Buttes Plug

Boy, it couldn’t have been better than it was last Sunday for the Velo Love ride, a metric century starting in Gridley, CA and going around the anomalous Sutter Buttes. A confluence of incredibly good weather, an early bloom, and a high of 75F was a welcome Valentine. Roger and I have been doing the Velo Love ride for about ten years. Originally this was called the Rice Valley Tandem Rally by Chico Velo, who originated the ride, probably because it’s almost pan-flat and a prime rice growing zone. But at some point they decided a catchier name was the Velo Love Ride since it was usually close to Valentine’s Day.

Scheduling a long ride, in this case a metric century, in February requires chutzpah. The weather is always unpredictable, nay questionable, and winter sloth is hard to shake off especially when it’s very chilly as it is prone to be in the Sacramento Valley. We’ve done this ride when it’s been bone-chilling with dreary, spirit-busting cloud cover and other times when it’s been sunny albeit brisk. However we’ve never done it in rain. Drive 130 miles to spend the day getting soused? That’s positively Seattle-ish! No thanks. In 2017 the rain stopped before the ride and we rode it but turned around at the half-way point when it became clear an upcoming section of road was completely flooded (ahem, rice paddies, darling!) and we’d have to portage the tandem. In 2019 we and Roger S. were planning to go but it rained and we bagged it.

The Velo Love Ride has always been a small event—maybe a couple hundred participants at most—and the unpredictable weather has always been buzzkilling. Chico Velo didn’t put on the event in 2020 because no one in the club wanted to coordinate it. We went up anyway and did it on our own in the worst windstorm I’ve ever ridden in.

This year we struck gold. Climate change apparently means less rain for California and when it comes it’ll be in the form of atmospheric rivers just as we’ve experienced this season. A weird “heat” wave coupled with a month-long dry spell meant not only bone-dry roads but also an early bloom of the almond and plum orchards that surround the Buttes making for a heartwarming flower display. Despite the lack of rain many of the rice paddies—rice being one of the biggest crops in the area—were flooded and filled with birdlife. Coupled with the rich green grass surrounding the Buttes we were visually entertained in a way I can’t remember in all the times we’ve ridden there.

This year we were joined by David Goldsmith, who was inspired by having driven through the area a few years ago and been taken by the almond blossoms. The initial part of the ride is a straight shot west out of Gridley six miles and then drops directly south five miles to get to the loop around the Buttes. You have the pleasure of traversing these segments again on the return; however the west leg out of Gridley is the Colusa Highway and although devoid of traffic early on a Sunday, is not quite so bike-friendly in the early afternoon when you’re returning. Nonetheless even when “busy” this road makes Marin roads seem like superhighways in comparison. Heading south we picked up the very slight tailwind and started to pass the rice fields. The Gray Lodge Wildlife Area is midway, where we made a pitstop and chatted with the rangers who were hosting a veterans’ hunting event. The prodigious number of birds makes this a popular birding area as well.

A couple of miles southward and you’re on the 38-mile loop around the Sutter Buttes. There are still plenty of rice paddies but it’s orchard country. This year the warm weather seems to have sparked the almonds and plums to bloom a bit earlier than usual so we were treated to an explosion of color. Although we’ve done the Velo Love Ride when the trees were flowering, this was by far the brightest and most prodigious number of trees in bloom we had seen. Against the Sutter Buttes the efflorescence was jaw-droppingly picturesque. We kept looking for the best place for the moneyshot. In places where the trees were incandescent they were so tall that they obscured the Buttes; in other places the orchards were so far from the road that they hardly made a dent in your eyeballs. We managed to find a couple of nice locations to frame the entire landscape, Buttes and orchards both.

All this time we were keeping a rather torrid pace despite our searching for photo ops. On flat ground it’s much easier to keep up your speed even if the pavement is typical country road asphalt bouncing you along. Originally I was imagining we’d be taking our time and moseying. Instead we were pacelining! We rolled into Sutter, the halfway point and lunch stop, and bumped into a small crowd of cyclists also having lunch. They were also out for the Velo Love Ride! However they were doing the short loop by starting at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. That cuts out about sixteen miles and makes for a really pleasant bike ride by omitting the Colusa Highway.

After downing our sandwiches we headed out of town and started the only ascent of the day, a gigantic 300-foot climb. Our total elevation gain for the day would be about 400 feet!

The area south and west of the Buttes is mostly ranchland but there were still large orchards interspersed. The road writhes left and right mostly at 90-degree angles that carve out the different properties. By this time I was getting tired and apparently so was David, who hadn’t done a ride this long in over two years. This was Roger’s and my first metric of the year, the last one being the Pedaling Paths to Independence long ago in February 2020 just before the Pandemic broke. We stopped for a break—butts and hands were getting tired as well—and immediately I got a hamstring cramp. Out came the pickle juice. Although David didn’t have cramps, he decided he’d have some as well so we toasted each other with our little green bottles. After more pictures and gabbing we resaddled and took off. I felt much better but nonetheless I had no shame sitting on Roger’s wheel—I wanted to make sure I made it to the end!

We were slowing down and I probably would have gone even slower if I hadn’t had a wheel to follow. There is a point in a century, even one as spectacular as was this Love Ride when it’s all about gritting out the miles. I could feel myself enter that zone: lots of glances at the cyclometer and counting down the tenths of a mile. Gray Lodge, Colusa Highway, city limit sign, finale. Whew. Just under 61 miles. The rolling average was 15.7 mph. Well, by Different Spokes standards that’s a D-pace so quite a bit faster than the B-to-C I had imagined beforehand. Yet another example of club pace inflation. David opined that it wasn’t really because the route was practically dead flat so a higher speed should be expected.

Although we didn’t have a proper meal during the ride, we went to Los Charros just down the street. Two years ago Roger and I found this place and had a delicious meal after doing an exhausting Velo Love Ride with 20-40 mph headwinds. I had had a taco and enchilada plate and after sucking it down I had contemplated ordering another. But I didn’t. Although not quite so hungry nor worn out this time, I was still looking forward to a satisfying meal. In 2020 the place had been almost deserted. Not this time: the place was hopping despite being 2:30 in the afternoon. Was it people tanking up before the Super Bowl? Doubtful: too early and not enough to-go. From the looks of things, the Pandemic is either over in Gridley or else it’s just going to get its second wind: almost no one was making an effort at social distancing and masks inside were rare except on the staff. Maybe it’s because it’s Trump country. We waited for our takeout and sat on the tailgate of the van to woof down our goodies. David had gotten inspired from my story and ordered the taco and enchilada plate. Roger on a lark ordered a “California” burrito; to keep the order simple I did the same. What made it a California burrito was having a raft of french fries rolled into the tortilla along with everything else. It hit all the right notes: (1) huge, (2) friggin’ stuffed, (3) charred, juicy beef, (4) french fries. OMG it was so delicious! I found religion and I’m now a believer.

After bidding goodbye to David, Roger and I rolled back to the Bay Area in the minivan and unlike almost every other Sunday afternoon on I-80 there was hardly any traffic jam outside of Sacramento. Although sitting an additional fifteen minutes on the freeway would merely have given our guts extra time to digest and enjoy a post-ride feeding frenzy, I was glad to make time getting home this year. All in all it was a twelve-hour day: up at 5:30, home at 5:30. A long day bookended by slightly tedious drives but the middle part was so, so worth it. That was a proper Valentine: a long bike ride and a delicious meal (that I didn’t have to make!)

L‘Shana Haba’ah B’Gridley!

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