2009 San Francisco 400K Brevet

This year's SF 400K was not an easy ride for me. Russ Fairles and Aron Mason and I finished first in 16:29, an unremarkable time that attests the hilly terrain and the headwinds on the return leg. Temperatures ranged from below freezing to the 70s, and my digestive system stopped cooperating about ten hours into the ride. After Aron kindly dropped me off at home, I staggered into the bathroom, vomited liquid Powerbar, and crumpled into a salty heap in the shower. Not the ideal way to convince one's lovely spouse of the benefits and joys of long-distance cycling.

The day started like many Bay Area mornings, clear and beautiful. The East Bay hills rose black against the orange and turquoise of dawn, and Venus hung low above them. We rolled through Sausalito in a fairly large group, but Camino Alto, the day's first climb, whittled our group to seven riders: Russ, Aron, Jack, Bob (?), two Lithuanians—Vidas and Gintautas—and myself. Somewhere we'd already lost Greg Beato and David Strong, so we soft-pedaled through Larkspur and Ross and San Anselmo, but to no avail. Aron, it turns out, was the man who kindly stopped to help me with a flat tire on the Davis 400 in 2007. We'd been caught in a freak hailstorm, and he found me shivering by the side of the road, unable to unseat the tire from the rim with my numb hands. I was happy to see him again.

Whites Hill separated our group once more, Russ and Aaron and I cresting ahead of the others. The descent to San Geronimo was short but dramatic: where Fairfax had been clear and sunny, the Lagunitas watershed lay blanketed in freezing fog. The fields were white with frost. We rose briefly above the fog on Dixon Ridge, then dropped back into sub-freezing conditions in Nicasio. My bike computer reported -1C (30F), while the sun made a pale yellow smudge in the fog. After two and a half years in California, I can still find myself unprepared for the microclimates here, so I was grateful that Russ had brought an extra pair of long-fingered gloves. The other four caught up with us while I put on the gloves, and we rolled on together.

By Chileno Valley the day had warmed considerably, and I enjoyed the perfect Marin countryside: wildflowers, cattle, grassy hills, occasional stands of eucalyptus and oak. Carmody Road, in particular, made for fine memories, with its tinkling herds of cows being taken out to pasture and its summit framed by handsome white boulders. Traffic was minimal, save for an unusual number of police cars (some of which gave us far less than the requisite three feet of clearance).

The open grassland of Marin and southern Sonoma County gave way to oak and then redwood forest as we climbed the steep pitches of Joy Road. This climb had been billed as a killer—“no joy on Joy Road” and so on—but we took it easy and enjoyed the woods and the occasional—but remarkable—views. A steep, twisty descent brought us to Occidental, and we continued at a fast clip through redwood forest down to the Russian River and the first checkpoint (mile 81) in Guerneville. There were just four of us now, for the Lithuanians had slowed down before Bodega, and Jack had stopped to take off some layers before Joy Road.

Jack arrived as we were preparing to leave and told us not to wait. Bob also had made equivocal comments about keeping up with us, so when he flatted just beyond the control point, we decided to continue and leave Bob and Jack in each other's company. We made brisk progress on the gentle ups-and-downs along the river and then north on Westside Rd to Healdsburg.

I was puzzled that the cue sheet took us through Healdsburg rather than bypassing the town on scenic West Dry Creek Rd, but fortunately traffic was moderate. Rich with vineyards, this part of Sonoma Valley is a crossroads of Northen California long-distance cycling events: the Davis 400, the SF 400 and 600, the Santa Rosa 600, and Terrible Two, to name a few, all share stretches of Dry Creek Road between Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

