Sunday, August 17, 2008

Chualar 200K Brevet

126 miles, 4700 feet total elevation
9 hours 45 minutes total (8 hours 30 minutes on the bicycle)

After completing the Mt Tam Double, I immediately set my next goal. I want to complete the Knoxville Double Century next month, and thereby achieve a "California Triple Crown" — three (California) double centuries in one calendar year. So my primary need is to maintain my conditioning level for another month. This past weekend, I found an event that would let me do that.

My friend Ravi suggested doing a 200K (200 kilometer, or 125 mile) brevet. Technically, a brevet is a specific type of randonnée. Both of these are French terms, which reflects the European origin of the sport (along with the metric distance measure) in the early 20th century. This is an organized event generally similar the centuries I have done, but with some differences.

The principal difference is that there is no support on the route. Centuries have rest stops, usually around every 20 miles, where food, water, and restrooms are provided. In a brevet, nothing is provided. The riders are required to fend for themselves, usually by doing some research before hand to know where there are stores, parks, and other facilities on the route. The riders must also be mechanically self-sufficient, being able to repair their bicycles in case of breakdowns. This is unlike centuries where they have support staff driving on the course with extra parts and expert help.

Click for an interactive map.
The start and finish are A and E. The route is the counter-clockwise
route. Points B, C, and D are the "controls".

The brevet also requires that the riders stop at specific checkpoints, or "controls", along the route to show that they correctly traversed it. The term "brevet" specifically refers to the card each rider carries in which each control is recorded. A control could take several forms. It could be a manned station where a ride organizer stamps the card. Or it could be a requirement to make a purchase at a specific store on the route and submit the receipt (which has a timestamp). Or it could be a postcard submitted at a post office along the route (the postage cancellation proves the rider was at that location).

Ravi lives nearby, so we drove together to the start in Santa Cruz. The group of about 30 participants departed together at 7:30am. Each brevet has a time limit, and this one was 13.5 hours. Both Ravi and I independently estimated that we would finish in 10 hours, so I did not expect any time pressure of the kind I had in the Mt Tam Double.

The sun had already been out for a while when we started, but we were in blanket of thick fog, making it a cool and dreary start. The route followed close to the Pacific Coast for a long time, so the conditions remained the same for a couple hours. Most of the rural area around the route is productive farm land. We passed many fields where strawberries were being harvested.

Strawberry fields forever

Ravi and I were riding together, and we joined Ravi's friend Scott, and his friend Dave. People generally ride together with others keeping their same pace. This can help people avoid problems or getting lost.

I did not stop anywhere until we reached our first control, which was a small convenience store at the 50 mile mark. This is usually much longer than I would usually ride without stopping for water and a restroom, but cool misty air reduced my water requirements. If I needed it, I saw several gas stations along the way where I could have stopped for water an a restroom.

We needed to buy something at the stop to submit the receipt, but they did not have much real food there, just snack food. I bought a small bag of chips. I ate half the bag and ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I had packed and carried with me. From this stop we headed further inland, and the fog lifted. I felt the warm sun for the first time at 10:30am.

The next control was only 10 miles away, in the tiny town of Chualar, which is where the name of this event comes from. It is basically the furthest point of the route. Here we dropped the postcards that the organizers had included with our brevet cards. Since we were already stopped, we resupplied at the small store across the street from the post office.

We rode mostly southeast to get here, so the next part of the route heads back northwest towards the start, which is directly into the wind. Since we were in the base of the Salinas Valley, the winds are focused by the mountain ranges on either side. The four of us rode single-file in a paceline. This greatly helped reduce the effect of the wind, since only the person at the front of the line was fighting it. We rotated positions every half mile, with the person at the front falling back to the rear.

Our paceline.

After about 10 miles, the route turned and headed out of the valley over the hills. We no longer needed the paceline, so Scott and I rode alongside and chatted (it turns out he lives less than a mile from me) while Dave and Ravi sped ahead of us. When we reached a fork in the road, Scott and I were unsure whether Dave and Ravi took the correct branch. They were too far ahead of us to know for sure. We continued along the correct path. After 20 minutes, Dave caught us from behind. They had taken the wrong branch, but realized it before going too far. Unfortunately, they lost time and energy climbing the wrong hill.

Climbing the Gabilan Range on San Juan Grade.

After summiting, we descended to the next control in the town of San Juan Bautista. Here we needed to purchase something at the grocery store. They had prepared food available, so I ate a vegetarian tamale. Ravi finally caught up to us as we were eating. This stop was at roughly the two-thirds point of the route, so we made it a longer, lunch stop.

