I knew it would be a stretch, and yet it had come down to this. The final test, the final stepping stone—heck, the final requirement—for entry into the Paris-Brest-Paris race in August, with all the history and dreams that came with it.
My longest ride to date was just 2 weeks prior—the 400km Davis Brevet—and yet, at “just” 250 or so miles, was a whopping 125 miles less than this undertaking. Even the 2 dozen or so double centuries I had participated in looked trivial compared to such a distance. Never mind that I had yet to do a single multi-day tour, or a ride in which more hours would pass in darkness than in daylight.
And then, there’s always the matter of the weather. My biggest concern throughout the entire Davis Brevet Series was what if it would rain? Over the years I had figured out how to stay warm and comfortable in a sustained, heavy downpour while hiking, camping, or running… but never during cycling. By “sustained” I mean over 6 hours, when even my Gore-Tex gear becomes fully saturated by that time. The higher speeds of cycling make warm while wet a weak wish.
The weather had looked promising enough for most of the week—rain during the work week, and at most, showers early Saturday. Since the brevet would only start at 4:00 p.m., we would miss the brunt of it? It goes without saying that the weather forecasters are almost invariably off at the worst possible times…
Days Before the Ride
In the 400km brevet, I had already almost froze to submission not long after the sun had said “good night”—and this was without rain. It made for one rather miserable last few hours of riding—the low point of the entire Davis Brevet Series. The good thing of the experience, however, was that it made me reevaluate just how I’d dress for this brevet. Some changes to my normal cycling attire was in order.
Usually, for just a double century, I’d wear or bring 1 or 2 cycling jerseys, cycling shorts and tights, 1 or 2 pairs of socks, arm warmers, either a headband or beanie cap, and some variation of half- or full-fingered gloves. If rain or extreme cold was likely, I’d wear neoprene tights, a rain jacket, GoreTex oversocks, and GoreTex gloves. As I said, all of this is usually sufficient for 6 or so hours of a downpour… but never longer than that.
Considering that this ride had the potential of lasting 40 hours (the official time limit), this meant a potential of 34 hours of suffering if the worst of Mother Nature’s wrath broke loose. In a double century, I can bear a few hours—even a half-day—of frigidness. But 34 hours… no.
So two days before the brevet, I raided my closet for cold-weather camping attire. Fleece jacket, fleece socks, fleece balaclava… fleece is good. In addition, busted out a pair of never-used neoprene cycling booties and a rain jacket and windbreaker. The latter I’d put in my drop bag for the ride, to be waiting for me at Miles 143 and 231 at checkpoints in Ukiah. The other gear I tried wearing during a dry last-minute 11-mile spindown along the streets of Fremont just to see how comfortable it’ll all be. (I actually didn’t even wear everything; for example, my arm warmers.) It wasn’t all that uncomfortable, but man, did I get hot quickly. At the time being I could not imagine how it could be possible that I’d ever get cold wearing all of this gear.
The final preparations included getting my lights in order (including using the stock Cateye mounting bracket, after my lil’ custom-bracket disaster in the 400km brevet; and a new 3-LED PrincetonTec Aurora headlamp on my helmet). It also included making LOTS of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. What I did was go out to Trader Joe’s to buy a whole loaf of multi-grain bread, and I made sandwiches from every single slice. These sandwiches had become my food of choice over the more high-tech “Powerbars” (generic term used), as they retain water better, are far cheaper, don’t have hard-to-open packages… and taste a whole lot better.
I did pack a couple of protein bars, Clif bars, and pretzels just for variety, however.
For this brevet, I was determined to go slow and steady. The night before I played around with numbers and split times in a spreadsheet, and figured out that if I could just average a meager 13 mph on-bike time—and meaning, just 12.5 mph overall if I kept stops to a minimum (which I completely planned on doing)—I’d finish in less than 34 hours even if I allowed myself 3.5 hours of naptime somewhere. Since the time limit was 40 hours, this would allow myself a comfortable cushion. The key, I thought, was keeping time off the bike to an absolute minimum.
