Roger and I went up to Gridley to ride the DSSF Velo Love Ride this past weekend and things didn’t go as we had expected. But I’ll get to that in a moment. The Velo Love Ride is the latest incarnation of the annual century put on by Chico Velo, originally titled the Rice Valley Tandem Festival. But it quickly took on the moniker, the Love Ride, because it takes place close to Valentines Day. It’s an odd century because it’s in winter time and in a part of Northern California not exactly known for its lack of rain. There is a reason that the area near Gridley has a lot of rice growing! But that is probably why the event has so much charm—it’s the ignored, kicked-into-the-corner, younger brother of Chico Velo’s much bigger and flashier Wildflower Century. Consequently it gets a lot less attention and interest and thus “poor” turnout—maybe a few hundred at most (in a good year). It has a warm, small-town feel because the event is so low-key and small. If you like big festivals, this is definitely not your cycling event. However if you’re looking for something different from the crowded atmosphere of Solvang, the Wildflower, the Marin, and countless other big-name centuries, then maybe this is your ride.
Only Chico Velo canceled the ride for 2020 because they didn’t have a volunteer from the club to run it! So, after sadly reading the email from Chico Velo that the Velo Love Ride for 2020 was not to be, Roger and I quickly decided we would ride it anyway because we like this ride so much not just for its ambiance but also because the ride takes in a very different environment that your typical Bay Area century. Gridley is a farm town and outside the city limits it is solidly agricultural. The Sutter Buttes rise out of valley floor and overlook acre after acre of rice fields and orchards of almond, walnuts, plums, and peaches. There aren’t any suburban subdivisions, Apple Stores, or H&M’s in the area. Its quiet rural roads are punctuated by farm houses, small hulling facilities, and fruit processing plants but you’re mostly among open range land, orchards, rice paddies, and an occasional vineyard. And there is hardly anyone out and about except farmers and local traffic thus making for a dramatic escape from roads dominated by dense automobile traffic, traffic signals, and strip malls with fast food outlets.
Not knowing what the weather would bring we threw caution to the wind and decided to go up on February 9, one day after the Chico Velo date because we didn’t want to have our ride to conflict with the Jersey Ride. As we got closer to the date the weather forecast looked good, ie. no rain, but there was the prospect of wind. The days before the wind forecast turned from 15-25, then 25-35, and finally into a high wind event with winds predicted up to 40-55 mph (!). Ouch. We went up anyway. The worst that could happen would be we’d realize we didn’t want to end up like Dorothy and Toto and we’d get back in the car and head home. Yeah, right.
The drive up to Gridley is about two hours necessitating an early rising—like almost all centuries. We were out the door by 6 am and the weather was cold, crisp, and the air ‘unnaturally’ clear. Debris was everywhere—branches, leaves, garbage—ominously being tossed here and there by the wind. On I-680 and then I-80 the van was being moved around by the wind like a puppet on strings. At Vacaville I said, “Maybe we should turn around and go home.” Roger replied, “No, let’s see what it’s like in Gridley.” Of course I was reading on my phone that the National Weather Service had issued a high wind warning for the Bay Area and for the Sacramento Valley. Heading up 99 the wind died down and we were deluded into thinking the wind was improving and our hopes held high.
We got to Gridley where it was indeed chilly. We bundled up and unloaded the bikes before heading west. The wind was coming out of the NNW and once we were outside the protection of homes and trees and on the open road we felt the full force of the still young wind. Not planning to do a hard effort we just slowed down a bit more and soldiered on. The route heads west until it drops directly south to the Sutter Buttes before you go around them in a clockwise direction. Heading south we had a fantastic tailwind, the kind that makes any ride a hero ride. But in the back of my mind I was wondering what it would be like on the return. Each eastward and southern leg was kind due to a tailwind component. Also the full chilling effect of the wind was tempered by not having to go into it headfirst.
There were absolutely no other cyclists out on the road. In fact the entire day we saw only one cyclist. There weren’t many cars either, a good thing, and those that passed us were all friendly and gave us a wide berth. We stopped at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area for a break and spoke with the rangers, who were conducting a youth duck hunting day. They were cooking hot dogs for the teens. We noticed they were wisely ensconced on the leeward side of the station.
