The road goes ever on and on

21 Oct 2006

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

My second double century was nearly disastrous.

After riding the Malibu Grand Tour in June I got all excited about double centuries and signed up for two more. One at the end of September, through the Angles and Los Padres national forests (called the Tour of Two Forests), and one at the end of October, the Solvang Autumn Double Century.

I started out training fairly hard for these… but then I discovered I could run again. As my running mileage climbed from 0 miles/week to 60 I simply had less time to be on the bike. I went from 350miles/week (on the bike) to 200.

Less energy too. I noticed that my biking speed declined considerably. Where I had been riding at 17mph I was now riding at 15mph. That was probably just because the legs were tired.

Then my pottery class started in September and I had even less time. Often I couldn’t even fit in one long ride in a week, and my biking mileage dropped further.

How on earth do triathletes do it?

I had been unable to find anyone to ride the Tour of Two Forests with me, and I no longer was particularly interested in riding another double. And then there was the Day Fire. The Tour of Two Forests went through the heart of that blaze. I decided not to do it.

Later, I met someone who had done it and he called it the Tour of Two Fires. (There was only one fire but it was vast and lasted for more than a month).

I was having second thoughts about the Solvang ride too, but I had promised my friend Kathy that I’d do it with her. She didn’t really want to do it either, but she wanted to finish three doubles this year so that she could buy a particular biking jersey. She hadn’t had much time to train either.

Nonetheless we did it.

According to the Active.com website the ride would start at 6:30am, according to the organizer’s (Planet Ultra) website the ride started at 6:45, with civil twilight — but there was also an option to start earlier, at 6, if we promised to take 14 or more hours to complete the course.

In the Grand Tour we had started at 4:30am, we had an easier course to complete and it was the summer solstice so we had as much daylight as possible. Here civil twilight began at 6:43am and ended at 6:42pm, the sun rose at 7:08am and set at 6:17pm. We had at best 12 hours of light. As there tends to be less traffic early in the morning, it seemed best to get as much riding in the dark done in the morning.

The Planet Ultra people didn’t see it that way. We (well Kathy) tried to persuade them to allow us to start before 6, but they wouldn’t.

According to them if we wanted to start at 6 we had to check in the night before (rather than early in the morning). That meant two trips to Solvang for us, most inconvenient. Still we did it. When we got to the hotel, a little before check in time at 6pm, we found a notice at the hotel saying that check in didn’t start until 6:30. Sigh. Still we went round to the registration desk and found a line of people waiting to check in at 6. And at 6 they let us check in.

This ride seemed plagued by inconsistent times.

I found out the next morning that we could have checked in for the 6am start that morning. Grrr.

Everyone around us in line was hoping to start before 6 too. A 6am start just didn’t make sense (unless you were really fast and could finish the course in 12hours or so).

I was a little worried about the 14hour time limit. We had finished the Grand Tour in 13:30 hours so I felt we might do this one in under 14 too, and I didn’t want to be disqualified for going too fast. Kathy pointed out that if we got back to Solvang too soon we could always hang out in a cafe for half an hour. Oh. Of course. That had never even occurred to me. Anyway we wouldn’t go that fast, this was a harder course (about twice the elevation gain) and neither of us was prepared.

Solvang is a fake “Danish Village”, rather as Helen Ga is fake Bavarian. I’ve avoided it in the past for that reason. It is roughly north-west of Santa Barbara, just on the other side of the Santa Ynez mountain chain.

Our route started in Solvang went vaguely east for 15miles or so then climbed north to Sisquoc, further north to San Luis Obisbo, then back west to Shell Beach, and down the coast (south) to Lompoc and finally back east to Solvang.

Weather is always a concern in an outdoor event. The week-end before the ride it had been raining. Kathy and I agreed we would not ride if it were raining. But as the ride approached the weather changed, cold nights, hot days. Ug. Everyone else was saying how wonderful the weather was. But I’m normally out riding my bike at 6, and now it was down in the 40s. That’s cold on a bike. I’m normally out riding around at 1pm too when the temperature was in the 80s — and that’s in SB where the ocean mitigates temperature extremes. I was dreading what it would be like in the Santa Ynez valley.