Hours Before the Ride
I got a good night’s sleep at home, even allowing myself to sleep in for 30 more minutes than usual. This meant waking up at 7:00 a.m. (that’s when I naturally woke up). As I had packed most stuff the night before, I was very relaxed… and was on the road before 11:00 a.m. To my joy, lots of blue sky were still present in Fremont.
I got to Davis a couple of hours later, and ate a chicken sandwich at Wendy’s. Next I proceeded to find the recommended long-term UCDavis parking lot to park Goldie in, and… tried to sleep. I still had several hours, and I wanted to get in a nap so that I’d be able to stay awake longer on the bike.
A little problem though: it was so warm in the MG with the top up, that after an hour of trying, I just couldn’t sleep.
So I unloaded Canny from the car, and proceeded into downtown Davis to take a nap… somewhere. Eventually I settled on a layer of bricks and attempted to sleep like a homeless person. Lots of pedestrians were passing me by, but I was able to tune them out and get comfortable. Just as I was starting to feel like I could doze off for a little bit, though, it…
I could not believe the timing. But in a few moments, my disbelief in the timing turned to disbelief of the intensity of this storm. I can only think of a handful of times when I’ve ever seen it rain this hard. (Recently on a recent trip to Point Reyes, and another time, in England.) No exaggeration: the streets were starting to flood within 15 minutes. Havoc was pandemic, with college kids sprinting and kids screaming in psychotic paranoia. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little bit. I, on the other hand, donned my rain jacket, and relocated underneath an awning. Pedestrians were now walking by me and looking at me with even more wonder than when I was sleeping like a homeless person. Their thoughts, I’m sure, is “what kind of crazy person would go bicycling in weather like this?”
Or if that was not their thoughts, those were mine. Or rather: “I can’t believe we are going to start cycling 375 miles in weather like this?”
Eventually, I left the sanctity of the awning and walked a few blocks over to the Davis Bike Club registration table, where other hardy cyclists were congregating. I was impressed with the turnout. It turns out, I’d later hear, that 130 riders signed up for the brevet, and 100 of them actually started. (70 would finish.)
With only about 10 minutes until the mass start I ran into Tina, the 50-ish cyclist from Berkeley who I had met in the 200km brevet. She was wearing nothing more than a tank top and cycling shorts, and was soaked to the bone. “I just got here,” she calmly said, “and still need to register. Oh and take my bike out of the car.” Once again, as in the 200km brevet, I loved her spirit.
And as the clock ticked down, with the crowd (well mainly the organizers and other participants) cheering us on, an unexpected thing happened: the cattle-be-damned buckets of rain stopped. By the instant we turned our first pedal stroke at 4:00 p.m., there was not a drop in the sky.
Fairly stunned (almost disappointed) by the sudden improvement of the weather, I turned my attention to riding, silently repeating my mantra for the ride that underscored my strategy: “Slow and steady; [begin the last] double century by dawn.”
The slow part was no problem: within the first 3 miles, I already had to make a stop as a mysterious noise kept emanating from the rear tire. A flat? No, on my 2nd stop, I realized it was from my fleece jacket wrapped around my waist hitting the rear tire. I’d soon learn that this was just one of the reasons having a jacket around your waist while biking is not ideal. The other reasons included:
- Your waist will sweat a lot more with your jacket tied around it.
- It’s not very aerodynamic.
- You cannot pretend you are some hot shot racer and be convincing while looking like that.
The last reason is just pure speculation, of course. In any case, I carried on, feeling certain that I’d rather have a flapping jacket around my waist than no jacket at all.
In addition to my jacket, my fleece lobster gloves were inconveniencing me early on. It was probably warm enough that I could have taken them off, but I really had no place to store them. My rear pockets were already filled to capacity with my camera, peanut butter sandwiches, and other food, and even the space between Canny’s saddle rails were occupied by my fleece balaclava. Therefore, I had left the gloves on my hands, but due to their thickness and lack of feel, I had a very hard time trying to get food out of my rear pockets and subsequently open sandwich bags with the gloves on. So anytime I wanted to eat (I was eating about 1 half-sandwich an hour in the first 5 hours of riding), or take a picture, I had to stop and take my gloves off.
