Sunday, February 22, 2009

No Miracles

In the days before each of my major rides, I tend to believe in miracles. I believe that this time, I will be able to keep my legs fresh and the breathing relaxed for the whole distance. I believe that consequently, I will easily finish with some stronger riders this time, at least an hour or more better than what I should expect based on previous experiences. This belief in miracles gets shaken the first time I get dropped on a climb, or at the latest around mile 50 - 60 when I am going through a low for some physiological reason. And it gets shattered for good during the last hours of the ride when I have to come up with all kinds of rationalizations to "explain" that it doesn't matter whether I finish half an hour earlier or later, and that I will be quite satisfied with just finishing comfortably and in good condition.

This scheme got played out again at the San Francisco "Russian River 300k" brevet, this past Saturday.

We were over 70 at the 6am start, including several out-of-state participants like Andrea from Colorado and a big delegation from the Seattle International Randonneurs. I like to assume that they all came for our sunny and dry California weather (ha!). However, the forecast indicated a good chance of showers, and so I decided to wear my trademark plastic bags around the shoes. They kept the feet perfectly dry, all day long - but then again, it didn't rain either. It was even sunny in the morning. I credited the good surprise to the magic of my plastic bags.

And so we rolled out over Golden Gate in good spirits, happy to leave the more populated areas of lower Marin County soon behind and to enjoy riding in the bucolic scenery around the Nicasio reservoir

(Photos borrowed from here - thanks, Brian!)

We smiled at happy cows while keeping the Cheese Factory in mind. It was a dream. Two or three more hills, and we reached the traditional Petaluma Safeway control at mile 50. Even though I had lost sight of several riders I would have liked to stay with (what can I say?), I still found myself in good company, didn't waste much time and was on my way towards the lunch stop in Healdsburg, mile 82. 

My legs reminded me soon that I had to go through my "low", now; and I explained this to a gentleman named Scott when he passed me, begging him to let me ride for a while at his rear wheel. He understood my predicament and pulled me along quite graciously - until I suddenly perked up again: I had noticed on my bike computer that I was well past mile 60, and that the low was supposed to be over by now. By virtue of the stop lights around the Santa Rosa area, we connected with two other riders who were not only strong but also ambitious and apparently didn't mind pulling us into Healdsburg at record pace (for me). I felt mighty proud seeing there the stronger riders I would have liked to stay with on the road, had pictures taken to prove I was there with them at the same time, and in silent exuberance started extrapolating my average speed onto the remaining distance, oblivious to the fact that this would indeed amount to a big miracle. 

I know the road along Russian River out to the coast pretty well by now, and I enjoyed the spring vegetation with unexpected big Mimosa trees and not so unexpected wildflowers, not to mention all the wineries. However, there are some rolling hills along the way, and even though I felt a little stronger than two years ago at the same place when John and I rode there through rain and headwind (and I couldn't even draft him), I was definitely not strong enough to ride with anybody else who passed me. Still an apprentice, after all - and I realized that the miracle is not going to happen yet, this time.

It became much worse on Highway 1, where the wind picked up and was quite unfavorable. I was sincerely grateful when Glenn (who remembered me from last year's Santa Cruz 300 where we finished together) and his friend passed me, and I realized that I could stay with them at least until the next control in Bodega Bay (can you say "Alfred Hitchcock" and "The Birds"?).

I needed to refuel more substantially at the Diekman store and did so without pressure: after some 125 miles, my attitude had switched from "eager" to "relaxed". I didn't even notice right away that the wind had changed its attitude as well during my break; it slowed down and even seemed to forget about being unfavorable. Together with my replenished energy stores, this helped me pursue my next goal - to arrive at the Marshall control (mile 146) before the store closed at 5:30pm, such as to avoid having to mail a postcard. It was not a miracle, but nevertheless a small personal triumph to make it with 15 minutes to spare. Two years ago, under the most horrible conditions I had ever experienced on a bicycle, I arrived there about two hours later! 

