2007 Santa Rosa 600K Brevet

"You may want to ride through there at night. There should be a lot of moonlight, so I may turn my lights off to avoid being seen." Thus Donn King, organizer of the Santa Rosa brevet series, to the assembled riders minutes before the start of the 600K brevet. The people to avoid, it turns out, are the drunken revelers expected to descend on the shores of the Berryessa reservoir over Memorial Day weekend. Apparently, games of hit-the-cyclist have been played with empty beer cans, and women riders have had their lycra-clad derrieres slapped by guys in pick-up trucks. The suggestion to ride with no lights blows my mind: what kind of place is this where it might be safer to ride with no lights on a state highway than to reveal oneself to drunken NASCAR fans? And why are we going there on the very weeekend when the dually F250s will be at their most numerous?

Anyway, it is 6am, time to stop wondering and start pedaling. One of the riders releases homing pigeons from the back of his truck as we leave the parking lot. They mill overhead for a few seconds before swooping away in a graceful arc. Cool overcast conditions encourage a brisk pace, and I enjoy the swoosh of freewheels and rushing air as our large group negotiates the winding country roads of Sonoma County. The terrain is lovely: gentle rollers, vineyards, the road hugging the base of steep wooded hillsides.

"Oh my Go-oh-ohd! What are you riiiding?!" We are on the first significant climb of the day when the guy behind me, on a pretty Davidson titanium bike, stares in horror at my Bridgestone MB-4. The bike is 16 years old, and I've commuted on it almost every day since sophomore year in college. It's far from an original MB-4—it has drop bars, slick tires, and a dynamo hub, among other things—but nonetheless it looks very much like a beat up old '90s mountain bike. The frame is scratched beyond recognition, victim of too many urban bike racks. The seatpost sticks out a foot above the top tube. Beefy racks carry a large Ortlieb pannier.

The man on the Davidson has a funny accent, vaguely British but not quite. Turns out he's from South Africa and his name is Jonathan. "You Bridgestone people will never give up on your old clunkers. Take them to the grave, won't you?" He pokes fun, but his good humor is contagious and I enjoy his company. This is his first 600K, so he's a bit nervous. On the climb we stick with the Trek OCLV crowd, proof that a couple of extra pounds on the bike are not that big a deal.

A few miles down the road Jonathan does another double-take: "Jeez-us! What are you wearing? Is that a dress shirt?" Indeed, yes. An old cotton shirt, buttoned at the wrists and with the collar turned up, is my most recent attempt to ward off skin cancer in this sun-baked state. On a full-day ride, sunscreen is a joke. "Wow. You really are retro, aren't you?" Jonathan is funny.

We leave country roads in favor of the shoulder of Hwy 101, where road construction and high-speed traffic make for exciting conditions. By now the sun has burned away most of the fog, and rising swirls of mist reveal stunning rock walls to our left.

It's a relief when the cue sheet takes us off the busy highway, though soon we encounter the 2200ft climb over the Mayacmas Mountains along Hwy 175. I'm with the lead group, only two riders ahead of me at this point, and as the grade increases I expect racer types to start passing me and my Bridgestone left and right, but that doesn't happen. The air is cool and I feel fine, comfortable enough to admire the great views west to Mendocino County. One rider—Saunier Duval team jersey, shaved legs bronzed to perfection—does pass me, but I push myself to stay on his wheel, just for fun. His name is Jeff. We summit together and plunge down the 8-mile descent on the other side, my cotton shirt flapping crazily in the wind.

We stop to fill our water bottles in Lakeport and see other riders approaching in the distance. Sure enough, a tandem and two singles pass us just outside of town. But I know that the next 25 miles are largely flat, and go all out to catch their wheel. Jeff is behind me, and after several seconds of pursuit we settle into the tandem's draft. Following the tandem is an awesome experience: we cover 25 miles in little more than an hour, and arrive at the Clearlake Oaks checkpoint (160Km) around 11:30am.

Jeff is still eating when I decide to hit the road in the company of the fast tandem and a couple other riders. The day has become hot, and I'm thankful for my long cotton sleeves that flap in the breeze and protect me from the scorching sun. But flapping sleeves or not, before long I overheat and decide to drop off the fast group's pace. The miles wear on and I feel like a salt-caked rag when Jeff and two other cyclists pass me on the next long climb. Jeff's companions are two "Fightin' Bobas": I don't know what a "Boba" is, but they look all business with matching outfits and team-issue Landshark bikes. I am too dehydrated to hammer, and see them vanish around a turn.

