Solvang Double 2008

By 2008, century rides were becoming old hat to me. It was time to move on to greater challenges. I had my eye on several double century rides hosted in California, and at the beginning of the year, decided to take the plunge and try my hand at the Solvang Double Century. This ride was a turning point for me, when I transitioned from being an average recreational cyclist who could knock off a century or two, to one of those crazy guys, who thought it fun to ride for 200 miles, in one day.

I had actually ridden a double century the year before, my first, but that was a semi-unplanned solo ride on the urban streets of Phoenix, that “just happened.” That solo ride occurred on one of those days where halfway through the day I decided, “Well, as long as I’m feeling good, why not keep riding?”  So that’s what I did.

But riding a double century in such an optional fashion is one thing. It’s far more challenging, at least to me, to actually commit ahead of time to doing one, and to be far from home on unfamiliar roads, when you don’t have much choice — save the humiliation of the sag wagon — from finishing.

This perceived lack of options caused me some consternation before the upcoming big event. And it was all for naught.

Dateline Solvang, CA, March 29, 2008

My wife and I arrived in Solvang on Friday, March 28th, the day before the Solvang Double Century, put on by the Planet Ultra folks. They have two versions of this ride, one in the spring, and one in the fall. The spring version is the easier one, having fewer climbs. It is touted as one of the easiest organized doubles around and so is a popular first time double.

That’s what attracted me to it. That, and tales of idyllic country roads rambling through green pastures and vineyards and horse farms; roadsides lined with the flowers of spring time. On top of this was promises of riding along the beautiful central California coastline. An added bonus was the mystique of Solvang being host to the one of the stages of the Tour of California a month before. I’d be riding on some of the same roads that the pros did. It’s almost like being one! Ha!

The wind is your friend, or not …

It was mid-morning when we climbed out of the car to check in at the Royal Copenhagen Hotel in downtown Solvang, the “official” hotel of the ride. The flags lining the street were flapping rapidly with a crackling sound that meant only one thing: wind, the natural enemy of all cyclists. But is it an enemy? After all, I was always telling my riding buddies, whenever we were confronted with a headwind, “The wind is your friend. It’ll make you stronger. Builds character.”

Yeah, right.

A gust of wind hit me in the face just in case I hadn’t noticed. It was a cool wind, humid too, a wind that chilled my Arizona acclimated bones. Even without the wind, I knew it was going to be a stretch for me to finish the 193 mile ride (yeah, so it’s not quite 200) in any sort of reasonable time. I had fears of getting in at midnight, being lost, or going over the edge, and other such nightmarish visions. And now this. This wind!

I had hoped the wind was just a local anomaly to the Solvang city limits, a temporary mocking of the cycling gods that would dissipate soon. But deep down, I knew that probably wasn’t so. We weren’t that far from the ocean, maybe 30 miles or so, and that probably meant the wind would be blowing most of the time.

Of things to come

After getting settled into our hotel room, I decided we should go for a drive, and see what some of the route for the next day was like. The ride organizers would not give out a detailed ride sheet until check-in time later in the day, so I didn’t know the exact route, but I had downloaded other rider’s descriptions of previous rides from the web, and had a rough idea of the course. The route looks roughly like a figure eight, although the roads never cross. First we would head east to Santa Ynez, and then loop around to the north-northwest, heading for the town of Santa Maria, through the beautiful countryside that Foxen Canyon road calls home. Then we’d head to San Luis Obispo, and on to Morrow Bay, the halfway point. From there, the course headed south-southeast, and then dropping south to the coast line along Pismo Beach. The route then turns east, and then south up a plateau to the farming area of Guadalupe. From there, the route turns east-southeast to the town of Los Alamos and then over a teensy little climb (not!) and back to Solvang.

Solvang Spring Double

We drove the lower 100 miles of the course — the parts I figured I might have to ride in the dark, both morning and evening. I had my bike GPS with me in the car, and watched with interest the % grade of any hills we encountered as we made our way through Foxen Canyon and on to Santa Maria. I noted all the twists and turns, hoping I’d remember them the next day. Would I recognize these turns in the dark?  We stopped the car every now and then to get out and soak in the scenery and the salty-hint-of-ocean breeze. And what a breeze it was. To my consternation the wind never let up, if anything, it was getting worse. I guessed it was averaging around 25 mph, with gusts much higher than that.

