Tour de Napa Valley

At last, another century with my cycling partner Ken. Since 1993, when we did the Delta Century in Stockton, Ken and I have made it a tradition to do a 100-miler together every single year. As I will not be able to do the Foxy Fall Classic with him this year, it looks like this will be our only ride this year.

But what a good way to end the summer. We’re up early in the morning, meet at his aunt’s home in Belmont where he is staying for the summer, and stop by some ATM machines before heading to Napa. All the ATM’s are malfunctioning this morning. Typical. This and other small setbacks make us get to the start of the ride at 8:10 or so, 40 minutes after the mandatory start time period for the 100-mile option had ended.

“No problem,” I tell him, “I’m sure they’ll still let us do the 100 miles. After all, the course closes at 5:00, which would give us almost 9 hours… and certainly we can do 100 miles in under 9 hours.

This has been our attitude for the entire month preceding the ride. We have become complacent, having survived numerous centuries in the past years, be it on a mountain bike (which Ken rode in the 1993 Delta and Eldorado centuries), a road bike with ridiculously high gearing (which Ken rode in the ’94 Eldorado Century, or broken equipment (which affected both of us in the ’95 Gold Rush Century). This ride, with only 5000 feet of climbing, or 30% less than the ’94 Eldorado Century, should be a piece of cake, we think. Besides, “we can ride a century on any given day,” we agree.

It’s funny how things don’t always go as planned…

The Start

At the start, the hosts have no problem with us doing the 100-mile option even though we are starting rather late. Right after I get my route sheet, a remotely familiar fellow walks over to me.

Oh my gosh, it is Milo, Mr. Barf King and the person I had ridden with for the first half of the Eastern Sierra Double, which we had just done a month ago. Stunned to see him here, I reach out to shake his hand.

Milo, as chronicled in my review of the 1998 Eastern Sierra Double, was the villain whom I eventually dropped at mile 115 after his repeated self-induced vomitting sessions, etc. On that ride, I left him right after he tried to suggest that he might get killed while riding without lights later in the night if I didn’t stick with him until the very end. So at least it is off of my conscience to see that he is still alive. I inquire about how things went.

“I made it,” he proudly proclaims, “I turned on the afterburner and made it to the finish. And the next week I rode the Death Ride in 10 hours, 30 minutes.” A bit incredulous, I congratulate the guy. Perhaps I underestimated the guy. But I am very relieved that for this ride he has another ride partner to annoy…

So he takes off. Ken and I, on the other hand, spend some time looking at the route sheet, and leave the start 10 minutes later. It’s 8:30 a.m. Still plenty of time to finish the 100 miles, I think.

The First Leg

We’re off, riding along the main highway where the terrain is entirely flat for the first few miles. It is only slightly cool outside at this time in the morning–an indicator that it will likely get pretty hot in the afternoon. But for now, things are dandy and we are cruising at about 17-19 mph.

This leg of the ride is entirely uneventful, with the exception of almost missing a few turns. The roads are marked with arrows indicating which way we should turn, but on one of the first turns, the arrows were right in the middle of the intersection. This causes us to overshoot the intersection completely and then subsequently stop to inspect our maps. At this brief stop I take a few moments to wet the electrodes of my heart rate monitor.

Ah, my heart rate monitor. I used to swear by the instrument until my original Polar heart rate chest transmitter died and I replaced it with a Nashbar one. After that I never was able to get very reliable readings. But the week before this ride I shortened my transmitter strap, hoping to get the transmitter to press against my chest more closely. And by golly, as long as the electrodes are wet, I now can get reliable heart rate readings for the first time in 2 years. Halleluyah.

More problematic is my Vetta C-20 cyclocomputer. It seems like both sensors are on the fritz, as the week before both the speed and cadence readings were often erroneous. Today the readings are much better, but I still get some erratic readings. It’s time to replace this cyclocomputer with an Avocet, I think, recalling that the Vetta made my Not Recommended Componentry List a few years back.

The 2nd Leg

On this leg of the ride we get another ride partner. Her name is Judy, riding a trick-looking Quintana Roo aluminum triathlon bike. At first she is really quiet, but eventually we (or, primarily, Ken) make a little small talk with her.

She’s a triathlete from Sacramento, doing her first century. Apparently she got off course by 12 miles or so, including a lot of hilly miles. “We’ll try to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” I reassure her.

She’s also a bit concerned about the bit of climbing we’ll be doing, but Ken tells her not to worry because “I haven’t been climbing well today.” I decide to continue to take it easy on the climbs, which is where my heart rate monitor comes in handy. I had set it to warn me when my HR exceeded 165 bpm, well under my anaerobic threshold.

