2009 Gold Rush 1200 Km Randonnée

We set out at 6pm on Monday, under a bright sun and pale blue skies. The air was dry and in the high 80s, as cool as one could hope for on a July afternoon in Davis. There were 105 of us, mostly from California but also from all over the United States and as far away as Germany and Australia. Dan Shadoan finished his countdown and we rolled across the thin blue line on Anderson Avenue to the cheers of volunteers and passers-by.

It had been a lazy afternoon for me, a light lunch at the Davis Co-Op and then a shady bit of concrete by the start, my eyes half-closed, listening to pre-ride banter and the clickety-clack of bike cleats on pavement. I'd had a hectic weekend of family and work commitments: my bicycle had hung wheel-less on its stand until minutes before my departure from San Francisco, and before leaving home I had discovered that one of the retaining nuts of my right cleat was stripped. Lacking better options, I fastened the cleat bolt to the damaged nut with crazy glue and hoped for the best.

The starting line. I am the tall guy in the white jersey on the left. Fellow San Francisco randonneur Gintautas Budvytis is in the foreground in the center of the frame.
Many thanks to Don Bennett for all the photos in this ride report.

Now, at last, we were on the road. Immediately, eager legs strung the group into single file. My mouth felt dry, as much from anticipation as from the hot sun. I moved to the front and pulled us east on Road 29, 36 Km/h smooth and easy. North on Road 99 Wade Baker took a pull and the fun really began. Wade is great company if you can hang with him, a fast, safe rider with a frequent grin under his moustache. Pushed by a slight tailwind, we cruised at upwards of 40 Km/h. I heard the gentle thwack-thwack-thwack of carbon disk wheels: John Lauer and another recumbent rider passed us and raised the pace another notch.

A secret checkpoint halted us momentarily. Our group had shrunk to eight riders, with no sign of anyone behind us. At each paceline rotation our speed would edge up a little—40 ... 42 ... 43 Km/h—until it would be my turn to pull and I would shamelessly bring it back to 38. I knew that Wade and John could keep this up, but I wondered whether the other five really knew what lay ahead. At mile 45 we caught the Reclamation Road water stop volunteers by surprise: they were setting up and weren't due to open for almost half an hour.

Northbound on Reclamation, finally, the pace slackened to the mid thirties. I struck up a conversation with Tim Feldman of Colorado, astride an orange Rivendell Rambouillet like mine. The sun had set, and the craggy profile of the Sutter Buttes rose black against an orange sky. We swung east on Oswald Road towards the full moon, bright and clear and incredibly large above the dark shadow of the Sierras. Dusk brought bugs, too: they dotted my forearms and brushed against my lips.

The Sutter Buttes at sunset.
(Courtesy of Don Bennett.)

Glimpses of a small crowd by the ball field in Sutter: bright lights, the crisp note of an aluminum bat making contact, cheers. Suddenly from the darkness of a parking lot someone shouted, “Secret checkpoint!” We narrowly avoided a pile-up as we swerved right. Wade found some gravel and landed on his side in a cloud of dust, fortunately without injury.

Night hardly crimped our pace. My computer read 10:50pm when we entered Oroville—one hundred miles, a water stop, and two secret checkpoints in 4h50m. We rolled into the first control at 11:02pm and stayed just long enough to pee and replenish water bottles. Back on the road there were only a handful of us now, for a couple riders had stopped for a longer break.

The rollers began on Table Mountain Road, and John and Wade set a punishing pace. At this point I made a crucial and unusually cool-headed decision: I would let these guys go and ride at my own speed. Maybe I'd ride well, maybe I wouldn't, but it would be my ride, and I wouldn't bonk six hours into it.

I allowed the red taillights to pull away and took the time to admire my surroundings. Dry fields glowed silver in the moonlight, and a mile-long freight train snaked into the hills. Highway 70 climbs straight up into the Sierras for a long time, but eventually all the red lights disappeared around a turn. I kept climbing at a brisk but sustainable pace.

