked up my ride jersey and started driving out of the parking lot just and the tandem was pulling in. I gave them a congratulatory honk and went home.