The remaining question was: will I be able to finish in 15 hours? I might have a fighting chance if there were not the many stop signs and stop lights on the last 15 miles, if I was willing to push myself really hard, and if I would find companions who could pull me along without dropping me on the climbs - too many ifs! In addition, while listening to my body, I understood that the "training effect" was going to be real already, no matter what; pushing myself harder would only increase the required recovery time over the next days. (You see the rationalizing?)
I still met other riders: a group of four or five passed me - so quickly, no chance! And I passed Scott who had been far ahead, but now seemed to be in "slugging it out" mode, on a newly assembled bike that didn't fit right and caused trouble. So, I decided to stay modest, to enjoy the views from Sausalito over the bay onto the lights of San Francisco and the Golden Gate bridge, and to roll into the finish control while making it appear easy. Results are here

Two noteworthy random mechanicals: The left brake lever started getting loose during the last 50 miles, without any good reason. It was solid tight for nearly 10000 miles and never budged, and now it barely hung on by the brake cable under the handlebar tape. What the ...? It didn't compromise finishing and even remained safe; I still could brake, but not rest the left hand on the hood any more. And then, when I moved the bike from the finish control to the car in the parking lot, the plastic rear fender broke off, somewhere in the middle where I had removed an original rivet which left a small hole: too many vibrations for the weakened spot. Oh well - I won't need fenders this coming Saturday in Death Valley!

By the way, just so you know: I believe I will be really at ease in this upcoming Double Century. I believe I will be able to power back from Shoshone to Furnace Creek in a personal best while keeping the legs fresh, and finish off the last 50 miles out and back to Stovepipe Wells in well under 3 1/2 hours. I believe I will impress myself and everybody else ...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Busy Weekend

Saturday February 7th, shortly after 4am

"Tu es complètement fou!" said Ghislaine, who talks in French to me when she is serious. In over 35 years of marriage I had learned not to contradict; and so I only said softly "Oui", slipped out of the bed, and 45 minutes later out of the house into heavy rain. I had time to think about the statement of my wife during the 60-mile drive to the start of the 300km brevet of the Pacific Coast Highway Randonneurs in Ventura. As a result of my thinking, I promised myself to write a rebuttal into this blog, some time later this year (when I'll have time). 

OK, so it will rain. Big deal. I have been riding in the rain before. Not that I relish it; but with the right equipment, it's only half as bad. And if the equipment still wasn't quite right, I'd take it as another lesson in my randonneur apprenticeship. After all, I finished the infamous SFR300 from 2007 and accomplished 5/6 of the PBP2007 distance, and we looked like drowned rats during last year's Flèche when we arrived at the Denny's control in Ramona around 3am; so I don't really have to worry about riding in the rain. Instead, I am looking forward to seeing some familiar randonneur companions again, and to travelling with them again over the roads which I am getting to know and like better and better.

The (last-minute-revised, due to road closures above Santa Barbara) route led us first out of Ventura on the bike trail north and back in a loop towards Carpinteria over the Casitas Lake area, which involved some climbing. In comparison to previous years when I came over the same roads, the climbs felt easier this time - for the simple reason that the legs were still fresh! The rain became more and more dense as we approached the coast. Much to my dismay, I realized that something was wrong with the plastic bags I used around the shoes. At PBP2007, they kept my feet dry through three and a half days of rain; but now, water seeped in, despite good protection from a front fender with mud flap that reached down fairly low. I must have torn the plastic bags (which I always collect from the newspaper delivery) when I stretched them over the shoes in the morning. I really hate wet feet ...

At sign-in before the start, I noticed several lines crossed out; those absent riders might have made better husbands to my wife than myself (provided they understand French). At least they had dry feet now. On the other hand, there were still 30 others on a bike out in the rain with me; so I wasn't the only one "completely crazy". But, by the time I arrived in the Santa Barbara area, it sure felt to me as if those 30 others all had stronger legs and bigger lungs than myself. I was glad I had experience with the 300km distance already; otherwise I might have doubted at that point that I would be able to finish. Apparently, riding for four hours in this rain, often through flooded areas which couldn't be avoided because of traffic and which bathed the bicycle and myself in their muddied run-off waters, had taken a toll on my stamina and disposition. 

