Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Big Nail

San Francisco Randonneurs 600k, May 7-8, 2011

This was my third participation at my home club's 600. The previous two experiences (here and here) were rather satisfying, despite the route's prestige of being "not easy." As it happens, I didn't feel very well at the start without knowing why; but based on my previous experience with this route and my generally better conditioning this year, I didn't worry. Rather, I intended to ride alone and still try to improve my previous times, which implied in particular to ride through without sleep stop. I wanted to train my sleep-deprivation tolerance a bit more in prevision of the upcoming more ambitious goals, this year.

After not much more than three hours, however, my intentions were discouraged by a nail. Not just any nail, but a big hand-made soft-iron nail as they are used for horseshoeing. The specific problem was that the wheel made several turns with the nail before I came to a stop, and that at each turn the tip of the nail hit the rim (from inside the tire) to the effect of spiraling it up: it was impossible to pull the nail without destroying the tire! - I was so disgusted by this situation that I forgot to take more pictures from the spiraled-up tip inside the tire.

The situation could have been a deal breaker right there, if I hadn't put a small plier back into my saddle bag, shortly before the ride, thinking "why didn't I carry it along throughout the last year?" I still had to work hard (and nearly break the pliers) for what seemed like half an hour before I could somehow unwrap and eventually break the nail such that it could be removed. But, of course, now I was last on the course, and not in a good mood at all!

I replaced the inner tube, booted the tire, pumped it up and went on my way. About half a mile later, pfft - another (unrelated) puncture ...

The attempt to find the address of a friend's weekend house in Boonville to say "Hi!" (just before it got dark) failed as well, not without costing me another wasted half-hour. Oh well.

I was still determined to make the best out of this ride. I already felt better than in the morning, had the impression that I was stronger than in previous years on this route, and kept going at my preferred pace.  On the way back from the turn-around in Fort Bragg, we had a little rain and wet roads, but I didn't mind. I arrived later than ever (maybe around 1:30 a.m.) at the Dimmick campground rest stop, restored myself  and relaxed for about 45 minutes, but didn't sleep. I performed satisfactorily on the remaining climbs back to Cloverdale, where I saw two bicycles outside a coffee shop - breakfast time!

During the uneventful remainder of the ride, I had the pleasure to meet many faster riders who were still not quite awake from their extended sleep break (but who I couldn't follow for long regardless), and who I met again at the Point Reyes Station control where they stayed even longer than myself. I used the last well-known climbs from there to the finish to test my legs and compare with how I felt there in the past - the result was reassuring. 

I got a picture taken when handing in my brevet card (with Alcatraz in the background), called home, and felt fresh enough to join my family at a dinner invitation by our Scottish friends where I continued my sleep-deprivation training successfully until well past midnight.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Too Much?

Santa Cruz Randonneurs 400k, April 16, 2011
Pacific Coast Highway Randonneurs 600k pre-ride, April 21, 2011

From the experience of the last four years, I know that I can recover from a 600 within a week and ride 600 km distances safely on consecutive weekends. So, a relatively easy 400 like the Santa Cruz Monterey Bay shouldn't do any harm a week after the San Diego 600 (even though it was the hardest). And I don't think it did.

I knew the route quite well and progressed steadily. In the evening, on the way to Gonzales, I connected with Mick J. and we rode most of the way back to the finish together, picking up three other riders on the way. While Mick was dissatisfied with his finishing time of 20 hours (and this was with nursing a bad tendinitis in his ankle!), I was more than happy with it and didn't mind dropping off on the last miles and losing a handful of additional minutes, mainly due to stop lights.

Originally, I then had the PCH Randos April 29 600k brevet on my calendar. This would have left nearly two weeks for recovery - more than enough. But, being in retirement, I decided to follow up on an old promise and offer volunteering instead. In exchange, I would get an opportunity to do the "Workers Ride" - which started on Wednesday evening, barely three days after the finish of the 400k! Oh well - that's going to be a good stress test ...

