2007 Davis 400K Brevet

My move from Boston to Davis was a bit rough at first on the cycling front: I missed my cycling friends and the verdant, rolling countryside of New England. If nothing else, I consoled myself, I would no longer have to endure freezing rain and billowing nor'easters. After several months of little or no rain, I followed local custom and removed the fenders from my Rambouillet.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I wake up early on a Saturday morning to a sound I have almost forgotten: the tapping of steady rain on window glass. It is 4:30am, half an hour before my alarm is set to go off. The Davis 400K brevet starts at 6am. I lie in bed in disbelief and weigh my options. One: forget this madness and sleep in late. Two: ride in the rain with no fenders. 400K in the rain, sand on the roads, no fenders: my butt would not thank me. Three: get up, mount the fenders, and bring back sweet New England memories.

It takes me 17 minutes to reassemble the fenders. Then breakfast. Then some clothes: leg warmers, arm warmers, gloves, wool socks, rain jacket. Boy, this does not feel like the California I have come to know. I leave the house at 5:20. The streets are deserted. Like many roads in the Central Valley, they are not designed for heavy rain, and have a flat, rather than arched, cross section, so the water pools all over the surface even though the volume of rain is low. I am grateful for my fenders.

There are about 100 riders at the start and plenty of gallows humor. People reach back to 2003 to find memories of another wet ride. Personally I look forward to a bit of light rain; the temperature is mild, and I find the moisture less intimidating than California's relentless sun.

The pace at the start is mellow, and the usual small group of speedsters breaks off the front. I decide to let them go, but soon I become impatient with the pace of the main pack and decide to join the front group, their tail-lights receding into the distance. It takes me several miles to catch them, and just as I do my headlamp comes off my helmet. There follows a semi-comical episode in which I ride my bike off the road to reach for the headlight, my front wheel gets stuck in the thick clayish Central Valley soil, and I spend a minute or so dislodging thick globs of mud that block the wheel against the fender.

By the time I'm done the main pack is only a few hundred yards behind me, and the lead group's tail lights are once again a distant speck among the fields. I decide to stay with the big group for a while. Friendly and talkative, they're rather more fun than the fast serious guys. The pace gradually rises—and conversation correspondingly decreasees—as we head south on Pleasants Valley Road to Fairfield. The wind and rain are intense. Our group thins out on the climbs and bunches up again at the bottom of the descents, a giant colorful caterpillar of flapping rain jackets.

The group thins out for good on the first sustained climb of the day, where Hwy 121 ascends the ridge above Capell Valley. I find myself in the company of just a couple of riders. One of them, a strong climber called Braulio whom I recognize from the Davis 300K, has flown all the way from Guadalajara, Mexico, to ride this brevet. In fact, he flies from Mexico for every Davis brevet. Apparently there are no brevet series in Mexico, and to his knowledge he is the only Mexican resident attempting to qualify for PBP.

The rain has almost subsided when we reach the first checkpoint, in Capell Valley. Braulio is still eating when I am ready to go, so I roll out slowly by myself. I am joined by Peter Hewitt and a man called Brett, both of whom presumably made exceedingly short stops at the checkpoint. Together we continue west over some small climbs and then down a beautiful windy stretch of road through a densely wooded valley to the shores of Lake Hennessy, misty and calm under the grey skies. Brett has an unusual riding style, easing up on the climbs and then hammering down the wet twisty descents, a technique that is probably suboptimal both for safety and average speed. But we regroup when we reach the floor of Napa Valley, and ride well together on the flats and gentle rollers of Sliverado Trail to the second checkpoint in the small spa town of Calistoga.

Once again Peter makes short work of the rest stop, and since he's been struggling a bit with our pace, he immediately heads out alone ahead of us. Brett and I resume the ride a couple of sandwiches later. A few miles out of Calistoga the road climbs over a ridge. The climb is well-graded and shaded by redwoods, but Brett is having trouble and tells me to go on ahead. I summit and wait briefly, but then head on alone, trusting that we'll all meet again in a few miles.

Sure enough, I soon find Peter sitting by the side of the road changing out of his leg warmers and other cold weather gear. The sky is still grey but the clouds have lifted. Sparsely wooded grassy meadows unfold on either side, and to the east ragged mountains reach into the clouds. Still no sign of Brett when Peter and I decide it's time to move on.

A headwind picks up as we cruise north on Hwy 128, and now our roles are reversed, Peter riding more strongly than me. For several miles I see a lot of his jersey, a history-laden wool affair emblazoned with the word "HOLDERNESS." Evidently, Peter and John Jurczynski, of BMB and other ultra-distance fame, were once almost neighbors in New Hampshire.

To my surprise, we are only a mile or so out of Geyserville, the turn-around point, when we see the small lead group coming towards us. I didn't think we were doing so well. A short climb and then a fast descent take us into the checkpoint, staffed among others by Ken, with whom I rode long stretches of the 300K. I barely manage to lube my chain and throw down a couple V-8s before Peter says it's time to go.

