Monday, June 22, 2009

Hard, But Not Too Terrible Two

With lengthy double-digit gradient climbs looming, I decided to go with ultraconservative super-wide range gearing of 34-46 in front and 11-32 in the back. It proved to be the right choice.


Alarm that is my daughter went off at 3:15 a.m., half an hour ahead of my clock. I decided to get up and take advantage of extra 30 minutes in the bathroom. A long day and a long ride fuelled by unnatural substances lay ahead, it was better not to tempt digestive fates. Everything was already packed -- clothes, food, shoes, bike -- all that remained was to eat breakfast and head off for Sebastopol for the start. I left at 4:15 and arrived a few minutes before 5:00.

Many riders were already at Analy High School in Sebastopol, pinning numbers, filling bottles, and catching up. I pinned my number, took a nervous pee, then met up and chatted with Jeff and Bill. Jeff had been working ungodly hours and was sick to boot. The half-hour before the 5:30 start flew by in, well, 30 minutes, but it seemed much faster. Time to go! A few words of caution and encouragement from ride organizers and we were off.

Analy High School to Calistoga

This year's start was very nervous. Much yelling about slowing, dodgy maneuvers, unnecessary braking and red light running (I participated in that last one). With all that we managed to get out of Santa Rosa without crashes and without dogs bringing down parts of the field (2008). As we left Santa Rosa and began the ride down Bennett Valley, my average speed registered 19.7mph -- it would decrease throughout the day. Descending Bennett Valley I spotted Brian who'd ridden out to ride a part of the course with me. He turned around and caught up with me as we rode through Glen Ellen on the rural roads he knows so well.

Trinity Grade was our first obstacle. I hardly remember climbing it last year. Then, I was toward the front of the field and it seemed to pass in a blur. This year's ride was all about finishing and effort and energy management, so I rode deliberately slower. In no time I found myself in my 34x32, as the climb was steeper and longer than I expected. I passed a few people who were breathing heavily -- that was a lot of effort expenditure so early in the ride. I was glad for my gears, which helped save my legs and lungs for future climbs. Descent of Trinity is notoriously treacherous. Every year TT riders crash there and this year was no different. Ride organizers posted a marshall at the particularly gnarly chicane to warn riders. As I passed him I asked whether anyone had crashed, he replied: "Just two." I made sure that I didn't make it three and made it to the bottom unscathed.

Gently rolling 5-10 miles followed and then we plunged Down Oakville Grade into Napa Valley. On this descent I registered my maximum speed of this double century -- 51.6 mph. (I achieved my minimum speed some 100 miles later on the climb of Rancheria Wall and again on Ft. Ross Road, but more on that later). At the bottom of Oakville Grade something resembling a 6-man paceline coalesced and we began to ride together on Oakville Cross Road toward Silverado Trail. I took a pull immediately before Silverado Trail, where we caught two more riders and soon after another pair. Suddenly there were 10 of us and Brian and I found ourselves about 6th and 7th in line. This was a strange paceline. First of all, paceline skills of its riders varied widely. We went from even and smooth pacing to sudden accelerations and sprints into slipstreams and panic-induced brake grabs accompanied by much cursing. As we rode on and picked up more and more riders the paceline swelled to about 20, but the odd thing was that nearly everyone we picked up slotted into the line ahead of Brian and me, as we found ourselves drifting farther and farther back. Moreover, after pulling riders drifted back, but as they came back they went back into the paceline ahead of us. Thus, as we proceeded north toward the rest stop in Calistoga it became plain that neither Brian nor I would end up pulling on this 17-mile stretch -- not for the lack of willingness or form but because of the weird paceline dynamics of this group. Which was not a bad thing with 150 hilly miles still to go.

Calistoga to Geysers to Lake Sonoma

We arrived in Calistoga around 8:45, having ridden 55 miles at 17.2 mph. Brian rode home, I refilled my bottles and ate a bit and set off. I began riding and talking with Mark from South Oregon, who was riding his first double -- a hell of a ride to cut one's teeth! Soon we caught up with Brian from San Rafael. I told Brian 2 that there were three of us and since we were riding a 200-mile time trial we might as well make it a team time trial and he readily joined us. We swept up another rider who began working with us, then two more, and yet another pair and just like that, a for the most part decently working 8-man paceline was making its way at a good clip to the Geysers climb.

