Long-Distance Riding: Behind-the-Windshield View

We drove up to Mendocino over the weekend using the easy route from the East Bay: U.S. 101 through Marin and Sonoma counties to Highway 128 in Cloverdale, out 128 to the coast and Highway 1, then up 1.

We weren’t in a big hurry, so we decided to stop in Cloverdale, the last town in Sonoma before you reach the Mendocino County line. The last several times I’ve been up there, I’ve either been on a bicycle or have been supporting someone else’s ride. In 2007, I remember going through Cloverdale twice: late at night near the northern end of a 400-kilometer brevet, shepherding a semi-lost and semi-lightless rider, then again passing through both ways on a rainy 600-kilometer brevet (I got doused on the way north; by the time I came back the next morning, the weather had turned and it was sunny and warm and a big tailwind was building–I smile just thinking of it).

All by way of saying that when we spotted several bikes at the gas station/convenience mart at the south end of town, it took me about five seconds to figure out I was looking at people on a brevet (the combination of the gear on the bikes and some of the jerseys–a California Triple Crown and a San Francisco Randonneurs–tipped me off). I asked and found that the riders were out on a 400-kilometer brevet from the Golden Gate Bridge up to Hopland. From where I met them they had something like 30 kilometers to the turnaround point and several hours of beautiful March weather to enjoy before the night leg back to San Francisco. On the way out of town and all the way up the long climb on 128 to Mountain House Road–the beautiful (and roughly paved, last time I was there) back-country link to Hopland–we passed riders plugging away in ones and twos.

Did I wish I was out there myself? No–not in my current non-riding shape. But I did have an audio recorder with me and considered for a minute whether I might wait at the top of the grade to talk to the riders coming past. Didn’t do it, though. I did give a wide berth and a wave to all the riders we saw. Bonne route, boys!


Coming back from Mendocino, we made the counter-intuitive move of starting the southward trip by driving north along the coast out of Fort Bragg on Highway 1, then crossing the Coast Range to Leggett, where we could pick up 101 south.

I’ve never ridden this stretch of road, but have driven it three or four times. In my memory, the stretch from the coast had organized itself into a long, straightish section from Fort Bragg to point where you turn east, then a long climb up the mountains and equally long descent to Leggett, an old, broke-looking logging town that boasts a famous massive drive-through redwood tree. What I saw yesterday was a little different from what I remembered. The section north of Fort Bragg was neither as straight nor as level as I remembered. Heading up the highway, you turn inland quite abruptly; as you leave the coast, what look like trackless mountains stretch away to the north, falling straight into the sea. The climb and descent to Leggett turns out to be two ascents and two downhills with a bit of mostly level road between them. Driving it, I was reminded of friends who had done a 24-hour Easter weekend ride back in 2004, starting in Leggett and ending in San Francisco. What a way to start out.

We had no traffic behind us all the way across the climbs, so I didn’t have to push my speed or pull over. When we had descended nearly to Leggett and it had started to rain, we spotted a single cyclist starting up the grade. I slowed to encourage him, and he stopped to talk. I wished I’d gotten his name: He was loaded for a tour down to San Francisco and was figuring on doing 60 miles a day to get there. He looked like he was prepared for weather, and I think he’ll see some this week with a series of storms expected on the coast.

Did I wish I was out there? Kind of, though my last long ride in the rain isn’t filled with fond memories. Instead of pondering that, we drove home. Total mileage for the weekend, about 29 hours on the road, was 380 miles. I did reflect briefly that during that 600-kilometer ride in 2007, I rode 375 miles in about 36 hours — including six hours off the road to eat and sleep in Fort Bragg. I’ll probably remember that weekend, at least the road part, longer than I remember the driving I did this time around.

Cycling Medals and Loose Screws


I’m more than willing to concede that I might occasionally have a screw come loose. I always have an ear out for the telltale rattle.

But what does that have to do with the picture above (click for larger images)? We’ll get to that.

