Heartbreak Double Century Felix Wong

I was actually looking forward to this ride and the change of scenery it would provide. It would be the first time I’d do a double century in the Los Angeles area since the 1997 Grand Tour over 5 years ago! Also, it would be first 200-miler I have not done before since the 2000 Knoxville Double.

Adding to my interest was the 14,000 feet of climbing, making it the third hilliest double in the California Triple Crown Series. I’d do it just one week after the Knoxville Double and two weeks after the 140-mile World’s Toughest Century, but was undaunted. Heck, I’d have over 6 days to rest in between events, where cyclists in the Tour de France have barely more than zero for 3 whole weeks!

Before the Ride

This time, I learned my lesson: no more doing last minute repairs the night before the ride. No, this time I did repairs TWO whole days before the ride. This included mounting a new front tire: the (expensive) Michelin Race Pro to replace my well-worn (and discontinued) Michelin Hi-Lite Classic that had given me problems the last couple of weeks. I also remounted my cyclometer’s speed sensor that I broke at the lunch stop in Knoxville the last weekend.

Actually, there was one thing I did the morning of my departure date, which was quickly make a map holder out of the plastic from a photo album sleeve. What made me decide to do this after years of riding included the following reasons: (1) I lost not one, but TWO route sheets during the World’s Toughest Century from my pockets, and (2) I realized during Knoxville that retrieving and unfolding my map from my jersey pocket was distracting, inconvenient, and slowing me down, and hence I would not be checking the map enough, resulting in uncertainty about if I was going the right way or not.

I left work at 4:30pm and got to Palmdale at about 11:00pm. MapQuest, once again, had underestimated the distance (said it was 329 miles, but it was more like 360). Long drive. Long enough that I decided that it would be best to sleep in a motel the night before and after the drive instead of, as I have been doing all year, sleeping in my car.

This turned out to be probably a good idea due to safety reasons I will describe below.

Well, so I pull into a Motel 6 across the street from the Palmdale Ramada Inn (where the ride starts), and the first thing I notice is a security guard pacing back and forth in front of the rooms carrying a gun. Woah, I wonder what that says about this area, I thought to myself! I then proceeded to walk over to the office, trying not to agitate the security dude. Unfortunately, I could not enter the office, and had to stand in line behind a couple of other pretty scary-looking dudes (and woman) in front of the night-window made of bullet-proof glass. Finally, the corpulent receptionist, who had been yapping on the phone for 10 minutes (much to the dismay of the scary-looking woman: “Won’t that WOMAN get OFF the PHONE and help us??”) finally informed us that there were no more rooms. Oh, darn.

So I went over to the EZ-8 Motel right next to the Ramada Inn. Unfortunately, the scary-looking woman beat me over there (whoops, “beat” is probably not the appropriate word! I mean, got there before I did), so I had to wait in line behind her again. However, rooms were available! I was even actually overcome with joy when the receptionist (another immensely obese character) “I only have non-smoking rooms for you.” Great, I don’t have to deal with foul smoker fumes, I thought!

Unfortunately, that joy went away when I opened the door of the room, and it was obvious that regardless of the “NO SMOKING” sign, people had lit more than a few cigarettes in there.

Luckily, I was very tired, plus my nose is quite insensitive, so I nevertheless managed to get a fairly good night’s sleep. I awoke at 5:30am and was all registered and ready for the 6:30am mass start by 6:10am or so.

The Ride

Miles 0-30

While waiting for the mass start I made some conversation with a rider seated on a bench near me. “Where are you from?” I ask. The rider (Bruce) told me he was from Berkeley, in which I responded, “Cool–I’m from that area too, in Fremont.” “You must be Felix,” he said. Astonished he knew, he explained that “you’ve done a lot of these rides before.” Very cool to meet someone from your area down in boonieland 360 miles from home who even sort of recognizes you.

Another cyclist remarked about the weather, about how chilly it was right then, and how I was a “stud” for coming out only in a short-sleeve jersey and cycling shorts. “Someone was saying that it is even raining a little in the direction we are going,” he warned. However, other cyclists said “it’s not really rain, it’s just fog” and I remained unconcerned. Heck, this ride was famous for always getting up to 90-100 degrees! Furthermore, despite the others being cold, I really didn’t think it was all that cold at that moment. Maybe brisk, but not freezing or anything like that.

