Howie and I drove to Yountville VA facility where the ride began. We left the start at 7:10 and after navigating our way out of the VA, found ourselves on a frontage road, paralleling Highway 29. As all frontage roads go, this one was straight and boring. Right around there, I realized that I had two empty water bottles in my cages. I consulted the route sheet, which said that the first rest stop would be at 30 miles. I’d have to stop and fill up. There were riders in the distance; one about 200 yards ahead. We were riding tempo already, definitely going harder than warm-up speed. I said to Howie, “we are not chasing that guy.” OK, we weren’t in a full-out pursuit, but we were chasing. And when we passed him, I said, “I guess we were.” We passed many more riders before we came to a right turn toward Mt. Veeder. There was a Starbucks at that intersection, so I filled my bottles and we rode on.
During the flat couple of miles that preceded the Veeder climb we re-passed the people we’d passed on the frontage road. We rode faster than most of the people on the route, though from time to time someone would just blast by. I’d look over and see a rider with enormous legs, usually dressed just in shorts and short-sleeved jersey. With only 5,000 and change feet of climbing, this wasn’t a climber’s course, so no beanpoles on this ride. Howie and I wore base layers and arm and knee warmers. This may – or may not – explain why I was overheating on this hill. A couple of miles of gradually steepening climb and we heard bagpipes. At the top of the hill stood a bagpipes player in full Highlander regalia, blowing his heart and lungs out, though I couldn’t tell you the name of his tartan. There was a short descent , then a punchy roller before the final plunge to Dry Creek Road. I burned a match on the roller and descended recklessly. As much as climbs can bunch up riders early in the ride because people are taking it easy and misery of climbing likes company – it’s always easier to climb with a partner – descents bunch up riders even more. At speed, roads seem narrower, we don’t trust descending skills of the person we just caught and we slow down and wait for a safe and clear chance to pass. Thus, one or two slower descenders can cause a group to swell to surprising numbers. I found myself descending in a group of 15. Someone had gone down a steep and sharp “S” turn. A bunch of people pulled over to check on the fallen rider, some of the group massing in the road. My reflexes and brakes worked effectively, as did Howie’s, and we safely navigated around that.
Dry Creek Road is largely flat and invites hammering. I succumbed and Howie succumbed with me. We passed and passed riders for a few miles until we approached a guy on a Trek. He had well defined cyclist’s legs. We passed him too – he looked like an older guy – and kept riding tempo. We rode and rode, then Howie said, “he is still here.” I replied, “if he’s still here, he can pull!” We all laughed and he went to the front and took a lengthy pull. We rode together and chatted. Gordon is 67, retired and in retirement rides all the time. He said he is good on flats but climbing is not as good as it used to be, as he ages. He ran track and marathons in high school and college, so he is genetically inclined to fast cycling, but still, the guy is 67 and is a kick-ass rider. I’d like to have seen his climbing as a younger man, because he flew up a roller we encountered on the outskirts of Napa, where I burned a couple more matches to keep up with him. Some of the pulls he took on the flat run-in to the first rest stop were just huge. We thanked him profusely.
At the rest stop, Howie saw his friends Rafi and Dan, who started half an hour before us and were about to leave the rest stop. There was little for us at the rest stop – our gel flasks were almost full – so we filled the bottles, I peeled off my knee warmers, and we set off at conversational pace with Dan and Rafi. Gordon begged off in interest of self-preservation. I guess he rode with us more enthusiastically than was wise.
