Grand Tour Double Century Felix Wong

Two double centuries down, one to go. After fading in Death Valley and being baked by the heat of Davis, I can only wonder what the Grand Tour would have in store for Canny and me this time around. Surely we are going to make it, I knew, but is this going to be even more miserable than the 1997 Davis Double? The last few months–my last quarter at Stanford–were consumed by projects, time with friends, and labs, meaning that training on the bike was limited immensely. Heck I averaged less than 50 miles a week. My diet during the last quarter also deteriorated somewhat as I was eating out more and more, and I couldn’t help but think that it couldn’t have helped enhance my fitness level. So again for the third time this year, I have my concerns about how I would fare on the ride.

Also for the third time this year I have to drive a long distance to the start of the ride. And there is a more serious problem: I have virtually no detailed information about the ride, despite numerous phone calls, emails, and posts on a Usenet newsgroups. I don’t even know how to get to the start point. I am especially biffed that I had sent the L.A. Wheelmen a self-addressed-stamped-envelope a month before the ride, but they only returned it with information 2 days in advance of the ride, and incidentally later than the early registration deadline. And on the brochure they sent me again it has no information on the start point, only a “hotline” long-distance phone number about it. Then when I call the long-distance phone number, it reveals what building the ride would start at, but not how to get there. And I have no Malibu maps.

But ever the adventurer I was not going to let this prevent me from doing the event I needed to complete the California Triple Crown, one of the goals I set early in the year. I have a great sense of direction, and at least I sorta know where Malibu is; so let’s go for it.

The Double Century Tradition: A Long Pre-Ride Drive

Ahead of me was a 370-mile jaunt down to Malibu, a coastal town near Los Angeles. My friend Lari tells me that it usually takes her about 6 hours to drive down to her home in West Covina (then again she drives FAST), so I figured, 8 hours, easy. One problem however was that I just started working full time earlier in the week and have to work most of Friday. But I am able to leave the office at 5:30p, get home by 6:00p to eat and get my bicycling equipment, and jump on the highway towards Southern CA at 7:00p.

Hmmm… 8 hours means that I would get there at around 3:00a. I can only hope that it will only take 7 hours so I can sleep a little from 2:00a to 5:00a or so. Wishful thinking, I know. But can’t think about that now.

From some Triple A maps I see that there are approximately 3 routes to L.A., and they’re all approximately the same distance. But Lari always takes I-5 down to L.A. so I figure it must be the quickest way. Here we go.

I’m driving along listening to a Garth Brooks CD when, an hour later, I realize I am in Pleasanton. Oh no, somehow I got onto the northeasterly I-680 from the US101 junction in San Jose rather than continue in a southernly direction down US101. What a setback. I have to backtrack 30 miles or so, meaning that I wasted about an hour. So much for my great sense of direction.

Near Gilroy I turn off at the easterly junction to Highway 152. This highway is a real treat to drive down as it meanders through some beautiful mountain hillsides. Perfect for a throaty British sports car. However I have to stop twice as suddenly friends keep on paging me… funny how I got few calls earlier in the week until now.

It’s past 10:00p and I know now that I am way behind schedule. Just how much I’m afraid to calculate. Hours and hours quickly pass until it is 4:00a. But phew. We are now really close to Malibu.

The closer and closer I get, though, the more it hits me that I really have no idea where the start is. I stop by a Chevron to get some gas and to ask for directions. The LA Wheelmen hotline number mentioned a road that I thought might have been the road the starting point was (it wasn’t), so I asked the gas station attendant if she knew how to get there. Nope, and she has no maps. He phone book is lame too as it has no maps. And my California map is not detailed enough. Great.

So I head down 101 until I am directly east of Malibu. I figure, I’d go into the town of Malibu and hopefully it is small enough that I’d see some cyclists and/or cars with bikes on top of them. I exit the highway and start driving up Malibu Canyon road.

Miles and miles pass, and I don’t see anything that would provide me with a clue to where the start point is, despite the newborn sun lighting the road ahead of me. It is really really late, like 5:30a. Many cyclists must have already departed from the start about an hour ago. But wait… there’s a cyclist just ahead… and another one… and another one. Halleluyah, by remarkable luck I was on the road that would bring me to the start of the ride.

