I think I'll dub this one "Tour of the Innumerable Pesky Hills". It was double century numero seis for Lisa and me this year, but hardly "just another". While the Marin Cyclists have staged the ride officially only once before, it has taken its firm, rightful place in the California Triple Crown family. Without doubt, it's one of the most challenging rides on the Triple Crown calendar, but it definitely has its own character as well.
15,000 feet of elevation gain in 200 miles might be the event's main claim to fame, but the beautiful scenery offered by the daylong adventure is a top-class offering as well, even to folks who may call the parcours their back yard. The route begins and ends in San Rafael, and essentially takes riders along a path that showcases the best of Marin County cycling. Lucas Valley, Alpine Lake, Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods, the Pacific Coast, Nicasio Valley, Tomales Bay, Bodega Bay, Coleman Valley, Chileno Valley: really, a dreamer's bike ride.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this ride compared to other double centuries is its brand of hilliness. One might assume that a ride that racks up about 15K feet of climb has to traverse some major mountain passes. Not so here. In fact, Mt. Tam is the only major climb and summit throughout the whole ride, with a peak at a mere 2,500 ft. above sea level. There are only three other notable climbs throughout the ride: the Marshall "Wall", Bay Hill and Coleman Valley -- but none of these are particularly long nor high. Translation: all elevation gain is served up through an endless series of 100-300 ft. rolling hills throughout the course. Really, there's hardly ANY flat stretch on this ride.
EVERYBODY ON THEIR OWN SCHEDULE
Lisa and I arrived at Vallecito Elementary School in San Rafael at around 4AM, deciding to check in the day of the ride. As we pulled into the parking lot, there were scores of riders already departing. Lots were taking advantage of an earlier start to better their odds against the 10PM overall course cutoff. "Big Ring" Dave Evans was so determined to be an official finisher on this ride, in fact, that he was actually on his way at 3AM. Lisa and I hadn't even hit the alarm clock snooze button by then. Dave did finish this ride, his 114th lifetime completed double century (and the dude's well into his 70s).
Among the 4AM starters was a friend, Dana, who probably was the main instigator that ultimately convinced Lisa to sign up. And once Lisa signed up, I felt the need to tag along. Dana, who had already bagged her first Triple Crown this year with 3 flatter double centuries, had expressed a lot of nervousness about this ride. She went as far as saying that she was convinced she wouldn't be able to finish a ride like this, but it was great to see her giving it her best shot. I already knew it would take less than that for her to finish this ride.
I personally decided to sign up for this ride at the very last minute. Knowing that I had a family reunion in LA to attend on the same weekend, it seemed hardly prudent to sign up for one of the most difficult double centuries in the state. But I did anyway, and re-planned my trip so I'd leave on Sunday instead (granted, needing to be in the airport by 5AM the next day to make the flight).
If that plan sounded ambitious, how about this? I encountered a father and son riding together in the early hours, outfitted in matching RUSA (Randonneurs USA) jerseys. Joseph lives in Mountain View, but his son Sebastian flew in from New York one day before just to do the ride, and was planning to fly out again Sunday at noon. What a lovely way to spend time on a family visit.
TURN ON THE INFRARED VISION AND FIRE UP THE MENTAL IPOD
Joseph, Lisa and I formed a nice trio of blazing Schmidt headlights that torched through the foggy morning along Lucas Valley and Nicasio Valley. Daybreak finally arrived as we descended upon Woodacre, and sunrise finally shone above the ridges once we reached Pine Mountain. For the rest of the day, the weather would be downright divine -- hardly a surprise given our proximity to the coast. It probably never once exceeded 85F all day (great for August); in fact, it was probably below 70F for much longer than I anticipated, thanks to persistent fog.
The morning fog that surrounded the descent from Mt. Tam was so thick that visibility closed in to less than 50 feet in so many places. Ever seen the film House of Sand and Fog? Based on a dispute over of a home in Marin County, half of its transition scenes were soaked in fog. This is what it was like, with many moments of near white-out. Freaky. Dew accumulated so quickly on my glasses, that I had to ride without them for the next 2 hours or so.