[I just don't understand some riders. They hit the front of a paceline, accelerate, ride too hard, pull too long, and come to the back completely blown, sometimes unable to hang on to the back of the paceline. What good is that?]

Anyway, we came to the foot of the Geysers seemingly in good shape. Brian pulled over to stretch out a cramp. Mark went ahead. Everyone climbed at his own pace. It was getting warmer and the Geysers climb is long and fairly steep. I shifted into the 34x32 and climbed steadily. As it was getting warmer, I remembered the lesson of Central Coast Double and removed my helmet. That made riding much cooler, but in a few minutes a SAG wagon passed me going in the opposite direction and I thought it would be wiser not to get disqualified and put the helmet back on. I climbed and doused myself with water from a bottle, feeling rather chipper and pushing a bit harder, when I saw Jeff speeding downhill. I called out to him and a few seconds later heard him calling me. I saw him climbing and waited for him. He explained that things had been going fairly well until he began feeling ill on the Geysers and decided to go back. As he descended he got mad for quitting and turned around again to climb. Then he talked to a SAG driver, who asked him his name and Jeff discovered that he couldn't remember, so he rested and bit and decided to abandon the ride for good. That is when I saw him. He climbed with me for a quarter mile, but I told him to go home, so he turned around descended the Geysers for the third and last time. I caught up with a man with a British accent who was wearing an 8-pass jersey from Alta Alpina Double ridden in the Sierras just a week earlier in cold rain. We talked about his wet and cold adventures and reached the first peak. We quickly gave back almost all the altitude we gained and as the road reared up again I discovered that my legs weren't working so well. Grim memories of my 2008 Terrible Two misadventure floated to the surface like debris from a shipwreck. I slowed and redoubled the dousing. In about 10 minutes I made it to the Geysers rest stop in reasonable shape, feeling much better than a year ago. I found the weather there almost chilly. As I left the rest stop and headed downhill I found it necessary to put on my arm warmers. The road to the lunch stop at Lake Sonoma was more downhill than I remembered -- everything was harder last year, maybe except Trinity climb -- and I arrived at the lunch stop, 110 miles into the ride, around 12:50. A quick sandwich and a coke, a few pills of this and that, bottles refilled and bladder emptied, it was time to face the Skaggs Spring beast.

Lake Sonoma to Gualala River

I think this is the toughest stretch of the ride. Skaggs Springs Road is a 20-mile series of exposed steep pitches interspersed with short descents and false flats that later becomes a more gradual climb, eventually leading to a long descent to Gualala River rest stop. But the gradient alone is not what makes it tough. It is that it comes immediately after lunch, so that we tackle it with dead-ish legs and full stomachs. I felt like I climbed the first 10 miles with my lunch firmly lodged in my esophagus. With all that in mind I didn't relish the idea of climbing Skaggs. That is where I pooped out last year and to finish this year I would have to do something different. Coincidentally, a tandem was leaving at the same time when I had a brilliant thought -- I'll go with the tandem. They'll climb slower than I would alone, so if I ride with them I'll conserve energy and have company! Better for the legs and the brain. To add to my great fortune, I was having an Eeyore day -- a light cloud kept following me around the course, providing a modicum of defense from the heat. We plodded together in reasonable shape. Oh, it took nearly forever to reach the water stop at 120 miles, but I noted that I was an hour and a half ahead of my 2008 schedule, which boosted my spirits immeasurably. Brian from the Calistoga-Geysers leg was at this water stop as well and we agreed to leave and ride together. Brian is a strong rider and a great talker, I contributed what I could to the conversation. The road was too hilly to trade pulls, but having company lessened the misery. Although my cloud finally burned off, we reached the shady part of Skaggs and began the 7-mile descent to Gualala River rest stop. The road was very bumpy and curvy, I had to brake and lot and began to experience something new -- sore triceps. Sore triceps? Push-ups for improved cycling performance...

