Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Cycling Escapes and Leaving my Heart in California

Day 4 video courtesy of Don B., my friend and riding buddy, (featuring me, and Jenn, and Don's voice). I swear,  if I spent much more time with this man I was going to pick up his accent for sure. 

It was one of those decisions that I'm not sure where it came from. It was early March and it had been a long dark winter. Long and dark. And I got this really nice tax return and I had to get away. At first I thought I would go to back to Tucson, by myself, just for Easter weekend, because at least I was familiar with it. Then a friend tossed the idea of Hawaii into my head and that was enticing too.

But I couldn't get an air miles flight to Tucson and it looked like I was going to be travelling by myself so going to Hawaii, alone looked expensive, with long plane trips and at that time I didn't think I could get the whole week off. Not to mention, the intention was to ride my bike and the thought of riding alone, unsupported, on strange roads made me nervous.

So I started thinking about California. California wine, to be specific, but a Google search pulled up a link to Cycling Escapes and a quick scan of their tour calendar guided me to the perfect tour in the perfect week and doing my favourite thing. Climbing.

The SAG wagon

Except I don't think I really read the agenda that well or thought much about what it meant. When I started emailing the specs to riders I respect for their opinion, the reactions I got were of the nature of, "Holy crap! Did you see that 4th day..... there's 10, 000 feet of climbing."

Uh, yeah so?

I'm dumb. I come from this flat place where the "hills" are a couple hundred metres long on average and 10, 000 feet of climbing didn't mean much to me. I just wanted to climb hills. I did climb Mt. Lemmon last year after all. That was 25 miles of climbing. How could this be that bad? (dumb dumb). The day before I left another friend who rode in France last summer and did all the major climbs of the Alps and she said that the total elevation on this tour was more than anything she did in France.

Holy Hell. What did I get myself into?

Don up at the lookout on Piuma
I had that thought at least once a pedal stroke on the first climb of the first day -- you know when your legs are fresh and your brain is still ignorant. I had followed Don out through the "flat" (i.e. rolling.... rolling hills are the new flat to me now) opening section leading to the climb known as "Rockstore." A lengthy conversation with Don the night before at dinner had me pretty certain I could ride with this guy without trouble so I took his wheel and it was him and I alone on that first climb basically hammering beyond what either of us should have been doing (two geeks with heart rate monitors -- couple of nerds we were).

Like I said, I'm dumb. But I am also not used to long steep climbs. I'm used to climbing at a particular effort and then just recovering at the top. So I climbed at that effort and it didn't take me long before I maxed my heart rate. And then went over my max.

The View from Encinal. A little crooked so I must have been riding when I took this picture. 
We climbed Rockstore 3 times over the week. It did feel easier. We also descended down Rockstore at least twice and it was an amazing descent.  Aside from learning how to pace these climbs, I certainly saw big improvements in my navigation of switchbacks. I learned to trust the rubber. Break before the turn, and not in it. I studied.

Rockstore, by the way, was one of the climbs in last year's Tour of California. It is 2.5 miles long and about 6-10% grade. They also told us at the bike store that they hold a weekly Wednesday night TT up Rockstore. The guy at the store says he goes up it in 13 minutes.  I had a casual conversation with a local cyclist at the entrance to the hotel as he waited for a friend, who told me he could climb it in about 18 minutes, "on a good day" but his buddy climbed it the other day on a cruiser bike in 17 minutes. On a Cruiser bike.  I never really timed us and I'm sure we were much faster on day one, but I estimated we were about 20 minutes in climbing Rockstore on Day 4 at a nice easy pace set to start us off for the 11, 000 feet of climbing that were to come.

Don with his Flip camera and Jenn... I stopped us part way down Cothairn descent because it was mighty steep and sketchy roads. One of only two descents I actually dared to go faster than Don. 

Day 4 was by far my most rewarding day. When you do a challenge like this not every day is going to feel good. Day one I worked too hard too soon and burnt out by the third climb. I didn't have a clue how I was going to finish the week. Day 2 I paced better, felt better, and the goal was to finish as strong as I started. Day 3 I was bagged and thankful that there was only 5, 000 feet of climbing (ONLY). But day 4 I felt great. If you watch the video above you'll hear my voice is a little cruddy from whatever was going on with my sinuses and chest that week.

And Day 5 was a hard day again. Legs were tired, the lungs were tired, the brain was tired.  It had the hardest climb of all on Las Flores -- which had a lovely stretch of about 1.8 miles of 13-18% grade and most of it was greater than 15%.... it just went up and up around every corner on roads they were in the process of laying new asphalt on. Who knew it was possible to kick up asphalt tar at 5 km/hr. I'll be picking that stuff off my bike all summer.

