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Ride report: AIDS/LifeCycle 9

When I wrote my end-of-season review a couple of weeks ago, astute observers might have noticed that I didn't say anything about riding every mile of ALC9. That's because I went into this year's ride with low expectations: I didn't feel confident about climbing, I was getting tired of training, and the much-heralded excitement factor just wasn't there. But I am pleased to report that, for the fifth year in a row, I rode every available mile of the route, ALC9 exceeded my expectations in almost every way imaginable, and the ride even offered a few pleasant surprises along the way.

Day by day

That's not to say that we had optimal weather, however.

That became clear right from the start on Day 1 as a thick fog bank rolled in during our opening ceremonies in Daly City. By the time we rode out at 6:30 a.m., a light drizzle had started to fall, and the wetness intensified as we headed south on Skyline Blvd. I saw so many riders with flat tires that I was reminded of last year's aborted Day 6 rain ride from Lompoc. The conditions were miserable, and the climbing was the usual annoyance that always bugs me heading down the Peninsula. but I pressed forward. In fact, I skipped the first three organized stops and rode straight through to lunch at San Gregorio State Beach. This got me halfway through the day in less than four hours, and it got me well ahead of most riders -- a theme that would return time and time again throughout the week.

Except for a brief interval earlier in the day, the low clouds still had not lifted as I left lunch and tackled the short but very annoying hills of Highway 1 as it heads down the coast. The infamous tailwinds finally began to pick up, as did my speed, and I made excellent time into Santa Cruz, completing the day at my fastest-ever Day 1 pace and finishing in just under seven hours of elapsed time. This was important to me: I had been considering the Ride Across Indiana next month, which is a 160-mile ride with a 14-hour time limit. The route to Santa Cruz was almost exactly half that distance, and I finished in half the time, which is just about right. Better yet: Mile for mile, the ride to Santa Cruz has four times as much climbing as does the Ride Across Indiana. So, at the end of Day 1, I was feeling quite proud of myself despite the suboptimal weather. As I did last year, I got a ride home to Mountain View, where I was able to sleep in my own bed one last time.

Day 2 began equally early with a 5 a.m. pickup for the ride back to Santa Cruz. The fog had rolled back in, and conditions were generally damp and cool. I had retrieved my bicycle and was in line for the 6:30 a.m. ride-out when I checked my cycle computer for the ride ahead. The display worked, but oops, no speed was registering. I looked down and discovered that the big frame-mounted wireless transmitter was gone! I quickly ran back to my bike parking spot and found the transmitter on the ground, next to the snapped rubber O-ring that had attached it to my bicycle.

This was bad because ride-out was imminent and an early start is essential to beat the Santa Cruz rush-hour traffic. After a couple of futile attempts to attach the transmitter, I stuffed it in my jersey pocket and began riding without any stats. The 10-mile hilly ride through Santa Cruz and Soquel always annoys me, and this time was only made worse by the fog that had turned into another light drizzle. Also, despite repeated warnings to not do so, certain hot-shot riders take it upon themselves to race past the rest of us by going into traffic, passing us at signals, and being generally annoying. And as I descended into Rest Stop 1 at the beach, the drizzle had intensified, so I was in a rather miserable frame of mind as I rolled into bike parking and presented my computer problem to the bike techs. Fortunately, while I ate some much-needed Pop-Tarts, Aron and his crew were able to fashion a new attachment out of twist ties, and I was able to roll again after about 15 minutes ... still in the drizzle, alas. I made a note of the elapsed time so that I could estimate my actual riding pace later on.

Because we descended to the coast, we then had to climb back up, and the next part of the ride was still unpleasant, although I now had a working computer to remind me how slow I am on the hills. Riders were passing me frequently, although I got by a few myself. Not wanting to risk an upset stomach, I again skipped the infamous fried-artichoke stop and proceeded directly to the rest stop in Marina, and from there to lunch in Salinas. As often happens, the clouds finally lifted while I was eating lunch, and I was back on the road around 11 a.m.

