2007 Big Basin 200K Brevet

About 35 of us rolled out of the Cupertino Bike Shop parking lot at 6am on Saturday, June 30. Bill Bryant and Lois Springsteen, Santa Cruz RBAs and creators of this Big Basin 200K, billed it as among the most difficult 200K in the US, with over 13,500ft of climbing. That's well over twice as much climbing per mile as a typical randonnee, more than Terrible Two—one of California's most difficult double centuries—and on par with Sandy Whittlesey's D2R2, which racks up 11,500ft in 170Km, albeit mostly on dirt roads.

I saw several faces I could name—Reed Walden, with whom I've ridden parts of several brevets; Ken Holloway, in whose company I covered a good fraction of the Davis 300K; Craig Robertson, who captained a tandem to a sub-24-hour first-place finish at the Santa Rosa 600K—and a few others who have become familar over the course of the year.

Our large group stuck together for the first five or six miles, west on McClellan Road and north on Foothill Blvd. These were the only flat miles on the ride, and we sped along in the cool early morning air. The sky was pale blue, lit by the rising sun on the far side of the Diablo Range. The day promised to be gorgeous.

A sharp left turn onto Moody Road, and the climbing began—gradual at first, then steep enough to warrant the small chainring. I would end up riding about a 100Km in the small chainring before the day was over. Reed, unsurprisingly, pushed the pace, and the rest of us tried to follow. A large deer lifted its head from the grass and looked at us, motionless, as we passed, but I think few others noticed. By the next cue, marked simply "Low gears!", I looked around and counted just six others: Reed, Ken, Craig, a man named Jason, and two men whose names I didn't know, one on a carbon Trek and another on a bike with a fancy rear hub power meter. What little conversation there had been ended abruptly as the road pitched upward at an 18% grade.

I could hear the other men's breathing over my own. Craig and the Trek opened up a small gap, while Ken and power-hub man fell behind. I didn't think the pace was sustainable, but I decided I would stick with Reed, caution be damned. Despite his 57 years, Reed is an amazing athlete who puts in 15K miles/year, and staying in his company seemed like a good challenge.

Moody merged with Page Mill, one of the Bay Area's classic climbs and a favorite stomping ground of Jobst Brandt, and we continued up the mountain. Craig and Mr. Trek disappeared around a turn, and suddently I was alone with Reed and Jason. I usually climb these roads alone, and found that other cyclists' company brought out a new level of motivation. Jason fell back a little, and we passed Mr. Trek, who had flatted. I edged past Reed on a steep ramp, and suddenly only Craig was ahead of me. You're being foolish, I thought to myself.

But I felt great when we reached Skyline Drive (2200ft), and was happily surprised to see Craig up ahead, talking to Bill Bryant at the secret control. We had covered 30Km and about 2500ft of climbing in 1:20. Craig was saying something about how he had managed to shave half a pound from his titanium rig. Maybe when you're as skinny and fit as he is, half a pound starts to matter, but I'm not convinced.

Our foursome--Craig, Reed, Jason, and I—negotiated Skyline's rollers to Saratoga Summit (2600ft), then swung right onto Hwy 9 at Saratoga Gap. In its first 6 miles west of the Gap, Hwy 9 falls towards Santa Cruz at a 5% average grade, losing 1400ft before the intersection with Hwy 236. Perfect pavement, well-cambered turns, and a skilled paceline—what a descent!

Then it was back to the small chainring: the road shrank to a single narrow lane and the pavement deteriorated to Massachusetts levels as Hwy 236 took us deep into the redwoods of Big Basin. These enormous trees are over 1500 years old—they were saplings during the sack of Rome, and thousand-year old giants when Constantinople fell!—and on this particular morning they were shrouded in fog, damp, eerily quiet. I let Craig and Reed pull away and admired the surroundings. Jason and I crested China Grade (1840ft), then relished the descent through the redwoods to the headquarters of Big Basin State Park. Craig and Reed had arrived a minute earlier and determined that there was no way for us to obtain a receipt to prove our arrival time. It was just 8:24, and the park store didn't open until 9am. We simply wrote down the time on our brevet cards and started up the 3-mile climb to Little Basin Summit. Then a 5-mile descent took us to an intersection with Jamison Creek Road.

Jamison Creek was "the" climb of the day, 1500ft of elevation gain at a 15-18% grade. The road climbs gently for a while, then turns left and pitches sharply skyward. I stuck to Reed's wheel. I panted and stuck to Reed's wheel. My legs burned and I stuck to Reed's wheel. Then I broke—I could stick to that wheel no more. Slowly (we were climbing at about 9Km/h, so even a 20% speed difference is a crawl) Reed and Jason pulled away. After several minutes they were more than one turn above me, and I lost sight of them. On a couple particularly steep stretches my front wheel lifted perilously into the air, bringing back memories of Mix Canyon (here in California) and Hurricane Mountain (in New Hampshire).

By the time I reached the ridge I had entered a kind of trance-like climbing state. It wasn't yet time to coast—there were still a couple of miles of gentle climbing to the top of Empire Grade, with sweeping views of Big Basin to the east. Energized to have Jamison Creek behind me, I sprinted out of the saddle to try to catch my former companions. Up and over the crest, then down the other side of Empire Grade, sharp right onto Pine Flat Road—which is not at all flat and affords good speeds in a 50x12—and straight down Bonny Doon, twisty and steep. Twenty-six hundred feet straight down, and my brakes started to hiss. Between one turn and another I caught glimpses of the Pacific at the bottom of the gorge. I started to actually smell the sea! The road flattened out, big trees gave way to brush, and I was out in bright sun, one sandy bluff away from the ocean. I turned north onto Hwy 1, California's coastal highway. Davenport, the turn-around point, lay just a mile away. I would be there by 10am.

