Friday, December 18, 2009

An "Impending Weather" Ride

December 12, 2009: Del Puerto Canyon Loop 200k Permanent

On October (!) 19, our fearless RBA Rob sent out an e-mail to invite everyone interested to join him on a 200k permanent he planned for December 12 in the context of his R12 quest. Soon a dozen enthusiastic randonneurs (including John C. and yours truly, of course) had registered with the route owner Bruce, and some more were expected to yield to Rob's continued nudging: it was going to be an exceptionally satisfying randonneuring season finale! John and I knew most of the route from a year ago when we had joined Bruce and friends for a 100-mile version of it (starting and finishing in Livermore instead of Pleasanton).

I always like to get in a good 100 - 125 mile ride in the middle of December - it feels good. Other people seem to have similar predilections - the seasonal risk of cold, windy and humid conditions really adds to the appeal!

Two days before the ride, Rob sent out an e-mail to those who had signed up, titled "The impending weather ..." and including the following:

(...) So, with a bit more than 36 hours til our proposed start time, the forecast for Livermore looks like this:

High temp of 56F (not so bad but it will be closer to 40F in the morning), 80%+ chance of rain, winds from the south varying from 16 to 23 mph, rainfall during our ride window approaching a half inch.

I *know* that more than one of you on this list would still ride no matter what. However, (...)

I felt what was coming and finished reading the e-mail only by politeness. I *knew* that I was going to do this ride on that planned date, even though I respected Rob's good reasons to reschedule his permanent for one week later. It turned out that I was not alone (I believe we were about ten at the start on that morning).

And to make a long story short: his forecast was pretty accurate, except for the half inch. I am sure we had gotten much more than that by the time we passed south of Tracy already. And when I think of what happened on that long descent after km 160 where at times it came down as if our guardian angels above were draining their swimming pools onto our heads, flooding the road until we could only guess where it turned, I am tempted to claim a new personal record for most water received on a 200 km brevet.

And yet, it was dry (except for the road surface) at the start. I took a picture to demonstrate how we expected to ride into the rising sun and into a sunny day, just to prove Rob and his weather forecasters wrong!

This was the last picture I took outdoors. I could have taken some more, but a) my camera is not weatherproof, and b) I was too busy riding into a headwind when it was not raining.

Greg had his first flat before we even left Livermore. We all stopped, but separated into smaller groups after that, and I ended up riding with John C. (of course) and Greg for most of the remaining distance. As alluded to above, we did have the predicted headwind down to Patterson, and even though John and Greg granted me a senior discount on the shared paceline duties, I felt the workout in my legs by the time we arrived at the Subway lunch stop in Patterson.

I was surprised by the huge amount of paper napkins I got with my soup and sandwich - until I got it: they were to dry out my shoes, of course! Normally, my trademark plastic bags around the shoes keep my feet dry - unless they don't because of some wear and tear under the sole. This time they didn't. But I found that the Subway order came in two plastic bags which had just the right size and quality for my purpose; and this helped alleviate the feeling of wet and cold feet in the following.

This was the fourth time I rode up the Del Puerto Canyon Road, and the more I ride it, the better I like it. The next three photos are Roland's who had a difficult day. In his own words:
"I had two things work against me on this ride - the first was the headwind going south from Tracy to Patterson, and the second was an attack of leg cramps on the upper part of Del Puerto Canyon Road. These combined so that I missed the cutoff for the Junction Cafe, but I certainly did a great job of testing my rain/cold gear." And I particularly like his comment to the last picture at - check it out!

I like this road and the scenery better and better; but I am also getting slower and slower on it. There was no way I could hold the wheels of Greg and John, even before it started going uphill. For a while, John tried to let me catch up, and on the steepest portion of the climb even walked the bike to give me another chance; but it was for nothing. We would meet at the Junction Café control only. Alex who had battled the headwind to Patterson alone and arrived there when we left, also passed me - he must have been about half an hour faster than myself on those 24 miles. Oh how I wish to be stronger during those long moments of weakness ...

Here is one of the calves who found themselves on the wrong side of the fence, we don't know why. They looked pretty distressed and spooked.

And then, would you believe it: a moment of sunshine with hints of a blue sky - no complaining about that! I could even remove my rain jacket for the steepest portion of the climb towards the top and keep it off until I arrived at the Junction Café (shortly before km 140 - look at the elevation chart above) which became a randonneur haven on that day.

Randonneur haven celebrating Winter Solstice

That's why John is so strong!

The coffee was very good, too (note the rain legs ...)

Before leaving, I asked Greg to pose for my grandson

Eventually, we had to leave despite the threatening sky. It was getting dark quickly. A lengthy climb helped fight off the chill and reassured me that I had recovered my strength. And while I still couldn't hold the wheels of my companions, that was to be expected and OK. I don't mind riding alone. Besides, the rest was "all downhill and tailwind."

A couple of miles later, while the guardian angels were busy with their swimming pools, some little devils had big fun dislodging rocks from the steep hills and crashing them on the road. For best effect, the rocks had to land right after blind turns and split into many sharp baby-head-sized pieces across the whole width of the road. I have never been happier about last year's Christmas gift of an Edelux light, and I don't regret the decision to mount it at the quick-release nut: this way, the little obstacles on the road throw longer shadows and stand out much better. Still, I couldn't avoid all the rocks and trembled at the idea of having to repair a flat (or two, or three, or - as John R. reported later - four) in complete darkness and in cold rain. Not that I hadn't done that before already (the SF 300 of 2007 comes to mind); but that's precisely why I didn't like the idea. This was a good motivation to stay very focussed on the job at hand and remain cautious while trying to make up for the lost time on stretches where the road appeared safer. But overall, I recognize that I was just lucky. John C. - not so much. I found him on the roadside pumping up. Together, we found a little while later Greg fixing his second flat.