Gualala to Ft. Ross

Gualala rest stop is in a lovely and cool spot above Gualala River in the middle of a redwood forest. It's green and traffic-free, with only bird songs and the sound of the rapidly flowing river breaking the silence. Clean air and we were in the middle of nowhere. Why leave? Oh, that... We stretched the legs, I ate watermelon and roasted potatoes and it was time to go and face Rancheria Wall, a two-mile stretch that averages 12%... 140 miles into the ride. Well, why not? It was very steep and hard and steady, but doable. The legs, grateful for the 34x32, tolerated it well with no sign of impending cramps, a pleasant surprise. It was here that I achieved my minimum speed of 3.8mph. I didn't think it would be possible to remain upright on a bicycle at that speed going uphill. Brian walked the last quarter mile to ward off cramps -- he had a low gear of 34x27. I waited for him at the top of the climb, at Rancheria Reservation where a few people sat on doorsteps watching bikes go by. Just as Brian and I began the descent toward coast, a 4-year old boy darted across the road -- I grabbed the brakes and swerved, avoiding him by two feet. It was an adrenaline rush I did not need.

But the descent to the coast at Stewart's Point was not just a descent. Of course, there must be another climb to tackle first. A half mile at 7-8% -- just enough to soften the legs some more. But we finally got to the top and plunged to the coast. On the coast the wind was simply howling... in our backs. I sat up at one point and looked at my computer to discover that I was coasting at 29 mph on essentially flat road. Oh that was nice. It was clear and cool, ocean views were stunning -- payoff for all that suffering, although more suffering lay ahead.

Ft. Ross to Monte Rio

Fifteen coastal miles flew past in 45 minutes of conversation and nature eye candy and we reached the Ft. Ross rest stop. The rest stop lay on Ft. Ross Road just a few yards east of Highway 1. As soon as I turned off 1 I saw the climb -- daunting, straight up the hill. Better not to look. Stop and eat, refill bottles, use the facilities. Sigh, let's tackle this one. Just like Rancheria Wall -- about as long and as steep and some 30 miles later into the ride. More groveling at speeds of 3.8 to 5.6 mph. Legs still OK, though -- evermore grateful for the 32 rear cog. Brian says when you think the climb is over there are three short and sharp stings. Sure enough, climbing just keeps going until -- YES! -- a "Stop Ahead" sign, signaling an intersection, the definite sign of the top of the climb. And it was. A two-mile long descent followed by a series of rollers and by -- what the hell is that, another climb? Certainly, a half-mile at 8% -- and now I very clearly remember cursing this particular hill long and loud on first Brian's birthday ride six years ago. Finally, this one is over too and Brian 2 and I drop into Cazadero. We talk about trying to make it to the finish by 9:00. I do some quick math: we need to average 18mph for an hour and a half. It'll be tight but doable. I go into time trial mode and pull for 10 minutes on a mostly flat road, but realize that maybe I can do that for half an hour, but not an hour and a half, what with 176 miles in my legs, and back off. We are going 16-17 mph. It'll be close, but we'd have to spend next to no time at Monte Rio rest stop.

Monte Rio to Finish

We get to the rest stop at 8:10, there's 13 rolling miles to go, but we linger a bit too long and there's no way we'll make it by the time we leave the rest stop. Oh well, what the hell, just ride and enjoy it, I guess. So, we did, talking about our riding and kids' schools and extracurricular activities and work and our own childhood. We climb to Occidental, then up Graton Road, that's followed by a long and fast descent and suddenly we find ourselves just 3 miles from the finish on the outskirts of Sebastopol. Time to leave it all on the road. I pull hard all the way to the finish. It was painful but rewarding. I was very happy just to finish and cared not for my time. Time was 15:45, 200 miles with 16,000 feet of climbing in average speed of 14.2 mph.

I picked up my "I Did It" t-shirt and jumped in the car to go back to Brian 1's in-laws, where our families were spending the weekend. Bill called me on my cell phone as I drove. He had a fabulous ride, meeting his long-time goal of breaking 13 hours -- a barrier he demolished with a time of 12:32! He spent remarkable 17 minutes off the bike. I should ride with him more to learn to ride faster and more efficiently.

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