Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Carrier Pigeons and American Brown

Santa Rosa  Cycling Club 200k brevet, January 15, 2011

Yes, I am still out of shape, and the legs did hurt a lot during the lunch break at Skyline Park in Napa. It was the third time I rode on this fast route (last year's account has a map of the route and some more pictures), and despite nearly perfect conditions, I was 45 minutes slower than ever before. But, as I like to say: "It doesn't matter." What matters is that I thoroughly enjoyed the day out there, and that I finished the ride in lasting happiness.

Given that this was the third time, I should have remembered and prepared my camera to catch the moment right at the start when - just like at the last few editions of this brevet - homing pigeons were released at the same time as over 100 randonneurs. I recognized the pigeon handler when he caught me fifteen or twenty miles from the finish and we rode together for a while. I told him that my wife's grandfather in northern France, close to Belgium, was a passionate owner of racing pigeons; but Jose didn't give me the impression that he could relate to that. Instead, he explained that he always says a prayer when he releases the pigeons at the start of a brevet: "Fly up into the sky and watch out over all the cyclists on the road today!" (apologies for not recalling the precise wording).

(borrowed from results of a Google image search)

It was rewarding as usual, no - even more so after the long winter break! - to meet many randonneuring friends again, to chat with them, and (in my case) draft them for a while until I had to let loose. In contrast to last year, I didn't see any tandems, but all the more fixies in exchange. And because (in case you didn't notice in my last installment already) I decided this year to let more and more memories from childhood and youth infiltrate my talking and blogging (apparently old men are entitled to it, and I finally feel old enough) I played the game of guessing the gearing (i.e. numbers of teeth on the chainring and the rear sprocket) just by looking at it. I was good at it when I was young. And I still get it right sometimes, as for the 48:18 of Karen B. who seemed to be quite puzzled about my precise guesswork. Which, by the way, reminded me that in 1962, the year I started racing in Germany, 48:18 was the highest gear allowed for racers under 16. Because I was already over 16 (but not yet 18), I could have used a whopping 51:18; but I didn't have the money to buy a special 51-tooth chainring and had to make do with a more standard 50:18.  We still exceeded 25 mph on some short time trials - which required two pedal rounds per second!

Back to the lunch stop at Napa's Skyline Park. Ten days have passed since then, but I won't forget the memorable compliment Bobbe (volunteer extraordinaire) made me when I arrived there: "You always look so composed!" I know she meant it in good faith; but I certainly didn't feel like it. Taking into account the situation with my sore legs, she might have said, at best: "You are hiding it well ..." - In any event, while munching on my sandwich and refilling my bottles, the pain in the legs got worse and worse, and I had no choice but to go back on my bike and pedal fast to get the blood flowing again and dissipate the pain. At least, it taught me to keep the lunch stop short. Otherwise, who knows how much and for how long I would have chatted around reminiscing the times when I was young and fast ...

A little tailwind made the way back along a nearly infinite number of Napa Valley wineries appear shorter than it was and lulled me into an impression of not being so slow, after all. The awakening came on the objectively fairly soft and less than a mile long climb north of Calistoga, and it was brutal. I couldn't believe I actually had to stop and walk the bike for a little while, to shake out the legs. Good thing the remaining 20 miles were mostly downhill!

There is one special reason why this Santa Rosa brevet route is one of my favorites; and everybody who knows me only a little can guess what it is: the finish at the Bear Republic Brewery. Of course, the perspective of sitting together and socializing with all the randonneuring friends is priceless, and fortunately, I am not alone in appreciating it very much. But this doesn't explain why I am always suddenly so strong again on the last ten miles, where it's all flat - no downhill any more! Given that this happened on all of my three participations there, I have to conclude that the explanation must lie in the beer I am looking forward to (my personal variant of "smelling the barn"). This time, it was the American Brown (search for it here):

I don't insist on suggesting it too heavily, but look at the end of the first paragraph, above: "... lasting happiness ..."