Nevertheless, we are still going a pretty decent pace (~17 mph), and constantly seeing the shadow of the cyclist behind me in the corner of my eye, I don’t alter my rhythm. Finally, however, I realize we have lost a cyclist… and to my surprise, it is not Judy, but rather Ken. Judy has been riding well, mimicking my shifts, drafting pretty closely (after Ken taught her a bit about drafting), and lookin’ lively on the climbs. We slow down to allow Ken to catch back up.

Ken would later tell me, “On the flats, I would slowly catch up to you guys, but right when I had just about caught up, there would be a hill. And then I would fall back again.” Still, however, this was Ken, and I have no concerns about how he would fare during the rest of the ride. I have more concerns for Judy, who has relatively little experience and has done so many “extra-credit” miles already on this ride.

But then, when we finally get to the rest stop after this leg, a guy rides up to Judy, perhaps her boyfriend. They then start to have a very lengthy, although non-heated, discussion. Apparently, they had started the ride together, but then Judy got off course. This guy, realizing she was no longer with him, then turned around, rode all over the place in search of her, only to later panic when he heard that one cyclist got hit by a car.

Ken and I finish eating, going to the restroom, and filling our water bottles while they are still at it and have not even grabbed something to eat yet. They finally indicate that they have no intention of going on and finishing the ride with us, so Ken and I take off. I wonder what they would decide to do.

Miles 50-75

This is the turning point of the ride. It starts with a bit of a descent, but then, the climbing picks up. A lot. One hill is 4 miles, just going straight up. But at least it’s shaded.

Usually I wither in the heat, and hence I make sure that I am drinking plenty of fluids, unlike last year’s Foxy Fall Classic. I feel like I have a huge reserve of energy, due to intelligent pacing early on. Today, I am seeing the benefits of having a heart rate monitor that can accurately assess how hard I am exerting myself.

Not only that, but it is telling me very interesting things about my body. For example, at a rest stop, my heart rate while standing was 128 bpm. This was quite alarming because an hour earlier, while slowly climbing a hill with Ken, my heart rate was well under 120 bpm.

And when we left the rest stop, my heart rate almost immediately dropped a few bpm, even though I was actually exerting some energy. Ken and I postulate two things: (1) The body increases blood circulation as the ambient temperatures go higher, and (2) it is more tiresome for the body to stand rather than sit. I’m not sure what lessons such info gives us, but human physiology can be fascinating.

Anyhow, back to the hill. I can’t help but think about how it reminds me about Old La Honda Road, a classic climb in the mountains west of Palo Alto. The memories come back about how I had to dismount and walk a several times on my first ride up Old La Honda, just a couple of months after arrive at Stanford for the first time. I was a poor climber back then, having grown up in the flatlands of Stockton, CA.

But what a difference 5 years makes. On this ride, even this late in the ride, I am feeling very strong and very lively. I am basically just yo-yo-ing from shade to shade, kickin’ back with Ken. Unfortunately, Ken isn’t feeling quite so strong. Eventually he urges me to just take off and meet him at the top. “Not yet,” I say, “we still have a few miles to go.” I didn’t want to just ditch him as I did to Milo in the Eastern Sierra Double.

A few riders catch and drop us, however, and my cadence is falling way below acceptable levels, even in my lowest gear. So I do eventually take off. “I want to see if I can catch up to those other riders,” I say. “I’ll come back down, depending on how I feel when I get to the top.”

He approves and so I’m off. I accellerate up to about 10-11mph, which is about 3-4 times as fast as what we were doing. My heart rate goes up to about 180 bpm pretty quickly even though I don’t feel like I’m past my anaerobic threshold; must be the heat I think. I maintain this pace and quickly do catch up to the others, but they stop before I pass them. And what’s that ahead? It’s the top.

Some female riders are hanging out up there, being entertained by a guy who was driving a SAG wagon but stopped long enough to chat with them. “You were HAULING,” he tells me.

“I was feeling strong,” I say. And indeed, it was probably some of my best riding in intense heat. I had gone through both of my waterbottles, however, within half an hour. Thank goodness, the guy has some water in his car, which he fills up while I chat with the others. Apparently, one of the cyclists has her birthday today, and hence she and her friends did this ride to celebrate.

I am cooling off pretty quickly, however, so in a few minutes I do head back down. Within 2 minutes or so I see Ken. “You’re actually very far up the hill,” I tell him, “the top is less than a mile away.”

