A Tale of Two Centuries

For those who seek out early season fitness or those who just like to ride centuries there is a tough choice every May: two longtime centuries, the Wine Country near Santa Rosa and the Grizzly Peak in Moraga occur back to back on the same weekend. The choice has been made easier in recent years after the word got out that the Wine Country was moderately flat: registration has been selling out in less than a day. With Internet registration becoming almost de rigueur, you can’t hesitate if you want to participate when registration is capped, such is the popularity of bicycling these days. I suppose we shouldn’t complain: it’s a sign that our chosen sport is healthy and vibrant. Nonetheless it is irksome that one has to commit months in advance to challenging rides when all it takes is a prolonged wet and rainy spring to wreck havoc on the best laid plans.

The Wine Country and the Grizzly Peak are remarkably similar in some important ways. Both are run by venerable clubs with many years of experience and lessons learned the hard way under their belts. Remarkably both clubs haven’t burned out doing events which are very well attended (both sell out) and which take a huge effort to make them as successful as they are. Also, both strive to provide the best food at rest stops as well as at the end-of-ride meal!

Where they differ is in profile and feel. I’ve done both the full century and the metric several times at the Wine Country. The metric is a flat delight and since Roger and I like to ride our tandem, it’s a no-brainer to sign up for it. The full century is less flat but until this past weekend it had always left the impression that it was a noodle in the park as well. The Grizzly is as jagged as the Wine Country is flat. The metric alone climbs more than a half-dozen grunty hills in Alameda and Contra Costa County; the full century is practically an absurdity by adding in even more. Its reputation is such that mountain goats and diehards only need apply for the full monty unless one relishes a punishing death march kind of day. I’ve never done the full century at the Grizzly but now I’ve done the metric a couple of times, once on the tandem and once on a single, and it’s a handful. The quandary is that the Grizzly Peak is so much closer to the immediate Bay Area than the Wine Country. So, if you don’t like to do a significant drive to the start and you don’t like to wake up ridiculously early on a weekend morning to do your ride, well then the Grizzly Peak is the no-brainer: just roll to Moraga. In my case I can ride to the start location from home!

The Santa Rosa Cycling Club has capped their event at 2,500. That’s still a lot more than the 1,000 at which the Grizzly Peakers cap theirs. And, that makes a huge difference in the feel of the events. The Wine Country, just like the Chico Wildflower, the Marin, or the Chico Wildflower, feels like a rolling party. You’re hardly ever alone on the road and rest stops are bustling and noisy. The Grizzly Peak feels a lot more down home and subdued certainly because it is smaller. There were times at the Grizzly when I was alone on the road and I felt like I was out on a private spin. If you like the mad company and camaraderie of fellow cyclists, then the Wine Country will probably be a more satisfying choice for you. If, however, you like a quieter venue, a more ‘old school’ ride, then the Grizzly Peak is sure to please.

This year I couldn’t make up my mind, so I ended up doing both. I had never done back-to-back centuries on the same weekend and the idea was thoroughly intimidating. So, since the Wine Country was on Saturday and the Grizzly Peak on Sunday, I scaled it back a bit and signed up for “just” the Grizzly metric. The fact that the Grizzly Peak was literally just down the road from the manse meant I didn’t have to get up absurdly early to do it too.

I managed to convince Roger to ride the tandem with me for the Wine Country. Roger doesn’t care for 100-mile rides at all. The only one he had done prior to this spring was the Wine Country about six years ago, and he probably did it just to please me, as he’s never wanted to do it again or any other century no matter how “flat” it was. It’s a hard truth that a seven-hour day in the saddle is going to leave one aching, period. Yet I convinced him that it would be good training for our upcoming trip to the French Alps. Well, I don’t know why I recall the Wine Country century route as being flat because this year it felt like an ordeal. Partly it was due to the decrepit condition of Sonoma county roads: they are getting beat to hell and there’s probably no money in sight that can bring them back up to suitable conditions. We’re probably stuck with them being eroded, potholed, and horribly chip-sealed for the next decade. The trade off is that the countryside those roads traverse is some of the best in the greater Bay Area. On a single bike it’s less of a pain (literally) to ride crumbling roads. On a tandem it can be torture. Because the twofer is less maneuverable we are more often riding over obstacles rather than around them. Plus, on a tandem you’re seated a lot more than on a single; you can’t just randomly float off the saddle, as everything has to be coordinated between the captain and stoker.

