Solvang Spring Double would be the season-opening double century in 2010, as it was the prior two years. It's a good "training ride" for the much hillier doubles that follow. I'd put in a good amount of quality and quantity miles during the first three months of the year and was looking forward to a strong ride on the flat course of Solvang. Some of my quality training included big-ring rides over all sorts of terrain, so I decided to ride the entire double in the big ring -- a compact 50.
Chasing the Sunrise
I planned to start around 6:00 a.m., but gobs of spilled gel left me frantically rinsing out my jersey at 6:15. I ate and filled my bottles with Gatorade. Normally, I drink a large glass of water before a ride, but the empty bottle of Gatorade left me with a false impression that I'd drunk the whole thing and that, combined with the gel incident, I didn't drink nearly as much as usual. At 6:20 I headed to ride HQ at Buellton Marriott to get my number magic-markered. A group of 12-15 riders, including two tandems, was leaving just as I arrived at the hotel. It took about three minutes to get back on the bike and once I remounted I discovered that my headlight had burned out. Refusing to wait for people with lights and deeming natural light of early dawn sufficient, I set out on my own.
To chase the tandem group or ride at a medium pace waiting for a group? I chose the former, but knowing that the group would likely ride faster and that 193 miles lay ahead, I chased conservatively, riding about 18 mph into a light headwind, knowing that I wouldn't catch the group but may catch others with whom I'd be able to ride. Riders were few and far in between. I concluded that either they were swept up by the large group or started much earlier (or would start later) and were farther up the road. The riders I caught were riding slower than the pace I wanted to maintain, so I "morning-ed" them as I went by and kept on going. About 10 miles into the ride on a mellow rise (2-3%), I caught a group of 8 cyclists, which included the two tandems. The group was going appallingly slowly. Here I was, having chased for 35 minutes, about to make contact with the people with whom I'd wanted to ride, only to discover that the tandems would be of no use whatsoever. I took this as a personal affront -- these people owed me a draft after I spent 10 miles chasing, yet at 12 miles an hour there's virtually no draft and even if there is I didn't want it! So, more "mornings" and past them I went.
A few minutes later, I turned onto Highway 154 and saw well organized groups ahead and resumed my chase, only to discover, again, that they were riding too slowly. I passed 25 riders in a fell swoop and began climbing the first noticeable hill of the day in the big ring. I caught a man riding a fixed gear and struck up a conversation. He told me he'd be doing a 600km brevet on a fixed in two weeks. As we approached the top of the hill a fast group of three riders passed us and I quickly latched on. After the descent we turned onto Foxen Canyon Road, where two riders on bikes with aerobars fell back and I traded pulls with a man in his mid 50s with overdeveloped legs and a superlight bike. The aero pair passed us on the ensuing ascent and I latched onto their wheels for the very fast 12-mile drag into the first rest stop in Sisquoc. The huge-legged 50-something dropped back.
This stretch of road varies from flat to 2% downhill on a very well maintained stretch of road. My companions got on their aerobars, shifted into their 12s, and raised our cruising speed to 30+. My average speed, which had been 18.3 before the hammerfest, began climbing alarmingly quickly. Each of these guys took pulls at ~30 for minutes at a time without much visible strain. Neither breathed hard and neither bike wobbled from unduly hard efforts. I took one pull at 30 and managed to last for all of 40 seconds before dropping back. I skipped many turns because no way I could be of use in front at that speed and my pulling would have only slowed the group, so I just sat there, enjoying the ride. At one stretch, we covered five miles in 10:45 and none of it involved coasting. I took another pull a few miles later to give a break to the younger guy (late 30s), who was riding somewhat slower than his older but stronger friend (early 50s). We blew past single riders and groups large and small. I could see people turning around when they heard us coming and considering latching on and deciding not to because we were going too fast. By the time we reached the rest stop my average speed read 19.9. When we were half a block from the stop I said, "OK, I'll pull now," which my companions took in good humor.
Did You Drop That? And That?
I parked my bike and weighed my options: I knew a series of rollers was coming up about 5 miles down the road and trying to keep up with this pair going uphill would be suicidal. So, I decided to find other people to ride with. On the way into the rest stop we passed a Benicia Cycling Club ("BCC") group, who I thought would be good riding companions for their speed and well as their group riding skills. I went to check out rest stop fare when I saw Pete and Narda, life members of Berkeley Bicycle Club, whom I've known since the early 1990s. They were on their way out of the rest stop, but I wanted to ride with them and still had plenty of yet-unspilled and uneaten gel, so I skipped rest stop food, filled my bottle and left with them, about 3 minutes after I arrived.