I’d have to start out all bundled up, and then remove layers and carry them with me for much of the ride and then put them back on in the evening.

Despite my lack of physical preparation, I did learn some things from my last double. I had arrived in Malibu to discover my tail light didn’t work (even though I had just installed new batteries the night before). By the time we got to the first check point my headlight’s battery had faded to invisibility too. So this time I bought (and brought) 3 tail lights and attached them all. I bought a new strong headlight and a backup headlight in case the first ran out of battery (we’d have at least 2 hours of darkness, and probably more, and my big light was only rated for 2 hours at full power).

I brought a (tiny) camera too. I had almost done that the last time but had shoved it under Kathy’s car seat at the last minute, not wanting to carry it for 200miles. But Kathy complained “You brought a camera and you didn’t take any pictures?”. So this time I really would bring it.

My bike can hold two water bottles. That was adequate for the Grand Tour which was mostly by the coast and, luckily, mostly overcast and foggy and cool. The Santa Ynez Valley was not going to be cool or overcast, it was going to be hot and sunny. I’d almost certainly need more water. So I brought my camelback.

I was concerned about getting lost, especially with so much time in the dark. On the Grand Tour it hadn’t mattered too much (and I was naif enough that I didn’t realize it was an issue when I started); I was familiar with most of that route. But I’ve never biked on the other side of the mountains. So I brought a couple of fold out maps, one of SB county, one of SLO. I never once referred to them, but they were comforting to have.

On the Grand Tour I had tried to memorize the directions from each rest stop to the next. It hadn’t worked very well. But I had also seen other riders with little clips attached to their break cables holding the directions in front of them. That seemed an excellent idea. It worked too. (except when the road was rough — the directions would bounce and be hard to read).

And I brought gel packs just in case.

And I needed to pack my warm clothes.

I brought a backpack too. Last time I’d just used a fannypack, but I had a lot more stuff this time.

We arrived in Solvang about 5:30am, put the bikes together, made final decisions on what to bring, and stood out in front of the hotel waiting for the signal to start. A little before 6 someone came running up to tell those of us grouped out front that the start was off to the side. Luckily we got there in time.

There were 100 or so riders clumped up (another 100 or so would start at 6:45). The Planet Ultra representative was conducting a roll call (to make sure no one did start at 4:30am I guess). This took time. We were warned that after lunch there would a section of dirt road right at the bottom of a steep downgrade and if we weren’t careful we’d slip and fall. A comforting thought. We were told there would be an additional check point at some unspecified place. Again an effort to keep us from cheating. About 5 minutes after six we were allowed to start.

I dislike mass starts (on a bike). They are dangerous. You’ve got a hundred people in close proximity. One mistake is going to cause many people to crash. I’m still not comfortable with my cleats. I worry that I’ll make the mistake.

But I didn’t. Nor did anyone else.

Kathy and I were some distance back (having arrived late at the lineup). And there was a river of twinkling taillights moving ahead of us through the deserted streets of Solvang. It was rather pretty. At 6am it was still pitch black of course.

When we got out of Solvang and into the country there was a faint lightening to the east. By 6:30 we could make out the outlines of the landscape and the east was a glowing red. A brief streak of gold across the deep blue of the morning sky pointed us east as a shooting star fell. By 6:50 we could actually see. Rolling California hills, sere at the end of summer with the occasional live oak tree.

This is wine country. And we started to see vineyards too. Very like biking in France. There was often the smell of rotting grapes. I’m not sure if we smelled the fermentation process, or if the pickers weren’t very efficient and dropped grapes and trampled them.

We turned onto Foxen Cyn Rd and started our first serious climb. I saw magpies. I don’t recall ever noticing magpies in the US before. SB is covered with crows, but I’ve never seen a magpie. Here there were no crows and many magpies.

