Grand Tour Double Century
Two double centuries down and one to go to complete the California Triple Crown. After fading in Death Valley and being baked by the heat of Davis, I wondered what the Grand Tour would have in store for Canny and me this time around. Would I finish feeling better than I did at Davis?
The last few months—my last quarter at Stanford—were consumed by projects, time with friends, and labs, and I had limited time to train on the bike. I averaged less than 50 miles a week and my diet during the last quarter also deteriorated somewhat as I was eating out more. None of that could have helped enhance my fitness level. So again for the third time this year, I was concerned about how I would fare during the ride.
Also for the third time this year, I had to drive a long distance to the start of the ride. And there was a more serious problem: I had no detailed information about the ride, despite phone calls, emails, and posts on a Usenet newsgroups. I wasn’t even certain on how to get to the start point. I sent the L.A. Wheelmen a self-addressed-stamped-envelope a month before the ride to receive registration confirmation and information, but received it only two days before the ride. And the brochure they sent me had no information regarding the start point, only a long-distance phone number. Then when I called the hotline, it revealed what building the ride would start at but not how to get there. I also had no Malibu lights.
But I wasn’t 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. At least I sorta knew where Malibu is, so I hit the road, headed in that direction, and trusted that signs on the highway would get me there.
Ahead of me was a 370-mile jaunt down to Malibu, a coastal town near Los Angeles. My friend Lari told me that it usually takes her about six hours to drive down to her home in West Covina—never mind that she drives fast—so I figured, eight hours, easy. One problem however was that I just started working full-time earlier in the week and had to work most of Friday. But I was able to leave the office at 5:30 p.m., get home by 6:00 p.m. to eat and get my bicycling equipment, and roll onto the highway towards Southern California at 7:00 p.m.
Eight hours would mean getting to the start at 3:00 a.m. So I hoped that it would take only seven hours so I could sleep a little from 2:00 to 5:00 a.m.
From some AAA maps, I saw that there are approximately three routes to Los Angeles and they’re all approximately the same distance. Lari always takes I-5 down to L.A., so I figured it must be the quickest way.
I was driving along to a Garth Brooks CD when, an hour later, I realized I was in Pleasanton. Somehow I got onto the northeasterly I-680 from the US-101 junction in San Jose rather than continue south down US-101. I had to backtrack 30 miles or so, meaning that I lost about an hour.
Near Gilroy I turned off at the easterly junction to Highway 152. This highway was a real treat to drive down as it meandered through some beautiful mountain hillsides. They were perfect for a throaty British sports car. However I stopped twice as friends were paging me. Funny how I got few calls earlier in the week until now.
I got way behind schedule, but time passed quickly and by 4:00 a.m. I was close to Malibu. I stopped 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. She didn’t, not were there any maps in the convenience store or the phone book. My California map was also not detailed enough.
So I headed down US-101 until I was 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 exited the highway and started 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. By this time it was 5:30 a.m. Many cyclists must have already departed from the start about an hour ago.
But wait… there was a cyclist just ahead… and another one… and another one. By remarkable luck I was on the road that would bring me to the start of the ride!
The Pacific Coast Highway: Truly Awesome
I quickly registered ($60 for late registration) and was informed that there were two double century routes for this ride, in addition to a 300- and 400-mile option. The last two options were totally out of the question, 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 replied. “Could I decide in the middle of the ride, depending on how I feel?” The volunteers handed me two different maps and helped me realize that I would have about 40 miles to ponder the question before the two routes diverged.
At 6:00 a.m. I finally began riding. Soon after I realized something that would be a problem: the roads were unmarked. This was surprising to me because the previous 15 or so organized rides I had done were all marked with arrows to indicate turns. Compounding the problem was being so far behind all the other riders that I could not simply follow someone. So I had to follow 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. The weather was ideal: overhead clouds, low 60s, and no headwinds. The air by the Pacific smelled fantastic.
I was in a different world but got a sense of déjà vu. This was 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 looked forward to returning to the great highway for the last 30 miles of the ride.
The great weather continued and we passed some magnificent sites including an old Navy base with some jets and missiles. At about this time I was finally beginning to catch up to some other riders.
It took 40 miles, but I got to the first rest stop and was able to grab some food and some water for my bottles. The rest stops/checkpoints for the ride were 40 miles apart. The food supply was lacking but this might have been because I was one of the last ones to in getting to the rest stops due to the late start.
