Strength doesn’t come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn’t. — Rikki Rogers.
I started the 2016 brevet season absolutely certain I would ride the SLO Randonneurs’ Pinnacles 600k. I wanted to do it in 2015 and had a conflict with the date, so I put it on my calendar early and planned my spring around doing the ride. In March, my friend Greg begged me to ride the Eastern Sierra 600k with him. A look at the calendar revealed it was the week before the Pinnacles ride. At first I said “no”, then I started to make plans for the Pinnacles. I would need to drive to Oxnard, take the train to San Jose, book hotels in San Jose, Santa Maria, and Oxnard. I started looking at prices and my wallet, still recovering from last year’s trip to Paris, cried. I changed my mind and said “yes” to Greg who said he was booking hotels anyway, so why not just come along? Then, while riding a fleche in Florida, my friend Michele surprised me with the announcement that she had signed up for the Pinnacles and was in the process of buying a plane ticket. Hotels would be covered, I could drive up with her since she’d be renting a car from the airport in Orange County, and all I’d need to pay for would be the ride fees and food. OMG. What’s a girl to do? TWO 600k rides, both in really cool, remote areas, each with a different friend, both now financially possible. With a cavalier “If I could do a 1200k last year, why can’t I do back to back 600k rides?” attitude, I signed up for both.
Two weeks before the Eastern Sierra ride the weather forecast started to look dicey, then downright ominous. Under threat of rain and snow with temperatures in the 30s, I opted out. I wasn’t alone, and the ride was ultimately cancelled. Clearly destiny had decided my original plan of riding the Pinnacles 600k was best, and having Michele there to do it with me was an added bonus.
Michele and I planned out our food (her panalettes, my streudel, empanadas stuffed with greens and toasted pumpkin seeds, rice bars with prosciutto/olives/gouda/tomatoes, banana-chini bread…I cooked for two weeks, making use of the freezer. We watched the forecast, and it looked like it would be made-to-order California perfect. Partly cloudy, highs in the 70s, lows in the 50s, with a tail wind.
We met at the train station in Oxnard and left my car. Her partner, Cathy, drove while we relaxed and caught up on the last month since we’d met in Florida. If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know Michele was injured in a crash last August. This ride would be her second overnight ride since her brain injury, and the longest. It would also be the hilliest. She says she rode PBP for the second time largely to get me through my first 1200k. My objective for this ride was to do whatever it took to get her through this milestone of recovery.
We left the San Jose Ramada Inn in a sea of 30 riders at 5:00am. RBA Vicki B. had promised lunch in Peachtree, late night food in Santa Maria, and pizza at the finish. We wouldn’t go hungry on this ride! The pelaton took off at a fast pace, and we were off the back within a few miles. I agreed wholeheartedly that it was far too early to push the pace, and Michele and I settled into a comfortable groove as we left the city and headed east. The route to Pinnacles is a slow but steady climb. We rode through rolling ranchland and vineyards, happy California cows dotting the hillsides. About halfway to the first stop at the Uvas Reservoir we came across Ann from San Francisco helping her friend Carl to repair a flat. We loaned a pump, waiting for him then heading off as a four-some. Ann was recovering from a cold and not having her best day of riding, but she was cheerful and determined, happy to find some other riders in “the lonely middle”. Carl took off to catch the faster riders up ahead, and Ann stuck with us, matching our pace perfectly.
We stopped to have our cards stamped at the reservoir, enjoying the views of the lake and surrounding mountains before heading onwards towards Hollister. A stop for snacks and porcelain at the local Starbucks left us ready to finish the climb towards Pinnacles National Park. Airline Highway is about as pretty as the Eastern slopes of the California coastal ranges get, with rolling hills covered with amber waves of mature grain and a liberal dusting of wild mustard. The sky was the color of the Mediterranean Sea, with wispy clouds floating like so many marshmallows. The sun was warm, the wind cool, the pavement smooth, and the company good – a near-perfect combination. There were friendly faces waiting for us just outside the park, a van with fresh water and an array of snacks. Coconut macaroons were especially welcome, and I shoved two in my mouth at once before heading back out on the road.
