Monday, July 13, 2009

Gold Rush Randonnée - GRR!

Davis Bike Club, July 6 - 10, 2009

When I declared after my failed attempt at a PBP 2007 finish that from now on I would do at least one 1200 km event per year, I meant it. My successful participation in last year's Rocky Mountain 1200 gave me confidence, and so it was a no-brainer to put the Gold Rush Randonnée on my calendar for 2009. It motivated me to stay in shape through the winter and to accumulate my best series of spring brevets ever. Despite the occasional excessive (yet socially commendable) deviation I rediscovered good legs for a difficult San Francisco 600k and followed up with a repeat performance of the Davis 600k one week later: my preparation for the GRR was on track! I didn't mind resting from the bike while on a family excursion in the mountains on June 13-14. But when I came down with cold symptoms a couple of days later, I was shocked. I did what I could to fend them off, but had to admit at the start of the Big Basin 200k brevet on 6/27 that I might not be able to finish it - I would just attempt to do a portion of it as a "healing ride." Indeed, I was weak enough to miss a control closure on the way back and had to take yet another shortcut to get home. As for the "healing" part, I bravely believed in it; but two days later, the troubles in my airways were worse than the week before.

On the 4th of July, I still didn't know whether I would be able to avoid the DNS (did not start) label. The next day I decided that I would at least pack my bags, shove the bike into the van, drive to Davis and take the start. I could always turn around and call it off if "listening to the body" would tell me so. - But I had never been such a nervous wreck before a bike ride!

A detailed route map can be found here.
Aaron Little has posted a very nice little 7-minute video here.
And here comes the approximate one-way profile (click on it for enlargement). The distances are not quite correct because the outbound route to Oroville was different from the return route:

Oh, and by the way: apologies for pedantically noting the distances and times, now that I have them handy. This way, I will have a reference to compare against when I will ride the GRR again in four years - and maybe you, too!

Davis - Oroville (km 166)

A pack of 105 riders left Davis punctually at 6 p.m., and I consciously made an effort to stay at the tail end of the peloton - which is entirely against my nature. I know that I can rather effortlessly build a comforting time cushion for myself on these flat roads by letting me get pulled along in the draft of faster riders. I only need to be reasonable enough to let go when a group is too strong and too fast; and then I can fall back to another group which cruises along at a more moderate pace but still is much faster than I would be alone. But this time, I didn't even have the motivation to optimize my energy expenditure - I felt listless. After the first mile or two, I found myself dead last and noticed an annoying tick - tick coming from my front wheel: the spoke magnet for the bike computer must have been twisted during the transport of the bike and now hit the sensor. (Note to myself: next time, try out the bike before the start!). Just in time, a stop sign made that the whole group bunched up and that I had a couple of seconds to adjust the sensor without losing contact with the other riders - whoa!

Still, by staying at the end of the group, I was at risk of becoming isolated if other slow riders ahead of me didn't close a gap in time. And that's precisely what happened before not too long. At last, this incident triggered my "survival" instinct and made me chase the group ahead to regain its protection against the wind. I found it hard to bend down and maintain the higher effort, not only because of a lack of form, but also because of the big burrito I had eaten not even two hours before the start and which now got in the way while pedaling and breathing. I kept chasing for a mile or two, exhausted myself to breathlessness, but the distance did not noticeably diminish - time to give up and to silently curse my initial listlessness. After all, I should have avoided any harsh effort altogether! At that moment, an unexpected "secret control" was signaled, and the whole group came together, patiently and politely waiting in line for minutes until everybody got the required stamp on the brevet card. This meant that my effort from the last miles really was completely superfluous. (More silent cursing ...)

When I resumed the ride, a little more relaxed than before, in company of equally relaxed riders, I noticed that my bike computer didn't "tick" - my earlier adjustment went too far (I didn't have the time to check) and now the displayed mileage was seriously off. - What else will go wrong, still?

At least, I didn't feel nervous any more, and I found hope again that my health troubles would not unconditionally compromise my ride: maybe this will finally be the "healing ride" I was after? When other riders asked a friendly "How are you?" I replied "Tomorrow will be better." They thought I was joking; but I started to believe in it. In fact, I felt like I was getting better by the hour. I also needed to finally take control of my ride, and I understood that this meant riding alone. By now (after about three hours), the riders were split into many small groups. When they passed me, they often invited me to join them; this would still provide a substantial benefit. When I declined, I didn't have the opportunity to explain why I had decided to ride alone, from now on. I could only hope they would know me well enough not to judge me unsociable.

