One of the reasons I signed up to try randonneuring this year was to explore new areas I’ve never ridden. And if you had asked me back in December if I knew where Hopland was, I’d have shrugged my shoulders and started searching on Google maps for the answer. According to our old online reference friend Wikipedia, Hopland is “in Mendocino County, California. It is located on the west bank of the Russian River 13 miles (21 km) south-southeast of Ukiah at an elevation of 502 feet (153 m). The population was 756 at the 2010 census.” This would be my first visit to this wee flyspeck of a town and I really didn’t know what to expect — other than it would be a wonderfully scenic and challenging ride with over 10,000 feet of elevation climbed over 249 miles.
In the two weeks that passed since I attempted the 360k Flèche, I researched how I could improve my diet during these brevets. Thinking back on how my stomach shut down early on last time, I concluded that I needed to go back to eating more carbs and less protein. And as eating too much food all at once seemed to disagree with me, I was going to make more of an effort to graze on snacks at regular intervals. I know I didn’t eat or drink enough during the Flèche, yet when you’re bloated or worse, nothing seems appetizing; I felt practically allergic to anything edible. It becomes an almost insurmountable task to get enough calories into your system, but with the help of some sports drinks and tweaking my meals, I felt more confident I’d have better energy while riding. And along with my two PB & J sandwiches and fruit, I packed an assortment of Amy’s Organics pizza pockets, because pizza is the one thing that tastes delicious to me whether it’s hot or cold — and hopefully this would be the case at 3 o’clock in the morning when pedaling along into the night.
In prepping my gear for the 400k, I felt like I was getting ready for a caving expedition instead of a bike ride. Head lamp strapped to helmet to read my cue sheet at night? Check. Neon vest, ankle straps, gloves and shoe covers? Check. Fashionably dorky yet ready for my longest ride ever to date? Check.
Start Control: Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza – Open: 06:00 Close: 07:00 – “Headwinds From Hell”
This time I had to get up at the unholy hour of 4:00am so I’d be ready when my friend Martin came and picked me up 45 minutes later. He’s a fellow East Bay resident and also new to randonneuring this year. He contacted me about riding the 400k together and I was looking forward to the prospect of having at least one other person to soldier with me through the distance.
We joined the 57 other riders at the start, and it was nice to chat with the now-familiar friendly faces whom I’ve gotten to know on the road and online through the SFR’s Google group banter.
Just before 6, Rob gave out his worker’s ride route notes and administered his “Don’t do stupid stuff” pledge — then everyone set off for Hopland. As Martin had to go back to his car to secure it when another rider pointed out it was unlocked — a ‘it’s-far-too-early-for-my-brain-to-be-fully-awake’ snafu — I waited behind until he came back so we could leave together. We rode from the bridge at a steady pace and joined up with Kevin and Mannie just before Fairfax.Kevin gave us some great tips about where to get water along the way (the golf course just before you make that turn onto Nicasio Valley Road and The Cheese Factory).
Then we headed to the picturesque stretch of rolling green hills that began at Hicks Valley Road.
It would have been great to roll with them but alas, I got my first flat of the day just after Wilson’s Hill. I had been debating whether to swap out my Grand Bois Cerfs prior to this ride: “But they only have 270 miles on them!” “But they’re so flat-prone!” I couldn’t decide and drove The Bearded One to distraction with my endless back-and-forth about what to do. But after we both inspected the tires, we figured they still had enough life in them to get through the ride and hoped for the best. Well, after changing this first flat, I prayed my bad tire karma was out of the way early on and this would be the last of them.
All I remember about the next 30+ miles were the hills. And headwinds. And hills with headwinds. These weren’t just any headwinds. They were MERCILESS, EVIL HEADWINDS. I’m pretty sure we claimed every single one of them in the Bay Area that morning, so the rest of you who were riding on Saturday can thank us for hoarding them all. I heard a lot of groaning from the other randonneurs on the road whenever we saw another hill emerge on the horizon as the the winds hammered away at our souls. While I was able to work with some other folks for a few sections, I was mostly alone on the Chileno Valley / Tomales-Petaluma Roads. Martin’s a stronger rider and was ahead of me most of the time, so I slogged through it as best I could. By the time we reached Bodega, my legs were cramping and I was already feeling a bit thrashed.