We rode east toward Silverado Trail and turned north upon reaching it. I’ve expressed my opinions of it already. The morning stretch wasn’t bad, actually. It was cool, we had a tailwind, and traffic was light so early in the morning. A paceline of three passed us and pulled away gradually. We continued riding and talking. A few minutes later, with the paceline about 100 yards away, I told Howie I was going after them and , Howie in tow, aggressively set off in pursuit. I rode with 8 to 8.5 effort and it took better part of five minutes to chase them down. I burned another two or three matches in the process. We got to the end of the paceline and sat on. Predictably, the paceline worked harder to maintain its speed and Howie, feeling cramps coming on a few miles thence, sat up. When I realized we’d dropped Howie, I let the paceline to and waited for Howie to catch up. Rafi and Dan were some distance behind and we didn’t wait for them. We rode at a mellow pace, finally turning off Silverado. The second rest stop lay just a couple of miles away.
We spent more time at this rest stop than at the first. Entering the rest stop, we saw a sign admonishing riders to use portable toilets rather than trees, so that put paid to my plans to avoid bathroom lines, extending our stay here. Since fog started lifting a bit and we were entering the sunnier Lake County, I set off in search of sun screen. Having found it, I applied way too much and had to wipe off half of what I’d slathered with paper napkins. I grabbed a few pieces of watermelon and refilled bottles and we were ready to do, as were Dan and Rafi, who’d pulled in a couple of minutes after us.
We climbed the dam to Lake _____, skirted the lake – quite pretty – and started a steady climb. A very fit woman passed us at the bottom of the climb. She rode ahead, then slowed a bit and rode at our pace. As she dangled ahead and Dan, fell back a bit, Howie and I rode and talked to Rafi about Rafi’s plans to convert his old Bridgestone into a fixed-geared bike, Howie’s brief career as a kosher sausage maker, and his plans to make a small fortune by opening a bike shop (How do you make a small fortune running a bike shop? Start with a big fortune.) A muscled-looking dude resembling a crit specialist spun by. The woman latched on his rear wheel. I bridged to them, using them for pacing, rather than a draft, as there was minimal drafting at 10 mph. Howie came up to us. We crested together. The buff dude rode away. The woman rode with us. After about a mile of lightly rolling, almost flat, really, road, a tandem from Davis Racing Team flew by. I gritted my teeth and jumped on. Howie did too.
What ensued was a stretch of merciless spinning in my admittedly low top gear of 46x12. We covered 10 miles in 20 minutes of merciless, blind hammering. The tandem wasn’t pointing out obstacles on what was mediocre road surface, and I bounced all over the road. The chain was slapping the chainstay, the bike was clanging in the headset and who knows where. We flew up a roller in the big ring. I downshifted as much as I could while remaining in the big ring in an effort to spin uphill to preserve the legs, but burned another match there. Fortunately, the roller took something out of the tandem, as they slowed down appreciably after we crested. We rode the next few miles in mid-20s rather than low 30s. This was welcome relief, though somewhere deep down I perversely wished for more edge-of-out-of-control riding. A few miles later, the tandem turned right up Ink Grade while we proceeded straight for another few miles to the lunch stop. Ink Grade awaited us after lunch.
Lunch stop was huge. It was in a large park and was completely inundated with cyclists. Metric century riders had joined us on the course. It seemed there were 200-300 riders at the rest stop. More sun screen, a peanut butter-dipped banana, a bottle of Nuun-infused Cytomax and we turned south toward Ink Grade. In 2006, I had a horrible ride up Ink. I was in no shape to ride a century, it was warm, and it’s a four-mile, fairly challenging climb. I thought I was fitter this time, but I was coming back from a broken ankle, after all. The stretch toward Ink was into a headwind and the legs were a little tight from the 60 miles already in the legs. We reached the foot of Ink, which kicked up immediately. We took it easy. I was in my 30x24, spinning comfortably. Howie’s leg speed was good, but he didn’t sound happy. We rode, talking to each other and to riders we passed and the riders who passed us. Someone had provided quarter markers to the top of the hill, so we knew how much of the hill remained. A quarter took a while. The second quarter took a while too. There, I started riding a little harder. Howie let me go. I poured it on, spinning up a serious climb as I’ve never done before, passing rider after rider, going past almost everyone who had passed us, and then some. With a quarter of the hill to go, I shifted up nervously, not sure how the legs and lungs would respond, but they responded just fine. I went at it hard and continued pouring it on all the way to the top.
