Hell on Wheels

It’s late, and we’re getting up early to fly to New York to visit Kate’s family (and see my brother John). So the telling of this tale might be a little truncated. But:

One of my cycling goals this year was to ride three double centuries — 200 miles in a day — because there’s a sort of prize for that feat called the California Triple Crown. I rode my three doubles in April and May — two very tough rides (the Devil Mountain Double and the Central Coast Double, both featuring lots and lots of steepish uphill riding) and one that the cognoscenti have come to sniff at as "easy" (the Davis Double Century, one of the oldest doubles anywhere). I don’t subscribe to the notion that riding 200 miles in a day, no matter what the course, is easy.

A couple weeks ago, I was kicking around riding plans with a friend, Bruce. He suggested doing a local double called Bay in a Day, first run last year. Its unique feature: It circles the whole of San Francisco Bay, which is a neat idea in itself; though it’s a challenge, too, because to keep the ride close to 200 miles and make it all the way around means spending a lot of time in heavily populated areas on heavily traveled roads. Despite the fact the ride’s not yet recognized for Triple Crown credit, Bruce and I signed up — though it developed after we’d paid our non-refundable fees that Bruce had a social engagement he couldn’t break and could only do half the ride.

Then the heat came. By last Friday, the Bay Area and most of California was in the same red zone as the East and Midwest had been earlier in the week. Friday night, the National Weather Service put out a Heat Advisory warning of triple-digit temperatures on Saturday. Among other things, the weather service and local TV weather forecasters warned against outdoor exercise on Saturday. I heard the warning and thought about calling Bruce and bailing on the ride. Then I thought about The Terrible Two, an epic double that starts up in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, and is famous for two things: the combination of brutal climbs (present every year) and brutal heat (present most years, including this one). I know plenty of people, including Bruce, who rode The Terrible Two a few weeks ago, or tried to, and I told myself if they could do it, I could, too.

Saturday morning: We rolled out of Novato, in Marin County, at 5:35 a.m. It was beautiful, clear, and too warm, even for a midsummer morning. The water in San Pablo Bay — the northeasternmost extension of San Francisco Bay — was glassy in the calm. We sped along for the first couple of hours and covered a lot of ground; it wasn’t until about 10 that it started to feel hot; within another hour, the air felt overheated and oppressive. Bruce left the route about 11:30 to catch BART back to Berkeley, and I and a couple of other riders I know kept on to Palo Alto, the lunch stop, at mile 108. By then, the temperature was close to 100 and the heat on the road was more like 105 to 110.

So far, I wasn’t feeling too taxed. I stopped for about 45 minutes at lunch and drank lots — several V8s and a couple of Cokes and plenty of water. I knew things were going to get worse. They did: Heading back into the hills east of the Stanford campus and away from the Bay was like going into an oven. I was carrying two one-liter water bottles and a Camelbak that carries another two liters; the water in the bottles quickly became hot and unpleasant to drink; the water from the Camelbak was better, though water in the tube coming out of the reservoir was also very warm. On downhill stretches, the wind was just a solid, unrefreshing blast of heat.

It was 25 miles from lunch to the next rest stop. Luckily, it never entered my mind to have a timetable for that stretch. Whenever the heat started to feel overwhelming, I stopped — at a store in Woodside, where it was 105 in the shade, at a parking lot alongside a big reservoir, once more at an impromptu water stop set up by the ride organizers. It probably took me a good two and a half hours to cover the 25 miles, but the heat wasn’t quite over. Riding up the Peninsula toward San Francisco, I started to plot where I’d quit. Finally, though, about 5:30 in the afternoon, I felt the first trace of a breeze off the Pacific. The temperature dropped into the low 90s, the high 80s, the mid 70s. I imagined I’d feel better if I could cool off, but I was surprised at how much better I felt. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, I recorded the low temperature for the day — 63. On the north end of the bridge, the temperature rose 25 degrees, but I was through the worst of it and managed to get back to Novato, the starting point, after 10 o’clock. It was a lot later than I figured on finishing, but I’d made it.

(I wrote a little report for the ride organizers, which I’ll post as a continuation if you’re curious).

Chuck Bramwell from the California Triple Crown sought comments from BIAD riders who have also done the CTC. Here’s what I 
submitted (BTW, the course ratings are on a scale of 1-10).

Ratings & comments:

Course: 6

Course Comments: The course, nearly unavoidably,

features The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Bay Area

roads and bike paths. Since the ambition is to circle

the bay in a reasonable day’s ride, some compromises

are inevitable: Highway 37, to start the ride;

high-speed and/or high-traffic areas in Castro Valley,

Hayward, Fremont, the northern San Francisco peninsula

and (briefly) near Tiburon; and some unlovely miles

amid the South Bay landfills. On the other hand, much

of the course featured routes local cyclists know

pretty well, especially in the section from Pinole to

Castro Valley and from Palo Alto to Hillsborough.