Before long one little red light reappeared. The air was cool up here and I felt strong. It wasn't long before I'd closed the gap. “Crazy pace, huh?” “Yeah, too fast for me.” I continued on alone and glimpsed another red light. I approached close enough to guess that it was John on his recumbent, but by then we were at the top of Jarbo Gap and he vanished in an instant on the descent. The Feather River Canyon opened up before me, cavernous and spectral in the moonlight.

A steel arch bridge high above the river, three tunnels carved into the rock: I arrived in Tobin, kilometer 232, shortly after 2am. Wade and Tim were about to head out, but John, unfortunately, nursed a sore knee and had decided to stop and rest. I replenished food and water and was back on the road in 8 minutes.

Daytime view from the steel arch bridge over the Feather River.
(Courtesy of Don Bennett.)

I eat a snack at Tobin control outbound. Wade prepares to leave while John rests his knee.
(Courtesy of Don Bennett.)

The night ride up the Feather River Canyon is one of my favorite Gold Rush memories. Light traffic, no wind, and always the immense moon shining from behind. Ripples in the river sparkled in the white light, and patterns of light and shadow flitted on the canyon's sandstone and serpentinite walls. Twice I thought a truck was approaching from behind, only to look back and realize that the moon had emerged from a tall stand of trees.

Pre-dawn light found me on the flats of Indian Valley. It was cold here, mid 30s Fahrenheit, and a pee break raised a cloud of vapor from the frosty grass. By the time I reached the Taylorsville checkpoint I was thoroughly chilled, hands numb despite the long-fingered liners over my double layer of cycling gloves. Wade and Tim finished breakfast and left about ten minutes later, but I stayed put and enjoyed warm soup and a pancake while my extremities thawed.

Thankfully, sunshine already lit the treetops on my way to Genesee, and soon the air felt warm. Two deer, the first of many, observed me from the pines. Beyond Genesee the road pitched upwards, sunny and exposed, fragments of fallen rock on the pavement and a big drop-off to Indian Creek on the right. There were no cars at all. I noticed a beaver dam on the creek, and chipmunks skittered in the bushes. A few descents interrupted the stiff climb, and Antelope Lake Dam—far more massive than the beaver's—came into view. Beyond it the road followed the shore of the lake, yet at a sufficient distance to offer plenty of redundant grade. One would not, of course, want any of this to be too easy.

I topped off my bottles at the Beaver Creek water stop, then attacked the last miles to the “Top of the GRR,” 6400 feet above sea level. Two hot, steep ramps below the summit made me anticipate a fast descent to Susanville, but I had not accounted for the size and width of these mountains. The road meandered across meadows and pine forest for miles, accumulating what felt like hundreds of feet of climbing. I was muttering obscenities in Italian under my breath when I caught sight of an arid valley far below, and the pavement pitched resolutely downwards. This, finally, was Janesville Grade: my brakes hissed as I tried to control my speed.

Above Janesville Grade.
(Courtesy of Don Bennett.)

The Susanville National Guard Armory, kilometer 409, was quiet when I arrived. It was a little after 11am, and Wade and Tim had left ten minutes earlier. I nibbled on baked potatoes and vegetarian lasagna while enthusiastic locals tried to find ways to help me: “Anything else I can do for you bud? More lasagna? You let me know now, bud.” It was enough just to rest in that cool space, a welcome break from the dry headwinds that had made the last miles into town a struggle.

I forced myself back into the sun and towards Antelope Pass. Highway 139 heads northeast out of Susanville and climbs an escarpment to the saddle between 6400ft Susanville Peak and 5800ft Antelope Mountain. The final part of the climb, roughly 3.5 miles that gain 1200 vertical feet, is a thin scar up the mountainside visible from miles away. For all its imposing appearance, however, the ascent turned out to be fairly easy, well-graded and sheltered from the wind.

