Yesterday I finished the longest — and hardest — ride I’ve ever done to date. It felt harder than any track or CX race, century, tour or any other cycling event I’ve ever undertaken in my life. I’m still amazed that I was able to finish and that I’m sitting here the next day, albeit in a bit of a zombiefied state, writing up my ride report.
At 4AM, The Bearded One and I popped out of bed and were actually ready to go at that hour. We arrived to the start on time and checked in with the 110 other riders that were also setting off for the approximately 186-mile adventure. Per RUSA‘s rules, we had to have our clothing and lighting set-up inspected and approved for the 300k as most of us would be arriving after sunset. (I finally got mine dialed in just a few days prior.)
At 5:45AM, our Regional Brevet Administrator, Rob Hawks, gave his pre-ride speech and delivered the, “Don’t do stupid stuff,” oath to the group:
Then we were off in a blaze of neon glory. TBO and I jumped in with a faster group early on and made our way through Sausalito, Mill Valley and up Camino Alto in no time.
After the White’s Grade grind, we jumped into another fast group and were rocketing along Sir Francis Drake at about 20-25 mph. TBO and I broke off to take a bathroom break at Samuel P. Taylor, then continued onwards to Nicasio. An aforementioned “secret control” was stationed at a small parking lot just off to the side of the reservoir, so we checked in with volunteers before heading on to Petaluma.
CONTROL #2: PETALUMA SAFEWAY (49.6 miles)
We arrived just after 9:30AM and stopped for a quick bite to eat. We had brought a ton of food with us for the day, so I snacked on a ham-and-egg rice ball while TBO bought us some drinks from the store.
I admired the wide variety of bikes that folks were using on the ride:
For the Petaluma-Healdsburg leg, we hopped in and out of several groups but settled into one led by a British power couple motoring along on a tandem (and I’d like to thank them for their generosity in leading the ‘tandem train’). They really helped us keep a steady pace on this stretch which went through Santa Rosa.
CONTROL #3: HEALDSBURG SAFEWAY (50.2 miles)
Lots of folks were kicking back and enjoying a leisurely lunch at this Safeway control.
I took the liberty of snapping some more bike porn shots during our break.
The next section of the ride took us through a lovely area of Sonoma wine country that rolls past mile after mile of bucolic vineyards.
About 70 miles in, I started to feel some fatigue and began to slow down. Several groups passed us and TBO would say, “Let’s jump in!” but I couldn’t muster enough energy to paceline. (That’s the blessing/curse of pacelines; you can save a ton of energy in the pack, but you still have to have enough gas in the tank to maintain the average speed.)
Here’s what I think were my “Rookie Randonneur Mistakes #1 and 2”: going a bit too fast in the morning and cooking myself too early; not accounting for the extra weight of my bike. Up until this point, the furthest I had ridden my CX bike in randonneur mode was about 50 miles. Throughout December and January, I had trained hard on my Ebisu touring bike (which weighs well over 35 lbs.) and so the Point Reyes Lighthouse 200k on my 15-lb. road bike felt surprisingly easy. I also rode the Valley Ford 200k on my road bike and continued most of my most difficult training on my lightest bike. In retrospect, I probably should have just ridden the rando bike more consistently to acclimate to its added weight and not gone off in turbo mode at the get-go. I had also taken a week off the bike due to illness, so I was still recovering from the weird virus that kept me in bed for several days.
And I was suffering from some women-specific issues due to a recurring monthly cycle (you ladies out there that are reading this can empathize) and was feeling some severe discomfort by the time we reached Guerneville. We stopped at the Safeway there so I could take a break and try and rally. I was doubting whether I could finish and was utterly exhausted.
However, TBO urged me on — and here’s some advice to my fellow newbs: it really helps to ride with someone else who can keep you motivated and on the bike. I probably would have abandoned at that point if he hadn’t compelled me to keep pedaling. (Mental Note: I should make sure he’s out of town for my future events so I don’t resort to calling him and asking to pick me up in the middle of nowhere at some ungodly hour.) And he pointed out, “How will you get home?” I’d have to hitchhike or take a bus, which were definitely more unappealing options than staying in the saddle. So we pressed on through the headwinds towards Highway 1.
