2009 San Francisco 300K Brevet

Heavy clouds frame patches of predawn light above the East Bay hills. A crescent moon hangs over Oakland, and the lights of the Bay Bridge shimmer like droplets on a spider's web. I love riding my bike early in the morning: I love the cool darkness, the changing light, the promise of a day in the saddle. It is 6am, and about 80 of us have just set off on the San Francisco Randonneurs' early-season 300Km brevet.

We string out single-file across the Golden Gate Bridge. The pace near the front is brisk as usual, though not insane like for the 200K last month. Today we're missing David Strong, who last time had us all going anaerobic before we'd even reached the far side of the bridge, and Graham Pollock, one of the fastest long-distance riders in California, who had set an almost 30mph pace on the flats much of the way to Point Reyes. Still, there's little time to appreciate the twinkling lights across the Bay: I'm in a group with Peter Morrissey, Paul Skilbeck, and Russ Fairles, who had posted the fastest times on the 200K, and two other strong riders, Greg Beato and Mark Abrahams. We make good time through Sausalito and Mill Valley. On Camino Alto, the first climb of the ride, I notice that we're a couple miles per hour slower than with Graham, enough to avoid lactic acid in my legs and allow a minimum of conversation.

The ride to Fairfax is an annoying succession of stop signs and traffic lights, but we obey the law: I recently learned the hard way that bike fines around here can exceed $300. Hopefully some day the plans for an uninterrupted bike-way through lower Marin will become reality, and then all SF brevet times will fall by 10 or 20 minutes.

Russ, probably the strongest climber among us, decides it is time to “stretch his legs” on Whites Hill, and our pace goes up a notch. We fly down the far side to Woodacre and Lagunitas. The rising sun lights the hilltops, but the valley is still misty, dark oaks dotting pale dewy grass. We enter the cool redwoods of Samuel P. Taylor State Park, then emerge abruptly, turning right onto Platform Bridge Road. Far above us on the crest of a hill, a solitary horse cuts a handsome profile against the sky. The gentle climb by Lagunitas Creek barely registers on fresh legs, and we emerge from the canyon into bright sunshine along Nicasio Reservoir. The water is completely still, a mirror of cirrus clouds above. Thankfully, the recent rains seem to have increased the reservoir's level.

Mark Behning waves us down for a secret control just before Nicasio Valley Road, a precaution against riders taking a short cut via Nicasio. I fumble with the brevet card and don't even manage to refill a water bottle before Russ is rolling towards Petaluma. It turns out that that's a sign of things to come. But not to worry: my other bottle is full, and the road to Petaluma is a wonderful ribbon of asphalt rolling through fields of mustard flowers and open pasture. We take one look back from the ridge above Petaluma onto a bright green landscape dotted with red barns, then race downhill towards town.

The Petaluma Safeway, mile 50, is the first official checkpoint. My routine is simple: hit the bathroom, pick up a bottle of water, check out. But I'm not fast enough for Russ, Peter, and Paul, who are on the road again before I can put away my change. I refill Greg's bottles while he fights with a recalcitrant saddlebag, and the two of us dash off in pursuit. No sign of Mark: he is still in the store, minutes behind us, like most sane people would be. Greg and I alternate pulls at north of 40Km/h for some time before the run-away trio comes back into view. We finally catch them at a traffic light and fall to the back, happy to draft for a while.

The remaining miles north to Healdsburg glide by easily: no significant climbs, a well-oiled paceline, and a slight tailwind. We stop only once, in downtown Santa Rosa, so Russ can fix a flat. Sonoma Valley is beautiful this time of year: cherry blossoms line the road and yellow carpets of mustard flowers stretch among the vineyards.

We arrive at the Healdsburg checkpoint, another Safeway, around 10:45. I can't find a veggie sandwich quickly enough, so I make do with two raisin bagels and run for the cashier. This time we all leave together, continuing our paceline on Westside Rd after a brief nature break. The rollers on this part of the ride seemed especially painful to me last year, but today I feel strong and alert. I notice that our rolling average so far is 31Km/h, easily good for a sub-12-hour finish. The clouds are gathering overhead, and all of us want to be home before the anticipated rainstorm comes in off the Pacific.

But our pace drops as we turn south on Hwy 1 near Jenner. The road hugs the rocky coastline in a series of rollers, and we grind into a headwind. Peter does some heroic pulls on the approach to Bodega Bay. Surf breaks against the rocks beneath us, and I catch glimpses of birds skimming the waves. We pass a seagull that hangs almost motionless to our right, suspended in the wind above the ocean.

Despite the slowdown, we arrive at Diekman's grocery store in Bodega Bay before 1pm. We've just completed a seven-hour 200K. Greg, who is feeling tired, takes off almost immediately, while the other three wait for me to complete a much-needed visit to a porta-potty. We catch Greg on the first long climb away from the ocean, but unfortunately he does not stay with our group for long. The rollers from Valley Ford to Tomales on Hwy 1 can be demoralizing even on fresh legs, and by the time we reach Marshall there are only four of us. I wash down a loaf of bread with a soda and put on my wind vest. The breeze is definitely cold now, the sky overcast.

Greg appears just as we're about to leave. We offer to wait, but he prefers to let us go and continue at his own pace. I feel ok, my stomach comfortably filled by that whole-wheat loaf, yet I wonder whether I'll be the next one to be shelled out the back of our lovely paceline. South of Tomales Bay we head inland towards Nicasio, retracing part of the morning's route. Funny how that climb along Lagunitas Creek seems tougher the second time around.

A light inside me turns off just before Nicasio. My legs feel heavy, and the pace drops a little whenever I take my pull at the front. I fear that I'm just luggage to the other guys. Two locals out for an afternoon joyride catch up to us and I can hear them talking with Peter behind me, but all I can do is focus on the pavement ahead. I push hard to stay with Russ over Dixon Ridge and then again up Whites Hill.

And then, like magic, the light comes back on. Somehow the bonk has passed; maybe the descent into Fairfax refreshed me, or maybe I just smell the barn. I lead our foursome through the myriad turns and stop signs and traffic lights to Larkspur. Three hundred-dollar traffic fines seem less important with 180 miles in one's legs. Larkspur is quiet: beautiful homes, but not a lot going on. “No dates in Larkspur on a Saturday night,” quips Russ. Suddenly we notice that Paul is gone. “I think he stopped for a pizza,” says Peter. Uh, ok. I don't think too much about it: pizza sounds good right now. We cruise over Camino Alto and down to Mill Valley, then along the bike path to a bustling street scene in Sausalito. “Lots of dates in Sausalito on a Saturday night.” Indeed. Though maybe a bit expensive.

For sure, for sure they'll drop me on that final climb to the Golden Gate... But no, I hold a steady pace, and surprisingly it's Peter who struggles a bit near the top. We regroup on the west side of the bridge. There's little wind, but the air feels raw and the overcast sky has thinned the usual crowds of tourists weaving their way on rent-a-bikes. We roll into the finish together at 5:20pm, for a time of 11:20. Rob Hawks, SFR RBA, Mark Behning, and another volunteer greet us with very welcome bags of potato chips. I've barely opened mine when Paul shows up, six minutes after us: no pizza in Larkspur after all, just a bonk. Oh well. Stopping for pizza ten miles from the finish of a high-speed 300K would have made for a pretty good story.