A record size field on a picture perfect Spring day on April 18 was the highlight of the 14th annual Devil Mountain Double (DMD), 155 riders completed (also an event record) one of the toughest one-day cycling events in the U.S. In a fitting parallel, one week later, a record size field (15) on the DMD staff ride would assemble in the early morning to tackle the same course. Lisa and I were part of that group of 13 who would finish it. For her and for myself, it was our fifth consecutive DMD finish in as many years.
DEVIL MOUNTAIN DOUBLE SUMMARY
Start/Finish: San Ramon, CA -- Marriott Hotel
Mount Diablo ⇒ Morgan Territory ⇒ Altamont Pass ⇒ Patterson Pass ⇒ Mines Road ⇒ Mount Hamilton ⇒ Sierra Road ⇒ Calaveras Road ⇒ Palomares Road ⇒ Crow/Norris Canyon
Fundamentally speaking, nothing much really changes about this ride. It just plain hurts, no matter what, even in perfect, mild Spring conditions like those we were finally blessed with this year. However, year after year, after year, DMD staff rides have just had the bummiest luck to get seriously shitty weather. I've done it soaked to the bone when it poured during the last eight hours of the ride, into the night. I've done it when sustained winds were over 35mph all afternoon, and when the air temperature at the top of Mt. Hamilton was less than 20°F. Nearly perfect weather this year wasn't a blessing. It was serious payday for all those other years.
THE DEVIL TAUGHT ME TO BUNDLE UP
The night immediately preceding the ride, and the obscenely early morning wake-up on the day of the ride always come with a good measure of dread. It melts a tiny bit, though, at that moment when we assemble at the hotel parking lot in San Ramon, and get our bikes and gear ready along with everybody else. The usual suspects appear, friends who - like us - just block out the entirety of the day ahead and say "...just gonna give it my best shot."
Dawn broke when we were roughly halfway up Mt. Diablo. First light revealed just where the cloud layer was: somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 ft. Some owls were hooting as we rose above the fog just in time to see the first direct light from the sun shine brilliantly on that blanket of clouds over the valley. Tim H. and I were chatting feverishly, mostly about the flèche we completed together just 2 weeks earlier, which definitely helped time pass quickly as we reached the summit, not to mention prepared me and Lisa in a big way to face this ride again.
My calves and my hamstrings felt unusually tight and sore. It could have been a result from the 2 short rides I did earlier in the week, when I foolishly climbed a bit too aggressively, thinking it might have been good for the weekend, since I really hadn't been able to do much riding after the flèche was over. But as I began to rip down the mountain, concerns for the muscles were quickly overridden by the bitter, damp cold air. Foolishly, I waived my chance at the start of the ride to wear wind booties, long finger gloves and stash a windbreaker jacket for the descent. I had none of it ... and froze my sorry ass off.
MORGAN TERRITORY, AND PAINTING THE TOWN RED
On the way to the second major climb of the day, Morgan Territory, we traverse a two-lane rural highway called Marsh Road, one of my least favorite riding roads in the whole Bay Area. The pucker factor for me is always high on this road for its complete lack of any shoulder, and the fact that many of the vehicles that use this road not only travel at high speed, but are wide (as in trailer-towing full size pickup trucks).
My usual concerns for the traffic (which was light that morning anyway) gave way to another issue I encountered: a gushing nose bleed. Seasonal allergies for me this year have been supremely bad, and I had been having these damn nose bleeds daily. I'm not sure if it was a side effect of the allergies themselves, or the medications I was taking for them. Either way, I was in a bit of a dilemma, where physical exertion was clearly making the bleeding worse. Lisa armed with a few tissues, and I tried in vain to keep the bleeding under control. I was leaving drops of Type O+ all over the mountain side.
This went on intermittently for hours, and it probably didn't cease for good until we were on the way to Mount Hamilton, well into the afternoon.
PATTERSON PASS: THE WIND BLEW, AND SO DID I
Maybe the damn nose bleeds were starting to get to me too much. I mean, blood stains on your gloves, vest, your jersey sleeves, your shorts and knee warmers, your bike -- what's not to get a bit cranky about? And when you've really got to blow a big snot rocket for the normal reasons, but just can't for fear of recreating the set of American Psycho right there by the historic Altamont Speedway, frustration builds up like stockpiled nose goo.
A touch of early fatigue began to set in, as if in perfect harmony with my mounting irritation. The presence of an unmistakably brisk headwind on Patterson Pass added to the overall annoyance, only because the wind forecasts I read the night before suggested it would be a dead calm day. Still, the winds were nowhere nearly as bad as they were last year, when it took every fraction of a watt we could produce just to stay upright and crawl forward. I was counting my blessings.
