Mt. Tam Double Century Felix Wong

“It’s 10pm,” said my friend Venus, who was visiting from Oklahoma for the entire week. “Shouldn’t you be getting some sleep?”

“What, and miss the 2nd half of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’?” I wryly replied, alluding to the movie we were watching in the living room the night before the Mt. Tam Double. For a moment, I thought about my (mostly inadvertent) pre-double-century tradition–that of getting minimum sleep–and decided that, just maybe, she was right.

So I trudged upstairs to bed and set my alarm for 2:00am. This would mean I’d get as much as 3 hours of sleep this time! Wow!

That is, if I managed to fall asleep right away. Or wake up at 2:00am. Of course, there was no way I could fall asleep at 10:00pm (so I lay in bed counting my pulse—more appropriate than sheep) and generally thinking, “got… to… get… sleepy!” Finally at 11:00pm or so I did fall asleep. But wait! I somehow awoken at 1:00am and couldn’t get back to sleep! So I did what any athlete who needed to eek out as much sleep as possible in the remaining hour: I rolled over, got up, and then walked downstairs to bake some cookies.

Oh well, at least my pre-ride little-or-no-sleep tradition stayed intact. So did my other one: making a mechanical repair the day before a ride! This time, I replaced my Speedplay cleats earlier in the day, which were badly worn after 5 years and >12,000 miles. Risky? Yes. But not replacing them? Also risky, yes!

I departed from Fremont at 2:30am and arrived in San Rafael by 3:45am (there was construction on the Richmond Bridge), listening to good ol’ rock’n’roll from the 80s all the way.

The Ride

Miles 0-50

I had my bike off of the car in about 10 minutes and before the clock even struck 4:00am I was already registered. Seems like I definitely could have left the house (and eaten a few more cookies) a little later this time. I ended up talking with a couple of other cyclists as a mass start for the ride was scheduled for 5:00am.

But wait! Way before this advertised “mass start” were riders already taking off! And so I would start riding myself at 4:49am with my trusty Cateye 5-LED front light on along with the Princeton-Tec 3-LED headlight tie-wrapped to my helmet and 3-red LED Cateye taillight.

The first first hour or so I rode in almost complete solitude, wending first through residential areas through San Rafael and then onto pine-Laden Lucas Valley Road. Lucas Valley Road, by the way, can be considered something of a classic sports car road in Northern California, though at this early hour in the morning there weren’t many cars on the road whatsoever. Putting myself on cruise control, the first 24 miles to the first checkpoint went by seemingly leisurely, yet at a fairly good average speed of just over 18 mph.

The next section would be a little more difficult, so it is good that my legs were still feeling relatively fresh. Already time for the namesake of the ride: the climb up to the top of Mt. Tam!

By this time, the fastest group of riders who started at the appointed time of 5:00 (or 11 minutes after me) had caught up, and a whole bunch of them sped on by. This, naturally, made me pick up the pace a little, considering that 1) I did want to get back to Fremont as soon as possible for Venus, and 2) when one is passed by as many people as I was, so quickly, the brain subconsciously says, “Man, I am going way too slow!”

Ultimately, I settled into a good pace along with an older gentleman sporting a new FSA compact crank. (I couldn’t help noticing his crank because I am very interested in replacing my triple with a compact crank once Campagnolo comes out with a compact gruppo later this year.) We weren’t pacelining or helping each other but would alternate the lead off and on (I think he was riding steadier than I was). This would continue nearly to the top of Mt. Tam (the highest point in Marin County at about 2500 feet), at which I just couldn’t keep the pace. The top finally came, though, as we were greated by really clear views of the San Francisco Bay below, the City itself to the southwest, and Mt. Diablo to the west. There we turned around, descending down into a very dense fog (with only about 10-50 feet visibility!) along the coast, past Stinson Beach, Muir Woods, and Point Reyes.

There were times here I would be slightly chilly and damp, although not so much as to necessitate putting on the arm warmers I had taken off on the climb up Mt. Tam. Mostly, the fog was only really bad intermitently; otherwise, the morning weather could be described as “pretty nice!”

The spirited climb up Mt. Tam took a toll on me… particularly my left knee. Doh, I can’t even remember the last time I experienced *any* knee pain while riding my Cannondale, so I attribute this to not aligning my cleat properly on my left shoe the day before when I replaced it. (Indeed, after the ride, I adjusted the cleat and never had experienced knee pain again.) The knee pain particularly prevented me from being able to pull up at all with my left leg, really hindering my riding ability, particularly my climbing.