The second half of Day 2 was spent mostly on autopilot. I'd seen the route many times before, the weather was the usual mix of warmth and wind, and the usual combination of deceptive hills and rough roads were all familiar to me. Without really thinking about it much, I rolled into King City early at a pace of 15.2 mph -- my fastest-ever day for any day of an ALC ride. Dinner was Denny's with Adam, and we were asleep in our motel well before the official camp program even wrapped up.

Day 3 began with the slow, annoying climb to Quadbuster, the single most difficult hill of the week. Again, this was all old hat to me, and I methodically made my way to the top, where I quickly continued, skipping Rest Stop 3 and reaching the tiny town of Bradley in personal-best time. This was another treat for me because I was able to partake of the local school fundraising lunch without having to wait in a painfully long line. And the ride after Bradley -- along the original two-lane route of U.S. 101 -- was one of my highlights of the week. This remote stretch of highway always gives me a sense of solitude because it's so bereft of any significant features, and that sense was heightened this year by the lack of any other riders along most of the five-mile stretch.

Alas, the freeway part of 101 immediately following that continues to be some of the worst cycling conditions imaginable. The shoulder has been broken and patched countless times, and it is full of deep holes that force cyclists to hug the white line just inches away from 70 mph traffic. Caltrans really needs to get on the ball and fix this despicable part of highway -- not just for ALC, but also because it's the main cycling route connecting Northern and Southern California, and there's really no viable alternate route that doesn't add lots of miles and lots of climbing.

So, with my mood slightly fouled by the crappy freeway, I rolled into the tiny town of San Miguel and Rest Stop 4. My mood turned completely when the advance signs indicated that the theme of this rest stop would be "The Price Is Right"! And sure enough, every imaginable aspect of the game had been incorporated into the rest stop, from a Plinko board to a big wheel to a very risqué stage show featuring a faux Bob Barker and some very faux Barker's Beauties. The only problem was that I arrived so early that the amazing Rest Stop 4 crew wasn't even ready for their first performance of the day. I waited for about 45 minutes -- the most time I spent in any rest stop all week long -- and saw their opening show.

After that, I didn't really care about the hills and the 90-degree heat as I approached Paso Robles, this year again along River Road, the route that was unavailable last year due to construction. My one free massage of the week, pizza in the motel room with Adam, and group pictures with the other training ride leaders (always a zoo) were perfect caps to the day.

Day 4 began with another computer-related annoyance. Again, I was in the line to ride out at 6:30, and my computer wouldn't register any speed. This time, the sensor and transmitter both were there, but nothing was happening. Mildly frustrated, I began my day again without a working computer, and I made my way to Rest Stop 1, where I again visited the ever-so-helpful bike techs. They couldn't diagnose my computer problem, but they did solve some shifting problems I'd been having -- my rear derailleur had been bent somehow, and their repair made my bike ride much more smoothly for the rest of the week.

After that, it was all the way to the top of the Evil Twins -- at 1,762 feet, the highest elevation of the week. I made it all the way to the top without stopping, and I bypassed the very long lines for pictures in front of a "Half Way to L.A." sign, choosing instead to get my picture taken in the parking lot amid the crowd. And, surprisingly, my bike computer fell out of its mount when I was walking across the bumpy dirt -- and, when I reattached it, everything mysteriously started working again.

Next came the longest descent of the week, a thrilling 9-mile scorcher to the coast with a couple of small breaks in the middle. I take my descents very cautiously, but just as I began heading downhill I came upon another rider who was going even more slowly than me -- that almost never happens. I called out, "Coming up on your left!" and the rider replied, "I'm scared!" I hung behind her for a few seconds and offered some words of cautious encouragement, and then I took off. Later, near the bottom when she finally passed me, she called out, "I owe you a hug at the rest stop!"