What is depicted there, in all its dimly lit, slightly blurred, slow-shutter-speed glory, is a Randonneur 5000 medal. My name is engraved on it, meaning I earned it.

What is it? It’s the reward one gets for completing a series of long bike rides in randonneur mode.

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Continue reading “Cycling Medals and Loose Screws”


I see on the Western States Ride Calendar that there’s a 200-kilometer (125-American Distance Unit) brevet in southern Utah on December 1. It’s a great fantasy: driving out there across central Nevada, maybe doing a little riding along the way, then riding in that beautiful red rock landscape. But it’s a long way to go for a bike ride, especially having driven up to Coeur d’Alene in October. And besides, I’d never get away with it. December 1 is my wedding anniversary.

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This Ain’t No Party, This Ain’t No Disco …

… this here is PBP. The start is in four hours. I’ll be back Friday and will try to check in again then, repetitive stress notwithstanding. I’m more or less ready. Here was the triumph of the day, then I’m going offline: I put new tires on my bike early this afternoon. Naturally, since I lack the foresight to wear gloves during the messy part — some day I will! — my hands were full of grease afterward. I didn’t bring any of the nifty Phil Wood hand cleaner I use at home, and was wondering whether I’d just have to wait till the grime wore off since soap does very little to remove the gunk. Then inspiration smiled on me: Why not try toothpaste along with the soap — it’s got some abrasive material in it and it’s kind of soapy, too? I can report that soap and toothpaste are an effective hand cleaner after playing with a bicycle chain.

OK — that’s it. Time to get ready to ride.

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Bike Non-Inspection


The Paris-Brest-Paris organizers say that about 5,300 riders are signed up for the four-day trek. Today was the day the whole crew was supposed to show up to have their bikes “inspected.” What that means in practice, based on my 2003 experience, is running each cyclist through a quick check to make sure they have working front and rear lights, spares for each, and the required reflective sash. Nominally the officials, who seem to come from local bike clubs, are supposed to make sure your machine is in good working order. But unless you show up with something obviously awry — a broken crank arm or a missing wheel, say — the inspection is cursory.

Today’s inspection was much different from 2003’s, though. It rained hard overnight. Since the inspection takes place in the grassy areas around a soccer pitch, the organizers apparently decided to cancel the inspection because it would quickly turn the grounds into a Woodstock-style mire. So everyone expecting to show up and prove they can light their way through northwestern France was just waved in and told to go pick up their ride documents and assorted paraphernalia: the route book and swipe card we must each produce at every checkpoint; number plates to put on our bikes and number stickers for our helmets; another number plate to identify us to the finish line photography service; and a medal awarded for finishing this year’s qualifying brevet series — and yeah, the medals are kind of cool.

Even though I’ve done this before, I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people converging on the gym where the checkin was held. Thousands of people. Thousands of bikes. I’m not big into what I’ll call bike porn — leering lustfully at all the amazing and amazingly expensive and amazingly well outfitted bicycles people tend to bring to these events — but you can’t help but notice all the beautiful paint jobs, frames by small custom builders, advanced lighting systems and beautifully inventive and/or tasteful racks and bags for carrying all the gear people will have to carry for the next three or four days.

I had a moment — well, it lasted maybe half an hour — in which the thought formed that everyone looked better prepared than me, better fitted out than me, more fit than me. It passed — this riding ain’t about the gear as long as you respect the demands of going out on the road for as long as you do on PBP. And that’s one thing you probably always have to keep asking yourself — whether you’re doing everything you need to do to give yourself a chance of succeeding. I never feel like I really know the answer to that until I’m out there.

The element of uncertainty for PBP 2007 is the weather. In 2003, France was still suffering under its historic heat wave the night before the ride began. A deluge overnight cooled everything down, and the four days of the event were as close to ideal as you might find and certainly better than you’d dare expect. The weather this year is very different: It’s wet and cool, and we’ve seen rain or a good threat of it every day. The forecast, as far as we can see it online, suggests the week ahead will be the same. I met someone the first day I was here who said, “We hope for the best and plan for the worst.” Um — sure. But the truth is I never look forward to riding in the rain; and I think everyone here wonders in the back of their mind how they’ll like going up and down the roads of Brittany if it really does rain every day. (Pictures from today’s check-in here.)