Under such conditions, we felt relieved and appreciative when we approached Livermore with its cozy Christmas light decorations (another photo from Roland's):

We could have done without the last ten flat suburban and urban miles, mostly with an annoying cross wind, over wet streets where the bike lanes (when present) were often covered with debris; but the perspective of soon arriving at the Starbucks finish control, changing into dry clothes and bagging a memorable 200k Winter brevet made it all tolerable.

How will it be in December 2010 ?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

LKHC - Priceless (and Prizeless ...)

November 26, Thanksgiving 2009

I consider it one of the more endearing achievements of my host country (in which I have been a guest worker or in more official terms a "non-immigrant alien" for nearly 19 years now) that it elevated the commemoration of a historical harvest celebration not only to a feast of over-eating, but also to an appeal to be generally grateful: Grateful for the obvious and important things in our lives, as well as the not so obvious and less important ones.

Don't ask into which category it falls, but I know I am grateful for the Low Key Hillclimbs series, which - fittingly - culminates in a traditional "Turkey Ride" on the morning of Thanksgiving Day. Fourteen years after its inception I am one of only a few "Alumni Riders" who are still around, even though the late season double-centuries (and the occasional not-bicycling-related conflicts) get in the way of participating more regularly. Still I could show up for four out of nine hill climbs this year - and I am grateful for it.

Those who have seen me struggle uphill over the last years (sometimes pushing the bike despite mountain-bike gearing) probably don't believe it when I say that I like climbing on my bike. But I do; and there was a time when I was actually pretty good at it: 45 years ago I won the Hill Climbing Championship of Lower Bavaria in 13:08 minutes for a 1000 ft climb over 3.1 miles! (It is true that I weighed then more than 20 pounds less than today). And while the flesh has become weak, the mind is still willing.

On the Saturday morning between the two "desert doubles" in Death Valley and Borrego Springs I started my LKHC participation this year with the Montevina climb:

In the background: Silicon Valley!

I felt highly motivated and performed quite well on this route which I had never discovered before. The atmospheric conditions were pleasant and the views georgeous:

Proudly wearing my Gold Rush jersey, I gave it all at the 14% stretch towards the end to finish in 35:12 minutes, which placed me 106th out of 129 - not too shabby, given that many of the participants were true racer types.

I was very much looking forward to the Mount Diablo climb, two weeks later. I hadn't been there for several years, and had never ridden up the northern route from Walnut Creek. The longer distance of nearly eleven miles and 3300 ft of elevation gain should suit me even better. The patience of the 137 participants was a little stretched when we had to wait until being sent off in individual time trial format. I should have anticipated that there was a long time between my breakfast and the start, and brought some stuff to refuel. I also didn't drink enough - always a risk when temperatures are low. As a result, I found my legs being threatened by cramps on the last miles and had to slow down in disappointment, which is reflected in the following picture taken at the steep ramp just before the finish line:

With my time of 87:54 minutes, I ranked 118th out of 137 and clearly missed my goal of staying at least in the same percentile as on Montevina. But in thinking about it a little later, I was satisfied nevertheless, because we were so lucky again with the weather - and because I really like climbing, no matter what!

One week later, on November 21, Alba Road was on the schedule. I remembered vaguely that I had come downhill on that road once in the early '90s, and that I was truly impressed. It climbs 2000 ft rather irregularly through redwoods in barely 3.5 miles, with the first half mile at a sustained 17% grade:

I have no good excuse, but I didn't do as well as I had hoped. I averaged only 5.1 mph (44 minutes), which put me at rank 73 out of 82. On the brighter side, the workout was intense enough for a good off-season training, and I got another nice picture from the Illumix photographer:

The final "Turkey Ride" up to Mount Hamilton, with 18.5 miles (this includes two downhill sections) and over 4300 ft total elevation gain the longest climb in the area, came only five days later. I have climbed it many times since 1992, but it would be the first time this year. My best time from 1993 is around 1h45; but nowadays, I am elated each time I can break the 2 hour limit - which happened only once in the last ten years. Of course, my goal was to finish in 1h59 or better!

Just as before the Mount Diablo climb, I believed again that the longer distance and the shallower grades would be more favorable to my disposition; and similarly, I made the same mistake again; no, I made it even worse: I completely ignored that for a two-hour climb I needed more than a single partially filled bottle with pure water and nothing else, nothing! While I am typing this, I am still terribly embarrassed. What was I thinking? Well - nothing. That's not good for somebody who wants to become a randonneur ...

170 starters, plus lots of other cyclists who came out on this marvelous day independently for their traditional big climb, made us feel like owning the road up to the Lick Observatory. I kept an eye on my stopwatch and paced myself successfully for a 2-hour finish (as I said, I do have enough experience on this climb). Paced myself successfully, yes - but only until about four miles from the finish. And then I bonked, and my legs cramped. Silly me! I crawled in my smallest gear and lost about 20 minutes on those last miles. I still didn't finish last, but I was so slow that the photographers had stopped taking pictures. Except the one at the finish line:

Smiling, but in embarrassment!

