Thursday, September 10, 2015

"Big Savage" Super 600k ride report

Sometimes I was the balloon on the left, but mostly I was that other one.
2015 has been a heck of a year, in the best and worst of ways.  It started out in spectacular fashion: after a hard winter on the trainer, I cranked out 475 miles at the 24-hour race at Bike Sebring, setting a new age group course record in the process.  Although that total would have won the race in 2012-2014, this year it was good enough only for fourth overall, behind these characters.
Scott Lukart, Marko Balloh, and Anders Tesgaard.  Photo credit to Marko
(Note: as it turns out, this picture is deeply poignant.  Since it was taken in February, disaster has befallen two of the three men in it.  Scott, on the left, lost a battle with depression and is no longer with us.  He was one of the strongest ultracyclists alive.  Anders, on the right, was hit by a car toward the end of Race Across America, and has been in a coma for nearly three months.  Sometimes it is hard to make sense of how cruel life can be.)

Still, I couldn't have been happier with the result day.  I carried that optimism into my second race of the year, the 24-hour Texas Ultra Spirit, which I was leading by 30 minutes or so after 5 hours, only to have a truly catastrophic crash when I hit a wet metal grate bridge at 30 miles per hour around midnight.  I wound up with severe lacerations on my left leg and both arms; worst of all, my left elbow was shattered, and the muscle had to be re-wired to the bone.  After a 4-hour surgery and several days in the hospital, I was released to go home, where a second surgery awaited me.

Cycling is great!  *High five*
And thus ended my racing season, basically, as early as April.  I wouldn't be back on my bike until mid June.

But, just as things looked bleak, they turned dramatically for the better: I got engaged!

Yeah, my mom didn't believe it, either.
Amidst the celebrations, the breakneck-speed planning for an October wedding, and working an extremely demanding job, training just wasn't happening.  I toed the line for a relatively flat 400k brevet in late June, and made it 80 miles before concluding that I didn't have another 170 in me.  Not only was I not up to it physically, but I didn't have the mental drive to keep on pushing.  It wasn't good.

Since then, I've been on Project: Rebuild.  It's been ugly, but it's coming along.  I've dropped 10 pounds or so and been more consistent with the riding, including ticking off a relatively hilly 200k without undue drama.

But all of this left me with a dilemma: I couldn't imagine letting the year go by without doing an epic ride of some sort.  In 2013, it was Alaska's Big Wild Ride 1200k.  Last year, it was the Central California Coast 1200k and Silver State 508.  The crash had derailed my plans for Race Across Oregon in July, and wedding planning had kept me out of racing shape, but surely I could find something that would make for a good story.

To my rescue rode D.C. Randonneur Bill Beck, who earlier in 2015 had created and certified the Big Savage Super Randonnee 604k.  A "Super Randonnee" (or "SR") 600k is a relatively new type of ride that follows most of the rules for brevets -- including controls, and so forth -- but with a couple of additional twists.  First, there is no outside support allowed, including at controls.  (So, no loved ones meeting you with tissues to dry your tears.)  Second, and more important, the amount of climbing involved is disturbing.  Normal 600k rides are anything but flat, but SR-600s are designed to test your will to live, even if they do give you some extra time to ponder your bad decision.  Here is the elevation profile for the Big Savage Super Randonnee:

Warning: Zooming in may cause nausea.
In short, this 375-mile behemoth had 38,600 feet of climbing, or over 100 feet per mile.  To put it in perspective, that's as much climbing per mile as the legendary Savageman triathlon, which is known for having the toughest 56-mile bike course in the country -- it's just that this ride was 7 times as long.  Indeed, the similarity to Savageman is not coincidental: the Big Savage 600k traverses some of the same territory, through the perilously steep hills of western Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia.

It somehow worked out that, despite wedding planning and so forth, I had a 3-day weekend free over Labor Day, so I circled it on the calendar and roped in my longtime riding buddy Max, who was preparing to take on the Natchez Trace 440-miler in a month's time.

The Plan, with Obstacles

We determined to set out at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning from Hancock, Maryland.  (It's also possible to ride it the opposite way, starting from Woodstock, Virginia, but for reasons discussed later, I think we made a wise decision.)  We'd ride in a 187-mile counterclockwise arc to Woodstock, Virginia, where we'd get some sleep before reversing our path on Sunday morning.  It looked like a tough route, but we'd both ridden extremely mountainous stuff on plenty of occasions, and there was no pressing timetable here.  My biggest worry was that I hadn't ridden anything longer than 120 miles since early April -- I was going to have to rely on my years of experience with mountainous rides.

Unfortunately, I encountered a massive setback before our pedals traced a radian.  My job carries with it the periodic risk of having disasters land on my lap, and two of them did in the three days before we were supposed to to ride.  Indeed, Friday afternoon found me in federal court opposing an emergency motion to prevent the transfer of a massive hydroelectric dam to an Indian tribe -- something I'd known nothing about 24 hours beforehand.  In short, I worked 32 hours on Thursday and Friday, and got a combined 7 hours of sleep in the two nights before the ride.  The 2:15 a.m. wakeup on Saturday was unwelcome.  If I'd have been writing on a blank slate, I'd have decided against the ride, but I'd committed to being there and I wasn't inclined to let work wreck my only remaining big ride for the year.  So, I sucked it up and got out there.  Yippee ki yay, m_f_!

My Perspective

This writeup is meant at least in part for future riders considering this challenge.  Such riders understand that, when they read someone's assessment of difficulty, that assessment must be viewed relatively -- that is, "What is the rider's measure of difficulty?"  For them, I'll briefly state that I'm drawn to sadistic bike rides like chain grease to white chinos, and I'm reasonably good at them.  I've ridden the Mountains of Misery 200k (14,500' feet of climbing) on 7 occasions, with a best time of 7:49.  The two "normal" 600k brevets I've ridden have been solo efforts of 27 and 25 hours, respectively, and they've had about 20,000 feet of climbing each.  I averaged 455 miles in the three 24-hour races I contested in 2014.  I've ridden two 1200k with no drama, and competed successfully in the Silver State 508 in 2014.  Most recently, in April 2015, I rode a 24-hour flèche with 21,000 feet of climbing in 250 miles, and I rode to the start the day before, covering 210 miles with 12,000 feet of climbing.  This isn't to say that I'm the strongest rider out there, but only that, in general, I think of challenge as a positive thing, and I'm not prone to dramatic exaggeration.