I basked in the additional satisfaction I got from favorable comments made by several randonneuring friends about my "wine and cheese" write-up which had made it into print in the American Randonneur newsletter, and even found yet another reader of this blog (more than a handful already!). I know her as a pretty strong rider and innocently wanted to know when she had arrived. She clearly had concerns about hurting my feelings if she revealed how much faster she was than myself (over one and a half hours); and I didn't know how to reassure her. It only occurred to me on the way home. I could have rambled along (like all old men do) about how fast I was when I was young. At the age of 18 (and without gearing limitations!), I actually participated in two road races of 210 and 215 km respectively (in Bavaria; with routes hillier than Napa Valley!), and finished both in under six hours ...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


San Francisco Randonneurs Point Reyes 200k (Workers Ride) January 8, 2011

To the day fifty years ago (actually, the date may be off by a couple of weeks plus a year or two), I had a memorable morning bike ride. At that time, I was bike-commuting to school year-round, six miles from my parents' home over a couple of hills and through the Neuburger Wald to high school in Passau (according to a statement attributed to Alexander von Humboldt, one of the seven most beautiful towns of the world).

Passau (in summer)

Typically, the snow plow came through early enough, just in time before I had to leave for school which started at 8 a.m. Even though the temperatures could sometimes drop down to about 0 degrees Fahrenheit, I never worried about the cold; and just like other Bavarians today, I actually liked riding in the snow. But on that day, the overnight snow storm had been so violent that the roads were not plowed yet when I set out in near darkness. I could ride only about half the distance through several inches of snow, had to push the bike through the other half, sometimes carrying it (including a hefty bag full of books) through thigh-deep snowdrifts. I did arrive late at school; but so did those who came by public transport.

More memories from another year or two later: I was racing with the Radsportverein 1895 Passau and was thrilled to finally have an opportunity to participate in my first cyclo-cross race, in Regensburg. At that time, Rolf Wolfshohl was my big hero; he was then the world-champion in cyclo-cross. Somehow I had learned that my height and weight were the same as his (things have changed since then - at least the weight); this made that I felt like a pretty good cyclo-crosser myself. We were 18 at the start; and just as we had watched Rolf Wolfshohl on TV, nearly everybody (in particular myself) was racing in shorts, despite some windy snowing and temperatures around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. We did use some capsaicin cream to produce heat on the bare skin, to keep the knees from freezing over; but, as an aside, this had quite painful side effects after the race (it was discovered in 2006 that tarantula venom activates the same pathway of pain as is activated by capsaicin). I was in 4th position after the first few laps and felt good, when I hit a hard-frozen edge on the ground and broke the rim of the front wheel such that the tire was neatly cut through. I ran half a lap with the bike on my shoulder to receive a spare wheel. When I resumed my race, I was last, of course. I am still proud today that I was able to fight hard and to finish 8th.

As I said, things have changed - and not only regarding my weight. (As a matter of fact, I added more than half a dozen additional pounds just over the holiday break alone). What has changed, also: I am now terrified by low temperatures, i.e. anything under 50 F. Given that the last days before the SFR Point Reyes 200k workers ride (I will be volunteering at the official event on 1/22 at the finish control) were unusually cold, I ended up panicking in the perspective of riding out on that Saturday morning at 7:30 into the winter of San Francisco and Marin County. And so, on my way home from work on Friday evening, I made a detour to buy a wind-tight balaclava (has nothing to do with this). Of course, I tried it on at home in the kitchen, to show the wife how well I would be equipped for the cold ride:

In the end, as you might guess, I never used it. And with my four layers, I was never really cold either, except maybe a little bit on the tip of the nose in the evening, after the descent into Fairfax. It helps to be so slow that wind chill is not a factor, and that even moderate climbs bring me up to the "breathless" level with a consequential body heat production. By the way, not all climbs on this route are moderate; I find the last ones before the light house actually quite steep. That's where I caught my leg cramps, after less than 50 miles. It is true that my longest ride since end of October was only 30 miles, and that there was only one of them. So what did I expect?

The good news is that I recovered satisfactorily; the count-down of the last five climbs on the way back from Marshall Store through Nicasio went better (at least subjectively) than on my first brevets there, four or five years ago. The other good news is that I was very thoroughly happy to be finally "back in business" with my randonneuring. It's going to be a very special year!

PS: Yes, I did finish last out of ten or eleven riders, in 12 hours. But it doesn't matter.