Saturday, April 30th marked the 10th anniversary and running of the Quackcyclist's famous Devil Mountain Double Century ("DMD"). Which means about 11 years ago, when people still rode bikes that made you feel more "at one" with Earth's gravitational pull, some guys in a streak of masochistic curiosity sat at a round table and plotted a mean experiment. They decided to see if road cyclists from all over might shell out money to do something as ridiculous as a 207-mile bike ride with nearly 19,000 feet of cumulative vertical gain. In one day.
Clearly, it caught on. This year, Lisa and I were among the ranks of DMD freshmen with eager hopes to whip the devil. Between the time we signed up for the ride in early February and the morning of the ride, we were under no illusion that just finishing it would be comparable to any other California Triple Crown event we've done. We definitely expected it to require much, much more from us -- physically and mentally -- than we've ever had to endure.
As with all double centuries and all sorts of new endurance challenges, a successful finish is never guaranteed, regardless of how many things you might have done 'right' to prepare for it. There are just so many variables that can conspire against you. Effects of weather, wellness, moods, social encounters, bike function, clothing, timing, and the sum of all things that determine whether you're "on" or not that day. And before you even push the pedals once, you have to be willing to accept that some of those things might spell the end of the day for you; others, you might be able to dance with. Most of all, the only thing that should ever matter is being able to come out of the event safely, whether or not you've met your goal.
Luckily for us, our preparation for DMD was sufficient, all surprises left under covers, our wits intact enough to improvise with the ever-changing demands of a ride like this, and bodies and minds willing to suffer in cooperative harmony. We pulled it off on our first attempt, together, without incident and enjoyably. We couldn't ask for more.
PUMPING UP TO WHIP... OR BE WHIPPED?
Preparing for the big event was for us, in many ways, as challenging as the ride itself. The fact that it takes place relatively early in the year meant that we had to be in our March fitness level by January, then rack up long and difficult miles all throughout Winter.
I had put on about 2,500 miles of road riding since Thanksgiving. In that same time period, I'd completed over 10 self-supported 100+ mile rides: nearly half of all started and/or finished in the dark. And we had the Solvang Double Century in late March to use as a distance tune up. Some mountain biking, tandem riding, loaded bike randonneuring and cross-country skiing helped vary the flavor of the preparatory months, and clearly paid off in their own ways.
Still, as overwhelming as this may all seem in retrospect, it felt as if it was barely enough. For as much climbing as Lisa and I may have done in our riding since January, we probably could have... should have done more. But some minds always insist you ALWAYS need more. Sort of like what car companies like to tell us.
We took half of Friday off so that we could ensure getting prepared for the big day without any need to rush. I spent an hour fastidiously cleaning and tuning the bikes, then we headed off to the San Ramon Marriott to get checked in at 5PM, and hoped we would have been able to eat an early supper and hit the sack by 8PM. Despite all the precise orchestrations of pre-ride day, we didn't manage to get to bed until after 10PM. That translated to about 5 hours of sleep at best.
As luck would have it, each of us had no more than two hours of real sleep. The alarm rang at 2:45, by which time I'd already been awake for nearly 2 hours, so I didn't even bother with the snooze button, got up straight away and started getting ready. Lisa managed to get true shut-eye for at least the two final hours, thanks to a half-dose of Benadryl. Unexpected anxiety, as it happens, and much less sleep than most people would get before a day of fishing would turn out to be just one of those things we'd have to deal with.
At five minutes to 5AM, we were assembled at the courtyard of the Marriott hotel with maybe about 60-70 other cyclists. As we received our last-minute instructions from the ride director, Lisa and I looked at each other with that "Here goes nothing" countenance. I reminded her that we'd probably be better off at the back of the pack straight away and that we would have to ignore the mortifying probability of being off the back all day.
