Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Knoxville Double: Survival of the [relatively] Unfit

Told in third person singular for variety's sake and as a writing exercise.  In homage to the Beatles' "I am the Walrus," in this tale, I am "he."

1. At Home And In The Car

Weatherman-woman-person-web page said high of 97 in Vacaville on September 25, the day of Knoxville Double.  Vlad made sure to pack his ice sock and an extra water bottle.  He would carry two bottles on the bike and one in the jersey pocket for dousing.  These were insulated Camelback bottles designed to keep liquids cold on this very warm day.  After considerable deliberation about eating, toileting, dressing, and driving time requirements for a 5:30 ride start, he set his alarm for 3:30.  He slept fitfully, fearing oversleeping.  Once, a day before another double century, he dreamed that he missed his alarm, was two hours late to the start and ended up riding alone all day.  He didn't remember whether he managed to finish that bad dream ride or whether he woke up mid-ride.  It had been too long ago.

Alarm went off.  Vlad heard it and got up quickly, trying to make as little noise as possible for fear of waking the family, especially his dog, who, if awoken, would really wake the family.  Got dressed, drank and drank and drank some more.  Ate some egg whites and bananas, almost as an afterthought grabbed a long-sleeve jersey, and set off for Pena Adobe Park somewhere between Fairfield and Vacaville.  The drive took no more than 45 minutes and as he approached the freeway exit for the park he already saw riders crossing the freeway overpass on their way to Fairfield, their white headlight beams shooting from their handlebars and helmets.  It was only 5:10.

2. Goin' to Napa River

Vlad and his friends Jeff, Brian, and Ken decided on a 5:30 start, reasoning that in a 200-mile ride there is no escaping afternoon heat.  If you're on the road for 13-14 hours, you'll probably be out there in the coldest and hottest parts of the day no matter when you start.  He spoke with Jeff about finishing in daylight, but with less than 12 hours of daylight on this late September day, a day that promised near record high temperatures, they faced a daunting task.

They met up at the park gazebo, checked in, pinned their numbers, and departed about 10 minutes late.  Vlad wore his long sleeves and was very glad he did.  The first half mile of the ride was around a lake, which had an enormous swamp cooling effect, bringing ambient temperature down from mid 60s to low 50.  They crossed the freeway over the same overpass on which he saw riders 45 minutes earlier and climbed a small hill, which had its own microclimate with temperatures in high 70s. 

Temperature changes were the most significant feature of the ride's first 25 miles.  It was dark, then dusky, visibility confined by their headlights except in Fairfield, where they rode through a number of unremarkable suburban subdivisions lit by yellow street lights.  Unusual for Fairfield, there was no wind.  Once they left Fairfield and found themselves on rural roads, riding through warm darkness on flats, warmer darkness on climbs, colder darkness in the valleys.  Jeff was rarin' to go, as always.  Vlad rode with him when his legs and enthusiasm permitted and let him go when he felt prudent to do so.  Visibility improved with the rising sun and the group found itself on the Mt. George climb.  Jeff and Ken rode off.  Vlad rode with Brian at easy conversational pace, hydrating semi-regularly.  Brian was talking, but breathing a little harder.  Vlad thought then that riding with Brian would be a nice way to monitor his effort, riding aerobically, saving his energy, while keeping company with another rider.  Thus, a ride plan was hatched.  They climbed together, talking about families and work.  Mt. George is a fairly short and relatively gentle climb of about two miles at 4-5% or so.  Ken and Jeff waited at the top.  The group regrouped and plunged down the western side of Mt. George toward Silverado resort which sits at the foot of the Mt.  The descent was fun -- twisty, but not too twisty; steep, but not too steep; very good road surface; and very light traffic: all that a cyclist could ask for in a downhill.  Five unremarkable flat miles powered by Jeff on Silverado Trail and the group found itself at the first rest stop at Napa River Ecological Preserve.

Remarkably, five of six rest stops on this ride are at bodies of water.  To be fair, neither Napa River nor any other non-bottled water was visible from this rest stop and, but for its name, Vlad wouldn't have counted this one as a body-of-water rest stop.

Finishing in daylight on a day that doesn't offer much daylight requires not dithering at rest stops, but they dithered.  Talking with volunteers, shedding clothes, refilling bottles, noshing, using facilities, etc. takes longer the bigger the group, just like renting a video.  As time ticked away at the rest stop, Vlad realized that daylight finish would be a dream rather than reality, glad that he ran his battery on low beam setting earlier in the day, when he ran it at all.  He was OK with that.

