Randonneur Ride Report: SLO Pinnacles Traveler 600k

SPOILER ALERT: I’m now officially qualified for the 18th Edition of Paris-Brest-Paris! I’ll be packing my bags for France in August in the hopes of becoming an ancienne.

This past weekend, the SLO Randonneurs hosted the final event of their inaugural ACP series: the Pinnacles Travel 600k. 40+ riders (I think the final tally was 44) met up in San Jose to make the 373-mile trek down south to Oxnard. We checked in on Friday night with Vickie (the awesome RBA of the new club) and her crew of fantastic volunteers in the lobby of a Ramada Inn to get all of the necessary paperwork signed, pick up our brevet cards and helpful maps, and get our drop bags tagged. (She even offered us two locations for our bags at our suggestion, since some riders wanted to push on to the 400k point on Day 1 — just further proof of her awesomeness.) After chatting with fellow randos that were staying at the Best Western — Ann, Denise, Jason, Brad and several others — I drank a pre-ride beer with Tom and Steve then bunked down early with my roommate Nancy aiming to get some shuteye before our alarm went off at 3:40AM.

4:45AM: Several hours’ of restless sleep would have to do as our hi-viz roll call commenced at the crack of dawn in the hotel parking lot. After two-and-a-half years of logging long rides, I’m now able to function on auto-pilot in the bleary-eyed mornings: roll out of bed; take a quick shower; slather on sunscreen and chamois cream; wolf down a breakfast of rice and salmon; throw on my neon outfit that I’d laid out ahead of time; pack up the overnight bag and scoot downstairs.

Once the usual announcements, warnings and good wishes were given to the group — Vickie bid us bonne route and we set off into the dark streets of downtown San Jose. The pace was quick right out of the gate and I wondered how long could I hold onto to Jason and Patrick’s wheels as we sped along the Almaden Expressway. Max and Andrea, off to chase an R60, were already dim specks in the distance. By the time we reached the foothills of the Uvas Resevoir, I was beginning to blow up and fall away from the pack. My legs couldn’t seem to warm up in the chilly air, and the few rollers we encountered slowed me down enough that I said an early farewell to our group of 15 or so riders. The Pudu and Patrick train blasted off with Eric W. and a few others in tow. Maybe I could I hang on with Tom and Steve? Nope and nope. But I took comfort in the loveliness of the scenery, with the reservoir glimmering in the pink light of the sunrise and wafts of fog rising off its surface. And somehow I managed to catch up to a stalwart trio of San Diego Randonneurs — Kerin, Tim and Robert — until we reached a secret control manned by Yogy.

Onwards to our first receipt control in Hollister, 52.5 miles into the ride. I yo-yo’ed back and forth between the SDR folks — we chatted about mutual rando friends and rides down in the San Diego area — and the effervescent presence of Jack H. and his riding comrade. Unfortunately, my spare camera battery popped out of my bag when I hit a small pothole, so I stopped to look for it (no luck) and separated from the group. But I hopped on to the wheels of Jack and his friend, who took valiant pulls in the headwinds along the busy stretch of CA-25. Then another glamorous supermarket breakfast awaited us at the Safeway.

I stuck with the Safeway breakfast bunch as we entered the 61-mile leg through the titular stretch of the brevet: the Pinnacles National Park. (I’ve only been through here once before, riding in the 3CR SAG wagon with Bruce after I DNF’ed, so I really need to come back here for a prolonged visit of the caves and condors.) But at about 30 miles in, my stamina began to fade in the afternoon heat. The SDR crew peeled away, then Jack and his partner, until I was roaming solo through the dusty golden hills of parkland.

I stripped down to my base layer to cool off, then tried to pass the time by taking a zillion photos of the seemingly endless road that snaked away into the horizon. But feeling bored and listless, my mind wandered aimlessly as I popped s-caps, gnawed on energy bars and motored along in the unrelenting headwinds and hot sun. While I relished some solitude on the SLO 400k, this felt like a long, lonely sojourn in the wilderness — until one of the trusty SAG crew members, Kevin (who I met on the last brevet), appeared alongside me on his motorcycle like a knight clad in denim; he was cruising back and forth to refill riders’ water bottles as there were no services available until the next control. I also exchanged a brief hello with my friend Brad, who forged onwards to try and catch up to his friend Renee, so I returned to my quiet reverie. But it was time to break the mind-numbing silence, so I pulled out my iPod and cranked up the tunes. The best thing about riding alone is that you can have your own private karaoke session and sing out loud (as badly as you want to) at full volume (which I shamelessly did.)