As we rose up Bollinger Canyon road on the way to Blackhawk, I immediately remembered the last time I had been up that way. In fact, it was the first time I'd ever joined an organized ride: the MS Society's Top Hat Classic, which at the time started from Bishop Ranch, just five years ago. I felt quite content to be "floating" up the hill by comparison to that occasion.
Along Blackhawk Rd, Lisa and I spontaneously burst into chatter like it was the start of any other weekend ride. This and the gobbles of unseen wild turkeys on the side of the road seemed to have distracted us enough, so by the time we reached the south gate of Mt. Diablo, the game was on and we both looked forward to the day ahead with a more relaxed attitude.
All sorts of other beautiful things to witness while climbing Mt. Diablo made the early hours even more special. Wild hares darting all about. A giant, pink sunrise on the horizon behind layers of morning fog. The same fog that would enshroud us halfway up, and that we would rise above on the way to the 3,850' summit.
Weeks before the ride, Lisa and I agreed that we would ride at our own individual pace. While this meant we would split up for some time on the course, as it happened on the early slopes of Mt. Diablo, we were both convinced there was a good chance we'd hook up again down the road. Historically, I start off on long rides a bit quicker than Lisa, and she usually finds greater strength in the second half of the ride. Knowing this, we were both anticipating to cross paths again at the San Antonio Valley / Mines Road junction and hoped to ride the rest of the way together. Later on, that prediction would prove itself bullseye accurate.
By the time I reached the summit, I was probably among the last fourth of all the riders who had set off at 5AM. The fast pack, which left on a second wave start at 6AM, were not very far behind. In fact, they were about halfway up Summit Rd. by the time I encountered them on my descent.
After descending the north side of Mt. Diablo, we encircled the mountain base, through the town of Clayton to face the next notable challenge. In the days leading up to this ride, there was some doubt as to whether we would be able to travel on Morgan Territory Road from Clayton to Livermore. Earlier in the month, Contra Costa County's public works had actually closed the road down completely to all vehicular traffic (including bicycles) due to heavy damages resulting from the Winter's rains. Luckily, they granted the Quacks a waiver to use the road for DMD, but there would be no vehicular SAG available on the Western ascent.
The first of the superfast 6AM start bunch began to pass me even just as I turned onto Morgan Territory from Marsh Creek Rd. Still more passed me when the climb up the lunar-surfaced single-lane road began in earnest. Among them was accomplished ultradistance racer from Idaho, Bruce Carroll, whom I've had the great pleasure of meeting and riding with on far more leisurely days. On these slopes, he appeared and disappeared from my view in a matter of 20 seconds. Later, I'd find out he finished the whole dang ride before the sun even set. Simply awesome.
I didn't concern myself for one moment that I would probably be way off the pace of the "average" DMD rider. Lisa and I had just one objective in mind: SURVIVAL. Enjoyment was imperative, too, but that notion can manifest itself in so many twisted ways in the context of voluntary suffering. All in all, it meant riding with deep respect for our own limitations. By the time I crested Morgan Territory, it appeared I was doing a good job at it. I was feeling pretty fresh and eager to move on with just 5 minutes at the regional park checkpoint.
ALTAMONT & PATTERSON PASS
At the bottom of the descent towards Livermore known as The Plunge, I hooked up with a returning DMD rider, Iva Hradilova, with whom I decided to trade pulls for a while. The timing of the encounter couldn't have been more perfect, as the next stretch of the course is typically the one most beset by winds. Spinning windmills scattered all about the range made it clear that we'd have to deal with these winds for quite a while. I was thankful for her company and what insight she offered about the rest of the ride.
The first notable element of the ride Lisa and I feared most wasn't so much the series of big climbs in the morning. We knew those well. But it was the 1PM cut-off we had to beat at the Mines Rd / Del Valle checkpoint. Missing this cut-off means not being permitted to continue riding the full double century course for historically proven logistic and safety reasons. While riding to a 91-mile mark on a course in 8 hours might seem easy to some in theory, it's a worthy challenge in itself to all but the very experienced ultradistance riders and racers, especially considering that those miles includes trips up Mt. Diablo, Ygnacio Valley, Morgan Territory, Altamont Pass and Patterson Pass.