MINES ROAD: THE BATTLE ROYALE BETWEEN INNER WIMP AND STUD
The stretch between the 100-mile point in the ride and the "Junction" at Del Puerto Canyon and Mines Road, which is the customary location for the DMD lunch station, have been my bane on this event - every year, in fact. Earlier, I wrote of dread and anxious anticipation on the days and hours before the ride. Every year that I've done this since my first DMD experience, that dread shifts in focus to one thing once I've started the ride: Mines Road.
Here's the thing: Mines Road is actually a relatively easy section of the course compared to a lot of the rest. It's remote nature, the topographical and geological features of its surroundings, and the occasional wildlife sightings encountered there really make it an especially desirable and rewarding road for cycling in general. I've seen really cool things here: a roadrunner, wild boar, rattlesnakes, wolves, coyote, Tule elk. In theory, it would be a great pick-me-up section during a ride like DMD. But it's quite the opposite for me. Like some electromagnetic or metaphysical forces of sorts get activated specifically during DMD that really suck the cheer and optimism out of me. This year, I remembered only the chip-sealed tarmac 5 feet ahead of me, and less of the area's beautiful surroundings. A unicorn may as well have appeared to me somehwere along the way and I would have completely missed it.
The road does go on forever, deeper and deeper into the edge of unincorporated Alameda and Santa Clara Counties. The interminable feeling of it married with a rapidly depleting tank of mental and physical fuel made the same old challenge inevitable: a center ring battle between the brave soul that told me that I could handle this ride again and the wimpiest, whiniest part of me that begged me to go no further.
Wimp: "Dude, this really sucks. Told you this would happen. Just give it up. It isn't worth it."
Stud: "Admit it. You want to be able to tell yourself that you've finished this ride five times. Five, baby."
Wimp: "Eh, DNF'ing a ride like this is totally fine. Collapsing and dying in your presently depressed and exhausted state out here is really not an enticing possibility you want to explore."
Stud: "Get it together. This is the most perfect day you've had on this ride. Don't waste it. Cash in! Stay in the game!"
Wimp: "We're not far away from lunch. When you get there, chill out, call it a day and take the car ride home."
Stud: "We're not far away from lunch. When you get there, eat, chill, recharge -- and hope for the best that you can carry on after. For now, harden the fuck up."
That bickering went on for nearly two hours. Sooner or later, I'd need to find some other source of wisdom. I had been riding with Lisa all along here, but she was pretty quiet herself much of the way.
Finally, I cracked: "You still having fun?"
Before she even answered, I considered the outcomes. If she said something predictably upbeat like "It's a beautiful day, and I'm riding with you -- so, ya, I'm still having fun," then, no problem: easy motivator and reason to take Stud's advice. If she said "Uuuggggh, I don't know ..." I knew that would have probably been immediately succeeded by something like ... "It's a beautiful day, and I'm riding with you, so...".
Guess what she said.
Halftime score. Stud: 1, Wimp: 0, Lisa: 16 assists.
MT. HAMILTON AND THE REUNION OF THE FANTASTIC FOUR
Pre-packaged "sushi" from Trader Joe's or Whole Foods: that's been our private stash lunch on DMD staff rides in the past three (or is it four?) years. Rice seasoned with vinegar, cold seafood, soy and wasabi -- it really does the trick. And it appears to be catching on with the some of the other staff ride regulars, who brought their own maki goodness this year. (n.b. Riders on the staff event may opt to bring their own lunch grub and support volunteers shuttle it in a cooler.)
Sitting on the bench outside the Junction Cafe, plopping pieces of sushi dripping with soy sauce into my pie hole, seeing more of our other ride companions than I anticipated (as well as some friends who were on their own ride, and happened to be at the Junction when we arrived there), I regained my wits and composure pretty quickly. And by the time we got back on the bikes, I felt pretty renewed. Sure I dreaded what came next: the steep, five mile slog up the back side of Mount Hamilton, and the prelude series of hills in San Antonio Valley, always deliver the hurt.
Lucky for me, Tim H. decided to keep me company. We yakked a lot during this next stretch, and -- out of the blue -- he even tried to bunny hop a few cattle guards. His compliment-laced ramblings and horse play on the road, whether he intended it or not, really delivered me completely from my earlier misery. I was really enjoying the ride again. And we were on that blasted climb I just love to hate. Not far behind us, Lisa too was noticing how vastly improved my mood had turned.
We hadn't seen Quackcyclists chief Scott H. in a long while, not since we saw him climbing Mt. Diablo in the morning as we descended the mountain. For some reason, he needed to go back to his house in Danville after we had all started our rides, then try to catch up with us. As we rolled towards Patterson Pass earlier in the day, I predicted out loud that Scott would catch up with us either on Mines Road, or before we reached the summit of Mt. Hamilton. True to this prediction, he emerged behind a switchback as we rested for a bit near Lick Observatory. And, all of a sudden, my magical foursome -- the same core group with whom I have ridden this ride many times successfully to the finish -- was together again. That gave me a seriously good pyschological boost.