Between Pine Mountain and Nicasio (mile 22 to 110), I pretty much rode by myself. Occasionally a cyclist or two passed me, and seldom did I pass any other rider, but there just didn't seem to be too many opportunities for pacelining. I felt content to just find my comfort zone and just enjoy the scenic individual time trial. I don't make a regular habit of riding with headphones, especially on event rides, but the stretch from Muir Beach to Hicks Valley would have been a nice time to have them on with some hand picked tunes.
The seeping monotony was broken on the way to Dogtown on Highway 1, where a whole bunch of Corvettes passed in the same direction. Road rally or club drive, it appeared. Despite the obvious muscle underneath the hoods of these cars, the drivers were surprisingly calm to pass with plenty of room.
FEELING JOSEBA BELOKI
My well-maintained state of calm and balance during my solo exploits quickly got upset while descending on Dillon Beach Rd on the way to Valley Ford. After rounding a corner at about 35MPH and accelerating quickly down a straightaway, a large bug (bee?) smacked me hard in the face. I flinched for a moment and lost focus on the road. A very large group of potholes and bumps came to view and looked like a destroyer ready to take me out.
I hit the brakes... a bit too hard, that my rear wheel locked up and, at that very same moment, made contact with a sizable bump on the road. The rear wheel caught air while I was fishtailing right... then came down and bounced up again, then started fishtailing left. I was starting to feel like I was re-enacting Joseba Beloki in the '03 Tour de France, but I certainly did NOT want the same fate. Meanwhile, the nasty bumps and holes were now down to 50 feet ahead of me, quickly approaching. I let both brakes go, still flying down the hill and just hopelessly headed for the bad patch of road. Fuck it. Let the mountain bike skills take over and roll over the damn thing as lightly as you can. Bunnyhopping was no option at this point. I was sure I was gonna pinch flat both tires now at the very least. If I was lucky, I'd stay upright.
Perch... wait... LIFT. Fahhrrrrump BBAAM! DANG. It was way worse than I thought, but I got past the sucker, still upright, tires still inflated, wheels round and true. Phewww!!!!!!!! Whoa BABY!
RIDE SUPPORT: WHAT'S THE FINAL WORD?
Having survived that bit, I immediately made a mental note to communicate a suggestion for one major improvement the Marin Cyclists could incorporate into this ride: painted marks to identify significant road defects, bumps and holes on technical course sections. Cuz, man, there were lots of them on this ride. The Grizzly Peak Cyclists have done this for several years on their century and I imagine the Marin Cyclists can follow by example for the some 1,500 riders who flock to their event these days (about 250 on the DC).
I don't mean to sound like I'm griping about the ride support. Truthfully, I found it to be among the best I've had on any double century (measured by my own perception of basic ultradistance needs). Rest stops were stocked very well with the essentials for a double century rider; good products, no less. Mobile SAG vehicles were frequently present on course all day. One particular guy in the morning appeared so frequently, I could have sworn he was a ghost. But then he actually also helped me hoist my bike over the closed gates on Ridgecrest Rd on the way to the top of Mt. Tam.
I do recognize that the Marin Cyclists pull off a major coup by holding their double century simultaneously with 200k, 100mi and 100k rides as well. Organizationally and logistically, this is VERY challenging. Several folks who did the double have reported some dissatisfaction (to put it mildly in some cases) with the nature of the support, specifically because of widely spread resources. Some insisted the double century rest stop supplies were not well varied until the stops that were shared with the other routes. I hardly thought so. But then again, I don't pay my registration fees in the hopes of being pampered on a ride... just assured that some reliable folks got my back.
One major flub I did encounter was a water stop on Coleman Valley Rd that ran out of water. I'm told this problem was remedied some time after I passed through. I've always found rest stops running out of water to be a fundamental no-no in ride organization. It's so inexpensively avoidable, but I suppose this can happen to the best planned and run events once in a while.
RE-ENTERING THE SOCIAL REALM... JUST IN TIME
I caught up to Dana at the halfway point during lunch and we rode together from about mile 110 to mile 170. She looked very comfortable on her bike as she did during a night ride we did earlier in the week. My assurances -- and her delightful surprise -- that she'd finish well before 10PM did manifest themselves in the end.
