Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Honey Springs and Bellflower

San Diego Randonneurs 600k Brevet, April 4 - 5, 2009

It's hard to justify driving nearly 900 miles round-trip just to participate in a bike ride. All I can say is: it was worth it! The roads in the San Diego backcountry always held a strange attraction for me; I wanted to ride again with my friends Kelly and John from "down there" and this brevet with start and finish in Oceanside allowed me to complete an early qualifying series for the 1200 km events I have in mind for later this year. It also represented the culmination of my unusually dense "spring campaign" this year, just before a longer break for traveling in family affairs.

Ghislaine and I arrived on Friday evening in Los Angeles where we picked up Fabienne and then continued to Oceanside. Fabienne would keep Ghislaine company while I was out on the road from Saturday 7 a.m. to the end of Sunday afternoon, and drive us back to LA on Sunday evening.

Rider meeting before the 7 a.m. start

The first section was not quite 80 miles long, and I fondly remembered much of the route from last year's Flèche. I felt in good shape and didn't mind the substantial climbing. Under perfect conditions, I once again adopted my mantra "Best ride ever!" Kelly muttered something to the effect of a best ride being the one with the right companions, and we all agreed. Unfortunately, on the lengthy climb after Temecula, John's rear tire blew out - not so much a "best ride ever" for him. On the way back to Oceanside, we ran into a vigorous headwind; but our little paceline was up to the task, and I was proud to be able to contribute my fair share. It looked like I was finally growing up and getting closer to parity with my fellow randonneurs!

Kelly passing under his favorite rock

Joseph and John on one of the double-digit climbs in the first loop

The second loop was the pièce de résistance of this brevet: 154 miles, 9200 ft of elevation gain. Just look how it dominates the profile of the complete 600:

It started out fairly easy, down the coast, at least until the Torrey Pine climb where I was much slower than I wanted to be. And when we got held up by countless traffic lights on our way through San Diego to the Chula Vista control, 52 miles since Oceanside, I realized that I had been a little too optimistic when estimating our arrival time there; in particular because the road went fairly seriously uphill before we arrived at the control. This was a little annoying, because John's wife as well as Ghislaine and Fabienne had decided to meet us there to facilitate our dinner control stop, and we were late.

Joseph, John and Kelly at the SW College Control

Of course, we stayed longer than planned. We also had to prepare ourselves for riding into the night and into the mountains, i.e. for much lower temperatures!

The route along the Otay Lakes towards the mountains was extremely scenic under the late afternoon sun. My enjoyment was only dampened a little by feeling weak - too weak for the climbs to come. Maybe I had eaten to much at the "dinner stop?"

We tackled the famous Honey Springs climb (2000 ft in 7 miles - a different type of battle for us!) just at sunset. I still felt weak and worried: I didn't want to delay the progression of my companions more than absolutely unavoidable; but in my current state, I might be half an hour slower than them on this climb. Suddenly John stopped without explanation, and I meant to continue slowly in my smallest gear to try to recover and to get a little advance - but Kelly called me back (and I received a lesson about randonneuring spirit). It turned out that John had to replace a slowly leaking inner tube - and to repeat the exercise twice, because the first two didn't hold the air either. I could tell by his vigorous pumping that he was not happy. By the time we could continue, I felt a little better in the legs, but also quite cold. The temperatures dropped rapidly under the 3/4 moon. I thought that this climb would not even be particularly difficult under "regular" conditions, and certainly quite beautiful - but we didn't see the scenery at night. John now stayed at my rear wheel, letting me set my modest sustainable pace, and I appreciated his thoughtfulness. Kelly who did this whole brevet (as all his other rides since last year) on a single-speed (!) needed to go ahead to keep some momentum going and to avoid stalling his cranks, but he stopped in regular intervals to wait for us. Suddenly John indicated that he needed a recovery stop, and Kelly and I realized that he didn't look good. He had been coughing more than acceptable over the last hours; clearly he was not in possession of his full health. Still, when he continued at his own pace, I couldn't follow him!
There were some bone-chilling descents and more substantial climbs before we finally arrived at the Alpine control, around 10:45 p.m. - 45 minutes later than what I had conservatively estimated before the ride. I focussed on my big chicken burrito with rice and beans, washed down with hot coffee (did I say it was really, really cold outside?), and didn't pay attention to the conversation between John and Kelly. Until it hit me: John was talking about not finishing the ride, stopping right there. It was not his day, and he had to listen to his body. This was very sad for all of us. He called his wife to come and drive him home.

