Different Spokes at the Chico Wildflower: Veni, Vidi, Bici

Roger Sayre riding underneath chainring arch of Potter Road path
Roger Sayre on the Potter Road bikepath

This year’s Chico Wildflower ride fostered a large Different Spokes turnout: 14 club members made the four-hour trip north to enjoy the beautiful rural roads surrounding Chico. President David Gaus led the charge and was accompanied by Ride Coordinator David Goldsmith, ChainLetter Editor Tony Moy, former President Phil Bokovoy, as well as a coterie of enthusiastic Spokers: David Shiver, Jeff Pekrul, Scott Steffens, Danni Mestaz, Laurie Pepin, Kim Wallace, Roger Hoyer, Roger Sayre, Tim Offensend, and Peter Graney. The Wildflower is a cycling party but it’s also a huge event for the City of Chico, which has a thriving, cycling mad community and strong support from local businesses and everyday citizens. This was the first time that I have made the journey to the Wildflower despite over 40 years of cycling in the Bay Area, and I have never been cheered, waved at, or applauded by spectators who lived along the route and set up lawn chairs with their families just to watch 4,000 nerdy cyclists roll by their front doors! They sure are a friendly group.

It should be no surprise that Chico Velo did an excellent job of organizing and hosting the event, as the club has 31 years of experience in running not just the Wildflower but a regular series of long distance rides (not to mention races) throughout the northern Sacramento Valley. Registration was efficient, the route was well marked, rest stops were logically placed and well run, and the end-of-ride meal was fabulous. Chico Velo seems to have tapped the community for volunteers at the rest stops, as we saw Boy Scout troops, fraternities, and a square dance groups assisting; I wouldn’t be surprised if local businesses also volunteered their staff, as the event is just huge. And, judging by some of the food Chico Velo served it’s clear that local food and drink companies were also very involved (ahem, Sierra Nevada Brewery). The infusion of cash from the event likely makes a significant impact on the community and hopefully generates goodwill towards cycling as well.

The Chico Wildflower this year had six official routes including a celebratory 125-mile ride honoring the founding of CSU Chico and a 15-mile Childflower route with bike rodeo for the young’uns. However there were a myriad of unofficial and official shortcuts that allowed everyone to mix-and-match the route they wanted depending on how they felt at any particular moment. Tired of climbing? Skip the last climb, Table Mountain and head out to the flats. Tired of the headwind in the valley? Take the right turn to head directly to Chico. The permutations were beyond count and several Spokers took full advantage of them; many of us started off with the century route as the goal, but as climbing and heat took their toll, the shortcuts started to look very tempting—kudos to Chico Velo for including them on the map.

There aren’t many century rides that allow more than about 2,500 cyclists to participate–the Solvang and Marin come to mind—as the level of complexity and organization needed seem to go up a notch, not to mention the number of volunteers. Chico Velo clearly has the expertise, experience, and community support to pull off such a daunting event. You certainly aren’t lonely on such a ride: there was hardly a moment when we were alone or did not have another cyclist within sight, and often we were part of a large, rolling mass. At times such as the second climb, Honey Run, it felt a bit like a scrum with the narrow road and inevitable bunching except that everyone was friendly! It’s remarkable that more accidents don’t happen just due to crowding. Everyone in our crowd came through unscathed and accident-free. (However, right at the narrowest point an ambulance had to make its way *down* Honey Run to tend to a crash while we were climbing, forcing everyone to come to a halt.) Unlike our experience at the Marin, the rest stops were busy but not massively crowded. There was plenty of room to get food and drink. However portapotties were another story: the lines were long and tedious at all but the last rest stop.

The 100-mile ride has just three ascents and you’re done with them all after 63 miles with the remainder of the day a long jaunt through the flat farmlands in the valley. We started at 7 a.m. and had a fine time on the first two climbs, Humboldt and Honey Run, because it was still cool and/or shaded. By the time we had arrived at the last climb, Table Mountain, it was full sun, no shade, and the temperature was getting hot. Table Mountain has much less elevation gain than Honey Run but the conditions under which one has to do them makes all the difference in the world. As we grunted upward in the heat we understood then why a lot of people, who knew the road perhaps all too well, were skipping it. Unlike Honey Run, which has a very even gradient, Table Mountain hopped and skipped upward and even had a few short downhill jogs to fool you into thinking it was going to get easier.

For those who absolutely must hit triple digits the actual mileage of the Chico century would be a disappointment: it’s “only” about 95 miles and so “century” was a slight exaggeration. What made it all the more odd was that the first climb, Humboldt, was clearly included just to get in miles because it’s an uninteresting road with aged, uneven chip seal. For those who’ve done the Chico multiple times it’s a pretty common shortcut to skip Humboldt altogether, as it loops right back to the start of the climb. On the other hand, the subsequent descent down Highway 32, a straight shot, is not too steep but just steep enough to be hair-raising and exhilarating, making the climb worth it.