I was there for only five minutes and upon departing, one of the hosts advised, “Be sure to ride with someone else.” It would be nice to have some company, I concurred, 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 rolled around and the driver assured me that I should take this street no matter what the map said. This is when I first started to feel frustrated that the roads themselves were not marked with arrows or signs.
I tried to change my attitude by thinking, “But this is more fun—having to actually navigate a course rather than blindly following some arrows.” On the other hand, I kind of wanted to relax and pedal along mindlessly instead of passing up turns by a couple of miles.
At one point I was totally confused and went off course by five miles, adding about 1500 more vertical feet of climbing to the ride. Now I was totally unpleased. I turned around and was still confused until a sag wagon came around again. The people in the wagon were very friendly and understanding and promised to look after me. I was grateful for the sympathy.
This would be the last time I would get lost, but I did have to stop many other times to check the map.
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 was definitely the best in shape of them all and I was pleased that I could 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 40s and I was impressed especially with The Big Guy who had the build of a wrestler, not a cyclist. He was living proof that persistance and tenacity was more important to ultramarathon cycling than low fat content, 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. When it got dark we still had 40 miles to go on Highway 1.
Highway 1 to the Finish
Back on the Pacific Coast Highway. Already, nostalgic feelings from the morning’s coastal ride come back. But, these feelings of peace and harmony gave way to concentration, anxiety, and discomfort.
It got really dark with no street lamps or even highly reflective road stripes guiding the way. Only the headlamps of my fellow riders augmented the dim light provided by a crescent moon. We rode in a paceline, near the edge of the highway, where the road sharply dropped off into the sea. I could hardly see and regretted leaving the Vistalight headlamp in the 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 occurred to me that I should take off my prescription sunglasses. They were lightly tinted enough that often while driving at night I’d forget they were on, but taking them off made a big difference this time. I lost some visual clarity not wearing corrective lenses, but at least I could see rocks on the road easier.
But nevertheless we were still in a dangerous situation. Cars were passing at 55 mph, and Highway 1 is not the best maintained highway. A couple of times my front wheel fell into a small crevice in the road, nearly making me lose control and scaring the crap out of me.
We were probably going only 15 mph but it still seemed too fast for me. I could sense an accident was going to happen.
And then… bam. The rider behind me, the “Big Guy”, overlapped his front wheel, causing him to scream. I managed to stay up but the guy fell with a loud crash.
We stopped and checked him out. Amazingly, he was nearly unscathed aside from some road rash on his knee. Tough guy. He got right back up and we helped him put his chain back on his bike. Fortunately, his bike was otherwise perfectly fine.
After we make sure if he was all right, he asked if I was okay. I replied in the positive and said I was sorry for the fall.
“Not your fault,” he assured me. “I just got too close.”
But, the remaining 20 miles back, we were much more careful. For example, we were more communicative about irregularities in the road, pointed out rocks, and shouted “braking” when doing so.
At mile 196, there was supposed to be a rest stop at the top of Zuma Hill. Unfortunately, we aren’t exactly sure where Zuma is and nobody’s odometer agreed 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” seven miles.
Eventually, we found Zuma. However, there was nobody tending a rest stop. No water, no food, no people. We groaned and didn’t hang around long. Seven miles to go.
Half an hour later, we encountered a familiar traffic light and the road which leading directly back to the starting/finish point. At that point, I started to sprint. The other riders laughed, enjoying my sudden bursts of glee.
“We made it!” I exclaimed. And I had attained my goal of completing my first California Triple Crown. It was a long road getting there, but it was worth it.
Inside the cafeteria we eagerly chowed down some soup and other food. I was so impressed with the “Big Guy” and I told him so. Despite his age, weight, and the accident, he hung in there and finished his first 200-miler in respectable time.
It was 11:30 p.m. and I want to get back to the Bay Area. I pack up the MGBB and made it about five miles down the highway before my eyes became really heavy. Having not slept the night before, I realized that I was going to have to take a nap before proceeding. So I pulled off the side of the road and took a nap, only to be woken up by a couple of police officers. While still half asleep, I answered a couple of questions and they left me alone. Only after they were gone did I fully comprehend what had just happened. Eventually I was fresh enough to hit the road again.
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 the car after the ride. For this year, at least, it became something of a tradition.
But next year, I think I’ll plan things better.
- 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
- Scenery :5+
- Relative double century difficulty: 2-
- Organization/Ride Support: 1-
- Food: 3
- Overall rating: 4