The bottom of the hill was where my ride went bad last year when I injured a leg during a poorly-executed dismount. I nervously rode past the point where it happened, and I breathed a sigh of relief when I safely rolled into the next rest stop. By now I was craving real food -- and by "real" I mean "fast" -- so I took a renegade lunch stop at a Subway in Morro Bay, the same place I ate lunch last year. After an agonizingly long wait while an extended family of eight people debated and ordered for quite possibly the first time ever at a Subway, I got my oh-so-yummy meatball sandwich and headed toward San Luis Obispo.

And that's where I chewed out other riders for about the only time during the week. As we rolled along an expressway section of Highway 1, I followed a group of three cyclists as they rode two and three abreast for more than two miles, having a pleasant conversation among themselves. They finally slowed down to the point where I could pass them, and I made a point of saying, quite loudly and slightly grumpily: "Riders, single file, please; our permits depend on it!" They got in line as I went by them (and I called "thank you"), but I suspect they fell back into form after I passed them. This is one of the thorny areas of ALC safety: Our rules are more stringent than the California Vehicle Code (which permits side-by-side riding when shoulders are wide enough to safely do so), but we need to leave a clear path for approaching cyclists to easily pass.

The renegade lunch allowed me to bypass the official lunch at Cuesta College and leapfrog a few hundred riders as I headed to the coast at Pismo Beach. This again put me very close to the front of the group, and I was rewarded with almost completely solo riding through the Five Cities area. Next came the climb up Halcyon Ridge, this time using the route from two years ago, the easiest of the three available routes. But after the descent into the agricultural plain around Guadalupe, the winds from the previous day returned ... except this time they were crosswinds. On busy Highway 1. With no shoulder. And large trucks speeding by at 55 to 60 mph. Ouch! This was another very scary part of the week, but I was somewhat relieved that there were only a couple of other cyclists in the area at the time -- any attempts to pass were risky at best and very dangerous at worst.

As usual, Day 4 ended with a brisk 25 mph ride into Santa Maria when those same winds became tailwinds. In walking to my motel for the night, I discovered that what I thought would be a long walk actually was slightly shorter than the walk in King City. I returned to camp and waited for Adam to arrive, and we returned together to the motel area. With no real restaurants nearby, we ended up at the Holiday Inn, which was serving a marginally acceptable Mexican buffet -- almost exactly the same thing on offer at camp that night.

In the days before the ride, weather forecasts had been predicting strong westerly winds in the Lompoc Valley, one of the few places along the route where we ride westbound for an extended time. Why we do this remains a mystery: The official story is that we lost permission to use school grounds in Casmalia for a rest stop, but to me that hardly seems like ample reason to ride an extra 25 miles. (This is one of those times where the tight message control of the ALC organization can be mildly frustrating.) Now, instead of a mostly north-to-south route from Santa Maria to Lompoc, we ride a roundabout route through Solvang. At one point along Highway 154, we're only 35 miles from Santa Barbara, but we take more than 80 miles to get there.

So, as Day 5 -- red dress day (or in my case, dress in red day) -- began in Santa Maria, I knew my task: Get as far into the route as quickly as possible before the winds picked up. And I did just that, despite a long, slow, annoying climb to nearly 1,600 feet elevation along Foxen Canyon Road. I think I was among the first 100 riders to reach lunch in Solvang, which I quickly disposed of. Winds were still light, but as I began the westbound trek into nearby Buellton, the winds began to pick up as if on cue.

By the time I made the turn onto Santa Rosa Road, the winds were moderate. And within just a few more miles, they were strong. Strong like out-of-Sausalito strong. Strong like Golden-Gate-towers strong. The annoying hills of Santa Rosa Road only made it worse, and the beautiful scenery of the Lompoc Valley (aka the "Sideways" tour) was merely a mockery. The riding was not at all pleasant, and I was stopping every couple of miles to regain my composure ... and shout a few choice words at nothing in particular. But the winds I experienced apparently were nothing compared to what confronted the later riders; I'm told that gusts of more than 45 mph were experienced, and more than 700 riders stopped for the day before reaching Rest Stop 3. But thanks to my faster speeds earlier in the day, I made it into camp again among the first 200 riders, with a best-ever pace for Day 5.