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Gone Riding

My apologies to you noble few who visit every once in a while for my neglect the past few days. Explanation: I was out riding my bike over the weekend and absorbed in planning for that when I wasn’t actually in the saddle.

The brief details: Two days, 317 miles. From Berkeley, on the bay shore, to Chico, on the eastern edge of the upper Sacramento Valley; and then from Chico to Davis to catch a train home. It was hot — temperatures mostly 95 or a little below but up to 98 at a couple points and with plenty of extra heat coming off the roads. Rode with my friend Bruce and another Paris-Brest-Paris-bound cyclist, Keith, and Kate met us a couple times along the way Saturday to make sure we weren’t suffering from anything more serious than cycling-related dementia. Saw an abundance of big, striking birds as we rode past the rice fields planted along the general course of the Sacramento: great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, hawks of all descriptions, a (possible) juvenile bald eagle and a new one for me, the black-necked stilt.

More later. Really!

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Ride Volunteer


I spent most of last weekend looking after other bike riders instead of riding myself. On Saturday, I volunteered at the Cloverdale control (the fancy French-oriented name for a rest stop) on the Davis Bike Club’s 600-kilometer brevet. On Sunday, Kate and I worked at one of the stops for the Grizzly Peak Century, an annual hundred-miler put on by the Berkeley-based bike club to which I’ve belonged on and off (more off than on) for nearly 20 years.

The Cloverdale assignment consisted mostly of waiting for riders to come in. Three people from Davis, Larry and Dee Burdick and Betty Jane Polk, did all the hard work. They set up the stop, which was at mile 263 of the 375-mile ride, early in the morning. They had procured lots of cycling-specific powders and bars, plenty of generic salt-encrusted and sugar-filled junk food that riders crave, and had set up an outdoor stove upon which they were simmering out-of-the-can (but still tasty!) beef stew and hot water and coffee. I got there a little after 1 p.m. instead of noon, as promised, and imagined a flood of riders coming through. The event started from Davis at 8 p.m. Friday; the riders cycled through the night across the hills into the Napa Valley, across another hill to Sonoma County, then across the gently rolling to flat expanse of the Alexander Valley, past the towns of Healdsburg, Geyserville, and Cloverdale, then on a zigzag course across steep hills and deep valleys out toward the coast west of Boonville. (Why, pray tell, did this adventure start at night? It’s all about preparing riders for this August’s 1,200-kilometer Paris-Brest-Paris epic, which starts late in the evening and puts a premium on night-riding skills and equipment. For the uninitiated, PBP is the pinnacle of the decidedly fanatical but amateur sport known as randonneuring.)

Naturally, no riders had appeared by the time I arrived in Cloverdale. A warm day, challenging climbs on the outer part of the course, and the night start all probably combined to slow down the fastest riders a little. But about half an hour after I showed, the first guy came in: a rider from Seattle, Jim Trout, sporting an iPod and a wool jersey and who stayed just long enough to catch his breath before pushing on. He was a full hour ahead of the next rider, who also got in and out of the control quickly. Then more started appearing. A quintet, a couple of whom are familiar from Bay Area rides. Then a few more in ones and twos. All the while, I was hearing that a handful of randonneurs had abandoned the event out toward the end of the outbound leg and would need a lift back to Davis, 110 miles away. I was the designated lift-giver.

Soon, one of my passengers rode in. His name was Jim, and while he was still fit to continue, he had been disqualified because he was 22 minutes late getting to the control in Ukiah, roughly mile 140. He explained that he’d started the ride 10 minutes late — not a killer — but had really gotten behind by pedaling slowly as he waited for a friend who started a full hour late. Now his ride was over, and he showered, took a nap, then spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about where he might ride the 600 brevet he still needed to qualify for PBP.