Miles 50-85

Fortunately, in the next leg of the course, there were some people who came around who would help me motor on.

“Want to exchange pulls for a bit?” inquired a solo rider near Pt. Reyes.

Now, in recent years, it seems like I’ve become more and more less fond of drafting and trading pulls than the go-it-alone approach. I wrote a bit about this in my reports for the 2003 Davis Brevet Series, particularly the 300 km brevet. But today, with my self-imposed pressure finishing the ride as quickly as possible, this was most welcome! And so the two of us worked in harmony almost like clockwork–trading pulls at regularly intervals, about 45-60 seconds each, and keeping the distance between us about 1-3 feet apart.

We did this for about 15 minutes until a paceline of about 5 riders came up. Then my paceline partner quickly latched on, and I quickly… latched off. The pace was just too much for me and my bum knee. Well, it was good while it lasted.

Another 15 or 20 minutes later… came John, a friend from the Tri-City Tri Club! I had no idea whether he started before or after I did, so I wasn’t sure if I would run into him or not. It sure was good to see him and we rode together for a bit, which definitely made me helped me ride the next 10 miles a lot quicker than I would have otherwise. Indeed, after the first 5 miles of riding with him I was really starting to struggle, and when he asked me how I was doing, I could only meekly reply, “really tired.”

He kept up the pace, though, and as it wasn’t insanely fast, I was determined to hold on for as long as I could. “Bon courage” became the mantra I’d mutter under my breath… until 5 more miles, when another paceline came upon us, John joined, and once again I got dropped.

“This is going to be a longer day than I thought,” I said to myself at one point. And indeed, my thought process had then shifted from trying to ride at a pretty decent pace to merely surviving the next few legs of the ride, which I knew (from last year’s Marin Century) would be pretty hilly!

Another encounter, at Mile 80: this time with recumbent rider. “How are you doing?” he inquired. “Hey, Zach!” I replied. It was Zach Kaplan, who I had last seen at the Seattle-to-Portland Classic last year. We chatted for about a minute (which was about as long as I could keep up with him) in which he told me he did the STP again this year (just a couple of weeks ago), but this year chose to do the 200-mile course in one day instead of 2. He then took off, and I never saw him again.

The next rest stop would be 5 miles later, which was welcome, but wouldn’t help me recover enough to end my downward spiral performance-wise. (Then again, I only stopped here for about 1 minute!)

Miles 85-114

Before and after the rest stop, I chowed on some food I had brought in my jersey pocket, which actually was an “experimental”, never-tried-before “Powerbar” I had baked. By, um, accident. You see, the day before, I was making an applesauce cake (which I had made several times before) for Venus and me, but had forgotten to use any baking soda! So after I had finished baking the cake, it came out of the oven with ABSOLUTELY NO RISE. Whoops. Hence, my new “Powerbars”.

They actually didn’t taste too bad, but they were really dense. (Imagine compressing a cake down to one third its size and then eating it… that’s how these “bars” were like.) And soon I had a new problem: within 10 or 20 minutes, I became extremely, uncontrollably drowsy. Lo and behold: I had successfully created the new “SleepyBar.” (I am accepting orders. )

Not wanting to stop and nap I fought through the drowsiness briefly (reminding myself, once again, “Bon courage!”), but then came a point where my eyes unconsciously closed for almost 2 seconds. The moment I realized this, I pulled off to the side of the road before this could get dangerous.

I got off of my bike and stretched for about a minute. Yawn! I was still tired. But ultimately I decided that I was awake enough to continue. I rode for another mile, quite slowly, when all of a sudden, another cyclist pulled up to me, and says, “Hey!”

This time it was fellow Paris-Brest-Paris ancien, Brian Bowling. I had last seen him in the Mulholland Double in April. “How’s it going?” he asked.

“Poorly!” I exclaimed. I didn’t want to make excuses about my bum knee but I did mention that I was having problems staying awake. “You’re still making good time, as there’s a lot of people still behind you,” Brian stated. I was thankful for his encouragement and also happy to see him, even if the encounter was brief, as he too (like everyone else I would see in the next 30 miles) was soon well off into the distance.

In light of my troubles, my new focus became primarily to conserve energy and maybe even recover a little bit, and make it to the Valley Ford rest stop with enough in me to make it through the subsequent leg, which I knew would be the most difficult yet.

In the meantime, every little roller, even the 50-foot ones (and there were many in this leg along Highway 1) felt like a major climb to me, and the Valley Ford rest stop couldn’t come too quickly (very literally).