Control #2 at 63.4 miles: Bodega Country Store – Bodega, CA – Open: 09:00 Close: 12:48 – “Joy Road”
This store is a shrine to the great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, who filmed his classic thriller “The Birds” here back in the early ’60′s. There’s a ton of Hitchcockian memorabilia on the shelves for sale and we even received a stamp of his famous visage on our brevet cards.
After we quickly refueled back up at this stop, it was onwards to the most notorious climb of the day: Joy Road.
Everyone who’s ridden this route states it’s a misnomer (unless you’re a climbing masochist) since it consists of two steep pitches separated by only a brief respite in between. It definitely gets your heart rate going, but honestly, given all the hype — I was expecting much worse (which is a good thing).
And I realized the real reason why it’s called Joy Road: it brings you much joy as you hit a fast descent to swoopy roads through Occidental and Camp Meeker. I didn’t even pause to take any photos, although we took a brief stop in front of this charming old theater in Monte Rio.
Control #3 at 80.5 miles: Safeway – Guerneville, CA – Open: 09:51 Close: 14:44 – “Welcome to Wine Country”
We saw Roland and some other 400k randos here as we bought our snacks. I had mostly recovered from the headwinds beat-down from earlier, so now it was time for our long jaunt through wine country. The passage from Westside Road through Cloverdale winds through vast acres of vineyards and the accompanying tasting rooms filled with weekend tourists.
We made a fast pit stop in Cloverdale to get ready for the big climb ahead of us on Route 128.
It’s a slow grind upwards on Route 128, but it’s truly beautiful and reminds me of some of my favorite ascents in the East Bay: Pinehurst and Wildcat Canyon.
Then you bomb down Mountain House Road and are super-jazzed to get to Hopland until you realize, ugh – there’s more climbing to do. But once we spotted our destination in the distance, Martin pumped his fist into the air and we barreled down towards the Valero.
Control #4 at 133.2 miles: Valero Mini-Mart – Hopland, CA – Open: 12:23 Close: 20:24 – “Fuckyeahtailwinds!”
We saw a small group gathered at the gas station who were gearing up for the night leg of the ride, including Kitty, Charlie and Roland.
Two women admired my neon outfit — “Those booties are so cute!” — and asked where we were riding from.
“Where are you riding to now?”
“What? You gotta be kidding me.”
“Yeah, we rode all the way here just to vist this glamorous Valero, and now we’re heading back!”
There are times when endurance riding resembles a scene from the “Hunger Games” to me — without the mayhem and bloodshed of course — where I’m like Katniss Everdeen, trying to survive whatever obstacles cross my path as I try to make it to the next stage. In our case, we’re navigating our way to the next control and can be thwarted by dark roads, potholes, traffic, flat tires, sore muscles and fatigue en route. And the one thing that everyone wishes me before I embark on these rides is what Effie Trinket might say at the beginning of each brevet: “May the tailwinds be ever in your favor.”
The next 50-ish miles were pure awesome bliss. We were bestowed with the best, most epic tailwinds ever — which I felt we earned from this morning’s hellish effort — and my legs were en fuego! Fuckyeahtailwinds! A small group of us assembled together to share pulls to Petaluma: Charles, JT, Martin and Richard — who mysteriously just appeared at one point and announced his arrival with his buzzing Chris King hubs — then vanished again along the route.
JT’s on his fourth season of brevet riding and knew the route well, “Although it can get fuzzy at times.” We got to talking about Grand Bois tires and how their ride quality is amazing but are so finicky on the road — especially in rainy weather. Our conversation must have angered Jan Heine’s randonneur gods as we both promptly got flats right there and then. (Ironically, JT didn’t get one on his front GB but on his rear Gatorskin due to a piece of glass that got lodged into the tire.)
