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Last Weekend’s Exercise

… and an explanation of the proprietor’s recent absence: I spent Saturday and Sunday on my bike, riding a 600-kilometer qualifying brevet for this year’s Paris-Brest-Paris; that’s 375 miles, roughly evenly divided between a very rainy Saturday and a beautiful if cool spring Sunday. So: I’ve finished all four qualifiers for PBP, and all I need to do now is maintain my edge for another four months, book a trip to France, get there, ride 750 miles or so in four days in late August. … Wait — let’s just take one thing at a time.

More on the ride later. For now, I’ll flash back to the amateur weather prognostication I posted to a cycling group on Friday afternoon. Except for the guess about how long the showers would last Sunday — they were actually over with early in the day — it gives a pretty good idea of what we encountered:

Light rain is expected to spread across most of Mendocino County by

late morning, then [south] across Sonoma County and into Marin during the

afternon hours. The rain is expected to intensify as we travel north

and west. The area from Yorkville, on the high ridge along 128

northwest of Cloverdale, out to the coast is expected to get about

one-third of an inch of rain before 5 p.m., about three-fourths of an

inch between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m., and another half-inch or so betweeen

11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Sunday. After that, the rain will become showery,

and you can probably expect to encounter brief periods of

precipitation until late Sunday afternoon. Low temperatures are

expected to be in the upper 40s to about 50.

“The silver lining is that a southerly wind (meaning it’s coming from

the south) is expected to build throughout the day Saturday; after the

storm front crosses the coast late Saturday night, the wind is

forecast to gradually turn to the west, then the northwest.”

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On the Bike: Lousy Cycling Weather List

Just to put it on the record before the beautiful memories start to fade:

The weather people were right: Saturday turned out rainy and windy, eventually. We rode into some light rain about 20 miles from the start of the 188-mile ride, but that was done with pretty quickly; if that was all we’d had to contend with, no one would have even remembered it. The northbound leg was pretty painless because we had a nice tailwind through the first mandatory stop (“control” in the language of brevets) at mile 46 or so in Petaluma. The breeze was a big help as we continued on, too. But off to the west, the hills were shrouded in falling rain, and it was raining by the time I got to Santa Rosa. It rained moderately for the next hour or so, just about all the way to our turnaround control in Healdsburg. By then, with more than 100 miles to go to get back to the start, everyone looked pretty wet. I was soaked, and couldn’t stand around much before I started to shiver. Luckily, I met a couple friends, Bruce and Rob, who were just finishing lunch and ready to leave; I had downed an orange juice and a protein shake–my stomach had felt too upset earlier to eat anything, and the liquid fuel was working just fine–and I rode with my two East Bay compadres along the edge of the vineyards down to the Russian River, then out to the coast. There, the principal weather factor turned to wind: A strong breeze was rising along Highway 1, and it was mostly right in our faces. About 20 miles after reaching the ocean, and about 57 miles from the end of the ride, it started to rain again; the wind had grown strong enough that, along with our forward motion on the bikes, the drops seemed to blow horizontally and stung my face. It rained with increasing intensity all the way back to the finishing control at the Golden Gate Bridge. It was so windy up on the span that we all had to dismount to walk around the north tower, and even then we had to lean into every step to make any progress at all; with the rain, it felt like we were getting sandblasted.

But it wasn’t all one big gray blur. Every once in a while I’d catch a piece of the scene–the glistening green slope of a mountainside before the storm really hit, the nearly-obscured hills or beaches as the rain rolled in, the rain blowing through the light cast by streetlamps–and the beauty of it all was striking. Or maybe that was just an attempt to justify subjecting myself to an experience that at points seemed crazy.

At one point, Rob and I got flat tires just below one of the last summits of the ride. The road was completely dark except for bike and car lights. We were in the middle of the storm in a dark, dripping forest, and we made our repairs with cold, wet hands. I, at least, didn’t have perfect confidence that my tire would stay inflated, but within 20 minutes or so we were riding again. One thing I like about this climb, from Nicasio up and over to San Geronimo, is that when you approach the summit, there’s always a pronounced breeze–a wind moving through the notch in the hills, a signal that you’re just about at the top. Last night, you could hear the wind roaring above us as we went up the slope. Instead of the usual breeze, a gale was blowing so hard that I wondered at first whether I could keep my bike upright. Instead of the usual fast, effortless descent, we had to keep pedaling to make progress into the wind. It was a relief to get down. We heard the same roar going up the other hills we had to cross in Marin County and faced the same wind-blown descents each time.