The event master Vickie had designed an attractive and challenging route with start, rest stop and finish in Lompoc, and an overnight arrangement in San Luis Obispo:

Day 1

Day 2

We were only three at the start on Wednesday evening 9 p.m.: Vickie and Tom R. on their recumbents, and myself on the only non-recumbent. This made drafting less rewarding for me and challenged me on downhills, but put less pressure on me on the uphills. Regardless, all in all we were pretty well matched, worked well together and had a great time through the night ...

... until the rain started, shortly after midnight. In order to avoid halting our little group, I did not put on my protection against getting wet feet, which I would regret bitterly later. When we arrived at the San Luis Obispo Denny's control around 3 a.m., we were thoroughly soaked and chilled. It was easy to stay longer than reasonable before getting back on the route and climbing Cuesta grade with more rain, some mechanical mishaps and other reasons to extend stops and prevent forward motion. Later in the morning, the sun came out and we had some very nice riding through the back-country, although my feet stayed wet and uncomfortably cold. Also, on the hillier portions, I made the experience (new to me) of waiting for my companions, whereas I didn't always succeed in following them into the wind when the road was flat or downhill (in which case they waited for me). We did not run out of time relative to the control closure times (although we were sometimes a little too close for comfort); however, I was seriously worried that our slow progress did not provide the cushion I was counting on to make a necessary second-night sleep stop (after riding through the first night without sleeping), where I could also change into dry socks and generally warm up my cold feet.

Serious headwind towards Cambria cost more time, and in addition, the windchill got more and more bothersome as the sun went down on the way back to Morro Bay. I started feeling sickly (scratchy throat, feverish) while cursing the cold feet, and realized that my endurance reserves were running low. Was this the consequence of not recovering enough from the hard San Diego 600, and adding a 400 just four days earlier instead?  I was riding alone for a while at that time, because Vickie and Tom had stopped to add layers (I had put on everything I had earlier already); and so I had time to come up with ways of rationalizing the upcoming "DNF" decision. The real kicker was not the fact that I felt uncomfortable, cold and weak; it was that there would be no time left for a sleep and warm-up stop in San Luis Obispo, and that I did not want to go into a second night without sleep, for safety reasons.

When I got together with Vickie and Tom again in the Morro Bay area, it turned out that Vickie had called her husband already to pick her up - she had suffered earlier in the afternoon from sleep deprivation symptoms already. Tom, however, was determined to finish: he needed this 600 for his PBP qualification. He expected me to stay with him at least until the San Luis Obispo area (from where I would fork off to reach my "home base" in Shell Beach with Ghislaine and friend Yolande); but when we took off, two things happened: a) I realized I was unable to hold his pace on even slight uphills; b) I picked up a staple in my rear tire and punctured. Tom understood that waiting for me would definitely compromise his goal and reluctantly rode on. (He succeeded to complete the 600 km within the time limit, riding through two essentially sleepless nights!)

I was lucky that my "sickly" feelings that pushed me to abandon didn't have any consequences, and that I was in good shape to go from there babysitting for a week in Los Angeles (grandsons!), and to come back for volunteering activities at the official 600k brevet on April 29 - 30. I hope I can get back onto this route some time in the future!

My Hardest 600

San Diego Randonneurs 600k, April 9-10, 2011

If my count is correct, this was my 13th 600k brevet. I had committed to it as soon as it showed up on the calendar; the good memories from last year's 600 out of Borrego Springs and the desire to ride again with my friends Kelly and John M. on those Southern Californian roads that I always found so attractive made it a priority for this year as well.

Due to the high density of organized brevets in this PBP-year Spring, only 11 riders (myself included) were at the start in Temecula; and ten of them were known to be (much) stronger and faster than myself. Sadly, John M. was missing - he didn't feel ready for a 600; but throughout the first half of the ride he volunteered on several controls and intermediate water stops together with his charming spouse, and this was a nice compensation.

