Okay so this is the best I could do while attempting to make a “sick rando bike edit” but here is our twenty-four hour bike ride condensed into two and a half minutes. This concludes your coverage of the 2014 DNFlèche!
Two pancakes, eggs over easy, greasy hash browns smothered in ketchup, and even greasier sausage links in pooling maple syrup. Weak cup of lukewarm coffee and fifteen minutes of shut-eye. Rather typical for a 24+ hour rando stop at one of the many Denny’s restaurants scattered throughout the Bay Area. However, a cloud of collective dread hung over this visit in particular. We had given up all hope of finishing within the time limit. Rather than have a few members attempt to speed ahead and finish the ride for RUSA credit, we all agreed to call in the DNF and finish the rest of the journey at our own pace, together as a team. It was four hours until the trains started up, and we had little hope of making it to Crepes on Cole in time to catch any of the remaining teams. We were riding with the sole purpose of returning home, and because we had no other choice.
Unfortunately, this ride report will have limited accompanying photography. In the final hours of any flechè, light is scarce, spirits are low, and the roads and scenery are often in familiar territory because of their proximity to San Francisco. All these factors coalesce to form a truly tedious experience, and all one’s energies are devoted to simply staying awake and turning the pedals. The cameras of previously prolific and exuberant photographers stayed packed and dormant.
Because of my experience commuting with SF2G, I was tasked with navigating the group northward through the Peninsula and back to The City. We left the Campbell Denny’s at 5 AM and pedaled our way through giant, empty roadways, eventually finding Foothill Expressway. Dawn began to break on Foothill. Cars and other cyclists began to appear, offering friendly nods and waves of encouragement. I suspect many of them believed us to be at the very beginning of a leisurely morning spin. Funny how wrong such a notion could be.
My spirits began to lift ever so slightly as we rolled past the Palo Alto foothills, which glowed softly in the morning light. A steady row of walkers and joggers streamed up the concrete path leading to The Dish, a 7-mile loop in the foothills near Stanford, meandering around a huge radiotelescope. “Pilgrims?” asked Ian, nodding in the general direction of the early-risers. “Yes,” I replied, “Worshippers of technology, off to pay respects to their terrible alloyed idols.” Twenty two hours on the bike had clearly addled our brains.
We decided to bail on the ride in Palo Alto, and catch the first Caltrain up to The City. A quick glance at the Caltrain schedule listed the first train as arriving at 7:30 in Palo Alto, so I wound our tired group through Stanford’s sleepy campus and down along Palm Drive to the train station. We rode to the train platform and put our bikes down with a collective sigh of relief. Relief quickly shattered by the realization that we had looked at the Saturday schedule. Sunday trains don’t run until 8:30. Nothing left to do but get back on our bikes and keep riding with a new plan – continue on to Millbrae and pick up BART, which would carry our tired legs the remaining fifteen miles.
My tired brain strained to remember the twists and turns of the SF2G Bayway route, only in reverse. The Peninsula towns ticked past us one-by-one, slowly and painfully. Palo Alto. Menlo Park. Redwood City. “Are we there yet?” San Carlos. Belmont. Foster City. “Surely, it must be just around the corner.” San Mateo. Burlingame. Finally Millbrae. Across the freeway overpass and into the massive Millbrae transit center. Tag our Clipper cards, stack our bikes on the BART car idling on the platform, collapse on the new vinyl seats, and pass out with mouth open and tongue hanging out.
And so our ride reached its weary conclusion. We’d reached dizzying highs and suffered draining lows. But in the end, we were glad to have ridden our route, we were glad to have ridden together, and we were glad to be finished.
With what little energy we had remaining, we mounted our bikes with higher hopes. Our aspirations of finishing the fleche had waned but was not completely shut out. While our bikes were stacked outside In-n-Out, a group of teenagers mistakenly identified us as a fixed gear group. This boosted our morale quite a bit and with the sprinting strength of Garrett Chow, I even managed to take Castroville’s city limit sign.
To everyone’s surprise, the wind had died down and there may have even been a slight tailwind. After the 5 hours of headwind hell, an actual pace of 18 miles per hour felt like we were zooming along at 30 miles per hour and casual conversation began to rejuvenate our morale.
“Thank goodness we’re out of that god forsaken valley”
“This has been the best and worst ride of my life”
“Do you think the other Flèche teams are as miserable as us?”
But it was too early to feel optimistic. We still had to get 40 miles to Corralitos and 35 miles and 1,700ft of climbing in the Santa Cruz Mountains before finishing with a 50 mile slog through the Peninsula. The ominous quote of “For the night is dark and full of terrors” reminded me that we had not made it through the night.
After a brief extra break at Safeway in Freedom (yes, that’s an actual city’s name), we started our climb over the Santa Cruz mountains. Although Indians Road was by far the best part of the ride, I was most surprised at how pleasant riding up Eureka Canyon Road was at night. The giant redwoods shut out any remaining bits of light now and the ambient babbling of the nearby creek was a welcome change from the howling wind of the Salinas Valley. The high that the group experienced post In-n-Out dinner had faded and I was left alone in my thoughts for the next two hours as I dropped back behind the pack. The road twisted and winded like a good mountain road should, but I was too drained of everything at this point to enjoy a classic road climb. Like making coffee in the morning, I mindlessly made the motions of biking. Pedal, pedal, pedal. I started to become delusional. I thought to myself:
If I turned into a zombie, I could probably still ride a bike to catch humans. I would be fat zombie. Or, maybe I would be a very fit zombie.
