“It sounds like something I shouldn’t pass up,” I wrote AJ, when he told me about his plans to do the Sierra Century, a hilly century in the Sierras with intriguing Slug Gulch and 200-km options.
Indeed, the start of the Sierra Century was only about 40 miles east of my parents’ home in Stockton and would begin in rolling Amador County, an area I had only last visited in 1995 during the near-disastrous Gold Rush Century. Furthermore, I had not seen AJ—who was a great lab partner in two engineering classes at Stanford—in well over 6 or 7 years, and was looking forward to having an opportunity to catch up with him.
Never mind that marathon training, Mission Peak hikes, and century rides were all starting to take a toll on my body and that even as late as the Friday night before the ride, I was hobbling, limping, and walking like a robot a little bit. Sierra was a go. AJ and I headed down to Stockton from the Bay Area on Friday night—where we stayed at my folks’ place for the night—and woke up at 5:00 a.m. in order to eat breakfast and arrive at the start in Plymouth by 6:10 a.m. Somewhere in these drives we resolved we would even consider doing the 200-km option, “depending on how badly we feel after Slug Gulch”. I had never ridden with AJ before, but deep inside I somehow I knew he would be completely up to the challenge.
A huge mass of cyclists had congregated within the Plymouth Fairgrounds, where many (if not most) of them had camped overnight. Yet, even with the 1500-2000 cyclists who had registered for the ride, it took little time for AJ and me to check in, get our registration materials, and be on our way by 6:40 a.m.
The ride started out with long and gradual, sweeping descents through shoulderless roads and plenty of free speed. Several pacelines had formed, but AJ and I remained mostly side by side, not interested in drafting nor having our view of the roads ahead and the golden hillsides obstructed by some cyclist’s butt. Yet, we were making good time, with our average speed being over 20 mph until Mile 19 or 20.
A note about AJ. At first glance, he does not look like your typical roadie. Donning a bright green jersey and what appeared to be cargo shorts, he was riding a Marin cross bike with flat handlebars, 28mm-wide 26″ tires, and cantilever brakes. (On the other hand, his bike was light especially for a hybrid, and despite the flat handlebars, he was quite aero.) Looks can be deceiving, however. AJ was fast.
Miles 21-43: To Volcano
“The first rest stop isn’t so great,” AJ warned, mentioning the throngs of cyclists and more limited selection of food. But upon arriving, we were greeted with plenty of fresh strawberries, bananas, cantelope, and bagels. The lines for the port-a-potties were exceedingly long, however, so we skipped them altogether. After this 15-minute or so stop, we were on our way.
The second leg is where the climbing begins, some relatively gentle climbs on smooth roads lined by wooden fenceposts enshrouding brown-and-yellow fields of straw and oak. With the temperatures comfortably in the low-60s at this point, the course inspired us to pick up the effort until we were regularly passing other cyclists well into the more mountainous areas where oaks were supplanted by numerous firs that cast jagged shadows on the road. By Mile 40 we were going pretty hard.
“We’re making good time,” I commented as we pulled into the rest stop in a town named Volcano at Mile 43.
“Yah, someone was picking up the pace back there at the end,” replied AJ.
“OK, but let’s take it a bit easier in the next leg to save something for Slug Gulch,” I said, as we waited in line for the port-a-potties.
Many cyclists lingered around at the rest stop but with good reason–a whole smorgasbord of food options were available. On six tables and under 6 tents contained the following: red grapes, sweet strawberries, cantelope, carrots, fig bars, muffins, turkey sandwiches, ham and cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, more… Smiles were all around as empty stomachs became full again.
At this rest stop I saw Matt of Stockton, who I met at the Lodi Sunrise Century a couple of weekends ago. “Last year I did not do Slug Gulch and was mad at the end because I had the legs and lungs for it,” he said. “This year I am determined to do Slug Gulch no matter what.” I wished him well, and then AJ and I were on our way.