I began to think there was no way I would be able to finish this ride. I told Leslie at one point, “You know, I can hand dark, I can handle wind, I can handle climbs, I can handle long distances, I can handle unfamiliar roads, and I can handle cold, but not all of the above at the same time!”

I had serious thoughts of abandoning the attempt. Those thoughts further intensified when we decided to scout out the last serious climb of the day, a narrow, twisting, winding road up Drum Canyon, outside the town of Los Alamos, about 170 miles into the ride. Would I be able to muster enough strength to make this climb? Would I make a wrong turn and get lost? I was certain I’d be riding this portion in the dead of night. Would I be the last rider out on the course, lost and alone?

By the time we arrived back at the hotel, riders were streaming from all over California and other parts of the country. Almost every vehicle sported a bike rack. The thought of being a part of this, among like-minded cyclists having that puzzling compulsion to ride their bikes miles and miles and more miles, well, that lifted my spirits, and outweighed any apprehensions I might have had.

That afternoon, I decided to go for a spin on the bike, to work out any kinks from my legs from all the car travel, and to work out any kinks my bike may have — chain, tire, or brake wise. I rode east towards the town of Santa Ynez, and noticed on the way back that my rear tire was looking flat. Great, just what I need, flat tire worries. But no matter, I had brought plenty of spare tubes with me for just this reason. I later changed the tube back in the hotel room and went outside to pump up the tire and do a test ride in the parking lot. As I was pumping the tire, a guy rode up and we began to chat. Bob was from the LA area — as apparently most of the riders were — and took a quick glance at my bike, a 2005 Trek carbon bike. Nothing special, compared to the more expensive bike he was straddling. But Bob was friendly enough, and was very supportive and encouraging when I told him this was my first double century.

Well, actually not my first. I had ridden a solo double a year before, on a whim, around the streets of Phoenix. At the time, I didn’t know if I was going to do the whole thing, but after every forty miles, I’d go out for another forty, doing cloverleaf loops, with my house as the focal point. That way, I’d never be that far from home, and could quit whenever I wanted. A far cry from the situation now, being out on the open roads, unfamiliar roads at that, knowing that I had to go the whole distance to make it back to a nice, safe, warm bed.

Later that afternoon, I got in line to receive the route sheets for the ride and get the souvenir jersey I had pre-ordered. I don’t know why they couldn’t provide a detailed enough map that also marks all the major roads so you had some idea where you were going, and could make informed decisions about how to get back on course should you wander off it. And if I did wander off course, or failed to complete the ride, would I feel like a poseur wearing the jersey I just received?

I heard bits and pieces of conversation around me. It seemed most of the riders had done this ride before, indeed most of them had done multiple double centuries, some doing as many as 5-10 a year. I could see there was no way I’d be able to keep up with riders of such caliber. I envisioned being out on the road, alone, in the dark on unfamiliar highways, with only a route sheet to guide me.

Mr. Arizona, meet California

I woke up to the alarm on Saturday morning at 3:00 am, in a cold sweat, my heart racing. I had gotten very little sleep. All night long I had feverish nightmares of getting lost, of being exhausted and collapsing beside the roadway, out in the middle of nowhere, in the dark. What was I thinking, going off and riding by myself for 200 miles? (Well, there were 500 other riders, but all strangers.) And the wind! How would I cope?

Fortunately for me, I know the trick to such things: Go ahead and prepare to ride, even if you think you might bail. I ate three slices of left-over pizza, put on sun block, shorts and jersey, prepared the lights on my bike, pumped the tires, kissed my wife goodbye, and walked down to the start line, just outside the hotel we were staying at. I told Leslie there was a 60% chance I would be coming right back.

It was 5:45 am. The official start wasn’t until 7:00 am, but we had the option of starting earlier, if we thought we’d need more time so we weren’t in at midnight or something. Shudder the thought. I stood at the start line until 6:00 am, with a song by Jimmy Durante going through my head:

Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go? But still had the feeling that you wanted to stay? Stay, go, go, stay.