Hidden Valley is a scorching, sparsely vegetated place nestled among low hills in the dry interior of Lake County—my friend Chip would call it an anomalous subdivision. Heat waves rise from the asphalt when I notice something odd on the side of the road in the distance. A car? Upside-down cows? Hmm. On closer inspection it turns out to be a pile of cyclists—Jeff, the Fightin' Bobas, and two riders who have been dropped by the tandem. One of these is Bill Brier, whom I first met on the Davis 200K. They're almost done picking themselves up when I reach them. Jeff was at the front of the paceline when he had a misunderstanding with the man behind him, they touched wheels, and everyone except Jeff went down. They are all injured to some degree. The Fightin' Bobas have torn jerseys and impressive road rash, but Bill has taken the worst hit: he has damaged his helmet, bleeds from the mouth, and becomes dizzy when he attempts to stand. There's not much we can do to help, but after several minutes we flag down a highway trooper. He shakes his head at our story—"four hundred miles in one day??"—but offers each of us water bottles from his squad car and calls in the paramedics to help Bill.

Jeff and I and two Bobas decide to continue while a couple other riders wait for the paramedics with Bill. In Middletown we stop and I fill up on Gatorade, V-8, and water. I even store an extra half gallon bottle in my pannier. But the heat is relentless, and I don't do well in it. I feel like a fly in molasses as I sweat and puff on my MB-4 while Jeff and the Bobas slowly pull away.

I ride alone for some time, but rejoin the threesome at the second checkpoint, at Pope Valley Grange (~230Km). The checkpoint itself is a work of genius, somewhere between a normal rest stop and a Mad Max desert camp. The main rest area, complete with ice chests and a blender for making fresh smoothies, sits under a mist tent, a large rectangular tarp suspended on four poles and bordered by a hose with many tiny holes in it, so as to form walls of falling spray. Nearby, under a parasol, stand shallow basins of ice and water for relieving hot swollen feet. One of the volunteers is a man called Bill with whom I rode large sections of the Davis 300K in March. He says hello first, but I have trouble recognizing him without his helmet and glasses. Then the memories come to life: "Oh, you're the guy on the pretty Ibis!" Strange how I always remember bicycles better than faces.

Jeff and I resume our ride ahead of the Bobas. Jeff's computer reads 97F and there is not a cloud in the sky, so I reckon it's safer to continue slowly and methodically than to alternate hammer-fests with sessions in the ice bath. We have the road all to ourselves for many miles, while our conversation follows the well-worn paths of conversations among new randonneuring acquaintances. The landscape is beautiful and there aren't many trucks on the road yet: a perfect day, but for the heat.

Eight miles separate us from the turn-around in Winters when we see the three fastest riders—the tandem and a single—already on their way back. Shortly afterwards we cross a recumbent that passed us when we were all huddled around Bill in Hidden Valley. But best (and most incredibly!) of all, we are joined by Bill, the Fightin' Bobas, and another rider. Bill appears to have recovered from his crash and convinced the medics that he is ok, and he is determined to finish despite his injury and the heat. He and the Bobas accelerate past me and Jeff and arrive at the checkpoint a minute or two ahead of us.

Winters is only 15 miles from my home in Davis, so it feels odd to head back west towards the hills after our stop. Bill and the Bobas have left before us, so Jeff and I resume our two-man routine of alternating pulls. It's about 6:30pm (the outbound 300K took us 12 hours), and the air is finally cooling. Small groups of outbound riders wave as they pass us. Jeff sets a steady pace on the climb to the Berryessa dam and Cardiac Hill beyond.

Both of us are nervous about the Memorial Day revelers, but the sun hasn't set yet and we experience nothing worse than a pick-up truck that passes too close. It's not until Moskowite Corner, a small cluster of stores at the intersection of Hwys. 121 and 128, that we get a feel for the weekend crowd. We stop to fill up on water and don our reflective gear, and the first thing we notice is the police presence, motorbikes and cruisers out in force to handle the expected spike of DUIs and other traffic offenses. Then there are the guys with big guts and Harley Davidson muscle shirts, the half-dozen Latinas pressed into the back of a '70s Cadillac, and the woman in the low-slung top with "Miguel" tattoed in a gothic font across the top of her breasts. Across the lot agitated women surround a policeman. I look around and study this awesome slice of Americana until Jeff is ready to go.

Normally my average speed falls after dark, but today it's just the opposite. In the course of a couple of hours the temperature has dropped over 30 degress Fahrenheit, and I feel better with every mile. Jeff and I hammer on the narrow twisty stretch of Lower Chiles Valley Road, adrenaline pumping when we negotiate fast descents on cracked pavement in the waning light. Stars appear overhead and the last vestiges of sunset fade fom the horizon. The countryside is dark and peaceful. Mountains register as shapeless masses against the pale sparkle of the Milky Way.

We roll into the Pope Valley Grange checkpoint (~370Km) in time to overlap briefly with Bill and the Fightin' Bobas. The checkpoint itself is as impressive on the return leg as it was on the outbound one. The mist tent and ice bath have been replaced by a roaring wood fire, a table full of warm and cold food, and a big-screen TV that fills the night with a rock concert video. The music sounds like Peter Gabriel—I don't recognize it, but it's fun. Crazy shadows flicker across our salt-stained faces as we chow down next to the fire.