It's a gorgeous day now, with big puffy clouds in a blue sky. A north wind pushes us home and rustles the trees. California poppies add color to an already sparkling scene, nature seemingly washed clean by the long rainstorm. We pass a meadow rimmed by oaks and carpeted with purple wildflowers. We cross many other riders heading in the opposite direction, but still no Brett.

And then, suddenly, there he is, by the side of the road. At first I think he's still outbound, somehow having fallen hours behind us, but actually he's heading in our same direction. It turns out that he missed a turn and saved himself a couple miles on the way to Geyserville, but the organizers were lenient and allowed him to continue. We ride together to Calistoga, where Brett stops to rest while Peter and I continue after a brief stop.

We keep a fast pace and alternate pulls on the Silverado Trail, easily passing a group of locals out for a spin. I check the clock and estimate that at this rate we'll cover 300Km in about 11 hours, on schedule for a respectable time. But Peter is slowing down, his stomach apparently upset. We ease up and chat on the long gentle climb past Lake Hennessy, and continue to take it easy as we follow Hwy 128 to Mankas' Corner.

That's when we notice dark dark clouds up ahead, their blackness striking against the saturated greens of the ridge below. Peter comments that the lead group probably got wet. Maybe so, but we do no better: in a matter of minutes the wind picks up, heavy clouds cover the sky in all directions, and it starts to rain. The rain falls gently at first, and then harder and harder until I can barely see. The clay cliffs to our right start to melt, and chunks of rock and debris fall onto the road, and the road itself becomes a chocolate-colored torrent. It is unbelievable: rarely have I seen the weather change so quickly. The north wind whips us from the left, driving rain and then hail. Peter must stop a couple of times, and both of us have trouble staying warm. The storm abates as we crest Cardiac Hill, but the subsequent descent leaves me shaking so hard that I can hardly control the bike.

At the checkpoint by the Berryessa Dam I down three hot chocolates. Chilled V-8s now seem like a strange non-sensical dream. Peter is borderline hypothermic, and takes refuge in one of the support vehicles. A couple more riders, including Reed Walden and Braulio, join us at the checkpoint. Eager to finish, I head on alone despite feeling very cold. I cover barely two miles when a dreaded "pft-pft-pft" from my rear wheel brings me to a halt. My cold, numb hands are useless for tire changing, and I would probably be stuck for a while if not for the intervention of a friendly brevet rider whose name I cannot recall. He is a massive man, built more like a football player than a cyclist, and seems less affected by the cold than I am. He also tells me that he did not encounter any hail—evidently Peter and I were at the wrong place at the wrong time. He is wearing a garbage bag as an extra layer under his shell, and he hands me one also. The organizers at the last checkpoint gave him an extra one in case he saw me on the road, because I left before they could give me one and he was the next rider out. How thoughtful! With his help, I am back on the road in short order, but I feel too cold and tired to keep his pace. I slow down and eat something.

The legs don't come back, and I have trouble even on the gentle rollers on Pleasants Valley Road. Braulio, Reed, and one more rider pass me as night falls, and I feel rather miserable as I crawl into the next-to-last checkpoint, a 7-11 in Vacaville. Braulio and friends are still there, but I prefer to stay and nurse a hot chocolate rather than leave with them. Several minutes later two more riders arrive, and I wait for them so we can tackle the last thirty miles together.

It's raining and pitch black outside, and my new companions have inadequate lights, so I become the de facto navigator. Rollers give way to flat straightaways as we descend into the Central Valley. A few miles west of Davis one of my two partners asks us to stop. He pulls over to examine his left crank and determines that it's coming loose, but tightening it requires a special tool that he doesn't have. We slow down while he pushes mostly with his right leg.

It's well after 10pm when we see the Davis city limit sign. We're home! Bang! Maybe not quite home; it feels like my rear tire has exploded. We stop and I examine the damage. My hands are mostly numb, but the tire feels normal. How strange. I get back on the bike but something is wrong: the tire is rubbing against the frame. Maybe I broke a spoke? I dismount again and test them. Nope, they are all fine. I start to ride again, but this time the wheel really gets stuck against the frame. I just don't get it. I stop again and examine my bike carefully. And then I see the problem: the right chainstay has separated from the dropout, and the wheel axle is no longer normal to the plane of the main triangle. I stare in disbelief at a failure I had never even considered. I tell my two companions to go on without me, and walk the last mile or so to the finish. Certainly I am fortunate that the failure happened no earlier.

I arrive at the finish at 10:44pm, for an unremarkable time of 16:44. The organizers have already heard about my trouble and gather around to examine the damage. A kind lady at the control offers to drive me and my bike home in her minivan. Just as we're about to leave, Peter pulls in with some other riders. He looks cold and exhausted but happy. We shake hands vigorously, and then I head home to a hot shower.