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Ride report: Altamont Pass Double Metric (5/19/2012)

Photo by Terri Meier
Go, riders!

Our group of 17 riders wasn't large, but it was intrepid ... and successful. Every rider completed every mile that they intended to ride (two rode 108 miles, and 15 rode 125 miles), and everyone finished at least two and a half hours before sunset. This closed our Mountain View training season in grand style and showed that all of you have taken your many training lessons to heart.

Of course, the weather helped things, too. In our five years of doing the Altamont Pass ride, this was by far the most favorable weather of any: not too hot, and not too windy.

One lesson that I think most of us took to heart was to pace ourselves. I saw people cycling somewhere below 100% of their peak performance, and this was a very good thing. In June, you just can't go all-out for seven days in a row. I even heard several of you refer specifically to riding in your "happy gear," a strategy that I frequently encourage and one that I learned from legendary ALC rider Doreen Gonzales.

The second pacing-related lesson comes from riding in groups. On the event in June, there will always be someone riding faster than you, someone riding slower than you, and someone riding at about the same speed as you. Your choice is to decide which type of cyclist you want to ride with.

I got a vigorous lesson  in this subject around Livermore when I opened up for a few miles and blasted my way up (and down) Altamont Pass. I was making great time, and I felt momentarily happy that I was riding so strongly, but I soon came to my senses and realized that such a pace for me was unsustainable over the rest of the day. For most of the remainder of the day, I made a point of sticking with other riders of various paces, and this helped me complete the ride happy.

A couple of other points to remember:

-- Nutrition and hydration are vital. Depending on your body, you burned anywhere from 2,500 to 6,000 calories on this ride. You can't replenish all of that while on the bike, but you need to maintain a steady stream of food that nourishes but doesn't give you an upset stomach. That balance can be tough to maintain in endurance cycling.

-- Sun protection is also vital. Even though I faithfully used lip balm all day (the same kind that I've used on past ALC rides), I still have slightly chapped lips this morning. That little spritzer bottle that many of you saw me using throughout the day? It's spray-on sunscreen poured into a tiny 2-ounce bottle so that I don't need to carry an entire big plastic bottle with me all day.

Now that you've completed a 200-kilometer ride, you're part of the worldwide randonneuring community.  Randonneuring is a sport that's more than 100 years old and is devoted to cycling extreme distances. In the United States, Randonneurs USA (of which I'm a member) is the primary organization, and they have local groups in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. The Santa Cruz group is running their next 200km ride on July 7, and they've got a 300km ride (which I've done once) on August 11.

RUSA has a series of arcane rules about check-ins ("controls") and time limits, but the riding itself is almost exactly like what you've experienced on ALC training rides: detailed route sheets, minimal vehicle support, rest stops at stores and restaurants, a mix of faster and slower riders, and a strong sense of community. If you're considering taking some steps into the next level of endurance cycling, give one of the local randonneuring events a try.

This ends our Distance Training rides for 2012. It's been quite a season! We started with unusually favorable weather, we had several weeks of crap in the middle, and we ended with perfect conditions for Gilroy and Altamont Pass. Only a few of us made it through all 10 rides and 772 miles due to weather, health, or other commitments (and it took us three tries to finally do that Pacifica ride!), but dozens of us were part of the community that spontaneously formed. We had our moments of success and our moments of failure, and we all learned many lessons that will help us on the event in June and in our future cycling pursuits.

I'd like to give special thanks to Terri Meier, who gave us outstanding SAG service on most of this season's rides. As she said yesterday, SAG vehicles provide a huge psychological boost even when they're not needed to haul people off the route. Knowing that "rescue" is available is a big mental factor in allowing us to attempt and complete such long rides in the middle of nowhere, and Terri and the other SAG drivers played a big part in making that happen. Be sure to say hi to Terri in Rest Stop 3 on the event!

And, of course, I'd also like to again thank Per Knudsgaard, Bob McDiarmid, and the rest of the "Secret Jersey Group" for their amazing behind-the-scenes work to create the Ride With Chris jersey. I look forward to seeing a sea of green on Day 6!

What's next? ALC11, of course! But after that, what's next? My training rides for Double Bay Double 2 will probably begin in late July. I'm looking at about seven Saturdays in a row that will top out at about 75 or 80 miles. These rides will be different from my ALC training rides in that they will focus more on large amounts of climbing but which isn't stupidly steep -- the kind of riding that characterizes the DBD route. For example, we'll ride up Kings Mountain (and probably even Tunitas Creek again), but we won't do Metcalf, Westridge, or Joaquin.

