A while ago, somebody asked me which of the traditional brevet distances (200 - 300 - 400 - 600 km) I liked best and why. I didn't have to think about it. It's the 600, because it's serious but not too much so. "Serious" meaning: long enough that I can brag about it; "not too much" meaning: I don't have to sacrifice one of those rare and precious vacation days, I can do it on a weekend. It's only consequential then that I accumulated seven 600k finishes (this one being Number Seven) since 2006, as opposed to only four 400s.
Luckily, I had prepared my stuff on the evenings before Friday, because I got held back at work even later than usual. Still, I wish I could have gone to bed earlier than I did, because I had to get up before 4 a.m. to drive to the 6 a.m. start at the Golden Gate, and I know it's important to get enough rest before a 600 km ride. I planned to ride it through without a sleep stop and was confident being able to do so without trouble; but who knows after a demanding week at work?
Since my Shortcut, three weeks ago, I went out only once on a hilly 60-mile training ride. That one went pretty well, and I concluded that I had finally recovered from my misguided Experiment. Maybe it also helped that in the meantime I got tooth no. 31 with its infected cracked root extracted. No matter what, I was very much looking forward to riding this prestigious route up to Fort Bragg and back.
I didn't underestimate its difficulty and didn't overestimate my abilities (well, not too much) when I wrote down the estimated times at which I would pass certain milestones, such that Ghislaine knew when and from where to expect phone calls telling her that everything was just fine and dandy with me and my bike. I promised to call from Healdsburg (km 140), Fort Bragg (the turn-around point), Guerneville (km 470, Sunday morning) and the finish. I projected to arrive there between 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
That's why I tried to gain a little time cushion early on by drafting a group of faster riders. Of course, the first major uphill after Fairfax put an end to it; all I could do now was to minimize my stops at the controls in Point Reyes and Petaluma in order to stay somewhere in the middle of the (stretched-out) pack.
As usual, I became slower and slower shortly after Petaluma and didn't even try to hang on when some small and fast groups passed me (they had spent some extra time at Peet's Coffee in Petaluma). Only when Alex passed me alone, I invited myself to ride with him. I needed a couple of miles at his rear wheel for recovery before feeling strong enough again to share the work. Just as in February at the SFR 300 brevet, I was thrilled to arrive at the Healdsburg Safeway control (lunch stop) early enough to still meet many of the stronger riders there, and took pictures to prove it:
Temperatures were still too low for me, and I was happy to find a hot potato soup to warm me up. After about half an hour, Alex and I took to the road again together, but soon I realized that something around that lunch stop hadn't played nice with my athletic disposition: I had to explain that I needed to "really take it easy" for a while, if only to save my legs for the upcoming big climb on Hwy 128 after Cloverdale. The truth was that the 15 miles from Healdsburg to Cloverdale were for me the most difficult miles of the whole distance - go figure! I wished Alex good luck with his first 600, and he was out of sight within a minute.
Finally, the sun came out towards Cloverdale, and the start of the 3-mile climb on Hwy 128 provided a good reason to stop and to shed some layers. I stayed cautiously modest during the climb and in exchange felt much better at the top than at the bottom. The scenery had changed completely, and I thoroughly enjoyed riding through the hilly and remote countryside, taking in all the sights, in particular the unexpected ones (insider joke - don't ask!). In Boonville finally, the sun had made me hot enough to buy an ice cream and to wash it down with a cold Coca Cola - still not done with experimenting and taking alimentary risks! But it worked well, even very well. It felt as if I had new legs. Which was good, because I really needed them into the relentless headwind which seemed to get stronger and stronger. I counted down the miles to Philo, to Navarro and finally to the Paul Gimmick campground where randonneur friends from the Santa Rosa Cycling Club had set up a support station. The last miles went through a memorable stretch of a fast, smooth road through redwoods which muffled the headwind. Much to my delight, I was able to keep my speed much higher than before. No wonder I arrived at the campground in an exceptionally good mood and proclaimed "This is randonneurs' paradise!" when I let myself become spoiled by all the attention and all the goodies the volunteers offered.
True to my nature, I announced to be back from Fort Bragg (still over 25 miles away) shortly before midnight. They promised to have (among many other randonneur-delicacies) warm pasta with a choice of bolognese or vegetarian sauces and hot espresso for me!