While I never doubted during our prep rides that either of us would be able to make the cut, I began to feel concerned about it as I made my way towards Altamont Pass. This is when I made my first and only real mistake of the day by picking up a slightly urgent pace and riding in the red zone, keeping up with Kerin Huber, whom I've seen on many other rides, and who I also knew to be capable of serious pacemaking. I realized my overzealousness after about 10 minutes of excitement and eased off the gas.
Thankfully, I did this soon enough that I was able recover a bit before the climb up Patterson Pass. This climb is the one that seems to gather mixed reactions from most DMD finishers I've spoken with. Some brush it aside, others say it's one they always dread. For me, it was the last thing between the morning hours behind and the cutoff that I was getting more and more neurotic about. And for that reason alone, it probably felt more difficult than it was. The words "Oh... my... god..." chalked on the pavement, just before the last stretch of sharply rising road were pretty appropriate.
I got to the Mines Rd. checkpoint with about 40 minutes to spare before the official cutoff. While this was cause for some relief, I was now faced with the daunting task of the 115 OTHER miles left to ride, which by popular opinion also happen to be the more difficult stage of the ride. Two weeks before, I imagined that Mines would be my biggest trouble spot. This prediction, too, was dreadfully accurate.
I now know first-hand the sort of challenge the DMD 1PM cut-off poses. Quite a few others who started the day at 5AM would not make this cut, or would consume themselves in order to make it, only to realize they didn't have enough in their reserves to go on. It's a bummer (to say the least) to get all the way here only to realize you've been too slow.
By 12:30P, I was already on the slopes of Mines Rd. I rode alone nearly all the way on the 25-mile stretch to the Junction. It turned out to be the most mentally challenging stretch of road I'd ride that day. Fatigue was starting to set in. I was yawning uncontrollably and frequently, an unmistakable sign of my sleep deprivation. I was feeling too warm during the initial climb, then too cold as I neared the Junction. There were many moments I felt I was losing my mind, wondering just how the hell I was going to keep on going. There was nobody around traveling in my direction with whom I could commiserate.
By contrast, there were huge numbers of cyclists zooming down the opposite direction, all of whom were probably on the Mt. Hamilton Challenge ride staged on the same day. Many on those ride are familiar with the fact that DMD coincides with their event, so I noticed many smiles and gestures of encouragement shown my way. Still, I vainly hoped not to be seen by anybody I knew because, knowing how horribly I felt at that point, I was sure I looked a thousand times worse.
The miles on Mines Rd. poured on like molasses from a water bottle. It was nearly unbearable. But 4 miles from the junction, I finally bridged to another hurting cyclist, who barely even had enough energy to humor me in conversation. But we were both so relieved to rediscover that there were two notably fast descents on the way to the Junction. This definitely picked up my spirits for the mere fact that I was going to hit the next target sooner than I anticipated. And before long, I was ordering my cheeseburger and fries, chatting with some of the motorcyclists at the bar.
One such motorcyclist seemed uncharacteristically interested in our congregation of cyclists and asked me a whole bunch of questions. Turns out the fella used to ride a road bike a lot in a not too distant past. He wondered, "So are you guys on a century or somethin'? Where'd you start from?"
"We're on a double century. We started in San Ramon. We're halfway through." I did my best to refrain from fanfare and drama.
"Wow, man. That's great. Hey have you heard of that Rosarita-Ensenada ride down in Mexico? Is this ride harder 'n that?"
Brother... if you only knew, I thought to myself. "Yup."
Twenty minutes later, Lisa showed up like a breath of fresh air and found me in the cafe, still waiting for the damn burger. She said there were sandwiches outside being served by the Quacks, but I was insistent on my burger and lunch food that appeared outside for even a moment was scarfed up by the cyclists turned piranhas. I was in no mood to hunt and fight for my lunch.
