In a mere thirteen hours, I underwent a silly and delightful emotional metamorphosis. From neurotic, nervous and reluctant to carefree, elated and gratefully accomplished.
During the days leading up to this ride, I obsessed mainly about the weather conditions we'd have to endure and whether or not I was physically prepared to take on a ride with 15,500 feet of climbing. On one hand, a long season of cycling with even less climbing-specific preparation than the prior year had begun to wear me out. My ability to recover fully, ride for ride, clearly began to diminish. Every solo outing I'd done last month was a serious motivational battle. On the other, Weather Channel forecasts painted an ominously familiar picture of the cold rain I endured during this same event one year ago.
My goals this year were simple: stay with my ride companions--Lisa and Kevin--whose arms I twisted to come along, abandon the need for speed and just enjoy the ride as long as I could without feeling completely destroyed afterwards. But I really, really wanted to taste the climb--okay, the descent--on Mt. Shasta this year. Secretly, I also hoped I would feel and perform as my ride companions appeared to me last year. On that occasion, Clement, Charlie and Clay, were inspiringly weightless as I trailed far behind in utter agony on the three climbs we completed, which didn't include the final ascent on Mt. Shasta due to weather-related road closure and time constraints.
We arrived at Shasta city Saturday night, having traveled through periods of heavy downpour along the way. Sunday morning, one look out the window assured me that Mother Nature was going to encore last year's dramatic show. Thick, dark clouds enshrouded the whole region and the air smelled of imminent rain. Haphazardly underdressed, I set off with Lisa and Kevin at 5:45 AM from the hotel and straight onto the ride route. My wardrobe was decidedly minimalist: a short sleeved jersey with no base layer, arm warmers, half finger gloves, a wind vest and packed a painters drop cloth in my pocket to stuff under my jersey for the chilly descents. I left the rain cape behind by choice. Before the first drop of rain fell, all my cares were already soaked. An epic journey lay ahead of us.
The Main Cast of Climbs:
#1, mile 16: Parks Creek Summit, 3,820' gain in 12 miles
#2, mile 66: Mumbo Summit, 3,400' gain in 9 miles
#3, mile 88: Castle Lake, 2,240' gain in 7 miles
#4, mile 106: Mt. Shasta, 4,470' gain in 14 miles
I felt like Pinnochio the Tour Guide in the early morning. I was pointing in this direction and that, mostly for my own benefit, while assuring Kevin and Lisa the gorgeous views I promised did exist behind the wall of low clouds. These became more apparent to their own eyes, however, as we began the first major ascent up Parks Creek in the Trinity National Forest. Clay caught up with us--as many would throughout the climb-- and we enjoyed brief chatter with him. Shortly thereafter, he sailed up ahead of us away from sight in no time. We kept our pace and good spirits. The views of the evergreen valleys revealed themselves. I felt a little vindicated.
The descent was as much an exhilarating treat as I remembered. Constantly fast and occasionally treacherous as the road surface was beaten up in a few sections and the sweeping turns were not bordered by guardrails. What's more, rain began to fall as we made our way down. An extra helping of adrenaline and caution came with breakfast.
Judging by the number of cyclists I saw during the climb and descent on Parks Creek, I'm guessing there were no more than 200 cyclists attempting the super century. This is a big part of why I love this ride so much. Adequate support, yet such sparse population and minimal vehicular traffic that affords you a truly peaceful environment true to its surroundings.
En route to our second climb just before reaching Gumboot Lake and the South Fork of the Sacramento River, we caught sight of Joe and Matt, fellow travelers from the Oakland Yellowjackets, who had their sights set on the century option of this ride. Later on, we'd learn that they cursed the rain and called it a day after 70 miles and two climbs.
Just past the bridge over Fawn Creek, Lisa noticed her rear tire losing air--thanks to an innocent looking piece of glass buried deep in the tread. I helped in the quick repair as a mobile SAG volunteer simply looked on for lack of a floor pump in his vehicle. Were it not for the fact that we were adequately equipped, we probably would not have found the episode as amusing as it was at the moment.
This brings up my personal impression of the organization and support on this ride: Don't expect much. In fairness, I should say the local volunteers were extremely friendly and willing, keenly experienced with the weather threats, and really had things together as far as radio communication goes. Their presence is visible and reassuring, so I've never felt less than safe on the ride, yet I've discovered the need to take everything the folks say with a grain of salt. For instance, they realized a mileage error on their route sheets last year, yet failed to update them this year. The total ride amounts to 136 miles, while the route sheets indicate 127. By the lunch stop, the route sheets are already 6 miles off. What's more, rest stop crews throughout the day constantly understate the length and grades of the climbs. Whatever. I say swallow the 30 bucks you paid (a bargain anyway), live with it and love it. Keep riding and appreciate the lessons learned in "winging it".