Headwinds resumed in full force on the far side of the pass. Pine forest gave way to a broad, flat grassland surrounded by low mountains. Reeds swayed inauspiciously in my direction, and I hunkered down in low gear with my hands in the drops. Another diagonal scar materialized on the far side of the valley, but this time as I climbed it I found little shelter from the wind.

Not far beyond the summit I caught my first, unexpected view of Eagle Lake. Eagle is alkaline, and it ranks second in size only to Clear Lake among the natural lakes entirely within California. Its surface was an intense Kodachrome blue, rippled by the wind and punctuated by the moving shadows of low cumulus clouds. I gazed for a few seconds, then had to focus on the bumpy descent from the ridge to the water's edge.

The Grasshopper “water-only” stop.
(Courtesy of Don Bennett.)

I rolled onto the gravel driveway of the Grasshopper fire station at around 2pm. This stop was marked “water only,” but Lois Springsteen and Bill Bryant had apparently brought all the goodies and gear that could fit into a large flat-bed rental truck. What a treat! I refilled my water bottles with energy mix and downed a cold soda. Some chairs under a big tarp looked inviting, but I decided to press on.

The landscape grew wilder. Another flat-bottomed, caldera-like valley opened to the east, its far edge marked by dark ridges. Cloud shadows slid across the arid flats. A dead deer lay by the side of the road. A sign announced “Modoc National Forest,” stands of fir and aspen rioting in the wind. The road now descended for miles, and its broken, rutted surface hammered the soles of my feet.

Landscape near Grasshopper.
(Courtesy of Don Bennett.)

Adin, population 599, sits among dry grass some miles beyond the edge of the forest. Its tree-lined Main Street has well-maintained front yards and the occasional white picket fence. Where Susanville's main drag featured Wal-Mart, Kragen, Sears, KFC, Jack-in-the-Box, Burger King, and Taco Bell, Adin appeared to have little more than a general store and a bar. The rest stop was top-notch, from the food selection to the whimsical menus hand-drawn by local children, to the laid-back but efficient volunteers.

Refreshed by the excellent stop, I made short work of Adin Pass, a mostly gentle climb with only a mile or two of relatively steep grade near the summit. A thrilling descent brought me to Canby, a few houses clustered around a gas station and a bar. I double-checked my directions with a local (affixing a polite “Sir” to the end of my question, because it felt right when talking to a big man with a Stetson hat in a battered white pick-up) and turned south and then east on Centerville Road to Alturas.

Modoc County is landscape on an epic scale, worthy of its slogan, “Where the West still lives.” Towering grey cumuli threatened thunder in the sky behind me, and shafts of sunlight formed a moving patchwork on the land. A mesa, the mile-high Modoc Plateau, rose to the north, a sharp bookend to a vast and unexpectedly green valley. A faint train horn sounded, the vehicle itself minuscule and motionless in the far distance. To the east, ahead of me, afternoon light bathed the dark mass of the Warner Range.

Winters must be harsh and budgets low up here, for Centerville Road has an expansion joint every 20-30 meters, and each one is just an unprotected 3-inch gap in the asphalt. I estimate that I hit over a thousand such joints on the way to Alturas, and after five hundred or so one of my saddlebag straps, already frayed, finally snapped. Not to worry: I had a spare. What I could not have spares of, unfortunately, were my feet, battered and swollen by the time I reached the checkpoint.

Farms in the high desert.
(Courtesy of Don Bennett.)

Food logistics were still being worked out in Alturas, so I made do with a plain cheese sandwich, a pickle, and some energy mix. Still, I felt sufficiently ragged from the wind and rough pavement that I frittered away half an hour before heading out on the last stretch to Davis Creek.

I encountered Wade heading the other way about one hour before the turn-around, implying that he was a little over two hours ahead of me. He looked strong and happy. Tim emerged from the gathering dusk about 15 minutes later, so he was roughly half an hour behind Wade. I wondered how long they'd been riding apart.