The night feels darker and colder when we get back on our bikes. Butts Canyon, where the road is sandwiched by steep hillsides, is pitch black. White fences glow in our headlights for miles in Napa Valley. The climb near Hidden Valley, so tough for me in the noon heat, is much easier now, but without a visual point of reference it seems to go on forever. Eventually we enter Clearlake, with its liquor stores and express marts, ramshackle houses and the occasional police car. I'm doing all the navigation, and somehow I manage not to get us lost. The pavement deteriorates, we grunt up Sulphur Bank Road, and finally, a little after midnight, we pull into the checkpoint at the Lakepoint Lodge in Clearlake Oaks (~440Km).

Bill and the Bobas have left moments before our arrival. Jeff decides that he needs to sleep. His wife—who was kind enough to also be on hand at Pope Valley Grange—whisks him off to a nearby motel by car. I want to ride through the night, but prefer not to tackle the "witching hours" between 1 and 3am alone. So I lie down for a while and ask the checkpoint volunteers to wake me when the next rider arrives. But no one appears for a long time. I sleep for an hour, change shorts and wash, eat twice, chat with the volunteers, and still no one shows up. Eventually, at 3am, I decide that it's time to move on alone.

Residents of rural California have a habit of leaving dogs off their leash. At one point, not one but two frenzied hounds emerge simultaneously from different sides of the road and give chase for several hundred feet. By the end of my sprint to evade them I feel exhausted and emotionally drained. I decide to drop my pace a little so that I will have more reserves for future dashes. Occasional barks from the roadside shadows keep me on my toes for the next twenty miles.

The night demons finally recede on Scotts Valley Road. I've seen no dogs in a few miles, and birdsong has replaced barking. A new day is beginning. Low mist veils fields where horses are out to pasture. When I reach the penultimate checkpoint, at a gas station in Lakeport, the sky is pale blue but the sun has not yet risen over the hills to the east. An older couple in a battered cream-colored pick-up truck are arguing loudly. He leaves her at the gas pump and enters the store to buy cigarettes.

I buy some yogurt and wait for several minutes in hope of seeing other riders, but once again have no luck. So I create a new goal: I'll push hard to the finish and try to not have anyone catch me. I'm too slow for the fast tandem and too late, after the almost 3-hour pause at Clearlake, to chase down Bill and the Fightin' Bobas, but the idea (whether real or not) of a large group hot on my tail is a good motivator nonetheless. I turn onto Hwy. 175 and push to the top of the Mayacmas ridge. Now the sun has cleared the eastern horizon: it sparkles across Clear Lake and bathes the mountains in an orange glow. I alternate intervals in the saddle with sprints out of the saddle and gain altitude swiftly. The view is spectacular, there's no traffic, and I feel exhuberantly happy.

On the other side of the ridge, much of the valley below is still in shadow. Mendocino County spreads out before me to the northwest, hilltops rising like islands above the morning fog. I shift into high gear and plunge down the mountain. My front cantilever brake howls whenever I use it. Near the bottom I miss the turn onto East Side Road but don't realize my error until I enter Hopland. Instead of back-tracking directly, I take Hwy 101 south to its intersection with East Side Road: effectively I ride two sides of a triangle rather than one, and thereby add a couple of miles to the canonical route. Seems fair enough.

I make good time on Hwy. 101. Traffic is lighter than yesterday, and the southbound lane has more of a shoulder than the northbound one, which comes in handy when an enormous truck with a massive red speedboat in tow comes roaring up behind me. I have had my fill of Power Bars, so in Cloverdale I stop briefly for pastries at a Portuguese bakery. Thirty-five miles are all that separate me from qualification for PBP.

Dutcher Creek, Dry Creek, Yoakim Bridge: the road names are familiar from yesterday, but the rollers seem bigger and the navigation more complex. Riding in the large group yesterday, I didn't notice how many turns there were on the cue sheet. Many other cyclists are out on this perfect Sunday morning, and I use them to pace myself, belting out a cheery "Mornin'" and then pushing as hard as I can to drop them. It's ridiculous, but my sleep-deprived brain is awash in racing fantasies.

It's 10:40am when I turn into the parking lot of Destination RKA in Windsor. My legs are burning from the last few miles of sprints, but overall I feel pretty good. There's no one at the finish except for one amiable volunteer who doesn't seem to mind my happy and exhausted babbling. My finishing time is 28:40—no record, but I am happy with it, considering yesterday's heat, the almost 3-hour stop at Clearlake Oaks, and the fact that I was riding a mountain bike. Bill and the Bobas finished a couple hours ahead of me, so I must have gained on them in the 100 miles since Clearlake. The fast tandem and one other single, on the other hand, finished in under 24 hours. That kind of performance will have to wait for another day.