By riding alone, I could cultivate the focus I needed under the circumstances. My fragility in the airways meant I needed to be careful with my breathing: never too hard! I had to take frequent sips from the water bottler to keep the throat moist. Even talking to riding companions could be detrimental. I know by experience that riding with a group always brings me into situations where I have to push harder than I would in riding alone. Pushing harder is good for training; but in a 1200 where I possibly should not even have started, to begin with?

I made an exception about an hour before Oroville when Hans Dusink from Australia caught up with me, and we rode into the Oroville control together. I had met him when I completed my first 600k brevet in Maryborough/Victoria, in December 2006, and then again at PBP 2007. I told him about our plans to come back to his country some time in the future and then spend more time there (when I won't have to count my vacation days so desperately any more). Of course, I would also participate in a big ride Down Under at that occasion - but he knew that already. With all these uplifting thoughts we rolled into the Oroville Sports Club and checked in, 25 minutes past midnight.

Oroville (km 166) - Taylorsville (km 313)

Only 16 minutes later I checked out again and directed myself towards the first major climb up to Jarbo Gap:

(Units are metric; the profile does not cover the whole distance)

It was very helpful to know the road from my two participations in the Davis 600k brevet from last year and this year. The 12 mile long climb to Jarbo Gap felt shorter and easier than before. I didn't push hard, of course, but held a steady rhythm and was surprised to pass two or three other riders (while being passed myself by some more). This really was getting better and better! The full moon brought an unreal light to the scenery and made the whole riding experience one of the best ever (and I have had many good ones).

During the last weeks of "mental preparation" for this event I had calculated/estimated the times at which I expected to arrive at control points and indicated them on my route sheet. For the Tobin Resort Control (km 232), my goal was to arrive at 5 a.m. I felt encouraged when I checked in there at 4:47 for a healthy early breakfast. While the time of four hours for the 66 km since Oroville is very modest (according to this table a majority of riders were at least half an hour faster), I made up for it by leaving before many others who decided to catch some sleep at this control.

There is another lone randonneur ahead - can you spot him?

I kept riding along steadfastly, alone, according to my ideal pace. While I still felt somewhat fragile in my nose and throat, I was confident that the clean air would heal them soon. And I could not deny that my legs still felt surprisingly fresh. All doubts about me not being in the right place in this ride were gone - I was happy to be there, and I would continue to be happy for the next 600 miles!

Up in Greenville, while I wrote into my brevet card the required information to prove that I passed through this little town, just like everybody else did,

an elderly man tried to tell me something from a distance. He repeated it until I could understand: "Thank you for coming into our area!" I replied that this was our pleasure, that I like this area very much and that I planned to come back another time with my wife to show her too, and then we would stay in Greenville for dinner and over night. He clearly didn't expect that much, was visibly moved, and couldn't stop thanking me and overdoing it with his "God bless you, God bless you!" ...

One hour later (at 10 a.m. sharp, just as my annotated route sheet predicted) I rolled into the sunny Taylorsville control for a second, more substantial breakfast.

Taylorsville (km 313) - Susanville (km 409)

On the 600k brevets, we always turned around in Greenville/Taylorsville; but now, the route went on into unknown territory via the Genessee hamlet (I didn't see a single person there - all seemed closed and waiting for some magic spell to come alive again) to the intimidating Janesville Grade Road.

Normally, a sustained climb or two of 8% and 1000 ft elevation gain each is nothing but an alluring training proposition. But after well over 200 miles, heated up by powerful radiation from the sun on the shadeless road (thank God for the cooling wind!), it's a different story. I wasn't so proud any more of my legs; and the intention to "take it easy" became pointless when there was an 8% hill to climb: any less power to the pedals and I would not advance at all any more! Still, the scenery was like a picture book, and despite the weakness in the legs I was happy to be there.

I needed nearly 7 hours for this segment of less than 100 km; but by arriving in Susanville at 5:13 p.m., I was still within my plan. The only problem was that I really felt tired now, and worried about the remaining difficult 110 km to the Adin sleep stop. After all, I hadn't slept in 34 hours and been on the bike for over 23 hours! And so I decided to lie down for a quick 25-minute nap on a cot in the National Guard Armory where the control was located.

Susanville (km 409) - Adin (km 518)

It was still warm when I left Susanville at 6:17 p.m. and started the 10 km climb to Antelope Pass. I couldn't avoid getting seriously sweaty, but I was happy that the temperatures were overall quite pleasant.

At the top, I found tire tracks on the ground revealing that several other riders before me had taken pictures of their bikes next to the summit sign:

I loved the clean, dry air with a subtly rough perfume of Eastern Sierra sage - more happiness! However, the wind chill on the following fast descent was uncomfortable in my face and reminded me to be cautious.