3. On The Way To A Misnamed Lake

As they left the rest stop, it was warmer, though still very comfortable.  Jeff continued to set the pace through Napa Valley, as the group blitzed this flat part of the ride with average speed of well over 20 mph.  Thus, they came to Howell Mountain climb, the first of three real climbs on the course.  The three real climbs are Howell, Knoxville, and Cobb.  There's plenty of other climbing, including Mt. George, Cardiac, and numerous and nameless hills and rollers, but those three really challenge the riders.  Again, Vlad stuck with Brian.  More talk about work, kids, aging parents.  More hydrating.  After the initial steep section, the climb relents for a bit to 4-5%.  As they rode here at 7-8 mph, a tandem simply blew by them.  A team wearing Furnace Creek 508 jerseys and breathing as if they were working at RPE level 8 passed at 11-12 mph.  Vlad was stunned.  The stoker on that bike was Peter Burnett, a supremely fit and fast cyclist, whom he knew mostly through the internet and a few encounters on doubles.  He didn't expect to see the tandem, which started at 6:30 for another hour or two, possibly as late as mile 90+, yet here they were at mile 50-something, flying away with very fit wheelsuckers, unable to keep up, trailing in their fumes.

A midway point in Howell climb comes at a major intersection, where Jeff waited.  He said Ken went with the tandem.  The three of them started together, but Jeff rode ahead as the other two were riding at a slow, fat burning pace.  Western side of Howell is a mostly shaded climb, so it remained fairly cool.  On the way down, a three-mile, 8-9% descent, they were stuck behind a construction truck inhaling its burning brakes.  Vlad didn't like that, but the road was steep and twisty and there was no getting around it.  Heaven forbid he should stop and wait a few minutes for the truck to get off the mountain and the odor to disperse.  That just isn't done.  Another 15-20 miles through valleys and foothills on a gradually warming day and he and Brian found themselves at Lake Beryessa rest stop.  "There are no berioza trees anywhere near the lake," he thought, "why the hell did they name the lake Beryessa?"

4. The Gold Rush

Beryessa is a gorgeous blue lake nestled among eastern Napa County's hills.  The views from the rest stop were stunning, so they lingered some more.  Finally, the entire group was refilled and refueled and they set off on the 25-mile interlake route that is Knoxville Road.  Knoxville Road has been dubbed thusly because on its way from Beryessa to Clearlake it passes a little-known Comstock Gold Mine.  Knoxville's southern section meanders along Beryessa, offering more amazing lake and hillside views.  This part of the road is flat, but as it turns north, it starts climbing rolling hills and the range that divides Napa and Lake Counties.  No one was there but cyclists and deer hunters.  Having yahoos bearing firearms staring at them made Vlad feel uneasy. 

He climbed with Jeff, as Ken and Brian trailed a minute or two behind.  He was chatting away when he noticed a few unusual things about this part of the ride: 1. He was climbing with Jeff, which is remarkable in itself, as climbing with Jeff normally requires an enormous effort, except today it didn't; 2. He was doing all the talking, with Jeff answering monosyllabically, when usually it's just the opposite; 3. Jeff was looking pale rather than his usual pink.  He asked Jeff if he was OK and Jeff responded that he was feeling crappy -- effects of the cold, which he thought he had shaken, but which came roaring back, and of several work-related sleepless nights earlier that week.  He gave Jeff ice water, which really didn't help things, and mileage checks to the water stop at mile 98, which may've helped somewhat.  Quietly he admired Jeff's persistence and the speed with which Jeff was riding -- they must have passed a couple of dozen people on Knoxville Road, and while he was riding comfortably, they were going at a brisk pace.

It was getting warmer, so Vlad drank more and doused and doused some more.  SAG vehicles patrolling this part of the course offered water, so they stopped for a refill.  Brian and Ken caught up.  They restarted and Jeff and Ken went ahead.  As they were pulling away, Jeff turned his head to the ride and spat out an unusually large loogie, which they quickly realized was puke.  Jeff puked on the bike without dismounting, without even slowing down!  Chapeau!  That goes in the books right along with Greg Lemond's brown-streaked legs in the Tour.

As Brian labored in the heat, they passed another SAG vehicle.  Vlad stopped to pick up an ice sock, then caught up to Brian and passed it to him. It wasn't quite Coppi and Bartali sharing a bottle, but a nice moment nevertheless.