My hardest day ever on a bicycle? The way memory works–smoothing over the most unpleasant parts–it’s tough to say. But it would definitely be up there. I got soaked early and knew I was beyond hope of drying out (if this had been a multi-day ride, I would have found a laundromat and thrown my stuff in a dryer). It rained hard and for a long time, and it was on the chilly side–low to mid 50s all day. The wind was a special factor. As I said to Rob and Bruce after descending into San Geronimo, “That was wild.” I suppose I felt exhilarated, but a lot of that had to do with knowing that I’d be done riding in an hour or two with any luck.

The headline up there promises a list. So here they are, a quick review of the harshest weather rides I remember (one might be struck by how many of these are in the last four years; that’s when I started randonneuring and bought into the notion, perhaps to be explored later, that a little rain or heat or cold shouldn’t keep you from going out and riding all day and night).

1. February 24, 2007: San Francisco 300 brevet. 120 miles of rain and wind. Finished.

2. May 3-5, 2003. Davis 600 brevet. Rained for six or seven hours in middle of event (and for me, in the middle of the night). Cold pouring rain at the turnaround point, situated in a redwood grove in a state park. The hardship wasn’t so much the storm, but the distance still left to cover after I got a good soaking. I finished and qualified for PBP.

3. March 18, 2006: San Francisco 400 brevet. 55 miles into a 20-35 mph headwind on the western edge of the Central Valley. It took 11 and a half hours to finish the first 200 kilometers; the wind-aided return south took eight and a half hours.

4. July 22, 2006. Bay in a Day Double Century. High temperature on the road: 118 degrees. Started early, finished late, and got cooked in between.

5. January 28, 2006: San Francisco 200 brevet. Rain for 100 of the 125 miles on the road. But wind wasn’t much of a factor until near the very end. Finished.

6. September 14-15, 2006: Days two and three of the Last Chance 1,200 in Colorado and Kansas. We had a good 36 hours of 20-30 mile an hour winds; the breeze was from the south, meaning it was mostly a crosswind, but it made bike handling very tough and tiring. I finished the 1,000 portion of my ride, but did not finish the planned 200 afterward due to an Achilles tendon injury.

7. June 24-25, 2005: Great Lakes Randonneurs 600 brevet. Thunderstorms struck at the 300-kilometer mark; after two-and-a-half-hour delay, rode most of the night in the storm with bolts of lightning for extra illumination. I quit at the 400-kilometer mark.

8. April 12, 2003: Visiting Chicago for my parents’ 50th anniversary, I decide to take my brother-in-law Dan’s bike out for a ride. Temperature was about 40, and the bonus factor was a stiff breeze off Lake Michigan. I rode across the Wisconsin state line, called my sister’s house to announce my accomplishment, then enjoyed a wonderful tailwind all the way back to the North Side.

9. July 13, 1969: I take it into my 15-year-old head to ride from our place in Crete, Illinois, to Kankakee River State Park, about 35 miles away, on my red three-speed Schwinn. The temperature reached the mid-90s on a mostly unshaded route. I had a map. I did not have anything to eat or drink, though I did bring money and bought stuff along the way and I wasn’t shy about stopping to ask people for water. Finished the ride and then repeated it two days later with two friends; we tied sleeping bags and other camping gear to our bikes and hit the road. Even though I was really tired and sore and probably dehydrated and sunstruck and got a ride home from my dad, I had sort of a good time. Maybe this ride explains all the others.

