*Mt. Tam Double passes through northern and western Marin County's cow country. Even when you don't see cows, you smell them.
Strategy for this ride was to start in the front and go with the faster groups, draft as much as possible to conserve energy, and to be very efficient off the bike, wasting as little time as possible. Not the fastest group, mind you, but the second group, which usually contains very fit and experienced riders with whom I'd like to be able to ride. As for efficiency, when I thought about many of my rides this year and last, it occurred to me how long I spent at rest stops and lunch stops -- too long. I lounged and lingered and had sore legs when I'd gotten back on the bike -- sorer than when I had gotten off. Also, I decided that with all the gastrointestinal distress I suffered after lunch stops I would not eat lunch but would rely almost entirely on gel and electrolyte replacement products. This would also shorten my lunch stop. In 26th place, I trailed several riders in the Triple Crown Stage Race standings by such narrow margins that I could attribute my time deficits to excess time spent off the bike. I wanted to try to overcome these deficits by cutting my rest stop time to a minimum. Since I was unfamiliar with the course and how long it would take I thought I'd finish in daylight and hoped to be done by 8:00 p.m. That was the plan, anyway.
What Else Can Go Wrong in This Darkness?
Having arrived at Vallecitos Elementary in Greenbrae, I half-fill my bottles with Gatorade, intending to top them off with water after checking in at registration table, put a $10 bill in my cell phone holder, and ride to check in and pick up my number. I run into Jeff Gould, my frequent double century companion; Jim Karanas, my former spin class instructor; Jeff Pierce and Bryan Kilgore with whom I dined and rode the Central Coast Double; and several other Triple Crown regulars. I pin my number and at 4:55 a.m. insinuate myself into the second row of 296 cyclists at the starting line. At 5:00 we are off.
For the first mile or two we ride through residential neighborhoods that have street lights, but then we turn onto Lucas Valley Road where we are left to the mercies of bicycle lights of the guys in front of us. Fortunately, all carry adequate lights and this very crowded portion of the ride sees no crashes or mishaps. After four miles of flat we hit the first climb, which the eager and the strong hit hard. I hold back, not considering myself strong and trying not to be eager, but still crest in the front 30. (Here, my computer conks out.) It seems I am with the second group. It's easy to stay together on the downhill, as no one rides crazy or stupid descending in the dark. I reach for a bottle and it isn't there... The other one is half-full. OK, this means I half-filled both bottles, put one on the bike and left the other in the car. I have half a bottle until the first rest stop at mile 30-something. Not good. I'll have to stop to refill, assuming I can find a place to do that, or buy a bottle at a 7-Eleven when we get to Fairfax. Intending to go water shopping I fish around my jersey pockets for my phone. No phone. No phone means no money. Here I am 6 miles into the ride with half a bottle for the next 26 miles, no phone, no money, and no computer. This is a hell of a way to improve my standing in the Stage Race...
When we hit the flats, the pace picks up. I have to work harder to stay with the guys I am with and must decide whether to work hard so I can ride with a fast group or ease up, conserve strength, and ride slower. For the time being, I have enough adrenaline to overcome my superego and ride with fast guys. There is a guy wearing a Cal jersey, and I try to stay close to him because he seems pretty strong and conspicuous in the foggy darkness on the rollers between Nicasio and Fairfax. The group is going hard enough that I let them go as well. I am feeling my legs, not in a good way and, after all the things that have gone wrong already, contemplate the possibility that I may not finish this ride. Sucks.
Well, if I am not going to finish there is no reason to hold back, so I speed up to a group ahead of me that's climbing the hill between San Geronimo golf course and Fairfax. I reconnect with them and plunge toward Fairfax in pursuit of three guys ahead. I get as low as I can and spin out my 50x11 to catch Jeff Gould, of all people. We ride through Fairfax together and I bemoan my fate or is it lack of preparation/attention to detail. Leaving Fairfax I let him go on the climb toward Alpine Dam because I don't know the climb and something inside me holds me back. I pass a few guys, others pass me. I catch up with Mark from Oakland with whom I rode Solvang Fall last year, where he was a whole lot stronger than I. We climb together and I notice that although my legs are definitely feeling the climb I have to back off a bit to allow Mark to ride with me -- the first positive sign after the "what else can go wrong" series of mental moans.
Eventually, I ride away from Mark and take all sorts of risks on the descent to latch onto the back of a 6-man group just before they get to the dam. That turns into a huge waste of nervous energy, as there is no flat to speak of, and the road turns uphill as soon as we cross the dam and there is no draft benefit from climbing at 7 miles an hour. Up again. Most of the guys I'd caught ride away from me. As I climb I wonder where those guys are in Stage Race standings and where I'll end up. It seems 40 or more people are ahead of me. I pass a few riders who are going quite slowly, but I conclude that they must have started before the 5:00 a.m. mass start. Half-way up the climb Todd Law with whom I also rode at '08 Solvang Fall and who sits 4-5 places ahead of me, catches up and rides away after a brief and friendly chat. My thoughts turn to maintaining my position rather than improving it. The season's goal was finishing in the top half. That seemed safe, but with so many people going by me, who knows?