Finally, after 5 minutes of remarks and wisdom from the ride organizer, about 70 of us took off en masse. Many of the riders were doing this as a final warm-up for Furnace Creek 508, a crazy 508-mile bike race through the desert in October. Needless to say, they were off pretty quickly. For the first 5 miles, however, I decided to take it fairly easy, and stayed somewhere mid-pack or so.

We were quickly out of the city of Palmdale and immediately were blasted by incredible gale-forces. I’m talking about 40 mph winds here, going at us head-on! Sometimes, when we would change direction, the winds would blast us laterally, and I found myself having to lean my bike into the room just to stay upright! I stayed in the draft (which normally I will avoid doing, not particularly enjoying riding in pacelines), which helped a little, but not tremendously.

We hit some rollers which were quickly breaking the packs apart and I kept finding myself in smaller and smaller groups. Feeling good, I took many turns at the front. However, at one point it was just me and one other guy taking turns, with a few other riders trying to hang on. We quickly started catching and passing riders, which I thought was odd, since I thought my intensity was fairly steady since the beginning. Did those riders we caught just take off super quickly, only to start slowing (or even tiring?) by Mile 15 already?

Anyhow, whatever the case, my group became yet smaller and smaller, and soon it was just myself and one other guy, until we caught up to yet another group of cyclists. We then both sat back. We got to Three Points just after 8:20 or so, meaning that our average speed had been 16.4 mph, despite the “mostly uphill” riding and strong winds!

Miles 30-50

Miles 30-40 still seemed to go mostly uphill, with Miles 40-50 offering something of a reprieve. These were probably the most relaxed miles all day, though I was still riding strongly. I got into a zone and the second rest stop of the day, at the Flying J at Mile 50 in Gorman, seemed to sneak up on me. In fact, I had passed it up (only to realize it just as I had passed), along with another rider who was following me!

Miles 50-102

The upcoming miles would be a lot more remarkable. However, for perhaps not the preferred reason: there would be yet more endless climbing!

First we headed towards Mt. Pinos, for perhaps 10 miles. Mt. Pinos is the highest summit in Ventura County, and the climb towards it was very slow. Eventually, we turned off to the north, down to the Apache Saddle, which offered a little bit of a descent, only to climb once more. At least the scenery was good and I had some company.

This was because around here I met a cyclist from Ventura who, apparently, had ridden this double century since 1986! He also had done Paris-Brest-Paris in 1992, and also told me about the now-defunct Long Street Race, which went from Redwood City to San Luis Obispo.

At the next checkpoint I overheard a number of people discussing the upcoming Furnace Creek 508 (as in 508 miles), which they were going to do. It seems like the Heartbreak Double, more than any other double century I have done, seems to attract the most hardcore ultra-cyclists.

After the checkpoint it was some descending, followed by more climbing, followed by a very rapid descent and slightly downhill section with a good tailwind. On the latter I gave a guy “an amazing pull” for about 5 miles before the 5 mile stretch to “The Place” in Ventucopa, site of the next checkpoint (and “lunchstop”). On this stretch I fell behind the guy I pulled when I stopped to water some bushes, and came into lunch alone.

Miles 102-150

I quickly downed a Subway sandwich and a Coke, and was on my way. I was no longer riding strongly so now I was even more intent in keeping my stops to a minimum.

Turned out to be a good idea. The upcoming stretch–11 miles heading west–would be the most psychologically painful leg of the ride.

Let me explain. At least to my eye, is seemed entirely flat. (Inspection of a topographical map after the event would reveal this was not true; it was infact uphill). Yet, the wind–AGAIN–was horrendous! Riding solo, I was taking the full brunt of it. It was an incessant howl in my ear; a real buffer offering maximum resistance.

It would not let up for the entire 11 miles. And so–on this what-seemed-to-be-flat section, I was struggling to maintain 10-11 mph. Meaning that this stretch took a whole hour.

I would look back over my shoulder now and then, and for 50 whole minutes, no one had caught up to me from lunch. So perhaps the others were struggling too. Still, it was highly demoralizing.

Finally, we’d all head north to Heartbreak Hill. I could only wonder what was in store if Heartbreak was supposed to me the most infamous part of the ride. This 11-mile stretch after lunch seemed bad enough already!