Day 6 was the day that I anticipated most this year. With last year's rainout, it had been two years since I'd cycled most of the route, and I was eager to conquer the demons of years past where Day 6 often has meant a personal meltdown of one type or another. The day started with a very agreeable tailwind that made the 1,000-foot ascent on Hwy. 1 seem almost trivial, and I decided to skip Rest Stop 1 near the summit in preparation for the 2-mile, 7% descent to Gaviota Pass. This is my least favorite descent of the entire week; it's steep and fast, and there are many grates along the right side of the road that make it unwise for slower descenders such as me to stay too far to the right. I become, in essence, the road hazard to other riders. I've seen some nasty spills on that hill. By getting through this part early, I was able to be passed by only a couple dozen riders, and I entered U.S. 101 relatively unscathed.

I checked the clock and realized that I had the opportunity to do something I'd never done before. On Day 6, the route past Rest Stop 2 is closed until 9 a.m. because Caltrans closes the right lane of 101 over a narrow bridge with no shoulder. At about 8:40, I rolled into Rest Stop 2 and beat the route opening for the first time ever. This, however, isn't that special a feat; more than 200 other riders were there as well. And when the CHP delayed opening the route for about 15 minutes past the scheduled time, the rest stop filled with hundreds more impatient riders. The result was a giant crowded mess heading out of the stop toward Santa Barbara; in fact, I'm told that some serious collisions occurred on that part of 101 shortly after I passed through. This was crowded, busy, stressful riding, and I wasn't having much fun even if I was maintaining an easy 20 mph pace.

At lunch in Santa Barbara, I took the opportunity to get in and out in a hurry and leapfrog hundreds of riders, again putting me back into the less-crowded, less-stressful riding that I enjoyed. That made the hills of Santa Barbara somewhat more palatable; I'm still annoyed by our seemingly useless route through town that takes us up and down and up and down and up and down again, rather than using the principal marked bike route through town. (I'm sure it's because we're such a large ride, but it's still annoying.)

My lower back was again beginning to bother me a bit, and I remembered that the upcoming Paradise Pit stop usually had massage therapists on duty. So it was with some disappointment that I arrived at this wonderful, unofficial stop to find that, while the food was great, no massage tables were anywhere to be found. (I learned that night that I had simply arrived too early; other riders reported an abundance of free massages.) After enjoying some ice cream and cookies, I continued quickly along the coast and eventually onto a very busy segment of 101 -- a full freeway with a marked bicycle lane. My speed was somewhat down this year because the usual tailwind had morphed into an odd headwind, but I had almost the entire freeway segment to myself, with no riders in front of or behind me as I rode along the shoreline amid the 70 mph traffic.

But even as the last few miles seemed to become interminable and unusually difficult (I was within the first 100 riders to reach the water stop about 8 miles from the end), I reached the final bicycle path, arrived in camp way early, and had plenty of time to relax and enjoy camp life for a couple of hours. While Adam went to the candlelight vigil, I returned to our room to get an early start on rest.

Rest is important for Day 7, not just because the route opens half an hour early at 6 a.m., but because the energy of the ride's end lasts long into the night. As I began the day, I was mindful of my 13.9 mph pace for Day 7 last year, my fastest ever. But it came with an asterisk because that came after a day of rest following the rainout.

This year, I began the day not feeling pressured to exceed that pace, but when I reached Rest Stop 1 at just over 15 mph, I realized that it was possible. I pressed through the rest of the day -- including into some very unusual easterly headwinds -- and reached the end just before noon with a pace for the day of 14.2 mph.

My biggest delay was about 20 minutes at the Los Angeles city limit sign; nobody wanted to stop for pictures! One rider finally stopped and said, "I gotta get a picture of this," and we quickly negotiated a camera swap that resulted in the photo that graces the front of my thank-you card this year.