On top of this hill is a woman directing traffic down toward Bolinas, no matter how much we want to ride the ridge and climb the Seven Sisters toward the peak of Mt. Tam. With budget-related closure of Mt. Tam State Park our route does not include that scenic option. I ask her whether she has water -- she does! I fill my bottle and pressing my luck ask whether she has a spare bottle -- she does! and she willingly parts with it. It's a regular Calistoga bottle but it fits into my bottle cage, and it has a "sport top," so I can drink without having to unscrew the top. Things are looking up, though as I pour and spill and drink, another 20 or so riders go by.
Happy, I descend 2-3 miles toward Bolinas and the first rest stop. Mark, Bryan, and Jason are there. Altogether 20-25 people are milling around. If I can leave quickly I can execute a mass pass. I leave quickly, but I have to go to the bathroom. Porta-potties are 100 feet down the road. There are three of them and four cyclists are waiting in line to use them. I get off the bike, tell them: "Sorry guys, I'm cutting in line," and go in the bushes.
Jump back on, riding alone, southbound on Highway 1 toward Stinson Beach. A group of two or three is half a mile ahead and no one immediately behind, so I decide not to chase but to ride tempo and wait for company. Soon enough a rider (Ken in white and blue) catches me, then a group of four more and we motor together through Stinson to the climb up Panoramic Drive.
I have no delusions about my cycling prowess. I don't fancy myself a kick-ass climber. I can climb my way out of a paper bag, but I'm no match for the really fast and light guys. But these three, who are not light and who didn't seem really fast on the flat, now are just spinning their legs like dervishes up the 8-9% sections of Panoramic, showing no signs of distress and pulling away. I try spinning with them, but fall behind, so I shift up and climb in a bigger gear -- catching back up to them fairly quickly. Big gears feel better, but the legs are feeling somewhat heavy and there are another two miles of Panoramic to climb and 155 miles to the finish. At least it's cool and foggy and the day promises to be un-Marin Century like, which often sees temperatures in the mid-90s. Toward the top of the climb we catch up with Sean Smith, with whom I rode at Central Coast. Sean had been off the bike for two months and is taking it easy. We descend as a group, go up and down rollers together, then descend again through Muir Woods and find ourselves back on Highway 1, going north and climbing again. On the uphill the group breaks up. I catch up to Todd, much to my surprise. He says he is not having a great day. We climb together, pushing each other to ride a bit faster than we would alone, and hightail it toward the rest stop at the bottom of the descent.
Hmmm, Todd is not feeling great. If I get out of this rest stop quickly there's a slight chance of passing him in the Stage Race. Bill Schulz from '09 Solvang Spring (7th in the standings -- see Solvang story) is pulling into the rest stop at the same time. I yell at him to wait for me while I fill bottles and gel containers, but he is gone by the time I get going even though I leave the rest stop as fast as I can. Riding alone again. Rollers again. But now I am passing people. Having learned how mental long distance cycling is, I make sure to take pleasure in each pass and with a happier brain have fresher legs. Completing the Mt. Tam-Muir Woods loop I descend toward Stinson from the south. I see a pair of riders about a quarter mile ahead. Four to five miles of flat roads before rollers would resume, so I decide to chase. Put my head down, shift up, and get into my nonexistent aero bars (forearms on the bar for as long as you can take it, then on the drops; repeat until you lose motivation). It feels like it is taking forever to make up a measly quarter mile, but I make steady progress and catch up with them half a mile south of Bolinas. It's Ken in white and blue and his friend Mike with whom I'd ridden through Stinson southbound and climbed Panoramic. How did they get so far ahead of me? skipped the rest stop? We skip the Bolinas rest stop, which serves as rest stop No. 3 as well as No. 1. Working together we sweep up a few riders and catch Bill. That's a pleasant surprise. But Bill keeps standing up on rollers in a huge gear and just powering away. Fortunately, he's a cautious descender and we catch up on descents. Finally, he decides to ride steadily and we ride together. I mention to him I want to finish by 8:00, he scoffs and says, “7:00, easy.”
Cow Country, Ho!