Kelly and I continued the ride rather silently. We still had two major (and many minor) climbs ahead of us before we would reach the coast for the last stretch back to Oceanside. I found my rhythm again and made myself forget the troublesome preceding hours, although the ambition and exuberance from the first loop was gone: I had lost my pride and wasn't ashamed any more to just draft Kelly when I could (he is so incredibly strong anyway ...). When the road presented some rollers, we kept leapfrogging each other, as Kelly was faster on the uphill with his relatively big single gear and often stopped at the top to let me catch up, while I could take advantage of my higher gears on the downhills and didn't hesitate to gain some advantage there. And that's how I missed a somewhat iffy lane change to the left on a downhill and got lost while Kelly was too far back to even notice it - and thought I had suddenly taken off without him! I backtracked for about a mile, climbed the hill back up and started chasing after him into some moderate headwind. The incident had blown away my fatigue and weakness and motivated me to ignore some complaining from my legs. Less than 15 miles later, I saw Kelly's rear lights ahead and rode even harder to catch up with him. When I did, like an unruly child, I was due for another lesson in randonneur ethics and was denied any allowance for my now really sore legs...

We arrived at the Motel 6 in Oceanside at 5 a.m., a full hour later than planned. Kelly required some coaxing until he accepted the 1-hour sleep stop I prescribed in our room for the two of us. Together with showering, eating, and Kelly's chain ring replacement (he wanted a bigger one for the mostly flat remaining distance to Bellflower and back), it was nearly 7:30 a.m. when we set out for the third segment of the brevet.

On the first miles, we met with Adrian; we would stay together with him to the finish. Adrian is an established endurance athlete (508 solo finisher, Tour Divide 2008 finisher); but he entered this 375 mile distance without adequate preparation and admitted some knee pain from the hard climbing on Saturday. I felt surprisingly good and looked forward to a comparatively easy "recovery ride." The rollers coming up on the Pacific Coast Highway from San Clemente to Huntington Beach were a somewhat unwelcome surprise, but I did better than the night before. The headwind we rode into promised to become a boon on the way back. On several occasions, Adrian showed his mettle when he pulled us along for many miles without faltering. But despite some great beach views and the good conditions and my traffic tolerance, I realized that this was not my preferred way of riding the bike: I love the solitary backcountry in Southern California, but the jammed highways through the overpopulated coastal towns - not so much.

We encountered the "alternative" bikers above on the way back from Bellflower, somewhere along the coast. They thundered away from us at each traffic light with earsplitting noise, and we caught up with them at the next traffic light - repeatedly. Not precisely my idea of fun. But, that's part of Southern California I guess. Another disappointment was that the countless traffic lights did cost much more time than imagined and that the expected strong tailwind didn't quite materialize as much as hoped for. Consequently, we had to revise our projected finishing time more than once.

Finally, we reached San Clemente again - only 20 miles left, much of it through the quiet roads of the San Onofre State Campground and Camp Pendleton. But we didn't push through and instead stayed with Adrian whose right Achilles tendon acted up. He had filled a plastic bag with ice from a Carl's Jr. and held it against his ankle while riding ...

So I had time to take a portrait of "The Kelly" as some people call him. This man is a living legend, and much can be learned from him. He got banged up pretty bad (broken bones and all) in a road rage accident, a little over a year ago. When he felt that he didn't recover his strength quickly enough, he decided to switch to single-speed riding to get stronger. Apparently, this worked better than anybody could have expected. But when I asked if he didn't have trouble with his knees, he said "Ah, in my age you have trouble everywhere, anyway." I promised him there would be a crew from French TV at the finish (Ghislaine nearly always has a camcorder in her hand), and that I would take a picture of him with the podium girls:

And here they are!

From left to right: Jun, Kelly, Adrian, Joseph, Kathy, Mike (RBA), John

Thank you all for a great ride!

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