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Ride report: 2013 Reedley Lions Blossom Bike Ride (3/2/2013)

It was, in a way, returning to where it (almost) all began.

On March 3, 2005, less than a year after returning to cycling, I made the short early-morning drive from my home in Fresno down to the small town of Reedley for their annual 100km Blossom Bike Ride. I can't find anyplace where I wrote about that day (which might be a good thing), but the numbers on my spreadsheet tell the story: My pace for the day was 12.2 mph, and I distinctly recall it being a very challenging ride -- challenging enough that I never went back for another attempt.

So, last week, when I started looking at places I could ride on one of our "off" weekends from the Distance Training rides, I jumped just a little bit when I saw that the Blossom Ride was indeed this Saturday. At 100k with about 2,300 feet of climbing, it was right in the range of my average Saturday rides for this time of year. I quickly reserved a spot and booked a room, eager to revisit a previous scene and eager to ride something other than another trip up and down Foothill Expressway.

Traditionally, I've tried to go easy before 100k rides. That didn't happen this time. Thursday, I celebrated my birthday by climbing Los Trancos Road for the first time without having to walk part of the way. Friday afternoon, I stopped in Fresno on the way to Reedley and knocked out a quick (and by quick, I mean quick: 16.9 mph pace) 40 miles in my old stomping ground. So when I checked into my motel room in Reedley, I was ready to rest.

Alas, rest was short-lived. I inexplicably woke up at about 2 a.m. after less than five hours of sleep, and  I managed nothing more than to drift in and out of consciousness for the rest of the night. (Being located right next to a major highway with semi-trailers braking on the approach to town certainly didn't help, nor did the impossibly firm mattress. And this from someone who normally likes a firm mattress!)

With a 7 a.m. check-in time and a 7:30 a.m. mass start, I did not have the luxury of sleeping in, even if I thought I could stay well ahead of rest stop closures. So at about 6:20, I abandoned any hope of actually sleeping, and I got ready for the quick 1-mile ride to the starting point at Reedley College, across the absolutely horrible four-lane highway bridge into town.

I arrived just before 7:00 and found long check-in lines, grouped by initial letter of last name. And none of them were moving. A random person on the PA system said that they were waiting for "one thing" before opening for the day.

At 7:10, we still weren't moving. Random PA person took to the microphone again, this time to tell us that the route sheets and maps had not arrived but that we'd be OK to ride anyway because route arrows were on the pavement all along our route. Ouch! Route arrows are nice, but it's also important to know how far to the next turn and -- more importantly -- how far to the next rest stop, especially in this rural area where there are practically no other services available. (Not a Starbucks to be seen.) Fortunately, I'd checked the route online before I left, so I generally knew where I was going. (This year's route was generally in the reverse direction from when I did it in 2005, although there were some other changes.)

By 7:25 I had checked in and received my green armband (but no route sheet), so I ambled around and waited a couple of minutes for riders to make their way to the start, although many dozens were still in line. Seeing no mass movement, I rode to the end of the parking lot, where a city police officer was simply letting people go and start the ride whenever they wanted. So I was off!

The first part of the ride was completely flat. And even though the roads were different from my normal Fresno routes, once you've seen one piece of Fresno County agriculture, you've pretty much seen it all. I started early enough that most of the giant pacelines of racers didn't catch up to me until several miles into the ride. A couple of small hills about 15 miles in added a little variety, but soon enough I was at the first rest stop. Thanks to the unseasonably warm weather, I was able to shed my light jacket at this point.

The climbing then began in earnest, with the short but surprisingly steep hill over the top and down into Wonder Valley (which I'd done once before on my own in that direction). More flat to rolling hills through Wonder Valley, and then we were at the edge of the Sierra ... which meant the serious climbing was about to start.

Google Street View photo.
(I wasn't about to risk getting shot by taking a picture.)
But before that, we had to deal with the Nazi dogs. As we approached mile 26, a rider near me said, "I wonder if the Nazi dogs are out today." I remembered from 2005 that this part of the route was home to a notoriously colorful local character whose collection of wildlife sometimes caused problems.

Yes, Bill Gaede (grandfather to notorious singing twins Prussian Blue) still lives there, even after being shot during a home invasion last year. And the white truck with the swastika on its side was still there Saturday, just like in this photo from Google Street View.

We simply pedaled right on through, trying to look mostly straight ahead, and nothing happened. Dogs were heard but not seen (unlike several other spots along the route, where dogs were running loose).

But then the climb began. It's only 2.9 miles at 6.9%, so it wasn't overly difficult, but it was longer than most of the climbs I do around here. I think I could have made it without stopping, but about two-thirds of the way up, I reached into my back jersey pocket to retrieve a cough drop, and a used shot-block wrapper fell out onto the road. Unlike some cyclists, I wasn't about to litter, so I had to stop to go back and retrieve my garbage. Soon enough, I was at the top -- which, at 1,923 feet, was the highest elevation of the day. The rest of the ride would be mostly downhill or flat, but I remembered enough from the past to know that there would be more than a couple of intermediate surprises along the way.