SAN ANTONIO VALLEY & MOUNT HAMILTON
By the time I finished the gutbomb of a meal, I had accumulated about 45 minutes at the Junction. So I broke another cardinal rule of mine on these ultradistance rides with regards to minimal time off the bike, but at that point really didn't give a rat's ass. I needed the food, I needed the rest, I was really happy to see Lisa and comforted by the fact that we could ride the rest of the way together, so long as she didn't drop my tiring bee-hind.
Lisa was lucky to have the company of Randy and Dave, a couple of guys from the Sacramento 'burbs, to help pass her time and miles on Mines Road. As we departed the Junction and headed into San Antonio Valley, so did they, and I relished the conversations with them as much as I enjoyed my lunch. And there were many lapses in conversation each time we encountered another of many meadows exploding in color of the wildflower blooms.
The chipper nature of our conversations wouldn't last long after we began our ascent on the Eastern side of Mt. Hamilton. Inevitably, Randy and Dave would charge ahead and we'd crawl up the slopes at our own pace. The climb itself isn't long, but it's interminably relentless, rising over 2,100 feet in just 5 miles to the 4,200' summit of Mt. Hamilton, with very few areas of relief that fall below an 8% grade.
To add insult to injury, very noticeable mile markers painted on the middle of the road indicate in descending order how much you've got left to travel before reaching the summit. Having ridden this climb at least twice before, I knew full well that the progression of 4 to 3 to 2 would be a very slow one, but today's was doubly, torturously so. In a glass-half-full moment, both Lisa and I were pretty jazzed by one simple fact: we already could lay claim to doing Mt. Diablo and Mt. Hamilton in a single day. Alas, the day was FAR from over.
The long but cold descent from the Western side of Mt. Hamilton was a real welcome reward. Boiled potatoes and hot chocolate served up by volunteers at the next checkpoint at Grant county park sweetened the deal even more. On any given day, most would probably consider this a ghastly culinary combination. But at mile 140, it was just the ticket.
Thank goodness, too, for the energy boost from the potatoes. It was just the fuel I needed for the next, and perhaps biggest slap in the face of the ride: Sierra Road. I struggled to come up with enough obscenities about this climb, especially after 150 miles of riding and about a 5-pass Death Ride's worth of climbing.
Sierra presents itself like a modest version of Fillmore Street in San Francisco at first, with three residential blocks to sap your legs a bit. But the real business begins when it starts to wind upwards into the Los Buellis hills. In fact, it shoots up over 1,800 feet in just over 3 miles. Punishing. Brutal. Such a downright SICK addition to the ride that I felt compelled to yell "Fuck... this... hill!!!!" at the top of my lungs just to feel better about it. But the climb did have it's sense of reward since it was clear to see just how high above the sprawl of Santa Clara County we were, now blanketed by the dusk light, which faded to black by the time we reached the summit.
Oh, look. What a pretty view indeed. Whoops, road bends to the right and left again, panorama gone from sight, and yet another 16% pitch upwards staring you in the face. "Fuuuuuuuuuuck!!"
Not far after the summit, we encountered a water stop (which was stocked even better than the Mines Rd. rest stop) that's also the traditional "pet the goat" checkpoint of the ride. It said so on the roadside sign:
DEVIL MOUNTAIN DOUBLE / PET THE GOAT
A nearby ranch resident apparently lends their goat year after year so that self-flagellating cyclists like we might pet him for a while, then forget what we just put ourselves through. We loved that goat! Lisa and I were so wrapped up in the fun of feeding the fella his pellets and getting our picture taken that more time passed at that rest stop than we probably care to admit.
Shit, I guess the goat worked.
With Sierra Road behind us, we felt a greater sense of confidence in knowing we could make it to the finish. The next question was when we'd get there. I had always told myself that finishing the ride before midnight would be an added bonus. Conveniently, we didn't note the time before departing and heading down the slopes of Felter Road, just intent on making good time steadily and safely to the next checkpoint at Sunol.
