As I explained here, I always have good reasons to go into the desert. And so, when I learned last October that the prolific San Diego Randonneurs are putting on a huge 600 km brevet out of Borrego Springs for the April 10-11 weekend, I immediately declared it to become my first season highlight of 2010. I don't know why, but I have always been attracted by the mountainous area to the southeast of Los Angeles; and this loop would lead me through some more of the regions I longed to discover, in particular the Overland Stage Coach route down south to Ocotillo and the edge along the Mexican border. In addition, the time of the year promised an attractive outburst of greenery and desert wildflowers, and circumstances allowed the weekend to also become a "bonding experience" for accompanying wife and daughters while I would be out on the road for two days and one night.
Kelly and John M. had decided again to join me for this 600, which made it all even better. I anticipated that the route was not easy, and that some personal struggles would be involved. But this perspective motivated me to work harder on the preceding brevets so I would be well prepared for it; and in turn I considered this ride an important part of my preparation for the much more demanding goals I have put on my calendar for the rest of this year!
For those who would rather watch a 10-minute movie about the experience instead of reading my blog, I should emphasize right away that Kelly has produced another wonderful "Rando Rides" feature on YouTube. And if you are determined to continue reading (all the power to you!) - watch it anyway. It contains pictures I don't have, and conveys impressions I will not be able to articulate.
A little group of 16 randonneurs set out at 04:30 a.m. and quickly disintegrated on the Yaqui pass climb and (after a windy descent) on the dominantly uphill stretch to Scissors Crossing where we turned onto the Overland Stage Coach Route towards Ocotillo. I marveled at the exotic desert vegetation which made the views so much different from what I had imagined. I believe I could have taken hundreds of cactus and other plant photos if I hadn't had something else to do: riding my bike.
Greg Olmstead (above) manned a very welcome water stop at the Butterfield General Store, about a dozen miles before the Sweeney Pass got our attention. Here are some good pictures of the latter, although from a hotter and more desolate time of the year.
The profile makes the 12-mile, 3000-ft climb on I-8 around mile 70 stand out. It certainly kept me honest - there was no way to cheat my way up to the top. As expected, Kelly and John lost me there; but we had arranged a lunch-stop regrouping in Jacumba. Too bad I wasn't in the mood for taking pictures; the views were grandiose. I will have to come back another time to check out the Desert View Tower.
In good bicyclist's delusion I had in mind that the following stretch over Highway 94 out to the coast would be "all downhill" which was doubly wrong: first, because the very gradual loss of altitude was sprinkled with a good many uphills, some of which quite serious; and second, because a murderous headwind during all of the afternoon made me push the pedals hard even on the de-facto downhills. Also, I had managed to miss the regrouping lunch stop with Kelly and John in Jacumba and found myself alone until San Diego. No big deal; but it did cut into my optimistic time line.
Here is one of my favorite views from the Barrett Junction area:
Can you see how the road meanders downhill and through the valley and then climbs all the way out of the valley again on the left side of the background? All this under a violent headwind? - Memorable, I tell you ...
But I eventually reached the coast, was joined by Michael B., and together we rode up to Oceanside and beyond. I convinced him not to wait for me when I had to fix a flat, and despite some little involuntary errands in darkness to San Clemente and back, I joined Kelly and John for a sleep break at the Oceanside Motel 6 around 2 a.m.
As so often on long rides, I felt better on the second day (at least as soon as I had imposed on Kelly and John to let me have a 7-11 coffee and muffin for breakfast), and we climbed back into the mountains in company of Nicole and Jim for a while. The weather was pleasant, the wind mostly cooperative, and I enjoyed recognizing some of the routes from previous rides in the area. Somewhere between Temecula and Hemet I had another flat. John used the time of the repair to relax in the grass and to listen to some of my cross-cultural linguistic explanations (the subject of which is not fit for print), while Kelly took pictures:
In Hemet, we enjoyed a pleasant lunch stop at the Fresh & Easy Market before tackling the dreaded Sage Road climb: on the profile, it's the sharp tooth shortly before mile 320.
While approaching the climb, Kelly meant well to indoctrinate me once again into the virtues of using bigger gears in order to get stronger; but the steeper pitches (probably up to 14%) just didn't leave me a choice: I had to use my smallest gear - and still get out of the saddle, as can be seen on his video. Allegedly, Kelly used some software tricks to accelerate my climbing in post-production - thank you, Kelly!
On top of Sage Road. On the horizon: Mount Palomar
I was running a little low on water and calories and really looking forward to the Aguanga Store. On arriving there, John pointed out that I was visibly due for some restoration, which encouraged me to indulge in my beverage of choice (after double-checking that I fulfilled all the posted legal requirements). I am pretty sure I would not have done so well without it on the remaining uphill stretches that lifted us from 1600 ft to 4000 ft. Although it did help that we honestly had a very supportive tailwind there, too!
Souvenir picture at the highest point of the route, mile 368
On arriving at the top of Montezuma Grade, I felt the ride was over: the rest really was all downhill, and a big one at that! Now what does it say of a 380-mile long ride when - in hindsight - everybody agreed that the worst part of it, and by far, was the last 12 mile long 5 - 8 % downhill? It was horrible.
At first, the road and the tailwind were straight, and we barely noticed that we were catapulted into the 50 mph range. But as soon as the turns and the escarpment and canyons started, the wind came from everywhere and blew us around like littered paper. The rims must have gotten hot from all the braking; there was no way we could let the speed exceed 15 - 20 mph, and even that was too scary at times. About half-way down, I finally stopped to take pictures and to relax a little; this downhill from hell was utterly stressful even for me, and I am not known for being shy on descents.
Deep down: Borrego Springs
Still, in the end we arrived at the bottom and approached the finish at the Oasis Motel where Greg Olmstead checked us in, my "three daughters" waited for us (my wife likes it when she gets mixed up with the daughters), and Fabienne took a picture of the three randonneur comrades:
We were fortunate enough to stay for another night in Borrego Springs, before loading the Prius with four people, their luggage, plus a bicycle (fortunately with S&S couplers):
The front part of the frame with handlebar (and route sheet!) is under the front wheel on the left, while the rear part of the frame is wrapped up in yellow plastic under the black wheel cover of the rear wheel
On the way back to LA via Temecula, the ladies spent some more time at a David's Bridal store in Murrietta (I don't know why); and on Monday evening, we had a peaceful and uneventful drive back from LA to the Bay Area. I used the picture below from our weekend in Borrego Springs to "check in" at work on Tuesday morning.