More encounters: moments after we started riding I asked some men sporting yellow Benicia Bike Club jerseys if they knew Nancy L., who was about to commence the SF-LA AIDS bike ride that weekend, and then asked one of them (Mick) to “please say hello to Nancy for Felix.” Further up the road AJ and I came across a 70-year-old cyclist on a grey carbon Trek with an oval mirror, and recalled a matching description in an email I received from a cyclist I regularly correspond with. “Joe,” I exclaimed, “we finally meet!” Joe was looking good on this hill, but quipped, “I may need you to do the writeup on Slug Gulch, because I’m so slow.” I didn’t think he was that slow, though, and had full confidence that he was going to finish this ride. After we exchanged pleasantries and AJ and I went ahead I told AJ about how despite being 70 years old, Joe has been riding a century practically every single weekend. I would be ecstatic to have that sort of fitness 40 years from now.
If the last leg was moderately easy climbing, then this was the first “big” climb of the day: Rams Horn Grade. This climb, which begins half-a-mile after the Volcano rest stop, is almost 3 miles long, and is steep enough that the ride organizers had lined the roads with signs every 1/4 mile or so that offered encouraging words like, “Just ahead, in one more mile” and, more simply, “Don’t give up.” Yet far from giving up, AJ and I were going a good pace all while having a casual conversation, which made us forget that we were doing a fairly substantial climb. What did we talk about?
Commuting. So it was here I got some insights from AJ about commuting by bicycle:
- “It costs me more to bike to work [from Mountain View to Stanford] than to drive to work,” observed AJ. Part of this was due to not getting the discount he would get if he were to buy a year-round-parking permit instead of a Winter Quarter parking permit (the only quarter he drives to work), tax codes, and increased food consumption. AJ even wrote the Stanford committee in charge of promoting increased bicycle use about the irony of this, but they merely responded that their hands were tied due to tax regulations. Nevertheless, AJ continues to bike to work every day (except in winter) because it keeps him in shape and because he enjoys it.
- Commuting by bicycle can be an effective form of training. I say this because this makes up most of AJ’s riding, and yet he was superbly fit despite only having done one other organized century before. The key, it seems, is to ride hard and ride fast during these limited miles. E.g., AJ was telling me that one day last week he averaged 18.6 mph on the way to work, even though there were traffic stops, etc. That is fast.
By the time we had finished this conversation, we were already at the top of Rams Horn Grade. At the summit was a water stop with a volunteer offering cookies, but AJ and I waved it by and chose to immediately join in on the descent of Fiddletown Rd. instead. The descent was wide, shaded, and rapid for a whole 10 miles or so. At the bottom the roads leveled off but surface quality deteriorated tremendously (potholes galore), and in trying to keep another group of riders ahead within our sights, we pushed the pace. Here it is important to keep the elbows and knees flexed so as to absorb the impact of each surface irregularity, and to keep a relaxed grip on the handlebars. Because of the poor roads, “this is my least favorite part of the ride,” said AJ. Thankfully, this stretch of road would not extend more than a few miles.
At the Fiddletown rest stop we enjoyed yet more generous helping of fruit and fluids before being on away. And once again, we agreed to “take it easy”—words that we had repeated earlier in the day but had thus far gone into one ear and out the other as quickly as fast as one can say “go.”
Likewise, despite becoming increasingly fatigued with the miles and the ever-rising amount of climbing, we did not ease up here. Roads narrowed and became stripeless with the tall firs again giving way to oak and bushier, leafier trees, with open expanses that would ultimately bear little resemblance to the roadsides of Slug Gulch Rd. The hoards of cyclists from earlier in the day had dispersed by this point, and with every cyclist we passed I could only wonder, will we be paying for our efforts later up the upcoming infamous climb of the day.