We left with a group of 4 riders who were going at a comfortable, wind-aided 23mph. This was as close to a fast recovery ride as one can come. We rode, we chatted, we kept our noses out of the wind, and my average speed hit 20.0(!). This was Narda's first double, while Pete was taking a shortcut and riding 100. In fact, Pete's shortcut came within a few miles, and the group rolled on. Soon, we turned into the wind, rollers came, and riding became more aggressive. Reaching for food, I lost a blinky light I'd stashed in my pocket. The light shattered on impact -- another in a growing series of the day's mishaps. We lost Narda after she got caught out at a left turn before an uphill. I waited for her a few minutes, but she was some 100 yards back, so I decided to be selfish and chased the group, which by now was close to a quarter-mile ahead, riding with a tailwind. This was harder chasing than chasing the phantom tandems, but I finally caught them coming into Arroyo Grande. As our group climbed a slight hill along a frontage road of Highway 101, a man riding in a group in front of ours swerved for no apparent reason and went down in a heap into a ditch. There was no wheel touch or anything else discernable that spooked him into that fall. He was uninjured, we shrugged and rode on.
Outside Nipomo, the BCC team caught us and we started riding with them. A few miles later, the aero pair passed us, but I let them go. Our group sped up a few miles before the second rest stop near San Luis Obispo and I managed to drop a bottle at 27 mph. No going back. The 13th double was living up to its unlucky number.
I needed a replacement bottle, alas at the rest stop there was none. But they had an empty 12-ounce gel bottle, which fit perfectly into my cage. Back in business! Fill the bottles and flasks -- the only gel flavors available are Huckleberry and Orange. I don't like Orange, so Huckleberry it'll be. Peel off the base layer, cap, long gloves, knee warmers. Pockets bulging, it's time to head off again.
Riding through San Luis Obispo I passed about a dozen cyclists. Leaving the town, I was flagged down by a guy holding a rear wheel and an exploded CO2 cartridge. He's out of cartridges -- WTF is he doing riding a double century with one cartridge and no pump? I told him I've no cartridges. He asked to borrow my pump. I gave him my pump. I stood there, watching him pump and watching cyclists pass by. Competitve juices made me mad I stopped and I thought, "no good deed goes unpunished." Superego made me embarrassed I was mad. He finished pumping and I started riding. Passed the people I'd passed earlier who passed me while I waited for the guy with the flat.
Turning right onto Highway 1 for a long drag to the turnaruond point at Morro Bay, I had an "oh shit" moment: tailwind. Tailwind going northbound on 1 meant headwind on the return leg and since the wind strengthens through the afternoon, the rest of the day did not look so promising. Well, might as well enjoy the tailwind. This was the first time I rode this portion of 1 alone, the two previous rides I was in large fast groups, but my speed was comparable to those on the other rides because they had been into headwinds. Amazingly, in 12 miles of riding this stretch of road I saw only two cyclists.
Tailwinds notwithstanding, I was feeling peaked. I discovered that Huckleberry flavor of Hammer gel tastes like ... Yuckleberry, but without alternatives it would have to do. It occurred to me that I hadn't gone to the bathroom since I left my hotel room and was dehydrated. Also realized I'd only been eating gel and concluded that this wasn't going to be enough. I took a couple of bites of an energy bar. Several months ago, I talked to a man who is a big fan of Hammer energy products. He suggested to chew Endurolyte caps rather than swallow them for an energy boost when things aren't going well. OK, let's try that. I popped three caps into my mouth and began chewing. Ever chew salt dust? My mouth was coated in salt dust. I am not sure whether it's chewing the caps that provides the energy boost or the large volume of water one must consume to rinse out the mouth, but the combined effect of electolytes and water was positive -- maybe I just liked not having a salty mouth and riding with a tailwind -- and I reached Morro Bay in reasonably good spirits.
I got my number magic-markered and turned south into a hadwind. Rode through Morro Bay and turned onto rural roads. It occurred to me that stopping to refill the bottles and eating something more substantial than Yuckleberry gel would have been a good idea, but I detest stopping, so I soldiered on. Traffic, a few small hills, road surface, and deconditioning combined to an inevitable and continuous drop of my average speed, which in Morro Bay was 19.4 mph. I continued battling the wind, the hills, and the tiring legs, but 16-17 mph was about all I could muster. Still riding alone. Where is everybody? Eighty-five miles lay ahead and barring a huge second wind, this ride would be about perseverance rather than speed. I hoped to make it to the lunch stop in San Luis Obispo with 19.0 mph average, but it dropped to 18.9. Quads quivering, I pulled into the lunch stop.