Given that perspective, here's the bottom line: this ride crushed me like no athletic endeavor I've undertaken; if you're thinking of doing it, you should ask yourself why and demand a compelling answer.  I desperately looked for any way to abandon it on multiple occasions, and I probably would have if there had been an escape button to press.  Comparisons to other challenging road rides are largely unhelpful.  I'm proud that I finished it, but two days later, I'm still staring into space and coughing fitfully.  I honestly cannot recommend in good conscience that anyone sign up for this madness.  Of course, I fully understand that, for some riders out there, these warnings only make the challenge more attractive.  For them, I offer the following tale of pathos, with bits of advice intermixed.

Leg 1: Hancock, MD, to Grantsville, MD
Distance: 60 miles

We rolled out in balmy darkness and started climbing at about the 100-yard mark.  It had been raining in the early morning, and we quickly ascended into fog, with my head-mounted Exposure Joystick light emitting a cyclops beam into the great beyond.  The pavement was great and the roads utterly deserted -- I don't think a car passed us for the first 30 miles.  The challenge was that, in the fog and darkness, visibility was terrible: the lights just caused a blast of glare in front of us.  Descending was none to stellar, either.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the damp air was that we quickly became soaked to the gills with a combination of sweat and humidity, a pattern that would repeat itself pretty consistently over the next 42 hours.

In terms of terrain, the first the first 60 miles of this ride are deceptively difficult.  None of the grades is shockingly steep, but they Do.  Not.  End.  In fact, the first 60 miles have than 7,000 feet of climbing.  (Extrapolate that out to your typical 200k, and you're heading for 15k feet, which is more than Mountains of Misery.)

I was feeling reasonably all right, but we were making disturbingly slow progress.  After a quick refueling stop in Cumberland, it was up and over Big Savage.  From the north, the climb is less an obstacle, and more a way of life.  At the second control, I realized with some dismay that I was exhausted.  It was Fritos-n-Coke triage time, and we'd only just begun.

Leg 2: Grantsville, MD, to Keyser, WV
Distance: 28 miles

The second leg was one of the more forgiving ones -- riding along the Big Savage ridgeline, descending a bit, summiting again, and then plummeting down through Westernport, MD, and crossing the river in to West Virginia.  Only one thousand-foot climb in this stretch!  Indeed, anyone who's written the Diabolical Double at Garrett County Gran Fondo will recognize almost all of this.  

The tragedy here was a tragedy indeed: after climbing for so long, the descent was harrowing.  In fact, as we approached Westernport, the road changed to something like pea gravel, which is not good when you're descending a 15% grade with sharp turns.  And then we plummeted into Westernport itself, down a road that's almost unspeakably steep.  In the rain, I'm not sure it would be rideable.  By the time we reached the control, my hands were cramping.  

Happily, however, I was feeling better, and the sun was finally beginning to do its part to dry us out.

Leg 3: Keyser, WV, to Mooresville, WV
Distance: 41 miles

It doesn't look like much, does it?  In fact, it looked downright great after one leg of endless climbing and another of "hide the children" descending.  Finally, a chance to make some progress over some light rollers.

Well, yes and no.  The challenge was that, with our 5:00 start, we began this third leg at about 1:00 p.m. on a sunny summer afternoon, as the heat climbed toward 90 degrees.  There's only one climb, but the rollers were vicious, and my two bottles were not nearly enough.  As it turns out, there's a water spigot available at a church halfway through this leg, but because Max and I were using GPS guidance, we failed to note it the first time through.  In my opinion, this spigot is utterly mandatory.  Skip it at your peril.  

In all honesty, this stretch was not much fun: it was long, hot, exposed, and fairly uninteresting.  It was largely a process of sweating out every molecule of liquid in my body.  By the time we reached the Patterson Creek climb toward the end, I was utterly toast -- disoriented, cramping everywhere, and wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into.  That climb, for the record, punches up near 20% grade in sections, and there is no shade to be found.  For the first time in many years, I dismounted my bike halfway up a climb, bent over the bars, and waited for the world to stop spinning.  

Max waited an unduly long time at the top of the climb, and then we made our way down to Fox Pizza in Mooresville, West Virginia.  By the time we got there, my feet, calves, quads, hip flexors, and hands were cramping so badly I could barely hobble off my bike and crash in a booth.  Red Wizard needed food, badly.
If this is heaven, we're in trouble.
Now, let's be clear: Fox Pizza is terrible.  And, on top of its being terrible, I could barely eat because my system was shutting down.  So, we agreed to stay there until things got better -- that took an hour.  In that time, I drank fully a gallon of cold liquids and ate what I could.  I couldn't remember the last time I'd been cracked so badly, but there we were, at mile 129, with 62 miles left to go.  And we'd just finished the easy stretch.

Leg 4: Mooresville, WV, to Lost River, WV
Distance: 28 miles

The 28-mile segment to Lost River was a one-trick pony.  That trick was a 2,000-foot climb up South Branch Mountain, which I'd never heard of.  Bill Beck, the organizer, had rated it the toughest climb on the route, but I was feeling better, and I'd climbed some tough stuff in my day.  It was only one climb, so HTFU, right?

As it turned out... no.  Not even a little bit.  This climb utterly crushed me.  Neither one of us made it up without stopping, but for me, that wasn't the half of it.  I wound up walking my bike almost a mile up this thing, something I hadn't done in the history of my cycling career.  (So much for the squeaky clean new bike shoes.) Not that walking it up was straightforward, frankly.  I still had to stop periodically to double myself over against the railing while the world came back into focus.

Here's the bottom line: If you don't have a triple or the gearing equivalent, this climb will almost certainly break you.  It is easily as difficult as the final climb at Mountains of Misery, and your legs will be more tired when you get there.  If you're riding this route the other way, such that you hit this on Day 2, may God have mercy on your soul.

I've rarely been in as despondent a frame of mind as I was on South Branch Mountain -- cracked, cramping, exhausted, dehydrated, with 60 miles to ride before sleep, and then facing the prospect of doing it all again the next day.  If I'd had a "pick me up" button, I'd have pressed it, no question.  In fact, I told Max I had no idea how I could possibly ride the next day -- I'd already had one very bad outcome on a ride this year, and I couldn't face another.

