Solvang Century 2013 report: the beef about food

Last weekend Roger and I rode the 31st edition of the Solvang Century, this time doing the metric century. Overall it was a great ride for us, but the cost was a wallet-draining $140 for the two of us as a tandem team; a solo registration costs $85. Ouch! This got me thinking about the cost of century rides, which seem to be ever increasing. Part of the high cost for the Solvang was due to late registration, which added $10 to the total. We weren’t able to do early registration because we weren’t sure we would even be able to do the ride at all until after the end of the preregistration period. We ended up having to do day-of-event registration, and unlike many century rides that have a maximum number (that almost always is reached in a snap, e.g. the Wine Country Century) or which completely forego day-of-event registration due to logistical headaches, Solvang was more than happy to take our money. Admittedly a $10 penalty for day-of-event registration is a deal. After all, there is a long list of logistical decisions that are made in advance depending on the number of riders, such as the amount of food, water, and beverages you need to buy in advance and how many volunteers you will need to prep food and deliver it to the rest stops. Lunkheads who show up at the last minute for a ride like the Solvang ought to be assessed a forbidding surcharge in order to discourage dillydallying.

The cost is about in line with other centuries run by cycling clubs. For example, the Chico Wildflower is $65 for early registration and $75 for late; the Marin Century is $72.50. There are less expensive rides in the area: the Tierra Bella in Gilroy is $52 and $62 for late registration. At the other end we have the rise of ‘gran fondo’ or ‘sportive’ rides, which are nothing other than timed century rides. The biggest in the area is Levi Leipheimer’s Gran Fondo and that costs a wallet-wrecking $150 ($130 for the metric)! So, Solvang is by no means the high end.

But what seems like a reasonable fee on paper turned out to be otherwise in reality. This may seem like trivial carping, but the food on the Solvang is hardly better than bringing your own or stopping at a convenience store on any ride you might do at home. It seems like the organization, SCOR, sleepwalks through its food planning, which is to say they do nothing other than the minimum required. Food at rest stops consisted of PBJ sandwiches, Oreos, Fig Newtons, M&Ms, some other box cookies, and orange slices. Drinks consisted of…water, but you could add energy mix to it if you preferred. Oh, and the food at each rest stop was exactly the same, no variety. Talk about uninspired! The end-of-ride meal was…nothing. If you wanted the bbq meal at the end, you had to pay an extra $20. In other words, there was no substantial meal included for the fee. Talk about niggardly! This is such a glaring contrast to how cycling clubs in the Bay Area do their food stops. All of them provide some kind of meal in the registration fee, with the meals varying to nothing-special-but-satisfying-nonetheless (e.g. baked lasagna trays, salad, etc.) to better-than-usual (e.g. espresso, tortillas, ice cream, homemade treats, etc.) to exceptional (gourmet pizza, bbq pork loin, vegetarian or gluten-free food). I have particularly fond feelings for the Tierra Bella, the Wine Country, Grizzly Peak, and the Marin for the energy and thought they put into their rest stop food as well as their meals. The Wine Country has a sandwich lunch stop in the middle as well as an end-of-ride bbq meal at no extra cost, and they’re both very good. The Grizzly Peak Cyclists have their members provide home-baked goodies as well as homemade dishes including plentiful vegetarian fare. All of this makes the Solvang seem like the bad deal that it is. You might as well just go down and do the ride on your own because there are certainly enough markets, convenience stores, fast food restaurants, and coffee shops along the routes where you can stop and eat better and more varied food.

I don’t mean to downplay the effort put into hosting a large century like the Solvang. These are epic events in size. The other club I belong to, Valley Spokesmen, puts on the Cinderella Classic every year and it takes a huge amount of volunteer work, careful planning and intelligence to make it a successful event. And, I know the costs of events is going up not just due to ordinary inflation but also to the cost of insurance and the fees which counties charge for traffic control and police support. But why skimp on food? Good food makes for a pleasurable and memorable experience—why jeopardize that when it practically guarantees return participants? I guess if you’ve got more riders than you can shake a stick at even with drab food you’re going to question the need to spend more money and effort when you’re already killing it. But it has me questioning whether we will return to do this event again. And no, I don’t believe in poaching rides. That’s just evil. And cheap.

Other than the food the Solvang Century experience this year was fantastic. Solvang for us is an easy getaway despite the five-hour drive. We have relatives in Solvang, who happen to have a cozy guest room, and since we’re both retired we are able to leave early Friday—Solvang is always on a Saturday—and avoid the typically molasses-slow traffic through San Jose. Staying with relatives meant we didn’t have to worry about finding a motel room in the Solvang area, which is nearly impossible. One year I put it off, and I and two friends ended up sleeping at the Motel 6 in Goleta, which was 40 miles away. That was an unnecessary hour of driving before doing a century ride. No, thank you! This time we were able to take a long weekend and visit with family in addition to getting in a great ride. This year’s drought has also affected central California. So, the weather was dry and clear for the ride with just a brisk chill at the start. The day warmed up but just to a perfectly comfortable level—never too hot or cold. The century ride starts with a bit of a scrum—the big guns hit it and you’ll see fast pacelines rocketing out Santa Rosa Road. Since the metric started later we got to sleep in as well as avoid the rush. The routes are mostly along farm and country roads away from car traffic. The rolling hills were green with grass, if not verdant. The Santa Ynez Valley has some lovely back roads, reminiscent of how parts of Contra Costa County used to be before suburban expansion devoured open space here. Of course, county road budgets are all a lot tighter, so we had a few roads that were bumpier and more broken than we would have preferred especially since we were riding our tandem. The Solvang Century routes only touch on a few of the many fantastic cycling routes in the area, and a separate trip to explore the rest of the valley would be a great getaway. With the growth of the wine industry there the food has also improved, and it would be possible to put together a truly gluttonous vacation there: cycling, imbibing, dining!

Maybe somebody should organize a club trip there, say Spring 2014. Anybody interested in going?