Indeed, this part of the ride in the Sierra foothills was my favorite part of the day. Roads with little traffic, places that I normally didn't ride while living in Fresno, and just enough other cyclists so that I didn't feel completely alone. (But I saw surprisingly few SAG vehicles during this part of the ride; I'm guessing they were back with the bulk of the other riders who got the late start.) By mile 38, I was about 1,000 feet lower and at the second rest stop: all the essentials in the parking lot of a country store, but nothing overly grand.

Then it was time for the final descent back into the Central Valley. I left with a group from Central Sierra Cyclists, but they were off into the distance within the first mile. By doing the route in reverse from my previous ride, I had the benefit of a longer, more gradual descent that didn't require me to ride the brakes all the way down. Sand Creek Road was a lot longer than I remembered; without a route sheet, I didn't know how much farther I would be on the winding road before I hit the flat road grid of the Valley. Finally, after more than 8 miles, there was an orange route arrow directing me to turn left.

The rest of the ride was almost completely flat. And although we somehow managed to travel both south, west, and north on our way back to Reedley, the day of riding hard started to take its toll on me. I wasn't in pain, and I'm sure I was nowhere near as fatigued as I had been eight years ago, but riding hard through the hills had left me more than a little tired. I stopped for one photo break (see top), at which point about half a dozen riders magically appeared out of nowhere and went on past me. The road was somewhat boring at this point, the auto and truck traffic had increased considerably, and there were no bike lanes, so it wasn't the most pleasant riding I've done. I was ready for it to be over, enough so that I was relishing the little "beep" of my Garmin after every mile completed.

Again, without a route sheet, I wasn't quite sure where we were going. The route took us onto comparatively busy Highway 63, which had a freshly paved surface but no shoulder or bike lane. After several miles without seeing any other cyclists, I began to wonder whether I had missed a turn ... and I started trying to reconstruct my mental road map of the area so that I could make it back to Reedley on my own if I had gone drastically off course. Finally, there was one solitary "straight-ahead" orange arrow on the road at one intersection, although it seemed that we were going farther south than was necessary to get back to Reedley.

Part of the uncertainty was that I didn't know how far it was until the end. I knew that it was officially a "63-mile" ride, but experience on other events has shown me that it could be as few as 63 or as many as 70. And the only visual landmark I recognized was the Reedley water tower, which seemed much farther away than it should be.

And then we were heading north again ... right toward an orange sign that proclaimed, "Pavement Ends." What!? Sure enough, there was a rural intersection that was being completely rebuilt, presumably due to the incessant beating it was taking from heavy agricultural vehicles. (Did I mention the surprisingly poor quality of many rural Fresno County roads?) Fortunately, the packed dirt surface lasted only about 100 feet ... but again, it would have been nice to have a route sheet that warned me of this!

So yes, I was still ready for it to be over. The route merged with the 40-mile route, so there were a few more riders. I reached Mile 63, and I started to see a housing subdivision on the left side. Although the water tower was still far away, I had reached Reedley. An officer stopped traffic and motioned us through a left turn ... and there we were, back at Reedley College and done with the ride.

I didn't know whether there was a rider check-in, so I rode through the lot. But I didn't see anyone directing us to check in, and I didn't see any tent or station for that purpose, so I kept on riding and skipped the complimentary post-ride lunch. Instead, I rode the mile back across the Kings River to my motel, had a quick microwaved lunch I'd bought the night before, showered, and hit the road back to Mountain View.

When I got back home about three hours later, I uploaded my stats and got the good news: My pace for the day was 15.4 mph! That's more than 26% faster than eight years ago, despite my rapidly advancing age! But Strava also informs me that, of the riders who uploaded their results, I placed 32nd out of 52 in terms of total elapsed time, including stops. What annoys me is that all six of the "top" riders skipped the redundant south-west-north part of the route near the end and did only 57 miles, but they got credit in Strava for the whole thing.

Indeed, this was my first non-ALC group cycling event since last summer. I tend to forget that such events often attract a large number of cyclists who believe more in "it's a race, not a ride" than the opposite ... especially in the Central Valley, where the racing culture is very strong. More power to them and their annoyingly sleek cyclists' bodies, but I've grown increasingly spoiled by the ALC (and, to a similar extent, Randonneurs USA) attitude of endurance cycling for "pleasure."

After 55,820 miles (as of Saturday) of this since June 2004, it's increasingly important that I remember the "pleasure" part of the equation. When it stops being fun, it's time to stop. And since I don't want to stop, I need to keep it fun.

One day later, my lower back is very unhappy, either from climbing too hard, from all that driving, or from that unfamiliar bed. I knocked out a quick 22 miles today, but I didn't feel like doing any serious climbing at all, and I was quite ready to be done. With 1,472 miles already this year (compared to 1,396 miles at this point in last year's record-breaking year), I think I've earned a couple days' rest before tackling our 77-mile ride to Pacifica next Saturday. Because it will be fun, dammit. I insist.