While crossing an 8-mile stretch to the foot of the next big climb, it became dark and cool enough that I had to put on my night gear and leg and arm warmers. I couldn't do it fast enough to avoid being bitten by dozens of aggressive mosquitos - oh how I hated them! They provided a good reason to hurry up and get back on the bike as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, it was completely dark by the time I crested the second big climb and descended to Eagle Lake. I now aimed at the "presidential" Grasshopper Water Stop staffed by former RUSA president Bill Bryant and current RUSA president Lois Springsteen (together with additional volunteers) - no wonder the water stop felt more like an upscale lobby with an overflowing all-you-can-eat buffet! I stayed much longer than planned and didn't want to leave, but still needed to go to Adin before I could sleep, even though I really was tired enough, already.

While I continued my lonely ride through the beautiful full moon night, on and off struggling with sleepiness, there was suddenly out of nowhere a recumbent rider at my side. He recognized me and I recognized him after a second - but couldn't believe it: Jim Kern! He did not participate in the GRR this time (the story from his 2005 participation can be inferred from this and this), but he came up to Susanville to drive SAG on Thursday and wanted to get in a good 400 km training ride before that ... This unexpected encounter made it much easier for me to continue, fully awake again, after he had to take off because he was dressed for speed and got too cold while chatting with me.

After an incredibly long downhill stretch (20 miles!), I finally arrived around 1:30 a.m. at the Adin Community Center: again over 7 hours for not even 110 km. My predicted arrival time was much more optimistic; it hadn't taken into account that riding in darkness is slower, and that after 24 hours on the bike, everything is slowing down, no matter what.

So, quickly something to eat, and then sleep! But all cots were occupied, and I had to join a dozen or more other riders who were spread out, sleeping, on the blank floor. It helps to be really tired ...

Adin (km 518) - Davis Creek (km 621) - Susanville (km 832)

I meant to sleep until about 5 or 5:30; I felt it was more important to rest and recover from the hard first 500 km than to risk exhaustion by trying to stick to my original plan which obviously became unrealistic, if only because I was not in full health after all. But I woke up after barely two hours of sleep when all my floor-sleeping companions got up and noisily prepared for departure - they had been sleeping for an hour or two more than I already and now were ready to get going again. It didn't make sense for me not to get up as well under these conditions; I would use the time to eat more leisurely and make sure I had everything sorted out for another long day. I left Adin shortly before 6 a.m. towards the last major climb before the turn-around, unsurprisingly named Adin Pass.

The brevet card shows that I got my stamp in Alturas (km 588) at 9:53 a.m. - four hours for 70 km. Obviously, this was much slower than expected, but then again only an hour behind my estimates. On the other hand, it had been very cold (for me) over night; I felt the consequences in my voice and airways. I really had to stay slow enough to avoid any hard breathing - it hurt too much otherwise. I tried to keep convincing myself that I really liked the clean (but harsh) air in this region, and that it would soon heal everything. But in hindsight, after learning of the respiratory difficulties several other riders experienced (who even had to abandon the ride), I shouldn't be surprised that it was a slow day for me, and instead be grateful that I still got through relatively well.

I still could have saved time at the control stops; but how could I when Susan and Michael and their helpers at the Alturas Elks Lodge put so much effort into making our stay pleasant and gastronomically pleasurable? And so I finally decided for good to just enjoy the ride and not to worry about my times any more at all (at worst, I would arrive back in Susanville too late in the evening and get delayed on Thursday morning for the Janesville climb which nobody wants to tackle when the sun is too high in the sky. But this was far away).

On the way to the turn-around in Davis Creek

Here we are: population 110

And there is an airport, too!

On the way back from Davis Creek, somewhere on the 45 miles between Alturas and Adin (still before Canby) in the early afternoon, the windy air was so dry and the sun so hot that I became paranoid about running out of water. I wasn't sure whether I could find water in Canby, and thoughtlessly I had not refilled my third bottle when leaving Alturas (I hadn't needed much water in the morning on the same stretch when it was still cool). Very regularly, SAG drivers patrolled the course; but as it happened, there was nobody to be seen for about half an hour of my silent panicking and water-rationing - not even local traffic. After all, we were in remote Modoc County: The last best place, and very quiet! When finally the support van of Kathy Twitchell passed and I gesticulated ridiculously that I needed something, the agony was over (and I promised - as usual - that I owed her a beer).

I stopped in Adin on the way back between 18h37 and 19h16 and arrived in Susanville at 2:50 a.m. - it was a long ride, marked by the highly welcome Gasshopper water stop not far from the shores of Eagle Lake.

In Susanville I could take a shower, eat, and lay down on a cot, probably well past 3:30 a.m.. The volunteer offered to wake me up at some specific time, but I declined: I needed my sleep, this time! And I expected that I would wake up anyway when all the other randonneurs on the cots around mine would noisily get up.