Riding ultra-conservatively and stopping a lot was the story for me while riding during the last few hours of daylight that Saturday evening. The result was I was one of the last, if not the very last, rider on the course until Mile 30.
After Mile 30 came the by now oh-so-familiar hills rolling by Lake Solano. It was then I finally caught up to, and passed, a couple of other riders, whom I heard muttering among themselves, “wow, so we WEREN’T the last riders on the course.” (Although they probably were after I passed them.)
I then proceeded to catch up and pass several other riders. As Cardiac Hill was behind us, I marvelled at the setting of the sun, illuminating the horizon with shades of pink and crimson. Through the sweeping wide roads, devoid of any car traffic, a slight breeze caressed my fully clothed body… so far, the weather had been good. I made a point to enjoy these simple moments of life’s finest pleasures especially at this time, as I knew it would be fleeting—within an hour’s time, the soft glow of the sun would fully dip below the horizon, and with it, the temperatures of the night.
By the time I had reached the Silverado trail, it was pitch black, with the sparkles of the stars above. No moon. Unfortunately, the roads were still not entirely devoid of traffic, but yet, the Silverado was pleasant enough to ride on, with wide shoulders and all.
Even better, was what awaited at the end of this historic trail: Calistoga. First checkpoint of the day.
There were several riders lingering around here, which was a huge contrast to not seeing a single cyclist for the last couple of hours. Timewise, I was just a few minutes off of my self-imposed schedule… so I tried to spend as little time here as possible.
Unfortunately, this still meant 10 minutes. I put on my fleece jacket which spent the last few hours around my waist. As it was getting chiller I even put on my fleece balaclava.
And then… back on the road. I started out with some other cyclists, pulling them for a bit, then dropping back, so as not to be in their draft (still being in my “no drafting” mentality from the 300km brevet). Shortly, I’d be all alone again.
Under, by, and past highways I rode until Cloverdale, where I spotted a 24-hour convenience store. It was recommended to stop here as there would be nothing else open all the way to the next checkpoint in Ukiah. I went in and bought a Coke and some pretzels.
“Good evening,” I said to the cashier, wondering what in the world he thought about all of us cyclists actually riding during this time of night. It was 1:00 a.m.
It turned out that his workweek was just starting, so he knew something about unorthodox hours. He also acted as if a cyclist all bundled up with a balaclava and helmet-with-headlamp perched on his head was perfectly normal, but it might have been because he had already seen 100 or so other riders come on through already. Indeed, two other cyclists were inside, eating dinner… or breakfast—or whatever you call a 1:00 a.m. meal—engulfing their choice of foods over a casual conversation.
On the road again. I knew from the Davis 400km brevet that the next section, replete of climbs, would be quite challenging. I had conserved energy all day and knew just what to expect, however, so I was looking forward to it. They came just miles past the Cloverdale Food Mart.
Going up 128 in darkness was a much different feeling than going up during the afternoon as in the 400km brevet. One couldn’t see the long climbs awaiting ahead, which psychologically, might have been good. There were far less traffic, which is always nice.
I felt very relaxed, stopping a couple of times, first to take off my balaclava, and then to put it back on. Temperatures were dropping still, and I was still all alone. Suddenly, a song by Avril Lavigne popped in my head, which I had heard at the gym many times over the last month:
I’m looking for a place
I’m searching for a face
Is anybody here i know?
Cause nothing’s going right
And everthing’s a mess
And no one likes to be alone
[Chorus] It’s those damn cold nights
trying to figure out this life
Won’t you take me by the hand
Take me somewhere new
I don’t know who you are
I’m with you
I’m with you
Indeed, Avril Lavigne’s voice stayed with me, playing in my head like a broken record. “But I am perfectly fine being all alone,” I objected internally. “And it’s not damn cold… at least, not yet. Although everything’s gonna be a mess if this stupid song stays with me through the entire night.”