It was dark now, the beginning of my second night of riding, and fatigue set in. On the second night of Boston-Montreal-Boston in 2006 the double-yellow line had separated from the pavement and floated, ribbon-like, in space ahead of me. But now the hallucinations were more intense and strange. Monsters lurked in the darkness. I swerved to avoid a creature on the roadway, but cannot be sure that it was real. A mushroom-headed alien flickered in the distance for a long time, then resolved itself into a pair of oncoming headlights. I could still do basic arithmetic (I often keep myself alert on long rides by factoring license plates or odometer values), and I knew that I was hallucinating, but I could not control the visions.

A wonderful couple manning the desolate Gold Rush outpost in Davis Creek set me straight with a hot chocolate and a sandwich. Six hundred twenty kilometers down, 580 to go, I turned around towards Alturas assisted by a gentle tailwind. The moon emerged from behind clouds, banishing the roadside monsters. An hour passed before I saw other riders heading towards Davis Creek: I was surprised by the gap I had built up. Not much later I passed through a weigh station. The attendant was curious about all these cyclists riding through the night, and his jaw dropped when I described the Gold Rush.

In Alturas I ran into Ken Bonner, legendary Canadian ultra-distance cyclist, on his way out to Davis Creek. I introduced myself, mentioning our common friend Ted Lapinski in Massachusetts. About three hours ahead of Ken at the turnaround, I internalized for the first time that I was having a good ride. I settled down for a nap and discovered that I had also caught up with Tim, who lay motionless in an adjacent cot.

I woke with no alarm two hours later, freezing but alert. Tim was already gone. I changed into a fresh pair of cycling shorts generously slathered with diaper cream, ate a banana, and headed out. The night air felt calm and pleasantly cool, and moonlight illuminated the high desert. Centerville Road seemed less bumpy than it had in the opposite direction a few hours earlier, but maybe I was just slower or less alert. Lonely pinpricks of light swelled into bright beams trailed by low-slung shadows: six or seven times I encountered outbound riders, some alone, some in pairs, an occasional greeting punctuating the silent night.

Stars faded in the east and the sky grew pale during my climb to Adin Pass. I had not broken a real sweat despite riding the long grade at a brisk pace in my rain jacket, and a pre-dawn summit pee break once again generated clouds of vapor. I zipped up my jacket, braced against the cold, and flew down towards Adin. Now at last I crossed the bulk of outbound riders, most of whom had probably slept in Adin. They spanned a remarkable set of conditions: some were alert and happy; others hunched silently over their handlebars, struggling against who knows what demons; and a handful looked like hot dogs, wrapped in aluminum foil to conserve heat in the desert night. I waved to most and occasionally hollered out encouragement. I recognized several bikes and faces; it felt good to be part of this adventurous crowd, out there in the middle of nowhere.

Adin volunteers = awesome.
(Courtesy of Don Bennett.)

Adin proved once more to be an outstanding control, friendly and efficient. Over a breakfast of eggs and toast I met Marcello Napolitano, Italian of Oregon—only the second time I've had the opportunity to speak Italian on a randonneuring event in the US. Then I lay down to sleep again. When I woke, half an hour later, I knew that I would not need to sleep again until Davis. Which was good, because just then Ken Bonner, who presumably had cycled straight through both of my naps, walked in, and a little competitive devil in my head prodded me onward.

The sun was up and the day promised to be hot, so a mile outside Adin I pulled over, removed all my cold-weather gear, and applied generous amounts of sunscreen, confident that my pace would keep me warm in the occasional stretches of early-morning shade. It was almost 7am, Wade was over four hours ahead of me, but I had three hours of sleep in the bank. I rode hard, focusing on the speedometer more than on the scenery: up the steady climb through Modoc National Forest, pavement dappled with sunlight, the morning air almost motionless; down into the caldera-like basin where yesterday's headwind had now become a moderate tailwind; up to Grasshopper, stopping just long enough to drink half a soda and thank Bill and Lois; down to Eagle Lake, over the next ridge to yet another basin, then over Antelope Pass and finally down the big slope to Susanville.