We were climbing out of a canyon through cattle ranches. Then up higher and higher into wooded hills. As is my wont I pulled ahead of almost everyone on the up hill sections, and then was passed on the downhills.

At about 7:20 I first saw the sun. It had risen earlier, of course, but we were behind the Santa Ynez mountains and it took a while to climb above them.

Well we finally reached the summit and started our descent. Slowly at first, then faster and faster. The guys ahead of me started a drafting chain which was beautiful to watch. One would lead for as long as he could, then pull out to the side and drop back and fall into line further back. I managed to catch the end of the chain, and Kathy fell in behind me, and then more people did. I knew there was no way I’d be able to lead at that pace, I could barely keep up drafting! We were going above 30mph (36.8 max according to my odometer). The road flattened, and the pace slowed, but we were still above 25. We all were working harder now. I’d slow down on some of the turns and then had to struggle really hard to get back behind the person in front…

And here was the first rest stop, 8:47. Our group of about 20 riders all pulled in and tried to recover. I ate 1.5 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a banana, drank a lot of water, refilled my water bottles. On the Grand Tour they had recovery drink powder (expensive sugar) at the rest stops and without thinking I grabbed half a cup full of powder and added it to my water bottle. It didn’t taste sweet. It didn’t taste much of anything. Oh well.

We thanked the leaders for pulling us along.

Time to remove most of my clothing, and turn off the rear lights (I can reach the headlight on the move, but I need to get off the bike to turn off the tail lights). It was still cool

One guy had a jersey on which read “La Française des Jeux“. It seemed an odd slogan for a man to wear so I asked him about it. He said, “Yes, vive la France.” Which was not very informative. I asked why it was feminine and he just looked at me as though I were a complete idiot. I never did figure it out.

(Later I checked the internet. It isn’t a playful French woman, it’s the company which organizes the national lottery — loterie being feminine).

It was 41 miles to the first rest stop. Rather a long haul. On the Grand Tour rest stops were about 30 miles apart and that had seemed about right. On this ride we had three 40+ mile sections and those were too long, especially later in the day when it was hot and I was tired.

Somehow the large clumps of riders don’t last after the first stop. And Kathy and I pulled out alone. We headed out through nice rolling hills. There were deer out in the fields, and once a roe and her fawn jumped across the road in front of us. Then we were on a wooded road where the huge gnarled live oaks made a corridor for us.

We passed a few riders (I guess we weren’t in such bad shape as we had thought). There was one guy whom we’d pass, and then about 5 minutes later he’d zoom past us, then slow and we’d pass him again and then he’s zoom past us again. Kathy and I tried to maintain a consistent level of effort, but this guy had a rather different approach.

We reached the 50 mile mark at 9:15. Wow. If we kept this up we’d be done in 13 hours! Maybe I would have to drink coffee in Solvang… Of course we wouldn’t have another wonderful downhill section with a drafting chain again. So we wouldn’t keep it up.

Then we started to climb again. We pulled out of the woods and into the sun. It got hot. I started to drink more water. Starting with the recovery drink in my water bottle. It didn’t seem to help much, I was still thirsty. My muscles were telling me they’d been overused. When we got to the top I felt very odd. All stiff and tingly.

And I realized I had not been drinking recovery drink. I’d been drinking electrolytes (salt). I was probably extremely dehydrated now, and drinking from my water bottle would just make things worse. Luckily I had my camelback, and after sucking a large amount of water out of it I began to feel more nearly normal.

The second rest stop was only 20miles from the first. I drank more water. But I was an idiot and didn’t refill my camelback (it has a large capacity when compared to a water bottle, I didn’t think it was necessary, and I’d have to take it out of the backpack to fill it, just seemed too much work).

Kathy and I started out again. Again we passed several riders. We were now on a busy highway (166) with traffic zooming beside us. The landscape here was raw cliff sides where one side of the mountain has been uplifted leaving a bare face showing all the striations of sedimentary deposition.

