Month: July 2009


GRR by the Numbers

  • Total hours: 81 hours, 48 minutes
  • Hours slept: Approx. 10 (at 7 different stops)
  • Feet climbed: Approx. 26,000 ft.
  • Riders starting: 105 total (88 riders for the 1,200k, and another 17 who were doing a 1,000k plus another 200k. Same distance, but there is a RUSA award (“Randonneur 5000”) that requires a 1,000km ride.
  • Riders finished: 90

I don’t have much to say in the way of a wrap-up. Just a couple of thoughts.

The event was incredibly well run. Davis Bike Club always puts on a good ride, but taking care of 105 riders over nearly five days and over 375 miles of open road is just amazing. All of the volunteers were incredible. They went beyond the usual helpful, caring, supporting role they fill. They were, to a person, selfless, nurturing. Taking care of the riders was their only concern, and they took their charge very seriously. They gave us not hours, but days away from their families and homes. Each person I came in contact with was as smiling, giving, and as eager to help on the final day of the ride as on the first. I am grateful for their sacrifice.

I know I advised the reader never to do a 1200k, or any ride that takes so much out of you; but of course, I would never tell anyone not to do it. I do know I never will again, but that’s a different story. For me, I don’t think the reward of riding a 1200k is commensurate with effort required to ride it successfully. But I would never presume to make that judgment for anyone else.

I will say, though, that having decided to ride the Gold Rush Randonnée sometime last Fall, I’m glad I had the opportunity to train for the ride, to attempt to ride it, and to finish. This is one jersey I feel like I’ve earned.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in GRR 2009, 3 comments

Oroville to Davis

600k Brevet Redux
Mile 654.8 to Mile 745.7

The ride south from Oroville started out nice. The temperature was warm and pleasant, the roads easy. Again, I felt energized by the long stop.

Mario was being extra cautious not to get in front and pull me. We had made an unspoken agreement that we would play by the rules, even if the fact that we were playing at all violated them. A lot of cycling involves nonverbal communication. It’s one of the rewarding things about the sport. The ability to read another rider’s movements and posture is key to safety when you’re not riding alone. Mario was making it very clear that we were riding together on separate rides. I really appreciated that sensitivity on his part.

But even as we were rolling through horse country on this lovely evening, I felt a creeping sense of dread. This was exactly like the 600k. Mario and I had left Oroville about the same time, the temperature was similar, and it was just the two of us. Later, the miles seemed to get longer and longer, the headwind strengthened and chilled. We had to drag ourselves to the finish. It was this stretch on the 600k, more than any other, that made me reconsider riding the 1200k.

I mean, it’s hard to complain about 90 miles of flat roads. You can’t really ask for an easier way to finish off a long ride, even with a headwind. On the other hand, that 90 miles starts to feel like punishment, like the last 15 or so into Susanville, only worse. Longer and more desolate. It seems like there is no point to it, nothing gained, nothing to see, nothing of any interest whatsoever, no good place to take a break. There is nothing between you and the finish but road and time, and the only thing that will get you through is sheer stubbornness.

For the moment though, as I said, things were fine. Not far outside Gridley we crossed an intersection at the same time as John Hess, who was returning from his stint in Taylorsville. It was a funny chance encounter, so we pulled over and hung out for a few minutes. Once in Gridley, I kept my promise to myself from three days earlier and stopped at Taco Bell to get a 7-Layer burrito. Tasted like crap, but all things considered, the calories probably did me some good.

Me lit up from the back

Me lit up from the back

After that it was dark, and we still had seventy-something miles to go. Now was the time to buckle down and count off the miles. But miles don’t count off so easily at this point in a long ride. Every mile is a struggle. My three points of contact with the bike – hands, feet, and butt – were all sore as hell. I kept swiveling my feet in and out to change the point of pressure on my pedals. I had to move my arm position every few seconds to change the pressure point on my hands and the point of tension in my arms. And every few minutes I had to stop pedaling altogether and just stand to give my butt relief. The ride went on like this, mile after tedious mile.

The Sutter Buttes appeared ahead of us, moved alongside, and dropped behind. I barely registered their presence but to mark that we were that much closer to Sutterville, the next stop on the itinerary. I was cognizant of the outline of the buttes, the slowly fading orange and deepening blue. But I was far past appreciating any sense of beauty around me.

Sutterville was a receipt control, which meant I had to buy something at the local 24-hour mini-mart to prove I was there. I bought some water and a few minutes later we were moving again.  (Here is a picture of riders outside the Sutterville mini-mart from Jun Sato.) Not far past Sutterville, I started to get chilled. I pulled over to put a vest on. A few hundred yards later, I stopped again to add arm and leg warmers and glove liners.