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The Wind

Saturday was the day of the San Francisco Randonneurs 400-kilometer brevet. That’s 250 miles in American Distance Units. Far enough that unless you’re very strong and very fast, you face the reality that you’re going to need to sit on your bike all day and a good part of the night to finish. Without going into all the particulars of the ride — the stuff that always lasts in my memory is the landscape, whatever the landscape happens to be — the dominating factor on the ride was the wind. A storm blew through early Friday, and Saturday was dry. But as often happens after a storm passes, the wind along the coast and in the Central Valley blows hard from the north or northwest. Our route included a 60-mile leg that turned out to be more or less straight into a fairly fierce post-storm breeze. It’s hard to describe how implacable a force it turns into when you realize you’ll be facing it for four or five or six hours or more. The best thing that the wind did, though, was encourage riders to group up — riding together offers some protection if you can organize a paceline to share the work of leading the pack. That happened rather spontaneously on Saturday, and I spent most of the ride with four or five other riders. And of course, the best thing about a headwind is that it becomes a tailwind if both you and it persist long enough. At sunset and during twilight on the way back to down the Sacramento Valley, we just bucketed along. Here’s a little report on the day’s chief meteorological feature that I wrote up for my fellow riders:

Poking around some National Weather Service data, I can’t find any data from along our route. But reports from the west-central Sacramento Valley and the foothills just to the west show sustained winds in the high teens to mid 20s (mph) most of the afternoon with gusts in the low to mid 30s. The National Weather Service wind speeds represent a two-minute average ending at the time indicated; the gust speed is the highest speed recorded during the two minutes.

Highlights:

–The recording station at Corning (Olive Capital of the World, 57 miles north of Williams) recorded a 23 mph wind from the northwest gusting to 35 at 1:50 p.m.

–At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, near Willows (Gateway to Elk Creek, 28 miles north of Williams), wind speeds were recorded at 21 or 22 mph, gusting from 30-32 mph, for every hour between 9:40 a.m. and 2:40 p.m.

–Further east in the Valley, winds were a little less extreme: Marysville (Where Yuba City Looks for Thrift-Store Bargains) had sustained winds up to 18 mph (1:50 p.m.) and gusts up to 28 (at 10:50 a.m. and 1:50 p.m.). Chico (They Have a Peet’s There Now) reported an 18 mph wind at 1:50 p.m. and gusts as high as 31 (2:50 p.m.)

–At Brooks (Gambling Mecca of All Yolo County), sustained wind speeds were lower, in the low to mid teens, but were gusting up to 26 mph.

–Thomes Creek, in the hills west of Orland (Home of the Famous Highway 32 Dog-leg Turn), had the same pattern, but with wind gusts up to 33 mph.

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Road Shots

Three pictures from the ride yesterday.

The first is at the ride sign-in, about 6:30 a.m. Todd Teachout, the guy on the left, organized the ride for the San Francisco Randonneurs; in formal randonneuring parlance, he’s the Regional Brevet Administrator. He registers the riders, makes up their brevet cards and hands them out at the start and collects them at the end of the day, and more: He needs to make up maps and route sheets and ensure the course is the required distance, that the road is actually rideable (flooding and slides during the pre-New Year’s storms affected parts of the route) and that the control points — the places riders need to check in along the way — are in order. Todd’s habit at the start of the ride is to park his pickup in the free, dirt parking lot west of the bridge toll plaza, fold down the tailgate and use it as a desk.

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The middle shot is at the start, about 6:50 a.m., 10 minutes before the ride began. If you haven’t been to the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s a little plaza at the south end of the span and on the east side of U.S. 101. Among other objects of attention, there’s a gift shop and a statue of Joseph Strauss, putative genius behind the bridge. It’s a popular spot for cyclists to meet up early on weekend mornings. The little circular flower bed is the focal point for the pre-ride brevet gatherings: lots of milling around and greeting riding buddies and saying hi to folks you know from past brevets. As one of the guys I rode with in 2003 said, “What a bunch of recidivists.”

I stopped a couple times to take pictures along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, a long road that begins just outside San Quentin — yes, that San Quentin — and runs west all the way to the end of Point Reyes, about 42 road miles west. The storm was coming in squally showers, with short breaks between gusty bursts of rain. I took the third shot during one of the breaks. Didn’t take any more shots after this; it was too wet, for one thing, and after a certain point I didn’t feel much like stopping.

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There and Back

Two hundred kilometers in the rain. It was even wetter than it sounds. Windy, too: Coming back across the Golden Gate Bridge just before dark, the towers were funneling wind downward; the turbulence was strong enough to nearly knock me down when I rode the little semicircle around the tower bases. The rain at that point was cold and driven nearly horizontally in off the ocean; it stung like sleet.

More later. I’d do it again. Just don’t ask me to saddle up tomorrow.