Another mile later, Brian screamed as his left quad seized up in a cramp.  They dismounted, stretched and cooled his leg, then rode on.  At the top of the hill, Vlad threw caution to the wind and left Brian behind.  Only the descent and about a mile of flat remained until lunch, so he felt comfortable with riding away.  He bombed down the descent, then rode strongly on the flat, arriving at Lower Lake County Park lunch stop at 1:30.  Jeff was sitting on a lawn chair on a lawn.  He had gone from pale to a shade resembling celery and the way he felt matched his appearance.  Vlad parked and was on his way to get something to eat, when Jeff moved to stand up to join him.  Except Jeff's hamstring disagreed and cramped and Jeff collapsed on the lawn.  Vlad grabbed Jeff's leg to stretch out the cramp.  He succeeded, but it took some doing.  Brian pulled in and collapsed next to Jeff, also trying ward off cramps.  Ken was feeling fine and was foraging at rest stop's tables.

5. After the Gold Rush: Pelican Lake Becons

Meanwhile, Vlad was feeling almost chipper.  Liberal dousing kept him cool and empty bottles told him he'd been drinking well.  Legs felt good, energy was good, and the brain was good.  He was in a good mood, looking forward to a pleasant second half of the ride.  He refilled the bottles and filled his sock with ice: it was time to get serious.  The Cobb climb lay just ahead and he expected a slow and hot slog.  At Davis Double, he descended the north side of Cobb at up to 50 mph.  Today, he would climb it; this would be a real climb.  With temperatures well into the 90s at this point and air completely still, this climb had all the makings of an epic experience.  When asked how he felt, Jeff said, "Stick a fork in me."  As they were serving only sandwiches, burritos, and other finger foods, this could not be done for lack of utensils.  Brian seemed to have little enthusiasm for a return to the road, though he said that he would ride if the cramps went away.  The two of them remained prostrate on the lawn.  The group was down to just Ken and Vlad, who rode off toward Cobb.

Almost immediately, at a traffic light they caught a group of eight bikes, including a tandem.  Remembering a successful climb of Skaggs Road with a tandem after the lunch stop at Terrible Two, Vlad suggested to Ken that they do the same.  Ken agreed.  After two minutes, they discarded this strategy because the tandem was pulling the group at 13 mph on the flat run-in to the climb.  This was just too slow; they anticipated at least 18.  So, they rode away from the tandem group and turned onto Siegler Canyon Road.  Siegler is a lovely, forested road that climbs gently southwest from the city of Lower Lake.  On they rode, sharing their double century and stage race experiences, soon turning on Loch Lomond Road, to climb Cobb.  Ken was a much stronger climber, so Vlad encouraged Ken to go ahead and climbed at his own pace.  The climb was pleasantly shady and cooler than expected.  He thought that because they dithered at rest stops, both scheduled and unscheduled, it was later and the sun had moved to where roadside trees shaded his side of the road.  Much of the downhill side was still exposed to the sun and he felt fortunate, saved from the heat by their delays.  He passed a few riders, some of whom were walking their bikes.  The climb was steady and steep, with some sections pitching to 12%, but the 36x28 on his Colnago was small enough to make this climb not too uncomfortable.  He missed his Spectrum's 34x29, but the 'nago's low was low enough to almost spin it.

All was going well until he started getting twinges of a cramp in his upper left calf, just behind the knee.  Stopping was not an option, that was simply something he did not do, so he went on, trying to simultaneously stretch out the calf and use other muscles to give the calf some relief.  This worked for a bit, but the cramp returned, more severely.  He soldiered on until cresting, where he tried stretching again, then, remembered the trick of applying hand pressure to the site of the cramp.  He'd learned it at the Skaggs water stop two years earlier, when he cramped in both quads simultaneously and a volunteer at the stop who was a nurse treated him by pressing on the cramps.  He pressed, the cramp relented, so he pressed on.  But the cramp was crafty and went for his right calf.  He pressed there and pressed on.  The cramp multiplied, attacking his quads and ankles and tops of the feet.  Running out of hands with which to press, he pressed the most pressing cramps and pressed on.  The road climbed and fell and he pressed on pressing. 

Suddenly, Vlad came upon Ken, who was standing by the side of the road.  Ken was fishing in his pockets for Thermo-tabs, an electrolyte supplement to combat cramping.  Though Vlad had been gulping Endurolytes all along, Ken offered and Vlad gratefully accepted two Thermo-tabs -- why not?  He took them.  They remounted.  Cramps seemed to stay away, when suddenly his legs had nothing.  They were just dead.  He turned them, there was energy for that and for spinning relatively low gears, but most of the power was gone.  "That's the trade-off: cramps for empty legs," he mused.  Oh well, there was no choice now, so he kept riding.