Turned around and rode back a bit to collect Howie. We proceeded up a little to the true summit, then descended toward Angwin. This wasn’t a mountaintop rather than a true descent, with a couple of rollers thrown at the riders, there were great opportunities for someone feeling strong (me :-)) to separate himself from other riders. I spun feverishly up the rollers and descended with even more effort and aggression. I must have been fuelled by a mix of joy at the conclusion of serious climbing and aggression of a man too tired to care. Thus, I flew down the hill, past everyone on the road, riding in my Praying Mantis position (forearms on the bars, hands up in front of my face, deflecting the wind). Toward the bottom of the descent was a sharp right turn, where a marshal waived a flag to inform riders of the turn. I braked in time and pulled over to wait for Howie. In the couple of minutes I waited, a half dozen people overshot the turn and had to retrace their steps back uphill to rejoin the course.
Howie joined me momentarily and we proceeded on a flat route into St. Helena. After four miles of fairly strenuous climbing followed by a coasting descent, Howie’s legs tightened up and we stopped, as he worked out his cramps. Endurolytes that he had taken all day had not helped, so I gave him a Thermo Tab. We continued riding slowly, soon returning to Silverado Trail for the final 18 flat miles back to Yountville. We took it easy for a while, then Howie waived me ahead, so I put my head down and rode hard, overtaking rider after rider. Soon I came upon one of the guys who had been in the three-man paceline I’d chased down on northbound leg of Silverado in the morning. He was riding alone now, his companions were left behind. I went past him and he jumped on my wheel. I hammered for a good while, with him in tow, then flicked my elbow and pulled off. He dutifully came to the front and rode. I slotted behind. He took a long and strong pull to the final rest stop, which lay 12 miles from the finish. We expressed appreciation to each other for the worked we’d done and parted. I waited for Howie. He rode in a few minutes later.
We refueled quickly, Howie taking two more Thermo Tabs, and set off again at a sensible pace. We had a stiff headwind, so it made no sense to beat our tiring and cramping legs against it with 12 miles remaining. We rode at 16-18 mph and talked. This ended when two tandems towing a single came by and invited us to jump on. Of course we did. I worried that Howie may drop off, but he hung on strongly. I was riding behind the single, a large man in SPD sandals, who had an annoying habit of pedaling for a dozen strokes, then coasting, repeatedly messing with my rhythm. Upon reaching the outskirts of Yountville, we turned west and our head wind became a side wind from the left. I found myself on the edge of the gutter since that’s where the draft was, warily watching the besandaled coaster, whose bike handling skills I didn’t trust. A nervous couple of miles later, we found ourselves running a Stop sign in downtown Yountville and sternly admonished by a stoker. Howie replied, “but I did stop.” This was technically true, though he didn’t tell her that the stop he was talking about had been back at the last rest stop. And with that, we entered a half-mile bike path that parallels Highway 29, where Howie took off like bat out of hell. Howie was riding the way I was descending. It took me a good minute of hard chasing, expending energy I did not have, to get back on his wheel. “I feel great!” he exclaimed again and again, “I don’t know what that stuff was you gave me back there, but it’s awesome!” I think there weren’t many matches in my book to begin with, as the last one, I burned chasing Howie. Luckily, we were back at VA, with just half a mile of riding through the facility to the finish left.
That was that. We opted not to eat event food and found late lunch at a casual restaurant in Yountville. Casual was key, the way we looked, most self-respecting Napa Valley restaurants would have found reasons besides “no shoes, no shirt” to refuse us service. And then we drove home. Howie cramps at night after hard rides. Not a single cramp after this one -- a great sign of fitness and hope that he found the right product to deal with cramping. I think I should take Thermo Tabs during rides, eh?