So, now I have unfinished business with this LKHC series, more particularly with the Mount Diablo and the Mount Hamilton climbs. I will have to do them again as soon as possible (and the latter one more than once). But regardless of how fast or slow I am: in a year from now, I will be grateful again for living in an area where such wonderful initiatives like the LKHC are being offered, and where I can at least get the illusion of how it felt when I was "a pretty good climber."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

From the Desert to the Beach and Back

BDO, November 7, 2009

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.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

So many brevets, so little time

As the RBA of my home randonneuring club puts it so eloquently: "Too early to plan 2010? Heck no!" And just like many others, I have been waiting impatiently for RUSA to approve the abundance of brevets proposed for 2010 so that I can start filling in my calendar for the next year, long before the 2009 season (which goes from January to December) is over.

My planning always starts out with the big goals, i.e. the famous "1200s". As soon as I noticed during one of my routine scans on that the Cascade 1200 will take place from June 26 - 29, 2010, I told everybody who was within earshot that this was to be my first big goal for 2010. I had read all the descriptions and reports from the previous editions and always knew that I just had to do it: Big mountains, high desert areas, and organized by the prestigious Seattle International Randonneurs club!

And while I was mentally up there in the northwest, I also looked over to British Columbia, with fond memories from last year's Rocky Mountain 1200 flooding my brain. Much to my delight, I found that Ken Bonner (note that this article is from 2005!) will offer the VanIsle 1200 again, not even four weeks later (July 21 - 25, 2010). Those who know me well enough will understand why I added the VanIsle 1200 immediately to my major goals for 2010.

OK, two 1200s within four weeks should be enough of a worthy challenge for me. Now I need to start thinking about how to prepare for it! Let's look at the RUSA web site for the Californian brevet dates. First, my home club - WOW, a new record number of brevets:

That will keep me busy - and should prepare me well for the C1200 (the 6/12 200k brevet just two weeks before: perfect!) and the VanIsle 1200 (with the 7/17 populaire right on time as a smooth, relaxed "tapering ride" just four days before the start).

Despite the record number, there are still weekends left for brevets from the other Californian clubs - let's look!

I am always grateful to the Davis Bike Club for the Gold Rush, and I like their brevet routes. Maybe I can do another series there:

And I have good memories of my first 400k brevet in Santa Rosa (2006) and last year's 200k with the excellent Bear Republic Brewing Company beer at the finish (and this year's 300k) - I'll have to go back there, too:

This is good calendar stuffing, at least for the first half of the year. But how about the Santa Cruz Randonneurs where I received my first exposure to randonneuring in 2005, and whose RBA couple has RUSA numbers 7 and 8 and consists of a former and the current RUSA president?

A big first: a 1000 km brevet, and then a complete series with an extra 200 in the otherwise relatively quiet summer months. But (oh my) the 1000 conflicts with the Cascade 1200! Now I don't know what to do ...

And I haven't even finished yet with the Californian brevets - more conflicts to come! Because Fabienne lives in LA, we have reasons to make a trip to SoCal every so often which I like to combine with riding one or the other brevet from the PCH Randonneurs or the San Diego Randonneurs. Look how prolific those two clubs are:

Both clubs offer a 1000 km brevet on the same date, and generally, the conflicts with the brevet dates in Northern California become more and more unavoidable. - It's a nice problem to have!

So far, I have only looked at the brevet calendar. The schedule of the 2010 CalTripleCrown double century series has not been published yet; I will want to come back to some of them as well - at least the Spring and Fall events in Death Valley, and the Knoxville, and ...

And then, just when I thought that all this was more than enough, this popped up on my radar screen and within minutes became the desired pinnacle of my 2010 season: In September, I am going to France and participate in the 1000 du Sud, an extremely alluring heart-shaped loop from the Mediterranean Toulon through the Gorges de l'Ardèche, then into the Alps over some famous TdF passes and back through the Haute Provence to Toulon! Not that I expect it to be easy (quite the opposite with its 38000 ft of elevation gain); but it's simply irresistible. If you don't read French, still take your time to look at the photos from this route. Maybe you understand me better when you learn that I first came to Southern France for two years as a student in 1970, that I found my wife there, and that we lived there from 1982 through 1991 ...


Let me know if you want to come along.

My preparation for the 1000 du Sud has begun!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Death Valley - again and again

Death Valley Fall Double, October 24, 2009

As indicated here, my family has some sort of history with Death Valley, and this does not even take into account the notorious European (be it French or German) fascination with this place. For example, after having ridden three other Double-Centuries with me in 2005, my elder son Sebastian brought his girlfriend out from Manhattan to Furnace Creek in October, arriving one day early for the Death Valley Fall Double - so he had time to propose in discretion. He and I then rode the Double together (and I remember vividly how I clandestinely hoped he would suggest that we cut it short and bypass that last climb up to Hell's Gate - but he didn't, and so I had to finish the entire ride myself as well) and got a new extended family picture taken at the finish:


I also remember that I didn't like the northern route very much. The road surface overall is even more unpleasant than on the southern Spring route to Shoshone; the 50 mile long (total) flat and often quite windy stretch out into Nevada and back is lacking attractions if you disregard the odd rattler on the road, and the out-and-back to the Ubehebe crater feels more like an attempt to destroy bicycles than a bike ride. But I came back to it every year since then, and it grew on me. I got used to rough roads on all the other Californian double-centuries and brevets; I cultivated my predilection for long distances even under mental stress (like 25 miles into headwind one way, then turning around and realizing after a mile or two that the wind had now turned and that I would have to battle headwind on the way back as well - this actually happened to me last year); and I got stronger over the years and didn't fear the 6.5-mile climb up to Hell's Gate after 170-miles any more either.