As Vlad rode, he started getting a vague, je ne sais qoi, feeling of slight nausea.  That was an unwelcome development.  He kept issuing small burps, which helped a little, but not much.  The nausea persisted, never so severe that he considered stopping if only to let the sensation pass, but annoying enough to keep him from even considering riding hard.  It occurred to him that stuffing water bottles with ice and topping them off with water left the bottles short of their water capacity, ice taking up more volume than water -- that much physics or chemistry he could remember.  Frequent dousing emptied the bottles ONTO his person rather than INTO his person.  Empty bottles and the ice sock gave him a false sense of hydration.  He realized that he hadn't been to the bathroom since the Beryessa rest stop.  He concluded that he was dehydrated.  So, he drank as much as he could, aware that playing catch up with dehydration is never easy, even harder on a hot and hilly double.

Fortunately, the descent of Cobb beckoned just around the corner and Vlad could enjoy the descent without worrying about his stomach.  Enjoy it he did.  At the bottom, just outside Middletown, Ken caught up.  He tucked in behind Ken, enjoying the draft, burping regularly at half-mile intervals and contemplating with little enthusiasm riding another 75 miles in this condition.

It was mighty warm now.  Roads were exposed.  His bottles were nearly empty and the few remaining drops were of body temperature or warmer.  Burpiness was beginning to tend more toward barfiness.  This would be the character-building portion of the ride he decided.  Very considerately, Ken pulled at a comfortable pace, slowing down further, when it was obvious that Vlad's distress left him lagging.  He limped into the rest stop at Pelican Lake.  No pelicans, not a one.  Alfie, Lisa, Jason, Mike and others staffed this rest stop.  He responded to their inquiries about how the ride was going with a "Blechhh."  The questioners, experienced long distance cyclists themselves, nodded sympathetically.  It was about 4:30 p.m., almost as hot as it was gonna get that day (100-something), and this was only mile 134.  Another unappetizing 65 miles of burping lay ahead.  He was grateful that he subsisted today on neutral-flavored gels that day and his burps were not of the ugly variety, but daintily flavored with vanilla or banana or "tropical" aromas.  A Coke, some gel, some water.  Sat around for a while regaining bearings.  Sighed, exhaling deeply.  "OK, Ken.  Let's go." 

6. Hennessey... Alas, Not the Cognac

Some more riding in the heat on flats on a road aptly named, Butts Canyon.  A downhill brought them into a shaded canyon, where riding was prettier and a little cooler.  Butts became Pope Valley at some point.  Oh look, Hubcap Ranch, a California State Landmark.  Rode past it in the other direction on the Davis Double just four months ago.  Hey, familiar roads are always easier on the brain, so Vlad perked up a bit.  Pope Valley Road meandered among hills, staying relatively level before diving to the right and descending toward Lake Hennessey.  He has always enjoyed this descent: it's fast, exhilarating, requires good but not outrageous bike handling skills, and encourages pedaling.  Today, he declined the pedaling encouragement and coasted.  Another mile of flat and the unmistakable aqua blue blot of a portable toilet in the distance told them they were at another rest stop.

Here they served hot dogs and soup.  Too hot for soup, Vlad went for a hot dog with relish without a whole lot of relish, but he knew he needed sodium and calories.  Simple carbs and caffeine in a red can helped wash down the dog.  For the first time in 90 miles he went to the bathroom, the results confirming his diagnosis of dehydration.  He told himself that having to go was a good sign.  Drank some water and remounted.  Ken was on the opposite end of the rest stop.  He called, but Ken didn't hear, so he started, figuring that Ken would catch him anyway.  It was a few minutes after 6:00.  Only 75 minutes of real daylight remained, meaning he would have to ride in the dark for an hour and a half, at least.

7. Into The Night

There's a long and scenic uphill drag through a canyon out of Hennessey Lake.  It was still warm and riding through a narrow, wooded canyon in the early evening it was darker than it should have been and seemed later.  Though still burping, his core temperature dropped somewhat and he was feeling marginally better.  He passed a few cyclists.  That could have been interpreted as a sign of his strength or others' distress greater than his.  Realizing it was probably the latter or at least a combination of the two, he chose to focus on the former and on turning his legs.  Though supplies of motivation were at about a quarter tank, physical energy was at about a third and he could still spin a decent cadence.  He still had no power.  Some leg speed, but not much power at all.

Ken caught up.  Vlad apologized for riding off alone, but Ken dismissed the apology, saying he'd seen him leave and it was cool.  They rode together.  The air was cooler too.  Ken expressed concern for his battery life.  Vlad suggested to Ken that they take turns running their lights, thereby doubling their battery capacity.  "An excellent idea," said Ken; they would be joined at the battery for the remainder of the ride.