Lassen County landscape.
(Courtesy of Don Bennett.)

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the Susanville Armory was Tim's orange Rivendell Rambouillet on the grass outside. It made me happy, because I knew I would no longer ride alone. Next, just inside the door, I saw Rob Hawks, San Francisco brevet administrator. That was not such good news, for clearly he had abandoned the ride. He told me a bit of his story as I dug into a serving of lasagne. I admired that despite the DNF, he was still on the course, helping out at a checkpoint. After the ride, I learned that he had even lent his bicycle to another rider whose frame had cracked on Janesville Grade.

Meanwhile Tim had emerged from the shower and looked like a new man. We left together at 11:44. We would climb Janesville Grade during the hottest hours of the day, but I was excited: already I'd gained nearly an hour on Wade, and at this pace I might be able to achieve my goal of a sub-sixty-hour finish, an objective that I had all but abandoned in yesterday's lonely struggle against the north winds.

Tim and I refilled water bottles at a tiny gas station in Janesville, then we took a right turn and promptly had to downshift into our lowest gears. I wondered whether my 36x26 would be low enough. Janesville Grade averages 8% for 11 kilometers, with several ramps at or above 15%, and in the early afternoon it has almost no shade. We already had 850 Km in our legs. We zig-zagged up the steepest stretches and sometimes strayed into the opposite lane to catch a few seconds of shade from an overhanging tree. My Achilles' tendon made its existence known. I poured water over my head. Conversation dwindled.

But ahh, the joy of that first small descent! This time I savored the rolling miles of high-altitude meadows and pine forest, and answered Tim's questions about the surrounding trees to the best of my limited ability. From the “Top of the GRR” we plunged through warm afternoon air to the shores of Antelope Lake, stopped briefly for water at Beaver Creek, then pushed on towards Taylorsville. I still felt strong, my sixty-hour goal a powerful motivator. Tim however, struggled on the rollers around the lake, and when the steep descent along Indian Creek ended near Genesee, he suggested we ride separately. I gave him one of my water bottles, told him I'd wait at the checkpoint, and slowly pulled away.

The big news in Taylorsville was that Astana had won the Tour de France team time trial, putting Lance Armstrong in second place in the general classification. It is incredible that ten years on, news about the man still punctuates my own summertime cycling adventures. I did not wait long for Tim to arrive, but after a twenty minute rest he was still not ready to continue. Reluctantly, I set off alone. I was now two and a half hours behind Wade, and had thirteen hours to ride 270 Km in order to make my sixty-hour goal.

On warm afternoons wind rises from the lowlands and blows uphill along mountain valleys. This is a common phenomenon in the north-south valleys of the Italian Alps, and the east-west valleys of the Sierras, of course, are no different. So I pedaled hard from Taylorsville to Tobin, even though most of the road runs downhill along the Feather River. Worse than the wind was the traffic, much of it lumber and dirt-hauling trucks. Twice I rolled off the pavement and stopped against the canyon wall while a truck roared by a foot away.

Non-trivial engineering along the Feather River.
(Courtesy of Don Bennett.)

At 7pm I arrived in Tobin to find a crew that matched Adin's for helpfulness and efficiency. They were excited to see their second inbound rider: one person filled my bottles and gel flasks, another brought me a plate of pasta, and a third gave me a back rub as I ate (a first for me during a ride). There are indisputable advantages to being near the front of a ride such as this. I was back on the bike, refreshed and in high spirits, within twenty minutes.

