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!

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.

Props for Chris Thomas!

Chris’s ALC riders surprised him last Saturday by honoring his years of commitment in leading ALC training rides in the South Bay as well as his endlessly positive encouragement. He now has his own “team” jersey! See the real thing at his blog—http://www.ridewithchris.org/2012/04/yall-are-awesome.html
(And I think I know who designed that jersey—Looks sharp, Bob!)

Chris is also the progenitor and engine behind our club’s Double Bay Double, the second edition of which is happening September 29 & 30.

The first century of the year

It’s April and Spokers’ thoughts turn to…riding centuries. Such as the Tierra Bella next weekend. The week after is the Primavera in Fremont, and then there is the Chico Wildflower, the Wine Country, Grizzly Peak, the Davis Double, and on and on. But if you’re like me you’ve probably had better things to do with your time than train for a one hundred mile ride. In our case it was traveling in Patagonia and being off the bike for three weeks. Yet Roger and I recently completed the Solvang Century on our tandem.

This was Roger’s second century ever, and only the second century I have done in probably ten years. I had been doing tons of centuries in the 80s and 90s and I just burned out on them. The imagined glamour of completing 100 or more miles in a day was replaced by the drudgery of getting up early, the reality of having killed an entire day in the saddle, and then feeling wiped out and catatonic for at least another day afterwards. But after years of being away from doing long rides (or at least, this kind of long ride), we actually had a hell of a good time. And, we did it on no training. How did we do it? Well, boys and girls, let me ‘splain it to you!

(1) Choose Your Ride Carefully

Doing the Death Ride without any training as your first century would be, well, deadly. So, the key is to pick a century that’s benign and as flat as possible. Climbing can really tax your cardiovascular system and drain you quickly, making the remainder of your ride a two-wheeled version of the Stations of the Cross. Take it easy by keeping your heart rate and exertion level in the ‘comfortable range’, so the flatter the better! The Solvang is notoriously flat (well, flat for California). In fact, despite its advertising of Foxen Canyon as being a “hard” climb, it’s a great first century route with mostly flat or rolling terrain. The climbs do come at the end of the Solvang but they pale in comparison to a typical Bay Area hill—they were neither steep nor long. Headwinds and bad weather can be the bane of the Solvang, but the former were mild this year and we had no rain at all because of this unusually dry winter. In the Bay Area, the flattest century we have is the Wine Country in early May, which unfortunately is completely sold out for this year. (The Hekaton, which is no longer run, was even flatter.) Your next best bet is the Delta Century out of Stockton in May and then the Foxy Fall out of Davis in October, both in the Sacramento Valley.

(2) Ride Slow

It’s hard to keep all that excitement under control when you’re surrounded by so many enthusiastic cyclists, most of whom have probably trained avidly and have thousands more miles under their belt than you. You take off like a rocket—after all, you’re feeling fresh, right?—and two rest stops later you’re thinking the sag wagon might not be a bad alternative. Surviving a century on no training means keeping it real: go slow, and I mean really slow. Slow as in ‘I can talk all day’ slow. If you’re huffing and puffing, you’re going too fast. Speeding up means you’ll use up all your carbs (glycogen) and then it’ll be suffering time. Going slow allows your body to rely more on burning fat. When you’re untrained, your body favors using stored sugar (glycogen) but you only have a limited supply. So, spare your stored glycogen and burn stored fat by riding at an easy pace and you’ll get through the day with a smile on your face!

(3) Be Patient

Going slow deliberately takes discipline. At Solvang I kept telling Roger not to follow wheels and not to follow other people’s pace, just go our own pace. One acceleration up a hill—after all, it’s just a short hill, right?—or any going into the red zone and we would regret it later. I wore a heart rate monitor at Solvang so I could monitor things, and my goal was to keep it in zone 1 for the majority of the ride and never, ever go above zone 3. If my heart rate went up, we backed off.

(4) Eat Lots

There’s a reason century rides have rest stops. You’re going to be burning through a lot of calories. But more importantly you’re going to be burning through your glycogen. I literally forced myself to eat at the rest stops, even though I sometimes was not feeling hungry, just to make sure I had enough carbs. A century is not a good time to exercise weight control. Eat lots. Eating sugary foods spares your untrained body’s paltry glycogen stores so that you’ll make it to the end. If you run out of glycogen, you’re bonking and it’s game over.

(5) Suck But Not Too Hard

Unfortunately we weren’t able to do that at Solvang because tandems and singles just don’t mix well and always seem to be going at different speeds. Plus, all the other tandems at Solvang seemed to be racing (read: were faster than we were.) Of course, that didn’t seem to prevent a scad of riders from sucking our wheel, mind you, and it just shows you how smart they were. If you can follow a wheel, that’s some free energy by staying out of the wind. The trick is to follow a wheel that isn’t going too fast. If you’re following a really fast wheel, then you may go into the red zone regardless, and then it’s like too much of a good thing: you’re going to burn out. So, even though the temptation might be to suck the wheel of Speed Racer—it’s going to be free speed, right?—don’t. Find a wheel of someone going your speed and suck their wheel so you can take it really easy. Low effort means you’ll last longer.

