When you can't leave good enough alone, and develop a nonchalant attitude about ridiculously challenging endeavors such as this ride, you get punished. Severely. And, yet... you have the time of your life.
Most would agree that this is the most difficult one-day double century event in California. Probably the whole country for that matter. Lisa and I are brutally familiar with that fact. On the surface, it seems really foolhardy of us to have chosen to inflict this kind of suffering upon ourselves three years in a row. And, yet, here we were again -- eager to do it all over again a fourth time. With even less certainty than ever before that we were adequately prepared for it.
What the fuck is wrong with us?
Truth is, this year, we definitely had less miles in our legs before this event: probably about 1,000 less in a 4-month period. Less long events completed since January. Less hill training accomplished. Genius preparation for a 210-mile ride with over 19,000' of cumulative vert, wouldn't you say? In theory, we almost had no business agreeing to be at the start line of the staff ride. Then again, we subjected ourselves to exactly the same recon/test this year on the second half of the course as we did last year... and we didn't do all that badly.
But we just had to sign up again. Reason? The simple fact that, on the staff ride, we might be able to ride with the same brilliant band of fools as we have in several years past. Honestly, this brutal exercise of masochism is as much a family reunion to us as it is a completely mad affair of cycling overkill. And if that weren't enough, we put in an utterly onerous 2PM to 4AM shift to help run the actual event the week later. Year after year. I guess in all that exhaustion, we really reap the rewards of companionship and fun. No, I know we do.
Having the kind of ride companions that we've been blessed to have on these staff rides has not only enabled us to finish these rides year after year, but they've helped us enjoy it against all odds. They pretty much define the DMD experience for us. I really don't think I'd have done this ride so many times were it not for the thought of sharing the day with the likes of Scott Halversen (Quackcyclist ride director), Tim Houck, Dave Clemes, Doug Goodwin, and other people who have done the ride with less regularity.
TOUGHEST ONE YET, NO DOUBT
Cutting to the chase, Lisa and I finished the ride together. Each of us celebrating our fourth completion of this ride. No doubt, however, it was our most challenging DMD yet. This was doubly difficult for the fact that I was still sick with a chronic cough (what could have been a diffused pneumonia or pertussis). That "I don't want to do this again" feeling I expressed at the end of the 2006 staff ride, I felt amplified 10 times this year. I was completely knackered at the finish, but had the consolation of having energy to "hammer" Palomares and Norris (the last two climbs, after a good 15,000' or more were already behind us), and of course the reward of knowing that I was able to tough it out 4 years in a row. Only time will tell if I've finally learned my Darwinian lesson in the opposite manner.
We finished at 4:00 AM. Four fucking o'clock in the morning, after twenty hours in the saddle. And to think: Lisa and I were the 3rd and 4th riders in, in a starting line of 11 riders, and a finishing list of 7 riders. This also happens to illustrate how compatible this year's group was in pace, thus an easier group to manage from a SAG point of view (oh the poor souls who stayed up so late in the morning to shepherd us in, bless 'em).
WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?
Given the conditions, I'm less concerned with the fact that it took so damn long to finish this ride than with the fact that we beat high odds by finishing it on our own power at all.
The wind and the cold were clearly the highlights and main antagonists of this year's ride. My heart sank when I saw the weather forecast the night before (high winds), so I fully expected Patterson Pass to be the biggest obstacle of the day (it never has factored that much for me on all other DMDs). I was totally right, and the relentless winds from Midway to the top of Patterson made for one of the toughest climbs I've done in my whole cycling life... EVER. Right up there with Skaggs and Ft. Ross during the Terrible Two.
The west-bound approach on Patterson Pass tends to be a head-windy place on any given day; hence the presence of the energy producing wind farms around there. But on a day like we had, it took every bit of energy to keep the pedals turning, and to keep myself from being blown down and off the bike by the wind. Arms, shoulders, back got as much a punishing workout from that climb as our legs would in all the steepest climbs all day.
The same insulting, merciless headwinds revisited us when we were making our way up the Eastern side of Mount Hamilton. In calm conditions, the climb itself is brutally difficult all on its own for its unrelenting and steep characteristics. Add in the winds we were experiencing: it was a whole new level of hell. What's more, it was a mental horror show because of the howling noises the mountain side produced, the unending sound of breaking branches all throughout the valley, and the fear of what might happen if the next wind gust did blow you off the bike at the edge of the road.