Miles 114-143

Coleman Rd. The name of that road occupied my mind quite a bit during much of the day, as I knew that not only was it fairly steep in some parts, but that it was not short. There were two ways to look at this: 1) oh no, the hardest part is yet to come, and I am dying already!, or 2) just one more great climb, and it’s home free from there (even though there’s still about 75 more miles to go…)

Fortunately, despite my woes, my attitude was both positive and steadfast that day, so my thought process was along the latter. Also helping was that my legs DID seem to recover a little bit during my ultra-slow pace in the last leg, and finally, I had stopped yawning!

Not helping, however, was the higher temperatures now encountered during this part of the day. By this time there were no clouds in the sky; we were increasingly riding more and more inland from the coast; and the temperatures on my handlebar-mounted thermometer were now hitting the high 80’s/low 90’s.

It really didn’t feel so bad, though. And surprisingly, the climb seemed more tame than it did last year. Seems like I had over-estimated it in my mind prior to the climb. In any case, I was feeling better, and I even managed to pass some people here for the first time in a few hours.

And the descent after Coleman… was this newly paved? It didn’t seem nearly as rough or as dangerous as last year during the Marin Century, in which my friend Everitt was really happy that he had ridden his mountain bike. And so the ride in to the next checkpoint (actually, the same Valley Ford rest stop as was used for the last checkpoint) was rather uneventful.

Miles 143-200: The Comeback

At the Valley Ford Rest stop, I ate some cookies, took some photos, and imbibed my first (and only) Pepsi for the day. Cola has helped revive me far more consistently and strongly than any other beverage, food, or gel in the past, and once again, for like the 7th time now in my cycling career, it did not disappoint.

Within 10 minutes of being back on the bike I felt more alive–well, maybe it wasn’t a day and night difference, but certainly better–and coupled with the fact that now we weren’t going into a headwind as we had been much of the time when riding north and west, I was going a whole lot faster.

I got into a rhythm and also into my aerobars. For the rest of the ride I stayed in them longer than I would in either the hoods, handlebar tops, or drops, and was starting to make some pretty good time. One hour passed… and I had already gone 18 more miles. Another hour… another 17 or 18. The knee pain when pulling up still existed, but as there wasn’t nearly as much climbing in the rest of the course, this was less of an issue. After another hour of this I was doing some time calculations in my head. Just a few hours ago it seemed like I would be fortunate if I could finish by 9:00pm; now it seemed like I could finish by 8:30pm, or maybe, even 8:15!

There was one more fairly significant climb at about Mile 175 that was over a mile long. I went up it okay, though it did seem a bit longer and more difficult than last year. But I crested the top feeling fine, and it was aero time again. I was feeling so good in fact that by the last checkpoint on the course–at Mile 186–I opted not to stop, just yelling out my rider number to the staffers recording that information, and carrying on.

2 miles later… I recognized a rider in a 5-person pack just ahead: John! I couldn’t believe it; at the pace I was going during the legs after I last saw him at Mile 70 or so, I figure he must have gotten ahead by at least 45 minutes or an hour or so. As I passed him up I yelled out his name and waited a bit, wanting him to join me to ride together the last 10 miles to the end. Perplexingly, neither he or his group seemed to have any interest in joining me. So I carried on at that pace for about another mile, and then decided that, with the finish just 9 miles away, I’d just hunker down in the aerobars again and finish this thing!

In the next couple of miles I passed up a number of other riders rather quickly. As if I didn’t already have enough adrenaline going, though, at Mile 193 (with just 7 miles to go) I saw in my embedded rear-view Reevu helmet mirror a pack coming up on me even quicker! Seeing that I was being chased, now I was even more determined to go all out. This was underscored when I uncharacteristically attacked the downhill–something I have long ceased to do after doing too many rides where people have gotten killed on the downhills (e.g., the 2002 Death Ride and the 2003 Climb to Kaiser)–and, perhaps for the first time all day, even passed people on it (instead of getting passed). My technical downhill skills, it seems, hadn’t regressed too much despite my new-conservatism approach over the years (and hence, lack of fast-descending practice). And then with 6, 5, and then just 4 miles to go, with no sign of the chasing pack in sight, it seemed like I actually might not get caught! “Bon courage!”