I caught myself falling asleep on a short descent. So, I ate my remaining caffeinated shot blocks and continued on to find the rest of the team waiting up for me.
As I rejoined the group, Ian debriefed me on our status. “We have 60-70 more miles to go, with 5 hours left. We probably won’t make up too much time on the descent, so it’s likely we will have to DNF.” After a little more discussion, we decided that we would spend some time in the Denny’s in San Jose to rest and officially DNF there.
Of course, I wasn’t thrilled that we DNF’d but I felt relieved that there was no longer a pressure to hustle back to San Francisco. My body ached now and I was happy to allow more time at Denny’s for bacon, sausage and naps.
The thrilling descent out of the Santa Cruz mountains expelled the sleepiness from my body. It twisted and turned in pure darkness. It was like the roller coaster, Space Mountain, but with larger consequences for not paying attention. Gabe led us through a shortcut that required us to do about a mile of single track around the reservoir. Even at 3am I was excited to get off the road and onto some dirt. It was hard see around the turns without a headlamp but in the end we all survived.
The final descent down Los Gatos Creek Trail was 2 miles of dirt fire road that paralleled the river flowing from the dam. The trail was graded perfectly so that you can cruise at about 16-20 miles per hour without pedaling. It was at this moment while we were cruising on a dirt path at 3 in the morning that I remembered why I liked doing these torturous endurance rides. To me, randonneuring is the ultimate test of how much pain I can endure AND still enjoy riding a bike. My saddle pounded my ass with every bump in the trail, my hands blistered from gripping the hoods too tight, and my legs felt as if they were full of lead, and despite all of that, I was grinning from ear to ear.
“The air cleft by our flight beat in our faces, roared, whistled in our ears, tore at us, nipped us cruelly in its anger, tried to tear our heads off our shoulders. We had hardly strength to breathe from the pressure of the wind. It seemed as though the devil himself had caught us in his claws and was dragging us with a roar to hell. Surrounding objects melted into one long furiously racing streak… another moment and it seemed we should perish.”
- Anton Chekhov
I had little idea what was in store for us as we rolled down from Arroyo Seco into the Salinas Valley. I had just enjoyed 5 hours of the best riding of my life, and I was already beginning to plan for the meal I’d soon be enjoying 45 miles up the road in Salinas. Those flat miles should fly by pretty quickly…
Randonneurs, more than most, prepare for changing weather conditions, with fenders, lights and extra layers, but the drastic change from sunny calm on Indians Road to savage headwinds all the way from Greenfield to Salinas came as a shock to my system. The crosswinds first hit us when we entered the valley heading east towards Greenfield, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was just looking forward to hydrating and eating something at our first control, a Mexican bakery, but sitting in the control looking out the window I saw flags whipping ominously in the sky. We had intended to make up time in this section after falling behind schedule on Indians Road, but once we hit the road heading north it became clear that that was not going to be the case. A roaring wind was facing us down, straight on, and we were riding into it at about 9 or 10 miles an hour with the rider on the front taking major pulls.
These flat valley roads had barely any cover, save a few farmhouses, and almost no landmarks to chart any kind of progress, and so we slipped into a seemingly endless struggle forward, a kind of primal man-versus-nature drama played out against an invisible, howling enemy. When we made 90 degree turns, we formed ragtag echelons that often disintegrated into every-man-for-himself battles to the next turn, where we’d regroup to face the headwind again. It reminded me of watching pros race through the desert in Tour of Qatar, but in super slow motion.
Headwinds simultaneously bind us together and alienate us from one another. Little conversation is possible in a headwind, unless it’s yelled, and there’s none of the riding side-by-side and joking around that usually helps flat miles pass quickly. Each rider is off in their own little world, facing dark thoughts like, “Why am I here?” “This is pointless.” “This wind is never going to end.” “I think I’m going to bonk soon.” It’s hard to keep morale up when you can barely communicate and everyone is giving their all just to go 10 mph. At the same time, headwinds force us to rely on each other more than at any other time in a ride. Without the team, each one of us would be barely able to progress at all, but as a team, we can forge onward at a decent pace and get plenty of time to rest before the next turn. Though this section would prove to be our eventual downfall in terms of completing the Fleche, I think that it brought us closer together as a team, and for that I’m thankful.
We stopped to rest every 30 minutes or so, sometimes sitting in the dirt or getting water from a gas station. During these stops members of the team seemed to be in a kind of stupefied daze. Indians Road was a distant memory and we were trapped in a dusty, unpleasant valley. At one point some kind farmers offered us a ride, and I’m sure we definitely looked like we needed one.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Salinas, the wind started to die down and the idea of eating at In-N-Out breathed life into the team. We’d survived and we were going to be rewarded with our first full meal of the ride, almost 11 tough hours of riding in. We banded together for 4.5 hours to face down the wind in the valley, and that’s one of my favorite memories from the flèche.
