Two years ago I was at my peak climbing ability having knocked off the DMD and AA8, the latter just a week earlier. This year, thanks to my bout of ankle tendinitis and other issues, plus a focus on Brevets and Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), I am definitely nowhere close.
In 2009 I was still quite worried going into the TT a I hadn't finished a hilly double in under 18 hours - the DMD had taken me 18:10. However, cool temps (and cloud cover), plus the fast first 50 miles with pacelines made a big different and I shocked myself by finishing in daylight at 15:05 ride time. This year was definitely going to be different.
Since the focus is on PBP, I am riding my "brevet" bike, a steel Waterford with dynamo headlamp. It runs a few pounds heavier than the Trek carbon 5200 I rode in 2009. The weather is pleasant with a forecast high of only 82 at Healdsburg. However, the forecast is for sunny skies and there is no doubt that the baking effect of the sun will be felt.
Primarily I'm using this as a PBP training ride, even though the terrain is completely different - PBP having no big climbs or grades, just endless rollers. But there are people who swear by hill climbing as the best way to get into shape for every kind of riding. In my pre-ride confidence I've set up to ride a 200K on the Sunday, to practice the art of getting up after a hard ride and doing it again, something that you have to do three times at PBP.
It's unusually cold at the start and I'm regretting not having my arm warmers, something that as reinforced as we run into a low-lying fog blanket shortly after the start. I meet Becky Berka at the start and wish her well, knowing that she is going for a well earned podium spot in the CTC stage race. I also run into Veronica Tunnicci who I've seen on lots of SF Randonneur rides . She tells me she did the Alpine Challenge the previous week like I did on 2009 but, like me, is worried about the cutoffs on his one.
As is the pattern so for this year, I can't hold my spot in middle of the pack like I used to, so I eventually find myself at the back. I meet a group who are going my pace but it turns out they are only planning to ride to the lunch spot! I really should have re-read my 2009 post before the ride because I have forgotten how steep the grades are on the TT. Trinity Grade which is the first climb up and over into the Napa valley reminds me of what's to come. On the somewhat hairy descent I am slowed by a volunteer coming in to a bend and sadly see a rider down in the road. Later I hear the sirens and the paramedics heading up.
So being at the back there are no pacelines to join, and I end up pulling a lone member of the "Red Peloton" group who are only going the the lunch stop. Later another guy joins us and eventually moves the front but then sets a pace I can't keep up with! So I drop off. Then to my surprise I'm in Calistoga and realise this can't be right. So I pull out the route sheet and sure enough I should have turned right to get the Silverado trail about miles back. I ask directions at the gas station and it's easy to get back on course, although I still mess around and make a wrong turn, eventually ending up at the turn off the Silverado trail where there is a SAG wagon directing riders. He doesn't seem to be surprised that I'm coming the wrong way. Technically I'm disqualified now and the route I took is a couple miles shorter and I do know someone who owned up that on another ride. As I'm leaving the rest stop the guy I couldn't keep up with earlier shows up from the opposite direction so he went even further than I did before realizing his mistake. Later I see the Red Peloton lady coming in so she must have gone as far as where the ride rejoins 128 before realizing her mistake. So drafting me wasn't a great idea after all but then she is only going to the lunch stop. The moral here is to always have the route slip in view and don't blindly follow others.
I'm about 40 minutes slower leaving the rest stop than 2009 which means it's going to be tricky to make the lunch stop cutoff. There are one way restrictions on 128 at two places and is indicative of how much the TT is like a race that organizers told everyone at the start that they would be taking numbers there and subtracting each person's delay from their final time. However they weren't extending the lunch cutoff by the same amount. The Geyser climbs are not too bad and the buffer effect of the red-light delays means that I do pick up a couple of pacelines on the runup. I catch up to Veronica at the rest stop and we run into the lunch stop together. The gravel sections on the Geysers are just as gnarly as ever even with 700x25 tires.
We reach the lunch stop with 5 minutes to spare so its a frantic rush to fill the bottles and grab some food to go. I really could use a break, as I've ridden 111 miles with essentially no rest. I remark on how tough the cutoff is to make but, later I realize, it's actually very accurately computed. In 2009 I left with hour to spare and made up another 80 minutes. But if you only just make the cutoff you obviously are unlikely to make up any time; indeed you my lose even more (see below).
But there is no rest for the wicked or slow, so I'm out of there onto the dreaded Skaggs Springs Rd, built by the Army Corps of Engineers, none of whom had obviously ever ridden a bike. The surface is unusually good for his ride but the grades are relentlessly in the 10-13% range. The sun is mostly out so it feels hotter than in 2009. Lots of people are walking their bikes on this section. I am confident that they will not finish. I get an inside thigh cramp towards the end of the first climb so at the rest stop I down salt tablets and the V8 I didn't have time for at "lunch". In what will be a repeated event from now on arriving riders announce that they are done for the day and are Sagging in. I've never been on the tail end of a ride before; it's an interesting experience, but one I could do without. I riding as hard a I can without blowing up, so that's pretty depressing. Veronica leaves just a few minutes ahead of me but I never see her again until the end.