Our goal for the day was to pedal at a comfortable pace and keep stops as short as possible to maximize nap time later. The road kept climbing after the park, eventually reaching a point where a rock slide forced a detour. I climb faster than my companions, so I was able to get some great photos of them coming up to the detour with our only view of the Pinnacles formations behind them. Then it was my turn to struggle to keep up as we headed down to the lunch stop at Peachtree where the Subway sandwiches we’d ordered were waiting for us. With the wind at our tail, I finished the first 100 miles in just under 8 hours – one of my fastest centuries ever. We enjoyed a few minutes of shade while a smiling volunteer refilled our bottles and encouraged us to step behind the van to take care of private needs. We knew the biggest climb of the day was just ahead, so we ate just enough to fuel the next few miles and left with sandwiches stuffed into shirt pockets for later.
A few minutes after leaving Peachtree, Ann realized she’d forgotten a water bottle and went back to retrieve it. Michele and I continued on at “digestive” pace, working our way steadily up towards the infamous Indian Valley Road. We’d been warned about the grades, and we stopped just before the first wall to gulp down some maple syrup and gather our mojo. I saw 17% on my Garmin as I ground my way up that wall, relieved when the pitch settled into a mere 12%. The road went up for several miles, grades ranging from 12-15%. Towards the top I heard a grinding noise and realized something had wedged itself between my rear wheel and my fender. The added drag was making climbing even more difficult and I knew I’d never get the bike going again if I stopped to deal with it. Ultimately the need to deal with the wheel won, and I got off the bike, removed the offending twig, and walked the last 100 feet of the hill.
I didn’t have long to wait before Michele appeared below me, also pushing her bike. Her strategy is to climb slowly and deliberately, making her climbs recovery time rather than maximum effort. I can’t say I disagree with this strategy, but the gearing on my bike requires a bit more effort and a faster pace or I end up without enough forward momentum to stay upright. Climbs like this one leave me wondering if the cost of a longer derailleur and a #32 on the cassette might be worth it!
We caught our breath for a moment and started the glorious 20 mile descent into San Miguel. Now it was Michele’s turn to wait. Somehow, no matter how confident I become on descents, I can’t keep up with her going downhill. The road was well paved, the curves sweeping and forgiving. I wasn’t on the brakes, but still I got behind. I finally quit trying to keep up and just found my pace and enjoyed the ride. I’ve heard people say to “pick your line” on descents and for the first time I found myself anticipating where I wanted the bike on each curve to minimize the need to slow down. It’s only taken 30,000 miles of riding to find that sweet spot, lol. I could see Michele ahead of me at times, so I knew I wasn’t terribly far behind. I caught her just before we came into town and we rode into San Miguel together ready to finish those sandwiches.
An ice cream bar, some pasta salad, half a sandwich, and a rice bar later and we were off towards Paso Robles. Ann got into San Miguel a few minutes after us, and left with us but quickly fell behind. She was concerned about holding us up and we’d agreed to ride our rides regardless of whether we stayed together so Michele and I continued on.
Just outside of Paso Robles we had our first encounter with a truly obnoxious driver. We were fully in the bike lane, but he saw fit to lay on his horn and pass way too close. I was startled and yelled a few bad words at the guy, but Michele was truly rattled.
Michele’s accident was the result of another rider plowing into her from behind, so she is justifiably uncomfortable with surprises from the rear. We rode for a few more miles, passing through Paso Robles into wine country on the west side of town. Traffic on Rt.46 was steady and we were riding into the sunset so visibility wasn’t the best. I enjoyed the golden light on the vineyards we passed by, but quickly tired of having the setting sun directly in my eyes. The road climbed steadily out of the valley and though the grade wasn’t steep I quickly got ahead. It would be about 9:30pm in Minnesota, and we’d been riding for nearly 15 hours. Between the stress of the traffic, the evening light, fatigue, and the aftermath of being startled, Michele was struggling.
I stopped to turn on my taillights and put on my arm warmers, and she opted for a break. When we got going again, I was determined to not let her get behind me. I slowed down to match her pace and with a wider shoulder we were able to chat as we came up the final grade before the descent into Morro Bay. We turned onto Old Creek Road and soon there were riders behind us. Just before the top we were met with the Japanese man we’d been leap-frogging with all day but hadn’t seen since San Miguel, with Ann close on his wheel. He went on ahead when we stopped at the top to load up with a bit more sugar before the final descent.