And then ahhh — like a desert oasis — there was the Peach Tree Road control at mile 113: Larry and Yogy had set up a roadside table filled with snacks, served us refreshing drinks from a cooler packed with ice, and comfy lawn chairs were arranged in a circle in the shade. It was a convivial scence, with the SDR trio, Brad, Renee, Tom and Steve kicking back and enjoying the break.

After a leisurely lunch, I rolled out with the merry duo of Tom and Steve — two my favorite SFR randos. (I met them back in 2013 on my first 300k, and they inspired me to try and qualify for PBP with their stories.) The comedic banter that flows between them would be ideal for a rando sitcom: Tom’s the perpetually upbeat, garrulous companion who’s always ready to chat and make jokes (I can’t picture him ever experiencing a low point, thus making for the perfect partner to have around in the middle of the night to keep your momentum going), while the laconic stylings of Steve’s droll sense of humor balances well with his cheery comrade. Plus they love good beer (and their shiny RUSA cups filled with brew at Populaires made me yearn to get my own, so that’s next on my checklist); a great time on two wheels will always be had with this pair.

It was tough leaving the comforts of the control, but San Miguel was expecting us 40 miles later. And followed…more heat, more headwinds. But the lively company of Tom and Steve made these rolling miles fly by much faster than if I were alone again. Confronting the steep, 1/2-mile climb (with 8-12% grade) on Indian Valley Road together made it far more bearable (and another wonderful volunteer, Brad — another veteran from the 400k — stopped to give us much-needed water right after.)

San Miguel was the first receipt control on the 400k, and it was a welcome sight again at 153.3 miles in. Phil M. and a posse of other riders were polishing off their second lunches in the cool, air-conditioned confines of the corner deli. I took the opportunity to wash off the day’s salt and sunblock encrusted on my face — relishing one of life’s little rando pleasures during a ride — before fueling up with a big turkey sandwich.

Morro Bay was *just* 38 miles away, but ugh — there were tiring climbs ahead of us on CA-46 after passing through Paso Robles. This road was the highlight for me on the aformentioned 400k, but now I was deeply dreading it. Steve started fantasizing about buying a motorcycle — especially when a pack of them loudly buzzed by — and I requested that he add a sidecar to haul me around. Pedal, pedal, pedal — we just had to keep turning the pedals. Tom and Steve eventually plowed on as I struggled to keep up, and they graciously me waited for me at the turn onto Old Creek Road. We fortunately made it to the summit before sunset as the twisty, 7-mile descent would definitely be sketchier at nightfall. (It’s too bad it was too dark for me to take photos of the view, which was a breathtaking vista of the ocean.)

Dinner reservations were at McDonald’s in Morro Bay, a popular stop for other randos en route. Tom and Steve ordered power beverages (milkshakes) with their meals, while I was pretty much game to eat any deep-fried “delicacy” that was on my tray. Our fast food high propelled us to Pismo Beach at about 11PM, the overnight control staffed by Vickie herself. Her famous trifecta of Crock-Pot comfort food — lasagna, mac n’ cheese, chicken noodle soup with extra noodles — was a buffet of late-night delights. Tom and Steve departed to tuck in for a few hours’ rest, while I’d made the decision early on to push on another 20 miles to Santa Maria. While sipping my soup, with shoes off and reclined on a nest of sort pillows on one of the beds, I felt like I could just pass out right then and there — until Vickie snapped me out of my impending coma and said, “Ok — what’s it gonna take to get you moving?”

All right, no more procrastinating — time to hustle to the next control. Vickie assured me the next section would only take an hour-and-a-half and not much effort at all. I thanked her for the pep talk and warm nourishment, then launched another iPod session to get through the next leg. Focusing on not getting lost also kept me awake, and I picked up my drop bag from Best Western just after 1AM (they were sold out so I stayed at the nearby Motel 6.) Even though I was exhausted, it took a bit for me to settle down and turn off the adrenaline. My mind stubbornly stayed awake until I finally passed out until 4:30AM.(I could have slept in until 6:30AM at the latest, but I sacrificed a few hours’ sleep to meet up with Tom and Steve. They wanted to pick up a rental van by 6PM in Oxnard, so I rushed to get ready by the time they arrived 10 minutes later.)