We did finally make it to the top.  I don't want to talk about it.  This climb shouldn't exist, least of all on this ride.  The descent was ok, to the extent I could ride straight, which was to no extent.  I hit a few potholes. Yay.

If there was any silver lining, it was that, at mile 155, we reached the control at the Lost River Grill.  The place is a shelter from the cruel world outside, with comfortable booths, a terrific menu, a refrigerator case of pie slices, and endless coffee.  We stopped for dinner, and stayed there resolutely for a good long while.  Afterward, we'd head out in the dark for the final 33 miles to the overnight control in Woodstock -- a stretch that, naturally, contained two more climbs.

Leg 5: Lost River, WV, to Woodstock, VA
Distance: 32 miles

I feared the worst, but thankfully, the worst was behind us.  The two climbs, through Mill Gap and Wolf Gap,  were nothing compared to what had come before, and the 15-mile cruise between them was about as beautiful a nighttime ride as I'd ever seen: silky tarmac, stars in the sky, and no traffic to be found.  I figured I could just about get myself to Woodstock.  The descent down Wolf's Gap wasn't straightforward at night, but my Exposure Strada headlight did the trick, and Woodstock arrived after a celebratory spin along roads that almost could be termed humane.

As we rolled toward the overnight control, I tried to figure out how I was going to find a ride back to the start.  Saturday's 190 miles -- with 19,000 feet of climbing -- had been by far the hardest 300k I'd ever ridden.  I'd somehow managed it on patently inadequate training and vanishingly little sleep, but I saw very little chance of riding it the other way the next morning.  More to the point, I truly, deeply didn't want to.  Max convinced me to get some sleep and make the call the next morning, which I agreed to do.  I was in a dark place in every respect.

We reached Woodstock around 11:00 p.m., 18 hours after we'd rolled out.  Ridiculous.  I might not be a competent ultracyclist, but I was going to stay at a Holiday Inn Express that night.

Leg 6: Woodstock, VA, to Lost River, WV
Distance: 32 miles

After a decadent (by randonneur standards) 6+ hours of sleep and a raid on the continental breakfast, we rolled out.  I was feeling stronger after a solid sleep, and Max had none of my self-pity, so I figured I owed it to him to give it a go.  We were rewarded with has to be one of the most perfect early morning rides I've ever experienced: crisp air, sunlight speckling the road through the canopy of trees, and a fresh layer of asphalt that made it almost like... floating.  It was exactly like that for these folks.

It was that kinda morning.
There are few prettier roads in the Mid Atlantic, and it almost made it seem like we'd made a wise decision in how to spend our weekend.

Leg 7: Lost River, WV, to Mooresville, WV
Distance: 28 miles

Back to Lost River Grill for second breakfast: dessert!  Max went for some apple pie, while I attacked a slice of red velvet cake.  My goal for the day was no more hydration and no more bonking, and this was the first salvo in the glycogen war.

More like it.
The curse of this route was its out-and-back shape: if you have to climb 2,000 feet over a ridgeline on Day 1, you can be pretty sure what you're in for on Day 2.  And so it was that we had our second encounter with South Branch Mountain.  Fortune, though, was smiling on us: South Branch is quite asymmetric, and the approach from the southeast, while long, posed no undue hardship.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the descent: the grade that broke me, complete with switchbacks and gravel washed across the road, was the sort of thing you just hope to get down in one piece.  Max seemed undaunted, but descending at speed isn't my strength, and my memories of April's wreck were only too fresh.  I was glad to make it down intact, but the journey made me feel a little better about what had happened to me the day before.  I'd had no chance whatever, a dead cyclist walking.  Well played, South Branch Mountain.  You need a more memorable name.

Leg 8: Mooresville, WV, to Keyser, WV
Distance: 41 miles

We couldn't bear the thought of pizza for brunch, so we skipped Mooresville's Fox Pizza the second time through and instead set up shop at Food Giant.  We'd have given our kingdoms for a deli, but Food Giant isn't particularly good on the whole "food" front, so we made do as best we could with another round of potato chips.  Mooresville is a bit tragic.  I did force myself to drink a couple of bottles of water more than I wanted to, in light of the upcoming reverse pass down the desolate 40-mile stretch to Keyser.

Given our dismay at the grade up Patterson Creek the first time through and our failure to recollect any steep descent on the other side, we hoped it would be a replay of South Branch Mountain: a kinder, gentler Day 2.  In fact, though, Patterson Creek was every bit as steep from the south, and I drained one of my two bottles in the first 10 miles -- not auspicious.  Fortunately, we found the spigot at the church the second time through, which was a blessing (so to speak).

Meanwhile, the stretch to Keyser proved to be just as soul-sucking the second time through; if anything, this time it was hotter, with temps cresting over 90 degrees.  For an allegedly uneventful stretch, it is pretty damn nasty, and it's made worse by the fact that, in the steep downhills, the roads are rutted and pitted in such a way that you hope your wheels and fillings come through it.  Good riddance.

Happily, just when we'd had more than enough, we reached Keyser, home of the wonderful Stray Cat cafe -- a perfect place for a long lunch.

Leg 9: Keyser, WV, to Grantsville, MD
Distance: 28 miles

88 miles and 2 legs to go.  I knew 88 miles.  I understood 88 miles.  Hell, I'd ridden 88 miles before, and I figured I could do it again.  After all, next was just the climb up Big Savage Mountain -- nothing intimidating about that name.

Actually, I'd ridden the Big Savage climb probably 10 times before.  It's the first climb of the Savageman Triathlon, although it's a beast, it's never proved an undue obstacle.  I tentatively assigned it to the "will be tough, but no problem at the end of the day" bucket of "things to do before I can be done with this g-d d-mn ride."

I put it in that bucket because, as amply demonstrated on this blog, I'm a moron who never learns.  In retrospect, the climb up Big Savage was always the first one in every ride; before it had come a 10-mile descent, so I'd arrived ready to attack.  This time we hit it at... mile 294.  After 30,000 feet of climbing.  And I may as well have been asked to climb up the side of the nearest 150-story building.  Never has the name for a climb been so apt.