But the real discovery was that the century route, contrary to both of our recollections, has a serious amount of climbing in it. For the day we had about 4,800 feet of vertical, and most of it was before lunch. In other words, most of it was on the full century portion that goes out towards the hills of Occidental and Sebastopol. Those myriad little grunters added up to a significant amount of overall climbing. By the time we got to the flatter portion of the ride we were pretty toasted. How could we have forgotten this? Perhaps it is age: we were six years younger when we did it last, and at our advanced age each passing year brings more physical challenges.

As I mentioned earlier, the Wine Country is a big event. It felt like we were part of a rolling, ever-changing caravan with mostly cyclists passing us and occasionally we passing them. It wasn’t as crowded as the Chico or Solvang where it felt almost like we were in a peloton. But it was still, well, crowded. For some of you that’s the thrill of the event and why you’re forking out $65 when you could just go up and ride for free on your own. Crowd energy can lift one’s spirits and get one cycling faster or farther than ever. Cycling on the tandem in a crowd is for us more akin to the experience of a semi on I-880 in the morning commute: being surrounded by smaller, more mobile and nimble, and less aware vehicles that may collide with you carelessly. So, those kinds of events don’t seem to suit us as well at least when we’re on the tandem.

The food on at the rest stops was near perfect for me. Typical fare at centuries tends to be stuff one might find at Costco: muffins, cookies, banana bread, and fruit—usually bananas, oranges, and occasionally strawberries. While fruit is welcome, I prefer my carbs to be less sweet—bagels, potato chips, roasted potatoes. The Wine Country folks had all of the above as well as something I have never encountered before: warmed tortillas that one could stuff with cheese (or any of the above). That really hit the spot! But what really made me fall in love with this ride was the hot coffee they had at every rest stop; now those people really know what cyclists love! At the final rest stop—when it was getting hot and we were running on fumes—bless them, they had cold Cokes that gave us the final burst of energy to get to the finish.

The Wine Country offers a lunch—not every century does—mid-ride around the 70-mile point. It’s a good time to take a break and get something more substantial than cookies under one’s belt. In addition to rest food fare the Wine Country offered sandwiches—turkey, roast beef, or veggie—made on the spot to your liking, kind of like Subway! After lunch you have just 30 miles to stroll over mostly flat roads with the lone exception of Chalk Hill. The end-of-ride meal was held in a large tent that was crowded and noisy—just like the ride—and in my opinion they were very controlled (read: stingy) with the food. It was one pass through the food line and that’s all. Oh, and the portions were small. At least what they gave was tasty. Or, was I so famished that shoe leather would have tasted delicious? I’m not sure but the barbecued turkey seemed well prepared. I just wish I had double of everything. Beer from Lagunitas Brewery was offered for sale; they also offered ice cream sundaes. But neither Roger nor I crave alcohol or sweets after a hot ride. But if you do, this is your ride. All in all, the Wine Country folks have a good formula and really have the pulse of what century riders like.

The Grizzly Peak the following day also had spectacular weather: clear, sunny, and hot but not too hot. Roger wasn’t interested in doing a double, so I was on my own. Actually, after doing the Wine Country neither was I—climbing all that vertical on the tandem had worn me out. Nonetheless I got my bike and clothes ready for the ride and I would make the decision in the morning whether to bag it or not. The next day I didn’t have to get up super early, as the start, Campolindo High School, is just down the road from the house. Getting that extra couple of hours of sleep must have made a difference because I felt decent, just a tad tired. The Grizzly Peak Century is actually longer than a century; it’s 109 miles long. The “metric” is actually 75 miles long. So, you really can’t compare the Grizzly with other centuries because both routes are significantly longer than typical rides. And, since I was starting the Grizzly “metric” from our house and not Campolindo, my ride was actually going to be longer, about 77 miles.

I left the house at 7:30 and promptly had the misfortune of witnessing a car accident on Camino Pablo that left one car upside down and car parts and glass strewn all over the road. How come I keep seeing accidents? It certainly put me in a nervous frame of mind, reminding me that as bicyclists sharing the road with metal death monsters we’re pretty much at their mercy. I checked in at Campolindo at 8 a.m., which is pretty late since registration closed at 8:30, and the place was relatively deserted: a few volunteers running check-in and maybe three of four cyclists in sight. Even though the bulk of the 1,000 registrants surely were doing just the “metric”, they either got an early start or they were sleeping in! But that was to be the theme of the day: riding alone and seeing just a few other Grizzly folks on the road. A thousand riders on the road is very, very different in appearance than 2,500-plus. So, instead of a party atmosphere it was pretty much like doing a solo ride on a random weekend: running into other cyclists on occasion except we were all going in the same direction!