Registration for DBD2 is about half full already, and I look forward to riding with many of you on September 29-30. DBD2 is shaping up to be another amazing weekend to benefit the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; watch ridewithchris.org and the DBD Facebook page for information on training rides and the rest of the event.

Thanks for being part of our Distance Training community for the past five months, and thank you for being part of AIDS/LifeCycle.

Ride report: Columbia River Gorge (5/13/2012)

The view from the top of the climb at mile 24.

It's around this time in every ALC training season that you probably start to become more than a little tired of seeing the same places, doing the same hills, visiting the same Starbucks over and over and over again.

One of my standard pieces of advice is to shake up your training just a bit by going someplace different for a change.

This year, I took my own advice seriously to heart and traveled to Portland, Ore., to do an official ALC training ride there with about a dozen members of Team Portland. The ride was plenty challenging, and the scenery was amazing.

Our meeting place was along the I-205 bike path on the east side of town, part of Portland's vast network of bicycle facilities. (The previous day, I explored just a small sample of them on a 25-mile ride into downtown and back.) Our route quickly took us down a couple hundred feet in elevation to the Columbia River, which we crossed in the middle of the I-205 bridge -- a separated bike lane with traffic speeding by on both sides. It was efficient if a bit noisy, but not really that much worse than crossing the Dumbarton Bridge.

After that, we were in Washington state, and we spent several miles on the original pre-freeway routing of Highway 14 along the river's edge. The gently rolling hills were a gentle wake-up call, but the poor condition of the road surface (original deteriorating concrete covered in places with deteriorating asphalt) was less gentle. There was almost no motorized traffic, so the route was better than the freeway alternative -- and it served the training purpose of getting riders ready for the poor road conditions we experience through much of Monterey County.

At mile 14, our first rest stop of the day was in the small town of Washougal, and it was a Starbucks (ha!). Our group had stayed mostly together until this point, but here my randonneuring instincts took over and I was eager to get back on the road and not linger at the rest stop. I found myself leaving alone -- and, sad to say, that was the last I saw of any of Team Portland for the rest of the day.

A few miles later, the route put us on Highway 14 itself, past the end of the freeway section. This is the main route along the north shore of the Columbia, and it had plenty of high-speed traffic, including many large trucks. Early on a Sunday morning, things weren't too bad, but traffic definitely picked up as the day went on. And at the same time, the hills began in earnest. Rolling hills over and over again, interspersed with the occasional long climb to several hundred feet above the river. Again, this is very good training for June because this very closely mirrors the conditions along Highway 1 down the coast to Santa Cruz. What we also had Sunday, however, were headwinds out of the east that slowly increased during the morning. This further motivated me to press forward relentlessly -- I knew that the longer I waited to head east, the stronger the headwinds would become.

Around mile 30, a police car raced toward me with lights and sirens flashing. A couple of minutes later, an ambulance. Then some more police cars. And more emergency vehicles. On the event, this is the moment that sends a chill down one's spine. Had something happened to our group? Fortunately not, as I learned later, but a westbound vehicle apparently had been found on the shoulder in a way that suggested a possible accident. The riders who saw the vehicle said they didn't see anyone inside, but it apparently happened very soon after I went by ... another reason to pause and consider.

There's a whole lot of nothing
on the Washington side of the river.
The temperature was beginning to heat up as well. Coupled with the wind and the hills, the riding was more challenging than I expected, and I took brief advantage of the marked rest stops on the route sheet, even though none of them were full food-service stops.

Finally, I reached the turnaround point at mile 41: the crossing back across the river into Oregon via the Bridge of the Gods. This now-ancient and very, very narrow structure was built in 1926 and has a grated steel deck all the way across. I had read reports that some cyclists prefer to walk across the bridge, even though there's no walkway, and I approached the surface with more than a little fear. I gingerly began to cycle across the steel, and I took the middle of the traffic lane.

With a 15 mph speed limit and a travel trailer approaching behind me, I was certainly in no hurry. And I tried to take other riders' advice to "not look down" because one can look right through the grating to the river surface a full 140 feet below. But I had to look down to maintain a steady line on the grating. I'll admit that this nearly half-mile stretch of cycling was one of the scariest things I'd done in quite some time. (And there was no way I was going to stop in the middle of the road to take a picture.) But there was a somewhat pleasant surprise waiting on the other side at the toll booth: Despite what the bridge's official website says, I wasn't charged a toll.

