A picture perfect Spring day. Stunning scenery. Invaluable lessons learned in body fueling and energy efficiency. The joy of riding all day with extremely skilled cyclists without club racer attitude. All this added up to an outrageously positive experience on my first double-century bike ride.
San Marcos Motel, Buellton CA. My friend and travel partner, Charlie Jonas, woke at 4:15 AM and were ready to roll by 5:00 AM, thanks to a lot of gear pre-prep we did the night before. Our hotel was about four miles from the ride start and we had both decided to ride to/from there to get a bonafide 200-mile ride in for the day (the official route was 300K or 190.5 miles). Lights on, we set off into the chilly morning air, blessed to witness the sickle moon setting over the San Rafael Mountain ridge and a faint blue/pink tint of twilight beginning to appear behind it.
The ride officially started in Solvang, California's own quaint "Little Denmark", though to me it appeared more like "Little Disney Denmark". Upon arriving at the Royal Copenhagen Inn, I stripped my light kit off the bike and put it in a paper bag amongst hundreds others in the check-in room that would be shuttled to the fourth checkpoint of the day. At the start line, about 350 double-century registrants -- most in their forties and fifties -- awaited a staggered roll-out. I managed to squeeze my way into the second group of 50 starters, anticipating the need for more daylight time than most others at this event.
Early morning conversations amongst the packs were quite animated especially since many riding groups representing cycling clubs from all over California and Nevada were intact. During the early hours, I was surrounded by riders from the Quackcyclists, Almaden Cycle Touring Club, and San Luis Obispo Cycling Club. I felt like the quiet outsider amidst these groups, until I started chatting with other such "outsiders", all of whom happened to be from the Bay Area themselves.
The early morning's highlight was Foxen Canyon, a gentle rise over 4.5 miles, onto a 1-mile plateau with lunar-like road surface at the base of Lookout Mountain, then 7.5 mile, silky smooth descent into Sisquoc and CP1 (checkpoint, mile 37). As soon we hit the first long stretch of road without many turns ahead, "business" seemed to just naturally begin. Chatter subsided and a tight, single-file paceline of 20 riders fluidly came into formation cruising at around 21-23 mph with everybody working comfortably.
Once at the checkpoint, I started a timer on my watch and went about my rest stop thing. Refill bottles with water and electrolyte drinks. Refill gel flask. Down some solid food. Head for the bathroom - wait - line's too long for the only port-a-john, head for the bushes instead. Stretch. Get back on bike. 14 minutes. Not bad.
The second leg of the ride strung riders out in smaller numbers. I hooked onto another paceline and found myself amidst a sea of California Triple Crown jerseys (a distinction earned by completing at least three qualifying double centuries in one year, which I'm aiming to accomplish). Though highly admirable in the greater cycling community, Cal Triple Crown credentials seemed merely pedestrian in my present company, comprised mostly by Sacramento Wheelemen and Orange County Wheelmen members this time.
I was starting to really appreciate the obvious experience and skills possessed by almost all the riders I'd encountered. These folks are masters of efficiency, group cycling dynamics and self-sufficiency all at once. The pacelines had an organic quality to them, I once mused out loud to Karen, a chemistry professor from Pasadena. It was an utter joy to do as much learning as I did by "osmosis".
I've grown so accustomed to organized century rides and multi-day events that are supported to the hilt, it was actually refreshing to be part of an event that was more "minimalist", thereby respecting/demanding the greater skill level of its ridership. Make no mistake: support on the ride was fantastic; just not overwhelming. There were roving SAG vehicles, very well stocked checkpoints and friendly volunteers. However, there were no markings or marshals on the road to cue turns. The route sheets were our sole guide. If you lost yours, it's up to you to hang with a group that knows the way or your kind'a screwed. True to brevet-style riding.
As we rode through a valley area on the Eastern outskirts of Orcutt, Santa Maria, Nipomo and Arroyo Grande, I tucked behind a tandem whose captain has ridden -- count 'em -- 87 double centuries. We reached CP2 (mile 83) in the Southeast corner of San Luis Obispo at an hour when most stores were only beginning to unlock their doors, yet the sun was already beginning to sting. Off with the arm and knee warmers; the wind vest had already been stashed in my pocket for the last 2 hours. I saw Charlie very briefly at this rest stop, who gave me the thumbs up sign and some encouragement before departing himself. Refill bottles and gel flask, down a PB&J sandwich and a banana, pee and bolt.
I rode out of CP2 alone, but soon caught up with another rider on his own, Stan, from the Vegas Velo racing team who also happened to be attempting his first double. I advised him to keep an easy pace so we could work together and await the arrival of the tandem train I left behind at the last checkpoint. Sure enough, as we rolled along northbound Highway 1 towards the coast, they showed up after about 30 minutes and the express pulled us all the way to the next stop. Not too soon, we caught our first glimpse of the coast at Morro Bay, home to perhaps the largest concentration of Peregrine falcons in all the West Coast. Seeing the Pacific Ocean and Morro rock appear on the horizon and the few remaining miles of riding to the next checkpoint were an incredible high.