Martin and Charles (who I believe is a PBP veteran) waited up for us and we all motored along together until we hit the climb up Chalk Hill. It totally harshed our tailwinds mellow until we got back down to the flatlands of Windsor. And we passed one section on Old Redwood Highway where I had gotten one of my flats on the Flèche; I had a brief flashback to that bleak moment and was so very grateful that it wasn’t raining on us then.
Control #5 at 205.0: Safeway – Petaluma, CA – Open: 15:57 Close: 04:00 – “Pizza Pocket Power”
An endless ramble through suburbia depleted the last fuel in our tanks, and Charles peeled away at one point to get some coffee. (He ended up getting two more flats and might have DNF’ed, but we saw him again later with Kitty and Charlie’s group.) Before hitting the Petaluma Safeway, we stopped at the Denny’s located right on the outskirts of town (a favorite late-night spot of randos for this ride).
Now I’m no fan of Denny’s, but there’s nothing like riding 200 miles that will push all culinary snobbery aside. I told Roland, who was just leaving as we rolled into the parking lot, “I’ve never been so happy in my life to see a Denny’s.” I crawled into the padded booth — which felt like a plush down comforter to my tired butt — and shut my eyes for several minutes after we ordered our food.
After a carb-blast breakfast of eggs, grits, English muffin and hash browns, I drank half a cup of the dankest, most vile bitter brew of Denny’s coffee to wake me back up. The sad truth is, however, that bad coffee is better than no coffee. I was back into the land of the living and primed for Red’s Hill and the series of climbs back to SF. But just before I hopped back onto my bike, I noticed my rear tire had a slow leak. Argh! I pumped it up and crossed my fingers it would hold for the 50 miles back to the finish.
My rando friend Clayton recommended that I bring an iPod to help with the tough portions of the night when you’re fighting sleepiness on the bike. I find music helps me climb as well as I usually load songs with a fast tempo and try to match the cadence with my pedaling. It definitely worked while we finished the climbs before and after Nicasio Reservoir. It also distracted me from my ongoing tire anxiety, although I did have to stop and pump up my rear tire again just before White’s Hill. And I took the opportunity to stuff another pizza pocket down into my belly to give me a boost.
Maybe that pizza pocket was dosed with EPO, because suddenly my legs turned into pizza rockets. I had this huge surge of energy and blazed through Fairfax, Ross and all of the other little towns before Mill Valley. I needed to stop for a nature break, but JT and Martin kindly waited for me at the top of Camino Alto. Then we sped towards the bridge for the last climb of the day just as the sun was rising over the city. I chanted to myself as we crossed the bridge, “Please don’t get a flat, please don’t get a flat!” Every little bump I hit made me cringe, but my mantra worked as we arrived intact just after 24 hours — which was my goal — at 6:16AM.
Finish Control – Golden Gate Bridge Plaza at 248.6 – Open: 18:08 Close: 09:00
One of the strange side effects of randonneuring — but it’s definitely one of its positive aspects — is that formerly long distances now seem almost laughably short. The other weekend, when a group of us were planning on riding 90 miles from SF to Pescadero, I thought to myself, “Pffft. That’s just a warm-up ride!”
249 miles was definitely a hard effort and a milestone in my history of suffering on the bike. But I was surprised how energized I felt at the end — thank you, O Beloved Pizza Pockets, for your drug-like capabilities — and it gives me some hope that I can complete the 600k within the 40-hour time limit, although that distance still seems utterly frightening. I’ll also make a point to work better with others through headwinds to conserve more time and energy, put on sturdier tires and keep up with the carb-heavy meals as they worked great on this brevet. Thanks to JT and everyone else I rode with this weekend, but a big thanks goes out to Martin for sticking with me the entire time. Ft. Bragg awaits!