Ann and Michele quickly got ahead of me. With my light mounted on the handlebars instead of below the fork, I couldn’t see clearly around the multiple hairpin turns and had to take the descent more slowly. I caught up when the curves ended and we were all grateful to reach the Morro Bay control. Michele was off the bike and down for a nap, asleep before her head hit the ground. The temperature was down into the 50s and I was concerned about hypothermia, so I wrapped her in a space blanket before heading into McDonalds for one of the single worst cups of coffee I’ve ever had along with a yogurt/fruit cup and a few fries. After about 30 minutes, Michele was awake and good as new. We rode strong towards Pismo Beach, making quick work of the climb up Turri Rd and Los Osos Valley Rd into San Luis Obispo, serenaded by the myriad birds hunting for food in the night. At the coast, we could hear the ocean and feel the salt air, but couldn’t see it in the darkness. A quick stop for hot chocolate and midnight donuts in Pismo Beach and we were off to our overnight stop in Santa Maria.
We arrived in Santa Maria at about 2:30am, more than ready for a nap. I snarfed down some lentil soup and headed to the room where Cathy was already sleeping. Fumbling around my drop bag in the dark, I narrowly avoided brushing my teeth with topical anesthetic instead of toothpaste before doing a quick wash up and falling into bed. I was freezing, and even under the covers with my wool jersey and arm warmers still on I never fully got warm. I dozed for two hours, then piled on the rest of my warm layers, reloaded my front bag with food, and we were off into the twilight at 5:30, right on schedule.
It’s amazing how refreshing 2 hours of being horizontal with eyes closed can be, and the misty sunrise brought the promise of a new day. The weather had changed in the time we were in that hotel, and the crystal clear night gave way to the misty drizzle of May Grey. The bottom of Foxen Canyon had an astonishing amount of traffic at 6am on a Sunday morning, and we were relieved when we finally got beyond where the cars were turning off to go wherever people go at that early hour. Ann had left 30 minutes ahead of us, thinking she’d need more time on the climb to Buellton, and Michele and I climbed up the gradual ascent chatting and enjoying the cool damp morning. We passed rolling hills, peaceful cows grazing on California grass, more vineyards. Foxen Canyon ended and Ballard Canyon began with another short, steep, switchbacked rise, then a sweeping descent into Buellton. We arrived at the control as a group of faster riders from San Francisco were heading out.
We passed through Solvang, a “Swiss” themed town famous for its weekend crowds. At 9:30 on Sunday it wasn’t so bad, and soon we were heading out of town to the next big climb. Alisal Rd goes uphill gradually at first, then morphs into yet another series of switchbacks at grades greater than 12%. I climbed slowly, wishing for a place to pull off and take a picture of the road winding through a forest of overhung greenery. The place was magical in the misty morning, but I knew I’d never get the bike going again if I stopped. The climb continued onto Old Coast Hwy, and finally ended with a short, quick descent to Hwy 101.
The descent to Gaviota was fast and furious, peppered with dicey freeway on and off ramps and high speed traffic. I’ve done this before, and it is far from my favorite stretch of road, made that much more intense by the contrast with the quiet roads we’d just left. After the descent we still had over 20 miles on the shoulder. The noise of the traffic made conversation impossible, and we simply put our heads down and pedaled. Michele can be much faster than me on long flat stretches, the benefit of conserving her energy on the climbs. I was pushing hard to keep up and steadily losing ground. The constant noise, the whooshing of large vehicles as they passed, the on and off ramps, and fighting to keep up took a toll on my mood and a bad case of rando grumpies set in. My butt hurt. My hands hurt. I wanted off that nasty road. Amazing how once you succumb to the first complaint, more and more follow until abject misery becomes the norm. Finally we made it to Gaviota. We were both ready for real food, so we made a quick stop at Chipotle for some tacos. I took some Ibuprofen in hopes of reducing the pain in my butt and hands. Only 60 miles to go.
We took a quick stop at Goleta to answer the question for our Info control, and Ann caught up to us with her day’s riding buddy, Jack. We took off onto the first of many bike paths of the day, enjoying the sun on our backs and the views of coastal waterways. Terns and gulls flew by, and for a few minutes the salty air made me forget the pains in my nether regions and hands. Soon we were back to riding beside the 101, and again the traffic noise made conversation impossible. The noise continued to grate on my nerves, and the grumpies returned with a vengeance. I was not about to quit, but the end was not coming anywhere soon enough for my preference! Our stop in Santa Barbara took way too long, the local merchants having their own sense of time which had nothing to do with randonneurs on a schedule, but I was determined to have a carrot juice at a particular establishment so I waited without much patience to get through the line and get my drink. The sweet beverage helped my mood, and I realized I was probably a bit bonked – the tacos hadn’t really moved from my stomach and I made a mental note that Chipotle may not be the best choice for future rides. I had some extra gummy bears and a shot of maple syrup to chase away the bonking-blues, and was in decidedly better spirits by the time we left Santa Barbara with 43 miles left to the finish.