I greeted Jason, Mike and Ken, who were riding on fixed geared bikes and were dealing with their own cramping. Quivering subsided in five minutes. Mindful of prior lunch experiences, I ate only innards of a ham-turkey-cheese sandwich, drank one and half cokes, popped more pills, and left. Rode through San Luis Obispo and turned into a headwind toward Avila Beach, riding a frontage road along 101. It's windy and getting warmer and the legs aren't so great. Was hoping I'll catch up with the fixed-gear group and ride with them, figuring they are going at a comfortable pace. Came to the end of the frontage road, turned right toward Avila Beach. There's a roller, I stood up and promptly cramped in the left quad and right arch. Thus, at mile 125, ended the double-century-in-the-big-ring experiment. At least I'd done a metric double century in the big ring. The cramps subsided and I rolled into Avila Beach, then Shell beach, riding along Shell Beach Road, which offered wonderful views of the Pacific and bikini-clad coeds on spring break. Welcome distractions from the pain and the heat.
Are Those Cleats or Cramp-ons You Have On?
A few miles later the BCC group caught up with me. I decided to ride with them just to get the ride over with quicker -- there was no question of enjoying the rest of this double. So, I jumped on the paceline, riding harder than I would have preferred, but quite a bit faster than I could have on my own. We came to the second appreciable climb of the ride and I let the group go. After I crested, a pair of riders caught up with me, looking about as well as I was feeling. I joined forces with them and we managed to work together surprisingly effectively given our "sensations," riding around 18 in headwinds and crosswinds for the next eight miles into Guadalupe rest stop. Finally, caught the fixed-gear group, the catch made easier by the fact that they were sitting at the rest stop. Again, ate only pills, refilled the bottles and left with BCC group.
Rode with them for a while, then cramped and fell out of the paceline just as we were about to hit the long 18-mile drag on Highways 1 and 135. Those are not fun places to ride -- mostly flat, with uphills slight enough to slow you down significantly if you're tired, with downhills on the other side slight enough to not allow you to gain significant speed. At least there was a mild tailwind, so I managed to plod along at 15-16, I guess. "I guess" because my computed conked out but it could have been slower ... for sure, couldn't have been faster. Cramps kept coming and going in all sorts of new places in addition to the usual ones: toes, arch, top of the foot. Tried stretching out the arch, but that meant flexing the shin, so the shin cramped. Learned to pedal with the foot in a neutral position to avoid flexing the arch and the shin. There was lots of pedaling and coasting. Standing up to stretch meant quads and arch cramping, so I avoided that. One person passed me. I saw no other riders. What the hell happened to the 500+ who'd signed up for the ride?
Approaching the last rest stop 17 miles from the finish I decided not to stop. I still had plenty of Yuckleberry and most of a bottle of water. Getting off the bike would mean serious cramping and spending at least half an hour at the rest stop to recover from the cramps and would provide no guarantees against cramping during the rest of the ride. There was another reason not to stop: by continuing to ride I would pass some of the guys who'd dropped me but stopped at the rest stop. If all worked out OK, I'd finish ahead of them. Because, let's face it, while our egos are stroked by average speeds, the only thing that REALLY counts is who finished first. I rolled past the rest stop and the entire six-man BCC group was there.
I Think I Can
Immediately after the rest stop, the course turns right onto Centennial Street to a three-mile climb up to Drum Canyon. I quickly found myself in my 34x27, slogging through fields of poppies and fighting off cramps. I was truly a shadow of the rider who'd started the ride 177 miles earlier:
Three guys passed me on the way up. The climb crests after a left-hand bend and there's a cattle grate at the top. After 15 minutes of climbing I started hoping that the next left would be it. There were about 4 turns too many, but I wasn't going to get off the bike. The feeling at the top was a mixture of elation and relief, mostly relief. Down I went, but wait, cramps in a new place -- both hip flexors. Stretching hip flexors on a twisty, bouncy, and potholed descent was quite an adventure and gave me cramps in other places. Finally, when the cramps went away, I realized just how bouncy this descent is. The bike shook more the more I tried to control it. Relaxing the grip and moving the hands from the drops to brake hoods provided some relief, but the bike was still bucking as if it were a rodeo bull. That ended soon enough. I rode through the slight downhill/tailwind portion of Drum Canyon, turned left onto Highway 246 and its final six miles downwind into Buellton. This section seems to be the fastest six miles ever even when I'm wasted. There was no one behind me and no one ahead that I could see. There was no reason to hammer to try to catch anyone and no reason to ride hard to stay in front of anyone. But I found a reason to ride hard anyway: finishing in under 11:30. I managed 11:25, which accounts for the smile on my face at the finish.
Lessons learned: Eat and drink better, you fool! And I absolutely think this ride is doable in the big ring.