This year, as I chose the brevets I needed to qualify for this year’s Paris-Brest-Paris, I mixed up my itinerary again and considered events outside of San Francisco and Davis. Fortunately, the San Luis Obispo Randonneurs, a new club led by the human dynamo Vickie Backman, was offering a full ACP series this year. I hadn’t ridden much in the “Middle Kingdom” and was looking forward to a new set of adventures south of the Bay Area.
Before the event, my main goal was to see if I could best my previous times completing a 400k. I was thinking I’d either try to stay with the Pudu-Patrick fixed gear train, or ride the first half as fast as possible — then take on a steadier pace for the second half. But I was hit hard by the plague the week of the ride, and I spent several days bedridden battling fevers and fatigue. By Friday, when Denise and I arrived in SLO to meet up with Ann, Pudu and Patrick for dinner — I was still feeling pretty low. But the things you’ll do in order to go to Paris — so when the alarm when off at 4:45AM, I rubbed my eyes and reminded myself I had 27 hours to finish…
Just before 6AM on Saturday (which was also happened to be Pi Day!), 38 other intrepid souls were signed in by the cheerful Julia, David W.’s wife (who was also riding the brevet). After gathering around Vicki in the parking lot of a local Motel 6 for a pre-ride pep talk, we rolled out into the darkness of the early morning towards downtown SLO. I was hoping, in my post-plague state, to just hang onto Denise and Ann’s wheels (they had a pact to stick together as Denise was helping Ann complete her first 400k.) But I had more gas in my tank than I thought and separated from them early on during the flat stretches towards Highway 101. (Ann also had to pause for a moment to turn on her tail lights, then they got stuck at a stoplight.) I kept looking back to check on their progress, but eventually lost sight of them right before the highway and rode on with Roland and a smaller group. Then it was just the two of us heading up together on our first major climb of the day, the 7%-ish Cuesta Grade on 101 North.
Upon warming up on that 3-mile ascent, we proceeded to bomb down the other side after the obligatory summit photo op at sunrise. Just as we reached the bottom, we encountered Kitty who had hit a sharp piece of metal on the shoulder and thus pinch flatted. We stopped to offer moral support, then Roland sped off at quantum recumbent bike speed. Kitty and I chugged along to Santa Margarita — where we found Peg fixing her own flat. (I think between she and Peg, they racked up a total of five during the ride!) I decided to roll through the picturesque miles of countryside on my own, and saw only one rando en route (I’m blanking on his name now, but he was remarkably fast. I spotted him later on in the day with at least two hours ahead of me on the clock.)
I grouped up temporarily with Speedy Rando, Glenn and Mannie near Templeton before he took off on his scorcher pace. It was wonderful reuniting with Mannie again on the road. The last time we’d seen each other was during my awful DNF during 3CR, and he’d been a reassuring presence at the Pinnacles rest stop with his kind words of support. Despite the differences in their riding abilities — Glenn’s a strong rider and is aiming to complete PBP under 80 hours — he and Mannie have been cycling buddies for several years and were wearing matching 2013 Gold Rush jerseys (a tough ride which they ended up finishing together when Glenn was temporarily hampered by an injury.) So we rolled together all the way to our first control as we dodged a few tractors (took some pics for Patrick!) and soaked in the beautiful views of the farmlands.
Our first control was in San Miguel, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare. I was feeling somewhat low at this point, however, despite having ridden only 45 miles. My energy levels and appetite were still off from being under the weather, but I forced myself to eat some calories (a hot biscuit with a fried egg.) Speedy Rando bought a bunch of candy, prompting the cashier to remark, “I think all of you cyclists are so healthy, but then y’all buy Snickers and junk food!” Speedy laughed and replied, “When you’re riding 250 miles, you can eat whatever you want!” I kicked back to unwind for a moment with my second breakfast, bidding farewell to Speedy Rando, Roland, Glenn and Mannie as they set out for the next leg.
I was on my own again for the next section, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the solitude. I’m a really social creature by nature, especially on bike rides, so I usually need music, podcasts, or something else to listen to if I’m by myself. It was hard for me to imagine that it could actually be fun riding alone during a brevet. When I’d see lone randos on other rides — head down and teeth gritted as he or she hammering forth in tough winds, or just a wee speck of light illuminating the road as they traveled in the dead of night — perhaps I was projecting my own feelings onto them in these scenarios, but I truly felt sorry for these riders since they weren’t in a lively group to keep them company or motivate them forward. But as I traversed this rolling, scenic stretch of Chimney Rock Road, with its verdant foothills covered with twisty oak trees and horse ranches, I discovered the appeal of setting my own pace — especially in my current weakened condition. With no pressure to make conversation, take a pull or worry about anyone else other than myself — I could just cruise along, take photos and revel in the lovely scenery that surrounded me. So while some smaller packs of randos would pass me by, I didn’t feel the urge to try and catch them.