Susanville (km 832) - Oroville (km 1054) - Finish (km 1200)

When I woke up, I noticed that I hadn't moved at all since I had laid down: I must have slept completely immobilized. I also noticed that bright daylight shone through the open doors and windows, and that there were not many cyclists left. I had slept for over 3 hours - darn: too late for climbing Janesville Grade (still over an hour away) before the sun started burning down on it. Ah - what the heck!

I felt surprisingly well and was eager to tackle "the beast" (10% average over 4 miles, but with long stretches of much steeper portions). On the first third, it went pretty well and I still believed I could get to the top without walking. But then, the road turned slightly left and added a couple more % to its grade - it was over. It was not a matter of deciding to walk - the road decided for me; I had no choice.

Walking wasn't so bad either; it relaxed the muscles and the mind. I stopped to take pictures, and when I mounted my steed again less than half a mile later, I felt much stronger and easily reached the top. This was also the top of the GRR - nearly all downhill from now!

As so often, "nearly all downhill" are famous last words in a bike ride.

I did reach Taylorsville (km 928) for a generous lunch break less than 2 hours after my original estimate (here is the timing obsession again - really must be feeling better!), and didn't waste much time in Tobin (km 988) either: I refreshed and nourished myself there from 4:45 p.m. to 5:15 a.m. But (and I wasn't alone with this) we didn't advance fast on the gradual downhill along the Feather River: we had to work hard just to advance into the headwind.

Ideally, I would have liked to arrive in Oroville around 6 p.m. and leave soon afterwards to ride through to the finish in hopes of still getting to bed well before sunrise. Instead, I checked in at 8:50 p.m. only and then decided to lie down on a mat in a corner for another shut-eye of 20 - 25 minutes. The remaining 90 miles into a notorious headwind promised to be more difficult than the flat profile suggested and might take longer than expected: I better rest once again!

I remember that I left at 22h22 (because it's easy to remember), ready to push through the fourth night. All went well until around Gridley where I heard again, just as on the way up, the clickety-clickety of dog footnails on the pavement: those two big nasty dogs were at it again, three days later! I am always surprised by two things on such an occasion: first, how much power I can still bring to the pedals to accelerate and sprint away; and second, how terrifying my voice sounds when I use the worst possible Bavarian swear words against the dogs. I did both already on the way up, and it worked again on the way back: my shouting startles them enough to stop for a moment in disbelief, and when they realize that they don't understand Bavarian and decide to continue chasing I shout once more, even worse, while already pulling away. - I am making fun of it now; but I learned at the finish that those dogs managed to bring down a recumbent rider, and seriously bite into the calf of another randonneur (who wasn't lucky enough to know the powerful Bavarian swear words).

The worst of the remaining distance was the seemingly never ending stretch on the dark straight Progress/Reclamation Road (over 12 miles); the best was the last "secret control" just before Cranmore Road where Amy Rafferty had the perfect ingredients to beef up my pedaling for the last 30 miles into the finish: a hot croissant filled with jelly, sweet oatmeal and excellent coffee. Uncharacteristically for this GRR 2009 of mine, I rode those last miles together with Marcello which made for a nice change from the previous 600 miles. We arrived at 7:06 a.m.. My elder daughter Valerie made a point of being at the finish (thank you!); and I realized that my health problems were gone: it was a healing ride!


  1. Great write up! Perhaps you need to post those powerful Bavarian swear words so we'll all be able to get by the Gridley dogs in the future!

  2. OK, try this: "Hundskrippe varreckta, gehst hoam?!"
    That's one of the more polite ones (after all, this blog is family-oriented). It translates into "Dead body of a crippled dog, won't you go home immediately?!" (Make sure you roll the 'r's, as in "caramba!")

  3. Great, Joseph!
    "and maybe you, too"... I hope so!
    Mieux vaut tard que jamais: félicitations pour cette réussite et pour ce récit qui donne envie d'y aller (à part les chiens!)... j'espère que mes poumons assez fragiles supporteront cet air si vif...
    J'aime beaucoup cette phrase: "I also needed to finally take control of my ride, and I understood that this meant riding alone"...
    Comme tu vois, j'ai égoïstement fait passer l'écriture avant la lecture... mais ça faisait si longtemps que je n'avais rien publié!
    Je crois que tu as eu de nos nouvelles sur le blog de Barbara... tant mieux.
    Ride safe

  4. An inspirational post!

    But with so much experience you're hardly an apprentice. Surely you have "turned out", as those of us from the building trades call it, by now. That would make you a Randonneur Journeyman.

    Good lesson in giving it a try regardless of how you're feeling.