We made a short pit stop at 7-11, then embarked on our pre-dawn tour through the countryside. We stopped to pay our respects to Matthew O’Neill, a PCH Randonneur that was killed last year by a negligent driver. Two other PCH’ers, Greg and Stacy, had given out green ribbons to tie on the memorial ghost bike parked at the site along Foxen Canyon Road. Then we wove in and out of the freezing blanket of fog — frigid drops of dew covered my eyelashes and clothing — with only a few pockets of morning sunshine warming us up as we climbed up and down the hills through Foxen and Ballard Canyons. My legs were sluggish and out of gas, so I lagged behind Tom and Steve. (It was then that I decided that Foxen Canyon should be renamed; “Forever Canyon” was more fitting.) Several riders passed us — Renee, Brad and Andy S. — and arriving in Buellton was huge relief.

We joined Renee, Brad and Kevin F. (the master of getting in and out of controls efficiently, he was leapfrogging with us for much of the ride) for our Burger King breakfast: bring on the English muffin sandwiches and hash browns!

With a quick jaunt through the Danish-ish town of Solvang (this my first trip through here, so I need to come back for pancakes), we headed for the hills and were reunited with the San Diego Randonneurs. Kerin turned to me and said, “Phew, my legs feel like Day Two.” And I said, “Yeah, I hear you — mine feel like Day Four!” I slogged slowly up the climbs, including a section of the Old Coast Highway, a rough, abandoned road that led to gorgeous views from Nojoqui Summit.

We made a thrilling dash across four lanes of oncoming traffic on Highway 101 (which I dubbed the “suicide chute”), then careened down at full throttle to the ocean. (“I’d been looking forward to that descent all day,” Steve commented later on.) One of Steve’s tires fell victim to a staple, so we stopped to fix his flat before continuing on with our 24-mile headwinds march to the south. I was pretty beat and succumbing to the sleep deprivation, sunburn and overall fatigue. Tom rode alongside me at my slower pace while Steve pushed ahead to get off of the noisy shoulder as soon as possible. The random topics that peppered our conversation kept us entertained as we navigated the wearying rollers to Goleta State Park.

Upon jotting down a city ordinance number for our info control, a pleasant stroll on bike paths took us to the outskirts of Santa Barbara where it was time for another “gourmet” lunch stop.

We opted for Taco Bell — Steve’s favorite fast food restaurant — to gorge on a big pile of calories. While I normally avoid dairy products on rides, my body was primed to feast on my order of bean-and-cheese laden burritos and some fried monstrosity called the “Crunchwrap Extreme”. Normally I’d avoid these ominous-sounding dishes like the plague (and two years ago my gut would have vetoed this choice), but I was starving and eager to throw it into the pit of my rumbling stomach.

Temporarily revived by our spin past the bustling beachfront of Santa Barbara, I struggled to keep up again in the ceaseless crosswinds and undulating terrain. The elevation profile for the route was deceptive; while Steve had said this section would be pancake flat, more bumps kept popping up and I just grew slower with each passing minute. Tom and Steve gallantly tried to keep the pace manageable for me, but I’d boomerang between them, hanging onto their wheels then dropping back off. The new Ventura bike path was a pleasant diversion from my suffering (it wasn’t around the last time TBO and I rode in the area), as was watching Steve win the city limit sprint (Tom is notoriously competitive about taking them.)

A few missed turns and thick traffic slowed us down, but Oxnard was suddenly within our grasp at just a mere 10 miles away — so Tom and Steve engaged their turbo boosters in order to grab the rental van. I had preemptively told them to drop me since I was turtling along at this point. But at long last, on the final 3-mile stretch to the finish, there was a true tailwind that helped pushed me to the end — I rolled into the Best Western parking lot just before 5:23PM. Lots of other rides were milling about, swapping stories and munching on pizza as I headed in to turn in my paperwork. Done and done!

I couldn’t have completed this ride without the support of my two dear friends, Tom and Steve. They’re strong riders and could have easily left me in the dust, but they were generous, patient shepherds who guided me through the tough times of this brevet, which admittedly, was harder than I thought it was going to be (and after talking to several other randos afterwards, they said the same as the weather, wind and rollers made it more challenging.) And they’re just a ton of fun to hang out with…and on top of that, they even gave me a ride back to the Bay Area in that hard-earned rental van. So I owe them a lot for keeping me focused and motivated to do more than I think I can do (and want to do at times.) I’m thinking about hanging up my reflective ankle straps after PBP, but I don’t think Tom will let me. Plus it seems I’m supposed to invite him to a DART team at some point, and who else will make them laugh about the plebian nature of certain fonts (inside joke…)

And kudos to the uber-organized Vickie for running another stellar show and recruiting a truly sensational team of volunteers. I loved the two SLO brevets I’ve ridden in the past month and these events will remain in the top spots for years to come. Lastly, congrats to all who finished the 600k, especially Ann — who now has her first full series under her belt.