We’ve ridden the Love Ride in all kinds of weather (except rain—we’re not driving 120 miles to do a century in the rain, no thank you!) It’s usually chilly because it’s winter. But there is chilly and then there is CHILLY. Fortunately this year was the former because doing a cold ride with the chill factor of the wind would have been brutal. At the end of the ride the temp was actually 61 but we hadn’t shed a lick of clothing due to the wind. Despite the wind there were all kinds of birds about. Of course there were plenty of ducks of different types but we also saw lots of raptors, egrets, a few herons, and lots of small birds I would never be able to identify, this despite the wind. We’ve done the Love Ride when the nut trees are starting to blossom. But this year almost nothing was in bloom yet. Nonetheless we saw lots of bee hives, indicating that the farmers knew that the blooms were soon to arrive. Despite the minimal rain we had in January the Sutter Buttes were quite green and picturesque set against the blue sky with such crisp air. Beautiful.
At the town of Sutter, the half-way point, we were planning to head south a mile or so to catch the only open restaurant in town for a mid-ride repast. But that would have meant an additional mile into a direct headwind. So instead we munched our Clif bars and trail mix in the shadow of the Sutter Youth Organization building, the traditional rest stop, and then saddled up for the bitterest part of the ride back: about 20 miles of northerly roads. Oh, and as the day went on the wind picked up just to make it extra special.
Not having the benefit of a full meal break (and the calories) it was immediately obvious I was going to be counting each tenth of a mile back to Gridley and staring at the Garmin mentally willing those digits to roll over more quickly; it was absolutely grueling going into the wind. I often was in my lowest cog going no more than 9 or 10 miles per hour on dead-flat ground. We took turns drafting; even Roger was struggling at times on his e-bike because he was conserving battery to make it all the way back without running dry. The wind swirled unpredictably around the Buttes, sometimes a headwind, sometimes a crosswind from either side, and then for a mile it stopped as we were directly in the wind shadow of the Buttes. Our relief was short-lived and it was back into the northerly headwind. We were taking liberal breaks just to get a breather from constantly fighting the wind and to refuel for the next effort. I thought about flagging down a pickup for ride. But I didn’t.
The last six miles were heading directly east and we finally picked up a delightful tailwind all the way back to Gridley. We normally do this ride in well less than four hours but this time it was 4:45—about 55 minutes longer due to the wind.
We were both beat and just glad to have the ride over. Honestly I can’t say we enjoyed the ride in the sense of being in the moment. Heading south we were able to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the countryside. But the return was just grit—focus on getting the pedals to keep going around without keeling over from exhaustion. At one break we were standing by the road drinking our water and I thought I was going to get knocked over by the wind. The headwind was almost never less than 20 mph and too often much more than that.
Of course with the ride finally over we were in for a treat: we went to Los Charros Tacqueria for some awesome homemade Mex. It was tasty especially so since we hadn’t had an earlier meal and we were dogtired and hungry. I had a combo plate with a great chicken enchilada and a beef soft taco. For less than ten bucks. I could have ordered a second meal. But I didn’t.
The drive back was typical Sunday fare: a gigantic traffic mosh pit on I-80 from Sacramento all the way to the turnoff to I-680. Ah, life in the Bay Area! We got home about 5:45 pm making it almost a 12-hour jaunt from start to finish.
Given the conditions was it wise to go up and ride the DSSF Velo Love Ride? No, it absolutely was foolish and I would not recommend it under such difficult circumstances. After seeing the wind buffet us on I-80, we should have turned the van around and headed back home with our tails between our legs. You know, live to fight another day and all that. It was collective denial. Surely it won’t be that bad! Surely, the wind won’t be too hard! We can do it—it’s just wind! Etc. What I thought would be a splendiferous day in the country instead turned into, unfortunately, a “character building” episode, ie. it only could be enjoyed afterwards in the retelling!
That said I hope Chico Velo brings back this ride next year because when the weather is right (or mostly so) it really is an enjoyable, awesome ride. And if not, you’ll still know where to find us on February 14, 2021.