2010 Davis 600Km Brevet

It's not easy dodging potholes in the dark at 24 miles per hour. Cranmore Road, atop the levee of the Sacramento River, is a disaster of craters and loose pavement. Tim Woudenberg's recumbent sets a punishing pace. Behind him, Peter Burnett's wheel dances in my headlights. I'd like to be closer, to draft, but then I couldn't dodge the potholes. Russ Fairles and Peter Morrissey are off the back. I yell for Tim to slow down, but no one hears me. Suddenly a shout, angry oaths: we almost pile onto each other. Tim's wheel is flat, another victim of the potholes.

It's our little group's second flat in fifteen minutes, and things are not going according to plan. The “plan” is to complete the 600Km course in 24 hours or less, and thereby achieve a new randonneuring goal called R60: completion of a full series of 200-, 300-, 400-, and 600-kilometer brevets in 60% or less of their respective time limits. The time limits grow linearly, but one's average speed, of course, falls with distance. So while it's common to complete a 200Km brevet in less than eight hours, most of us have never ridden 600Km in less than 24. Russ is our strategist, a general whose battle plans are Excel spreadsheets, a dozen columns and tens of rows—one per turn on the cue sheet—densely packed with splits from prior years, best-case scenarios, rolling averages, off-bike times, “pace deltas” and “speed pro-rating factors” computed to three significant digits. How technology gives us the illusion of conquering uncertainty, of defeating darkness and hunger and bad pavement!

But it all seems silly now. The lead group we've been with must be miles up the road, and the lights of the main peloton approach rapidly along the levee. Tim and Peter M. are still struggling with Tim's wheel when that group passes us. We're on a 26+-hour pace: pace factor 0.98, Captain Russ. I console myself with the sky, a brilliant field of stars against the dark farmland of California's Central Valley.

We resume. “No sprints, guys, just a smooth, steady pace,” but pretty soon we're hammering again. I say hi to Kitty G. and a couple other familiar faces as we blaze past the main group. I'm in charge of navigation, trying to make out the cue sheet as it bounces in the light of my headlamp. My computer reads 0 Km/h, because when I built my new dynamo-hub wheel I forgot to mount the computer magnet, and I did not do a full test ride with both wheel and computer installed. Stupid. So I estimate our speed from my cadence and look for turns at a given time rather than a given distance. The arithmetic keeps me awake.

Taillights in the distance. We turn east onto Kirksville Road just as the moon begins to rise, an alien orange sliver above the Sierras. It shimmers on the horizon, deformed and unreal, and climbs rapidly. Before long it is a full orange disk, bright enough to obscure nearby stars.

North winds make for hard going and short paceline rotations, a couple minutes each. We pass those distant taillights, stragglers from the lead group that we'd abandoned when Peter B. suffered our first flat. Then nothing but darkness ahead.

We roll into the Sutter checkpoint, mile 81, well past midnight. Not bad, considering how long we've been stopped, but well behind last year's 25:36 pace, let alone a sub-24.

The lead group has arrived a few minutes before us. It's nice to see everyone, including David Strong, Bob Buntrock, Aron Mason, and Ken Bonner. After an intense week at work I barely made it on time to the 8pm start in Davis, so I've had little time to socialize.

The pace is more relaxed now, the rotation informal and a bit ragged. But slowly we accelerate, and people begin to fall off. David tells me he is having trouble, and next time I roll to the back he's no longer there. Part of me wants to be social, but another part really wants that sub-24, even though I don't really believe we can claw back all the lost time.

It's past two when we arrive in Oroville, mile 116. I grab a banana, refill my water bottles with energy mix, and swallow a caffeine pill. Onwards.

Peter B. cracks the whip on the rollers below Table Mountain, and Aron falls behind. We are dismayed and consider waiting, but someone points out that Jarbo is much worse than the rollers, so it makes little sense to wait. Once again just five of us: the two Peters, Tim on his recumbent, Russ, and I. We turn right on Highway 70 and I brace for the slog to Jarbo Gap, a ladder of false summits and redundant grades that tops out over 2000 feet in the Sierra foothills.

I focus singlemindedly on Peter B.'s wheel. The rotation of his cranks is hypnotic. I remember a long freight train to our right last year, but this time the tracks are silent and the hillsides dark. Peter stands on the pedals. I continue to sit and spin in my 26-tooth cog. It occurs to me that I am climbing a mountain with Peter Burnett and not falling behind. He must be taking it easy.

Pee break. I don't stop, but continue climbing alone at a gentler pace. We regroup near the top. It is cold now, almost freezing, and I consider putting a rain jacket over my sleeveless wind vest, but no one wants to stop. Tim's recumbent pulls away on the descent: “See you in Tobin!”

The far side of Jarbo Gap is cold and fast. A few snowflakes smack my face and my hands freeze into claws. Beyond the river the climb resumes, but too gently to provide warmth. We stop to pee and put on more clothing. I begin to fade, the cold and my busy week's sleep deprivation taking their toll.

The cabin at Tobin, mile 158, offers solace: hot chocolate, oatmeal with milk and honey, a comfy chair in a warm room. The beds look fantastic, but we resist temptation. The usual routine—carbohydrate mix, electrolytes, caffeine—and we're back on the road. Tim has left slightly ahead of us.

A pale sky heralds the new day. The Feather River, swollen with snowmelt, roars to our right, then fades as we ascend the canyon wall. Snow-capped mountains surround us.

I am losing my battle to remain alert. I drift left to the double yellow, then far to the right… woah, steep cliff! My cloudy brain decides the double yellow is safer—no cars at this hour of the morning. Maybe they'll drop me and I'll curl up and sleep and this suffering will stop. We stop again to pee, and steam rises from crunchy leaves underfoot. The trees are bare; it feels like winter. I take in everything in slow motion.