The bridge dropped me into the small town of Cascade Locks, where the scheduled lunch stop was a cafeteria-style sit-down restaurant. I chose to make only a brief toilet and water stop for two reasons: I didn't want to leave my bike unattended outside for any length of time, and I didn't want to sacrifice all the time required for a full inside dining experience. I had brought plenty of "emergency" food with me, so I took some of that, refilled my water, and began to head back west, this time along the Oregon side of the river.

This is where the character of the ride changed considerably. Now, instead of a major highway, the route was on a multi-use trail that was formed out of pieces of the original U.S. 30. The first few miles were calm but marred somewhat by lots of bumps (from frost?) in the trail that sometimes came up by surprise. Also, because the trail was completely enshrouded in trees, there was almost no benefit from the wind that was now supposed to be a tailwind.

After a few miles on the trail, there's still a gap in the path westbound, which meant that we had to get on busy Interstate 84 for about three miles. With a nice shoulder and a mostly downhill route, this segment wasn't too bad (in fact, this is the part of the route that I'd done in October 2006 on my own). Next, it was back onto historic U.S. 30, which in this part was still in use as a scenic highway -- and, with the hot weekend in full effect by now, it was full of traffic escaping the Portland heat. Plus, there were still the hills. Lots of rolling hills, over and over again.

The heat was beginning to take its toll on me as well, so I was quite happy when the next rest stop arrived sooner than indicated on the route sheet. Someplace along the way, my odometer had become 3 miles off the readings on the route sheet. Even reviewing the route after the fact, I can't see anything I did wrong, so I'm still baffled. But at mile 55, I was at Multnomah Falls -- which was absolutely packed to the hilt with visitors. Fortunately for me, there was an "express" outdoor line that was serving quick food, and it was right next to the sidewalk where I was easily able to keep my bike within sight. Unfortunately, however, they were out of any healthy food such as a turkey wrap, so I went with the next best thing: a quarter-pound "sausage dog." It hit the spot, and after refilling my water (which had gotten dangerously close to running out), I was back on my way along historic U.S. 30.

By now, traffic was extremely heavy, although much of it was coming in the opposite direction. And the biggest climb of the day was still ahead: about 900 feet up to the vintage 1917 Vista House high above the river. Coming more than 60 miles into this ride, coupled with the heat, the climb was much more challenging than I anticipated, and I took several brief breaks along the way.

Once at Vista House, I breathed a sigh of relief that I was essentially done with climbing for the day. How wrong I was! Turns out that Vista House isn't at the highest elevation, and there's another half-mile or so of climbing afterward. And then our route took a brief inland detour, mostly for the sake of adding a few miles, but also adding some more rolling hills just for fun. And this was the only point of the day where I got a little worried: I was in unfamiliar territory, and I had a little difficulty decrypting the directions on the route sheet. Fortunately, I chose the correct road.

Much to my surprise, I had completely used up my Camelbak full of water in the past 15 miles! With just a small reserve remaining in my one water bottle, I was quite relieved to see a small country market by the side of the road. I bought some water and some salted nuts, but I ended up waiting nearly 10 minutes while another customer (about six people in front of me, most of whom seemed to be buying beer and little else) had some type of dispute with the cashier that I didn't bother to fully investigate. My bike, although parked near the door, was out of sight the whole time, and I was more than a little worried.

Back on the bike, I made my way back into the eastern suburbs. Then, at mile 74, I took the indicated right turn, and there it was -- I was back at I-84, much to my surprise. The rest of the route back to Portland was a direct shot on the old highway along the shore. But one more surprise also awaited: the winds that had been from the east all day shifted to the west and became an annoying headwind for the last 10 miles. Coupled with the heat (which, as I found out later, was above 90 degrees by this point), I was taking more than a few stops, despite the nearly flat terrain.

Finally, at mile 84, I arrived back at the I-205 bike path, which conveniently took me by my hotel, just a half-mile from the official start/end point. Because I had already cycled to the start, I declared my ride over at that point, and I sent a text message to the ride leader indicating that I had finished safely.

Not only had I finished safely, I finished happy -- which was no mean feat considering that there was more than 5,200 feet of climbing, mostly unfavorable winds, and extreme heat. Some of it might simply have been the unfamiliar scenery, but I think some of it was also because I made an effort to keep a steady but moderate intake of calories -- and salt -- throughout the day. I didn't try to race up any of the hills -- in fact, my Strava times for the climbs are among the slowest recorded for all riders, despite my reasonable average of 14.4 mph for the day.