Perhaps an hour later… Heartbreak! I shifted down to my granny, and zipped open my jersey to keep me cooler. The road, however, actually didn’t seem too steep or hot all the way to the waterstop, which I didn’t bother to stop at. The next section looked more interesting.

The hill continued to go up! At one point, it even switchbacked to a section that looks both steep and long. It was in plain view from down below. I maintained a steady effort, and am not hurting yet.

Heartbreak kept on going… but the steepest part seemed to be over. And it really wasn’t all that bad! Ahead came the checkpoint where I’d pick up my lights, a couple of hours before sunset. Woohoo, hardest climb of the day was over without a problem… the rest of the ride would–finally–be predominantly downhill, I think!

Favorable winds and some downhills did materialize all the way to Gorman, at Mile 150, in fact. However, at the time never did it occur to me that Heartbreak would actually be the most enjoyable part of the ride for the rest of the day. For it would be the last time I’d be comfortably warm.

Mile 150 to the Finish

I think it was around Mile 140, when the sun was beginning to dim over the mountains, that I began to realize that… I was quite chilly! Yet, this just prompted me to get in even a tighter aero tuck (so that more cold air would be going over and around me rather than AT me), and was speeding right along.

Yet, at the Mile 150 checkpoint at the Flying J in Gorman was all gloom-and-doom. By the time I got off of my bike, my teeth were chattering a little bit. It wasn’t lost on the other cyclists–who were very cold themselves despite several of them wearing a windbreaker and tights–that I was shivering a little in my short-sleeved jersey and cycling shorts. In fact, one of them would remark, “You should really think about taking the next SAG. The ride isn’t worth getting hypothermia.”

Somewhat surprised to hear such advice, I completely dismissed the entire notion of quitting. Why, sure it was cold, but I have been MUCH colder before! I thought about the ’99 Davis 200k Brevet, which was extremely wet and windy. Or some epic training rides I did with my buddy Dan in ’99, before I had good rain gear. As of yet, it wasn’t raining. So even with the sun going down and it likely to get even colder, I was undaunted.

So my response was, “Oh, I’m really not all that bad (cold I meant)”, despite my shivering. The cyclist who gave me the advice who saw I really meant it, replied, “Ok… you know what you are doing,” and we soon took off.

We took off so immediately, in fact, that I did not even notice several other cyclists who were huddling inside of a SAG vehicle, who had succumbed to the cold. I would only be told about them afterwards.

But to keep moving was the key to staying warm. Feeling okay, and looking forward to the promised “world-class tailwind for the last 40 miles”, my spirits were up.

I’d ride all the way to Mile 170 with adequate lights from the sun. Then, it became totally dark. However… starting at Mile 170 there was both a headwind and a fairly significant climb, all the way to the checkpoint at Mile 173! What was up with this?

The benefit of the slow going, however, was that I didn’t need to use my lights all the way to the checkpoint… conserving my 2.5 hours of burntime for the last 29 or so miles.

Three Points would actually be at least 10 degrees warmer than Gorman was, so I was really glad that I hadn’t given up at Mile 150. Yet, I was a little disgruntled that the promised “world-class tailwind” was not to be even this late in the ride. “The last few miles sure felt like a world-class headwind to me,” I even mentioned to a staffer.

“Well, in about another 4 miles you’ll have a tailwind,” the staffer assured me. I sure hoped he was right!

Esp. since from that point on for the rest of the ride, I’d be riding alone. As in, I saw no other cyclist. Not a blinking tail light in the distance; not a reassuring headlamp behind me. Somewhat unnerving, but this is freedom.

You can bet I was sure to check my map + mileage estimates very carefully and frequently. The map holder I had made for my bike the day before came in really handily here. And thank goodness, the promised tailwind finally did materialize.

I was still cold but on a roll. I put my head down and was blazing along. Eager to get to the finish, I did not let up.

“Only the strong survive!” I shouted at one point like the lunatic us ultra-cyclists sometimes are. This, of course, was in my quite uncomfortable state of frigidness. Yet, I would not stop, even when a SAG vehicle passed me by and one of the crew members shouted, “Would you like a jacket?” I think this was with less than 10 miles to go. I could survive that distance without one.

And I did. At 9:38 pm–or 15 hours and 8 minutes after all of us cyclists embarked upon this masochistic journey–I was in the small-but-warm hotel room of the race organizers, which was the official end and “dining room” of the ride. I munched on some pizza (standing up since there were no chairs or tables) while chatting with another survivor… er, cyclist. One who–like seemingly everyone else–was wearing more than I.

