OK, that was effin' epic...
Weather forecasts were favorable during the week preceding the ride, with the last one predicting temperatures in the mid 40s-mid 60s range. So far, so good. On Thursday afternoon, someone posted on Facebook that it may be windy during the ride, but believing that everybody talks about the weather and does nothing about it, I decided to hide my head in the sand and refused to check the forecast. One can prepare for temperature changes, but short of installing sails there's nothing to do about the wind.
I knew this would be a hard ride, with 20,000 feet of climbing, all of it at over 4,000 feet, with all eight mountain passes at over 7,300 feet. So, the ride plan was to ride to finish before the course closed at 10:00 p.m. and if things go well, finish in daylight. With a 3:30 a.m. ride start I wanted to get to bed early, so I turned in at 8:00 and fell asleep almost immediately.
Woke up before the alarm at 2:20 -- six hours of sleep, awesome! Breathing felt weird. Felt like I couldn't take a full, deep breath. Hoping it wasn't a sign of my inability to handle altitude, I decided to ignore it, wishing it to go away. Ignoring it seemed to work.
Parking lot was filling quickly. I arrived around 3:20 and riders were leaving already. I'd checked in on Friday night and had my number and wrist band, so all I needed to do was put on my shoes and helmet and start riding. I left exactly at 3:30.
It was breezy and cold at the top. I got a sticker for reaching this pass. At each pass we would receive a sticker on our numbers as proof for completing each segment of the ride, with eight stickers at the end of the ride signifying completion of all the passes. I put the hat back on, refueled, greeted Jack Holmgren, an Oakland double century and randonneuring veteran, and took off. Half way down the mountain, saw Sean Smith climbing. I invented a praying mantis aero tuck. Actually, I borrowed it from Floyd Landis, ca. 2006, but made an important modification: Landis used aero bars for his position, I didn't have aero bars. I rested my forearms on the bars and raised my hands to deflect the air from my head and torso. Fast as hell. Unsafe? You bet. But with no turns requiring braking and excellent road surface, I cruised comfortably all the way back to the valley.
(photo credit: Brian Chun)
I turned right and headed northwest. The sun was low. Ominous, dark clouds hung over the mountains. I hoped the clouds didn't carry rain, hail, or snow. Yes, it was June 12, but it rained, hailed, and snowed on this ride last year. I had a tailwind and was cruising comfortably at ~22 mph. Saw many late-starting riders going in the opposite direction. I wondered how they would fare, with the wind rising. The course turned onto Pioneer Trail and things changed. Now I had a side/head wind, the desert floor was rising toward the mountains and the road pointed in that direction. It didn't look like a climb, but it was a climb and it felt like a climb. I hate these optical illusions. If you look at the picture above, imagine riding toward the right. Visually imperceptible, but physically very perceptible. This stretch took quite a bit out of me physically and mentally. There was a rest stop in the middle of nowhere on this stretch. I stopped to fill a bottle and took off again for Woodfords and the climb of Luther Pass.
Jack arrived at the rest stop while I refilled the bottles. We grabbed a quick bite and left together. We tucked and zoomed back down Luther and at the bottom turned right into a tailwind toward Carson. It was a tailwind even though I tried to convince Jack that his high speed was the product of the excellent draft I provided him rather than the wind at our backs. Before the climb began in earnest, there were a couple of mild rollers about which Jack warned me. It was helpful to know that. As the other climbs so far, Carson was a relatively mild climb, with grades in the 4-6% range, made easier by the now howling tailwind and spectacular views. The wind was so strong that I felt it pushing me in the back. Normally, I don't feel the tailwind, only see its benefits on the computer, but this time I really felt that it was shoving me up the climb.
(photo credit: Brian Chun)
With this wind at my back, it was easy to lead Jack up the climb. For the riders descending it was not so easy. The wind blew so hard that we could see them struggling the keep their bikes going straight and keep their speed up. We pressed on. Carson Pass sign came into view. I stopped to take a picture and put on my hat and gloves while Jack continued to the rest stop. He left before I finished my rest stop business.
Leaving the Carson rest stop proved that my impressions of what the wind had in store on the descent were accurate. I fought to keep the bike going straight, as gusts buffeted me and threw waves of sand at my face. Climbing Carson, I'd spied the magnificent Red Lake. Rather than spending a thousand words, on the way down I stopped to take a picture.
Blue LakesBlue Lakes didn't happen. Ride organizers warned us by e-mail that the road to the summit likely would be closed and they added an out and back trip down Airport Road outside Markleeville just before the lunch stop. The ride toward Blue Lakes, though, was very pleasant. It climbed gradually past still leafless aspen forests. As the road pitched up, I shifted into the small ring and promptly dropped my chain, which got stuck between the crank and the frame. Pulling it loose took some doing. I remounted and as I began to ride heard the chain rubbing unusually. Got off again. Discovered that my chain watcher gizmo traveled down the seat tube and was rubbing the chainrings and the chain. Took out the screwdriver and turned the gizmo 90 degrees to get it out the way. Fine screwdriving to get the chain watcher to work properly was beyond me at this point. Remounted again and continued. The climb ended unexpectedly, as I came to the rest stop just before a shut gate. Beyond the gate, the road was covered in snow. Bottles refilled and body refueled, I left the rest stop. A few minutes later, I greeted Sean who was climbing easily.