I looked up at the trees in the parking lot. The wind had calmed considerably, compared to the day before, and it didn’t seem as cold. I decided to get my rider number marked, and left with a group of about 10 others. I figured I would ride 10-20 miles, and if I didn’t feel up to it, just turn around and go back.

I was using the old psychology trick which always works for me in ventures like this: Just tell yourself you only have to make it to the next rest stop. You don’t have to finish.

Ironically, even though I was nervous about riding in the dark and getting lost, I was the one who guided the small group I was with.

We rode in the dark for the first 10-15 miles, east through Santa Ynez, over a few rolling hills. Most of the people had good lights on their bike. I had a set of dual Dinotte lights I had purchased just for this trip. But one guy had no lights at all. He was relying on his buddy just in front of him (and on the rest of us, apparently) to light the way.

Having previewed the course the day before was proving to be a wise move. Many of the riders began making wrong turns, and I kept correcting them, even though some of them had their route sheets clipped on their handlebars. Mine was tucked away in my jersey. It turned out Bob, the guy I had met the day before in the parking lot, was in this group, and he gave me praise for knowing the way. He started calling me “Mr. Arizona.”

To top all this off, the group was going my pace. I would ride off and on with them throughout the day, and they proved to be a good bunch of guys and gals to ride with. I realized what I was mainly stressed about the feverish night before was riding alone, and not so much about having the physical ability to complete the distance. It’s so much better to have others to ride with, for camaraderie and for safety. The day before I saw lots of riders with fancier bikes, more impressive quads, and more impressive double century palmares. I thought I was going to be dropped badly and never see anybody again. But that was not the case.

My worries about being out there alone was all for naught. There’s surely a lesson in there somewhere …

I made it to the first rest stop at 42 miles, after a couple of significant climbs, and was feeling fine. All I had for fuel was Hammer’s Sustained Energy drink, which I stored in concentrated form in my water bottles, and diluted with sips of water from my CamelBak. I was very diligent about drinking at consistent intervals. I had a banana at every rest stop, and during the course of the day, one sub sandwich, and one cup of noodle soup. And that was it. That’s all I used for fuel. No gel, no anything else. The Sustained Energy powder is magical. They had plenty of it at every rest stop. I wish I had known that before the ride — I wouldn’t have had to carry such a large stash of it in my jersey pockets.

On to San Luis Obispo

After leaving the first rest stop, we soon began a long downhill section, and then eventually the course flattened out near the town of Santa Maria. We skirted the town on the northeast, huffed our way up a little climb, and soon were heading west-northwest towards the town of San Luis Obispo. Bob’s group had stopped earlier for an impromptu nature break, so I was left riding solo, until a group of riders came by that I latched onto for a while, and then had a gal draft off the back of me for almost 20 miles non-stop. At one point, she told me my number tag was about to fall off in the wind, so I stopped and ripped it the rest of the way off, and stored it in a jersey pocket. Another group passed that I latched onto, cruising at a nice steady state pace, medium effort. I had no idea what direction we were going, I was just following the others, hoping they knew the way. I was too lazy to get out the route sheet.

I reached the 82 mile rest stop just outside San Luis Obispo, around 10:45 am. I called Leslie to check in, and she was surprised I was already this far into the ride. I was on a good pace (around 17 mph), one that I knew I could continue all day long. My legs were starting to feel the miles, but mostly, they were doing fine.

As I was leaving the second rest stop, I happened to see Bob’s group turn the corner just up ahead, so I picked up the pace to catch up. Upon seeing me, they yelled out, “There’s Mr. Arizona,” and we rode thru San Luis Obispo and on into Morro Bay, along the Pacific Coast Highway. This route was beautiful, with rolling hills and a headwind. The highway had very wide bike lanes, almost as wide as a car lane. It was very safe, even though traffic was whizzing by at high speed. In fact, most of the Pacific Coast Highway made for very nice riding. There were only a few spots that didn’t have a nice, wide bike lane, and more importantly, no rumble strips. I hate rumble strips! A friend of mine was killed the year before on a century ride in Arizona, right in front of me, because of rumble strips. He had crossed them at bad angle and lost control and veered into traffic, only to be hit from behind by a speeding car. It was not a sight I ever wanted to see again.