I bent over my directions to get a better view of them. Bump. Hssss. Flat tire. Right behind me came Kathy. Bump. Hsss. The guy behind her managed to avoid the rock. We all stopped (and amazingly my foot came out of the peddle without a thought!). The guy in back of us moved the rock (so no one else would do what we did), checked that we were ok, said “bummer” and went on.

We changed our tubes while many people passed us beside a very busy road with far too little shoulder.

Oh, I forgot to mention, along with everything else, I also packed 3 spare tubes and a long pump.

Eventually we were ready to go on. In another 10 miles we were off that highway.

Kathy offered to lead, and I was feeling tired so I let her. After a bit two guys passed us from behind. If I had been leading that would have been the end of it because I am not comfortable drafting. Kathy, however, checked their speed out and then slotted right in behind them. I had to catch up now. They were going faster than I wanted, but again a speed which I could keep up — if I stayed close enough. I don’t like staying close enough because if anyone makes a mistake I crash. So I automatically tend to drop back and then have to struggle to catch up. Thus drafting is much harder work (for me) than it should be.

We rode behind them for another 20 miles or so, all the way to the next rest stop. It was hot. I ran out of water. It was hard to keep up. I should have refilled the camelback.

But we had now passed the halfway point! Both in distance and elevation. It took us 6:42 minutes to do the first half with an average speed of 16.8mph. Not quite as fast as on the Grand Tour, but this was a much hillier course.

At lunch, in San Luis Obisbo, I was exhausted. I drank lots of water. I filled up my camelback. I flopped on the ground in the shade. There wasn’t much shade. Kathy’s bike thermometer said 96° in the shade. It was hot. I ate. I drank some more. I ate. I drank. It was hot.

I told Kathy I couldn’t continue at this pace. She asked if I could finish. “I hope so.”

We set out again. More slowly. After a bit I perked up again.

We overshot a turn by a block (it was hard to read the street sign on the other side of the big road we were on).

Then we were on a pleasant rural road that climbed though woods beside a stream (with real water in it!). It was lovely and cool here in the shade. And climbed. And climbed. And left the stream and came out into the sun. And climbed. And got really steep. And climbed. Up and up. The view was spectacular when we had the energy to look, ridges of hills (small mountains really) all around us leading off toward the haze that must have been the ocean. We climbed.

And there was the surprise check point. We were glad of the excuse to stop and drink.

We were almost at the summit. We climbed a bit more. I wanted to stop and take a picture, but Kathy wouldn’t stop (I can sympathize, stopping breaks the concentration, and it takes energy to get started again). But if I stopped and she didn’t, I didn’t think that I would be able to catch up with her — not after that climb, so I didn’t get my picture. I should have taken a shot when stopped at the surprise check point, but I didn’t think of it then. Idiot.

We went along the ridge top for a while, enjoying the view, and then the road plummeted down the other side. This was the stretch which turned to dirt at some indeterminate point, so we went down cautiously. One of the volunteers from Planet Ultra was standing in a field almost at the bottom of a steep decline and warned us that this was the place. We went even more slowly.

And then it was dirt. It’s hard to ride a road bike on a dirt road. I clipped out of my peddles just in case I slipped and fell… but then the road began to climb again and I had to clip back in to get the power I needed.

We passed a clump of cyclists and the SAG wagon. Someone had had a flat tire. Where was the SAG wagon when we had flats?

Ignoring the dirt, the road was lovely. We were once again under live oaks.

Eventually we hit pavement again, the hills calmed down and the ride was even more pleasant.

We were now heading south-west, toward the coast, and traffic began to get busier. We had to make a left turn onto a heavily trafficked road. Ug.

We reached the coast at Shell Beach with a good view of a large rock island. Half hidden in the cool ocean haze it looked a welcome change from the inland heat. As we continued south we ended up on Hwy 1, through downtown Shell Beach, Pismo Beach and Grover Beach with heavy traffic, cars parking and pulling out, doors opening into the bike lane. Ug.