I climbed Jarbo Gap in shadow, sunset lighting the hilltops above me. Traffic had eased now, as had the wind. Near the summit I stopped to put on some extra clothes in preparation for the long descent to Oroville. Orange faded to dark purple in cloud-streaked skies above the Central Valley. The road lay in darkness now, and on the fast descent the wiggly strips of tar that cover cracks in the pavement danced in my headlights like hyperkinetic Tetris pieces. I realized that I was losing it again when the bits of tar acquired color, bizarre tropical snakes in the California foothills. My dependence on daylight for alertness was appalling, but I reduced my speed, focused on arithmetic, and somehow limped into Oroville.

By now I was operating in slow motion. Despite my best efforts I spent almost half an hour at the checkpoint, and the clock read 10:42pm when I left. To achieve my sixty-hour goal I had to ride 147 Km in no more than seven hours. On fresh legs that would be trivial, but after 1050 Km I doubted the Oroville volunteer's words of encouragement.

The night proved difficult and punctuated by minor indignities. In downtown Oroville some kids in an SUV threw a burrito at me. It landed with a thud behind my rear wheel, but I was too tired to be angry. Later, on Lone Tree Road, my remaining batteries began to fade. I turned down my headlights and relied on the moon and the straight Central Valley roads. In Gridley, fierce dogs emerged from both sides of the road. I let out a hoarse roar and sprinted out of the saddle, terrified. Much later I would learn that those beasts took down a recumbent and bit deep into another rider's leg. Even without a dog bite, I must have been a sight to see: unsure whether the mini-mart in Sutter would be open, I stopped for water at a convenience store in Gridley, and the cashier laughed when I approached.

The Sutter store was indeed open despite the late hour, and I bought more water to obtain the requisite proof-of-passage receipt. Then came the hardest part of the night. Nineteen kilometers with no turns or landmarks, Reclamation Road almost drove me insane with its endless field rows and irrigation canals, distant lights never drawing nearer. The numbers ticking over on my odometer seemed like a sick joke. Several times I stopped and wondered whether I'd missed the turn onto Kirksville Road. When it finally appeared, complete with Gold Rush signage, it filled me with immense relief.

I spent less than five minutes at the secret checkpoint at Kirksville and Cranmore. Despite my recent struggles, I now found myself just 1h20m behind Wade, and my sub-sixty goal was within striking distance. I had two and a half hours to complete 48 Km. But not far beyond the checkpoint I no longer recognized the landscape on a road I'd ridden several times before. I panicked: if I turned around, I would lose precious minutes. If I kept going the wrong way, I would definitely miss my goal. In a moment of inspiration I reached into my saddlebag and called Dan Shadoan at Gold Rush headquarters in Davis. I probably sounded a little crazy, but he was kind and patient, and yes, I was on the right road.

Knights Landing almost felt like home, the roads familiar from my year living in Davis. Traffic was light this early in the morning. The beautiful Sierra Nevada emerged against a backdrop of pre-dawn sky. Those mountains looked so far away—I could not believe that I had just come from the other side and then some. With daylight, and the finish so close, my pace rose to over 30 Km/h. Could I make it in before 5:30am? Left on Road 101, right on Anderson, left into the parking lot: I rushed into the conference room that served as the official checkpoint. Wade and a volunteer sat at the table. Off the bike for the first time in hours, I felt the room spin around me and had to sit down.

My official time was 59:32, a personal best. I was very happy with the result. Wade had finished exactly forty minutes earlier. We shared a bag of potato chips and congratulated each other.


It turns out that crazy glue is not a good bolt retention material, but apparently two bolts are enough to hold a three-bolt road cleat for at least 800 kilometers.

For several weeks after Gold Rush I wore a brace on my right ankle to heal an inflamed tibial tendon. Fortunately, such braces still allow you to ride a bike.

I scraped the results from the Gold Rush web page into an Excel spreadsheet. You can also take a look at the cue sheet.

No ride report would be complete without heartfelt thanks to the many volunteers who organized a safe and enjoyable ride across unusually remote and inhospitable terrain. Some checkpoints shine in my memory, but the entire ride was wonderfully well supported. Thank you!