On schedule, halfway

We made it to the 100 mile checkpoint at the docks in Morro Bay, just after 12 noon. My goal had been to make it halfway by noon, so I was on schedule. My average speed was over 16 mph.

At the checkpoint, we had to have our number tagged so that they could tell we actually rode to the top of the loop. They made me borrow safety pins and pin my ride number back on, otherwise, they wouldn’t tag it. Much to my chagrin, finding pins to borrow delayed me about 10 minutes, and I lost contact with Bob’s group, and was back to solo riding.

I rode by myself most of the way to the 114 mile lunch break, through a state park along the bay, and at one point, my GPS was reading an altitude below sea level. I’m sure that wasn’t really the case. More likely, it was just the inaccuracy of the GPS. Still it was fun to see a negative altitude, and it provided evidence that I really was riding along the coast of California, or at least some coast anyway. I hoped it was California. Heh!

When I arrived at the lunch stop, I spied members of the group again. I sat down with a few of them to have a sandwich, and stretched out my legs. They were getting a bit tight, but I still had plenty of energy. As I sat on a small patch of grass, munching my sandwich, the Bullshifters, a cycling group from Phoenix was preparing to leave, putting on quite a show. They were entertaining the crowd, the leader calling out their departure time every minute or so. I knew of this group, but didn’t know any of the riders. They were at another level above me in riding stature.

Before leaving the lunch break, I noticed my GPS battery was getting low. But I had prepared for this eventuality. I had brought along a small, flat, lithium ion battery pack, like one you can use to charge a cell phone. I connected the battery to the GPS with a USB cable, and piggy-backed the battery using a velcro strap onto the top of the larger battery I used for my Dinotte lighting system. I was good to go for the rest of the day.

This fussing around delayed me, though, and unfortunately I missed Bob’s group leaving.

I rolled out of the parking lot at 1:40 pm, riding mostly by myself, paralleling the 101 freeway, and then turning further south to the coast, through Pismo Beach (very beautiful!). Unbeknownst to me,  my wife and our friends from Berkeley who had come down to witness my epic adventure, were hanging out at a restaurant in Pismo Beach, but we never connected.

“You’re still here!”

Somewhere past Pismo Beach, I made contact with Bob’s group again, where they called out, “Hey, Mr. Arizona, you’re still here!”

Yes, I was still present, but not long afterwards we began a series of rollers, whose steepness I was not expecting. One hill was 8-10% grade. That took all the energy out of me. I was not able to stay with the group and dropped off the back. Didn’t really want to ride solo, and I could have pushed the effort, but I was afraid to raise my heart rate too high. The last thing I wanted was to be shelled for the rest of the day. If that meant riding solo, so be it.

The road eventually settled into a southerly direction, on the way to the 143 mile checkpoint in Guadalupe. By this time, there was a heavy crosswind, dusty from all the farming nearby. Fatigue was setting in, my whole body sore. And due to the dust, I was having a bout of exercised induced asthma. Spirits sagging, I started having doubts about finishing, or even wanting to. I didn’t need to ride the whole way. I’d ridden a double before. What was there to prove? Along with sagging spirits came sagging speed, now down to a lowly 13-14 mph, even though the road was mostly flat. Compared to the scenery we had been riding through, the Guadalupe area was not appealing, which further added to my gloom.

I slogged on to the Guadalupe checkpoint, took a nature break and refilled my water bottles. I called Leslie and told her I wasn’t sure about continuing. I sat at a picnic table for a while, sipping a water bottle, munching a banana, trying to decide what to do. A sag wagon was parked at the rest stop. How easy it would be to walk over there and give up the ghost.

But a couple of the guys and gals from Bob’s group were still at the rest stop and encouraged me to continue on. “It’s only 30 miles to the next rest stop”, they kept saying.

Ha! That old trick, that I had used on myself earlier in the day. It worked then, and it worked now.

As I left with the group, Bob asked, “What made you come all the way from Arizona to do this ride?”

Beats me!