We climbed up a rather spectacular mesa, being passed (oddly enough) by a collection of antique cars, then after 6~7 miles on top of the mesa, we turned a corner, and there were the Santa Ynez mountains again! Almost home. We headed down into Guadalupe and our penultimate rest stop.

Here I started having difficulty breathing again. Strangely I don’t notice this when riding, but now we were stopped, if I drew a deep breath I started coughing. My sister thinks it is exercise induced asthma. Seems reasonable. Luckily it doesn’t seem to come on until after 10hours of hard exercise and I don’t often do that.

Onward. I’m struggling once again. Kathy sees it and she takes the lead for a while. Now I have to keep up with her.

We pass 150 miles. Three quarters done.

Suddenly we are climbing again. Steep ups and downs. We’re both tired. Kathy tells me I should take the lead because she has nothing left. As if I do. The view is probably quite nice, but I’m looking at the ground under my tires. Too tired for much else. Another bike ride has marked this course, we see their signs from time to time. On one particularly steep bit they have written “Huff & Puff”. Somehow I find this cheering.

Down.

Kathy asks “What’s our next turn?” (I’m navigating), and I misread the sheet. “Right in about two miles on San Antonio Rd.” Kathy says, in a very small voice, “Is right really the way home?“, (right would take us to the ocean, not inland to Solvang) I look again and see it is left, “Sorry Kathy.” The eye tends to slip when trying to read a sheet of paper that bumps up and down.

Kathy remarks that we’ve both screwed ourselves by not training appropriately. About 5 minutes later it occurs to both of us: “No one has passed us, we can’t be too badly off.” As if to reinforce this we turn onto Hwy 1 again and see a cyclist ahead. As the road begins to climb we pass him.

But we really are both exhausted.

Hwy 1 makes a left now, and we stop after the intersection to turn on our taillights. It’s a little after 6, there is still plenty of light but we might as well do it now. Kathy discovers her tail light’s batteries have run down. I offer her one of mine (after all she lent me a light for the Grand Tour) — and then realize I can’t get them off without a screwdriver. Sigh. Well, it’s only 10 miles to the next (last) rest stop and they will have tools there. And it isn’t dark yet.

Kathy is in the lead for a bit. I have to ask her to slow down.

In another 6 miles it is pretty dark. We’ve hooked up with another couple of cyclists, 🙂 we all need moral support when navigating in the dark. We think we are on the right road… but then another clump of cyclists passes us going the other way — this is disconcerting. We check our directions, and our memories. Yes… we think we’re doing the right thing. Only the next turn isn’t where it should be. The directions have been off from my odometer in the past, so normally this wouldn’t matter, but it’s dark, and the other guys turned back. Still we keep going. We see an arrow! But it’s on the wrong road and it doesn’t look like one of ours. We keep going. Finally we find the right road. But no arrow. Oh well, we take it. And the next turn does have an arrow, and there is the final rest stop.

It’s chilly now. I put on my cold weather gear. They have hot chocolate. And hot soup. On the Grand Tour I felt nauseous after eating soup near the end. I avoid the soup. I have half a cup of chocolate but can’t finish it. My stomach isn’t interested in food. Which is foolish of it, we’ve got another 25 miles to go and I’m drained. I have a handful of raisins. That’s all I can deal with. At least I’m not nauseous this time.

But they do have a screwdriver, and we manage a light-ectomy on my bike and graft it on to Kathy’s.

A group of cyclists pulls in. One comes up to me and says “We thought we’d gone too far so we turned back, but you guys seemed so sure that eventually we turned back again.” Presumably the cyclists we saw going the wrong way. We weren’t sure. But we were right.

Luckily.

It is now full dark. I can’t see my odometer. The directions are based on distance from the start and say things like Left turn at mile 178.5 onto Santa Rosa Rd. But I won’t know where 178.5 is now (of course my odometer wasn’t in perfect agreement with their mileage but was usually within half a mile or so and was helpful).