Looking at the elevation profile of this stage in retrospect, I understood why it seemed as though, around every corner, another shockingly inhumane grade awaited: in the 28-mile stage, about 25 miles of it is climbing.  We somehow made it through, but we were in distinctly poor cheer by the time we slumped into the Pilot control point with 60 miles to go.  Darkness was descending, and it seemed we were getting weaker with every passing mile.  Not good.  We resolved to make sure we were thoroughly fueled before rolling out -- we could do 60 miles come hell or high water, but we preferred neither.  One thought rattled around in my despondent mind: last time I'd been sitting at that control, at mile 60, I'd been exhausted due to the 60 miles before.  And, at that point, I'd only been 60 miles in.  What would those 60 miles do to us this time?

Leg 10: Grantsville, MD, to Hancock, MD
Distance: 60 miles

Big Savage rescued us.  After grinding along the ridge for a few miles, we got to experience the singular joy of a 10-mile descent when you're on your last legs.  Best of all, the descent was down a wide road with a great shoulder, and apart from the brief stretch through Frostburg, traffic was a non-issue.  Spectacular!

But it was not to last.  The stretch from Cumberland to Hancock is a stage in Race Across America, and it's the stage with the most climbing per mile of any stage in the country.   The elevation profile tells the story: it's a series of 1,000-foot-high saw teeth that lasts pretty much until the moment the ride ends.  It got to the point that I lost track of whether the climbing was done; each time, the answer turned out to be, "Well, yeah, except for this 3-mile climb."  I had all the joy of a cat in the rain, and when I rolled into the final control some 43 hours and 20 minutes after I'd left, I felt little joy or pride -- it was more the sensation that comes when someone stops hitting you with a hammer you asked him to wield.

Final thoughts

To restate what I noted at the beginning, I was not in shape for this ride.  I probably had no business doing it.  And, to make it worse, I was coming off nights of 3 and 3.5 hours of sleep, which is about the worst thing I could have done heading into this thing.  None of that was my fault, but it was my choice to do the ride anyway, because it was the one chance I had to do something epic this year.  In light of all that, it's unsurprising that this thing wrecked me.

But that's not all that's going on here.  I've talked to some people after the ride about how to express my thoughts about it.  They're complex.  On the one hand, Bill's done an impeccable job putting together a ride unlike anything else I've ever attempted.  By and large, it's a pretty one.  The roads have virtually no traffic, and the nighttime riding was some of the best I've ever had.  He set out to make a beast of a challenge, and he succeeded in every respect.

Having said that, in all candor, I think the Big Savage SR-600 is beyond the pale of reasonable challenges.  It is simply too difficult.  Having been through it, I can't think of a reason anyone should want to endure such a thing.  After every challenge ride I've done -- and I've done many -- the experience has faded into a fond glow, but that's not happening here.  Instead, I've spent the last several days coughing fitfully and feeling like I just want to sleep forever.  I guess on some level I'm proud I finished it, but I'm equally glad that I no longer have to keep riding up, up, and up, all in the desire to get home.

So, I guess I'd say this.  If you're thinking about doing this ride, ask yourself why, and make sure you have a compelling reason.  "It'll be a fun challenge" is not a good enough reason, because this ride is not "fun."  There will be many times that you're wondering what the hell you've done.  I think the only reason to do this ride is if, on some level, you won't be able to live with yourself if you don't give it a go.  If that's the case, then have at it, and godspeed.  I would say that unless you can cruise through a typical 600k in close to 30 hours, you may have trouble with the 50-hour cutoff.  (This one took me about 16 hours longer than my slowest previous 600k.)  

This is the hardest endurance event I've ever done -- forget Ironmans, marathons, 1200k, 24-hour races, Silver State 508, and the rest of it.  None of them matches this thing.  Having been through it, I feel like I've escaped its clutches more than triumphed over it.  There are no victors here, but for one: congratulations, Bill -- I've always taken pride in organizing the hardest damn rides I could find, but you win.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

And now for some justice...

There are certain things that cyclists just learn to accept as going with the territory.  Foremost among these are that cars will occasionally do stupid things (or worse), that bikes get stolen, and that, when they get stolen, they are almost never seen again.  They're commodities easily stripped down and sold off for whatever nickel a thief can get.  But every now and then, karma is on your side.  For me, yesterday was one of those times.

Last fall, I spent months researching a new ultracycling bike that needed to fit certain unusual requirements, and what I ultimately settled on was a completely custom-specced 2015 Felt AR1 from Tri360.  The 2015 AR1 comes only as a frameset -- that is, you buy the frame separately and choose each additional component to build it up:

The AR1 frameset.
I ordered it in October, but I didn't actually have the bike in-hand until December, because I got virtually the first 2015 AR1 frame to arrive at the warehouse.  Once Tri360 was done assembling it for me, though, it was a thoroughly customized racing machine:

Full side view.
Wind profile with TriRig front brake.
Bontrager base bar and extensions with Zipp clips and pads. 
Selle Anatomica Titanico X saddle.
Custom Wheelbuilder Zipps with Chris King hubs and red nips.
TriRig Omega brake.  
Stages crank-arm power meter.
It was a delightfully fun project in many ways, but it took a lot of thought, and the result was that there simply was no other bike like it.  From the first ride in December, it fit perfectly and was as comfortable as my titanium road bike, which is a heck of a thing.

My first race on it, at 24 Hours of Sebring in February, went amazingly well.  I put together a 475-mile non-drafting effort to break the previous age group record.  That was 34 miles better than I'd managed in 2014 on my Trek Speed Concept with disc wheel, aero helmet, and 18 cm of drop.  In other words, I loved the bike.

In Sebring, rockin' the 808s.
Needless to say, when you have a bike that nice, you don't leave it just anywhere.  I live in a condo building in a nice part of town, and one of the main attractions for me was that my unit came with a secured storage area to which only I had access.  This wasn't a bike cage or anything that would attract attention.  Instead, it was what looked like a utility room on the third floor of the parking garage, inside a residents' gate that requires a clicker to open:

My storage room, in all its glory.
The bottom line is, there was no sign that there was anything of value in that room, and it was hardly an appealing target from what I could tell.  Unfortunately, the residents' gate had been malfunctioning over the last couple of weeks, so it was in "permanently open" mode for the time being, but even so, my storage unit hardly said "come and get me."

On Thursday morning, I'd gone down to the unit to get a couple of bars for my trainer ride.  (I can't keep them in my apartment or I'll put on 100 pounds by the time the snow thaws.)  Everything was copacetic.  I repeated the trip on Saturday morning, only to find that my storage unit was unlocked, which was pretty strange.  It's possible to unlock it in such a way that it stays unlocked, and I've done it in the past, but generally I just keep it on the auto lock setting when I'm going in and out.  I wouldn't have left it unlocked on Thursday.  But there it was.  Weird.