At last the climb ends and we roll down a short grade into Indian Valley. The sun has cleared the mountaintops and shines brightly over serene pastures. The extent of the snow cover on the surrounding hillsides astonishes me. Cows and scattered barns dot the landscape. Peter B. pulls out a camera and takes photos from the saddle.

As my body thaws, the fog lifts from my brain and I begin to feel strong again. We arrive in Taylorsville before 9am. I can't believe how much time we've made up on the climb: if we do not stop for long, we'll be back on a 24-hour pace. Dan Shadoan welcomes us with customary good cheer and efficiency. The rice and beans and apple sauce taste like heaven after thirteen hours of “orange-vanilla” maltodextrin solution. We see Tim, but once again he leaves before us.

Our cold-weather gear back in our saddlebags, we roll side-by-side around the southern edge of Indian Valley. Last night's frustration has given way to cautious optimism about our sub-24 prospects: we resume our paceline and begin to cross outbound riders. Lupines carpet the roadside, and alpine views unfold in the distance. It's good to see this place in daylight.

In Tobin we find Tim, as well as a couple riders still outbound. They're obviously making a tour of this, and I think back to some more mellow 600Ks with plenty of sleep. There's much to be said for smelling the roses, but today is not the day for that. I make quick work of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and follow my companions down the cabin's rutted dirt driveway and back to Highway 70.

Jarbo Gap westbound is easier than in the opposite direction, shorter and with no false summits, and we climb briskly in comfortable conditions. We each have war stories of heat and dehydration on this climb. Tim summits with us, but on the descent his recumbent pulls away and quickly disappears. He waits for us at the bottom, and together we ride the rolling miles to Oroville. Here on the edge of the Central Valley the wind blows strong from the northwest, and suddenly our goal seems well within reach.

Oh fair Oroville, city of aggressive young men in jacked-up monster trucks. They rev their engines and billow black smoke at traffic lights, just to remind you who's boss. We stop at the checkpoint only briefly. Eager for a fresh taste in my mouth, I stuff my face with slices of tomato and cheese—cheese sandwiches without the bread—and Tim doesn't hide his laughter. “I like your style, man. Efficient.”

Southbound again, my legs are feeling every one of the 290 miles we've covered so far. I slip to the back of the group, eat, and try to collect myself. The short rest pays dividends, and within ten miles I find myself at the front, miraculously strong once more. My bike computer still reads zero, of course, and I accidentally pull away from the group until Tim catches me and asks me to slow down. We pass through Gridley without incident; maybe all the angry dogs are napping. Then it's a long south-westerly zig-zag to Sutter, alternately a side-headwind and a side-tailwind.

I find myself on my knees in front of the Food Mart in Sutter, a salt-covered drug addict gingerly pouring the last two scoops of precious white maltodextrin powder into my water bottles. We've made great time. The question is almost no longer whether we'll make it sub-24, but whether we should hammer extra-hard for a sub-23. Well aware of how quickly things can turn south on a ride like this, Russ and I prefer the conservative option, but Tim and Peter B. feel bolder.

We set off on our final leg without a firm plan, but the wind provides a compromise of sorts. After a few miles of cross-wind zig-zags along irrigation canals and through Sutter National Wildlife Refuge, we turn south onto Progress Road, then bear south-east on Reclamation. We cover twelve miles in half an hour almost effortlessly, the wind squarely at our backs, hardly any noise save for the humming of tires on smooth pavement. Heaven is a tailwind on Reclamation Road on a sunny afternoon.

Not even the crosswinds and potholes on the Sacramento River levee road are enough to sap our momentum now. Incredibly, a 23-hour finish is a real possibility. We award ourselves a short pee break, a chance to stretch our legs and admire the big languid river. Someone out there is doing stunts on a jet-ski.

But we aren't done yet. A mile or two south of Knights Landing, Russ flats. It's a classic debate: better to ride faster, lightweight tires and risk being delayed by occasional flats, or to use heavier tires that are less likely to fail? Russ has chosen the lightweight option this time, and we stop to help him with our group's third flat of the ride. We're back on the road in five minutes, a sub-23 still within reach.

The I-5 overpass, less than ten miles to the finish: I look back and Russ and Tim are missing. I slow down, then stop. The two are nowhere to be seen. I propose to wait, but Peter B. is impatient to finish and continues alone. I'm angry, but only for an instant: without Peter's strong pulls we probably wouldn't be here so early in the first place. Peter M. and I, meanwhile, loop back towards the overpass. I worry that something may have happened on the busy stretch before the freeway, but fortunately we find the other two on the sidewalk, fixing Russ' second flat in eight miles. This time the repair takes longer.

The wind has turned and now blows against us and from the right. Just eight miles to go, but we won't make it in by 7pm. I get out in front for one last pull. The streets of Davis are familiar from my year living there. Pole Line Road, a long stretch on Covell, a sweeping right onto Mace, a sharp left onto County Road 32: we arrive at the finish at 7:15pm, side by side, taking up the whole road. I would never have dreamed of finishing a 600K in 23:15. Peter B. has preceded us by ten minutes: had the wind not shifted direction, he may have made it in under 23 hours. We shake hands all around.

It's time for a beer, but now that we're stopped I realize just how disgusting I am, caked in salt and dust and pollen. A nearby gas station lacks a hose—the attendant somehow thinks that I want to walk through the car-wash brushes, and refuses—so I buy two gallon jugs of drinking water, strip to my shorts in the parking lot, and give myself an impromptu shower. Then we're all off to Sudwerk, Davis' micro-brewery. Half a liter of cold hefeweizen never tasted so good.