Luckily, it turned out that this was all the rain we would get on this ride. While I continued past Goleta to the turn-around point at the El Capitan Canyon Resort, all alone (I was unable to follow those who passed me, and even less could catch up to anyone ahead of me), my clothes slowly dried in the moderate wind, and the wet feet turned into wet and cold feet. Last time I had wet and cold feet (in Spring 2006), I promised myself  to always carry an extra pair of dry socks in my bag. But, after never ever having to use them in nearly three years, I forgot about it. Also, next time I carry the extra pair of socks: I need to make sure they are in a well-sealed ziplock bag. When I looked into my bag at the El Capitan Canyon Resort control, its content was floating in nearly a cup full of water!

I should have seen all the riders ahead of me after the turn-around on their way back; but there were not nearly as many as I anticipated, probably less than ten. I did see more still coming up behind me when I was on the return trip; this gave me back my usual confidence. I am always satisfied with my performance as long as I am close to the middle of the range (even though I have to cut short on my times off the bike for that). Also, now that I approached the half-way mark for a lunch stop at the Santa Barbara Shoreline Park where I caught up with half a dozen of stronger riders, I started feeling stronger myself again - I was warming up. I enjoyed the company of other riders there and indulged into some extra resting time, taking pictures of the surroundings:

and of my poor bicycle:

Earlier, on Santa Barbara's Marina Drive, I had to stop for the following sculpture because it reminded me of this guy who might be a foreign, long lost relative:

My next goal was the control at a Wendy's in Port Hueneme (try to pronounce that if you don't know how!), not quite 40 miles away. I calculated that I would be there just in time to prepare for night riding. The calculation got thrown off a little, first because I didn't take into account all the red lights through Ventura and Port Hueneme, and second because I had to change the inner tube of the rear tire. This made my hands dirty enough that I was really looking forward to the rest room at Wendy's. I must have spent nearly as much time cleaning my hands than it took to fix the flat. 
I connected with one of my favorite fellow randonneurs there, Chris. Two riders from Utah joined us some minutes later. Chris is one of the strongest riders, but often manages to hang out with the slow ones on the road and to visibly enjoy it. This time, I must have passed him through Ventura when he was off-course to repair a broken spoke (in addition to a flat). 

I believe the four of us expected to ride out for the remaining 60 miles together; but somehow the two friends from Utah stayed behind and I found myself alone with Chris. We marveled at the power of our new Edelux lights which we both used for the first time in a brevet; and because his was aimed a little too high and mine a little too low, both together gave us optimal lighting. In anticipation of the remaining major climbing up to Moorpark and beyond on Grimes Canyon Road (the highest point of the whole 300), I asked Chris not to wait for me - he might get cold while I was struggling and get out of breath. But he didn't have any of it, and so he got a little cold and I was struggling and out of breath on Grimes Canyon Road. Still, I was proud of myself, because I was still able to push really hard (by my standards) after 160 miles, and use a bigger gear than ever before on this climb. The big descent provided another opportunity to exploit the improved lighting systems (the new DiNotte 200 helmet light allows to see at night "around corners"). The sky had cleared and the full moon seemed to cool off the air even more. I have ridden under lower temperatures in the past, but not often. When we arrived at the Santa Paula control, we desperately needed something hot!
Only 15 flat miles were left, and Chris hammered them in. I went into the red zone just by trying to stay at his rear wheel (and this with a headwind!) - but it was fun. The finishing time of 16h50 for my 310km (oh yes, I added some kms earlier in the day when I retraced some distance for fear of having missed a turn) is the opposite of impressive; but given the conditions, I am nearly satisfied with it - in particular because I finished pretty strong.

Now, this was Saturday only. The weekend was busy because I had promised to take my younger son Florian out for a 50-mile training ride on Sunday, in preparation for his Death Valley Century ride on 2/28 (stay tuned for that!). My plan was to drive to Malibu and ride from there a little beyond Point Mugu and back. 

Not surprisingly, the first hour was a little uncomfortable into the headwind and the lengthy rollers west of Malibu, and Florian asked (sheepishly?) if I still felt some hang-over from my ride the day before. Without me he would have stormed up the hills nearly twice as fast. But then I warmed up and felt good again, in particular on the way back with the tailwind which made it feel like a "recovery ride". I am glad I had the opportunity of riding an additional four hours the day after my 300k brevet.