And then, there was this:
There is nothing more rejuvenating than the sight of the ocean on a brilliantly sunny day for a tired soul. And when you throw a tailwind into the mix, it’s just bliss. TBO rode on ahead of me and I drafted off of a kind gentleman to our next control point (we had ridden together earlier to Healdsburg and I marveled that he was riding on platform pedals.)
“I wish the entire ride could be like this,” he said to me as we flew down Highway 1.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Nothing but spectacular ocean views and a never-ending tailwind would be pretty awesome.”
I had asked veteran randonneur Tom Haggerty – this was his seventh 300k – if he minded riding the same brevets over and over again. I love exploring uncharted territory when I’m out on the bike and thus can feel burned out on repetitive routes. Tom said he enjoyed returning every year as there’s always a fresh set of challenges (“Can I ride this faster?”) and varying factors (fitness, weather) that make it unique each time. Plus there’s the camaraderie of new and experienced riders that bring a different dynamic to all of the events. And there are some places in the Bay Area that never grow tiresome to ride — and this part of Highway 1 is certainly one of my beloved favorites.
CONTROL #4: DIEKMANN’S BAY STORE (110.1 miles)
We sat down for a short food break before TBO sprinted ahead to see if he could hit the Marshall store before closing and get a receipt.
“The worst part is getting started again after a meal,” he said as he stretched and got ready to get back on his bike. “Your body says, ‘You just ate a burger, fries and a beer and now you want to ride 80 more miles? You gotta be kidding me.'”
(Meanwhile, I was amazed by how much I had eaten at this point: two peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on whole wheat with bananas; two rice balls; two chicken wraps; a tangerine and half a ProBar!)
I continued on solo, but Bill Monsen, Tom Haggerty and Stephen Haas adopted me along the way just before Valley Ford. (Tom was still soldiering forth on the ride despite a bulging sidewall on his rear tire that kept threatening to explode.) I followed them onto Middle Road, an alternate route to Marshall that bypassed the weekend traffic of Highway 1. It’s a quiet, scenic road that crosses through dairy pastures and has some tough climbs sprinkled in.
As Bill and I were chugging away, I asked him how he trained for these rides. He spends most of his time on the bike during his daily commute from Richmond to Oakland due to his busy schedule. But when he rode the Paris-Brest-Paris in 2011, he spent 3 months getting in shape and logged more miles in the hills. “The hardest part is not giving up. There’s always one point — or more — during a ride when it just feels tough.”
I’m sure that once you’ve completed a long ride, knowing that you’ve finished in the past helps with the grueling mental and physical aspects of a brevet. After the 130-mile mark, my mind said, “Uh, why are we still on the bike? We should be done by now. We should have been done hours ago!” But there was still one more control on the itinerary, so we forged on in the waning sunlight.
CONTROL #5: MARSHALL STORE (OR POST OFFICE) (142.9 miles)
TBO had made it just in the nick of time and managed to secure a receipt from the Marshall Store — and heroically, one for me as well – but I decided to mail in an official SF Randonneur postcard as proof of my stop. (A big thanks goes out to the rider that gave me her extra one as I forgot to grab one at the start.)
And now, it was time to go home. This was the most taxing part of the ride where I summoned every ounce of strength within me to keep pedaling. I was soooooo very done. My legs felt hollow, my shoulders were sore, my butt did not want to be on the saddle anymore and I was emotionally drained. I had reached my existential breaking point and was questioning why I was still on the bike.
“I didn’t think it was going to be this hard,” I said to TBO. “I think I’m done with riding bikes,”
He replied, “After I finished the Solvang Double several years ago, that was my first thought afterwards. ‘I’m done with bikes.’”