“I’ve never done a ride so cold in my life!” he lamented. While I could not exactly agree with this statement, it was definitely one of the coldest double centuries I’ve ever done. So the ride sort of lived up to its names–Heartbreak–but not because of the hill it was named after, but because of the winds and the weather. The course in itself is tough enough, but the weather conditions made it one of the toughest events I have ever done.

Epilogue

Palmdale, with the armed security guard and sketchy people across the street, already had not made a glowing impression on me. This might have had something to do with why I naturally woke up at 5:00am (after going to bed at 11:00pm… 5:00am is early for me, considering during the work week I struggle to wake up at 8:00am even with an alarm!), after which I got out of bed, took a shower, packed my stuff, checked out, and proceeded to the Denny’s for breakfast. Guess I was pretty eager to get away from there.

The Denny’s was fairly empty (not surprising considering that by this time it was just 5:30 on Sunday morning!), and yet the waitress had to direct me to a booth right next to a homeless-looking guy sleeping in another booth. I had my pick of seats so I chose the seat in which my back would be towards the guy and I couldn’t see him while I was eating (out of sight, out of mind.) I ate breakfast in about 15 minutes and was soon on the road for a sub-6 hour drive back to Fremont. Goodbye Palmdale, goodbye Heartbreak! That may have been the last time!

Ride Data

  • 202 mi
  • 6:30am start, 9:38pm finish—15.1 hours
  • Average Speed: 14.1 mph moving, 13.3 mph overall
  • Max Speed: 42 mph
  • Total Climbing: >14,000 feet

Rating

(1=ho hum; 5=best)

  • Scenery: 3-
  • Support/Organization: 3. Cheery & helpful volunteers, and well-planned. Definitely on a tightbudget though, notwithstanding the $65 registration fees: dinner was served/eaten in a hotel roomstanding up, and there were no port-a-potties.
  • Food: 2+. Few rest stops looked well-stocked; not much variety in food.
  • Weather: 1. Worst winds of any ride. Showers. Cold. I might have preferred the usual 90+ degree heat (esp.since that’s what I dressed for!)
  • Relative Difficulty: 5. In my opinion, the third toughest double century in California, and the toughest ride I’ve done in 2002!
  • Overall Rating: 2. The winds and weather were intolerable. The scenery wasn’t the greatest. The course is really tough. Only do this if you are a masochist!

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Mile 0, 6:12am: Canny all set for a 6:30am mass start.  Today I'd be testing the first all-new tire I've tried in 8 years: the Michelin Pro Race (front wheel).  It rode and handled superbly, and soon I'll be getting one for the rear.Mile 22, 7:49am: In the morning, it was overcast with drizzly rain and 40+ mph gusts of wind.Mile 25, 8:02am: Feeling good, I pulled (lead) a couple of riders for many miles until getting to this group, where I sat back for a moment in the draft.Mile 30, 8:21am: Checkpoint #1, at the historic Three Points Bar & Grill.Mile ~32, 8:33am: Look at those puffy clouds engulfing the mountains ahead!  And the pavement... this ride would be blessed with lots of smooth roads.Mile ~37, 8:59am: That's me on the bike going up a climb on Pine Canyon Rd.  A friendly fellow rider offered to take this picture with my camera.Mile ~37, 8:59am: Front view of Felix, still all smiles at this point.Mile ~86, 12:49pm: See that twisting road in the distance?  I'd be riding on that shortly.Mile 125, 4:03pm: Highlight climb of the day, the climb the ride is named after: Heartbreak Hill.  This is just the beginning; at the van is a water stop.  I didn't stop.Mile 125, 4:05pm: Felix Wong again, this time going up Heartbreak! Note my unzipped jersey; it would be the last time all day I was comfortably warm. (Photo courtesy of Planet Ultra.)Mile 126, 4:05pm: Cyclists riding out of the saddle.  See that diagonal horizontal ridge right above the midline of the picture?  We'd be going up that in just moments!Mile ~140, 5:18pm: Finally, some descents and favorable winds at our back while passing by this farm and windmill.  Unfortunately, with the sun starting to lower already, I'd take no more pictures.  Still 60 miles to go!

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