The finishing times don't tell the whole story; too much depends on the weather conditions, how much one is riding alone into the wind vs. drafting a group of stronger riders, and how much time is spent chatting on rest stops or with repairs (last year I had two flats, and another one this year). But I was happy gaining 40 minutes against our 16:20 time from 2005 in 2006 and another 15 minutes in 2007. Last year, the two flats and some other mishap threw me back to a 16-hour time; but this year I certainly wanted to make up for it. By the way, for reference: the fastest riders typically finish in under 11 hours, and Sebastian finished 2006 in under 14 hours after I reassured him early on that I was now able to complete the ride by myself and challenged him to show me how much faster he could be without waiting for me. No matter what, I always try to predict my finishing time because Ghislaine likes to be present when I arrive. Being too optimistic about it punishes her with anguish when I don't show up on time; being too conservative often gives me the opportunity to fine-tune my effort during the last couple of hours to the effect of arriving at the precisely predicted minute. And so, while sitting around the Wrangler Steakhouse table on our Friday evening dinner with friends Kathy, Jack and Bart and talking about our expectations for the next day, I offered the 10:30 p.m. time (given a 7:10 a.m. start) as being optimistic enough for me, this time.

The temperatures were perfect on Saturday morning, and I thoroughly enjoyed a swift and mostly low-effort ride to Stove Pipe Wells, before coming back to the turn-off where the sign says "Scotty's Castle." This attractive place was still about 38 miles away at this point, but more importantly, over 3000 feet higher up. The climbing during the second half of the distance is never steep (with one short exception towards the end), but I know by experience that it is harder than it appears. More than once in the past, I have been delayed there by cramps; and when I finally arrived at the shady rest stop at Scotty's Castle, I had trouble denying that I felt dizzy and that I needed a much longer time for rest and recovery than I had planned. The reason for the difficulty is of course a combination of increasing heat, nearly unavoidable dehydration and - as an accessory - the fact of riding the bicycle uphill for several hours. That's why, this time, I insisted on slowing down and taking it really easy at least on the last three miles; I wanted to arrive without any risk of fainting. Just when I had finished explaining this to my companions Ken, Nicole and Becky and sent them their way ahead, I got my picture taken so I can prove that I was still smiling and feeling good:


Even better, I arrived at Scotty's Castle (mile 68) sooner than ever before and could now pursue the goal of maybe finishing the ride in under 15 hours! Although I immediately compromised that goal when I started chatting it up with two charming ladies at the lunch table, who (as single-century riders) clearly admired how I talked with cool understatement about the double-century route.

I found the temperatures rather pleasant when I continued climbing through the Grapevine Canyon up to the Bonnie Claire Flat. At altitude 4000 ft, there was quite a refreshing wind - too bad it was entirely in my face, and probably stronger than in the last years. I rode most of this infamous lonely stretch to Scotty's Junction (mile 95) with Jack, trying to find the right balance between pursuing my goal and saving my legs (the hamstrings threatened to cramp when I stayed for too long in the deepest aerodynamic position to slip underneath the wind). The stories told by some of my heroes from this year's 508 where the winds were at least twice as strong helped me stay motivated. While Jack and Bart (and several others) enjoyed sitting in chairs at the Scotty's Junction checkpoint, I felt nervous and wanted to get back on the bike; the memory of last year's wind turning around into a headwind again was still present in my mind. My discipline was rewarded with a well-deserved tailwind for a good portion of the way back - until the wind finally turned anyway. Soon after that, Phil caught up with me and helped me cover the last miles before the downhill to Scotty's Castle. I didn't stay much longer than necessary to have my bottles refilled (thank you to the volunteers for being so attentive and generous!) and rode on to the Ubehebe crater where Jim Swarzman from PCHRandos lore checked the bib number as proof of passage:


I was still on track for finishing in 15 hours but didn't feel pressured; instead, I just enjoyed the new experience of starting the long descent still in daylight and being able to maintain a good average without pushing too hard and without any particular problems. Just when I removed the eyes for a tiny little moment from the patch of light ahead of my front wheel to look at the silhouette of the mountains (it was nearly dark by now with a nice glow above the horizon), I ran into what probably was the only nasty pothole between Scotty's Castle and Furnace Creek. Earlier in the day, I was tempted several times to stop and relieve some pressure from the tires to diminish the discomfort on the rough roads; now I was happy I didn't. Maybe the tire pressure was enough to avoid a pinch flat? -- No. Forget about the 15 hour finishing time ...

The remaining goal ("Plan B") was to arrive at least at 10:30 p.m., as announced on the evening before. When I started the Hell's Gate climb around mile 170, I immediately noticed with major satisfaction that I really have become stronger over the years. I could easily have pushed harder and gained a couple of minutes, but feeling comfortable during the climb (and yet being faster than in each of the preceding years) was rewarding enough for me at that point. I could afford to stop and walk for a while with Becky who had a really bad day (or at least her stomach did); I could afford to let several other riders bomb past me on the ten mile long downhill without attempting to follow them, and I could afford to "hold the horses" on the last eleven slightly rolling miles into the finish to arrive relaxed and smiling - to the minute at 10:30 p.m.

"I had a good day," I said. "If I continue to improve like that, I will be competing with the best in about 20 to 25 years!"

Our Death Valley history continues.
Next installment: Death Valley Spring Century, March 6, 2010 ...

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Fabulous Adventure

Endless Mountains 1240 km, 9/30 - 10/4

It has been a week since I rolled into the finish as a "DNF Finisher", and I am still dreaming every night of this ride. I shouldn't be surprised, because I knew beforehand it would become a new high-water mark in my randonneuring apprenticeship. All I can say now is: the apprenticeship continues!

