Thursday, October 6, 2011

Levi's Gran Fondo, Willow Creek dirt

Just another little weekend ride -- this time Levi's Gran Fondo, up by Santa Rosa.

I could write about the crazy zoo on the road that comes from having a mass start of 7500 cyclists all at the same time.

Or the climb up King Ridge.

Or the cloud/rain we rode into, despite a clear forecast and balmy conditions at the start.

Or the treacherous steep slippery descent down to Hauser Bridge, only to find a bad crash at the bottom, and the subsequent subdued climb back into the fog.

Or the freezy windy lunch stop with supposed coastal views, or for that matter any views at all, entirely obscured by fog.

Or the glorious moment near Meyers Grade where the strip of bright light under the fog bank resolved itself into a view of the sea stacks in the ocean near Jenner.

But what I really enjoyed, and what set this ride apart from others this year, was Willow Creek Road. At about 70 miles in, we had the choice of continuing along Highway 1 into the headwind and coping with the still-teeming hordes of cyclists and the inevitable boneheaded jockeying for position that always occurs when there are that many people on the road, or turning inland onto Willow Creek Road for an advertised dirt road climb option. Needless to say, when everyone around us zoomed straight on up 1, we turned left.

Ah, bliss. It was quiet. It was protected from the wind. It was pretty. No one followed us. An oasis of calm in the middle of the crowded circus that is this type of ride. We rode along for a couple of miles on a flattish section for a few miles, watching the pavement degrade into dirt and dodging the occasional pit of deep gravel. Quiet. Warm. How could it be that we were riding in chilly windy fog surrounded by other riders with worrisome habits just half an hour ago?

Then things really got good. We went around a gate (meaning no cars for a few miles!) and started to climb. The road surface was fine for skinny tires, being well-packed gravel/dirt mixture, and the road climbed steadily, but not too steeply up. One could worry that we were on the wrong route, but for the bicycle tracks striping their way up ahead of us. Said bike tracks were quite handy at the one ambiguous unmarked intersection.

The road climbed quite predictably and steadily; I think it averaged somewhere between 5 and 6% overall, with only two short bits that were steep enough that one had to pay attention to traction. The road surface and gradient reminded me a lot of the Butano Fire Road down in our neck of the woods.

For a long time, the only people we saw were hikers -- it looked like there was a church group on an outing, and they were all quite friendly. At one point, a string of three boys about Nimue's age all held out their hands, wanting high-fives as we rode by. Of course we obliged, despite my vague wondering if I could climb on loose dirt with only one hand on the handlebars at 75 miles into the ride. (I can.)

We did, in the end, see about half a dozen other cyclists on the dirt climb, all of whom cheerily chatted for a moment as we passed. I think the cyclists prone to taking the wacky dirt option self-select to be a jolly bunch -- definitely none of the grim cyclist too busy training to acknowledge others' existence here! I talked to more people on this section than the entire rest of the ride. For that matter, in my experience, the smaller rides like the Summer Solstice ride out by Quincy or the Unknown Coast up by Eureka lead to more interactions between riders (at least more interactions than "On your left!") than some of the big mob scene rides that are more popular. Or maybe they just attract more of a touring crowd than a racing wanna-be crowd. At any rate, we liked the dirt section on this one :)

One other advantage of the dirt option was that it topped out and gave us a little descent to recover before joining back up with the main route, which at that point was in the middle of a big slog of a climb. There's definitely a psychological boost to being able to use momentum to slingshot up the top part of that hill past riders who were stuck in suffering mode. Past that point, all I had to do is follow Chad's (very fast) wheel to dinner at the end.

It had to be a record for a hilly century for me, at 7:08 moving time and 7:37 total. I've ridden a hundred miles faster, but only on pancake-flat roads. Being lazy for a couple of weeks ahead of time (I call it a recovery taper...), and having Chad's wheel to follow through the crazed beginning section was definitely helpful!

I should also mention that the support for this ride was above and beyond the norm. Big green arrows at all the intersections, so I couldn't possibly take a wrong turn, lots of good food (someone handed me a yummy roast beef sandwich as I rode up to the lunch stop, removing the need to even figure out where the food was), plenty of racks for bikes at the stops and well-organized volunteers to manage everything, giant delicious paella at the end.

The 95% of the riders who didn't do the dirt really missed out. Except perhaps Chad's buddy Randy, who didn't do the dirt, but by virtue of being long-time riding partner with the founder of Specialized, got to start up in the front with Levi and take advantage of the VIP dinner afterward. Though I guess that meant he missed out on the paella, so we still probably came out ahead on the enjoyment scale.

Scruffy us waiting for food.

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