We ride through Dogtown ((wtf is Dogtown?) Zip Code 94924, population 50-something) to Pt. Reyes, then turn inland toward Novato Cheese Factory (you know you're in cow country now). By now there is a good dozen of us and I manage to hide in the paceline for the next 10 miles into the next rest stop. We join the 100k and 100 mile routes and suddenly there are cyclists everywhere, causing traffic jams and antagonizing drivers. A half mile up, then down to the Cheese Factory, a left turn just beyond it to the rest stop. Quick bottle refill and sunscreen application and Bill and I are off. Now we have to look at rider numbers to figure out who is doing the double century (yellow numbers) and who is on the other rides (white numbers). We catch up with a Latin man of undetermined age (our age it turned out) and his androgynous 21-year old son, whom we took for 16-17. Those two are really strong climbers and ride away, but we would see them on the road all day. On the Marshall Wall, Bill's friend Pat catches up to us and he and Bill pull away on the climb. Crap, I don't want to ride alone, so I grit my teeth and catch up on the false flat of the Wall. We return to Highway 1, where it's chilly and wet in spots from Eucalyptus dew drops.
More rollers to Dillon Beach, then turn west toward Dillon Beach, then north toward Valley Ford and the lunch rest stop. I don't like this stretch of road. Prevailing headwinds and never-ending rollers. Bill drops back and Pat and I ride ahead. Pat says that there's quite a bit less climbing in the second half of the ride -- welcome news. We pass some of the guys who had dropped me on the Bolinas-Fairfax climb -- again, good for the brain. Holy cow, it's only 12:20! Normally, I hit lunch around 1:15. Cutting rest stop time strategy seems to be working.
Valley Ford lunch stop is teeming with cyclists: double century riders, double metric century riders, century riders. There are easily over 100 people here. Bill rolls in. We run around the lunch stop filling bottles and grabbing handfuls of Endurolytes, peanuts (ahhhh, protein), and potato chips. In and out of the bathroom and we're on the road again, north on Highway 1 again. I set a PR by spending under 10 minutes at the lunch stop.
This is not a happy stretch of the road. Rollers into a headwind. Climbs too long, descents too short. I do not hammer on the downhills, just tuck as low as possible to coast as long as I can before tackling the next hill. Sun comes out too and it's getting warmer. I'd made a strategic decision to ride in a long-sleeve jersey and regret it now. We plod on.
Route sheet says right on Bay Hill Road. It goes inland from Highway 1 and bypasses Bodega Bay before turning toward the coast again. Inland and uphill. A long and unexpectedly steep hill. Legs not working so great. Bill stops for a nature break, but encourages me to keep going. I keep going and look back periodically, but don't see him. I see Ken fifty yards ahead but he's riding strongly and pulling away. How the hell does he keep getting ahead of me when I don't see him passing? Does he not stop at rest stops at all? Finally, Bay Hill turns downhill and plunges back to 1. I go north on 1 again. Three flat miles, then what we came here for -- Coleman Valley, the climb from the coast to the plateau above Occidental. I've only descended it and it's a freaking scary descent: very steep with tight turns. Through the morning different people referred to the climb as being from two to four miles long with steep sections over 10% over two miles with half a mile over 12% and ramps of 15-18%. I decide to trust the guys who gave shorter estimates. OK, the steep parts are steep, but manageable and short. There is maybe a quarter mile of steep stuff and even that is not as steep as the top of Mt. Diablo. So, a pleasant surprise.
The route sheet says the rest stop is at the top of the first climb of Coleman. I'm pretty sure we're at the top, but no rest stop. No one else on the road knows where it is either. I could use some water, but Coleman seemed to have woken the legs and I'm big-ringing it over shorter rollers and feeling rather chipper. Tailwind helps too. Finally, pull into the rest stop, take off my undershirt and experiment with Gatorade/Red Bull/water mixture in my bottle. Bill arrives. We linger a wee bit too long, but still leave fairly quickly.
Joy Road, the next turn that takes us south, arrives sooner than I expect because I have it confused with Occidental Highway, which is a good thing. Joy is full of rollers over which I manage to stand and power, and, while Bill drops back, I keep plowing on. A plunge toward Petaluma-Bodega Road and a left turn into a howling tailwind. A good place to rest after overtaxing myself a bit on Joy. Several sips from Red Bull-fortified bottle prove that Red Bull is a lousy sports drink additive and I dump out the bottle's entire contents. This leaves me with just half a bottle of water, but the Valley Ford rest stop is only five miles away, so hydration shouldn't be an issue. Two miles here, then a right onto Freestone-Valley Ford Road for a three-mile slog into a headwind, during which I work harder than I should, and I am back to Valley Ford. Just before I reach the rest stop at 2:45 p.m., I see a volunteer explaining to a group of riders just setting out for Coleman Valley loop that they should expect minimal support and may be pulled off the course if they take too long. Not a problem for me.
Rest Stops? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rest Stops!