The Ride

The Pacific Coast Highway: Truly Awesome

I quickly register ($60 for late registration) and am informed that there are two double century routes for this ride, in addition to a 300- and 400-mile option. Well, the last two options were totally out of the question for me, but now I was posed with the question of whether I should do the “lowland” double (~3500 feet of climbing) or the “highland” route (~6000 feet). I dunno, I reply, could I decide in the middle of the ride, depending on how I feel? I am handed two different maps and realize that I would have about 40 miles to ponder the question before the two routes diverged.

So at 6:00a I finally begin riding. Quickly I realize something that would pose a big problem for me and the other riders during the ride: the roads are unmarked. This was really surprising to me because the previoius 15 or so organized rides I had done were all marked. To compound the problem was that I was so far behind all the other riders I could not simply follow someone. My gosh, this time I would actually have to read the map.

The first 25 miles went up the Pacific Highway, Highway 1. I had always wanted to ride along this fabled coast-hugging highway, and now I am doing it. The weather is absolutely ideal: overhead clouds, low 60s, and no headwinds. Not to mention that the air smells heavenly by the Pacific. I am in a different world but yet I get a euphoric sense of déjà vu. Why, this is exactly the romantic vision of cycling I had as a youth… leisurely cruising down a beautiful road by the ocean, alone with my thoughts, in peace with the world, and feeling nimble, strong, and one with the earth.

After a couple of hours, however, it was time to part with the great highway and turn inland. I look forward to returning to the great highway for the last 30 miles of the ride.


The great weather continues and we pass some magnificent sites including an old Navy base showing off some jets and missiles. At about this time I am finally beginning to catch up to some other riders.

And finally, I get to the first rest stop and am able to grab some food and some water for my bottles. One thing I realize about this ride is that the rest stops/checkpoints for the ride are 40 miles apart. The food supply was lacking but this might have been because I was always so late in getting to the rest stops.

I stay for only about 5 minutes and one of the hosts says, “Be sure to ride with someone else.” It would be nice to have some company, I think, although I had enjoyed the total solitude of the first 40 miles. But there was another reason to ride with others: to avoid getting lost.

Further inland, getting lost was truly a problem. First of all, the maps were not marked correctly. One part of the ride sheet said to go 7 miles before making a right on a street. Unfortunately, it should have been 0.7 miles. Fortunately I noticed the street and stopped, still discombobulated. Finally a sag wagon rolls around and the driver assures me that I should take this street no matter what the map said. This is when I first start getting annoyed that the roads themselves were not marked with arrows or signs.

I try to console myself saying, “But this is more fun… having to actually navigate a course rather than blindly following some arrows.” But I guess I just wanted to relax and pedal along brainlessly, as I kept passing up roads by a couple of miles. At one point I was totally confused and went off course by 5 miles, adding about 1500 more vertical feet of climbing to the ride. Now I was totally pissed. I turn around and am still confused until a sag wagon comes around again. The people in the wagon are very friendly and understanding and promise to look after me. I am grateful for the sympathy.This would be the last time I would get lost, although I would have to stop many other times to check the map.

The Mountains

Despite doing the “highland” route, the climbs were totally manageable, perhaps due to careful pacing and the great weather. The toughest climbs were also extremely short. I was feeling so strong. Not to mention truly awesome scenery.

And it was in the mountains, around miles 120 or so, that the fun truly began. Up to this point I had mostly ridden alone in complete peace and solitude. But here I met some riders from Las Vegas, whose names are now fuzzy to me. One is a rider (Rich I think?) who did the Grand Tour last year , while the other two (Mike and “The Big Guy”) are first-time double century riders.

Rich is definitely the best in shape of them all and I am pleased that I can effortlessly keep up with him. Occasionally we would stop to wait for the others, but that was cool as they were really pleasant to ride with. They were all in their 40’s, and I was duly impressed, especially with The Big Guy” who seems to be at least 25 lbs. overweight. He was living proof that persistance and a tenacity to succeed was more important to ultramarathon riding than low fat contents, long hours in the saddle, young age, and cutting edge equipment.

We were having a good time and was spending plenty of time at the rest stops. Soon it would get dark, and we still had 40 miles to go. And Highway 1. It’s back to the coast for us.