And, very much like the Wine Country the Grizzly Peak showcased the “best” roads in the area. By “best” I mean best in everything except pavement quality. They might have beautiful views, picture quality redwoods, and few cars but they also had execrable asphalt. Skyline and Grizzly Peak Boulevards, as recent deadly accidents have shown, are heading south fast. The only thing missing are the tar pits in the bottom of the chasms and potholes that will trap cyclists for eternity. Ironically even though they are in my neck of the woods I rarely ride these roads precisely because the asphalt is abysmal. Whether by plan or luck the crappy road surface is pretty much over on the Grizzly after you get out of the Berkeley hills. Then it’s just normally crappy pavement.

The rest stops were well placed but unlike the Wine Country not well stocked. I should say “not well stocked by the time I got there”. Apparently my late start meant the 100-mile riders had locust-like descended and devoured all the bagel sandwiches at the first rest stop in Tilden Park. Grizzly Peak makes a big point of advertising that their baked goodies are all homemade, but for me it’s beside the point because I generally don’t relish eating sweets (yeah, it’s weird, I know) and I would have killed for a bagel sandwich. So, I nibbled on a bare bagel piece and a banana. They did have electrolyte drink as well as orange juice but, alas, no coffee. By this time I had ridden pretty much alone except for tagging behind a nice group of Team In Training studs who for some reason had been just noodling up Pinehurst at an easy lope. On Skyline the headwind had appeared and was coming from the north, and that meant I needed to find a paceline by the time I got to San Pablo Dam Road for the long haul north. Here’s where riding on a small century can be a drag: you want to be in a crowd when the wind is blowing. Despite trying to find a group I couldn’t find one: everyone was very spread out on the Dam Road and beyond. Those that I found were noodling (meaning, noodling slower than I was because I was definitely cruising rather than hammering). I was fortunate enough to figure out after a short time I wasn’t going to find a group, so I just kicked back and cruised, figuring that if I ran into a group, great. But I wasn’t going to burn myself out in a fruitless hunt.

The Grizzly takes you north to a road that most cyclists avoid: Lincoln Highway through Rodeo. No one in their right mind rides there because of the heavy-duty trucks, car traffic, debris, and malodorous and blighted environment. In contrast to the redwoods and reservoirs you can enjoy the sights of the sewage treatment facility and the massive oil refineries until you pop over the rolling hills to Crockett and the Carquinez Bridge. It’s not the only way to get to Crockett by bike but it is the most convenient. From this point on you’re mostly back to quiet Contra Costa roads. A quick trip through Crockett and I was in Port Costa for the second rest stop.

I ran into Nancy Levin and Stephanie Clarke at Port Costa. We seemed to be the only Spokers out on the Grizzly. When I asked Stephanie which route she was doing today, she replied, “Oh, the metric. That’s enough for me! I never do the hundred!” I guess that says it all. Really, folks, the metric (i.e. the 75-mile route) is plenty enough of a ride. (Of course, the fact that Stephanie is a Grizzly Peaker and had to work the event in the afternoon probably had something to do with her decision!) At this point I was feeling okay mainly because I just had not been pushing it all day. I must confess that I can’t recall a century that I approached with this attitude: take it easy, stroll, and enjoy the day. I always seem to have been hammering (or else the raw distance alone was making me feel like I was hammering!). But riding this way sure was a lot more enjoyable.

The Port Costa rest stop was pretty much the same as the first one, so I wasn’t interested in anything they offered to eat except bananas. Fortunately I wasn’t feeling famished, probably because I wasn’t going that fast. Unfortunately this is also where I had a mechanical: as I was leaving the rest stop I broke a drive-side spoke in the rear wheel leaving it unrideable. So I called Roger. At first I was just going to bag it—it had been 50 miles so far—but then I heard myself asking him if he wouldn’t mind bringing me a spare rear wheel. I wished Nancy and Stephanie a good ride, they took off, and then I went about my doing nothing, kicking back in the shade of the Port Costa Elementary School for 45 minutes. What I saw was a tad surprising: there actually were quite a few other cyclists behind me! Cyclists continued to arrive but unlike the endless stream that always seemed to be flowing into the Wine Country rest stops, it was more of a trickle here, just enough to have about a dozen or so munching at the rest stop. Boy, there sure were a lot of late risers still out on the road!