Calaveras Road creeps up on you suddenly from Felter Road. As you approach the intersection, Felter is at a very steep downward pitch. The sharp right hand turn onto Calaveras puts you smack into the base of the Calaveras "wall", which by comparison is so much more tame than everything else we've done all day that it hardly even mattered. The greater challenge at hand was resolving how long the ride from Calaveras to Sunol felt compared to what we knew of it by day.
A time check upon reaching Sunol confirmed that we did, indeed, slow down. It was well past 10:00PM. We had a snowball's chance in hell of making a midnight finish with two more climbs to negotiate. Oh well, but we felt even more certain we were going to make it, and that's really all that mattered. That, and the hotdogs that Lisa and I were consuming like we were just rescued from some desert island.
By the time we reached the pet-the-goat checkpoint, Lisa had also become my watchdog for potentially desirable food items. All the rest stop amenities were starting to look alike to me, so when she mentioned they had Cup-o-Noodles at the top of Sierra Road, I perked up and bubbled "They've got NOODLES?!". And at Sunol, she spotted the pot of fresh coffee, which I uncharacteristically failed to notice.
"Hey, Alfie, they've got coffee."
Mouth still full of Hebrew National, I yelped, "Thffm hubff COFFEE??!!"
I was going nutso over the littlest things.
PALOMARES / NORRIS CANYON
Leaving Sunol to briefly share the road along Niles Canyon with the most amount of traffic we encountered in a very long while still left us with eager anticipation for the next feature. Palomares Road is a climb both Lisa and I enjoy a lot, but we've never experienced it at night as we have numerous other hills in the East Bay and Peninsula. As we expected, the river along Palomares was rushing loudly, though invisibly to us. It left much to the imagination, which was a wonderful thing considering the only other thing that probably would have occupied our minds was the pain and misery of having to go up yet another hill.
But as much as Palomares might be regarded as the last notable climb of the day, it was the last bump over Norris Canyon that hurt much more. For probably the hundredth time of the day, I'd feel oddly conflicting emotions: a battle between cursed pain and sweet knowledge that the end was getting really close now. In fact, just a 2 mile descent from the top of the starlit summit of Norris.
When we finally rolled into the hotel courtyard and finish, Sunday was already 55 minutes old.
During the half-hour at the finish we spent inhaling our lasagna dinners, only five more riders showed up behind us. By 1:30AM, all riders were off the course and the Quacks saw a new record time for the EARLIEST they've ever wrapped up the day. And they reported a higher than usual DNF (did-not-finish) rate of 14% (vs. a typical 10%).
I couldn't possibly gather enough superlatives to describe how well the Quackcyclists and their corps of volunteers managed this extremely demanding event. It was a class-A operation driven by so few, whose quality and coverage of support easily matches that of events staffed by hundreds. Outstanding!
THE INEVITABLE QUESTIONS
Some have already begun to ask of my impressions about which ride ranks higher on the difficulty scale between DMD and the Terrible Two. After considering many different factors beyond distance and terrain, I'd say they're nearly equally challenging, but each is really a different experience from the other. Most people I know who have done both maintain that Terrible Two is the harder ride from their experience. Before now, I was inclined to believe this because of the nature of the Terrible Two climbs, its heat, and its tough cut-off, even if DMD does have considerably more climbing. But I know differently now, and my own experience has me thinking that DMD is the slightly tougher adventure, perhaps until the next time I attempt Terrible Two. [Conveniently, this year's edition happens to be an encore of the original 211-mile Annapolis route.]
Would I do DMD again? Next year? I wouldn't doubt it, and neither would Lisa. But I'm still having so much trouble getting up from my chair that I can't even imagine when I'll begin to look forward to it again, let alone count on it. Let me think about it over my next six-bajillion calorie replacement meal.
Pass the fried chicken, would ya?