NOT! With just under 4 miles to go, I was stunned–yes, STUNNED–to suddenly see the pack in my rearview mirror. It wasn’t their presence that was surprising, but just how quickly they were converging on me! I was passing other cyclists like they were almost standing still, and this pack was converging on me like I was standing still. Game over. At that point, I just shook my head and moved a couple of feet closer to the side of the road in order to give this group room to pass. Which they did, and allowed me to join in. John was in this group.

John would tell me at the finish, “Yah, we had some pretty strong people in that group. There was one guy who was really strong, and he almost pulled us back up to you on the ascent, but then we fell back on the descent. Another guy took over, but he began to tire, so then I took over, and then we finally caught you…”

In any case, it was a thrilling finish to what had been an up-and-down ride. Fortunes can quickly change, and in the midst of a 200-mile ride, fortunes often do. In this ride, my riding went from normal, to very good, to poor, to bad, to really really bad, to normal, and then pretty darn decent by the end.

It was 7:54pm by the time I had finished. I couldn’t believe it. There was still daylight. Finished *before* 8:00, which was something I never even had considered as a possibility at any point during the entire day!

Epilogue

Like last year, the finish was well-stocked with a huge feast of a variety of yummy food: pizza (all varieties), burritos, pasta, salad, fruit, bread, cookies, etc. Despite my rush to get back home I stayed long enough to down a couple of pieces of pepperoni-and-vegetable pizza. And salad. And pasta.

Glad I did. Despite my concerns that poor Venus was going to be home all alone when I got back at 9:30pm, she wasn’t even back yet from dinner with her friend Jennie, whom she (fortunately) had finally been able to get in touch with after trying all week! And when she did arrive (at 10:30pm), she was like, “wow, I didn’t think you’d be home yet by the time I got back!”

“Guess I made pretty good time,” I replied.

“Guess so,” she said.
We then sat down and started watching “Shallow Hal”, but as in the case as the night before with “Sweet Home Alabama”, I couldn’t finish watching the movie. Seems like the day had come and gone full circle.

Ride Data

  • 200 mi
  • 4:49am start, 7:54pm finish—15.1 hours
  • Average Speed: 13.6 mph moving, 13.2 mph overall
  • Max Speed: 39 mph
  • Total Climbing: 15,000 feet

Rating

(1=ho hum; 5=best)

  • Scenery: 4
  • Support/Organization: 5. Plenty of stops, food, and friendly support.
  • Food: 5. Generally the best selection of food, esp the post-ride meal (burritos and pizza).
  • Weather: 5-
  • Relative Difficulty: 4
  • Overall Rating: 4+

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Before the ride I slept at home for a whole two hours, then drove up in the Alfa from Fremont and arrived in San Rafael at about 3:45am.[Mile 24, 6:28am] This is me... or at least my shadow among the Marin hills made golden by a rising sun.[Mile 36, 7:37am] Nearing the top of Mt. Tamalpais--the signature climb of the ride--one can see Mt. Diablo (the highest point in Contra Costa County behind the trees and The City (San Francisco) in the distance.[Mile 70, 9:55am] My friend John (also from the Tri-City Tri Club) and I rode together for a little bit until the next rest stop, after which my body shut down and I was not able to keep up with anyone![Mile 85, 10:55am] From Miles 85-114, I couldn't help stop yawning and was getting dropped by everyone! Photo: photocrazy.com.[Mile 85, 10:55am] That despite looking rather "aero" in this shot.  Photo: photocrazy.com.[Mile 80, 10:34am] "Anyone" included a very fit Zach Kaplan, who easily sped by me up this climb on his recumbent after chatting for 30 seconds or so.  We had last seen each other in the 2003 Seattle-to-Portland Classic, which he did again this year![Mile 114, 1:29pm] At the Valley Ford rest stop, I stopped for a moment to regroup, knowing that the next leg would be the most difficult of the day aside from, perhaps, Mt. Tam.[Mile 128, 2:44pm] Here we go, up Coleman Rd!  It probably gets up to 13-14% grade in some sections, and is moderately long.  Seeing this beautiful Alfa Romeo Spider (just like Elaina but in Alfa red) come on down lifted my spirits.[Mile 143, 4:17pm] Made it back to the Valley Ford rest stop, where I chucked down a Pepsi.  Once again, the cola would save me, reinvigorating me for a virtual time-trial for the last 55 miles.  I stopped a total of maybe 7 minutes during those miles.[Mile 187, 7:19pm] Excited to finish, I didn't bother to stop at the last checkpoint and a mile or so later, finally caught up to John.  In an inspired finish, we rolled into the high school with daylight still remaining and burritos awaiting us for dinner.

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