I felt in good shape. Since the Arizona 600 three weeks earlier, I had participated in the second edition of the Santa Cruz "Buena Vista 300" the weekend before and was an hour faster than in February on the same route, while riding nearly all alone this time.

Soon after the start in Temecula, the road went up into a chilly altitude, and I performed quite well in staying with the second half of those strong riders. The 3rd control in Warner Springs was particularly memorable with its snow-covered trees under the blue sky; I wish I had the photos to prove it - it felt like a magical winter ride, just before we plunged down to the warm desert floor and then rode South-East to Ocotillo and back West along the Mexican border. Kelly and I still caught close to half a dozen other riders at the Ocotillo control, but we left after them and were now the last on the road, even though several hours ahead of my projected pace. On the dreaded 12-mile, 3000-ft climb on I-8, Kelly was tempted to chase down Nicole H. and Jim Swarzman who were less than half a mile ahead; but I was unable to follow and Kelly resigned himself to staying with me. This climb came much later in the game than last year, and in conjunction with my earlier big efforts and the unrelenting and forceful headwind, it brought me to my knees. Trying to do my best, I went temporarily into the red zone and knew I had soon to stop and "walk it off" for a little while. Kelly felt what was coming and stopped before me at a roadside SOS phone, stone-facedly pretending to make a call to request SAG for me ...

The violent headwind stayed with us until the evening in San Diego. As long as I could hide at Kelly's rear wheel, this somewhat evened out the disparity in our strengths. Still, I was determined to make this a "Hard 600" and see how far and how fast I could go - Kelly should be proud of me! On the other hand, as so often on a long ride, both of us together lost the ambition to keep stops as short as possible. But we were still ahead of schedule and would have no trouble arriving in Oceanside early enough for a restful sleep break (Kelly had reserved a Motel 6 room there). Kelly was a little worried about getting too sleepy around midnight, and I teased him into controversial discussions on training methods which kept him alert. In retaliation, he teased me into believing we were on top of the Torrey Pines climb out from San Diego when we weren't.

We arrived in Oceanside much, much later than anticipated. I don't want to write about what happened - those of you who don't know are referred to this page. Suddenly, this brevet was not just a "Hard 600" - it had became my hardest 600 ever.

Chris H. (I must have mentioned him several times on this blog, for example here, and I have met him on the roads many more times since I started randonneuring) joined Kelly and me overnight and decided to stay with us. I finished the brevet in company of two true gentlemen under good conditions on Sunday afternoon in Temecula. - It was hard; no: hardest.

The Big House

Arizona Brevet "Tombstone 600"  March 19, 2011

Somehow, the beginning of the "Golden Years" (see previous post) disrupted my blog posting. This is particularly unfortunate because my first 600 in 2011 really would have deserved a prompt report - it was a very special event for me. I don't know why, but I had been looking forward to riding in Arizona for many years already. Work being what it is with its limited number of vacation days, I never could afford the extra time for the long trip - had to wait for retirement! Then, I was particularly motivated this year to complete the first SR series as soon as possible - it is required as a qualification for Paris - Brest - Paris in August. Finally, I liked the date of March 19th: In my youth, this used to be an official holiday in Bavaria (and other countries): St. Joseph's day ...

Fabienne could make herself available to accompany Ghislaine and me from LA to Casa Grande. We were excited to travel into the AZ state which we hadn't visited in a long time. A sign at a rest stop set the tone:

The next morning, Ghislaine and Fabienne made a remarkable and much appreciated effort to get up and accompany me to the 5 a.m. start:

While I was out on the roads, on my way to Tombstone and back, the women would enjoy the Best Western swimming pool, go shopping and visit the Casa Grande museum.