And that was about it for distractions. Nothing left but to put my head down and pedal. And you might as well ride with your head down because there’s not a goddamned thing to see out there. Lights up ahead don’t get closer. The scenery to the sides never seems to change. I was riding along looking for a street sign that I knew was ten miles down the road, but I was looking anyway because I was so desperate for something, anything to break the monotony and the pain.

I don’t think I can convey adequately just how tortuously boring and physically painful the ride was between Gridley and Davis. I’m trying here, but I don’t know. It’s something you have to experience to really understand. I was thinking again about the bike, and whether it was taking care of me. It certainly was. I doubt if any human feels comfortable on a bike after three and a half days of riding. But I could propel this bike into the wind with very little effort. Maybe it was just my slow speed. But I felt like my legs were turning with no apparent strain on my thighs, and I was very grateful for that just then.

At some point, we saw tail lights ahead. One mile? Two? Impossible to tell. Sometime later, they were traveling perpendicular to our path, so we knew the turn was near . . . relatively speaking. We finally made it. Three miles down the road there was another secret control. (Here is a picture of the secret control by Jun Sato.) This one was staffed by randonnée veteran Amy Rafferty, along with John Whitehead and another volunteer. (At this point in the ride, I wasn’t doing really well with names.)

Once off the bike, I felt how cold the wind really was. I ate while wrapped in a blanket, then used the port-o-potty as shelter while I put on my wool under shirt. Fucking mosquitoes were biting me too, adding insult to injury, as it were. Who ever heard of mosquitoes in the middle of the night flying around in a stiff, cold wind and biting people anyway? Mutant bastards. I wrapped up in a blanket and sat in a chair and chugged one last cup of coffee. This should have been a welcome break, but between the cold wind and the biting bugs, we got moving a lot sooner than I wanted.

We had arrived at 12:40am, and were rolling again by 1:20. At this point in the ride, it was impossible not to think about the end. You’re only supposed to think in segments, but that was impossible for me. I knew it was 12 miles down the levee road, 10 more to Woodland, and 8 more from there to the finish. Easy distances, all adding up to less mileage than my shortest weekday ride. It was still a very difficult ride. I had no idea how fast we were riding, but I knew that at an absolute minimum it would take two hours to cross that distance, and probably much more. I found that very frustrating, so I pushed as hard as I could for as long as I could after the secret control. I even surprised Mario. But it didn’t last long. I was soon back to shifting feet and hands, standing every minute or so and coasting practically to a stop, then starting the same routine all over again.

Dear reader, take my advice: don’t ever do this to yourself. Don’t do any ride that makes you this tired and this sore. Trust me, it really sucks.

We made it off the levee road and into Knights Landing. I could see the lights of Woodland from the south end of town, and a stream of smoke from a factory that confirmed what I already knew: the wind was blowing steadily from the southeast. I looked at those lights and that smoke for over an hour. They didn’t get any closer until the very last mile. Then they loomed up and disappeared behind me.

Did I mention that neither Mario nor I had said more than a dozen words while riding since Sutterville? He had to be wondering why he did this to himself again. I know I was cursing myself for thinking it would be easier the second time.

The last bit of road, from Woodland to Davis, passed more quickly because there were cross-streets, signals, big box stores, tract home developments, farms, ranches, and finally, the turnoff to the county dump to act as mileage markers. We turned onto County Road 29, the second to last turn for the ride. Mario finally had enough and took off like a shot. I didn’t see him again until the finish. Left turn down F Street. One mile to go. F Street runs off the grid, and rather than running north/south, runs southeast/northwest. Goddammit! I yelled. Do I really need to ride head on into this fucking wind for the last fucking mile of this goddamned ride? Is this really fucking necessary? Apparently, it was.

So I toughed it out, turned right on Anderson, then took a quick left into the Tandem Properties parking lot. And just like that, the ride was done.

Barbara Anderson was working the check in. Her face lit up when she saw me and she jumped up and hugged me as if I had just returned from the dead. It was now 3:48am. My projected best finish time was midnight; my outside time to finish safely (leaving time for unforeseen delays) was 6am. I was comfortably in the middle of that period. More importantly, I was done. (Here is a picture of me taken at the finish by Don Bennett.)

And now I had my answers for the guys: Yes I finished; it took just under 82 hours; and no, I didn’t walk up Janesville Grade. And goddamn if I’m ever going to do anything like that again.

Next: Postscript

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in GRR 2009, 0 comments

Taylorsville to Oroville

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

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in GRR 2009, 0 comments