It is obvious that I refuse to spell out the official title of this double century, the last of the year in the California Triple Crown series. If that title really was an indicator of its nature, I would of course stay away from it. But after participating in last year's inaugural edition, I was looking forward to coming back - so there! Incidentally, Ghislaine likes to spend a weekend in a desert location even when it's not called Death Valley (provided there is a nice swimming pool around), and so we have got another win-win situation.
Why Ghislaine likes to spend a weekend in Borrego Springs
Here is an overview of the route (click on it to enlarge). I also put the route in two segments here: Borrego Springs -> Oceanside and back.
The profile below shows how the roughly 14000 ft elevation gain are distributed. Highlights are the spectacular Montezuma 11-mile climb at the very beginning and the 5-mile climb to the base of Mount Palomar around mile 140 - when the legs are getting tired. All in all, one of the more demanding doubles. Last year, I faltered seriously in the heat on the shorter climbs around mile 120 and lost quite some time, but I recovered and still finished 15 minutes under my cautious goal of 18 hours. Of course, I expected to do much better this year.
We (Ghislaine, Fabienne and I) had a nice dinner at the Krazy Coyote on Friday evening, and the joyful anticipation of the next day made me good-humored enough to splurge when ordering desserts. Once we had them on the table, the ladies started watching their weight, however, and I had to make up for it. About eight hours later, during the Montezuma climb, it occurred to me that this probably had been a mistake ...
Why I was so slow on the climbs ...
The biggest surprise on this route is always the temperature drop from the top of Montezuma down to Lake Henshaw. It was chilly enough last year already that despite my old age I hadn't forgotten the experience; and so I carried this time long-finger gloves, a wool skull cap, four layers plus an additional one of crumpled paper over the chest, and of course all the wool socks, leg and arm warmers you can imagine. And boy was I glad that I had it all!
Not far from the spot where I took the picture above (the mountain on the horizon is Mount Palomar, and the foggy area at its base is Lake Henshaw), I saw two participants walk their bikes on the gradual downhill. I slowed down and asked what was wrong. The answer? "Nothing. We are just cold!"
But at the same time, I loved the scenery, the clean air and the smooth road surface - it was going to be a wonderful day! And to top it off: my dear friends Kelly (search for him here) and John M. (same as for Kelly, but also here) had decided to join me at Lake Henshaw, before the climb to Mesa Grande, and to ride with me all day long and into the night to the finish - from where they still had the Montezuma climb ahead of them to return to their car!
John and Kelly half-way up the Mesa Grande climb
As always, I am slower than John and Kelly; and when John asked how I was doing, I blamed my heavy breathing on the dinner (including the dessert) from the night before. But I was happy enough about the wonderful riding on Mesa Grande towards Santa Ysabel that I soon forgot about it. After all, it was nearly all downhill now to the lunch stop at the Oceanside beach; and as we progressed, it appeared that we were clearly well ahead of my times from last year.
Oceanside: best lunch stop ever!
I also felt much better than last year at the same spot and was confident to get my revenge on last year's trouble on Lilac Road where I seriously overheated on the climbs. There was not much risk of overheating this time: temperatures were pleasant enough that I pulled down arm and knee warmers, but stayed relatively cool. I made myself sweaty anyway, because I was determined to show John and Kelly that I had progressed (or at least, that I was making a big effort to minimize their slowing down for me). In contrast to the past where I always hedged my bets and was worried about the distance, I went all out as if there was no tomorrow, or as if there was nothing left to ride in this event. It feels great to be exuberant and to believe that one is now much stronger than in the past!
The steep, long Cole Grade descent brought us quickly to the famous "Smoothy Rest Stop" in Pauma Valley. We enjoyed it very much, but I admitted that I was confused. I didn't remember at which time I passed there last year when the ride was a week earlier and we still had daylight savings time. Now it became quickly dark, and it seemed that we were falling behind my times from last year, even though I was convinced to be faster. But - no time for meditating: we were on the approach to the 5-mile climb on Hwy 76.
This road is among the more annoying pieces of the whole route: no shoulder to speak of, but occasionally pretty ruthless traffic with a high proportion of over-powered and over-wide pickup trucks, while the slow uphill riding is sapping the strength from the legs. And then, suddenly: no strength left. "Major power loss," as Kelly put it (talking about me). I finally had to pay the bill for my exuberance some 20 miles earlier - very embarrassing. But Kelly always has a trick up his sleeve; and after following his magical incantations ("walk twice counter-clockwise around your bike, then twice clockwise; now stretch!") I was able to continue. Towards the top I could pick up my speed again, enough to claim that I was still faster than last year (when I was alone on that climb). But, somehow, we had lost the belief that we could still arrive at the finish at 9:45 p.m. as I had predicted.
It was getting chilly again along Lake Henshaw, and the increasing altitude towards Julian didn't help. But I always liked to climb up to Julian - even though I was unable to hold the wheels of Brian and Clyde with whom we left the last rest stop. Instead, I set the pace for John to whom I explained that he was benefitting from my more "moderate" approach: he should save his legs for the Montezuma climb which he still had to do when I would be under the shower and in bed already, later that night!
In exchange, having the better lights, I led John and Kelly on the long Banner Grade downhill back into the desert. Only the comparatively tiny (less than two miles long and not steep either) Yaqui pass was remaining, barely ten miles from the finish. Again, John stayed with me while Kelly effortlessly drifted ahead whether he wanted it or not. As usual, he waited for us at the top; but this time he was not alone: he had found Jim at the roadside, and Jim didn't look good. Kelly didn't need a doctor to come up with the diagnostic and prescription: some Gasex pills (which he always has in his handlebar bag) will do. Jim clearly was not pregnant or nursing, and so the risks of overdosing were mitigated. The three of us did what we could to combine our moral support and to shepherd Jim through the last ten miles or so to the finish. This included letting Jim lie down in the desert sand for a while - even in walking distance from the finish - and helping him to get back up on his bike. But above all, this generous display of randonneuring ethics (both John and Kelly wore their RUSA jerseys) provided a wonderful excuse for being late at the Christmas Circle finish where Ghislaine and Fabienne were patiently waiting for us.
Kelly and John ready to set out for their remaining 35 miles - at 11 p.m.
It has been reported that Kelly had a bit of a sleepiness struggle to go through on the last miles (when I was in bed already). Maybe this was because he was overdressed? Or maybe John didn't talk enough to him? - No matter what, both John and Kelly made it home safely as well. And I am sure the three of us will from now on cherish the memory of this ride. I promised to come "down South" to them for more big rides together next year.
P.S.: Check out this page for particularly nice pictures and background information about the Anza-Borrego Desert.