The second climb past Gumboot Lake as I recalled was the most difficult of the day due to its grade. Even so, the boulder-strewn, rambling waters of the Sacramento River below were my favorite scenic backdrop once again. I specifically remember the agony I felt last year pressing up the steeper sections of this climb, which forced me to stop several times midway. I felt remarkably better this time, noting that I was actually pedaling the same gear ratio as on my last encounter, only with much greater efficiency. My perception was that the climb was not easy, but more manageable. And that was good enough for me. As far as I was concerned, my ride was already complete and I didn't care if weather spoiled the rest of the day.
Upon reaching the lunch stop at Mumbo Summit, we learned the roadway was closed down after we began our ascent due to inclement weather and potential flooding. Kevin, who had climbed ahead of Lisa and me had just finished lunch, appeared cold and dejected, and explicitly questioned his will to continue. Later, it was amazing to see how quickly his mood turned around, despite the fact that we were the very last to depart the rest stop (thanks to the road closure), and that we descended the road in--surprise, surprise--pouring rain. Yes, it was the same road we were told about in the same sentence as the phrase "potential flooding". We encountered no floods, thank goodness, but got a taste of seriously bumpy surfaces in some stretches that must have loosened all the bolts on my bike.
Our lunch time companions were quite a hoot. a brood of riders from the San Francisco based "Team DFL". I had noticed a large group of these riders last year. There appeared to be even more of them on the ride this year. I couldn't resist asking one of them what "DFL" stood for as I'd never heard of the club before. The sheepish answer I got during the climb: "Dead Fucking Last". Hilarious, I thought--but insultingly deceiving. They were clearly among the strongest bunch on the road. Even more amazing to hear that 40 of them were on the ride, having celebrated the new house belonging to one of their local members with a cocktail party the night before that lasted till past midnight. Animals.
While we lunched at Mumbo Summit, word on SAG radio announced Shasta was still open, even as any hope of improved weather was as good as a fairy tale about the Blair Witch. I suggested skipping Castle Lake (the most "junior" of the ride's climbs) and head straight to the Mt. Shasta climb while it was still an option. Lisa and Kevin trusted my judgement as this would also alleviate our concerns about reaching the summit before the last rest stop's cut-off time. Along the way, we stopped (thanks to Kevin's spontaneous urge to sightsee) and absorbed the beauty of a canyon below the dam on Siskiyou Lake. Between this grandeur and the sight of the tiniest fawn I'd ever seen crossing the road in front of us moments before, my heart melted. I'm such a softie.
Onwards and upwards. The climb on Mount Shasta itself turned out to be a real treat. We felt bonafide sunshine on our shoulders most of the way up to the summit--imagine that. The road even dried up along the way, and I remarked on the humidity caused by the rapid evaporation. The climb itself was long, but its grade forgiving. Think of Tunnel Road in the East Bay that goes on constantly for a whopping 14 miles. Tolerable, but quite possibly murderous on tired and worked-up legs.
After what seemed to be forever and a day, we reached the summit at the old ski bowl. There was no holy grail. But there was the sight of Kevin, visibly rewarded by his efforts, now donning a black garbage bag underneath his rain cape, the effect of which made it appear like he had a plastic mini skirt on. Cute.
A new, accidental ride buddy, Michael snapped a picture of us three and time will tell how good the photo is as Michael's hands and entire body were shivering dramatically. A few minutes passed, I was perfectly content chatting with the locals and inhaling cheese and smoked tofu inbetween moments relishing the breathtaking view of the towering mountain above. Below us, clouds instantaneously darkened and began obscuring the tiny, distant town from which started, while thunder claps grew audibly closer. Prudence told me to stop hovering over the food table, giddy up, and get moving.
The descent was--ohmigosh. Unbelieveable. On a dry day, it's quite possible to descend the whole way--all fourteen miles--without once touching your brakes. What a finale! Of course, as luck would have it, we would be treated to extra-special circumstances.
About halfway down the mountain, the sky opened up and unleashed monsoon rain that legends are written about. Dollar-sized raindrops (yes, that's hyperbole), lightning, thunder. Water felt like it was drilling holes in my cheeks. Salt from helmet pads was stinging my eyes, a quick reminder I was actually perspiring all day beneath my sodden garb. A car's windshield wipers on turbo-speed would have trouble with this downpour. But I loved every moment of it, screamed in utter delight and boyishly bombed down the mountain. After about 12 miles, I stopped to wait for Kevin and Lisa whom I had passed before the storm arrived. Turns out they were both offered a ride down in a SAG vehicle and they refused! From there, it was straight to our hotel's neighboring cafe, warm beverages and a hot shower, and rejoining Joe and Matt for dinner, peppered with juvenile superlatives.
I'm resigned to believing the wildly fickle weather patterns we've seen here two years in a row are standard fare for this ride. I don't care. Health and physical condition permitting, I'll be making this pilgrimage again next year. We traveled a long way to get here, got so much more than we bargained for; we played the surprise hand and I learned an important lesson all over again: life...is...good.
Just like last year, the day immediately following the ride was blessed with sunshine and a cloud-free, blue sky. An amusing slap in the face, it was. No matter, Lisa and I took full advantage of this by driving up the mountain and impulsively hiking up to the snow line. Making snowballs in August: priceless.