Unwilling to burn light any sooner than absolutely necessary, they waited until 7:30 before Ken turned on his light.  They rode about 15 minutes using Ken's yellow light.  Then on a descent, Vlad turned on his white Exposure Diablo and Ken turned his off.  On climbs, Ken turned on his light and rode ahead.  That was OK because he waited at the top and they would descend together.  Lake Beryessa traffic picked up.  Boat-towing yahoos didn't inspire confidence and they hugged the narrow shoulder.  Finally, at the intersection of Highways 121 and 128, most of the boats left the course and they were nearly alone in the dark.

This darkness was much darker than Bay Area darkness, in which Vlad was accustomed to riding.  That darkness, with its light pollution, traffic, and street lights was full of visual and physical distractions, making pothole-strewn East Bay roads difficult to navigate.  By contrast, Highway 128 had nearly pristine surface, minimal light pollution, and the nearest street lights were 15 miles away.  There were no visual distractions and Vlad's light seemed so much more effective.  They bombed the descent of Cardiac Hill at over 30 miles an hour, plunging into darkness, navigating by double-yellow center line's reflectors.

It cooled and legs improved.  It was almost chilly in places and Vlad wished he had his arm warmers.  The long-sleeve jersey awaited uselessly at the finish.  He mused that he could use his ice sock as a thumbless mittoned arm warmer and could switch arms so that each would have a turn to be warm, but the sock, with its elastic completely shot, wouldn't stay up.  This was a minor inconvenience compared to tummy troubles and cramps.  By now, though cramps were merely a dull tolerable ache in his legs now, only occasionally flaring up here and there just to remind him to remain vigilant.  He applied pressure faithfully and it worked every time.  By mile 180, the burps went away too.  Only fatigue remained.  But encouraged by the improvement in his sensations (as Europeans are fond of saying), he rode more enthusiastically and they made good time.

8. Homeward Bound

They zipped into Pardehsa Store rest stop, the only rest stop not on a body of water.  Stopped only long enough to fill bottles, their quickest rest stop of the day by 10, maybe 15 minutes, and hightailed it toward the finish.  The smell-the-barn stretch of the ride is on Pleasants Valley Road, a lovely 12-mile southbound stretch, whose loveliness was not apparent to them because of darkness. But having ridden Pleasants Valley in daylight, Vlad regaled Ken with tales of springtime rides from Berkeley to Davis through this lushly green valley (that's springtime, remember; nothing is naturally green outside Fairfield in September).  He readily acknowledged that the northbound ride is much more enjoyable since the road lost altitude through most of its northbound run.  The climbing part of the southbound drag was just that, a drag, but they had little choice and made the best of it by talking and riding briskly.

Traffic on Pleasants Valley was light, but made unplesants by drivers of oncoming cars' insistence on using high beams.  Oh, they turned their lights down, most of them did, some sooner, others later, but staring at blinding lights or looking away from them into pitch darkness did not appeal. About half an hour from the finish, with the Exposure light performing stellarly, Vlad thought, "What the hell," and switched into high beam, flooding the road ahead.  Ken said, "Wow."  Now, oncoming cars began to turn down their lights immediately upon sighting them, one even flashing its high beam in a request for Vlad to turn down his light.  They laughed, musing about satisfaction of payback.

They were tired and were ready for the ride to end, but Pleasants went on and on.  Finally, they saw the sign for the T-intersection that signals the road's end.  More importantly, it signalled that only half a mile remained.  They whooped in delight, made the left turn onto Cherry Glen, went over the last climb of the day -- I-80 overpass and descended into Pena Adobe Park.  Finishing time: 9:20-ish.

They chatted at the finish, thanking each other for the ride, and parted, with Ken going to his tent to change (he's a hell of a rider and a great riding companion); he had camped at the park and planned to spend another night there.  Vlad talked to a few friends, met another person with whom he'd communicated electronically.  Ate a bit and drove home, tired and happy with the ride.

9. Epilogue

Brian resumed riding, finishing at 10:55 on what he called his hardest ever day on the bike.  Hats off to that man for his persistence.

Many thanks to Alfie, Jason, Lisa, Mike, Scott H. and all the volunteers for putting on a great ride.  Requesting cooler weather for next year.


1 comment:

statcxr said...

Awesome write up, Vlad! Thanks for sharing the ride, both on the road and and in your blog. Good times, for sure. We'll have to "make it a double" again sometime.