After Roger arrived and I replaced the rear wheel, I took off. The morning had been pretty easy with just the Berkeley hills. After Port Costa the steep climbs began: McEwen, Pig Farm (Alhambra Valley), and then Mama and Papa Bear. In my case, as I was going directly home rather than back to the high school, I also had to climb up El Toyonal. They come in pretty quick succession and they’re all grunters. Despite the long break I was feeling the miles; it was midday and the temperature was in the low 80s. With full sun it felt hotter and I could feel the energy draining out of me. It must have been true for everyone else too because despite my decidedly mundane speed I was somehow passing everyone else. The good news was that once onto Alhambra Valley Road the last of the deplorable pavement was history and now it was just plain, every day bad. The ride home was just a hop, skip, and a jump!

I was planning on skipping the last rest stop at Briones because I had enough water and I was so close to home. But when I saw a distant cyclist pull into the rest stop, I lost my resolve and followed. Oh well, might as well take it easy. Good decision–they had ice cold Cokes! One Coke later and I felt like Superman. In no time I was home after 77 miles and well over 6,000 feet of climbing in total. And that was just the so-called “metric.”

I cleaned up and drove to Campolindo to pick up my event t-shirt and partake of the end-of-ride meal. Both Stephanie and Nancy had showered up and were refreshed as well. I ended up chatting with them as well as several Grizzlies whom I knew. The high school had a small crowd of riders and volunteers lounging about the square and had a decidedly down-home, “small town” feel unlike the huge tent and crowd at the end of the Wine Country. Also, there wasn’t any beer being served and that very likely explained why the tent at the Wine Country was, er, noisy whereas at the Grizzly the high school was quiet and peaceful. The food was similar to the Wine Country and it was all homemade too. The end-of-ride meal, I thought, was better than the Wine Country’s, mainly because they were very generous with the helpings and even seconds. But they also offered several carb-based side dishes including some yummy lentils and a rice salad and that wasn’t the case at the Wine Country. Needless to say, after eating almost nothing all day I hogged down as much as I could. And it was good!

Verdict: We’ll probably do the Wine Country metric next year because we’ll be back on the tandem. But if you’re not riding a tandem, which one is recommended? It’s a tough call. The Grizzly is by far the harder ride due to length (108 versus 100, 75 versus 63) and vertical and steepness. But it’s much closer to home and even BART accessible. The Wine Country has the overall more beautiful scenery and interesting roads, but that’s partly due to being far away and that necessitates a very early morning drive. If you don’t ride in Alameda and Contra Costa County often, then perhaps the Grizzly Peak would seem new and interesting. But if you do, then the drive north is probably worth it. The road support at the Wine Country is maybe slightly better. Sag wagons were omnipresent and we saw them being used often (seemingly due to flats or jammed chains), and the police/EMT presence was palpable. That isn’t to say the that the Grizzly Peak was deficient; it’s just a smaller event spread out over an equally widespread area, so the support needs are less. In my case my wheel broke at a rest stop. If I had been on the road, I’m not sure how long it would have taken for a sag wagon to appear but I’m fairly certain it would have been longer than on the Wine Country. On food it was hands down the Grizzly for the end-of-ride meal. But for the rest stops the Wine Country has it figured out; whether you like to woof down sweets or tasty complex carbs, they supply both. And the hot tortillas were a first for me! Throw in cold soft drinks and hot coffee and they are, no contest, the best rest stop food I’ve had on a century (but there’s a warm spot in my stomach for the ramen they provide at the Tierra Bella!) For atmosphere, it’s your call. If you’re a partying, Facebooky guy/gal, then the Wine Country is right up your alley. But if you’re old school and prefer a quieter environment, then the Grizzly is your ride. For Spoker camaraderie, it’s a tie. Both have historically attracted good club participation. But this year for some reason not many Spokers attended. The Wine Country is so impacted now that getting in is impossible if you wait. This year registration was full less than 18 hours after opening up. For 2,500 spaces! The Grizzly has no such problem, although it also sells out regularly. So, keep in mind that if you forget to register for the Wine Country, the Grizzly makes a fine back up, and the fact that it’s also closer to most Spokers’ homes and doesn’t require a long drive means it’s a convenient choice as well. See you there next year!