It was nice to have company for a change, especially on Bay Hill and Coleman Valley. The latter was probably the one feature of the course I was most concerned about, as I knew from having descended the hill many times before how steep the climb would be from the coast. It turned out to be much more manageable than I imagined. No one can deny that it was tough, but the steep section doesn't last terribly long. Thankfully, good weather was still on our side. A hot day would definitely made Coleman Valley a bigger bear.
When we got to the arbitrary summit of Coleman Valley, the water stop sans water had some cold sodas to offer instead. Stupidly, I opted to press on with probably no more than 2 ounces of fluid in my bottles. I figured I'd stop by a store below the hill to get some water and a Payday bar. But when I turned on to the next road, I quickly remembered: there ain't no store between here and Valley Ford. Shit. I carefully rationed what few sips I had left in each of my bottles, but still ran out of fluids completely and ran dry for about a half hour during the warmest time of day. Thanks to Dana, I at least had one more gulp of Perpetuem during the dry spell, but upon reaching Valley Ford again, I pounded down 3 bottles of fluids and salt-laden snacks galore. What relief.
The next section to Petaluma turned out to be a very relaxed ramble. At this point, I wanted to reconnect with Lisa, who was further behind the ride by now than I expected. Dana and I encountered our first real paceline all day when a group of cyclists decided to suck wheel for a while. We quickly detached from it, too, since as soon as I finished my pull, the group upped their pace. Pricks. Just as well. I really didn't want to be riding fast then anyway.
At McNear Park in Petaluma, I persisted with waiting until Lisa showed up so we could finish the ride together. I urged Dana to move on whenever she was ready, and I stayed behind yakking away with Rob Hawks, who was staffing the checkpoint, and Dave Lipsky, who was on multiple SAG duty (I saw him wrenching bikes at Valley Ford earlier). As I waited, it was great to see and chat with so many familiar folks rolling in and out of the rest stop. Among them, fellow O-towner Dave Clemes, chipper as ever. Mahesh and Adam, on their second double century endeavor, were also looking fresh and on track to finish with a very good time.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
As Lisa and I departed the Petaluma checkpoint together, the last words we heard from Rob were "Try to get off Pt. Reyes-Petaluma before dark." Remembering the volume of traffic there and the complete lack of shoulder on the roadway, I then realized why this was good advice, and started riding like it was an urgent objective, even pushing Lisa up some of the inclines to keep the pace up. At the time, I'm not sure if she understood why I was such in an antsy hurry, or if she was getting annoyed with me pushing her. My guess is she was glad to put up with it as she confessed having an unusually difficult time riding by herself for most of the day (unlucky to have not encountered any pacelines herself).
We did get into safer territory (Nicasio Valley Rd) about 15 minutes before nightfall. And so we came upon Lucas Valley once again, mostly in the dark. What a strange feeling to have been on the bike all day, twice on this road, and yet not been able to see the hillsides on this 7 mile canyon stretch. Yet the sense of proximity to the finish (and good road surfaces the rest of the way) made it all the more rewarding to be there.
The same could be said, of course, about pulling into the main courtyard of the school at the finish, checking in, and hanging out with fellow a caballero Dan while we chowed on our post-ride meal. Dan had unwillingly abandoned the ride due to a busted pedal cleat, and was waiting for another friend of ours, Doug, to finish the ride. We didn't make much of the vegetarian lasagna as we shoveled fork loads of it into our mouths, but it definitely left me still craving for a greasy gutbomb cheeseburger afterwards.
Overall, I was extremely happy about my ride, and probably had what it took to finish during a daylight hour. But I was even more content with having felt very relaxed all day and finishing comfortably, despite a 2-week-old battle with a chronic cough (later determined to be caused by pneumonia). I think not caring one bit about whether I'd finish the ride or not really helped me enjoy it so much more. Thanks to excellent route marks on the road, I never once had to consult my map nor have to anticipate the hills that lay ahead (I mostly knew where they were anyway). I never really even looked at my clock nor bike computer all day either. Care... Free.
From the time we got back from Marin, I had about 8 hours before meeting my family in LA. Boy did I wish I could have just slept in, but I knew I brought this madness upon myself. And I was actually more anxious about the family reunion than the ride. There were some relatives I'd see for the first time in over 15 years. I suppose that, as with high school reunions, it's always nice to show up at the party with a notable story to tell. I had another.