Me part way up Latigo -- Day 3 when I felt like crap. I think Don had been waiting for me for a bit here. 

We did Rockstore, Puima, Latigo, and half of Yerba Buena climbs at least twice. We rarely went up the same climb we came down on the same day but we often went up a climb one day and then down it another. There were two climbs we only went down (Tuna Canyon and the other side of Cotharin) and both were brake heating knuckle whiteners.

Doing certain climbs twice was nice. They were never as bad the second time around. You had perspective on them the second time. Many times on a second go of a particular climb I would find myself pedalling along for kilometres and then hit my shifters and find I still had lower gears. This happened on 3 or 4 occasions on the last two days. On Latigo we knew that stretch of downhill near the top was not the peak (the math just didn't add up) and that Latigo had two peaks. It didn't feel as mentally fatiguing to head into another climb when you knew it was coming. Don and I climbed Latigo for the second time on Day 4 talking about life and the pursuit of happiness and it was done in no time flat. Ten miles, that Latigo climb.

Me and Don (and my one sunburnt arm... dumb)

Don may I add, aside from being pleasant company, was also a walking talking map for the week. Ann, one of the other tour members aptly nicknamed him "Garmin." As ex military, and a former Californian, he always knew where we were, and how far we had to go and how long each climb was and he could call how much we had left to nearly at 10th of a mile. He was the perfect riding partner for directionally challenged me.

There is Rich... he basically IS Cycling Escapes
And what can I say about Cycling Escapes? Earlier on in this blog, I referred to the company as "They" but Cycling Escapes is really just a "he" -- one guy, Rich Merrick, a self proclaimed nomadic bachelor who created his dream job. He's a one man band and for a one guy show, he does a bang up job with an iPhone and an iPad as his main sources of communication, and a van and a trailer for SAG stops. He came off 9 weeks straight of tours coming to us and still all his i's were dotted and his t's crossed. He had Eric Barlevav, pro racer with team Exergy, (who have really hot jerseys) as his SAG assistant for the first 3 days of the tour while Rich rode sweep with the slowest riders. And a gal Nicole took over for the last couple of days as sweep rider. Otherwise the trailer was stocked with everything you asked for. You filled out a lengthy food request list prior to arriving to camp and it was all there.

Eric... this is his "training" bike. Notice Microshifters. It would match Kermit perfectly. 

For the rest of you geeks, here is MY specs via Garmin.

Day 1 Rockstore, Yerba Buena, Decker
Day 2 Piuma, Fernwood
Day 3 Rockstore, Latigo
Day 4 Rockstore, Yerba Buena/Cothairn, Mulholland, Encinal, Latigo
Day 5 Piuma, Las Flores

And the rest of Don's Videos can be found here.

It was the best week of my life folks. Hardest thing I've ever done. I met great people from around the United States -- North Carolina, Vermont, California -- (and Canada, there was a guy from Vancouver). Nobody else came from a flat place like this. They laughed at me when I told them our standard out and back route had an elevation change of 5 m. Wednesday night Rich and Ray were teasing Jenn and I prior to the big climb day that "The Canadian Girls will never make it."  (WRONG). They were teasing. I hope.

Last day of riding, waiting at construction (yes, they have construction in California)
This post was pretty cycle-heavy. I'm sure I'll have more to say about the people part another day. I have so much more to say, about Don, Eric, Ann and Bob, Carol, Reve, Judy, Paul, and DC boys Mike and John, and "the Santa Barbara boys" (as Don called them) who we never really got to know. And Jenn and me, of course. The Canadian girls. It's nice to be 40 and still get away with being called a girl. And I have way more pictures than I can squeeze into this one post.

I'm home in body. But I left my heart somewhere on the top of a foothill of California. Or maybe it's on the Ocean shore buried beneath the sand and the salt.... I love the ocean.

There was no bad part of the Pacific Coast Highway. The temperature dropped by 10 degrees F and it was flat..-ish. Me doing a behind the head photo of Don on Day 1. 


Don said...

Awesome post Kim. You are a fabulous writer as it captured my memories of last week better than I could have imagined.

JP said...

Fantastic. Looks like the perfect vacation! Congrats on Day4- that will have been a killer!

Greg said...

Nice read Kim, glad you enjoyed it, I'll have to do that someday.

Kim said...

thanks Gentlemen... And Greg and JP... you ABSOLUTELY need to do this one day.