No Almond Joy

Most of you are probably unaware of a quiet, unobtrusive ride held in Ripon, CA every winter, the Almond Blossom Century. Over the years I’ve noticed this ride but I had never ventured out to the San Joaquin Valley to investigate because of scheduling conflicts, the weather, or injury. When I was looking up centuries in December there didn’t seem to be a 2020 edition and I thought it was just another unknown community bike ride that bit the dust without a sob or a tear. About two weeks ago I stumbled across the announcement for it scheduled to run on February 16 and I thought, “How can they organize a century ride in just weeks without hardly any publicity??”

This annual ride is a fundraiser for Music First, a non-profit in the San Joaquin Valley that provides music and music education. It seems to be a one-man operation and the money raised seems to go to pay for him and his various musical groups to play music in a variety of venues in the valley. That made me suspicious but also earned my admiration: here’s a guy who wants to earn a living making music and if no one will pay him, then he’ll do it himself! The 2020 metric century had an entrance fee of a mere $25, a pittance. That’s an unheard of low cost and would have been cheap even in the 1980s.

Well, Roger and I just had to check this ride out especially slnce Ripon is only about 70 miles from our home, certainly no farther than driving down to Gilroy to do the Tierra Bella and certainly less than going to Gridley for the Velo Love Ride. We lucked out this year with very pleasant sunny weather and mostly clear skies although we did start the ride at 41 F, requiring that we be bundled up. But the forecast high was 69!

The drive out I-580 to State 99 and down to Ripon was clear sailing on an early Sunday morning—it took a little over an hour. Ripon is one of those farm towns in the SJ Valley that you roll through on your way to Yosemite, LA, or—god forbid—Fresno. We’d never been there before and had no idea what it would be like. We pulled into the Ripon Veterans Hall parking lot and were greeted by…not much. There were maybe twenty cars parked in front and roughly that number of folks in cycling kit malingering about. Well, at least there was a ride—I had my doubts—and as one who appreciates the smaller things in life including modest centuries this certainly fit the bill. The bulk of the jerseys were San Joaquin County Cycling Club proving that the locals will turn out for their very own century ride. And contrary to any misconceptions about hick cyclists, there we were amongst Pinarellos, a very pretty and no doubt expensive Calfee tandem, Parlee carbon wonderbikes, and the usual carbon Treks and Specializeds. Nary a Sears bike in sight.

We were doing the metric century but Music First also offers a 40- and a 20-mile ride. Perhaps the shorter rides get a better turnout. Off we went in the crisp winter morning and we felt like real explorers—we saw only a few other cyclists out and spent the bulk of the day riding by ourselves with no other cyclists in sight. Riding in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley means one thing: dead flat roads laid out in rectangular grid fashion. You either appreciate being able to see straight ahead for miles or you bemoan the relatively unchanging scenery. Off to the west you can catch a glimpse of the Contra Costa hills that separate the Valley from Livermore. Other than that you’re stuck looking at various kinds of agriculture, tall farm buildings, and the occasional cell tower. The route was a gigantic clockwise loop that took you nowhere in particular except various farm intersections. The good news was that the almond trees, of which there were an immense number—now I know where all that almond milk comes from—were coming into bloom with their pale pink blossoms. The timing of the ride was certainly spot on this year.

As with the DSSF Velo Love Ride a week ago there was very little automobile traffic out on the ag roads—it mostly had to be local traffic since there was nothing else out there, not even towns. Ripon was the “big city”. However the straight roads encouraged some of the locals to treat them like drag strips—I mean, who the hell are you expecting to “run into” out there anyway? But for the most part we felt pretty safe. On the other hand if you’ve ridden on ag roads in California, you know that they are often minimally maintained. Asphalt is expensive these days and county road budgets don’t have the largesse to keep all the roads in pristine shape. So there was a lot of rough road to crawl over. If you ride out there you’ll enjoy it more with big floaty tires rather than the 23 or even 25mm anorectic rubber you’re used to sporting at home,

Riding in the SJ Valley is different than riding coastside even though both are agricultural. The latter is rolling and even sometimes quite hilly whereas the Valley is pancake flat. You’re not going to find many orchards coastside and it’s mostly cool climate vegetables and fruits such as strawberries, artichokes, and various kinds of brassica. But in the Valley you have a real diversity of plant foods. Near Ripon the primary trees are almonds but just to the west near Patterson are hugs plantations of apricots. We passed grapes, swiss chard, and kohlrabi. There were also large cattle feed lots and either rangeland or fallow fields. When you’re riding in the orchards you’re pretty much submerged in trees and can’t see much else. It’s only when you get out of orchard zones that you can see that there actually are other things being grown.

The metric had three rest stops at roughly 18 mile intervals. The food at the rest stops was exactly the same—smokehouse almonds (duh!), Famous Amos cookies, slices of local oranges, and bottled water—that’s it, and the stops had only one volunteer. Given how small and inexpensive this event is we shouldn’t have been surprised. The rest stops were the only times we actually interacted with any other cyclists, like one or two. But the lack of more substantial food was unfortunate and it led to us blowing off the third rest stop, which also saved us about four miles of repetitive riding. We got back to Ripon around 1 pm and the parking lot was about 2/3’s vacant now. There was no end-of-ride meal nor a check-in: sort of a blah way to end the ride.

Overall it was interesting to ride in the Ripon area but more from a sociological than a cycling point of view. Would we do it again? Unlikely without a substantial change in the ethos of the ride. It’s meant to be a dirt-cheap ride run on a shoestring because it’s a fundraiser. But some of the fun factor got dropped as well. It wouldn’t hurt this event to have slightly better rest stop snacks and a meal at the end, not so much because we’re greedy eaters but because I think participants do want to be slightly coddled and an end-of-ride meal would be a good way for cyclists to hang out a bit before taking off. There was something disappointing and deflating about arriving at the Veterans Hall and seeing no one in sight and just a few pastries thrown on a table with soft drinks. Not even the organizers were anywhere in sight. It’s like hosting a party and then going to bed early while everyone else is raving on. Given that Music First is the beneficiary, it would have been great to have some musicians serenading the cyclists as they came in. But for $25 what do you expect?