I looked around for Reed and the others, but saw no sign of them. I was puzzled. I filled out my brevet card, mailed the requisite postcard, refilled my water bottles. And then, just as I was about to leave, Reed and Jason showed up. They had somehow overshot Davenport and added a mile or two to their ride. A few seconds later, Craig arrived too. He had missed the right turn onto Pine Flat Road from Empire Grade, and had added both distance and elevation gain to his brevet. Maybe, I mused, that crazy effort up Jamison Creek had starved their brains of oxygen.

I set off alone to give myself a bit of a head start on Bonny Doon. I was still on Hwy 1 when I saw Ken and Mr. Trek fighting the north wind into Davenport, then I turned left onto Bonny Doon and entered the shade and quiet of the forest. Other outbound riders appeared eventually, streaks of color accompanied by whirring freewheels and a loud whoosh of air. Almost everyone managed a nod or smile in the fraction of a second before we passed each other, giving me boost after boost as I pressed up the hill. I'm always impressed by the friendliness of the randonneuring crowd.

It wasn't until near the top of Bonny Doon that Craig passed me, his pedal strokes smooth and strong. I expected Reed and Jason to come charging up behind me any minute now, but that didn't happen. Instead, just before Empire Grade, Mr. Trek sprinted past. He slowed down after passing me and I considered trying to catch him, but decided instead to stick to my own pace.

Big Basin appeared stunning once again from the top of Empire Grade, but soon, past the Ben Lomond forest service fire station, it was time for the big descent. I turned right onto Jamison Creek Road and the pavement literally fell away beneath me. The road was too twisty and poorly paved, and I didn't know it well enough, to allow high speeds, yet I had trouble staying under 50Km/h. I alternately pumped the front and rear brake to allow the rims to cool off, and still the pads hissed. I feared a blowout. The cracks and potholes numbed hands and feet. I swerved to avoid a patch of sand coming into a sharp left turn, and came to a stop in the dirt on the outer side of the bend, unnervingly close to the edge of a ravine.

What a relief to start climbing again, back up Hwy 236 towards Big Basin State Park! I passed a few locals out for a spin, crested the 5-mile climb to Little Basin Summit, and sped down through the redwoods to park headquarters. It was a little past noon, and the cool morning silence had given way to a sunny circus scene. Families with children milled around in the headquarters parking lot, and I dismounted and walked my bike. I saw Craig and the Trek leave just as I arrived. Reed arrived a couple minutes later, and we stood in line for what seemed like an eternity to buy water and sodas.

Refreshed, we set off into the redwoods, up to the top of China Grade, and down the other side. Where mists had hung close to the ground a few hours earlier, now rays of sunshine poked through the big trees and lit the cracked pavement. Traffic was light on this side of the park, and Reed and I got to talking—our plans for Paris, our bike commutes, gear, and other things that bike nerds will talk about. In no time we were back on Hwy 9 for the climb to Saratoga Gap. It's a long way up, but never too steep. Much of it is shaded by redwoods, and much of the rest affords beautiful views. Both of us settled into a swift but sustainable pace, and conversation helped the climb go by quickly.

Maps claim that the saddle where Skyline meets Alpine and Page Mill is 400ft lower than Saratoga Summit, but it didn't feel that way to me, as Reed and I alternated pulls on Skyline's many rollers. No talk now—we smelled the barn and pushed hard. Past the Christmas tree farm, up a little hill... places familiar from many joyrides. And then, at last, there it was: the sign for Page Mill, and the stop sign with the cryptic code that we had to write down on our brevet card, like kids on a treasure hunt, to prove that we'd come all this way rather than taking the shortcut down Hwy 9 via Redwood Gulch to Cupertino.

Page Mill is a tough climb, but it's also an exhilarating and varied descent, alternately wooded and exposed, with several splendid views of the southern San Francisco Bay. "That's what I've been waiting for all day!" exclaimed Reed as we caught our first glimpse of the bay, off to the left. But in an instant we were back in some trees and going faster than ever, the joy of speed making up for lost views: 74Km/h on one stretch, until I came into a sharp right a little too wide, found myself on the wrong side of the double yellow, and decided that a tad more prudence might be advisable.

The brakes hissed one last time on the rough pavement of Moody Road, and finally the grade flattened out and we were back on Foothill Expressway, with its lovely olive and eucalyptus trees and towering bushes of oleander. I don't know many other expressways that are worth a detour on the way to work in the morning, but this one really is. Now all that was left was a short rise near the I-280 overpass—a not insubstantial little hill, to our tired legs—followed by a gentle descent on McClellan Road.

We almost missed Bill Bryant, sitting alone in a shady corner of the Cupertino Bike Shop parking lot. He welcomed us with an ice chest full of cold sodas and praised our strong ride. Our finishing time was 8:45, in-line with Bill's estimate that this course requires a couple hours more than one's normal 200K time. Craig and the rider on the carbon Trek had arrived about 15 minutes ahead of us. We sat around for a good while enjoying the shade, the cold drinks, and the company of other people willing to talk ad nauseam about PBP. But no one else showed up, and I had little time to spare if I wanted to shower before cycling to catch my train home to Davis. So I bid Reed "au revoir" in Paris, thanked Bill for putting together a wonderful ride, and headed north on De Anza. Another great season of brevets was over.