Laurie, David, and Kim at the Wildflower
Laurie, David, and Kim at the Wildflower

The second climb, Honey Run, is like something in the Old Country. It starts out as a beautiful rural road, starts to ascend, and then narrows in width to just over one lane. It’s isolated and quiet, sinuous, and has a consistent and genteel grade all the way up to the town of Paradise. For the Wildflower the police do not let cars go down Honey Run given that thousands of cyclists are heading up and taking consuming the full width of a very constrictive road. There was something very organic and hive-like about everyone heading the same way uphill. At times passing (or in our case, being passed) was hairy with some cyclists weaving uncertainly from side to side, either struggling with a gear or just not used to riding in close quarters. Behavior was generally congenial and respectful even if riding at times was a little sketchy.

Despite the enormous participation the Wildflower has the feel of the “old days”: there was a distinct lack of self-seriousness, with most everyone just out to have a good time. There were clearly large groups of friends out together, a few clubs riding together á la Italia, everyone sporting the same jersey and all riding as one, and a few community groups trying their hand at cycling. A seventh grade class had jerseys proclaiming “Mr. Retzner’s Sevvies”; I can’t remember a time I saw a group of tweens out on bikes en masse. I understand they did the entire 100-mile route. Bravissimo! I also didn’t see in evidence the usual profusion of bike bling. At Solvang this year it seemed like everyone had drunk the Kool-Aid and was sporting carbon bikes with carbon high profile, aero rims, with very few steel bikes in evidence whereas at Chico there were plenty of “ordinary”, real world bikes rather than ultra-bikes. Maybe riders in that neck of the woods have a lot less means than the Hollywood and Silicon Valley velominati?

Speaking of groups, Roger and I never did see any other Different Spokes folks until the post-ride meal, with the lone exception of seeing Phil Bokovoy grunting up Table Mountain in his rainbow jersey. We started from our motel rather than the fairgrounds and went directly to the first climb but at the same time as the Spokettes were departing the official starting place, and we felt certain they would catch up and pass us no later than the second climb. Perhaps the large number meant numerous photo stops, bathroom stops, reapply makeup stops, etc. delayed their passing.

We were told that on Table Mountain there is usually a profusion of wildflowers, hence the name. However this year we saw nary a one despite the lush green cover everywhere. We were told that the lack of early rain squelched their blooming this year. Nonetheless the lack of wildflowers didn’t betray the beauty of the hills and canyons we saw that were still carpeted in profound green.

After the lunch stop riders reenter the valley and it’s a 30-mile slog through headwind and heat. This year it was unusually hot for the Wildflower, with the temperature climbing into the 90s at the last rest stop. We did not take advantage of a couple of bail-out points, as we wanted to experience “the full Wildflower” for our first time, but a lot of other people wisely did. From what we could tell it seemed that everyone else had grim determination and nothing but the finish on their minds. People were a lot quieter and less talkative than on the climbs! But even in the valley the car traffic was light and non-aggressive, making for a pleasant if not exhausting finish as well as a tour of the thousands of acres of the local cash crops: almonds, olives, and jersey cows.

The end-of-ride meal was pretty good for a mass event. This year we had a choice of barbecued beef tri-tip or chicken, or vegetarian lasagna. There was plenty of green salad, black beans, a delicious cucumber salad with red pepper, pasta salad, and then popsicles or ice cream sandwiches along with plenty of cookies. Chico Velo offered a variety of local drinks including Sierra Nevada beer.

David Gaus climbing Table Mountain

We saw the rest of the Spokers arrive one after the other. Danni looked fresh and glowing; David Goldsmith looked shell-shocked and glazed. David Shiver and Phil were in good spirits (despite Phil’s earlier demeanor on Table Mountain!) We shared stories and talked about which route we had done. Roger and I also had run into several other old friends who were also doing the Chico, including Jenny Frayer, a frame builder and racer from Reno and Roger’s former coworker and his wife. Overall we had a great time and a surprisingly social experience compared the other centuries so far this year.

If you’re contemplating doing the Chico Wildflower next year, make sure that you not only register early in order to get in but that you make suitable lodging arrangements well before the date. The motels in the immediate area were completely sold out. The majority of Spokers headed back to the Bay Area right after the post-ride meal. But a few of us took the saner option and stayed over another night in order to recuperate before the four-hour drive home. Another tip would be to start the ride as early as you can around 6 a.m. if you don’t like crowds. It seems the 7 a.m. start is pretty popular. It also would get you to Table Mountain before the afternoon heat and sun.