There was another cause to be a little giddy, and all four of us knew it. We had an abundant amount of daylight left to use for the long descent off Mount Hamilton. Right then, I had a renewed appreciation for the difficulties we endured in the last three staff rides that yielded delays long enough to require a descent off Hamilton (or part of it anyway) in the dark. This year, carving the twisty road down to Alum Rock was so much more enjoyable.
The tandem team (Marco P., Ruth P.) on the ride had a bit of a setback here, as I could tell from it being inverted on the shoulder of a switchback. I panic stopped and U-turned up the bend to see if everything was OK, and I was told that it was simply a flat of the rear tire (which they thankfully detected before it was bad enough to have dumped them on the twisty descent). Marco P., the pilot, confessed he was wrestling with getting the tire off because he had accidentally left his tire levers in the car back at the start. I gladly handed mine over, and after I was assured by them that they had the repair under control, I happily moved on.
SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE 7-ELEVEN: PARTY BEFORE THE PUNISHMENT ON SIERRA ROAD
A custom unique to the DMD staff ride that seems to have developed all on its own is the gathering at the 7-Eleven on Piedmont Avenue in Milpitas. It's ideally situated for a rest stop in the absence of the one typically used during the official DMD event (which is the private residence of a family that's been sympathetic to the ride over the years). This 7-Eleven has been the scene where dramatic commiserating has occured amongst a reunited bunch of exhausted, numb, sore, demoralized, frozen or soggy DMD staff riders. It's where we've tucked into to regain some core body warmth, relish cheap trashy food like we never would on any other given day, and collectively ignore better judgement by continuing to the next assault of the ride: the wicked, wicked Sierra Road.
This year, the 7-Eleven gathering was astonishing. Ten of us had managed to converge here at more or less the same time. I guess that's another thing for the DMD record books. It was like your average (but nerdy) suburban party scene. What better things are there to do in the cultural void but hang at the 7-Eleven? That said, we were the irrationally chipper life of the town, drawing ecstacy from every slurp of instant ramen and/or hot chocolate.
Sooner or later, that party had to end, and the harsh reality of Sierra Road would slap us in the face. The air outside felt bitterly cold. Everybody, piled on an extra clothing layer or two before getting back on the bikes. By this time, I had a winter base layer, jersey, wind vest and a rain jacket on and fully zipped. This was the same ensemble I had during last year's frigid ride, and it seemed I needed every thread this year just as much. It didn't matter that the climb, which rises over 1,800 feet in just 3 miles, induces ridiculously heavy perspiration, I still needed all those layers to stay warm enough despite the climbing effort.
I've hated life while climbing this road. I've cursed so loud that all of San Jose could have heard me. This year, I was actually enjoying the climb. Without a doubt, it was the best I've felt on this ridiculous section of the course ever. And when I neared the top, where a handful of the others awaited, I sprinted for a few hundred yards just for the hell of it. At that point, I knew I had this ride in the bag. I'd just need to avoid disaster between here and the finish.
CALAVERAS, PALOMARES, NORRIS - GET THERE ALREADY
The hard truth about life after cresting Sierra Road is that, no matter what, you've still got over 40 miles with a few good sized lumps to climb along the way. Although these climbs are pretty trivial compared to those we'd already conquered, we still needed to face a few more hours in the saddle, and everything just takes longer at night.
The twisty Calaveras Road came and went much more quickly than I've felt in previous years. I must have still been feeling good, or perhaps I was starting the smell the barn from much much farther away. After a chill-and-regroup at the Sunol train station, we still set off as a fairly large group, then were fragmented again by the time we hit the climb up Palomares.
Sleepiness started to creep in. Not even the loud squawks of a peacock at the edge of the road were enough to wake me up. I shamelessly asked Tim H. if he had any of those cola-flavored gel blasts that he offered to me during our flèche ride. He passed on a couple; the 100mg caffeine burst went to work quickly, just in time for the thrilling, fast plunge down the hill towards Castro Valley.
Left turn to Castro Valley Boulevard, right turn to Crow Canyon, right turn to Norris Canyon -- oh we're so close. Bam! Another freakin' climb. Norris Canyon appeared steeper to me than it ever had before. I wanted so badly to hammer up it so I could get to that long, rewarding, fast descent into San Ramon and truly call the ride a wrap. I didn't have the legs for such bravery this time, no more juice for sprints to the county line.
Despite the lack of friskiness, I felt content with finishing in reasonably comfortable form, especially given how close I got to a complete meltdown that would have had me abandon the ride. I can't ever say that I'm a fast rider, not when I consistently finish rides like this near the tail end of the pack. But tough is mostly want I want to prove to myself. And today, tough: I managed.
Many, many thanks to those who passed up hours of their day or night (or both) to volunteer as the intrepid support crew on the staff ride: George Pinney, Kat Sharpe, Bernard Cushing, Jesse Smith, Rich Fisher, Craig Martinelli, John Carr, Dan Hertlein and Mike Connolly.