Sierra Century 200K
I'd always wanted to do this event, but haven't been able in the past due to my participation in AIDS/Lifecycle or AIDSRide, which typically starts off in San Francisco on the same weekend. This year, I found myself suiting up for a long ride as usual, but not with that anticipation before a 7-day journey down the state. But I was with friends, well-rested from a night in a beautiful B&B in Sutter Creek, and eager to discover what I'd been missing all these years.
There's a unique atmosphere to this event that I immediately gathered at the ride start/finish and while on the road. While it's organized by the Sacramento Wheelmen, it starts and finishes in Plymouth, 30 miles East of Sacramento and doesn't go anywhere near the capital city. In a manner of speaking, we were all visitors. And, from what I've heard, there seems to have been some colorful history between an element of the local population and the throngs of visitors who come here every year with their damned bicycles. A story about locals scattering thumb tacks on the ride course two years ago comes to mind.
I was bracing myself for some sort of ugly display of animosity some time in the day; perhaps even a confrontation. But none really materialized, thankfully. The closest manifestation of such hostility came in the form of road graffiti at mile 20, clearly written by a moron, that boldly commanded: "Fuck off, bickers".
I was impressed to see California Highway motorcycle patrol personnel roving the course all throughout the day as if they were part of the SAG team. Perhaps this was what curtailed any uprising or confrontation from unfriendly locals.
Amador and El Dorado Counties are gorgeous riding territory. Scenery is typical of the Western Sierra foothills, but this particular region is splashed with the flavor of 49er gold rush, now overtaken by wine grapes. Surface features are a beautiful mix of evergreen, dry golden hillsides, rambling rivers, and even volcanic rock.
Hills, there were a-plenty; 8,600 vertical feet over the longest course option according to my altimeter (though the organizers advertise a total of about 10,000'). But none of the summits as I remember really offered a typical panoramic vista, which only meant all the elevation gain accumulated from the fact that there really were very few flat sections in the entire ride. The ride's most significant climbs were Rams Horn Grade (mile 43) and the Perry Creek / Slug Gulch combo (mile 74). The latter climb is the most memorable element of the ride, immortalized by a pin awarded to anybody who ascends it that proclaims "I tamed Slug Gulch".
Ride support and route signage was probably the best I'd ever seen in any event I've ridden. It's so comforting (and a luxury) to be able to ride a tough event like this worry-free. There's little chance anybody would get lost on this ride. The roadside directional signs constructed from PVC tubing frames were nearly overkill, but makes it possible to ride all 120 miles without consulting the route sheet.
Everybody I encountered on the ride was very friendly. This appeared to be a favorite amongst tandem teams - there were plenty out there. I especially had a good time hanging out with one couple from Santa Cruz, whose captain had an iPod and a small speaker in his Camelbak playing some rockin' tunes as we labored on the morning's first climbs.
Other favorite moments of the day:
Sutter Creek to Volcano: 12 miles of serene, shaded roadway that traces along Sutter Creek, plopping you into a quaint isolated town (Volcano) characterized by their rock-facade buildings. It was a nice time warp; I really wanted to hang out and just sit a while in Volcano.
Slug Gulch: 6 miles of pain, which explains why lots of people flock to this ride in preparation for the Death Ride. The steep climb was the only real warm spot of the day, but a local family helped cool riders down with a garden hose. Two boys had a system down. One kid would ask as you crawled up one steep grade, "Want a squirt?" The other up the road on active hose duty monitored your response and sprayed accordingly.
CA-88 to Shake Ridge Road: I began to fizzle out as I rode along Omo Ranch Road, a 9-mile stretch with tame-but-continuous ascension. Though nowhere neary as difficult as Slug Gulch, I definitely found it more strenuous at this stage of the ride, perhaps due to lack of fuel. The misery would be immediately erased by a wicked descent down 88 and Shake Ridge Road all the way back to Fiddletown -- 12 miles' worth, if I remember correctly. It was one of the best moments of rejuvenation I'd felt on any ride. This descent alone could be my main motivation to do this ride again whenever.
Major props to the Sac Wheelmen for staging and supporting an excellent event. A ride this highly populated and this remote to club home base is certainly a big challenge. They overcame with flying colors.