Fortunately, the series of up-and-down elevation “blips” came soon afterwards, getting my attention. Soon I was concentrating on descending safely while feathering the brakes, down into Hopland—the turnaround point for the 400km brevet 2 weeks ago.
From this point on was new territory for me, and this gave me a slight sense of excitement with uncertainty. Now I had to be more attentive to the map. This was underscored soon after when I—along with a whole bunch of other people who I had now caught up to in Hopland—missed, or rather, could not find, the turn off to East Side Road, as there was no street sign proclaiming its name whatsoever.
After a bit of discussion and delay, we settled onto a road that looked correct and headed down it. Again, I drifted back from the other riders, so as to be out of the draft… and never saw another rider until getting to the next checkpoint at the Motel 6 in Ukiah.
The Ukiah stop was particular welcome because my drop bags was there. I was finally able to rid myself of my clear plastic rain jacket, opting to ride wearing just my fleece jacket.
After 10 minutes of clothes swapping and refueling, I was back on the road. Down in Ukiah, a fog had already rolled in; and up and over to the west, the fog looked even denser, completely engulfing the mountains. It soon became apparent I was going to ride right into this fog, via Ukiah-Boonville Road.
But this was not a big concern to me at the time. Instead, how I was doing on time was. My strategy all along was “160 miles by dawn; just a double century left by 8:00 a.m.” It appeared that I was going to be just slightly off the mark—and would become even more off the mark after Ukiah-Boonville Rd.
It was a surprisingly long climb, averaging an 8% for much of it. The higher I went, the wetter and colder I got. It then even started to rain—a steady drizzle for the next couple of hours. At one point, I stopped to bust out my “secret weapon”—chemical handwarmers. I stuffed them in both of my lobster gloves. To my dismay, they didn’t do much to warm up my hands. But I was still comfortable, if marginally so.
The story would change when the road suddenly turned downhill. Now I was really cold. “The uphill was much more pleasant than this,” I thought.
And soon, as if the mountain had heard my thoughts, the road once again turned uphill. Again, the climb was long, followed by yet another long downhill. Daylight was fully out now, but the sun’s warm rays had no chance of piercing the thick blanket of clouds, fog, and rain.
It remained this way until I reached Highway 128, which led a flat 23-mile path to the the Paul Dimmick Campground at Mile 186, which I reached by 10:00 a.m.
5 minutes. That would be how long I’d stick around, the shortest stop of the day. However, I’d lose a whole lot more time than that in the next few miles to the Info Control point, just 1.5 miles up the road…
This is because I could not find it. At the Info Control, supposedly demarked by a cone—one was supposed to stop, write down the “secret message” on the cone in our brevet cards, and turn around. However, despite looking desperately for it—going up and down the road—it was nowhere to be found. I turned back to the Paul Dimmick Campground to inquire, getting there 45 minutes later.
“I couldn’t find the Info Control,” I complained. “I didn’t see a cone, and I kept going up and down the road looking for it, doing 7 miles.”
“Someone must have stolen it,” one of the staff members postulated. He then jumped in his truck to investigate. One of the other staff members assured me that he already had written down the secret message in my brevet card when he stamped my card earlier, though, so I was okay. Doh. Wish I knew that before I did those 4 extra miles.
Now it was just a matter of retracing all the miles I had done up to this point—all 186 miles. Having eclipsed the psychologically important halfway mark now, I decided to pick up the tempo. At least all the way back to the monster climb of Ukiah-Boonville Road, which I hoped would be warmer than earlier in the morning.
It was not. It also seemed just as hard, and I was back to riding a very conservative pace. Hours would pass until I was back at the Motel 6 in Ukiah, a welcome checkpoint to refuel.
Up to this point I still had not slept. I briefly considered sleeping for a little bit at the Motel 6, but my elapsed time so far dissuaded me from doing so. Despite not sleeping, I was off the self-imposed schedule I drew up before the ride.