Inside the unit, I quickly noticed that one thing was missing: My new Felt.  Nothing else seemed out of place, and there was plenty else to steal, including a set of new Zipp 404s sitting right next to the bike (which was sporting 808s at the time).  Initially, I wasn't alarmed so much as perplexed: Had I dropped the bike off to be serviced?  I've been known to be a little ditzy, so that seemed possible.  I checked the back of my car, the apartment, and the storage area again, but it was gone, plain and simple.

The feeling of complete sickness took over.  I couldn't afford a replacement.  I hoped homeowner's insurance would help, but who knew.  In any case, it would take a long time to put together -- there were no AR1 frames available.

I filed a police report, providing them with pictures, serial number, and so forth.  They were prompt and courteous, and sent a detective to take pictures and pull footage from the security camera.  That camera, which was facing the gate, had recorded every second of the 48 hours in which the bike had disappeared.  I figured it would have to show something -- that was the only way out -- unless, of course, the bike went up the residents' elevator, which would be arguably more disturbing.  I suppose someone could have driven a car into the residents' area, loaded it up, and left again, but that would have required noting the security camera and generally a level of planning that I thought unlikely.

Knowing how the stolen bike game worked, after I filed the report, the first thing I did was check Craigslist, but there was nothing in the right galaxy.  So, doing whatever else I could think of, I let a couple of bike shops know, called around to the pawn shops, and posted details on Facebook.  I figured the only thing I had going for me was that my bike was about as distinctive as they get.

A couple of hours later -- around noon -- David King and Bo Ngo on FB alerted me to a Craigslist ad for a Felt AR that had just been posted.  I was initially excited, but when I saw the ad, it wasn't quite right:

The ad was for a Felt AR, but the picture was of a 2014 model with different wheels, different bars, and different cranks -- not mine.  

To be clear, the text of the ad highlighted it as almost definitely stolen -- all it said was "Felt AR Model Fully Loaded, Rarely Used, Great racing condition.  Moving, Need to make some space."  He was asking $2800.  Anyone who knows bikes understands that this is not how one would sell a $10k bike, which is what appeared in his ad.  Sadly, although it looked like someone's stolen bike, it wasn't mine.

The next step is what cracked the whole thing, and for that, I'm massively indebted to John Scanaliato, who did some research and found that the photo in the Craigslist ad had been lifted from an article in Peloton Magazine:

In other words, the bike pictured in the ad was NOT the actual bike being sold -- he hadn't posted a picture of the bike in his possession.  That immediately set off warning bells, and closer inspection revealed that the Craigslist ad had been posted from a building only two blocks from mine.  Bingo.  And the seller had provided his cell phone number.

I immediately sent the guy a text message, trying not to set off warning bells.  I said I lived in Capitol Hill -- which I don't -- and asked some Craiglisty questions about why he's selling and whether price was flexible.  But I didn't hear back immediately.

My biggest fear was that he wouldn't respond to the message, or that he'd sell the bike off before I could see it.  Seeing the location where the ad had been posted, I even walked up and down the block, hoping that the bike would be on a balcony or something, but no dice.  I then called the detective's office to give them the guy's cell number, hoping they could execute a warrant in short order.  That was a bit tricky, of course: "Here's an ad for a bike that isn't mine -- that's probable cause, right?" But I was able to convince them that, given the stolen photo, timing, and description of the bike, it had to be mine.

While I was giving them the information, I received two texts back from the guy, who was willing to meet up almost immediately.  Gulp.  I told the police what was going on, and in no uncertain terms, they warned me not to go meeting this guy alone in some remote place when the seller thought I'd be carrying a pile of cash.  I appreciated their concern, and obviously I wasn't stupid, but what I really wanted was police support during the meet-up.  This turned out to be harder than anyone would have wished, as the guys who did plain-clothes stings weren't working at the time, and the police really wanted me to push back the meeting until the next afternoon.  I tried -- "Hey man, I just remembered my girlfriend is dragging me to a party, but I really want the bike, so will you hold it til tomorrow at noon if I pay full price?"  But "his friend" really wanted to sell it immediately, and offered me a substantial discount to do the deal then.  I was really concerned that he'd unload the bike before the next day.

Upon hearing this, frankly, the detectives went above and beyond and pulled the operation together even in their short-staffed state.  Although the Craigslist ad had been posted from near my building, the guy wanted to meet up across town, closer to Union Station.  I sent the guy what surely must be one of the least sincere texts ever: "Haha, f*ck it, ok lets do it.  But can we meet in a public place?  I trust you but sometimes people on Craigslist can be sketchy."  He happily obliged by suggesting we meet in front of a very busy hotel.  The detectives picked me up in an unmarked car, and off we went.

We arrived a few minutes early and drove by a few times, hoping to get a glimpse of the guy with the bike, but no luck.  Things got a little tense when the seller kept asking if I was there yet, and I had to keep putting him off -- we wanted him to show first.  But he didn't.  Eventually I asked the guy what he was wearing -- "Gray hoodie" -- and went to stand right in front of the hotel, dressed like a Logan Circle preppy.   I let him know I was there, and joked that "its cold haha!"

A couple of minutes later, a guy approached wearing a gray hoodie and wheeling my bike in front of him.  There was zero doubt it was mine -- even the tires were still deflated, since my last ride had been at Sebring 3 weeks before.  It was not the bike in the picture, needless to say.  And the guy pushing it did not look like an avid cyclist.  Realizing immediately that the bike was mine, I knew the goal was just to play along, so I did the whole "Wow, that's awesome!" thing, started feeling the bars, asking why the tires were flat, asking how much it had been ridden, etc.  All the while, the guy was keeping a hand on the bike to make sure I didn't grab it and run off with it.  After about 30 seconds of this, out of my peripheral vision, I saw the police descending on the guy, who didn't realize a thing until they were 6 inches away.  Game over, dude.

It all went perfectly, and the bike was 100% fine, aside from the serial numbers, which the guy had tried to file off with partial success.  I will say, there is something unreal about seeing your bike being sold back to you in broad daylight.  Until then, it was all very abstract: my bike is missing, but there was no telling where it might be.  At that moment, everything became quite real.  This was the guy with my bike, trying to sell it to me in the middle of town.  Indeed, even someone who knew nothing about bikes would have been compelled to realize he was buying stolen property in that situation.