My beloved great-grandmother (she lived until I was 14) had 14 children. Those who reached adulthood (not all of them) were starving in the 1920's in Lower Bavaria, and nearly all of them decided to emigrate to America and to settle in Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County. At some point, nearly all of them died at once in a horrible accident; only Tante Frieda was spared. As a child, I figured Pennsylvania and America were synonyms; and I marveled at the pictures Tante Frieda sent us from that country, where most of the farms had silo towers with astronomy observatories on top:

Sadly, we lost touch with the descendants of Tante Frieda, and my attempts at tracking them down were unsuccessful. But when I learned last year that there would the Endless Mountains 1240k be offered in Pennsylvania in 2009, I felt I had to sign up.

Of course, the other reason for signing up was that the route was advertised as "challenging", with "several steep, extended climbs" (in hindsight: what an understatement!). Being who I am, my only chance to maintain myself in shape or even to progress is to take on a big, threatening challenge; so, there you go. And when coworkers/friends asked me why I was doing this, I replied: "to find out whether I can do it." In some more lucid moments, I reckoned I had at best a 50% chance of succeeding; but the closer I came to the starting date, the more my indomitable optimism made me look at it in terms of "how hard can it be?"

After all, it would be enough to complete three slightly lengthy double centuries (208, 216 and 235 miles) plus less than only a 200k on the fourth day. Granted, they were announced to be very hilly; but then again, I should be able to do them in about 20, 22 and 24 hours respectively, which would still leave enough time to sleep and to finish safely in 90 hours at most (the time limit was 93 hours). And so, I confidently published my projected schedule for this ride to friends and coworkers before I left, so they could compare with the rider tracking on the event's web site.

In the preceding weeks, I had entered the four segments of the route into bikeroutetoaster: Day 1, day 2, day 3 and day 4. I meant to memorize the geography somewhat to make me feel more comfortable with the navigation while following the 18 page long route sheet. Note that the numbers for "ascent" (in bikeroutetoaster's Summary tab) are grossly underestimated, due to the coarse sampling intervals which miss out on many of the short but steep climbs on this route.


On Saturday 9/26 I flew from SFO to JFK to spend the last few days before the start with my grandson. Two things seem to be noteworthy: a) the grandson and his parents battled with cold viruses, and b) I had brought shoes which were unsuitable for the typical long-distance Manhattan pavement walking - which I am not used to at all (with or without stroller), to begin with.

Playing a piano sonata for three hands with my grandson

Now don't get me wrong: I promised myself not to take the virus-fighting and the shin splints as excuses for any lack of performance on the EM1240 and I will keep my promise. It has become clear to me since I looked at the results that even under optimal conditions, I would have been on the wrong side of the 50% likeliness of success (but "Who knows?" the alter ego says, defiantly ...).
Instead, I am mentioning a) and b) only to emphasize how grateful I was throughout the ride that I could do it at all! I might as well have developed a fever etc. before or shortly after the start, and all my preparation would have been for nothing.

Day 1: Quakertown - Hallstead

In last year's Rocky Mountain 1200, I rode much of the second half together with the young Brazilian Henrique Caldas. Since then, we stayed in touch by e-mail and postcards; and when I told him I had signed up for the EM1240, he wrote "We'll ride there together again." - Two months ago, he sent an e-mail titled "The Luckiest Man in the World." Towards the end of a 400k brevet, he got struck by a drunk driver, projected into the middle of the road, and a second car that lost control during braking landed on top of him, upside down.

The car that landed on top of Henrique

Obviously, Henrique could have died twice in that accident; instead, he barely suffered a scratch and didn't have a single broken bone! I was thrilled to see him at the start on that Wednesday morning at 4 a.m.; and of course, we rode most of the day together. He told me all the details he remembered from that accident. Not surprisingly, he still had pain from some unidentified soft-tissue damage; and he told me that he came to this event with the mindset that for him, just being at the start and riding whatever distance he could manage would be akin to a miracle already. Consequently, I am not sure he really bought into my enthusiastic "of course we will finish together!" On the harder climbs, Henrique was usually stronger than I (he needed to keep the momentum going with his bigger gear, while I was limited by my lower sustainable power output) and he had to wait for me on the top. When the terrain was less difficult, I was eager to compensate for the time lost on the climb, and he told me he had trouble keeping up. I only got nervous when it appeared that our control stops and other stops in-between tended to become at least twice as long as I had budgeted. I knew I wanted (and needed) to arrive in Hallstead before midnight in order to maintain my chances for staying within the time limits. But after the Barryville controle (mile 128) we were already late by nearly an hour, in particular because Henrique urged me to also wait for his compatriot Rogerio who had gone ahead earlier in the day, but then got lost twice and now found himself behind ourselves, tired and insecure. Meanwhile, I started shivering uncontrollably - the cold wind in that river valley pierced my Showers Pass jacket and the four layers underneath, as long as I was not moving and just standing around.
When we finally took off, I was in need of getting warm again and determined not to lose any more time. Consequently, I didn't mind pulling my two Brazilian friends into the headwind on the aptly name Towpath Road. Although I focussed on riding as if I was riding alone, the irony of the little old man towing two young studs who could have been his sons, age-wise, wasn't entirely lost on me. My feelings oscillated between satisfaction and worry (or worse) about working too hard on this first day of a big ride.