By Mile 74, it was seemingly time to find out. But the Sacramento Wheelmen had thoughtfully placed a water stop here before the big climb. I had almost missed it and was about to turn left onto Perry Creek Rd., which would ultimately take us up to Slug Gulch, when AJ yelled out, “Let’s stop and stretch our legs.”
“Well, at least we had good intentions about taking it easy,” laughed AJ.
I understood what he meant. “Now that was not an easy leg,” I exclaimed. I was glad we were stopping, and between stretching I must have inhaled about 3 small cups of trail mix.
We then proceeded up Perry Creek Rd. and within a mile both of us were in our lowest gear. We had not hit Slug Gulch yet, and hence I was taken aback at the unexpected steepness of this road.
“AJ!” I shouted. “If Slug Gulch is any steeper than this, I could be in trouble.”
AJ tried to allay my concerns. “Slug Gulch is about this steep, just longer.” Somehow at that time, this didn’t sound quite so bad…
Slug Gulch finally arrived. Another rider asks us how long the climb was. “It’s 6 miles total,” replied AJ matter-of-factly, “but most of the climbing is in the first 4 miles.”
We geared down again. AJ immediately got out of the saddle, but being concerned about using up too much energy too soon for such a climb by standing, I remained seated. More cyclists were up ahead, but they seemed to be moving in slow motion—indeed, some of them seemed to be hardly moving at all.
“It’s relentless,” exclaimed AJ. Fortunately, however, after just a couple of miles, the road actually went downhill. It was just a brief spell before returning upwards, but enough of a reprieve for one’s muscle cells to regroup, call on the infantry to prepare the horses, and lead a charge into the next battle.
Walkers. It was somewhere in this stretch that we passed not one, but two people walking their bikes. While there is no shame in walking, this actually produced some pride and encouragement. Pride as in “this hill is so steep that people are pushing their bikes up of it, and yet we’re still on top of our bikes cranking away.”
More inspiration: I spotted a recumbent rider making good progress and already into its 4th mile up Slug Gulch. Knowing first-hand from other rides as to how much more difficult long and steep climbs are on a recumbent than an “upright” bicycle, I was moved by the recumbent rider’s courage. However, as I readied myself to talk with the guy, he pulled on over to take a leak.
At around Mile 4.5 of this climb, the cyclist that had talked with AJ at the beginning of Slug Gulch said to him, “You weren’t kidding that this climb is 6 miles long, were you?” “No,” AJ replied, “but the last couple of miles are a whole lot easier than the first 4.” As if to punctuate that remark a group of 4 riders riding in paceline formation zoomed passed us, which prompted me to speed up considerably. Once again, we were going hard, but AJ was again right there. The entire ride AJ and I were never more than 30 feet apart, and it wasn’t because we were ever waiting up for each other. Once again I was impressed with AJ’s strength.
Finally, the stop sign at the top was in sight, with the Omo Ranch rest stop just ahead. “Good job, AJ!” I shouted as we rolled on in. “Good job, Felix!” he replied. And as dismounted off of our bicycles, some friendly volunteers in hula skirts gave us a reward for taking on “the challenge”: a small pin that proclaimed, “I Tamed Slug Gulch.” Very cool.
By this time, it was 1:05 p.m., so we had made it—beat the time cutoff for doing the 200km option by a comfortable 55-minute margin. “Wow, we have so much time left, we HAVE to do the 200km option now,” I said. AJ just grinned, indicating he was totally up for it.
This did not mean that we were not tired. Indeed, we lingered at this rest stop (which again had the spectacular assortment of foods that would mark this century) for a whopping 30 minutes, making it our longest stop of the day.
Everything else was anticlimatic anyhow, or so I thought at the moment. Then reality hit: the route sheet showed that there was still 1400 feet of climbing in the next 29 miles, and 700 feet of climbing in the last 8. “Those 700 are really evil,” said one of the rest stop workers. “It’s just evil to have that much climbing so late in the ride.”