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Cycling Forecast

I’ll stop later to consider why we really do this stuff — superficial analysis suggests it’s because it make great storytelling later — but the ride tomorrow is on (meaning: I’m riding; the event, with 75 riders signed up, would obviously go on without me).

In the meantime: No reprieve from the forecasters or their all powerful weather models. The probability of measurable precipitation in the area we’ll be riding in the morning is 90 percent. At some point, when those in charge of interpreting all the weather data realize their models are actually a reflection of reality, they seem to relax and shift their predictions from “chance of rain” or “rain likely” to “the hose will be on full force; don’t even think anything else can happen.” Besides the rain, which is an interesting element in which to ride, there will be wind. Maybe 30 or 40 mph gusts on the coast. Parts of the route, I know already, are going to be a slog.

Time to stop talking about it and go to bed so I can rest up a little for it.

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View from the Back of the Pack

It’s late, and I’m being lazy. Specifically, I’m “repurposing” (now there is a great word) a little piece I wrote for a local bike club newsletter, the Grizzly Peak Cyclists. It may be too cute by half; if so, I plead guilty and promise to get back to my usual hard-bitten prose right after I copy and paste this little gem:

An Early-Season Brevet

It’s brevet season. “Brevet” is a French word meaning “ride till you hurt.” Brevet-season participants start the year with a 200-kilometer ride (125 miles or so), then graduate to distances of 300, 400, and 600 kilometers (roughly 187.5, 250 and 375 miles, respectively), all ridden in a time limit that ranges from 13.5 hours for the 200 to 40 hours for the 600 . The grand prize for completing the four brevets is qualifying to ride an even longer one: a 1,200-kilometer event, which comes with a slightly more generous time limit of 90 hours. Since all that sounds like a worthy undertaking to some of your fellow Grizzlies, several of whom have declared their intent to ride the 1,200-kilometer Gold Rush Randonee this July, you can spot them headed out of town before dawn on certain Saturday mornings. One of the favorite destinations for these “brevet-heads,” as they style themselves, is Davis.

The flatland town has a thing about riding until it hurts; gas stations there have been replaced by roadside dispensaries for Chamois Butt’r, bag balm, and other cycling salves and unguents. The local bicycle cult, organized under the name “Davis Bike Club,” has fashioned the town the Brevet Capital of Everywhere That’s Not France. To establish and maintain that claim, the club has for years sponsored a series of spring brevets (they’re not the only ones, though: locally, series are also offered through similarly inclined groups in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa). Among non-French clubs, the DBC has in recent years boasted the largest number of affiliated riders in the Mother of All Brevets, the quadrennial Paris-Brest-Paris.

This year’s DBC brevet season opened March 5 with a 200-kilometer jaunt (with 5,500 feet or so of climbing) from Davis, naturally, to the Grange Hall in beautiful Pope Valley and back. Weather’s always a factor on long rides, and the day was beautiful — so clear that the high peaks of the Sierra were outlined against the dawn sky, with a light to moderate westerly breeze that would swing to the north and east just in time to make sure the slower riders could have a headwind both out and back.

The Davis 200, following the same route year after year, has a certain rhythm: A fast tempo for the first 25 or 30 miles with lots of pacelines as you roar across the western edge of the Central Valley and begin the gentle and lovely climb up Highway 128 along Putah Creek as it flows down from Monticello Dam and Lake Berryessa; then 35 miles or so of small climbs and rollers through ranches and vineyards all the way to Pope Valley. The return is, well, similar, but in reverse, with a final swooping descent from the dam to dump you back into the lowlands. On the final stretch back to Davis, the packs of riders, thinned out by the hills, are much smaller.

The handful of Grizzlies spotted on their machines this day included Peter Morrissey, who was seen chasing the lead pack about 10 miles after the turnaround; Bruce Berg, who started out fast and stayed that way (finishing the 125.6 miles in 7 hours and 27 minutes, including stops); Rob Hawks, who finished in about 7:55; Jim Bradbury, smiling as usual; and your correspondent, who clocked in at 8:39 and was glad to be done. This is by no means an authoritative list; my apologies to any Grizzlies I’ve omitted.

(If this kind of event is for you, or you want to get someone out of the house for days at a time, brevet schedules and details are available at the Randonneurs USA site: http://rusa.org.)

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