Jul 082009
 

Downhill, Upwind, and Narrow
Mile 576.5 – Mile 654.8

I felt good rolling out from Taylorsville. I was rested, fed, and knew the prevailing grade would be down hill from here through Feather River Canyon. There were rollers, there would be headwind. But this was the route I had ridden one month earlier in the 600k brevet. I knew what to expect.

I started reviewing the ride so far, and what caused me to want to do it in the first place. Then I wondered whether it was worth it. At that moment, I couldn’t say it was. I was not happy about bonking on the way to Susanville, riding to Adin from midnight to three in freezing cold weather. I didn’t recall with fondness the wide open country from Canby to Alturas. At that moment, it was all struggle and survival. The good parts were all hidden by the bad.

I wondered whether I would ever want to ride another 1200k. Most people hold out Paris-Brest-Paris, the granddaddy of all 1200ks, as a must-do event for any cyclist. The evening before, at Grasshopper, I was saying I didn’t see riding this distance again. Another rider – one of the two I passed walking up Janesville Grade – said PBP is nothing like this ride. Instead of 100 riders, there are 5,000. Instead of high desert and the Sierra Nevada, you pass through village after village where people are up all hours of the day and night cheering riders and greeting them into their towns. One big rolling party, is how he described it. I was trying to imagine what it would feel like to be in a big rolling party just then. Not good.

So why ride this distance? It seemed like a good idea ten months earlier. I liked that the start/finish was walking distance from my house, that I would know the people working the rest stops. I also liked the idea of immersing myself in riding for a week. Some part of me also wanted to see the remote northeast corner of California, and this seemed like a good way to see it.

But at this point in the ride, none of that really made sense. I think what was bothering me more than anything was that I felt like my body was wearing down. Not the muscles – I expected them to be sore – but my internal systems. My sinuses were shot from the dryness of the desert. I had had a clogged, bloody nose for the last two days. Somewhere in there I had also picked up a hacking cough. That kept me from breathing deeply, and even still coughing attacks came on every once in a while. And something weird was happening with my tongue. Something I ate, or the fact that I was swallowing so much powdered liquid, irritated it and it hurt to rub it against my teeth. It was even getting hard to want to drink. I was thinking that this was a really bad thing to do to my body.

Then I started contrasting these thoughts and sensations of pain against my regular rides around Davis. And it seemed so clear to me that that was what I should be doing. It was Thursday. I should be riding the 35 or so short, flat miles to Steady Eddy’s in Winters and back, like we do every Thursday. The scenery is boring. The route is boring. I have ridden up and down Putah Creek Road more times than I can count. I can do it in my sleep. But that doesn’t matter. Riding isn’t about the scenery. It’s about doing something fun with people you like. It should enrich your life, not break you down to a jibbering heap of lycra. Oh no, I thought. Now I’m getting maudlin.

Soon, I was back at the base of Indian Valley and Highway 89. There is a very fast, long downhill from the cutoff road I was on back to Highway 70 and the Feather River Canyon. Make that a very fast, long, and narrow downhill. Parts of this road have no shoulder, and other parts just have sloping dirt that end at a rock wall. It’s a fun ride with no cars; it’s scary as hell when they want to pass you. (Here are a few pictures, starting with this one, of the road in this area from Jun Sato.)

Mostly, the descent was fine. But at one point a couple of yahoos in an old pickup towing a trailer of tools wanted to get past me and there were cars coming at us. There was no shoulder. None. Just a white stripe then a rough granite wall. And still these assholes honked at me to move over. When it was clear for them to cross the double yellow, they did so, then swerved quickly back in so the trailer would cut me off. I had anticipated that, so I was ready. But still, you know? What the fuck?

Further down, about five minutes later and just before the junction with Highway 70, a double trailer cement truck made the same move. Only when he passed, a car came the other way. He swung back into the lane not caring at all if he would hit me. I wasn’t ready for this one. I locked my brakes to keep from getting hit. I skidded off the pavement into a narrow, sloping dirt shoulder. I don’t how I didn’t crash. It was all reaction and instinct at that point.

I was a little shaken now. We all ride bikes for different reasons, but none of us rides so we can get splattered all over the highway. And I swear, not five minutes later, as I was cruising along Highway 70 thinking about how dangerous Highway 89 was, a fully loaded logging truck coming at me on the other side of the highway honked. I looked up, and he flipped me off! From the other side of the road! That did it. For the rest of the day I was looking over my shoulder waiting for that guy to come back down the canyon, because it was obvious he wasn’t going to stop until he hurt somebody. (Here is a picture of an empty logging truck on Highway 70 from Jun Sato.) I decided then that no matter what, I was never going to ride up Feather River Canyon again.

Other than these incidents, the majority of drivers, even log truck drivers, were courteous. But it only takes one. I focused on the task at hand – getting to Tobin safely and in good time – and tried not to focus on how close I came to being wiped out. I hit Tobin sooner than I thought I would, and was glad for the break. There had been a headwind, but not so strong as on the 600k. I still felt pretty strong. Tobin was even more welcoming now than on the way out. There was an amazing array of food (roasted potatoes, pasta, fruit, rice, sandwich meats, coffee, etc.) and again, a staff of people who insisted on filling your plate for you. It was comfortable in there. Cozy, like a resort nested in the hills alongside a river should be. But I was feeling good, and I wanted to get in as many miles as I could while I felt that way. I was there less than half an hour.