But he is clearly not feeling too well, although unlike Milo, he keeps up his sense of humor. During the climb alone, however, he had decided that he would take a SAG wagon to the next rest stop. I try to convince him otherwise, having no doubt that he could make it under his own power, but he points out how late it was. So we agree to meet at the next rest stop, with me riding there, and he sagging on in.

Back up the hill then. I takes only a few minutes to crest it, and afterwards there is a nice and long downhill. Not wanting Ken to have to wait at the rest stop a long time presuming that the SAG wagon would get him pretty quickly, I am now going all out. In a full aero tuck, I’m maintaining speeds approaching 45mph. What a glorious descent.

And hence, on this leg of the ride, I estimate that with 13 miles to the rest stop after the top of the hill, it would take me only forty minutes to get to the rest stop, easy. But I miss a turn somewhere, and suddenly realiize I am lost. I have to turn around, and I lament the thought of having to reclimb the hill I had just descended so fast. Fortunately, however, even though I had missed a turn, I had returned to the course by complete accident. In fact, my missed turn turned out to be a shortcut, and I get to the rest stop in 25 minutes.

The Last Rest Stop

At the last rest stop, I am now covered from head to toe in sweat. My arms, my legs… it was as if I had just jumped out of a shower and never bother to dry off. So I munch on food while maintaining my distance from everyone. I was surprised Ken wasn’t already there, but figure he should be coming in very shortly.

But 30 minutes pass, then 40, then 50. The rest stop is closing up, and the last riders are leaving. During these minutes I had anxiously inquired to one of the hosts with a radio (a little teenager familiar with HAM lingo, apparently) if “anyone had seen or picked up a guy in a UC Davis cycling jersey.” The clueless little guy takes forever to ask the drivers on the route if he’s out there, and finally tells me, “No, there’s no one on the course anymore.”

No one on the course? Well, was he picked up and gone to the finish already? Or has something happened to him?

An hour has now passed since I came in, and am now really starting to get antsy. What had happened to Ken? I urge the teenager once more to check with the drivers, which he eventually does. “Wait… there is one more rider on the course.”

I press for a name, or at least a description of the rider. Again, the little kid takes forever to request the info. He can’t get a name but confirms it is a rider “in a Cal Aggies jersey.” It’s about time.

And within 30 seconds, here comes a van with Ken in it. Relief. “They picked me up literally one mile from the rest stop,” Ken says. “It could have taken me less time to ride in that to load my bike on the van.”

And now, it being almost 5:00 p.m., when the course and “lunch” ultimately closes, he decides he will sag in to the finish. I have cooled off tremendously by now but I still want to finish the ride. So it’s time for a little time trial.

The final 12 miles

The final 12 miles start with a little downhill, but is plagued with a heinous headwind. First I was started at more than 20 mph, but can’t maintain it… this headwind is so strong. And after 10 minutes or so, I see the van with Ken and his bike pass me up. I won’t get to the final destination before him this time.

I pass up a few riders and yell as I pass, “Hang in there… we’re almost there.” But I am starting to hurt in this headwind; my legs aren’t nearly as loose as one hour ago. I am now only going only 16-17mph. But finally, Yountville is now in sight.

And finally, at 5:30 p.m., I’m in. Thankfully, there is still some food out. Ravenous, I take as much pasta and chicken as I can. Bees are everywhere, however, and I ultimately give up on finishing all of my food. But the bees couldn’t spoil what was a good day: a pretty ride with a good friend, a day of no mechanical problems, a day when I was feeling especially strong. A fitting end to a prolific season of cycling.

Ride Summary

  • 98 mi.
  • 8:20 start, 17:30 finish—9.2 hours
  • Average Speed: 13.5 mph moving, 8.75 mph overall
  • Max Speed: 44.5
  • Total Climbing: 5000 ft.


(1=ho hum; 5=best)

  • Scenery:4
  • Support/Organization: 2-. It took 1.5 hours for a SAG wagon to come and get my riding partner in need of help.
  • Food: 3-. Would have got a 1 were it not for some of the best pasta I’ve ever tasted.
  • Weather: 3. Started out beautiful, but then it got up to 97 degrees.
  • Relative Difficulty: 3
  • Overall Rating: 3. Generally a nice course but in need of more support and better route markings on the road.
Ken Loo starting the 1998 Tour de Napa Valleytrees, mountains, 1998 Tour de Napa ValleyKen Loo, shaded road, 1998 Tour de Napa Valleyshaded hill, 1998 Tour de Napa ValleyNear the end of the 1998 Tour de Napa Valley.

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