Stokemeter™ warranty department,
Please send five new Stokemeters™ to the below addresses because this ride blew the tops off the current model by multiple orders of magnitude.
I have failed to find appropriate words or phrases to adequately describe my experience of riding Indians Road. For some reason I keep coming back to the term “stoke”, which is bandied about too often and seems such a poor descriptor of emotion and experience, but nevertheless, it’s what I have to work with. I’ve been hearing stories of Indians Road for a good number of years now, ever since my friend Gentle Fred first went on one of the fabled “condor” trips with Cameron Falconer and Rick Hunter. Since then Indians has been on top of my list of roads to ride, but events and logistics have transpired against me being able to put tires to dirt until I was given a season contract with the Boyz fleche team.
Indians is hands down the best road I have ridden. Seriously. Judging from the unending stream of exclamations of amazement and excitement, I can safely say that this sentiment was mirrored by my teammates as well. What else can be said about Indians Road? As Ian said, “…it is perfectly suited for rando bikes!” An opinion seconded not only by every member of the team, but by a mountain biker which we passed on the way down who exclaimed that he wished he had brought HIS rando bike out instead. This road is bananas because it’s in some of the more remote and inaccessible terrain in Central California. Why would someone build this road in the first place? It’s not like it connects anything that worthwhile (the canyon of Arroyo Seco to Fort Hunter Liggett). There also aren’t any noticeable natural resources in these rugged mountains. It happens to be a poor fire road due to it being crazy narrow in places with sheer drops of seemingly thousands of feet off the edge, as well as being blocked by landslides in numerous places. I mean, the road is abandoned, so it’s obviously not that important to the county, state, or federal infrastructure. It seems that the only reason that this road exists is to give those who ride it amazing views and mind-blowing gratifying experiences.
Shralping down to the Salinas Valley with Brian, Irving, Ian, and Carlin I realized that Indians Road gave us all an experience that we cannot easily forget or get again. It was a unique and momentous section on an equally unique ride with an amazing group of riders. As Gentle Fred puts it, “It’s god’s country.” Fred’s a physicist, and most likely an atheist so take that for what you will. Steinbeck wrote a short novel, To A God Unknown, set in these mountains. Read it and go ride this road, while keeping Fred’s description in mind when you are out there. Oh, and make sure your stokemeter™ is up to snuff. This road…this road…
The Northern California Flèche is a yearly event that follows a unique set of rules and allows teams to determine their own routes. Last year’s event proved to be a difficult but rewarding experience for our team, as our route featured a significant portion of mixed terrain riding up Fish Rock Road. This year, we joined 16 other teams in participating in the Northern California Flèche.
Brian did the majority of the route reconnaissance and we got some great recommendations and input from friends (s/o to Jake “the” Mann). Our final route had us starting at a military base (!!!), going through the Los Padres National Forest, winding through Greenfield –> Soledad –> Gonzales –> Salinas and then climbing through the Santa Cruz mountains before arriving in San Jose and taking an urban route back to San Francisco.
The team featured our core group from last year, as no one was lured away by any rival Flèche teams (the bribes of moth eaten wool cycling jerseys were hard to resist). In addition, we were lucky enough to pick up Gabe from the rando free agents list.
Logistically, our plan was to have Brian and Emily drive the team car (fittingly, a Toyota Corolla) with the bikes and gear from San Francisco to Fort Hunter Liggett. The rest of the team would take Amtrak from Oakland to Paso Robles before getting picked up from team car and heading over to our hotel within Fort Hunter Liggett.
Planning for a true one way Flèche route (rather than a loop starting from San Francisco) often takes extra time and resources, but I believe it is an essential part of the event experience. Most importantly, it allows you an extra day to bond with teammates and goof around. The camaraderie and goodwill built during this extra day are important when in the next twenty-four hours, you may be mentally and physically fragile.
Upon arrival at Fort Hunter Liggett, we checked into our “cowboy rooms” (a.k.a. lodging with shared bathrooms) at the Hacienda Hotel. The Hacienda was formerly known as the Milpitas Ranch House and it housed the workers tending to William Hearst’s farmlands and cattle. The hotel retains many of its period correct details but also throws in modern amenities, like mini fridges and modern televisions. We enjoyed the scenery and had a quick #dinneroutside, before heading over to the hotel bar for a drink (beers on tap = Bud Light and Firestone DBA) and a few games of shuffleboard before retiring for the night.
Despite all the planning and preparation that went into this ride (*SPOILER ALERT*), it turns out the rando gods deemed that we would not have a favorable next twenty four hours. The big fat DNF on my brevet report card (oh man, my parents are going to be PISSED) will be difficult to forget, but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I couldn’t have asked for better teammates to ride with through the breathtaking sections as well as the mentally draining and physically exhausting ones.
The rest of the ride report will be split into portions, with each of my teammates taking the task of describing a section of the ride. Join us later for Gabe’s details of the fabled “Indians Road”.