And now I need to explain how I got to the above picture. I noticed this photographer on the roadside out in the middle of a beautiful nowhere, and I recognized him - in disbelief - only when I passed him: my dear friend John M. from Carlsbad in Southern California, our Team Captain from last year's Flèche offered by the San Diego Randonneurs! He had to go on an unexpected business trip to Allentown, suddenly recalled that this must be around the time of my EM1240, looked it up, hopped into his rental car and drove some 150 miles after us until he caught up - only to take some pictures and to say "Hi!" When I told the story later, it brought tears to the eyes. Thank you, John - your generosity has become an essential part of my "Fabulous Adventure!"

We continued into progressively hillier terrain. On each of the more substantial climbs, I had difficulties following Henrique and Rogerio; and in between, I could catch up and pass them while they were chatting in Portuguese. I didn't hesitate to take some advance when I could, and at some point (not very far from Carbondale, mile 175) they didn't come back to me. I learned later that Henrique broke his chain, requiring a lengthy repair.

I very much appreciated the volunteers in front of the Dunkin Donuts control in Carbondale who saved me from having to buy something (I have never been in a Dunkin Donuts - I would eat donuts only shortly before starving to death). All in all, I had a fairly good ride to the sleep stop in Hallstead, despite very low temperatures, a threat of humidity, and progressively weaker legs. The official arrival picture below doesn't reveal how dissatisfied I was with my arrival time (50 minutes after midnight).

Day 2: Hallstead - Lamar: Part I

This EM1240 was exceptional in many ways, one of which was that we had fabulous rooms and beds in Hampton Inn's every night! In addition, I even happened to be alone in my room in Hallstead. I carefully set the alarms (all two of them) for 3:30 and expected to sleep as soundly as I always do on such occasions. Oh que nenni - wild dreams and jerking up in panic every 15 minutes, that's what it was! At 3:30, I finally felt *really* tired, unable to get up; and so I added another half an hour in bed. That's not at all how I had planned my schedule ...

I think I finally figured out what caused this very unproductive sleep stop. The day before, because of the cool temperatures, I picked several times a cup of hot coffee with my sandwiches or bagels or whatever on control or food stops, because I liked it and because it appeared to be the only hot beverage available. Lesson: Don't do that if you want to sleep during the following night!

The route description says about the beginning of day 2 that "... riders welcome this ~60 mile stretch as a reprieve from all the climbing on day 1. You should be able to bank some time on this stretch, or catch up if you get a late start." So, I wasn't too worried about my late start. Unfortunately, however, I rode out into a steady rain and a noticeable headwind and acknowledged with dismay that I barely exceeded an 11 mph average. In addition, shortly after daylight, the lack of sleep made me become cross-eyed and I had to stop for a 20-minute powernap under a dense tree that had kept the ground underneath dry. Maybe I didn't feed myself properly either in the cold, because I didn't get faster any more on the way to Towanda (mile 282) where I decided to stop at a Burger King - and where I caught up with Henrique who had left Hallstead well before me. We continued together into one of the many particularly beautiful areas of the route; but beautiful on a bike ride typically means hilly. The first major climb was beautiful enough that Henrique drifted effortlessly (or so it seemed) away from me. While I rode alone through the remote area which I had found so difficult to route on bikeroutetoaster, and which really was beautiful, I checked my progression against my planned schedule and the control closure times and I felt more and more discouraged: I just may not be able to make it!

I arrived at the Dushore control, only about 2 hours before closure (that's pretty bad so early in the ride and so late in the day before a long night), in the lowest spirits. Sure enough, I found there Henrique again, but only to miserably announce him that for me the ride was mentally over. Of course, I would continue to ride; but I didn't believe any more that I could do it within the time limit. Reluctantly, Henrique set out for the next 35 miles to Canton without me. I followed him about 20 minutes later.

Because of some more serious climbing and a descent that didn't allow to get paid back for the effort (the route sheet helpfully advised "steep twisty descent. Watch rim temp. Don't go any faster than your guardian angel can keep up with!"), and because of my initially dreary mood which made me ride as if this was my recovery ride, I lost some more time against the control closure times - and didn't care any more. But when I arrived at the Canton control around 9 p.m. and met several other riders there, including Henrique who explained that he had been riding quite hard because he had decided to withdraw at this point, and Henrik S. (FL) who had to end his ride there because of a twisted derailleur hanger, I suddenly felt much better again - in particular after having swallowed a big slice of pizza. Before I could even articulate my temporary loss of belief in success, Henrik deployed some powerful rhetoric to make me continue and to pursue my mission with conviction. In the meantime, Judith L. arrived and said "of course" she would continue and make the Lamar control, 80 difficult miles away. I could tell that she was a much stronger rider than I (she lost time only because she had stayed with friends in trouble); but I would attempt to ride with her anyway and she seemed to appreciate. Before we could leave, Michelle arrived as well and wanted to join us - and so we waited some more. By now, we were past the Canton control closure time; but everybody (including myself!) was optimistic that we would have no trouble making the 80 miles to Lamar in less than nine hours, which was necessary to arrive before the Lamar control closure. The dreary mood was gone; I was upbeat and overjoyed in my delusion to imagine that I still had a good chance of actually finishing this ride!