As the lush green hills gave way to a vineyard-dotted landscape, a strategically-placed water stop awaited me at the intersection of Adelaida and the aptly named Vineyard Drive. The next 30 or so miles would include a long, exposed 7% stair-step climb with no services until the next control, so Vicky kindly stationed a volunteer to hand out rations beforehand (Isabelle was actually the wife of one of the riders, a French ex-pat named Osvaldo, who happened to arrive just before me.) After refilling my bottles, I headed south on Vineyard and leapfrogged ahead of or behind Osvaldo on the road. He seemed content to motor onwards silently by himself, so I continued to document my journey, relishing the occasional pockets of shade and waving at the scores of cyclists coming from the other direction who were on some sort of training ride.
And then it was time for that slog up State Hwy. 46 that Vickie had warned us about, but I psyched myself up by careening downhill as fast as possible into the valley. Then I found a comfortable rhythm on the climb and chatted a bit with Mannie — Glenn had jumped into a quicker group and forged ahead — and caught sporadic glimpses of Osvaldo here and there. But the true reward of sweating and grinding up the climb in the 85-degree afternoon heat was the spectacular view that awaited me at the summit. I was already blown away by all of the marvelous terrain I’d ridden through already, but when the sight of the bright emerald green hills and the blue Pacific Ocean unfolded before my eyes — I actually interrupted my rather thrilling descent to pull over so I could take a photo of my bike with this stunning backdrop (sadly, it didn’t really capture its magnificence, so I snapped a few separate images.)
93 miles in and it was time for the next open control: the small town of Cambria (I learned later on this was where Megan grew up!) I accidentally acquired a bonus mile or two when I took an early turn onto Main Street from Highway 1, but it allowed me to get the full tour of this quaint little coastal spot. I stopped at another deli and ordered a turkey sandwich on sourdough with a side of sea salt potato chips and a big glass of fresh carrot juice. Normally I’d take a photo of my meal, but my stomach was still on strike so I wasn’t really in the mood to shoot any food porn. (Plus I wanted to take a photo of my colorful brevet card and what Pudu calls my “Pedobear” cell phone case.) I ate what I could, stashed the rest for later and lounged outside in the restaurant’s patio for about a half-hour. Peg and Kitty arrived just as I was done, so I joined them for the stretch north to Ragged Point.
The wind wasn’t too bad heading towards Big Sur (and strangely enough was more of a crosswind), but it was still helpful to be sharing the work with Peg and Kitty. I was tired and my spendy-but-usually-worth-it Assos chamois wasn’t doing its job — so major chafage had begun; it was a relief to be pacelining in a group. And I perked up and cheered on our SFR comrades heading back south — Brian, Roy, Kenny, Barry, Gabrielle, David, Yogy, Patrick, Pudu, Megan, Roland — and the others that had already hit the turnaround point.
I was feeling truly ragged by the time I hauled my weary body up the short, steep climb that led to Ragged Point. (I had been here once before, when TBO and I went bike touring with some friends from SF to Ventura. I recall it being a touristy but pleasant oasis on that mountainous section of Hwy. 1.) Glenn and Mannie were there noshing on burgers, hanging out with two friendly fellow randos who were on moto-SAG duty that day. (I think Kevin has completed something like seventeen 1200Ks!) After another small snack, some much-needed chamois cream application (thanks to Kitty for the loan) and the acquisition of some decorative patches for my rando bags, it was time to head back south to SLO.
The five of us rode as a pack until San Simeon, when Glenn and I decided to slow down to stay in sync with Mannie’s pace. We swapped stories and chatted about family, randonneuring and our love for the Bay Area; sometimes we’d inadvertently pull ahead of Mannie as our lively conversation unknowingly propelled us faster, but we’d group up at points every so often. As evening approached, our trio meandered down the coast, passing through the towns of Harmony, Cayucos and Morro Bay (home of that formidable rock that looms in the distance). Perhaps it was our camaraderie, the fact I was eating a bit more food, the cooler temperatures and that the ride was more than halfway done at this point — but I was feeling revived and far better than I had all day. Mannie was hanging in there as well, and I admired his grit and determination; Glenn told me that while he has a Garmin, Mannie also memorizes the entire route on Google Street View since he doesn’t rely on cue sheets. So whenever we questioned a turn, he would confidently tell us where to go — so impressive! A luminous sunset welcomed our arrival to the city limits of SLO; Glenn smelled the barn and zoomed ahead into the night, but Mannie and I weren’t too far behind as tailwinds and a gradual descent pushed us into town in no time at all.