As so often when my enthusiasm gets the better of me, I couldn't help but trying to stay with the group of the strongest riders to the first control in Marana. I nearly succeeded; it helped that the road was flat and that there was a headwind. But on the way around the southern edge of Tucson, the expected punishment ensued. Many of the friends who had wisely stayed behind now caught up with me, and I was unable to follow them. It started to warm up (first time in the year that I rode in short sleeves and without leg warmers - and got sunburned!), and the hills through the Saguaro National Park took their tool. 
So I went into my recovery ride mode and enjoyed the beautiful day and the fascinating scenery on my own. And because I had finally learned to spend less time off the bike (for lunch stops and the like), I could still meet with stronger riders on the road and accompany them for a while. This includes the friendly Rick B. and Irene T. who were riding together. (Search for "Colorado" in my report from the Cascade 1200, last year; the "young and strong women", that's her). But later in the day, on the long climbs around the Sonoita area, Irene let Rick go ahead, and I met her again at the Elgin control, not quite 35 miles from the turn-around in Tombstone. On the way out, it was dinner-time at this control (Susan the RBA had cooked for us!), and on the way back it was our sleep stop. Irene and I decided to do the night riding together, and it turned out that we would mostly stay together to the finish.
The last miles before Tombstone (around 10 p.m.) were not particularly pleasurable for me; it was cold, I did have stomach issues and the unexpected climbs before Tombstone made me feel weaker than I would have liked. Consequently, I could not care less about the touristic attractions of this historic town. I spent much more time at the Tombstone control than I should have, sipping a somewhat soothing herb tea, desperately trying to bring my digestive tract back into working order, while Irene was patiently waiting. I literally couldn't stomach the cold water (or any other cold liquid) in the bottles, and wished I had the heat from ten hours earlier back. The long, dark, cold, lonely way back to Elgin was a serious test of our randonneuring aptitude; both Irene and I expressed that we were happy not to be alone  in it. As we approached Elgin, it became colder and colder - just as knowledgeable friends had predicted.  I was lucky to have my full winter equipment with me, and it was barely enough.
Under these conditions, we extended the sleep stop more than absolutely necessary, to minimize the remaining cold night riding. It turned out to be not too bad (it helps to be rested and well fed again); and the super full moon  turned it into a memorable experience. When it was in our back, it threw a shadow that made me believe more than once that a car was approaching from behind.
The long downhill into the Tucson area brought daylight and higher temperatures back, and I finally had to get my personal "Saguaro with bicycle" souvenir photo:

For a couple of hours, the wind was mostly in our back, and the ride appeared easy (except for the cracks in the road that vibrated through the bike to the handlebars and you know where). Only the last flat and boring 45 miles became challenging again; the wind was strong and became unfavorable. I felt fully recovered from the more difficult periods, however, and proud to be able to accompany Irene without any trouble to the finish. Fabienne and Ghislaine (who said they enjoyed the time while I was out) waited for me at the hotel and were surprised to see how easily I could still carry my bike up the stairs to the "real" finish:


Based on my excitement about the ride and what I had seen there, we decided to stay another day so we could go together to the Desert Museum in the Tucson area on Monday. It turned out to be one of the better decisions we ever made - highly recommended! 

But the story is not over yet. Before driving back to LA on the next day, I managed to convince my passengers that we had enough time to make a detour to the Casa Grande Ruins. I had no idea what it was all about; I only saw the signs and recalled that there was an early 200k brevet named after them. When we approached the entrance, expectations were still subdued. Should we really pay money to stand around and stare at some old sand and stones? - Boy were we wrong with our attitude!

We were lucky to arrive just minutes before a gentleman named John Andrews started a guided tour. I believe I have never before seen and heard such a talented, knowledgeable and charismatic tour guide. He drew us into the history of that unknown native people who had built this incredible Big House some 600 years back - and then disappeared. We imagined their lives, rooted for them, and were distressed to learn that some unknown events and conditions drove them away. A big ride like a 600 km brevet always makes me more receptive and sensitive to "feelings" which may appear to be an unusual reward for a cyclist - but it is for me. And so, when I walked up to John Andrews after the tour (he was standing alone and watched the reactions of the group from a small distance) to compliment and thank him for the wonderful tour, I choked up. The whole story of that Big House as presented by him was just too impressive for me.