Day 2: Hallstead - Lamar: Part II

The course notes warned that "the 14 miles shortly after Canton is one of the more challenging parts of the course - there are a countless string of steep rollers that are as hard if not harder than any of the big climbs." This should have been good enough for my mental preparation; but at some point, I still lost it and blurted out "But this is ridiculous!" Imagine at least half a mile of a very steep, risky downhill on a narrow road in complete darkness, then a tight turn and a small bridge to cross at the bottom, and immediately after the bridge, without time to even shift gears, the narrow road suddenly going uphill again for half a mile or more, with a grade that certainly felt like close to 20%. And then repeat it all over, more than a dozen times! I don't know what I would have done alone, there; but with Michelle (who didn't have small enough gears) and Judith (who always waited for us at the top) I felt motivated to give it all. They must have laughed at the rhythmic white steam clouds which appeared in the beam of my helmet light when I stomped uphill, standing in my smallest gear, with the bitter cold mercifully providing anesthesia for the pain in the legs (remember my shin splints from Manhattan? - I did). But I was in a trance and yet fully aware that I lived the most exhilarating moment of my randonneuring career: I was breaking through a barrier, and riding harder than I ever imagined I would be able to. Two days later, at the finish, I would say "Now I don't fear anything any more!"
Unfortunately, those 14 miles took us about two hours, and at this pace we would never make the Lamar control closure. Fortunately, there was a longer fairly easy stretch coming up where we could recover some good time. Unfortunately, it was so cold by now (it sure felt like in the low 30s) that we couldn't take advantage of it: the cold and windchill were too painful to exceed 15 mph where otherwise we could have maintained 25 mph or more without much effort. And unfortunately, Michelle faded (she barely had any sleep at all the night before) and needed to stop more and more often. I believe it was in English Center where she decided to stay a little longer in Harper's Creekside Tavern, while Judith and I pushed on.
At the end of the allegedly very pittoresque stretch through the Little Pine Creek State Park, the "rollers" started again, and I continued trying hard to minimize Judith's slowing down for me. We came to another encouraging and supportive "secret control" in Waterville, and soon afterwards tackled the promised 6 mile long climb. I had convinced Judith that I didn't want her to wait for me - ever - and sure enough, despite my best effort, I was unable to keep her in sight: the climb was too long. I was sure I had well memorized this stretch and its profile during my mental preparation for this ride, because I anticipated that it would be difficult. But now, my memory was blank: it refused to tell me how hard it would still be, and how far away the big descent still was. I had good morale and maintained the motivation from earlier in that night, but I ended up thoroughly confused: the route seemed to turn in big circles, the uphills were much more frequent than the downhills (while already being on top of the big climb), and I was convinced I had been on this road before, but now it was all different from what I remembered and I felt I was lost.
Under these conditions, the long downhill was not much of a pleasure; and shortly after I arrived at the bottom and continued to turn in big circles without actually advancing towards Lamar (or so it felt), I found a rider stopped at the roadside: Judith. "Are we lost?" she said (or something to that effect). OK, at least we were not alone any more. Together, we solved some minor navigational problems and counted down the remaining 15 miles to the Hampton Inn in Lamar. I had once again the conviction that I had been on this road already and anticipated a turn-off which never came. Meanwhile, there was another annoying uphill on the last miles and I didn't feel the need any more to make a special effort - we were close enough. I saw the Hampton Inn sign from afar, made the turn as the route sheet indicated and rode to the hotel entry. Hmm - no bicycles, no cyclists? And the receptionist said she hadn't seen any cyclists at all. Where was I? Oh well, wrong hotel - the Hampton Inn was on the other side of the parking lot. I got my brevet card signed at 7:14 a.m., the minute of the control closure: "It's all good", the volunteer said.

Day 3: Lamar - Pine Grove

I had breakfast with Judith and friends and emphasized that I really needed about 45 minutes of sleep now - it had been an exhilarating ride, but a rough night. I certainly set the alarm, and for no good reason (oh that psychological subconsciousness!) missed to request a wake-up call. And of course, I slept through the alarm ...
Not to panic: Now that I got used to arriving just before control closure, I could manage. I had 93 miles to Mt. Union and about eight hours left to arrive there. The first 16 miles to Loganton were uphill and into a headwind, but I felt good and rode hard. And from then on I had mostly a slight tailwind and advanced well - except for some more climbs sprinkled into the route. I was still in denial when Steve (I believe) stopped for a well-meant interview and admonition, and continued strongly, making up my mind that I would now ride through to the finish, even "hors delay." But slowly, it sank in that there was no way for me to make the Mt. Union control closure; that the organizer didn't want to let me dangle out in the distance, and that I didn't want to be the last one on the road either, for the sake of the volunteers who would have to wait for me or worry about me. And so, when I saw the next sweep vehicle (with Eric) on the roadside, about an hour later, I knew what it meant for me. I was utterly impressed with how well the whole "shuttling forward" fleet was organized, and very grateful for the friendly and supportive attitude of the volunteers who were all making big sacrifices with a smile. Eric handed me off to Maile who handed me off to Janice for the last segment to Pine Grove: a big "Thank You!" from the bottom of my heart to all of them. In the end, spending the time with them traveling, talking about everything, became just another part of a "Fabulous Adventure."

Day 4: Pine Grove - Quakertown

I had a nice dinner in company of volunteers of the Pine Grove control, slept really well for nearly nine hours, and enjoyed a delicious Hampton Inn breakfast, before making myself ready for the last leg, about 120 comparatively mellow miles through the Pennsylvania Dutch area. There was a thick fog outside for the first two or three hours, but the weather forecast was favorable, and I was looking forward to a rewarding ride into the finish. It ended up being even more pleasurable than anticipated.