As I hit the valley at the bottom of descent, I also hit headwinds. A rider (Andy Snyder) was ahead of me. I sped up to take advantage of his slipstream and we shared pacing through the valley and began the descent along West Fork of Carson River back toward Woodfords. On the descent, we caught another rider in a red jersey. Praying mantis re-emerged on the descent, as Andy dropped back. Red jersey and I took turns down the descent, but, honestly, with nearly 100 miles to go, I let him do most of the pulling. I didn't see a number on him and it looked like he was just out for a ride, so I felt no guilt wheelsucking. He said one point, "so you have Ebbets and Monitor left?" I said, "yes." "Long day," we agreed. But hearing/realizing that there were just two passes left, albeit each done twice, made it seem manageable.
We reached Woodfords and I turned right toward Markleeville, while red jersey went straight. It was getting warmer. Four miles down the road was the left turn onto Airport Road. It immediately kicked up at ~8%, which was the steepest hill of the day so far. That went on for a good quarter mile. Actually, it was not a good quarter mile, it was a bad quarter mile. I was dressed for the descent from the snowed over Blue Lakes Road and here I was bathing in sweat in 60+ degree temperatures. Off with the hat and gloves again. Reached the top, where the road was flat for fifty yards before plunging -- and I mean plunging -- down toward Markleeville Airport. As I descended, I saw Jack, Nicole, and a few other people I know climb out of the valley where the airport was. As I descended, I cursed ride organizers who sent us here because I didn't look forward to climbing out of this valley. But the bottom of the descent was where we received Blue Lakes stickers, so this was required riding. Got my sticker, grovelled up half a mile of what now was the steepest part of the ride, all the while cursing Alta Alpina Cycling Club for sending us here, then descended the quarter mile bit back toward Turtle Rock Park and lunch. Took off arm warmers and toe covers and left them in the car, optimistically believing I wouldn't need them anymore.
Sean arrived at the lunch stop at the same time. This was his 50th double century, earning enshrinement in California Triple Crown Hall of Fame. Congratulations!!!
(That's L for Roman 50!)
I was 113 miles into the ride, about 87 remained, and since it was just noon, I decided to take my time at lunch. I made myself a meaty sandwich, had a Coke and some salty snacks. Somewhat rested and refreshed, I was ready to get back to work. It was warm, but I decided to bring but not wear my hat and gloves for high altitude temperatures.
The road descended for two miles into Markleeville, then down to East Fork of Carson River Valley. I was riding upstream, but had a tailwind. With the grade and the wind canceling each other out, I was making good progress. East Fork of Carson was as gorgeous as the West, but wider and calmer. People were fishing and kayaking here. Clouds were long gone and temperatures in the valley were much higher than on passes, so off with my hat and gloves once again. This was pleasant and a bit tiring.
The climb of Ebbets began mildly and innocently enough, although there was one rather ominous sign. I mentally shrugged at it and continued undeterred.
(photo credit: Brian Chun)
As I stopped to receive sticker no. 5, I saw Robert Choi. Robert Choi, who often wins these rides, caught me at mile 130. Obviously, he started after me. I assumed he started at 5:30, the latest possible start time. I didn't feel so bad about him taking 130 miles to make up two hours on me. Later, I learned that he started at 7:30. I am not sure how I feel knowing that he made up four hours on me in 130 miles, though I am glad I didn't know it then. Robert and I got our stickers and began the descent to Hermit Valley rest stop to collect sticker no. 6. Holy cow, I can do a portion of the ride faster than Robert -- the descent. Well, by all means, I will put 10 seconds into Robert on the descent and he'll finish over two hours before I do, completing the ride six hours faster, but I don't care because it seems I can still descent faster. The descent was fun, but not in a good way. Fun as in "damn, this is great descent but it's steep and is going to be a pain to climb."