Although I had set out on my own after the first rest stop, I was alone only on the Washington side of the river. After crossing back into Oregon, there were many other cyclists, especially west of Multnomah Falls. And the "lumpy" terrain is second nature for these folks, many of whom were clipping along far more rapidly than I.

But given the challenging terrain, I'm certain that the members of Team Portland will be more than ready for ALC11 in June! This ride also helped me boost my confidence just a bit as well ... and it did so along an incredibly scenic route that was well worth the effort to get there and back.

Ride report: Distance Training #9 (5/5/2012)

Go, riders!

When we learned this week that Day 2 of ALC11 will be about 109 miles long, some of us -- especially first-year ALCers -- might have wondered whether we were up to the task. Many of us put those doubts to rest Saturday as our group of 34 intrepid cyclists conquered a 113-mile route that was actually just a little bit tougher than the Day 2 route. For some of us, it was our first century ever; for others, it was our longest ride ever. And for an extra bonus, we got treated to some exceptional scenery along the way.

Oh yes, and there was the wind. As we continued to head south toward Morgan Hill in the morning and the tailwinds picked up, perhaps you felt an impending sense of dread that we would soon be paying for our good fortune. (I know I did!) But almost as if my magic, as soon as we turned into the hills toward Gilroy Hot Springs, the wind died down to almost nothing, coming back only when we returned to the valley floor.

And on the return from Gilroy, yes, there was some wind, but it was nowhere near as bad as we had experienced on previous years' Gilroy rides when we traveled north along Monterey Highway. We had just enough twists and turns in the route to provide some occasional relief ... and those last 10 mostly-downhill miles made for a satisfying end to the day.

From gauging the faces of riders crossing the finish line in Mountain View, it looked like most of us ended the day in high spirits. I know I did, and that's not always the case for me on very long rides. I made a special effort to keep my nutrition and pacing in check, and I think it worked. Even in the morning, when we had the benefit of a strong tailwind, I resisted the urge to ride all-out (according to Strava, many of you were faster than me from San Jose to Morgan Hill).

But more important, I made a determined effort to increase my calorie intake beyond what I've typically consumed on such rides. I made a point of eating at every rest stop, I added nutrition beans or blocks in each case, and I went through three bottles of my energy drink. That steady intake of moderate calories can make your day much more successful.

Speaking of "every rest stop," another important thing to remember is that, either on a training ride or on the event, you are not limited to the "official" rest stops. Yesterday, I took a bonus rest stop just past Saratoga; although it cost me a few minutes, it also gave me the final boost that I needed to finish the ride strong. On past ALCs, I've often found that, as the week progresses, I take breaks more frequently, and there's nothing wrong with that. If you're carrying a camera, it's a great opportunity to pull off the road (safely, of course) and take pictures of the event. (And, if you don't want to admit even to yourself that you're taking a rest break, you can always say, "Oh, I'm taking a photo break.")

What's next? It's the big one ... the fifth annual Altamont Pass Double Metric. It's only about one more hour of cycling than yesterday's ride! Better yet, the total climbing is less than yesterday, and the one significant climb isn't nearly as steep as Gilroy Hot Springs. It's a grand tour of everything that the Bay Area has to offer, from the Dumbarton Bridge to East Bay wine country to the windswept original Altamont Pass to the busy urban bikeways of Hayward. Make no mistake, it's a difficult ride -- I've finished every mile only two of the four times that I've done it (and one of those was, shall we say, problematic) -- but we will have our usual excellent volunteer support.

I know that some of you are concerned about the distance and want to ride a shorter route. Although there's no official "short route," there's an easy if unofficial way to reduce the ride to about 88 miles. You don't get to see Altamont Pass, but you still can get a challenging ride. If you look at the route, notice how you can stay on Foothill Road and quickly jump from about mile 34 to mile 75. Taking the unofficial route might put you out of range of the support vehicles (unless the rest of the group catches up with you later, which could happen), so you'd need to be self-sufficient, but this is an option if 125 miles won't work for you for whatever reason.

Our start time is stupidly, stupidly early. We meet at 5 a.m. because there are more pre-ride activities: handing out frame and helmet numbers, for instance. We ride out precisely at 5:56 a.m., legal sunrise. The route closes at 8:14 p.m., legal sunset. You'll have plenty of time. And because much of the ride is in urban areas, there is no shortage of places to stop for food and water.

I hope you can join us for Altamont Pass. Please RSVP as soon as possible because I need to make sure we have enough support vehicles and supplies to cover the expected number of riders.

Thank you for being part of AIDS/LifeCycle.

Photo by Tim Huang