Just before I left, a rider rolled in who looked as shaken as I felt earlier. He told me an empty logging truck had just came by him, horn blasting, and passed within inches. I was sure it had to be that same driver who flipped me off. I was glad, at least, that I wouldn’t have to keep looking over my shoulder for him now.

It was three in the afternoon, and I had one more climb for the entire ride: the six mile climb back over Jarbo Gap to get out of the Feather River Canyon. I got on the bike and raced along here – racing being a very relative term – until I got to the base of the hill. But as I started to climb up, I realized it was much easier than I remembered. Or maybe just easier than what I had climbed early that morning. Whatever the cause, it was a nice surprise. At one particularly narrow point a pilot truck passed by with a Wide Load sign on it. There was no shoulder on my side, only weeds then a rock wall. So I crossed the highway and rode on the other side until the wide load and all the cars backed up behind it passed. One last reminder not to go back to that canyon on a bike.

Mario, outside Oroville

Mario, outside Oroville

Eventually, I saw the crest of the hill. I was feeling great. Just then, I noticed a rider coming at me from the other direction. Unlike the randonneurs, he didn’t have a lot of gear, so I figured he was someone local out for some hill training. The rider crossed the highway to my side and stopped. As I approached, I realized it was Mario Hlawitschka, a friend from Davis, a riding partner, the person whom I suffered through these miles on the 600k with.

I pulled alongside and asked him what the hell he was doing. Looking for you, he said. What? Why? He shrugged and smiled, and I never did find out. But at some point the night before he decided he was going to ride up and find me and join me for the last leg home. That would mean better than a 200 mile day for him, on a whim! See, these are the kind of people I ride with. No wonder a 1200k ride seemed reasonable.

So we rode down the hill then back down the rollers to Oroville control. I rode quite a bit slower than he, but he was good about waiting for me up ahead and seeming not to get bored. I have to say that I had mixed emotions about Mario being there. On the one hand, how cool that I would have someone I know to ride with. And how nice that he came out to ride with me. On the other hand, I had ridden probably 600 of the last 650 miles alone. I was tired and sore and didn’t have a lot of capacity for too much outside stimulation. It’s important to ride consistently when riding with others, to be able to maintain course and speed. I didn’t want to have to focus on that. I wanted to be able to slow when I wanted, or swerve if I had to, and even just go slow for long stretches without worrying whether I was making the ride tedious for someone else.

As it turned out, none of that was an issue. We didn’t ride a paceline; Mario either went far ahead, dropped far back, or rode alongside if he had something to say. If I dropped back, he went ahead and took a picture or made a call. If he stopped, I kept going and he caught up. He was a perfect riding companion, letting me have my own space, which is something I really needed just then.

We rolled into Oroville around dinnertime. All told, I ended up spending close to 90 minutes here, for a few reasons. For one, it was nice. They had good food and it was air conditioned and comfortable. Also, they had showers, so I enjoyed a long hot one and washed off all the sunscreen and bugs and grime that had accumulated since the morning. Finally, I had to deal with a controversy.

There was a group of us at Oroville, all roughly the same speed, and I was recruiting riders to finish as a group to help each other. I figured as long as I was riding with Mario, I might as well get a bigger group together. One of the people I approached was Edward, whom I met earlier in the ride (on that last long leg in to Susanville). He declined my offer and went about his business. Then he reappeared, obviously troubled. He started by apologizing and feeling bad about what he had to say, but that as a RUSA board member, he felt he had to tell me that if I rode with Mario I might be disqualified. Why? Because despite all of the official support riders receive, randonnées are styled as self-supported rides. Anyone who uses a personal support vehicle has to do so under very tight restrictions. Riders can accept help from any other rider, but not from anyone outside of the ride. By showing up, Mario was arguably lending me outside support. He could pull me along, giving me a break from riding into a headwind. Or he could ride just enough ahead to act like a rabbit I would chase to help keep my pace up. Even riding alongside and talking can be interpreted as giving me outside moral support.

I hadn’t really thought about any of that. I told Edward I understood, and apologized for inadvertently putting him in such an awkward position. I decided to call Dan Shadoan, the regional brevet administrator for the Davis Bike Club and organizer of the GRR. He’s a DBC member, and he knows as well as I that riding out to meet a fellow rider is typical of our members. I told him the situation. After considering everything, he told me that he advised me against riding with Mario. So, what do you do? Ride 750 miles and have it not count with the official organization? Or tell Mario that he has to ride home alone? It was strange, but in this completely unanticipated way, the entire meaning of my riding a 1200k – of riding this 1200k in particular – became an issue. I told Dan I couldn’t ask Mario to ride home alone; I would ride with him and make sure no one else rode with us so that if I was DQ’d, at least no one else would be. So, fed, showered, restocked, rested, and resolute, I set off for the last 90 miles home with Mario.

Next: Oroville to Davis

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