So, how did Solvang turn out? Great! Before Solvang our rides were generally no more than 30 to 40 miles in length but we did do one 65-mile ride this spring. Of course, then we had three weeks with no exercise. Nevertheless we were able to keep a steady pace all day without burning any matches and completed the ride in 6 hours and 17 minutes; our average speed was 15.8 miles per hour. We were certainly tired after a long day but we weren’t overly so, and actually we felt rather fresh at the end and weren’t punished by post-ride lethargy or soreness. Not bad for no training!

Cinderella 2012: Flahuttes

Cinderella women in the rain
Cinderella 2012: Flahuttes In The Rain!

This past Saturday Roger and I, as usual, worked the registration tables at the 36th Annual Cinderella Classic and Challenge put on by the Valley Spokesmen (sic). It’s amazing to think that this ride has been put on annually for 36 years–since 1977–and with the same core leadership of Bonnie and Bob Powers. The Cinderella is likely the oldest female-only cycling event in the world and regularly maxes out its registration. Bob Powers told me that this year the event drew participants from 14 states (including Alabama!) and several other countries. This year about 2,500 folks were set to ride, but distressingly the weather report for the day was for rain and high wind. That didn’t deter a huge number of women from showing up anyway.

Saturday morning the rain had yet to make an appearance but fleets of dark clouds were quickly blowing out of the south. We had to show up at registration by 6:30 a.m. for the 7 a.m. opening. We got there early and were greeted by a line of participants eager to get their materials and take off. Despite the prospect of getting drenched and blown willy-nilly, women were excitedly chatting about the ride and with smiles on their faces.

Promptly at 7 we opened up and the horde streamed in. With so many participants registration was divided roughly into one line for each letter of the alphabet. Roger and I were working the M’s and probably had about 100+ packets each to give out. Despite the hectic pace of working registration it’s a bit of a kick. You get to briefly meet a huge variety of women and preview their fashion statement for the day. The most popular–and always a hit–is the cycling tutu, usually pink. Tiaras and feather boas vied for attention and Raggedy Ann socks were another perennial favorite. What ran through my mind was how those tutus were going to feel when they were waterlogged. The more sagacious riders came equipped with sensible clothing: waterproof rain jackets, pants, and shoe covers. In place of tiaras they sported plastic shower caps over their helmets. And, in a bit of a time warp there were quite a few women wearing cycling rain ponchos–OMG, I remember those from the 1970’s!! Old-timers–and there were gobs of them–showed off their collection of Cinderella patches from years past. A few women brought their bikes into the hall and I could see out the doors women passing by on their bikes or parking them. There were more fenders than I had seen in years past (smart!) but it was disconcerting to see so many without fenders. I know I hate riding with a wet ass. Nowadays the padding in shorts is thicker and when it gets wet it’s like a diaper–ugh!

Seeing a scad of cyclists who just happen to only be women also had me thinking about men’s and women’s cycling fashions. These days fashionable men’s kit is all black and white (and maybe some red) in very form fitting cuts: think Assos, Capo, Castelli. Sure, you see your share of loud, garish Primal jerseys and faux pro kits but it’s really starting to tone down a bit (thank god). For men it’s all about primary colors. For cycling clothes women have it so much better for colors: they can get jackets and jerseys in pastels (straight) men wouldn’t dare to sport, and designs which are much less “look at me!” Ah, clothes envy. Maybe I should do more cycling cross dressing… On the other hand, women could use some serious help when it comes to the cut of their jackets. There seems to be a lot more clothing designed for women but apparently not enough because some were wearing what looked to be men’s clothing with a traditional straight chest cut. It just looked uncomfortable.

The crowd started to die down about 8 o’clock and after that it was occasional pulses of women streaming in to get their material. It still wasn’t raining yet, and clearly a lot of women were hoping to get an early start perhaps to try to outrun the storm front. But then it started to rain continuously and animated chatter among the women coming in was replaced with grimmer demeanors. I saw a couple of women cob plastic bags from the “Problems” table and pull them over their feet before putting their cycling shoes on. (And one of the women also had shoe covers–now that’s what I call serious!) A few women came in and asked to pick up registration packets for friends who they said had backed out but still wanted their patch. Hmm, isn’t that sort of, um, unearned? Well, I guess if you’ve paid your $60 or whatever, you are entitled to something. A mother and daughter came in and got their registration; they had come from Utah and rain wasn’t going to deter them from riding!

By the time registration officially closed, at 9, it was soaking outside and yet there were still a few latecomers planning to head out (!!!) Bob Powers had said that the most no-shows the Cinderella had ever had was about 600 in another wet year. Both Roger and I had given out more than half of our packets, so we would estimate that maybe 60-70% showed up. That’s still a lot of cyclists–about 1,400 or so.