Actually, I told him mainly because there are no rides like this in Arizona. There is only one organized double that I know of, a 252 miler down Tombstone way, called the Cochise Classic, put on by Perimeter Bicycling. But this ride is a lot more miles than I want to venture, at least yet, and a significant portion of the route is along Interstate 10 — not my idea of a fun day. Another problem is you have to arrange for your own support crew. Seems like a lot of trouble. Plus, it’s a ride in the desert. Nothing wrong with that. I love the desert. But a fully supported ride through the green hills around Solvang, and the beautiful coastline around San Luis Obispo was certainly a more attractive offer.

The route out of Guadalupe heads straight east, then straight south, before hooking up again with the Pacific Coast Highway, and then heading southeast. With the winds predominately blowing in from the ocean, this meant we would have a tailwind the rest of the day. By 10 miles out of Guadalupe, I was feeling much better, and made it all the way to the 172 mile checkpoint by 5:30 pm, in fine spirits, if a bit sore, with only 21 miles to go.

One last climb!

I’m sure the ride organizers had fun planning this route, laughing with malicious glee on what was to come next. After the 172 mile checkpoint, you have to climb a 3 mile, 800 ft hill, with grades of 5-15%. It’s a gnarly road called Drum Canyon, about one lane wide, twisting and turning, and in extremely poor condition, with a couple of cattle guards on the descent. Leslie and I had previewed this climb the day before, (what a good idea that proved to be!) and at the time I had thought, oh my god, I’ll be doing this in the dark, I’ll be out here all alone, getting lost or going off the edge. They’ll never find my body.

This was the stuff of my nightmares the night before.

As it happened, though, I left at 5:45 pm from Los Alamos, after an extremely tasty cup of noodle soup — you have no idea how good that soup tasted — and was able to ride this last hill in the daylight. I rode in my granny gear the whole way (thank god for triples, I wouldn’t have made it otherwise), and made it to the top at 6:17 pm.

I only had 17 miles to go, and it was mostly downhill. But the first 6 miles of the downhill were still the same crappy road we had been riding on, full of potholes, dips, and cracks. I rode slow, about 12-16 mph, keeping it safe. People were speeding by and what I considered very unsafe speeds. How easy it would be to hit a bump and crash, or blow a tire or bend a rim.

I made it to the main highway, 11 miles west of Solvang, just as it was getting dark. I fired up my Dinotte lights, and rode with high spirits and a tailwind all the way into Solvang, arriving at 7:16 pm, much to my own disbelief.

I did it! I did it? I finished the ride! 193 miles, 7500 ft of climbing in 13 hrs and 16 mins!

I spent just under 12 hours actually on the bike, making for what essentially was two back-to-back 6 hour centuries. Definitely (and obviously) doable. My average on-the-bike speed was 16.2 mph, which, interestingly enough, is what my average had been during most of the long training rides I had done before this ride. My preparations had included eight centuries since the start of the year: three in January, two in February (and was sick for two weeks in Feb and didn’t ride at all), and three again in March. Three of the centuries were rides over 100 miles: 114 miles, 137 miles, and 160 miles.

I was in better shape than I thought. When I planned this ride I was thinking I would be satisfied if I made it in 15 hours, and pleased if I made it in 14 hours. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would make it in just over 13 hrs. I never thought I would finish with only a few miles of darkness.

Afterwards, I showered and then crashed out on the bed, drinking lots of recovery drink, and then I didn’t want to move anymore. My wife went to the bar next door to get me something solid to eat.  While waiting for the food she talked to someone at the bar who did this ride. He commented, “I’ll bet your husband was shitting bricks when he saw the wind yesterday.”

He got that right!

Fortunately, the wind wasn’t that bad the day of the ride, and none my nightmares came to fruition.

For most of the route, the scenery was incredibly beautiful — either rolling wine country, or lovely seaside. The wildflowers were at their peak, and 2008 was a very good year for flowers. (We’ll have to wait and see about the wine.) We want to come back for a photography trip. Maybe next year I’ll do this ride again, but spend a week so we can do some serious photography.

It was an epic adventure, probably the best day I’ve yet to have on a bike.

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