I spent too much time at the rest stop, but knowing what lay ahead did not motivate me to leave promptly. I had some chicken noodle soup, took some Advil (my left (wtf?) knee was bugging me), talked to Roy Benton about my blog (thanks for reading, Roy!), ate a bit, and dillie-dallied. As a result of too much time at the rest stop the legs felt leaden when I began the climb. Pretty soon I was in the plod mode. I fought to keep my cadence up, but I was flagging mentally and physically. The mileage disconnect between my computer and the route sheet made me think the peak was quite a bit farther up the road than it really was. This six-mile climb was taking over an hour and it was getting warmer and warmer. Spectacular views of snow-peaked mountains and roaring streams weren't doing my brain any good any more. This was the longest and slowest six miles I've ever ridden. By my calculations, I had another two miles to climb, which was going to take 25 minutes or more. It was almost 4:00 p.m. I'd been on the road for over 12 hours and my math skills were deteriorating as fast as my cycling skills. At this rate, I wouldn't reach the bottom of Monitor Pass before 4:45; it would take two hours to climb each side of Monitor at this snail pace; half an hour combined for the descents; half an hour at rest stops; and half an hour to get back to Markleeville from the bottom of Monitor. I didn't think I could complete the ride before the 10:00 cut-off and, as I climbed, I felt worse and worse physically and mentally and I wasn't going to feel any better as I continued to ride. Advil wasn't helping the left knee any. I discovered that the knee felt better if I slid forward in the saddle and tried to spin but it was hard to spin with so little in the tank and such steep grades. Small muscles on my back ribs were killing me. Standing up from time to time relieved that pain, but made my knee worse. So much worse and worse I felt that I was fully committed to quitting the ride by going straight past the turn off toward Monitor and continuing to Markleeville. I was done. I was done with this ride. I was done with Terrible Two that was coming up in a week. I was done with cycling. At least long distance cycling. I think I was done in.
Lo and behold, a minute after I firmly committed to bugging out, I hit the top of Ebbets, 24 minutes ahead of anticipated schedule. "Three cheers for bad math." I thought. So, never mind all that fatalistic nonsense and let's see how long it takes to reach the bottom of Monitor and reevaluate there. To no one's surprise, the descent to Monitor did my brain loads of good and legs a modicum of good and took five minutes less than I anticipated. I had plenty of food and drink when I reached that intersection, so I skipped the rest stop at the foot of the climb. Brian Chun was just leaving that rest stop and we rode together.
(photo credit: Brian Chun)
Their presence led to expected merriment and queries, providing much needed mental distraction. But enough of that. It was time to remount, swoop to Topaz Lake in Mono County for the eighth sticker and try to get back to the top of Monitor before the sun set. With finishing in daylight out of question I held out hope that I'd be able to descend the west side of Monitor in daylight because descending eight miles in the dark did not appeal a bit. I knew that east side of Monitor was 10 miles long. As I began the descent I was pleased to see that the first mile was barely a descent, just 1-2%. That would make for less work on the way back up. After a mile of that, however, there was a road sign warning of steep grades and twisty road for the next nine miles, so that's what lay ahead.
All the roads on this ride are exceptionally well paved and graded, so descending was a ton of fun all day and here, too. The descent was into a full-on headwind, which boded well for the return. There were several steep sections and a sign that warned of 8% grade -- bummer. Saw Sean and Nicole climbing together, then Jack. Reached the rest stop, where temperatures were in high 60s -- way too warm. Got the sticker, shed gloves, hat and vest, and left almost immediately. My bottles and flasks were still almost full from the rest stop at the peak, so there was no reason to linger.
This climb began surprisingly energetically. I am not sure whether that came from the rest I had on the descent and the two rest stops, but I was climbing out of the narrow canyon at the bottom of Monitor at 8-9 mph. The tailwind had a lot to do with and because the canyon was so narrow, the wind blew even harder. As soon as I reached a plateau, the wind eased, my energy waned, and I slowed. It was warmer than comfortable. The sun shone in my face, as it slowly descended toward Monitor. A few clouds provided welcome relief from the glare and the heat. I was back in the plod mode. After about 15 minutes of climbing I noticed a mileage marker. It said, "2.00." That was it, then, make each marker a goal. I figured that depending on terrain in would take 10-12 minutes to reach each marker. So it went. Plod, plod to 3.00, then 4.00. Didn't see the 8% grade sign. Road pitched up and eased here and there, but it didn't make any difference. It was all hard, my cadence was the same -- low, and the knee and back ached. I tried my look-at-view means of distraction, but was so tired I had a hard time keeping my head up. I was hunched over the bars, staring at the road no more than eight feet ahead of me, and just turned the pedals the best I could. Someone has likened that hunched over position to a cooked shrimp and that's a perfect description of how I looked and felt -- curled up, hot, pink, and nearly legless.
At 4.00, reaching 5.00 became a big deal because there I'd be more than half-way done with the climb. Got to 5.00, then 6.00, then 7.00. At 7.60, the only marker with a fraction, we crossed back into Alpine County and the marker reset back to 0.00. That sucked for tracking progress because I saw no more signs in Alpine County, but fortunately, the grade relented significantly and it continued much more manageably to the top.
* The numbers: 15:32 riding time, 17:00 total time -- both my longest ever. 201.45 miles per my computer, which I believe, even though Alta Alpina Cyclists say it's 198 miles. Average speed 13.0 -- my slowest ever double century.