There were a ton of cycling events happening this weekend — Levi’s Gran Fondo, cyclocross races, Furnace Creek 508 just to name a few — but the place to be, in my humble opinion, was the Winters 200k. This 125-mile ride starts on our side of the bay in Hercules, loops counter-clockwise to Winters (where we stop for a lovely picnic lunch), climbs up Route 128 past Lake Berryessa, then heads back south.
Start Control: Willow Ave Park and Ride — Open: 07:00 Close: 08:00
When The Bearded One and I arrived at the start at 6AM as I had check-in duties, we were a little unnerved by all of the broken glass from the cars parked in the Willow Avenue Park and Ride. (We decided to park elsewhere, although all of the cars were fine throughout the day. But definitely don’t leave your car there overnight!) Sterling Hada, Rick Martyn and I greeted folks as they steadily rolled up one by one. Even with the threat of residual smoke from two area fires near Lake Berryessa and Suisun Bay, a large group was ready to go at 7AM. After our trusty RBA, Rob Hawks, delivered some words of wisdom and the “don’t do stupid stuff” oath to us, we weaved our way around the paving crew that was working on Willow Avenue and headed to our first control.
Everyone must have been both over-caffeinated and thrilled to be riding because it was just go-go-go-time for the next two hours. We made quick time through Vallejo; to be honest, it’s one of my least favorite places to ride, but Alex Plumb joked, “Even Vallejo is pretty at this hour of the morning.” We flew down Lake Herman Road — and oh, the golden light was so beautiful at 8AM — and then formed several fast paceline trains that motored us through the headwinds on Lopes Road.
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Control 2: Gold Hill Tower Mini-Mart – Lopes @ Gold Hill — Open: 08:05 Close: 09:28
The speedy folks took off almost right away, but TBO & I lingered a little longer to enjoy our second breakfast then decided to cruise at a more leisurely pace for the next section. As TBO had been spinning like a hamster in his 36×16 single-speed gear, he needed a bit of recovery time. We hitched up with some other riders along the way, including Ben, Max and Barb McQuinn. The wind didn’t let up in Suisun Valley, and “Grizzly Peak Cyclists” Michael graciously took most of the pull duties on Pleasants Valley Road. The three of us rolled into Winters together and were definitely ready for an early lunch. (TBO longingly looked at the Putah Creek Cafe as we rolled past it on Main Street; we had some of the best beers of our life when we rode Rob’s 200k Davis permanent.)
Control 3: Winters – City Park – 4th and Main — Open: 09:42 Close: 13:08
Tim Houck checked us in with an official “San Francisco Randonneurs” stamp on our brevet cards, and lots of folks were already enjoying the sandwiches and snacks prepared by our stellar volunteer catering crew: Rob and our culinary patron saints, Kimber and John Guzik. (And thanks to Rob who personally made my delicious turkey sandwich!) The quiet, shady spot was a perfect respite before the climbs that awaited us on Route 128 (and this time I was careful not to overeat, like I had done before when I indulged a bit too much on Model Bakery’s famous pizza.)
Control 4: Crossroads at Lake Berryessa – Stelle Canyon and Capell Valley — Open: 10:42 Close: 15:24
The climbs come in three sections, rather like “The Three Bears” ride near El Sobrante. The first one leads up to the Lake Berryessa dam, and my new riding comrade Ben and I slowly paced ourselves up to the top. (TBO had been behind us at first, battling some gastric distress, but then managed to recover and raced on ahead to the next control.) The second is called, “Cardiac Hill” and averages 6% for about 2 miles. If the climb doesn’t get your heart rate up, then the busy weekend traffic might on the shoulder-less road (although we were lucky and cars kept a respectful distance, although two rogue motorcyclists came close to clipping TBO.) We slogged along in the 85-90-degree heat, and the climb is mostly exposed so there’s no relief from it as you make your way to the summit. We encountered Yogy Namara along the way, who was feeling the effects of the afternoon sun as well. Bryan Clarkson and Gabe Ehlert zoomed past us, however, oblivious to the grade or the blistering heat and were cooking with gas in a spectacularly bad-ass fashion. The last climb is just a mild bump in the road compared to the other two climbs (thankfully) and is barely noticeable. We all grouped up at the next control, a special SFR oasis located near the Rts. 121/128 intersection. Colleen McKenzie and her son checked us in, then we retreated to the shade to cool off for a few minutes. Rob popped by to see how the water supply they had provided was holding up; this was much appreciated since I could barely stay hydrated due to the buckets of sweat pouring off of my forehead in the summer-like weather.
Control 5: Gold Hill Tower Mini-Mart – Lopes @ Gold Hill — Open: 11:48 Close: 17:52
Just another short climb, followed by a few rollers, then a sweet, swoopy descent brought us back down to Suisun Valley. I latched onto Yogy’s wheel (one great thing about being short, you can usually find a good wheel to suck) and he pulled me all the way practically to Fairfield. I took my turn but accidentally dropped him as he needed to take the pace down a notch after doing much of the work for 7 miles (whoops, sorry about that!). I decided to wait for TBO who was unable to stay on our wheels due to his tiny gear; once we met back up, we chugged our way to the final control.
We reunited with folks at the mini-mart, where we reclined in the small patch of grass out front with cold drinks and snacks. Only 25 miles remained, but whew — that hot, treeless, windless stretch on Lake Herman Road nearly did me in. One of my classic “heat headaches” set in, and in addition to my throbbing temples, my gums get all achy and swollen. Ben remarked, “Interesting…I happen to be a dentist and I’ve never heard of this before. Maybe you clench your teeth when it gets too hot?” So yes, I was probably gritting my teeth as I crawled along that interminably long four-mile stretch of godforsaken road (all of my admiring notions of it from that morning had long since evaporated). A pickaxe would have come in handy at that point to remove the thick mask of salt encrusting my face, and I debated whether to take it easy and walk, although I knew that would only prolong my agony. I managed to keep pedaling somehow (and didn’t turn into a pillar of salt on the side of the road) and Ben and TBO were waiting for me near the Columbus Parkway turnoff. Just a few miles later, I was never so happy to see Vallejo in my life; I was so very glad to be away from Lake Herman Road! We made our way back over the scenic Carquinez Bridge and arrived at the finish just over 9.5 hours later. Jason and Lisa-Susan McPhate, Richard Fisher, Eric Rydman (what a perfect last name for a cyclist) and Erik Hetzner welcomed us and directed us to the coolers filled with drinks (hurray!) Andrea, Francisco, Yogy, Metin and several others were reclining in the circle of portable chairs near the snack table — and we were happy to join them!
I’d like to extend my thanks to our dear RBA, Rob Hawks, for organizing this event. I know that the picnic lunch was meant to be a big thank you to all of the volunteers who work tirelessly all year to help make the SF Randonneurs run as efficiently as it does, but the guy who works the hardest of them all was working that too! And not only was Rob at the lunch control, but he was at the start, the Lake Berryessa pit stop and probably stopped by the finish, too. I organize just one charity bike event every year which takes a lot of work, but putting together a full year’s worth of rides over and over again — well, there should be some sort of special medal that RBA’s earn for all that they do. Anyway, the next time you see Rob — because this would all be for naught without the guidance of a fine leader — I suggest that in lieu of a medal or pin, reward him with a burger and beer. And thanks again to everyone who helped out behind the scenes (Richard McCaw, Jim Gourgoutis) and during the day with this ride. Lastly, it real pleasure with riding with old and new friends along the way – see you in November at Del Puerto! My new bike should be dialed in by then…