This is basically every cyclist's dream.  So often we're simply the victims of life, whether it be careless drivers, thieves, or what-have-you.  When a bike disappears, even the police admit that it is basically gone forever.  We're forced to feel helpless and to hope for the best, when what we really want is to help take the asshole down.  It never happens, but I got to live it, every second.  Justice was served.

On the ride back to the police station, the sergeant and I chatted and he explained that he loved to get out on his Madone a few times a week for 50 miles or so.  In my mind, that explained a lot -- I'm not sure if a non-cyclist would have made it happen the way he did.  I'm immensely grateful.

There's only one real issue to resolve.  In looking over my text messages later that night, I realized I'd missed one, where the guy had offered to sell me a helmet and some other accessories as well.  Sure enough, I went and looked around my storage area, and noticed that a new helmet, Northwave boots, and a couple of other things were gone.  I feel pretty good about my chances of getting them back at this point, but even if I don't, in the grand scheme, I have to count myself lucky.

As grateful as I am to the police, I recognize that this never would have been possible without the great work of the folks on FB and Twitter, not only for pointing me to the ad (which hadn't been posted when I first looked), but even more critically, for identifying the picture in the ad as a stock image.  Without that help, the bike would be gone, and the perp would be free.  On the whole, a great day for justice, and the DC bike community made it happen through quick and clever work.

One mystery remains: I don't know how the bike got out of my storage unit in the first place, or how it then got out of the building.  I am 90% certain that the guy who tried to sell me the bike is not the one who took it.  So, I am still pretty disconcerted.  But those are questions for another day.  In the meantime, it's sunny and warm, and I'm heading out for a ride.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Coasts, Cliffs, Climbs, Cobblers, and Coyotes: The Five C’s of the 3CR (Central California Coast 1200k Randonnée)

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of American Randonneur.

Please also note the movie I made of this ride, which can be found here.

Above the coastal hills, the glider’s rainbow canopy traced a sunset moon.  An hour before, visions of seals cavorting on the beach had yielded to the cliff-top spectacle of whales breaching the Pacific’s ripples.  It could only have been the Central California Coast 1200k Randonnée (3CR).

In spring 2012, as the canted grades of the Big Sur Marathon reduced my gait to a weary plod, a single thought consumed me: “I wish I were on my bicycle.”  The next summer, the spectacular Big Wild Ride 1200k in Alaska confirmed my love for pedal-powered epics, so when the Santa Cruz Randonneurs announced they were expanding their 1000k into a four-day exploration of the Pacific Coast Highway and the vineyards around Paso Robles, I couldn’t register quickly enough.

As the ride approached, though, I grew apprehensive.  At BWR, I’d spent the last 55 hours alone in some truly remote wilderness.  I’d become so sleep-deprived that I’d hallucinated an Imperial transport ship from Star Wars hovering menacingly ahead of me in the Denali dusk, and I’d been so desperate to stay conscious that I’d resorted to “rumble strip intervals,” shaking myself to the sinews.  The morning after that ride, standing up had been a 15-minute ordeal entailing a plaintive crawl across the floor to furniture that I could scale inch by tentative inch as my limbs convulsed disturbingly.  It was pretty special.

Having no desire to revisit that dark place, I resolved to do things differently.  After all, I was heading to one of the most beautiful parts of the world; I wanted to remember every moment and to spend as much saddle time as I could beneath the California sun.  I therefore planned to ride hard and sleep even harder.  If everything went well, I might even get a normal night’s rest after each leg, which would be decadence manifest.  Of course, such yo-yo pacing meant I’d likely spend most of the journey flying solo, casting passing pleasantries to bemused heifers, but that’s how I roll.

Fortunately, the Santa Cruz Randonneurs had devised a route that was as logistically simple as it was visually striking.  The distance we’d travel each day would decrease as our fatigue built — 230, 210, 185, and 125 miles, respectively — and the scenery would alternate between seascapes and vineyards.  Better yet, we’d stay in the same location on the second, third, and post-ride nights, where we’d have ready access to all of our gear, thereby avoiding the check-in/check-out, unpack/pack-up, “what might I conceivably need tomorrow?” circus that taxes a randonneur’s mind.  With predicted highs in the mid-80s and overnight lows around 70 degrees, one couldn’t ask for more.

Day 1: San Jose to King City (230 miles)

Because 3CR comprised simultaneous 1200k and 1000k events, the pre-dawn scene at the starting line found a century of riders chatting amidst a menagerie of two-wheeled steeds, reflective piping popping in time with digital flashes.  

California chic!
The trusty Seven Cycles Axiom, on its final voyage.
The opening miles through downtown San Jose were a surreal parade of tires reverberating through dormant streets, though we were yanked back to reality by a string of traffic lights that flashed green only long enough for us to clip in before stonewalling us.  Our fitful progress parsed the peloton into clusters, with mine well back of the front group as we cruised past Stanford to the classic Old La Honda climb, a 3-mile, 1300-foot spike with stretches exceeding 15% grade.  

The Old La Honda climb.  Peaceful and painful!
Consistent with my “ride hard, rest long” ethos, I put some effort in and soon found myself alone on the serpentine slope, witnessing the sunrise duel the mist over neighboring valleys.  As one rider dryly put it: “This is nothing like Phoenix.”

An enthralling descent down the western side of the ridge revealed our first glimpses of the coastline, and after a jaunt north to Half Moon Bay, we spun southward for the cruise to Santa Cruz.  By now the group was thoroughly dispersed, with a pack of local riders pushing hard some miles ahead, but the benefit was that, every few minutes and at each control, there was a new cast of colorful characters.  Seagulls hovered in breezy suspended animation, and wizened trees fought private battles with the sea.  

A lunch stop in Santa Cruz (motto: “Mellow, With Chance Of Surfboards”) marked the 200k point, and also our departure from the coast.  Sharp rollers carried us inland to towering forests whose citizens diminished the nearby phone poles to toothpicks.  

The shade apologized for the arduous terrain, but the road was dangerously pitted in places; here I passed the lead riders, who’d stopped to true a wheel that had disputed a point with a particularly misanthropic crater.