Valley Ford rest stop is a ghost town. Little food remains. Volunteers outnumber cyclists by 10-5. Bill arrives. We reprise our lunch stop frenzy and leave in less than five minutes for Middle Road, which I hate. Headwind into flats, then steep rollers. Not sure if I have better legs than in 2006, the last time I rode here, but I manage to get over the rollers in decent shape, come to a T intersection and turn east -- tailwind again. I ride at medium pace, waiting for Bill. He pulls up and we catch up with Ken (again!). We ride together, but Bill keeps dropping back on uphills. Ken and I are riding fairly mellow for Bill's sake, and he rejoins us over and over. Finally, I tell them I am going to keep riding and go ahead. Ken stays with Bill. I ride medium hard, there's still good 45 miles to go, so I need to keep something in reserve. It's mostly flat and cool, though as I go farther east I am getting sunshine and it's warming up. I use century and double-metric riders as rabbits; it's so nice to have targets to chase and passing them provides a psychological boost. I am riding in low to mid-20s and feeling OK. The legs are feeling it, but it seems I can keep going at this pace into Petaluma rest stop at mile 171.
On the outskirts of Petaluma I pass a couple just out for a weekend ride and the man asks if there is an event. I explain that there is a whole bunch of rides going on simultaneously. He asks which I am doing. I say, "200 miles." "In one day?" he says. "Yep." His jaw drops, I wish him a good ride and go on. As I approach the rest stop, I realize that I have over a bottle of fluids and a nearly full flask of gel and, with no urgent need to use the bathroom, decide to skip this rest stop. I shout out my number to the volunteer with a clip board as I pass the check point and keep going.
Oh joy, more rollers and headwinds on the way out of Petaluma. OK, now I am feeling this ride and wonder whether a few pieces of watermelon would have done me good. I chase away those thoughts, but they return when I turn onto Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Rd and its 1-2% grade and headwinds and Red Hill climb that lies two miles ahead. I feel like I'm close to running on fumes. Plod, plod, plod, pass a couple of century stragglers, and start climbing Red Hill. Steep but not too steep, not too hot, and not too much traffic. At the foot of the climb a guy with an orange jersey and a yellow number just blows past me, standing in a cog about 3-4 gears bigger than mine. "You, da man," I think, "there's one guy I won't finish ahead of."
Red Hill is a fairly wide and straight climb, so you can see the people ahead of you. Orange jersey has good 150 yards on me when he crests, and at my speed that's over a minute. I limp to the top and tuck low, low on the way down. By the time I reach the bottom, orange jersey is an insect on the horizon. I pass a few century riders and my mood improves. Hit the bottom of the shortish Cheese Factory climb and see orange jersey cresting. It seems I made up some distance. Go into chase mode. Crest and swoop down. Left at Nicasio Valley Rd. and I am greeted by a raging tailwind.
If there's one thing I can do it's ride with a tailwind. Legs feel better, the mood improves, the bike goes faster. Everything is better with a tailwind. Marking time past landmarks, I'm 35 seconds behind orange jersey. On the outskirts of Nicasio it's 13 seconds and then, a gift -- he turns into the rest stop at Nicasio Valley School. "Sssseee ya!" I exclaim silently, and jam past the school entrance. More and more century and double-metric rabbits to pass and it's all good, high energy riding from here on out. Lucas Valley climb is in the easier, southeastern, direction with a tailwind on the long flat section that follows the ensuing descent. I hammer, absolutely flying past white-numbered riders and into San Rafael.
You Finished When?
I get held up at a traffic light just a quarter mile from the finish, but ride to the finish alone and check in at......... 6:12!
Jeff Gould is there, having demolished the course and finished 40 minutes earlier. Pat finished 20 minutes before me. Latin father/son duo arrives just after me. It turns out the kid had stomach problems all day and they had two flats on Coleman. Orange jersey arrives 10 minutes later, with Bill five minutes behind him. Then Ken. Others are trickling in one by one. Only double century riders are checking in. After 30 minutes of standing around I ride to the car and, as I put the bike on the roof, whom do I see arriving -- the guy who was 25th in stage race standing, 18 minutes ahead of me and whom I really wanted to pass in the standings. I check my watch -- I arrived 36 minutes ago. Big smile.
I get in the car and drive home, drinking half a bottle of undiluted, warm Gatorade.
Ride results were posted three days later. I was flabbergasted to learn that of the 296 people who started the ride I finished in 18th place (there were 254 finishers). Armed with T de M results, I feverishly calculated my stage race standing. It seems 10 people who were ahead of me didn't start or didn't finish the third stage and I passed three others on the strength of my ride. This vaulted me into the tie for 13th place. Sixty-eight riders finished the stage race. I met my goal of finishing the stage race in the top half. Jeff finished in an amazing 5th place.