On the half-way control in New Holland, Rob Welsh caught up with me: he had left Pine Grove an hour after me and was obviously too fast for me to ride with him. He would finish second - in 86:15 hours. By the way, the first finisher needed 83:24 hours - on other 1200's, the first finishers arrive in well under 60 hours! And only 22 out of 48 starters would complete the whole distance within the time limit. Half of the 26 "DNF"s stopped even before me, and only a handful had the ... (call it what you want) to still ride the last 120 miles into the finish.

The most memorable moment came when I approached a village where several dozens of Amish buggies left the parking lot after their Saturday service and, following each other, returned home to their farms. The heavy-footed horses trotted along with a loud and uneven clap-clap-clap, while the wheels with their finger-thin rims on the buggies seemed to fall off imminently. On the slightly rolling terrain, I passed them on the downhills, but they passed me on the uphills where the horses kept their trot while I had to shift down and breathe even harder than the horses: we raced each other, much to the delight of the children in the buggies.

During the second half, I felt some more twinging in the legs (oh those Manhattan shin splints) and also developped a hint of tendonitis in the Achilles tendon - more evidence that even my 600 mile portion (not quite 1000 km) of this ride was hard enough. I never had similar problems on my previous 1200s.

My son had made a weekend excursion to Quakertown, together with his wife, my wife and our grandson, to be present at my arrival and to bring me back to New York on Sunday. I predicted my finish time for 6:30 p.m. and arranged for arriving within the minute. And look how happy I was!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Knoxville the Fourth

Knoxville Double Century, 9/19/09

The Knoxville Fall Classic Double Century has an excellent reputation among the CalTripleCrown riders, for plenty of good reasons. No wonder it's also one of my favorites. Come to think of it, nearly all of those doubles are among my favorites. But the Knoxville is special, because over the last three years John C. and I made it into our personal tradition to ride it together. And it's special for me because I have always been handicapped one way or the other with deficient health when we went there. With John's help and patient waiting, I managed to finish each time (albeit slowly) and I always felt better at the finish than at the start.

This time, three things turned out to be different:
a) I felt I was in good health and form
b) John called on Friday evening telling me he had a sore throat with fever and could not come
c) the weather forecast promised much higher temperatures than ever in the three past years.

One thing didn't change, however: I still finished slowly.

Here are some more photos from the ride - by somebody much faster than I ...

The profile below indicates that it's not a particularly easy ride. Units are metric; if you prefer body parts for measurement: 900 meters ~ 3000 ft. The total elevation gain is somewhere around 13000 ft.

The ride is not timed, and the start time is "open": as soon as you are signed in, you can start. In the past, we always started between 4:30 and 4:45. This time (I don't know why; hubris?) I started at 5:00. I rolled along, alone, waiting for the fast guys who started later to pass me. But there were not many - even the stronger riders had left before me! It didn't matter; I felt confident and enjoyed the ride. At the first rest stop in Napa Valley, I could catch up with a bunch of riders and leave before them - I definitely was not the last on the road.

The lengthy Howell Mountain climb at mile 50 (km 80) also felt a little easier than in the past. Unfortunately, my rhythm got broken by the rear tire losing pressure. When I removed the wheel and tried to locate the culprit, I found it immediately and painfully: a hair-thin wire stuck out and stuck itself into my forefinger. It hurt for at least 30 miles.

Still, I arrived at the Lake Berryessa rest stop on schedule, caught up on some calorie and liquid deficit, and went on my way over the lonely and pittoresque Knoxville Road to Lower Lake. I would be lying if I didn't acknowledge some tired leg muscles by now; but this was to be expected and not troublesome (yet). With the help of a gentle tailwind, I felt stronger than I was.

The idyllic pleasurable climbing was not to last, however. At least as far as the idyll is concerned - because the climbing became more and more accentuated and eventually outright barbaric. I remembered that from the last years and expected it. But this year, we had some scorching heat to go with it, well symbolized by the scorched grass on the road side:

At work, I have nearly every day lunch with my coworkers at the company cafeteria with outside seating under sun shades. My coworkers know that I can make good use of heat adaptation training and always reserve me a seat out of the shade, in full sun. - Well, now I can tell them that this still wasn't nearly enough. By the time I arrived at the water stop at the top, I was cooked. It would have been unsafe to continue into the descent without recovering first, regardless of the time I had already lost during my super-slow climb.

Instead of arriving at the lunch stop in Lower Lake around 2 p.m. as expected, I was now 45 minutes late (in my defense: I must have lost about ten minutes for fixing the flat). I allowed myself another 30 minutes of recovery anyway, with a burrito and three bottles of sugary icy liquids - I needed it.

The last major obstacle was the upcoming infamous Loch Lomond climb. I knew I was now mainly in company of riders who were virtually candidates for not finishing, and so I made the point of climbing steadily (if still slowly). I must have done something right, because I passed several riders who I didn't see any more later. It helped that most of the road was in the shade, and that at 4 - 5 in the afternoon, the sun had become much less aggressive. On the way back through Pope Valley, I felt lucky that the wind was mostly favorable, and I tried to make some good time again and started evaluating whether I could still arrive before 11 p.m. for a sub-18 hour time (I know that sounds pathetic to many of my readers).

I don't venture a guess whether this was a realistic goal or not. It doesn't matter, because I decided to stay with Karla when I caught up with her somewhere on the 128 towards Winters. My legs were grateful for not pushing quite so hard any more; and some friendly chatting (I knew her from last year's Borrego Springs Double, and we have some common friends) made the miles through the dark night go by much faster. Eventually, we checked in at 11:30 p.m., under the big applause which is usually reserved either for the first or the last. In our case, it turned out to be the latter...