At the water stop just before the summit of the second climb, I realise I won't make the closing time of the next proper rest stop which is 17 miles away and at the top of the dreaded Rancheria wall with its 18-20% grades. The descent down is fast but I remember the rollers along the river so the clock runs fast. This the section of the TT where the miles seem long. The miles before lunch do go by fast but in the afternoon you keep looking at the bike computer and wondering if it's working properly. On Rancheria I try the "paper boy" style of climbing where you switchback across the road thus trading a bit of distance for grade except for the quick hairpin turns at each end. Not a good plan on a busy road (some idiots do this on Ebbetts on the Death Ride) but this road has basically no traffic.
I reach the rest stop 20 minutes after closing but it's still open and the good news is it is possible to make up time on the relatively short and flat section on Hwy 1 down the coast. The temperature drops at the coast but it's clear and sunny and, heaven, the surface is new and quite wonderful, and the views spectacular. There are rollers, in fact a total of 1000' feet of climbing, but I make up the time and reach the rest stop on Ft Ross Road with 5 minutes to spare. I'm getting pissed that I've ridden hard all day and am chasing cutoffs everywhere. Kitty Goursolle and Rob Hawks are working the stop and they take good care of me. The soup is great but I leave promptly, remarking that I just can't wait to do another 15% + climb. More paper boy climbing - it's getting harder to push those pedals but I made it up. I pass someone wearing Hammer shorts walking their bike (not a great advertizement) who wants to know how much more. Then on the the very steep and narrow pitch my paper boy plan doesn't work. On the left turn across I can't make the turn as I'm essentially at 0mph and topple over. No harm done fortunately except to my ego. After yet another bumpy descent we get to do it all over again, although the grade isn't quite as bad, but by this stage every hill seems steep. The light fails on the descent into Cazadero and I realize two things. First, I really wish I had my headlamp and second, making the 11:00 cutoff for CTC credit is looking distinctly iffy. I meet up with guy wearing a SF Randonneur jersey who is riding a unmarked bike that turns out to be one of the 2012 Specialized models, which he gets to test for them. He likes a lot, more than the 2009 model.
As we drop into Cazadero, and am I so glad to be off the Ft Foss road, the temperature drops about 10 degrees, reflecting the temperature inversion that has been a feature of the day and again I wish I had my arm warmers. I lose my riding partner when I have to stop to put on my rear light and he rides off with the Hammer Gal who has caught us up. She was much braver than me on the Ft Ross descent.
It's a grind into Monte Rio, although River Rd is freshly paved which is nice. The rest stop is wrapping up for the night as it's 9:55. There's no way to make the cutoff now so I relax and call Jenny to let her know my status. She thinks I've finished but I tell her the ride has humbled me. I also decide at that point that there is no point in doing the 200K the next day as this ride has taken enough out of me so she can expect me back earlier. A couple of the riders show up who think they can make the cutoff but it's 16 miles and a climb up the Bohemian Hwy so I don't think so unless their second name is Armstrong or Contador.
They pass me in a hurry on the flat section out of town but we three end up riding into the finish as a group as they realize on the climb that they can't make it. A SAG wagon guides us in, stopping ahead to point out the turns - it's pitch black by now. It has to be said that the volunteer support on this ride is above and beyond expectations. The clock isn't running any more and nobody is very interested in taking our numbers since we won't be getting CTC credit, being 20 minutes past the cutoff. Veronica is at the finish and I'm pleased to hear that she made it. I grab some food to go and head for my hotel. Can't eat much of it though as my stomach is still grumbling about the total Perpetuem overload it has received today.
So how am I feeling immediately after the ride? The good news is that I finished in control, and enjoying the sensation of being on the bike apart from the lousy road sections. My ankle has held up to a day of really tough climbing - four months ago a I couldn't even stand up on the bike and the last big climbing ride I did was Knoxville in September. Could I have made the CTC cutoff? Probably, if I had pushed myself closer to the limit, but that would have made the ride much less enjoyable. After all, if the DMD had the same time policy as the TT, I wouldn't have made the cutoff on that ride in 2009. As always I had moments where I considered giving up doubles altogether. Will I ride the TT again? Probably, unless a heatwave was forecast, but on a different bike and after more hill training. The Waterford is a great brevet bike but climbing hills isn't its forte. And how do I feel this morning? Pretty good, not as fatigued as usual an definitely could ride again, so that's good news for PBP.