Highway 1 to the Finish

It’s back to the Pacific Coast Highway. Already, nostalgic feelings from the morning’s coastal ride come back. But, these feelings of peace and harmony would soon give way to concentration, anxiety, and discomfort.

It is getting pitch dark, with no street lamps or even highly reflective road stripes guiding the way. Only the headlamps of my fellow riders augment the dim light provided by a crescent moon. We are riding in a paceline, near the edge of the highway, where the road sharply drops off into a torrential sea. I can hardly see, and I am regretting consciously leaving my Vistalight headlamp in my car in the morning. How wrong I was to think that I would not need it.

After an hour or so of blindly riding along it occurs to me that I should take off my sunglasses. They are tinted lightly enough that often while driving at night I forget they’re on, but what a difference taking them off made this time. I lose some visual clarity due to being aided by presciption lenses, but at least I can make out dark rocks on the road with greater ease.

But nevertheless we are still in a dangerous situation. Cars are passing by at 55+ mph, and Highway 1 is not the best maintained highway. Far from it. A couple of times my front wheel would fall into a small crevice in the road, nearly making me lose control and scaring the sh*t out of me. We are probably only riding along at 15 mph but it still seems too fast for me. I can feel it… an accident is going to happen…

And then… BAM. The rider behind me, the “Big Guy”, overlaps his front wheel with mine and I hear him scream. I’m now frantic but manage to stay up. He falls with a loud CRASH. and I am fearful at what happened to him. Already I am overcome with guilt for being involved.

We stop and check him out. We inspect him and to my amazement, he was nearly unscathed aside from some road rash on his knee. Tough guy. He gets right back up and we help him put his chain back on his bike. Fortunately, his bike was otherwise perfectly all right too. After we make sure if he’s all right he asks if I’m okay. I replied in the positive and gave my apologies for the fall.

“Not your fault,” he assures me, “I just got too close.”

But, the remaining 20 miles back, we are much more careful. We are more communicative about irregularities in the road, point out rocks, and shout “braking” when doing so.

Supposedly, at mile 196, there is a last rest stop at the top of Zuma Hill. Unfortunately, we aren’t exactly sure where Zuma is and nobody’s odomoter agrees with the map. It turns out the other guys had gotten off course several times during the ride and had done about 12 miles extra. I feel better for going off course for “only” 7 miles.

We finally find Zuma. However, there is nobody tending a rest stop. No water, no food, no people. We groan. Zuma was both a symbol and a parody of the poor planning and organization of the LA Wheelmen for the ride. We don’t hang around long and we are off to the finish. 7 miles to go… I estimate it’ll take about half an hour.

And finally… up ahead, a familiar traffic light… and the road which leads directly back to the starting/finish point. Halleluyah. Still feeling extremely strong I am practically sprinting back. The other riders are laughing, enjoying my sudden bursts of glee. “We made it,” I exclaim. And I had attained my goal of completing the 1997 California Triple Crown. It was a long road getting there, but it was well worth it.

The End

Inside the cafeteria we eagerly chow down some soup and other food. I was so impressed with the “Big Guy,” and I tell him so. Despite his age, weight, and the accident, he hung in there and finished his first 200-miler in respectable time.

It’s now 11:30 and I want to get back to the bay area. I pack up the B and drive maybe about 5 miles before my eyes become really heavy. Having not slept the night before I realize that I am going to have to take a nap before proceeding. So I pull off the side of the road, only to be awoken by a couple of officers. Literally, while still half asleep I answer a couple of questions and they leave me alone. Only after they are gone do I realize what had just happened.

But I’m fresh enough to hit the road again. It soon dawns on me that for each of the three Triple Crown events I did this year, I did not sleep at all the night before and had to sleep in my car after the ride. It’s tradition after all. But next year, I think I’ll plan things a little bit better.

Ride Summary

  • 212 miles total (including 7 "off-course" miles)
  • 17:00 total ride time
  • 14.0 mph rolling average
  • Highlight of the ride: Riding up the Pacific Coast Highway in the morning
  • Scariest part of the ride: Riding down the Pacific Coast Highway in total darkness

Ride Rating

(1=low/easy, 5=high/challenging)

  • Scenery :5+
  • Relative double century difficulty: 2-
  • Organization/Ride Support: 1-
  • Food: 3
  • Overall rating: 4

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