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Ride report: ALC12 Distance Training #6 (3/9/2013)

Go, riders!

In the grand scheme of things, it's probably bad that our late-winter weather is so fabulously fabulous. But for our group of 23 intrepid cyclists Saturday, conditions were picture-perfect for our challenging 77-mile ride to Pacifica and back. Special thanks to super SAG driver Andrew for keeping track of us and bringing back the one rider who wisely chose to end their ride early after having some pain.

And challenging it was! No doubt about it, this ride had a lot of climbing. Most of it wasn't all that steep or long, but it was persistent ... just like much of the terrain along the California coast where we'll be riding in less than three months. Between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, Highway 1 rarely rises to more than a couple hundred feet in altitude, but it drops down to sea level and climbs back up over and over and over again, seemingly at the outlet of every tiny creek.

None of those hills are all that impressive by themselves -- in fact, most of them barely even register on the official elevation chart -- but taken together, they often take their toll and wear you down. Fortunately, most of us are so excited on Day 1 that the pure adrenaline helps us get through this challenging day, which has more climbing than any other day of the event. (A healthy tailwind often helps, too.)

Saturday's ride was a rather close approximation of the technical difficulty of Day 1. Use your performance on this training ride to gauge the areas where you'll want to devote special attention during the rest of the training season -- nutrition, bike fit, pacing, heart rate, or anything else that gave you difficulty.

Bicycling on Interstate 280 was a first-time experience for some of us. I don't take us on I-280 just because it's there; instead, our route to Los Angeles is about 8% freeways and expressways. (The actual amount varies slightly from year to year.) And these are fast, rural freeways, where there's no shortage of semi-trailers thundering down the right lane at very high speeds just a few feet from you. That's why the ALC freeway rules are so important, especially the rule about never touching the white shoulder stripe for any reason (except a very rare emergency) while riding.

On the event, we usually don't have to deal with crossing freeway off-ramps and on-ramps; we usually take every exit and then re-enter the freeway. (There are a couple of exceptions along the coast on Day 6 where the exits have almost no traffic.)

For many of us, freeway cycling isn't much fun. (I happen to think it's kinda cool myself, when done safely.) But like it or not, it's part of the event, so it's best to make your peace with it before you're surrounded by 2,500 other cyclists, not to mention those 70-mph trucks. There aren't many places to practice around here: On the Peninsula, only two segments of I-280 are bike-legal; in Marin County, there's a short part of I-580 near San Quentin. All of Highway 17 from Los Gatos to Scotts Valley is, believe it or not, bike-legal (that's the law in California), but nobody in their right mind would attempt it. (For the record, I rode the last two miles downhill into Los Gatos once, more than 15 years ago. It was quite the hair-raising experience that I'll never repeat, especially now that traffic is so much heavier.)

(Update: Tony reminds me that a short part of Highway 24 between the Caldecott Tunnel and Orinda is also bike-legal but very rarely used, although the tunnel itself is not open to cyclists.)

As our rides become longer, pacing becomes more important. Saturday, the segment from Rest Stop 2 to Rest Stop 3 took a lot out of many of us, myself included. Although that segment had only one significant climb, all the rollers along Skyline Blvd. can be annoying, especially that far into the ride.

Fortunately, however, that segment also had several extended descents. I know that I'm unlike most cyclists in that I don't necessarily try to power through the downhills and reach hypersonic speed. But I often use the descents as on-the-bike rest time to get my heart rate back down and give my poor quads a break. Plus, I get some extra time to savor the scenery!

Seriously, especially if you're a first-year ALCer, it's very important that you not ride beyond your ability on the unfamiliar descents in June. It's possible to exceed 50 mph on more than a few of the descents, but many of them have tricks and gotchas, and you need every possible microsecond of reaction time in case something goes wrong -- not just from you, but even from another cyclist around you. I know my pleas in this area usually go unheard, but I'll still make the case for being a cautious descender on unfamiliar roads when surrounded by cyclists of unknown ability and lack of predictability. (If you'd like a data point, my all-time top speed on a bicycle is only 32.9 mph, and that was reached on Day 1 of ALC11 last year, somewhere along Highway 1 between San Gregorio and Santa Cruz.)

Long rides also highlight any bike-fit issues that you might still have. In short, if your bike is making you hurt now, you need to get it looked at before June because seven days in a row will only make it hurt more ... and it might possibly even injure you. Knees, quads, hands, feet, neck, back, whatever -- you might finish a ride tired and even a bit sore, but sharp pain or partial loss of motion is a definite warning sign that you need to heed.

Safety reminder: Even though it's legal to ride side-by-side in a marked bike lane in California, it's against ALC rules. Why? Because we need to keep a clear path for faster cyclists to pass. You know what it feels like when you're riding up Foothill Expressway and two non-ALCers are riding side by side and you can't get past them without going into the traffic lane? That's what we try to prevent on the event. More than once, an ALC cyclist has been seriously injured when they veered into traffic to pass and a car came up behind them. Don't let that happen to you! Take care of the socializing at the rest stops and in camp. You'll need something to talk about while in line for the portapotty anyway.

And a housekeeping note: After the ride, one of our route sheets was found on the floor in the bathroom at the Mountain View Police Department. Remember to clean up after yourself so that we don't lose access to this facility.

What's next? The mileage continues to build. In two weeks, we'll ride 88 miles on a day that is about as difficult as Day 6, although the climbing is structured a little differently. We'll head over to the East Bay to climb three of the region's signature hills: Palomares Road, the Dublin Grade, and Calaveras Road. They're each long climbs, but none of them are especially steep. (The middle part of the Palomares climb is a bit challenging, but it's short-lived.) Those three climbs alone get us the bulk of the day's climbing. We meet another half-hour earlier, at 8 a.m. Find out more and RSVP here.

Remember to save the date on May 4: That's our 6th annual Altamont Pass Double Metric, the world's longest one-day ALC training ride. Signups open soon, and those who sign up early will be able to get a free commemorative T-shirt, a perfect conversation-starter when you wear it in camp this June.

Thanks for being part of AIDS/LifeCycle.

Photo by Andrew Bennett