The four of us headed out together, with the next stop being the finish. Ravi kept a slower pace so he fell behind (he was working harder than the rest of us because he was riding a fixed-gear bicycle). We had agreed to just meet at the finish if we kept different paces. I took the opportunity to really push myself and finish strong. I kept a similar pace as Dave and Scott, though at times I sped ahead of them. I arrived at the finish at 5:15pm, 15 minutes before my estimate of 10 hours.

The organizers had drinks and snacks for us. I changed to clean clothes and chatted with the organizers and the other riders. After Ravi arrived and checked in at the finish, we did the one hour drive back from Santa Cruz and got back to Sunnyvale close to 7:30pm (we had left around 5:45am).

I thoroughly enjoyed my first brevet. I do not think there are any other ones scheduled locally this year, so I may have to wait until next year to do another. I have to find other ways to stay in shape for my next double century.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Mt Tam Double Century

200 miles, 15500 feet total elevation gain
17 hours 30 minutes total (15 hours on the bicycle)

I had not mentioned it in my reports, but my post-Death Ride goal was to do another double century. I had only given it a little thought before the Death Ride, but decided to do it immediately afterwards. I chose this one because it is relatively nearby and it was the next organized ride scheduled after the Death Ride.

I did not need to do any specific training since there was only a three week gap between events. I just did my usual training to keep my conditioning at the same level. I knew it would be difficult for me because I had done the total elevation before (Death Ride) and the total distance before (Davis Double Century), but never this much elevation and total distance.

Click for an interactive map. The start/finish is point K, the route is clockwise, and the rest stops are marked by letters in order.

I booked a motel room in San Rafael (near the start) for Friday night and drove there after leaving work early. I checked in for the event and went to sleep early (around 8:30pm). I woke up at 3:15am, got ready, packed up, drove to the start, and got under way at 4:20am.

4:20am, 0 miles, 0 feet

The "official" mass start was scheduled for 5:00am, but many people decided to leave even earlier to give themselves extra time, and I was among them. I found a group that was going the speed I wanted, so I hung with them. In the predawn darkness, it was nice the have the combined light of five bicycles illuminating the road. I increased my pace slightly after daybreak and left the group. After a short rest stop for some food, the route took us to the top of Mount Tamalpais, which is the one of the major peaks of the Bay Area, the namesake of the event.

Looking down from Mt Tamalpais, downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge poke through a hole in the fog layer.

7:55am, 38 miles, 5000 feet

There was a checkpoint at the top of Mt Tam where the event officials recorded all the rider numbers. This would be used to ensure that riders properly adhered to the route and there were several other checkpoints on the course. From here, the route left the sunny mountain peaks and plunged through the fog layer to the ocean coast below. We rode north on Highway 1, up and down along the cliffs above the Pacific in the cold mist. There was no food at the checkpoint but there was a proper rest stop at the bottom of the descent. Again, I kept my stay there brief, eating quickly and leaving.

We continued north on Highway 1 for a long stretch before turning back inland and climbing some smaller hills to the third rest stop. I took a few pictures and videos, but not as much as usual. The roads were either winding and rough, requiring both hands on the handlebars, or they were narrow and had significant traffic, requiring full attention.

11:12am, 85 miles, 6500 feet

The third rest stop was a bigger one. I was tempted to stay longer, but I did not have that luxury. The difficulty of this route is not just the length and hills, but the strict time limits. Most of the other rides I have done also had time limits, but those were much more generous. For this event, I had to keep a strong pace and minimize my rests to have any hope of finishing within the given time window. To this point, I was keeping good time and it looked like I had a comfortable cushion.

After this stop, the route crossed a significant hill (nicknamed the "Marshall Wall") to head back towards the coast and to Highway 1 again. This is where we first encountered the wildcard that would be the biggest challenge of the ride — a vicious headwind. The next 40 miles of the route were predominantly towards the northwest, and directly into the wind. At times it was a crosswind, and we had to lean our bicycles into the wind just to ride in a straight line and avoid being blown across the lane.

1:46pm, 114 miles, 9000 feet

I reached the next rest stop exhausted from the constant wind. This was the lunch stop so I ate more and rested more (30 minutes) than I had previously. I left the stop at 2:15, which was significant because riders needed to leave by 2:30 to be permitted to continue with the full 200 mile course. Whereas earlier I was comfortable with my time, now I was getting concerned. I was slowed tremendously by the headwind. The next challenge would be the steepest road of the route — Coleman Valley Road. Fortunately, this would be the last challenging climb. I paused for two minutes when I approached it to let my energy level rebuild. I was able to muscle my way up the incline with slow but steady pace, not requiring me to stand and pedal.

