Monday, June 05, 2006

A (Seeming) Century Amid the Sequoias

Yesterday Tom and I did the Sequoia Century, an organized bike ride that starts in Palo Alto. If you’ve never been on one of these things, here’s how it works. You send some money beforehand, or register on the day of the ride. On ride day, you sign in and receive a route map. There will also be marks painted on the ground to indicate the various routes. There might be a 30-mile option, 100K (about 62 miles) and 100 miles. Sometimes there is a 200K option. Along the routes, there are rest areas with food, water and portable toilets.

In our case, we rent a vehicle to get our bikes to the starting line. It seems kind of odd to pay so much for something I could do for free, but Tom likes these events, and as it happens, I never actually do go out in the country and ride around for hours unless I’m signed up for a century. Tom, on the other hand, goes out all the time and rides 60 or 70 miles just for fun.

I’m not a fast rider. I believe in a slow start, a slow middle, and a slow finish. The slow start is a choice. The slow finish is usually a necessity. It generally takes me about six hours to ride 60 miles. Because he actually trains, it takes Tom about the same time to ride 100 miles, so it works out well.

The primary reason for undertaking such a thing, of course, is to admire the shapely calves (preferably shaved, as many are) of passing male cyclists.

Yesterday’s ride featured two 100K options, flat and hilly. I asked Tom if he thought the hilly route would be really hilly, as the flat route sounded kind of boring. No, he said, he thought it would be moderate. You have to be really careful when it comes to advice from the naturally optimistic. I’m embarrassed to say how many times I’ve believed Tom when he’s said, “Oh, no, I don’t think it’s going to rain,” or “This should be quick and easy.”

Needless to say, the hilly route was very hilly indeed. First there were 10 miles that were quite flat. That took me about an hour. Then came 1.4 miles that were due uphill, which took me two hours, panting like a dog. My stomach had been upset in the morning (it probably wondered what we were doing up five hours earlier than usual), so I’d eaten only one piece of toast before embarking. I also ran out of water before I got to the first rest stop, so I was basically dying by the time I got there.

Normally I don’t like to hear anything about the route in advance. There are few enough surprises in life that I like to make what humble discoveries I can. I don’t like to hear someone say, “Around that corner is a vineyard.” I like to roll around the corner and think, “Hey, a vineyard!” But the first part of this ride was so difficult that I stopped every ten minutes the rest of the day to rest and study the map, calculating exactly how much climbing was coming and how many miles it would be spread over.

There were a couple of very nice descents. In the North Bay, motorists seem to be rather understanding about cyclists descending in the middle of a twisty road. The cyclist might be going about as fast as a car would go, anyway, and there is no problem, but yesterday, in the South Bay, I was coming downhill—I like to descend briskly but not in a foolhardy way—and some motorist came up behind me and blasted his horn. I saw other cyclists descending very quickly right on the white line marking the right edge of the lane. I don’t think my skills are equal to that, as there is mighty little margin for error. Even Tom said later that he thought there had been some rude motorists.

The final descent had a sign at the top warning of potholes, and it was on a road that was partly in shadow and partly in the sun, where it’s hard to tell if something is a hole or just a shadow, so I had to go down gripping my brakes, stopping now and then to rest my hands, which seemed like rather insufficient compensation for the hours spent climbing!

Adding insult to injury (and besides the fact that my chain came off the chain ring at least 20 times), there seemed to be only about five people signed up for the route I was on (and two of them quit early). All the nice-looking legs were on some entirely different route! I hadn’t brought a cell phone because on these rides, there is always someone in sight behind you and someone in front of you. Not on this one. I did virtually the entire thing by myself. It took me ten hours! Fortunately, there were still 12 minutes to go before they started putting away the food.

And of course there was beautiful scenery and it was tremendously tranquil at times. It was worth it.

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