Not to mention, I wasn’t feeling sleepy. So I headed back down (and up and down through the hilly blips on 128 again, which felt fairly challenging with 250 miles in my legs already) to Cloverdale, where I found the checkpoint at Mile 266 by a Mexican place playing mariachi music very loudly. Joy!
Here at the checkpoint I treated myself to a delicious turkey sandwich. And it is no coincidence, I believe, that in the ensuing hours I’d have to deal with the first signs of sleepiness.
First I had repeated episodes of yawning. Eventually, though, the symptoms turned into hallucinations. Basically, I’d see things that, upon getting closer, did not really exist—for example cyclists standing by the road in the distance would actually be mailboxes.
My favorite hallucination, however, was when I got close to a private swimming pool, and I thought I was seeing a woman in a bikini sunbathing by it. Upon passing the pool, however, there was no woman, just a bunch of logs. I could only laugh at that one.
I was becoming sleepy enough that soon I started scanning the roadside for grassy little knolls I could take a short nap on under the sun, which now was fully out with little clouds obscuring it, now that I was far away from Ukiah. Finally I stopped, not because I found a place to nap, but because my rear tire had gone flat.
I quickly changed it and this stop seemed to be all I needed to be wide awake once again. And so I kept rolling with no nap.
In Calistoga, at about 8:00 p.m., at the same store where in the 400km brevet I had bought some packing tape to tape my lights to my handlebars when my mounting bracket broke, I bought some small donuts and a Pepsi. I imbibed this little treat, which really seemed to supercharge me.
What a difference. Feeling now really good, both psychologically and physically, I really picked up my speed. All the way down the Silverado trail I was now going about ~21 mph, even catching up to and speeding by about 3 other riders spaced miles apart. I continued this frenzied pace all the way back to Highway 128 (again)… and it got dark.
Here was where I had started riding in darkness on the way out from Davis, and here I was again riding in darkness on the way to Davis. My spirits were positively up though. The Moscowite store—the last checkpoint on the road until the finish—came at Mile 331.
The staff at this checkpoint were ultra-friendly, offering to make me a Cup-O-Noodles, take my picture, and even lube my chain. I declined the latter, since I was just over 40 miles from the finish and was really raring to get back on the road—but it was almost hard to leave considering how friendly and welcoming the staff was here.
The final 42 miles were over the oh-so-familiar stretch of roads I had done in all of the Davis brevets, and sort of a ceremonious stretch as I knew that this would be the last time for the brevet series. Along Putah Creek I picked up my pace along with some others who I had caught up to—it seemed like all of us were excited to get to the finish as quickly as possible now. Quick is relative, of course— with my hard effort during the stretch from Calistoga to the Moscowite Store, my legs were now decidedly more sore, and a lot of effort was required just to maintain 17 mph.
But such pain was minor compared to the happiness I felt over the last few miles through Davis knowing that I had done it—the entire brevet series—and the dream of riding Paris-Brest-Paris was to be a reality. At the official finish at the Main St. Bagel Cafe in Davis I noted the time: 2:32 a.m., Monday morning. It had been 34.5 hours and almost 380 miles (including off-course miles) I had ridden, with no sleep, surviving the cold, night, rain, and almost-complete solitude… wow. Paris, here I come!
- 372 miles + 4 off-course miles
- 4:00 p.m. mass start, 2:32 a.m. Monday finish — 34.5 hours
- Average Speed: 12.3 mph moving, 10.9 mph overall
- Max Speed: mph
- Total Climbing: ~15,000 feet
(1=ho hum; 5=best)
- Scenery: 5. Solano Lake, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, redwoods near the Pacific… awesome.
- Support/Organization: 2. Good organization but truly a no-frills ride emphasizing self-sufficiency. At least the registration fee is very low!
- Food: 2.
- Weather: 2-. Rain and cold, with some sunshine at the end… could have been worse.
- Relative Difficulty: 5. Climbing doesn’t exceed 10% grades, but is very concentrated and Boonville-Ukiah road was tremendous esp. when you have a couple hundred miles in your legs.
- Overall Rating: 5. Epic!
Route Sheet (PDF, 558 kB)