There was another official checkpoint at the top. I asked the volunteer how many people had passed by before me and he said roughly 60%. I was not as far behind the pack as I thought. From here the the route turns back south and the wind becomes a tailwind. Unfortunately, the help provided by the tailwind is never as much as the penalty inflicted by the headwind, still the extra push was appreciated.

I was now feeling more encouraged since the steepest hills were finished and now the route was heading back south with the wind. The next cutoff is the required finish time by 10:00pm, after which the support crew requires riders to accept rides back to the end point. There was still a lot of time left, but there were still many miles to cover.

5:20pm, 143 miles, 11000 feet

The route returned to the same spot of the previous rest stop. This time I again tried to minimize my rest time. Shortly after continuing, I was hit by a wave of sleepiness. This was a new experience because it was not a symptom of exhaustion, because my energy level had not dropped. I was overcome by the strong urge to stop and take a short nap. But there were two problems with this — I was in the middle of farmland with no parks or similar places to stop and rest, plus I just did not have the time to spare. Now my mood again swung negative. I felt like there was no way for me to finish on time. (It is not unusual for endurance athletes to experience wide mood swings as the toll of physical and mental exertion cause moods to fluctuate.)

The 30 miles to the next rest stop were long and lonely. The miles/hours so far had taken their toll and I was keeping a slower pace than I expected. I had to resist the urge to continuously look at my odometer and clock and calculate my pace. I finally forced myself to not look at any of the instruments (and thus be disappointed at my slow progress) and just keep looking at the scenery.

7:10pm, 170 miles, 13000 feet

I reached the next rest stop with a sense of urgency. By my calculations, I still had a realistic shot at making the final cutoff of 10:00pm, but I had no margin for error. I made a quick call to Vaishali to coordinate our plans. She was to meet me at the finish and drive us back home. I left a voicemail telling her to be there at 10:00, and that I would do my damnedest to be there by then too. I ate food as quickly as I could, skipped the bathroom break (which I had taken at all previous stops), and headed out. There was one more rest stop and 30 miles between me and the finish.

The stretch to the next rest stop might have been the hardest. It definitely was the loneliest. I saw no other riders for the whole stretch. The sun finally fully set about 5 miles before the stop.

8:46pm, 186 miles, 15000 feet

I pulled into the last rest stop and no other riders were there, just the volunteers manning the station. Many people would have already finished by now. I wondered about the people who were still at the previous rest stop when I left — their chances did not seem to good if I was cutting it this close. I felt like I needed more energy for a final push so took some food and ate quickly. While I was stopped, about 4 other rides passed by without stopping. They were in the same mad rush as me and were cutting every corner they could. Now I had only 12 miles to the finish and 1 hour left to do it. Normally this would be a given, but there was one final hill to climb and I was pretty tired from the long day, so it would be a challenge to make that pace.

I was surprised by the pace I was able to keep. After some time, I passed the group of riders who had skipped the stop. I was being fueled by the caffeine (I drank a cola at each stop) and adrenaline. I had to be sure to make no wrong turns in the dark because the resulting lost time could not be recovered. I climbed the hill without problems, but had to descend it relatively slowly because my headlight was illuminating only a short stretch of road ahead of me. When I reached the last turn for the final two mile stretch to the finish, I saw the time was 9:30. This was easily enough time for me to make it, and I yelled out loud, "Alright"!

9:40pm, 200 miles, 15500 feet

When I reached the finish, most of the parked cars were gone and only a small crowd was still there. All of the strong riders were done hours earlier. Vaishali was waiting for me. I checked in at the finish, packed away the bicycle and most of my gear, changed to clean clothes, and ate some of the dinner there. A few people trickled in after me, cutting it even closer than I did. Vaishali drove the 1.5 hours home, and I slept most of that time

It was a long day and quite an ordeal. On all my big rides this year, there was always a different, major obstacle caused by the weather. On the Davis Double, it was the 100°F+ heat. On the Death Ride it was a sudden hail storm. Today it was unusually strong winds. This was quite a sense of accomplishment, knowing that I pushed myself to the limit of my capabilities and still succeeded. I can say that this was the most difficult bicycling event I have done to date.


I did take a few videos on this ride. I did not feel any really added much to the report (or were really very good) so I did not embed any. I thought I would just include links to them so anyone curious can see them.
  • [video] Other riders climbing the "seven sisters" towards the summit of Mt. Tam.
  • [video] Looking down at the coast while climbing Mt. Tam.
  • [video] Me along Highway 1.
  • [video] Riding past Nicasio Reservoir.
  • [video] Me happy after finishing Coleman Valley Road.