HELL FROZE OVER
We found out the day after that the official recorded conditions at the top of Mount Hamilton when we reached the summit and began our descent were as follows:
29°F / -2°C; Winds WNW, 25mph gusting to 38mph
The wind chill was really something else. Fundamentals like drinking became quite difficult since it was as if our water bottles had been chilling in the freezer pretty much the whole day. Basically, drinking guaranteed a Slurpy-level brain freeze with every sip. The chill intensified by the long descent off Mt. Hamilton was memorably agonizing. Without head protection, I felt the worst case of arctic headache I've ever experienced, and just couldn't feel any of my digits anymore, despite winter glove liners and shoe covers on. I nearly spilled when I hit a large rock with my front wheel on a hard lean, but managed to save it. Thankfully, no pinch flat either. Had I flatted, I really wonder if I would have been able to sit long and still enough to be able to fix it -- let alone have the will to get back on the bike and press on.
Off the mountain, we took long, warm refuge in a 7-Eleven store in Milpitas -- the same spot we ducked into when the heavens were pouring on this ride last year. This was the point at which both Scott and John L. decided to call it quits, no longer able to overcome hypothermia. Tucking in to the warm store and refueling with hot food and beverages were a very good thing, but getting back outside was downright cruel. I remember going back out to my bike to fetch my bottles so I could microwave the fluids (completely not caring about how toxic nuked plastic bottles might be), and that brief visitation with the 38F air outside was enough to cast some doubt about whether to go on or not.
We did press on, and I tried my best to regain warmth by riding really hard to the base of the Sierra Rd. climb, which just happens to be one of the most difficult parts of the entire course, so it definitely was a reckless gamble to use so much energy before it. It paid off though, and I managed to get my core temperature back to a barely comfortable level.
By now, I had a winter base layer, jersey, wool arm warmers, wind vest, and a heavy rain jacket -- and all of that stayed fully zipped to the chin throughout the steep climb up Sierra Rd. And these were barely enough to keep me warm even during the climbs up the >12% slopes. But by now, I was also getting more and more motivated to finish the ride (which is surprising considering how I felt at this point in previous years, and about rides in general this year).
We had a full moon and a clear night sky, which were a nice bonus for the late hours. Negotiating the twists and turns on Calaveras Rd. was considerably easier because the bright moonshine really lit up the fog line at the edge of the road.
DRAMA AND IMPROVISATION
Earlier in the day, after we crested the Morgan Territory climb, we encountered a fire department team enforcing a road closure -- on the very road we needed to descend. A power line was about to collapse from the wind, apparently. Thankfully, we were allowed to take a detour around the problem spot via a dirt fire road, after which we had to squeeze under a barbed wire fence and hoof our bikes down and up a creek crossing, then roughly a hundred paces across some cow shit littered meadow. As it happens, this is the second incident on a Quack event involving drama with some power lines within a six-month period.
Three riders would each pay some bonus miles for their individual navigational flubs. All of them at night. Dave C. took a wrong turn while still on Mt. Hamilton and got hopelessly lost in the maze of one of the hillside residential neighborhoods. New to the ride, Brian S. made the same mistake that Dave made some years ago, blowing past the Calaveras turn off after Felter, descending all the way to Milpitas. He ultimately discovered his mistake and made it back on course, but paid with five extra miles and an extra 600 feet of climb. John L. missed a turn, also in the Milpitas area, and found himself in East San Jose, and I'm unsure of how he managed to find us at the 7-Eleven rendezvous.
Bryan also was the victim of a failed seatpost between Diablo and Morgan T, which ride founder George Pinney remedied by dashing back home and taking a seatpost off one of his bikes.
THOSE WITHOUT WHOM WE NEVER COULD...
George Pinney, Steve Saeedi, Bernard Cushing, Kat Sharpe, Joe Zimmerman. These are the intrepid guardians who kept us safe and nourished on the road. For hours on end. I know first hand that their sort of work demands great focus, patience and endurance, and is often just as exhausting as these long bike rides are. Each of them really shone with remarkably caring spirit in their respective SAG duties throughout our ride. I say to them... Bravissimo e molto grazie!