Our time in the forest was too brief, as our path led to an agricultural expanse that was as scorching as it was flat.  

I initially puzzled at stacks of white boxes beside the road, but soon determined that they housed transportable hives of exuberant bees, one of whose residents stung the daylights out of my quad.  On the upside, the afternoon heat warmed the trillions of blackberries in nearby fields, and the fragrance was transporting, like standing next to an oven cooking a dozen cobblers on Thanksgiving Day. 

Finally, after climbs, coasts, and cobblers, we snaked through a golden valley with nary a soul for miles, just a backdrop of mountains ignited by the evening sun and prefaced with plains of dried grasses.  

While I admired the view, a blur of gray motion streaked across the road and scampered up an embankment.  A fox! I thought. What a treat!  Wait, are foxes gray out this way?  I don’t know.  And it was quite a large fox, more like a dog.  A dog dozens of miles from the nearest house.  Maybe not a dog, either.  Hmm.  Time to pedal fast while trying not to resemble food.  The endorphins carried me to the day’s penultimate control at Pinnacles National Forest, where volunteers awaited with a cornucopia of salt and sugar, and grazing horses followed each other lazily across meadows.  

My timing was perfect: I crested the final climb toward the overnight control as the sun dwindled, which meant I capped the day with a 15-mile, 2000-foot descent into western crimson.  

I reached King City a little after 8:00 p.m., checked in, and mosied to a nearby diner where I reserved a table large enough to accommodate the riders I’d passed in the forest and had seen again near Pinnacles.  But they never appeared.  When I returned to the control for my slumber, I learned they’d arrived — but had then rolled on, apparently planning to blitz the course straight through while carrying nothing but space blankets.  Talk about a commitment strategy.

Day 2: King City to San Luis Obispo (210 miles)

The pièce de résistance!  The second day began with a spin northwest from King City to Carmel, where we’d gain the Pacific Coast Highway for 125 magical miles before alighting in San Luis Obispo.  We’d been warned to get an early start in order to reach Carmel before the northwest winds picked up, so I trundled downstairs at 4:30 a.m. and looked around for the posse, only to find that, while I’d slept, almost every other rider had arrived, rested, and departed for Carmel.  I sheepishly tendered my overnight bag to the volunteers, explained that I was in a secret Rip van Winkle division, and got a move on.

As it turned out, there was sense in lighting out for Carmel sub luna, as the first hours offered little to see besides sprinklers and the occasional crop-dusting helicopter.  

It wasn’t until 70 miles in, as we passed the Laguna Seca Raceway and took a rural route through the hills south of Monterey, that the scenery perked up amidst climbs that had me craving lower gears.  Shortly thereafter, we greeted 17-Mile Drive, home of the Pebble Beach Golf Links and gateway to the cycling paradise that is the Pacific Coast Highway from Carmel to Cayucos.  

I was feeling proud of having ridden 300 miles since the previous morning as I struck up a conversation with a solo rider hauling loaded panniers up one of the PCH’s initial grades.  He asked where I was headed; I replied that a group of us had left from San Jose the morning before and were en route to San Luis Obispo.  I then inquired from where he’d ridden: “Minneapolis — I just retired.”  He wins!

What can one say about the Pacific Coast Highway?  It’s so magnificent that you’d better hope your camera eventually runs out of batteries or you’ll never reach the end.  Riding southbound meant we had unobstructed views from atop cliffs to the crashing sea hundreds of feet below, and when crossing Bixby Bridge, I could almost believe I was floating.

Unfortunately, the infinite horizons were not an unalloyed good for the safety-minded cyclist.  I was disturbed to find that the PCH has a shoulder best measured in centimeters, and it sometimes felt like we were sharing the road with every rental RV in America.  The drivers generally were courteous, but it was discomforting to know that their chief mission — sightseeing, often with a heavy dose of child management — stood in tension with closely watching the road ahead.   One could only befriend the white line and hope for the best.

The Big Sur control arrived 100 miles in, about halfway through the day mileage-wise.  As I approached, I spied a line of 20 randonneuring rigs arrayed along the front of a country store, with a corresponding lycra-clad crowd enjoying lunch under the midday sun.  

I’d finally overcome my indulgent slumber and caught the action.  A note of agreement echoed through the smalltalk: Just then, none of us could imagine being anywhere else.   We were riding through an issue of National Geographic.

With an effervescent spirit, I set off for Cayucos in the belief that the day’s toughest climbing — and, sadly, its most awe-inspiring scenery — were behind me.  But I was wrong on both counts: The 50-mile stretch from Big Sur to Ragged Point resembled nothing so much as the cliffs of Corsica, with little separating the road from a precipitous drop to rocks far below.  

The grades grew fangs, to the point that riders in passing cars looked at me with a mix of pity and alarm.  

During this unforgiving stretch I chanced upon a stout fellow with a fully-loaded mountain bike, to which he’d affixed a large handwritten sign: “Riding with God.”  A nice sentiment, I thought, though I pondered the theological significance of the fact that he was on foot, pushing the bike up an endless climb with a despondent expression on his face.   

The miles around Ragged Point, a thousand-foot rock face jutting from sea to sky that marks the transition to the beaches of southern California, were otherworldly.  The polygraphic elevation profile brought views that seized the breath at every hairpin turn.  Toward the top of a 5-mile ascent, dozens of tourists stood atop rocks and shielded their eyes toward the sea, gesturing jubilantly.  I joined them and immediately spotted a tail fin, followed by a telltale geyser of seawater that marked a whale luxuriating amidst the waves.  It’s a rare ride that offers whale sightings without requiring one to unclip.  

The final 60 miles, from Ragged Point to San Luis Obispo via Cayucos and Morro Bay, were a perfect dessert for a hard day’s effort.  The mountains melted into beaches and surf, and we were ushered down the coast by a tailwind so compelling that a fixed-gear rider later said he’d had to ride his brakes to spare his knees.  

I held 30 mph with little effort, though my progress was checked when road debris gouged my rear tire.  Because it was set up as tubeless, I had to remove the indecently tight valve and nut from the rim, a 30-minute charade resulting in shredded fingers and splatters of sealant that doubtless contributed a certain je ne sais quoi to my portfolio of charms.

After wrestling my damaged tire into compliance, I joined the growing stream of randonneurs for the final stretch into San Luis Obispo.  It didn’t disappoint.  To the right, just off a horseshoe beach flecked with Frisbee-tossers, the massive Morro Rock, a 23 million-year-old volcanic outcropping, erupted from the water like a scene from The Odyssey.   