174 miles in and 14 hours-ish later, we were back where we started at 6AM: Motel 6 in SLO. Vickie had organized the course in two loops; the first contained most of the elevation gain and mileage. The second 75-mile loop headed south to Santa Maria and had only 1000-2000 ft. or so of climbing. Julia and Vickie spoiled us by serving us a hot dinner — our choice of mac n’ cheese, lasagna or chicken “extra-noodle” soup — and oh, was that soup the BEST THING ON EARTH right at that moment! I’d been subsisting on soup all week during my illness, and it was the only food I was really craving. Words cannot express how delightful the warm, salty goodness of the broth brimming with noodles tasted to me as I slurped it down while sitting in my luxurious lawn chair in the parking lot; I probably would have gladly drunk the entire Crock-Pot if left to my own devices. But I limited myself to two bowls and a banana, then hustled off for a quick shower (goodbye, salt-encrusted face!), changed into a clean kit (see you later, you stupid traitorous chamois!) and left behind some gear I didn’t need (including my camera — so no more photos from this point on.) Half an hour later, I was ready to go, but I didn’t see anyone else who was departing — so back to solo mode.
It was a bit too early to be feeling sleep deprivation at this point, but I think my stomach was working overtime digesting all of that amazing chicken noodle soup. Navigating through the unknown territory helped keep me alert (I made only one confused u-turn looking for a street), so I stayed on track as I made my way through Pismo Beach and Oceano. (Eating some gummy energy chews fortified with yerba mate tea did the trick, too.) There was one climb on Mesa View Drive that made my quads cringe, but aside from that, I was making decent time in the flat farmlands before Guadalupe. I hummed random bits of songs in my head, like flipping hurriedly through channels on the radio, and random, abstract thoughts occupied my mind as I turned east towards Santa Maria. Then ugh…there was the sound of the sad, slow hiss of a flat tire coming from my rear wheel. The dusty shoulder of CA-166 was littered with glass and other debris, so I wasn’t surprised when I fell victim to the crap collected on the side of the road. I easily changed the flat but was having trouble getting my wheel back into the dropouts (sleep deprivation plus new fenders = annoying confusion.) I puttered about for several minutes when Glenn, Mannie, Osvaldo pulled up to help. Glenn helped me untangle my chain, and we caught up to Peg and Kitty who had just rolled past after inquiring whether we were all right. They were with Brad, the awesome volunteer operating the secret control from his van parked on the side of the road. He was one of those fantastic mind-reading volunteers that told you what you needed before you realized you should replenish your supplies.
“Need some water?”
“Sure, I could use some!”
“I have plenty of PB & J sandwiches, just sayin’…”
“Oh yeah, I’ll take some of those off of your hands!”
He told us we wouldn’t need a receipt from Santa Maria since we checked in with him, so we could just head on back to SLO. Our group of six stuck together for the final 35 miles, although we’d sometimes separate and reform at different junctures. While there was some gentle, rolling climbs before Arroyo Grande and some perilous cracks in the road, we kept a pretty steady pace — especially after we hit our final (info) control. The last leg was uneventful for the most part, although we saw some drunk folks weaving unsteadily on the deserted sidewalks of these rural towns, and once in a while, some jerks in a truck would honk at us thinking it was absolutely hilarious to harass us.
As we sped through the final miles towards SLO, Glenn joked, “Aren’t you already feeling nostalgic?” and recounted how it was a funny tradition between he and some other cyclists to say this towards the end of a long ride. He had asked me earlier which brevet, out of all of the ones I’d done so far, was my favorite. I couldn’t give an answer right then and there, but I’m thinking now that this one could be it: the scenery had been breathtaking, I rode with old and new friends, the support was excellent and I learned a lot about myself. I could ride alone and I could finish a ride even though I wasn’t up to par physically — I suppose my past two years’ of rando experience was finally paying off. And whaddya know, I even beat my two other 400k times, too. So yes, I felt pretty fucking awesome at the end (sore taint, notwithstanding). Pudu and Patrick were tracking my progress via Find My Friends, so they stayed up to welcome me back at 2:50AM (thanks, guys!)
There’s always a ton of people to thank after these events, but first and foremost, I want to give a huge thank you to Vickie for putting together this ride and just being a kick-ass RBA before, during and after the event. She stayed up all weekend tending to us riders, even while working on her graduate degree homework, and was super patient and positive despite her own sleep deprivation. I will also forever be indebted to her for the magical properties of that chicken extra-noodle soup! (And I tried the delicious mac n’ cheese and lasagna for my post-meal celebration, too.) Her roster of volunteers were all incredible as well — thanks to them for being a superb support team. Kudos to Ann to finishing her first 400k (and to her and Jason for buying me a pair of cute socks when I forgot mine at home), and to Denise, her stalwart anchor, shepherding her into the finish in just over 24 hours. And high-fives to all of the fine folks I rode with on the 400k, but especially Mannie, who remains an inspiration to me. He’s in his late-60s and still kicking major rando butt.
I’m really looking forward to the SLO 600k — my final qualifier for PBP…allez, allez!