I was past the 100-mile mark at this point and feeling quite good; my heart rate averaging at about 150bpm (about 85% of my lactate threshold or 75% of my maximum). So far, my fueling plan was working: take some calories in every five minutes. Eat something every 15 minutes, gel or solid (twice as frequent as I had done in training, thanks to Charlie for the remedial advice). By now, however, I'd long ditched any solid food while on the bike and was sustaining myself entirely on liquid and gel. Charlie himself put it best during one of his first ultra-distance experiences last year: "If you gotta chew it, screw it." Worked like a charm, especially since I was beginning to feel bloated. My on-board nutrition: Hammergel, Cytomax, water and a back-up Clif bar if my body felt the need for solid food.
I caught up with Charlie again at CP3 (mile 115). He said I showed up much sooner this time than the last, so he decided to wait, then ride together for the next two stretches. Here we traversed many of the very same roads used on the AIDS/Lifecycle ride that we both did last year and now fondly revisited. We rode by ourselves for most of the way, except for the few times we joined a couple of guys from the San Fernando Valley Cycling Club. We rolled past familiar locales: Avila, Pismo Beach, Grover, Oceano and the same park in Guadalupe used as a rest stop for AIDS/Lifecycle, now purposed on our ride as CP4. Along the way, we marveled at the site of brilliantly purple ice plant blossoms on the side of lettuce fields.
It was about 2:30 PM when we arrived at Guadalupe and CP4 (mile 144), where our lights were shuttled by ride support. Although we were done with nearly 3/4 of the ride, I decided to install my lights anyway given the likelihood I would still finish the ride in the dark. For the next, 27-mile stretch of the ride, we would stay on just two roads: Highway 1 and Highway 135. I made a critical mistake during this stretch, attempting to join and lead a paceline at about 27mph for a few miles. That, and I probably didn't consume enough sodium in the last couple of hours.
Ten miles from CP5 at Los Alamos, I hit the wall -- big time. The world went dim and I wanted to hurl. I was working alone; no wheels to suck. Still, I caught glimpses of Charlie a quarter-mile ahead pointing at stuff, and I would oblige a glance in that direction to take forced notice of the scenery. Golden poppies on the left, lavender bottle brush blossoms on the right, and an amusing Lincoln Log kit house in the middle of nowhere. That much, I appreciated. Everything else, I wasn't quite giving a rat's ass about. My legs seemed to be turning the cranks fluidly as if on automatic pilot, but four letter words and cries for mommy were all my mind and the rest of my body were preoccupied with. After nearly 15 minutes of virtual slouching, Brad, a guy from Santa Monica riding a fixed gear single speed, appears from behind. He encouraged me for exactly 30 seconds, assuring me that the next checkpoint was minutes away (it was), then spun away from view.
I spent 30 minutes -- twice as long as usual -- at CP5 (mile 172) simply to chill out. Symbolically, the checkpoint was located an old, defunct gas station with rusting fuel pumps, the kind you'd see in a David Lynch flick. I realized I ran the risk of muscles seizing up by being stationary this long, but I needed to heal from the mental bonk more than anything else. I went for extra fuel, too: Cup O Noodles instant soup, dose of Enduro Caps tablets, banana, half a PB&J, roadside yoga, then I was off with questionable determination.
I rode away with a group of riders from the Bullshifters (Phoenix AZ), Davis Bike Club and Los Angeles Wheelmen. Very shortly after the ride's last climb started, I lost contact and rode alone most of the way until the end. This last climb was a crossing over the Purisima Hills ridge along Drum Canyon Road: a 3-mile ascent (think Wildcat Canyon) that would seem easy on any given club ride, but a heartbreaking effort now despite the fact that I was taking full advantage of my triple gearing. The descent into the valley was a bone rattling, bumpy road, which reminded me of the descent from Gumboot Lake of the Mt. Shasta ride I did last year. At the moment, it hardly felt rewarding. Admittedly, the lush, green scenery around this canyon road set against perfect azure skies deserves far more than the attitude I gave it, so I hope to be able to ride it again one day on a much shorter ride to soak it all in again.
The route's last turn left me 10 miles from the finish on a straight line along Highway 246 East through Buellton's remarkable rip-off establishment, Pea Soup Andersen's, then back into Solvang. Upon entering Buellton city limits, I somehow caught my second wind (or was it the third?) and decided to let the hammer down, realizing I had good shot at finishing before 6:00PM. I averaged about 20mph alone on the last five miles and, sure enough, arrived at the check-in at precisely 5:57 PM, about 45 minutes before nightfall.
After checking in, I downed a can of Mountain Dew and chatted a while with people I had met throughout the day. Charlie and I then regrouped, fired up the bike lights and rode leisurely back to our hotel. My legs weren't as fatigued as I expected, but my ass definitely protested. The biggest ride I've ever done was over, but I felt more sober than ecstatic. By the time we pulled into the motel driveway, a hot shower, scandalously huge dinner and a warm room to sleep in were the simple yet majestic pleasures I had to look forward to. I took minor comfort at seeing riders still coming into town after I finished dinner at around 9:00 PM. After all, that's about the time I thought I would finish this ride.
It wasn't until the next morning that I gained full appreciation for what I had accomplished. Even after driving for almost an hour and a half on the freeway heading home, Charlie and I were still pointing out familiar marks along the route we rode. What's more, he reminded me that we just effectively rode one-third of the 7-day AIDS/Lifecycle ride we did last year... in a single day. Whoa. When can I do it again? (Answer: Davis Double, next stop on my Triple Crown bout)
Thanks to all of you who encouraged me during the weeks and months leading up to this. I'll see you on the road again soon.