Leaving registration we had to walk about a quarter mile to the car. It was coming down hard and the wind was blowing the rain sideways. A few women had turned around and were heading back to the registration hall. More than rain itself it was the hideous wind that was making it tough. I’m not sure that it would be easy to see while riding (let alone being seen by car drivers!) By the time we were on I-680 and heading home we had the windshield wipers on full and could barely see out the windshield. Cars were driving 50 m.p.h. and had huge roostertails shooting from behind. The wind was pushing the car sideways. Jeez, there were women cyclists out in that weather? Now, that’s a bunch of flahuttes. (Note: flahute is Flemish for a ‘hard man’ who can race through the hardest conditions.)

Saddle Challenge 2012

It’s that time again, time for the Different Spokes Saddle Challenge!

Go to: http://www.dssf.org/dssf_html/sc/

To register, enter your first and last name and ask me for the password.

What is the Saddle Challenge?

It’s our annual event, during the month of March, where members can challenge each other (and themselves) to get out on your bike and ride.

You choose your own mileage goal for the month, whether it be 25 miles, 100 miles or 800 miles, it is your goal!

Then come back to the Saddle Challenge each day and log your mileage, watch your own progress and see how other members are doing too.

Every mile counts, so if you commute by bike, don’t forget to log that too!

Historically, the Saddle Challenge has also been a way for members to raise money for Project Inform where Ron Wilmot, a long time DSSF member started a fundraising ride. You can choose to pledge per mile, or as a lump sum, and this is entirely optional. No one is required to pledge money in order to participate. At the end of the month, we’ll remind members who have opted to participate in the pledge portion to send their checks via the DSSF PO Box (14711), so that all the pledges can be submitted to Project Inform on behalf of all Different Spokes members who pledged.

If you have any difficulties signing up or logging your entry, give me a holler at webmaster@dssf.org and I’ll give you a hand.

So, what’s your challenge? Sign up now!

California Dreaming: Cycling and it’s 81º in February!

Yesterday our weather reached sublime heights of ridiculosity when it was 81 degrees in the middle of February. Roger and I made a spur of the moment decision to drive up to the Napa Valley to scout a few roads for upcoming rides we’re leading including the 30th Anniversary ride in June. Of course it was sunny, and we watched the thermometer slowly creep upwards the further north we drove. By Napa it was 81 degrees and it was only noon. No need for arm warmers, and this was the first time I had worn cycling shorts since last fall. It was creepy strange to have such subtropical weather in the middle of winter; I was almost expecting the earth to crack open and tsunamis to appear a la “2012”. But what’s to complain about to be able to cycle in such great weather? (Well, the possibility of another drought, I suppose.)

Roger and I went to try out a couple of the climbs out of Calistoga over to Santa Rosa. First up was Diamond Mountain Road which is a hellacious three-mile climb. Shortly after turning off Highway 29 it ramped up and didn’t stop. It was a consistent 10-12% grade for much of the way with absolutely no flat spots. “Relief” consisted of the tiny 8% sections, where we were able to catch our collective breath. There were a couple of sections which went 14% and above. If you think Pinehurst is a tough go, this was like a much longer version of the very top of that road. The road quality was typical county stuff: decaying and potholed. But going uphill it was no big deal to avoid the corrugations in the road at five miles per hour. In return for the insane incline and icky road texture we got a peaceful climb with virtually no car traffic. Plus, it was almost entirely shaded by very tall redwoods, making for a truly pleasant experience. It was a lot like Old La Honda except steeper.

Unfortunately, almost four miles up we came to a dead end at the Diamond Mountain Winery. Ah, that explained the sign at the bottom of the hill, “No Outlet”! Doh! Google Maps, Garmin’s North American map, and the AAA map all indicated that the road went through. But just before the ridge top there was a large metal gate constructed across the road, which looked more like a private driveway through the bars. Judging by the immaculate road quality on the other side of the gate, it was definitely private land! There was nothing left to do except turn around and ride the brakes the entire way down. We made it down without incident but my rims were damn hot by the bottom.

I suppose the lesson is: don’t trust mapmakers,  or rather when planning a route it’s always better to survey it “on the ground” rather than relying on mapping tools such as mapmyride.com or even a paper map. Out of curiosity I did some exploring on the Internet and found out that the Diamond Mountain Winery is very old, dating back to the mid-19th century. Clearly the land has been under their control for some time, and how it would end up being mapped as an ostensibly public road is a slight mystery. Perhaps it was a private road whose access was never firmly controlled until they decided to put up the gate (which looked of recent origin). In any case it was not possible to make a loop out of it and so for now it’s a (straight) up-and-down route. (On a side note, before I got hooked into planning a ride series to celebrate our 30th year of existence, I was planning an “Outrageous/Outré/Obnoxious Climbs and Descents” ride series, the OCD, for short. This one will surely be one of its highlights!)

We bagged it after that foray and went for lunch at the Palisades Deli in Calistoga. Two burritos later we lurched in the van with our bikes and did the rest of the scouting by car.