But again, here’s where not having an easy means of escape worked to my advantage. I only had one choice: finish. (Or I could just sit on the side of the road and collapse in a heap of tears, but that wouldn’t get me home.) TBO wasn’t tired (he’s a much fitter athlete and going at my pace all day didn’t fatigue him one bit), so he was able to coach me when I started to whimper and whine. He started fantasizing about what to eat for our post-ride meal, while I fixated on all of the climbing that was left.
“Oh man, we still have that climb out of Nicasio…”
“Don’t think about the hills that are left. Just keep pedaling.”
And so pedal I did. I somehow reached a strange, zen-like, auto-pilot mode where I just concentrated on my computer and felt brief blips of relief as the numbers ticked slowly upwards.
But when I saw a road sign that said, “Fairfax – 9 miles”, I thought to myself, “It’s come to this: biking 9 miles now feels like an eternity.”
We stopped at Gestalt to get a sausage and beer and that put a big smile on TBO’s face – “That was the best decision ever,” and it revived me temporarily, too.
But the climb out of Sausalito nearly did me in. I’ve never crawled along so slowly on the Golden Gate Bridge than last night. I can probably walk faster than I was pedaling yesterday on the home stretch.
We managed to finish at 10:36PM, over 16.5 hours later from when we set out at 6AM. My friends Brian and Ami from the “Homespun Heartthrobs” were also at the finish (Brian had some problems with one of his hubs, unfortunately) but they had a good ride overall despite the mechanical difficulties. Jason Pierce was also there, looking fresh as a daisy even though he was recovering from a mid-afternoon crash and completed his ride at 6:50PM earlier in the evening.
He cheerily congratulated me on my finish and I told him that was the hardest ride of my life. He replied that the 300k was his entry into the world of epic long rides.
“At least you’re not destroyed! You’re still standing and have a smile on your face!”
Inwardly, I thought to myself, “Oh, but I am destroyed. I am a shell of a human being right now.”
I fell asleep on the car ride home and immediately passed out after a long hot shower. TBO went out to get the pizza and beer he had been looking forward to all day and woke me up at midnight with a slice from the restaurant. I ate it half-asleep and wasn’t even sure that it had been a dream until I saw my plate on our bedside table in the morning.
So how I do I feel overall about the ride? Initially, I had mixed feelings about my 300k. I didn’t feel that victorious as I had felt so utterly crushed at the end. I should have reveled in the fact that I did finish and didn’t arrive on a stretcher right at the 2AM cut-off time. But I was demoralized by my performance and was feeling dread about my future events.
“How in the hell am I going to ride the 600k, which is TWICE as long?!? And how do people spend this much time on a bike and actually ENJOY it?”
TBO prefers to ride at a speedier pace and 200-miles is his limit for one day, so he won’t be joining me on any more events. But I guess as one gets faster and figures out how to be more comfortable in one position all day and there’s less pain – it does become more fun. (I’m hoping this is true and veterans, please weigh in on this in the comments!)
And while I’m not one to push myself to the absolute extremes – you’ll never find me training for a RAAM race — I am always open to trying something new. Since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve embarked on all sorts of crazy cycling endeavors that were previously unimaginable to me. So while I didn’t expect this level of pain, perhaps there’s more happiness awaiting for me down the road — even if it’s after a long 40-hour ride. And most importantly, I made a promise to myself to try and complete the whole series. So I’m going to put my trepidations aside and train even harder.
My next ride is the 360k Fleche with my team, “Crampandgoslow” (I hope this doesn’t prove to be a prescient name for our event, but I picked it in honor of my love for Campagnolo; it appears on a jersey I own from Montano Velo, my favorite bike shop in Oakland.) Our captain, Franklyn Wu, designed a route for me and our comrade Joey Lande from Davis to SF. This will be our first ride at the 360k distance and our first Fleche – so wish us lots of luck! I’m glad we can work together as a group which will hopefully keep our morale up as we head to the finish at Crepes on Cole on March 31st.
I’d like to bestow a huge thank you to my dear husband for helping me finish the ride and all of the great folks that let me suck their wheels, kept me company and offered moral support throughout the 300k. You helped me survive and it’s greatly appreciated!