So we took off and faced yet more climbing. It turns out most of the 1400 feet of climbing in this leg were in the first 9 miles. “I really would like to be at the top,” said a rider behind us. “Yes, I really want to go down,” I replied.
But if this steady, consistent climbing was not easy at this point, at least the scenery was doing its best to distract us. With a thick layer of green covering all the lands by the roadways, in addition to lean,100-foot tall trees clumped together while occasionally giving way to picturesque long-distance views of the mountains and even snow-capped peaks beyond, this section provided perhaps the most beautiful photo moments in the entire ride. Ansel Adams could have done some great work here.
At Mile 92, it was finally time to go down. But not before hitting a water stop. This time AJ and I did not skip it—in fact we spent at least 5 minutes here—and were starting to roll when—BANG—AJ’s rear tire exploded.
“With me on the ride, a mechanical problem was bound to happen,” I joked, alluding to how back in college I seemed to have an uncanny knack for breaking odd tools and parts. (Indeed, AJ, our engines lab partner Nalu, and Professor Edwards would coin the verb “to felix [something]”, which roughly meant to tweak or apply some large amount of torque on some tool or part…)
It turns out that the sidewall ruptured, but was nothing that duct tape could not fix. Still, “we’ll take it easy,” I said—words that had rung hollow up to this point all day. “It would be disastrous if the tire exploded again while going 35 mph.”
So we continued on at a decidedly more tenuous pace until about 5 miles later, when I think that AJ must have gained confidence that, yes, the tire-and-duct-tape was going to hold up for the next couple of dozen miles. We descended virtually the rest of the way to the final rest stop on the course.
The rest stop at Mile 112 turned out to be the exact same one that we had stopped at earlier in the day at Mile 60 in Fiddleton. I had some grapes and carrots, and we were on our way.
This 8-mile leg was supposed to have 700 feet of climbing, but it really did not seem like it. Actually, after finishing the leg it seemed like there was only one climb of significance that was neither really long nor steep. Not that this is a complaint…
With the net altitude loss in this leg, Plymouth came up quickly—so quickly that I wondered if the route sheet was a little bit off in its mileage. In fact, my cyclometer confirmed that it indeed overstate the mileage in this leg by about 2 miles or so. The Fairgrounds was just down the road, and like that, we were back to where we had departed from earlier just over 9.5 hours earlier that morning.
“Congratulations, AJ!” I exclaimed. “Your first double metric century!”
While we savored some fresh salad, saucy pasta, and artisan bread at the finish, I reflected upon how well the day went, how near-perfect the ride was. Everything from the weather, food, scenery, to support was top notch, and I was glad that on this challenging ride, I was feeling good, much better than I had expected to after all of the run-specific training, and much better than I felt at other times on the bike this year considering the meager miles I have been putting in.
But most of all, I marveled at AJ. Back in college, he was a perfect lab partner—dependable, steadfast, enthusiastic, and one who was willing to work hard, fast, and efficiently, all while doling out all the proper amount of encouragement I needed. Never would I have guessed back then, however, that 8 years later he would make the perfect cycling partner, even though these are the exact same qualities that an ideal cycling partner would have. In addition, AJ was one of the strongest cyclists I have ever had the pleasure of riding with, and certainly the most evenly matched.
On a sidenote—after the ride I heard from Matt and Joe, and it turns out they both managed to make it up Slug Gulch after all, earning their Slug Gulch pin and finishing the 100-mile route. (Matt actually did almost-a-200km route of 118 miles by getting off-course at one point, near Fiddleton.) Congrats to all!
- 120 miles
- 6:40 a.m. start, 4:15 p.m. finish -> 9.6 hours
- Average speed: 15.8 mph rolling, 12.5 mph overall
- Maximum speed:
- Total climbing: 9068 feet
- Food: 5
- Support/Organization: 5
- Scenery: 5
- Weather: 5
- Overall rating: 5. One of the finest centuries in all of California.