Route segments that need special consideration:

–Route marking: Overall, well done. Maybe I missed it

at the start, but it would have been good to see and

example of what we ought to look for at the start.

Also, it would be good for organizers to develop some

sort of standard for how to mark the route — from

what I understand, the local bike club volunteers were

left on their own to decide how far in advance turns

needed to be marked, how often to mark the route on

long, straight segments, etc. All that having been

said, I never got lost.

Route sheet: Felix Wong

has commented at length on the route-sheet format. It

could be improved by a more condensed physical

presentation, though much of the route detail is

helpful and ought to be retained. I liked the idea

they printed it on card stock rather than simple copy


–Highway 37: This section is serviceable, though just

marginally safe even with the low level of traffic one

might expect at dawn or before on a Saturday morning.

The fact is that this is a two-lane, divided freeway

for most of its length. The rumble strip does offer a

bit of added safety for shoulder-riding cyclists, but

it’s also a potential hazard for unwary or unalert

riders. The rumble strip also doesn’t address another

safety and convenience issue for riders: The constant

presence of shattered glass and a variety of wood and

metal debris. In fact, we encountered two riders whose

tires had suffered serious damage along this stretch

and heard of several others who had problems, too.

Most of these riders seem to have started well before

dawn and thus were riding 37 in the dark. It seems to

me that if BIAD wants to continue using this segment

— and there’s really no workable alternative that

also lets you circle the bay — the organizers might

consider an official start window — 5:15 to 5:45, say

— that would guarantee that riders hit 37 when

there’s enough light to see by and also before traffic

volume increases. Just thinking out loud here, but it

would also be worth investigating how much it would

cost to get Caltrans to do a sweep of the shoulder in

the week before the ride.

G Street (Vallejo): Somewhere along the Mare Island

stretch, a railroad track merged onto the road at a

hazardous oblique angle. Rumor has it that several

cyclists fell trying to cross the tracks. The Mare

Island portion of the ride was nice, but the

organizers ought to offer both a written (route sheet)

and oral (pre-race announcement) of the hazard.

Rest Stop #3: Exit is onto a busy thoroughfare (A

Street) with no margin of safety along the curb for

cyclists. It would be good to have one of the stop

volunteers to do some sort of traffic control —

stopping riders from entering the street unless motor

vehicle traffic is clear

Ranch Road: This is a bike path at mile 92.4. Route

sheet notes "POOR SURFACE." Workers at previous rest

stop should be instructed to orally remind riders of

conditions and offer specific information (in this

case, that the path was partially overgrown and

featured much broken asphalt, sand and gravel; it was

acceptably safe, but you needed to stay alert during

this section).

Rest Stop #6: I’m sure I wasn’t the only rider

disheartened to find the route off Skyline to the

Cuernavaca Park rest stop featured first a big (but

short) downhill, then a big (but short) climb, then

another short, sharp descent. Maybe it was just the

heat, but you wonder if a better, directly

on-the-route location might be found (on the other

hand, the rest-stop excursion provided an absolutely

awesome view of the Bay and the SFO runways). Last:

I’m pretty sure that the route arrow at the first

corner after leaving the stop (Alcazar and Hunt) was

pointing the wrong way (left instead of right).

Skyline Drive (not Boulevard), Pacifica: A steep

little hill that I was ready to find pointless. But

when I reached the top, I discovered a stunning view

north along the San Francisco beaches to the Marin

Headlands. Nice piece of routing.

Great Highway: Very, very crowded with car traffic and

pedestrians, given the weather. Still an OK ride, but

there needs to be an advisory about how tricky the

curbside riding space is.

2nd Street/3rd Street (San Rafael): Route sheet

incorrectly advises riders that "2nd St. … becomes

Pt. San Pedro Road …." In fact, 2nd merges into 3rd,

which becomes Point San Pedro Road. This is the one

place I had any uncertainty about where I was going on

the route.

Food and Water Rating: 6

Food and Water Comments: The food offerings were

mostly fine, and I’d rate them a little higher but for

the lack of variety from place to place. I think the

Warm Springs stop had fresh pineapple, which was

wonderful. Lunch was on the spartan side but

serviceable. Plenty of Clif energy drinks and gels on

hand all day. (And for comparison: On your scale, I’d

rate the Grizzly Peak Century a 10, Devil Mountain an

8.5, Davis an 8, and Central Coast a 4 (except for the

CCD lunch stop, which would get an 8).

I’d say the best-looking, best-stocked and

best-organized stop was the one on A Street in

Hayward, run by the Cherry City Cyclists.