We stopped in Cloverdale to remove layers and replenish water bottles before the final push to Hopland. Just north of Cloverdale, Hwy 128 heads northwest towards the ocean, flat at first and then via switchbacks up a steep hillside. Traffic was light and the air warm and calm. We climbed steadily, sometimes in sunshine and sometimes in the dappled shadow of large scrub oaks. A rooster crowed nearby, and views opened up behind us. I thought the ride could not get more scenic, but I had not counted on Mountain House Road. An east-bound fork from Hwy 128, Mountain House falls away steeply into the watershed of Cummisky Creek, a tributary of the Russian River, then traverses a couple more ridges before rejoining the Russian River at Hopland. Its pavement is rough, just gravel in one place. Oaks and laurels hang overhead—spectacular, scraggly old trees covered in lichens and Spanish moss that give the place a mysterious Middle-Earth feel. We must have been in peak wildflower season: meadows shimmered blue and orange and white as the breeze brushed lupines and poppies and countless other flowers. It made me happy to be alive and thankful for this sport: it is not obvious that one should be able to ride 120 miles before lunch and still have enough left over to admire a butterfly by the roadside.

We arrived in Hopland at 2:05pm, after covering 134 hilly miles in 8:05. The Indian couple at the Valero mini-mart could not believe that we'd ridden all the way from San Francisco and were now planning to ride back. “Just wait: you'll see many more like us,” we told them. Incredulous or not, they made me a great rye sandwich with pickles and paneer.

Our return trip got off to a slow start: what the cue sheet lists as East Side Road, road signs indicate as Old River Road. (Google Maps splits the difference and lists both names.) I remembered similar problems on the Santa Rosa 600 in 2007, so we eventually found our way, though not before first heading towards Clear Lake.

Hwy 101 had a broad shoulder, smooth pavement, and little traffic, but a steady headwind hampered our progress. I had been climbing well all day, but the wind and afternoon sun combined to sap my strength. I felt that I was no longer pulling my weight in our threesome. Somewhere around Geyserville we stopped for a nature break and a little food, and I found that I could not eat much. Fortunately, Chalk Hill Road soon provided eight miles of relief from the windy flats.

We stopped once more at a gas station near Santa Rosa to don arm warmers and refill water bottles, then resumed our paceline to Petaluma. Punctuated by big intersections and subdivision walls, these were easily the least scenic miles of the ride, but the route was fast and direct. We arrived at the Petaluma Safeway, checkpoint 3, around 6:45pm. An SF randonneur sat on a bench outside, waiting for a friend to pick him up after turning back due to knee problems.

The sun hung low above the hills as we climbed out of Petaluma towards Nicasio. Aron struggled a bit on the ascent, but we kept the pace moderate and stuck together to be more visible. I had only ever ridden this stretch in the opposite direction, whether on brevets or to visit family in Davis, and it had always seemed like a big descent, so I was surprised by how gentle the climb was. Our pace edged higher as we reached the summit, and we raced down the far side to Nicasio Reservoir just as darkness fell. It was cold now: a brief pee break in Nicasio left me shaking. Aron and I took turns setting the pace up Dixon Ridge and over Whites Hill, while Russ finally showed signs of fatigue.

We were all exhausted and cold at this point, and the remaining miles passed slowly. In San Anselmo we stopped to put on every item of clothing we had, shivering under a streetlight and fussing with zippers while passers-by shot us questioning glances. Near Ross we took a wrong turn on a road I've ridden scores of times. On Camino Alto we descended slowly simply because going fast would have been too cold. I tried to eat another Powerbar, but as I discovered at home, it was one too many.

Finally we arrived in Sausalito. San Francisco sparkled ahead of us, and the Bay Bridge stretched across the water, festooned with brightly lit suspension cables. After 250 miles, we hardly noticed the final climb to the Golden Gate Bridge. The sidewalks of the bridge are closed at night to try to prevent suicides, so we had to stop at either end to press a buzzer and wait for an operator to open the gates. But soon enough we rolled into the toll plaza, where Mark Behning was waiting for us with a sign-in sheet and plenty of food. It was 10:29pm. Surprisingly, I was not at all hungry, just cold and slightly nauseous. Aron kindly offered to give me a ride home; we had the heat on full-blast in his minivan.

I arrived home around 11pm and was asleep before 11:30. Breakfast on Sunday was three poached eggs, most of a tub of cottage cheese, whole wheat toast, and lots of fruit. And still I was hungry.