Sunday, October 4, 2009

2009 King Ridge Gran Fondo

104 total miles,
6500 feet total elevation gain,
9 hours 15 minutes total
(7 hours 45 minutes on the bicycle)

I finished my fourth (and likely last) century of this year with the King Ridge Gran Fondo. "Gran Fondo" is Italian for "big ride". This was the first year for the event, promoted by top professional cyclist Levi Leipheimer, who is a resident of Santa Rosa, where the event was organized.

My plan was to take the whole family to Santa Rosa for the event so we could visit and stay with our close friends Urmi, Chris, Devan, and Rohan. They had to change plans and be out of town that weekend, but they insisted that we stay at their house. Without them, I was not sure that Vaishali and Aasha would need to come, but Vaishali wanted to join me even though she and Aasha would not seeing me for most of Saturday.

It took us a while to get packed after work Friday, so we made the drive to Santa Rosa during some of the lingering rush hour traffic, which added about 30 minutes to the usual 2 hour drive. We drove straight to the registration and then headed to the house where we quickly unpacked and retired for the night.

I woke up at 5:30am before my alarm went off. I had plenty of time to get ready. Vaishali drove me most of the way to the start (which was only 6 miles from the house), and I rode the final mile. It was a cold morning, but I saved some warmth by being in the car. I met up with my friend and co-worker Michael, and another business associate, Tim, at the start.

The ride started and ended in Santa Rosa, and followed the loop counter-clockwise.

It was an ambitiously big event, with 3500 riders (and this limit was reached weeks before the ride took place). Because the police closed the intersections on the initial part of the course in town, they had all riders start at once. They had the riders self-ordered from fastest to slowest. Tim, Michael, and I were near the middle. It took us 25 minutes to reach the start line from the time the leaders departed, meaning we crossed the start line at 8:35am. Vaishali and Aasha had waited near the start line and finally saw us after the long wait.

The big bunch of riders stayed together for nearly 20 miles, at which point the 100-mile, 65-mile, and 30-mile routes diverged. Tim sped ahead of us at the start and he must have kept a strong pace because Michael and I never saw him again that day. We kept a strong pace (up to 25 miles per hour for several stretches) and passed many other riders.

I had not eaten much breakfast, so we stopped at the first rest stop and I loaded up with high energy food (mostly cookies). We skipped the second rest stop and then were confronted with a long, steep climb. This would be the end of the fast speeds. I kept a steady pace of 5.5 to 6 miles per hour, which allowed me to pass many riders, with only a couple passing me. (Note that the pros and elite riders at the front probably climbed at twice the speed I did.) The road seemed to endlessly continue upward, so I thought I should slow down to conserve energy since I did not know how far it was to the summit.

When I reached the top of the climb, there were many riders waiting there for their trailing friends. After a couple minutes, Michael caught up to me and we continued on. The climbing was not really over, but it was broken up with flat sections and a few short descents. The lunch stop was near the halfway mark and near the highest elevation point. We stopped for sandwiches (plus many more cookies and potato chips for me).

Near the top of King Ridge Road. The road follows the top of a
mountain ridge, so there were beautiful vistas on both sides.

After the rest we continued with a sharp plunge, which had many signs warning cyclist to be careful. However, after a couple miles were confronted with a moderately steep but long climb. This was not an ideal time for exertion, since we had full stomachs, so we kept a very slow pace to ensure that our lunches stayed inside our bodies, where they were needed.

The route continued with several more miles of short climbs and descents. At this point, an ambulance with its sirens wailing passed us in the opposite direction. We guessed that an overeager rider had an accident on the steep downhill section. As we approached the coast and viewed the Pacific Ocean, the descents became more pronounced as we headed down towards sea level.

Around this point, I passed and got passed by another rider who looked vaguely familiar. I could not place who she was at first, but then I recognized her bicycle. She was the rider who crashed in front of me in the Sequoia Century two years ago. I asked her if her first name was the one I remembered from the incident. It was. I told her who I was and she was surprised and happy to see me again.

I asked her what eventually happened, since all I knew was that she was taken to the hospital because we thought she had a dislocated shoulder. She said her shoulder was fine, but that her leg had been broken. She had several screws put in to let it heal and was not mobile for a few months. After knowing she went through all that, it was great to see her on a bicycle doing challenging rides again. We chatted as we rode together for several miles. We finally split when I stopped to take a picture of the dramatic coastline where the road finally drops steeply to the sea.

Meyers Grade Road plunges steeply towards the Pacific coast.

Now the route took us back southward along the coast. Here we had to face another challenge — strong, gusting winds. Fortunately, the wind was mostly at our backs. It would have been overwhelming if we had to fight that too, after having finished many thousand feet of climbing. Unfortunately, it was often a cross-wind, meaning a sudden gust could unexpectedly push us across the road. Although the traffic was not heavy, we were sharing the road with cars and there was very little shoulder space to allow them to easily pass us. We had to maintain a constant, firm grip on the handlebars to be prepared for the sudden side forces. Also, being near beaches, we were sand-blasted at various points.

We finally headed back inland near the 75 mile mark to face the last hard climb of the route — Coleman Valley Road. This was the one part of the course I had been on previously, since these few miles overlapped with the route of the Mount Tam Double Century which I did last year. Michael had been dreading this climb and he stopped to stretch before the main ascent. I did not want to cool off and stiffen, so I continued on.

My heart was strong enough to do the climb because I was not gasping for air, but I was worried about my leg muscles — whether they could stay intact. They had been shredded by the initial fast pace, and the long, steep climbs earlier. I was able to keep a steady 5 miles per hour pace and gradually make it to the top with no trouble. I stopped and Michael came by only a couple minutes later, his fears being unfounded.

We continued to deal with the wind (and at one point I was nearly blown off the road by a strong gust as I made a turn on a rough patch of road) until we managed to get far enough inland that it was mostly blocked by the hills. After a brief pause at the final rest stop, we continued for the final stretch. Here the course retraced the morning route. The minor hills which we did not even notice when we were fresh, were now not particularly difficult, but definitely annoying.

The remaining flat section played to Michael's strength and my weakness, as he sped ahead of me at a pace I could not sustain. He stopped and waited for me to catch up and we rode the final mile to the finish together, rolling across the finish line at 4:52pm. He left after resting a short time. I stayed and briefly explored the post-ride festivities. I then met Vaishali at the same spot where she dropped me in the morning. We headed back to the house to clean up and pack.

On the way back home, we stopped in San Francisco to have dinner with our friend Rom. I ate an amazing amount of pizza. Even though it was a challenging ride, I still had enough energy to stay up later than I usually do, and drive all the way home.

The biking season is nearly over, and there are very few remaining events to do this year (particularly since we will be losing daylight hours quickly soon), even if I had time to do them. I think I will now have to just try to stay in shape for next year when I can do more centuries, and hopefully another double century or two.