I think the water support on the dangerously hot

section from Warm Springs up to rest stop 6 was just

adequate. When we got to Warm Springs, one of the

volunteers asked whether she should put ice in the

water coolers (Yes! Though on the other hand, there

was a nice spray-mister and garden hose set up at the

lunch stop for quick cool-offs.) The heat from lunch

to rest stop 6 was extreme — from 103 to 105 (highest

I observed) in the very infrequent shade and up to 118

or higher on the road. Given that, the fixed water

stop locations probably should have been supplemented

by a roving patrol just to make sure that no one was

lying in a smoldering heap on the roadside.

Support: 4

Support Comments: Don’t get me wrong — the folks at

the rest stops were uniformly great. But here are the

issues of concern:

–There seemed to be very little communication among

rest stops; for instance, workers had to rely on rider

hearsay about what was happening along the road and

how many riders might still be coming. Also, the final

rest stop closed despite the fact there were still

half a dozen or more riders fairly close by (anywhere

from 10 minutes to an hour out); workers at the

finish, who undoubtedly had been on duty for a long

time, had just about shut their facility down by the

time the last few riders came in (believe me, I’m not

saying anyone should stay open forever, but I do think

the organizers have some sort of duty to actively keep

track of riders and let them know what’s going on as

they get past closing times).
–All day, I recall seeing only  one marked SAG

vehicle driving the course. As noted above, I don’t

think that’s adequate, given the conditions.

–The on-the-road support seemed decidedly impromptu;

we saw one cyclist stopped just at the end of the

Highway 37 segment at the beginning of the ride. He

had suffered a blowout and had been able to summon SAG

help by phone, apparently; but when it got there, he

discovered the driver didn’t have any tires.

Restrooms: 7

Restroom comment: Most of the stops were located in

schools and fire stations, so there were facilities of

some sort on site. In some locations, there were

portable toilets nearby (as at the San Francisco

stop). In general, though, the facilities were

adequate only for a modest number of riders).

Overall Rating: 6

Overall Comments: Bay in a Day is a unique opportunity

to circumnavigate one of the world’s most beautiful

and best-known waterscapes (someone should pay me for

this stuff). Naturally, as the region is home to 6

million-plus people, cyclists who take on the

challenge will have to contend with traffic and other

less-than-ideal or -idyllic conditions. Still, I found

it a challenging and worthwhile undertaking, and I

hope it continues.

However, the event needs improved planning and

organization; it could probably benefit from both

studying similar events and tapping clubs in the

region for their expertise in putting on long rides.

At the very least, SAG and communications on the

course must improve.

That’s it — more than you want to know by a long

shot, probably.

3 Replies to “Hell on Wheels”

  1. As a bit of an endurance athlete who has faced some tough, long slogs through hot weather, I feel qualified and compelled to emphasize what an absurdly difficult challenge it was that our friend Dan took on Saturday. People, there’s no way you or I ride 200 miles on that day. Seriously, I was having a hard time making it from car to house. Official temperatures were over 100 over much of that route. Bad enough. But usually when we get heat like that here in the Bay Area, the humidity plummets, so at least your perspiration/drying system can keep you halfway cool. But on Saturday, humidity was elevated a bit — approaching 40% vs the usual <20%. It was a BRUTAL day, one of the meanest I've experienced in nearly a lifetime living here. I just don't see how you could ride for that long, that far, on that day. Incredible.

  2. Dan, You are one healthy person. I shouldn’t say anything about age, I know some 20-somethings who couldn’t do what you did.

  3. Funny that you mention age. A few years ago, when I was investigating the possibility of doing long, long ride, I attended a lecture by a cyclist a little older than myself. He opined that older riders, while not as physically strong as younger ones, nevertheless had an advantage: We could handle long-term discomfort better. Doesn’t sound like much of an edge, but I got a demonstraton of what he was talking about on Saturday.
    When we rolled out on our ride last Saturday, there was a young guy who left at the same time and who stayed on our wheel. It turned out he is an aspiring racer at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo; I think his mom chatted up Bruce (who is going to be 60 in a few weeks) about what he knew about doing double centuries; it turned out her lad had never tried the distance before, and she wanted to make sure she (and he) knew what was ahead. Anyway, it turned out that this guy was very strong, though he rode on our wheel — drafted us — for the first 50 miles. I thought he would ride ahead when we got to some honest-to-goodness hills, but he didn’t; I think his strategy was to try to read our pace and keep up with us. That worked until lunchtime; after that, it was so hot that he fried — he was simply dehydrated and mentally done in — and he needed to quit. Of course, Saturday was *not* the day to try your first double century, and this could turn him off to the idea for a good long time. But it was a reminder that age does have its advantages.

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