The route from Santa Barbara to Oxnard is one I’ve ridden a few times before. It’s mostly bike paths, winding along the coast with stunning views of the ocean. The sun was just warm enough without being hot, the air fragrant with salt spray and citrus blossoms, the afternoon light giving everything a golden glow. As we left the noise of 101 behind in favor of bike paths and smaller roads, Michele and I were able to relax and simply enjoy the ride. Vicki had provided photos of all the bike path entrances along this stretch, and we managed to get through with minimal fuss. The Ibuprofen was wearing off and I was finding it difficult to find a position which didn’t cause pain in either my sit bones or my hands, but we were close enough to the finish that I didn’t want to stop to get more drugs. Michele was still riding strong and seemed to be feeling great. With no more stops and smooth sailing, we reached the end at 6:35pm. Official time: 37:35, my fastest 600k ever!
My astrologer friend has been talking about Mercury in retrograde, and how anything electronic which could get fouled up is likely to during this time. I had taken care to download the correct RideWithGPS file and upload it to my Garmin for turn-by-turn directions, and when I turned on the unit in the hotel in San Jose I discovered that the route had not transferred onto the device. Since the power connector to my Garmin unit is getting loose and it is clear that I’m going to need another device or another solution, I decided to try using RWGPS and my cell phone as an alternative. I downloaded the app, paid for a 3 day subscription so I could download the maps and route onto my phone allowing navigation even with the phone in airplane mode or with no cell signal, and hoped for the best. Over the course of this ride my Garmin had difficulty staying connected to back-up power and reset itself twice. The cell phone kept turning off in my bag, so the turn-by-turn directions were inconsistent at best. Operator error led me to plug the phone into back-up power without turning the power block on, and the battery died without me realizing it. At one point, my phone actually opted to download a software update over 3G and restart itself. Ouch! Old fashioned navigation by cue sheet proved to be the way of this ride. As it turns out, the RWGPS app continued to record my ride despite all of this and managed to capture the whole thing in one file. Including two hours at the hotel at the finish while I showered plus the drive to dinner because I hadn’t figured out how to stop the recording. I’ve now read all the instructions for using the app, and hopefully things will go more smoothly the next time!
A week before this ride I’d realized there was a problem with my brakes, and my rear hub which had been declared marginal by my mechanic started to make ominous noises. My friend Osvaldo and I had taken apart the hub and brakes, but our ministrations hadn’t solved either problem and I’d made an emergency call to my trusty mechanic. He was uncomfortable with me riding so far on my rear wheel and had offered a loaner wheel for this ride while I made decisions about what to buy and where the money would come from. On Tuesday he told me he’d found a factory wheel and factory brake calipers for my bike which were original but older parts from the manufacturer, and was able to give me a stellar price. I got the bike back Wednesday night with a new wheel, new brakes, and some fine tuning of the shifters, a bit closer to a big ride than I prefer for testing out new equipment. I cancelled yoga on Thursday morning to get a few miles in on the new gear, and everything seemed to work fine. Mags performed perfectly on this ride – the shifters worked, the brakes were fine, the drag on the rear of my bike which has been plaguing me all year was GONE. Michele and I had zero mechanical issues between us over 375 miles – not even a flat tire. Many thanks to Keven, the Bike Whisperer, for making Mags purr again and keeping me safe on the road.
Thanks also to Vicki Backman, the RBA for the SLO Randonneurs. I missed getting a chance to really chat and catch up with you on this ride, and really appreciate all the work you put in to making sure your routes are stunning and your riders are well supported. Many thanks to Cathy, who took precious vacation days to drive the rental car to San Jose, check in to all the hotels, and carry our bags from San Jose to Santa Maria to Oxnard. Coming into a sleep stop to our bags already in the hotel and no need to go through check-in in the middle of the night was a special treat. Ann from San Francisco, it was a pleasure to meet you and share the ride. I’m looking forward to coming up your way and connecting again. And extra special thanks to Michele for coming all the way from Minnesota to do this ride, taking care of all the logistics, and giving me a buddy for two days on the bike. All I can say is that you’re back, and stronger than ever. As always it is an honor to ride with you.