Next, a guy named Foster was driven in to the control. He’d abandoned at the turnaround, mile 187. He’d simply run out of gas after riding hard at points early in the event then encountering the very tough climb from Ukiah to Boonville. Jim and Foster both had to wait for my other passengers, two strong riders who suffered show-stopping physical problems (a flareup of bone spurs for one, extreme knee pain for the other). By 4:30 or so, with more and more randonneurs coming through Cloverdale, I had all the people and bikes (four of each) I could take in the mini-van — one guy had to sit between the rear bucket seats — and we headed out for the two-and-a-half hour drive to Davis. We passed the faster riders on the way back — it didn’t look like anyone would make it within 24 hours, the time of the fastest finishers on the course in 2003 — and got back to the finish, in a park-and-ride lot on the east side of town, just before sunset.

I turned around and drove back to Cloverdale — the picture above is from Putah Creek Road, a farm byway west of Davis, in the lee of the Vaca Mountains (more pictures here). I didn’t need to make the trip, but I thought I might run into riders I knew, wanted to see how everyone looked as they began their second night on the road, and knew there was a chance I’d run into someone out there I might help.

One impression: Although there’s a lot of emphasis on ensuring randonneurs are well equipped for night riding — you have to have lights and reflective gear — and despite the use of some very sophisticated and effective lighting, we’re still out there on dark, dark roads, often without much in the way of shoulders, and we’re sharing them with much bigger, faster vehicles. It’s an exercise of trust, really: that you can do what’s needed to make yourself seen and stay out of harm’s way and that everyone else on the road will do the same. It works out most of the time.

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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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On the Bike: Weather Edition

Tomorrow’s event, part two of the qualifying series for this August’s Paris-Brest-Paris exercise in transatlantic self-punishment, is a 300-kilometer ride. That’s 188 miles in universally recognized American distance units. We’ll start at the Golden Gate Bridge at 6 a.m., ride up through the interior valleys of Sonoma County to the town of Healdsburg, head out along the Russian River to the townlet of Jenner, then ride down the coast highway to Point Reyes Station, where we’ll swing inland to go back to the bridge (the foregoing provided for those who want to keep score at home). Based on past experience, this will be something I’ll be doing well into the evening.

The hard part is: rain. The sky is clear out there now. But for the past two or three days, the forecast has predicted rain and, for the return trip on the coast, headwinds. I’ve been meaning to write a little something on the blessing and curse of modern weather forecasting for the modern bicycle rider. By which I mean: The blessing is that the sort of forecasting that’s possible today, along with tools like Doppler radar and satellite water-vapor imagery, can give you a pretty clear idea of what you’re riding into and when; the curse is that you become the prisoner of a prospective and freely revised reality.

Weather forecasting is highly model driven, meaning that a bunch of unimaginably fast and powerful computers are applying sophisticated mathematical models to the wealth of weather data pouring in from all over the globe; when the machines finish their model-assisted number crunching, they spit out a picture of the way the world will look in 12 and 24 and 48 hours and so on. Then forecasters take these visions of the world as the models predict it and try to turn them into forecasts. Except: Sometimes the forecasters are confronted with two or three or six conflicting, or at least significantly varying, takes on what tomorrow and the day after and the day after that, ad infinitum, will look like. Then the humans have to do something that is a cross between highly educated guesswork and astrology: often, based on observations about which models have “verified” recently, they’ll make a prediction based on a compromise reading of models or just lean on the model that seems the most trustworthy in a given set of circumstances.

The curse, more specifically, is that we can all look at the developing forecasts, read the forecasters’ reasoning, even consult the raw data if we think we can handle that. Which means, in the end, we don’t get a minute’s rest thinking about whether it will rain, how much it will rain, how awful the headwinds will be out on the road. On balance, it seems like it would be simpler, and much more peaceful for the soul, to just look out the window before you get on your bike. But that would be much too simple and would fail to make the best use of our high-speed Net connections.

Time for bed now, right after I check the forecast and the radar again.

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