After succumbing to the urge to finish the ride, I walked the three blocks back to Peet's, where I commiserated with the arriving fellow members of Different Spokes San Francisco and had two very large drinks with whipped cream. (I earned them.) Then it was time to walk back to the VA grounds, catch photos of the final arriving riders, participate in closing ceremonies, drop off my bike for shipping, retrieve my gear, and (after a brief moment of panic) ride the shuttle bus with Adam to our waiting hotel room at LAX in advance of our flight back to San Francisco the next day.

The results

For this year's ride, I racked up more miles -- just under 4,000 since late October -- than I had in the past couple of training seasons, and it obviously made a difference. Here are the numbers:

Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7
* = Rain-shortened day of only 15 soggy, uphill miles
** = More difficult route along Skyline Blvd. to Hwy. 84

The takeaway is that every day of this year's ride was my fastest ever for that day. I'm quite surprised and pleased. But beyond the raw numbers, this made my ride very different from those of years past, in ways both good and bad.

By hurrying through rest stops and skipping several entirely, I made my way to near the front of the group on most days. This happened early on some days, but it took me until past lunch on some other days. This put me among riders who generally outclass me in every way -- they're faster overall, they climb faster, and they certainly descend faster. (My top speed for the entire week was only 29.97 mph, somewhere along Hwy. 1 on the coast during Day 1.) I've written before about how being surrounded by stronger riders gets depressing after a while, and I certainly experienced plenty of that during the week.

But the upside was that I was able to ride solo for large parts of the route -- not seeing any riders in front of me or behind me for miles at a time. This was wholly unexpected, but it was my greatest pleasure of the week: being able to ride essentially by myself down the California coast, but still with full support if I needed it and a welcoming community at the end of each day. I never dreamed that I would find solitude on ALC, but I did this year, and that made all the difference in the world.

Also, spending the week with Adam was a change from last year, when I stayed solo in all but one of my motel rooms. Last year I often felt disconnected from the ride, but this year I had an understanding soul to help me decompress after each day of riding ... and to gently prod me into getting up and getting out the next morning. I'm now convinced that the Princess Plan works much better when done with someone else.

The future

At closing ceremonies, I did something I'd never done before -- I registered for the next AIDS/LifeCycle while still in Los Angeles. (I've always waited weeks or months before doing so.) I was lured by an oh-so-low $30 registration fee and the promises of an exciting "reunion ride" for the "10th anniversary" of ALC. (Purists will note that ALC10 actually would be the ninth anniversary of the first ride, but that's like having an argument over when the millennium begins.)

But I'll be blunt: As of right now, I'm not at all certain that I'll actually ride in ALC10. My reasons are many. First, this year's ride went so well for me that I doubt I ever could have another ride as successful. Second, after five years, my bicycle pretty much knows the way to Los Angeles by itself now; the route has become, dare I say it, boring in places. Third, I know that my supporters are quite worn out after five years of my near-incessant begging for donations. And fourth, as I mentioned last month, my body has been truly transformed by nearly 35,000 miles of cycling in six years -- and not all in good ways. I need time to regain control of my body.

I'm still fairly certain that I'll again play some role in the upcoming training season, but my current thinking is that I might ride the two-day Seismic Challenge in fall 2011 with its lower fundraising minimum. Of course, I seem to change my mind about such things almost every year, so I might well be back on the road in ALC10 -- particularly if the "special" things being planned for the "reunion ride" were to include some significantly new and unfamiliar route segments, as unlikely as that seems.

AIDS/LifeCycle 9 was my best ride ever, and I returned to the Bay Area happy, fulfilled, and satisfied. And thanks to my supporters, I raised more money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation than I had in any previous year. That combination is going to be mighty tough to improve upon.

This morning, I registered for the Ride Across Indiana, coming up on July 17. That's my next big challenge.