The coastal Hwy 1 always is a spectacular route, and for some obscure reason, the stretch past Albion and Mendocino towards Fort Bragg holds a particular charm for me. If only it wasn't so cold there! I remembered that I had packed my smartwool baselayer, and I promised myself to put it on in Fort Bragg. I tried to make a good, strong impression (why??) when I crossed the first randonneurs already coming back from the turnaround, and I appreciated meeting several other riders at the Safeway control stop there and to leave together with three of them for the way back. However, as expected, as soon as we reached the hillier portions, I "decided" to let them go and stick to my own pace. My goal was to keep my promise of being back at the Paul Dimmick campground for the warm pasta before midnight, and I reckoned that I was right on target as is - no point overdoing it. I had reached the state where my body knew better than my brain what was good for me and my success in this ride - might as well pay attention to it.
The "late dinner" stop at the campground (I arrived there at 11:45 p.m., and John R. wasn't even surprised about how precisely I was on schedule) was as memorable as it could be. Imagine half a dozen randonneurs sitting around the campfire in lawn chairs, gobbling pasta with a sauce that tasted like made in heaven, slurping some tonic espresso ...
They also had set up tents for sleepers but I was determined to ride on for a lonely 50-mile stretch through the rest of the night to Cloverdale. It seems absurd; but at this point, my confidence had the effect of making me adopt a completely relaxed pace and to insist on riding mostly alone. Above all, I wanted to enjoy the ride, and avoid getting sweaty on the climbs (there were many of them!). Bundled up in my five layers, I finally felt a little overdressed, but it was better than being cold.
Brian C. was among the several riders who passed me and even took a picture:
Other riders in small groups passed me; then they decided to stop for a little nap somewhere off the road and I passed them without noticing; and a little later they passed me again, and so on. I was never really alone and never felt lonely.
Of course, I got sleepy on the bike at some point; but when I noticed the first symptoms (around 4 a.m.), I was prepared for it and knew what to do: talk! - And what if there is nobody around to talk to? Well, then talk to yourself! - It did occur to me that if somebody of my non-randonneur friends or family members would have seen and heard me, his or her idea of my mental health as a randonneur would have taken a hit. From my side however, I found this thought quite funny - and talked about it, loudly. I also tried to find more funny stories to tell myself, but I knew them already and got bored after a while. I needed to find something else - that's it: tongue twisters! The air was cold enough that my face muscles had become a little stiff which made good articulation challenging. Nothing like a good tongue twister to give the face muscles a good workout and warm them up again, like e.g. my favorite: "Brautkleid bleibt Brautkleid und Blaukraut bleibt Blaukraut!" I repeated this one for several miles, got really good at it - and noticed that my sleepiness was completely gone.
And so I arrived in Cloverdale at 5 a.m. sharp in very good spirits. The 24-hour Shell station there had a food mart attached, and as soon as I had parked the bike and removed my helmet, I found myself suddenly surrounded by half a dozen other faster randonneurs who had made a sleep stop of several hours at the campground and now had caught up with me. It was nice to be in their company for twenty minutes; but then I sneaked out because I knew I shouldn't even try to join their group afterwards, and because I had made plans to go for a bigger breakfast later in Healdsburg.
The remaining 110 miles were rather uneventful, although not always easy. Because I had so carefully hedged my bets, the legs had kept their ability to turn the pedals even against the resistance of headwind or gravity (or both). All I had to do was to stay within my limits; and this meant declining all invitations to ride along with others - I knew they were all stronger than I, and I would suffer in my vain attempts to minimize their waiting for me until it was all hopeless.
About an hour from the finish, Willy passed me and we started chatting while advancing from one red-light stop to the next, from Fairfax to Larkspur. This made me go much faster than I would have alone; but now it was OK - the finish was close. I told him I would "let him win" on the last climb on Corte Madera to Camino Alto; but his answer was that he had decided to show me an alternate route (Chapman Drive) with barely any traffic. He didn't tell me that it was also longer and steeper. There was nothing I could do but follow him. I was lucky when a racer-type cycling friend of his passed us close to the bottom; the two leisurely climbed up, talking all the time, while I redlined it trying to keep them in sight. But I was proud of being able to hold up to this effort after nearly 370 miles, and I felt great!
Still, I didn't want to arrive at the finish all worked up and exhausted. Willy finally agreed to go ahead - after all, we still had to climb from Sausalito up to the bridge - and I arrived at the finish as nonchalantly as I could, seven minutes later, at 4:25 p.m. (well within my estimates). I knew John C. was there as a volunteer for check-in, together with Mark B.; but I was still surprised and nearly jumped for joy to see him. I was happy...
(Thanks to Brian and Alex for letting me borrow some of their photos).