We set out. There are some guys about a block in front of us, we follow them. We all miss the second turn. Someone figures it out and we all turn round in a clump. There are about 10 of us now (where did they all come from?). And I am determined to stay with everyone else as long as possible. I’m also completely exhausted and it’s really hard to push now. The group is moving fast.

We turn onto Hwy 1 for the last time. More traffic than I’d like. And we must make a left turn in the pitch black against it. The leaders have set a stiff pace. I’m struggling. Kathy asks if I can make it. I’m going to force myself to until we get off Hwy 1. Once off it, we take Santa Rosa Rd for 17.5 miles (and have less than 4miles to go on easy to find roads after that) so once we get there I won’t worry much about losing the route — even though I’m supposed to be navigating.

And here’s the sign for Santa Rosa. I can’t see the road itself in the dark, on the left, but the leaders seem to know and we all get across.

Other people in our clump must have felt the way I did, for several riders now drop back. I keep going for another mile before I finally give up. Kathy says she’s happy to go more slowly.

The man at the last rest stop told us there were no more bad climbs. But the ups and downs of Santa Rosa seem hard to me. It is black as pitch. Ahead of us we see the slowly receding tail lights of the group in front. Behind us we can’t see anything of the group in back. There is almost no traffic. Up and down in the pitch black.

“Look at the stars, it’s such a beautiful clear night.” I glance up. I can’t really see the stars, my eyes are dazzled by my headlight perhaps. I don’t want to take my eyes off the road for long either; it is very twisty and even with a strong light I can’t see very far ahead. There is no moon, nothing augments my light — but I suppose that means the stars look brighter.

The road seems to go on for ever. I ask Kathy to stop so I can eat a gel pack. I really should have eaten at the last stop. Up and down. Dark. Where is highway 246? we must have done 17.5 miles by now. No. Up and down. We see a busy road ahead. After 5 minutes we still haven’t reached it. We can’t have taken a wrong turn, there aren’t any turns. Just darkness. On and on.

The road makes a right angle turn, and suddenly here’s a highway. But it’s 101. Not what we want. On again. There’s a stoplight ahead. We reach it eventually. And it’s 246! Only 3.8 miles to go now, only one more turn. We drove on this yesterday when we were wandering around looking for the base hotel. We know this bit of the route.

Still those 3.8miles seem to take an eternity.

Kathy starts to sing.

I have no energy and she’s singing? She’s just so pleased to be done with this ride, so pleased to have finished her three double centuries.

We aren’t done yet, I say, there are another 2 miles to go.

Later Kathy tells me she was singing “Ring of Fire” to describe the sensations she felt from her seat. Being both musically illiterate and exhausted, I don’t notice this detail at the time.

Kathy points out that there’s one more double century this year. I could do a third and buy a jersey too! It’s next week.

No.

And we take the final turn, and then into the hotel’s parking lot. Unclip from the bike, stagger inside to the final check in. 15 hours and 7 minutes. We are 67 out of 168 finishers out of 192 starters. So even unprepared, even with flats, we are faster than most.

I wonder if the timer remembered that we didn’t start at 6 but at about 6:05.

But I don’t think to check my own watch.

My breathing seems to be back to normal.

  Solvang Autumn Grand Tour
Total Time 15:07 13:34
Riding Time 12:59:42 11:40
Total distance 202.5 206
Elevation Gain 11,000ft 6,000ft
Average speed 15.5mph 17.3mph
Maximum speed 36.8 35.7

Not as fast as the Grand Tour, but it was a harder course. The route was far more scenic too. In an odd way I enjoyed this more. I’m pleased (and exhausted).

Perhaps most important of all — I always got my feet unclipped in time, and never fell over.

Epilogue

The PerpetratorsSix days later I was chatting with Kathy in pottery class, when in waltzed two friends wearing — the triple crown jersey that Kathy has just achieved. They had gone to the web-site and painted the design onto two tee-shirts. Then they gave us the shirts… I hadn’t earned the jersey, and was initially reluctant, but was quickly convinced.

Triple Crown shirts

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