To the left, a lonely hang-glider floated beside the full moon. 

What a day — one of the most spectacular I’ve experienced on a bicycle.  I checked into my delightfully seedy San Luis Obispo hotel knowing that, because I’d have to time my morning departure to find an open bike shop to replace my rear tire, a full 7 hours of sleep awaited me.

Day 3: South loop from San Luis Obispo (185 miles)

Because the most convenient bike shop was in a town 60 miles down the road and didn’t open until late morning, I reasoned there was little point in rolling out before dawn, which again meant I was close to being lantern rouge in the early hours.  But no matter; there were vineyards ahead, as well as something ominously called “Gaviota Pass.”  Groovy, baby.

Like the previous day, this segment revealed its charms reluctantly; the morning hours had us traversing agricultural tracts that appeared to contain all the dirt on Earth and little else.  

It was a bit of a let-down following 125 miles on the PCH, but then anything would’ve been.  At last the elevation profile began to track the rising temperature, and we scaled a few aggressive highway grades before arriving in Lompoc, where I successfully hunted the bike shop amidst a web of strip malls.  

The climb to Gaviota Pass turned out to be a Wind Tunnel to Nowhere: 15 miles on the shoulder of a rural highway, churning upward straight into a 25-mph headwind as the sun bore down.  There were moments when I could scarcely imagine any future other than climbing forever toward the apocryphal turnaround point.  Worse still, a steady stream of randonneurs passed heading the other way, and I optimistically hoped each one signaled an imminent end to the suffering.  Alas, no — those guys were a couple of hours ahead of me, even though they were close enough to touch.  

The good news was that the tailwind-assisted descent back down from the pass was a joyride, and with our dues having been paid, we reached wine country.  I certainly knew of Napa’s legendary vineyards, but I hadn’t realized that central California’s inland regions were basically Italy, all rolling hills striped with rows of grapes and the desert-like climate to match.  

The vistas were tremendous, but they brought heat that seemed to radiate from the rocky soil.  It beggared belief that any plant could make juice in a region that seemed designed to suck every drop of moisture from living creatures.

Relief (physical and comic) came in the form of Solvang, a Danish town complete with traditional half-timbered architecture, decorative windmills, and women in barmaid garb.  As tempting as a stein of beer sounded, I confined myself to ice cream before resuming the self-powered wine tour along Foxen Canyon Road, site of the Blackjack Ranch famously featured in Sideways.   

The winemakers blended the functional with the aesthetic.  Miles of crisp white split-rail fences were festooned with blooming roses, which not only provided a pleasing backdrop for touring wine-tasters, but also acted as canaries to alert proprietors to bugs encroaching on the vines.  

But some winemakers’ tactics were profoundly weird: one had hung several white human-sized dummies by their necks from the tops of the vines, and the disturbing result was best described as “voodoo chic.” 

I don’t know if it prevented animals from pestering the grapes, but it certainly repelled this cyclist.  

Eventually, as we graduated from the Solvang wine region back toward San Luis Obispo, the scenery morphed into an oak-speckled valley backstopped by hazy peaks.  

The mercury retreated, and the vacant roads lent themselves to quiet contemplation of the setting sun.  Not that we were entirely alone: In the closing miles, a grinning dog bounded ahead of me, where he trotted along for several miles as Virgil to my Dante, looking back every few moments to ensure I was keeping up.

I rolled back into the San Luis Obispo control at dusk, noting happily that I had 27 hours to cover the final 200k.  

Visions of Chipotle danced in my head.

Day 4: North loop from San Luis Obispo (125 miles)

The victory lap!  As I thanked the volunteers on my way out, I learned that a local rider had finished his 1200k the previous afternoon, chalking up a scarcely believable time of 57 hours.  Amazing.

For us mere mortals, the final day recalled the highlights of everything that had come before: Spins along the coast, grueling ascents, immaculate towns, arid vineyards, and views forever.  After retracing our path to Morro Bay, we launched up the most difficult climb of the ride, the 1700-foot Old Creek Road, the grades of which asymptotically approached absurd.  It was a demanding chore for tired legs, but waves of coastal mist cooled our burning muscles and panoramic views of Whale Rock Reservoir distracted us from the task at hand.   

A meandering descent to the east led back to wine country and a leisurely breakfast in Paso Robles, the sort of postcard town in which bobbing fluorescent flags chart the progress of elderly couples riding recumbents to brunch.   

Mid-day brought us amidst the vineyards to Mission San Miguel, an arcade of a dozen graceful arches erected in 1797.  With only 70 miles to go in 12 hours, a celebratory mood graced the staffed control, with icy Coke the toast du jour.

Retracing our route back through Paso Robles and over the ridge toward the coast presented us with the ultimate reward for a 730-mile effort: A 10-mile, 2000-foot descent with views that stretched to the ocean, where Morro Rock loomed behind the foothills.  

After cruising for 20 minutes without pedaling a radian, we achieved the coast and regained the tailwind we’d enjoyed two days before, slaloming through seaside towns as dogs frolicked in the surf.  

It marked a fitting end to what must be the most striking randonnée in the contiguous United States.  I finished with a smile in about 82 hours, wanting nothing more than to head out for a second go-round.


As rewarding as my ride was, the experience took on a tragic aspect at brunch the next morning, when the ride organizers told everyone what a few already knew: On the third evening, Matthew O’Neill, a 33-year-old rider who was a mainstay of the local randonneuring community, had been struck by a truck and killed as he returned from Solvang along Foxen Canyon Road.  

There is little I can say about this that hasn’t already been said — by those of us in tears on the Amtrak ride back to San Jose, by the dozens of riders who attended his Life Celebration in Chula Vista, and by those who took part in the memorial ride in early September.  It is utterly gutting for such a senseless, preventable tragedy to strike someone in his prime, a rider doing what he loved and embracing life’s magnificent journey with every ounce of his being.  Rest in peace, Matthew; you’ll always have a place in our peloton and our hearts.

Thanks to Lois Springsteen, Bill Bryant, and the countless other volunteers from the Santa Cruz Randonneurs for putting together an unforgettable adventure that every randonneur should experience.  It sets a new standard for beautiful rides.  To see it in action, check out the movie here.