Mt. Tam Double: Bill is a Contestant on “Beat the Clock”

It sure is nice to be able to get out of bed, hop in the car, and drive to the start of a bicycling event. Also, there is just about nothing nicer than cycling in Marin and Sonoma Counties. For that reason alone, the Mt. Tam Double Century is always a pleasure. This year’s edition had some wrinkles but was ultimately a good time. If you want to see the photos and skip the commentary, click here or watch the slideshow below.

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The Marin Cyclists put on the Mt. Tam Double as a part of a cornucopia of ride options associated with their Marin Century. There is a ride for every flavor of rider: kids on Big Wheels to hard-core ultra-distance cyclists. The rides criss-cross each other throughout northern Marin and southern Sonoma counties. The Mt. Tam Double hits just about everything that everyone else rides (with a few extras thrown in for good measure). Riders get to climb Mt. Tamalpais after riding up Fairfax-Bolinas Road (aka Bofax), zoom down to the coast and then head north to Pt. Reyes Station on Highway 1, head inland to Petaluma and then back toward the coast to Valley Ford for lunch. After lunch, the riders continue north to the brutal Coleman Valley Road for a very tough climb over the first set of mountains in the coastal range. After heading back south, riders only face one real challenge: climbing the “harder” side of the Marshall Wall. After that, it is just rollers with a couple of bumps back to the start (although those bumps seem a lot bigger after 185 miles!).

The views on this ride are stunning. From the ridge on Mt. Tam, one can see the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, and the gleaming buildings in SF in the distance, all while riding just above the redwoods. While riding up Highway 1, riders see the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Stinson Beach, and Tomales Bay. From Bay Hill Road (north of Valley Ford), you get a terrific view of Bodega Bay. Before climbing Coleman Valley Road, you ride next to the ocean and a long, sandy beach. And you see more cows than can be counted, happily munching on the green grass of the coastal hills and emitting methane.

The ride only has one intermediate time cutoff: you have to leave lunch by 2:30 pm. If you don’t make this time cut, you get sent back south toward the finish line without having the “pleasure” of riding Coleman Valley Road or the Marshall Wall. This year, the ride organizers tossed a bit of a wrench into the works: they added about 10 miles of riding before the time cut at lunch. Thus, prior to the ride there was a great deal of wringing of hands and grousing by riders in the event about making the time cut. Being one of the slower riders on this ride, I was worried. As a result, I knew that I had to get rolling at 4 am and hoped for no mechanicals before lunch.

I got about 5 hours of sleep before having to get up and drive to the start. After checking in with the crack Marin Cyclist team (Craig, Dirk, and Phyllis) at the ride start, I queued up with about 30 other riders for the 4 am mass start. At the appointed time, we rolled off in the dark, headlights and taillights blazing.

To get to the country roads, we rode through Terra Linda, obeying stop signs and traffic signals. At Lucas Valley Road, we turned left toward the ocean. I managed to miss the light at this corner and, as a result, when I turned  I was a little behind the main pack. Not 50 yards after turning the corner, I heard the sound that cyclists hate: “HISSSSSSSSS”. Flat tire!

This was NOT a part of the plan. Here I was, no more than 4 miles from the start and I had to change a tube in the dark. It was unlikely that any SAG vehicles would be coming by, so it was all on me to get the thing repaired. After a few choice words, I took out the stuff and got at it. However, as I pumped up the spare tube a bit, I realized that the spare had a hole in it and wouldn’t hold air! This was REALLY not part of the plan. OK, pull out the second tube, pump it up (it held air), get the tube in the tire, the tire back on the bike, check to make sure you aren’t leaving anything on the side of the road, and get going. All the time that I am screwing around with the flat, groups of riders were rolling past (generally asking if I needed help).

For those that don’t ride road bikes, it is very critical to find the source of the flat, lest you put in the new tube and get another flat right away…since I didn’t have any more tubes, I took great pains to make sure that I got the nasty little wire out of the tire before putting everything back together. As a result, it took me about 30 minutes to get back on the road. Needless to say, losing 30 minutes right out of the chute had me worried about the time cut at Valley Ford.

Because of the frame geometry of my bike, I use a mini-pump (there isn’t any way to mount a frame pump). Unfortunately, this pump only seems to be able to put about 80 psi in the tube after about 400 strokes, so I took off with low tire pressure, knowing that I could pump the tire up at the first rest stop. Riding with low tire pressure is risky: if you hit a bump or hole in the road, you can pinch your tube and get yet another flat. So, I had to take it easy on the descent down Nicasio Valley Road to Sir Francis Drake Blvd. and down White’s Hill into Fairfax. This was too bad, since I was riding with Bruce for a while and having a very nice chat.

As I climbed up Bofax toward the Pine Mountain checkpoint, I developed a little mental to-do list for the upcoming stop: (1) Don’t take too much time. (2) Pump up the tire. (3) Find a spare tube or two. (4) Get some water and food for the next section of the ride. (5) Shed some clothes for the climbing ahead. I found a floor pump and got the tire up to the proper pressure (it has been at about 80 psi) but the rest stop workers didn’t have any spare tubes, which made me really nervous about continuing. Fortunately, Lee Mitchell, SAG driver extraordinary, drove in as I was getting ready to leave and he had spare tubes in the fabulous BikeVan. It was a slower stop than I had hoped for but I checked everything off the list and got riding.

Bofax is just an amazing road. After ascending out of Fairfax, it climbs up and then dips down in Marin Metropolitan Water District land, ultimately crossing the dam that forms Alpine Lake. After that, you climb through the redwoods up to the ridge. The climbing after crossing the dam is not killer steep but it does get the heartrate going. Since I was well behind my crew of early risers, this was the point in the ride where I was starting to get passed by the quick riders that had started at 5 am. No worries…just keep climbing.

After turning left onto Ridgecrest Blvd., the fun began. The fog was rolling over the ridge, making the trees drip (i.e., rain). The road was soaked. However, when you looked down and to the east, it was sunny and clear. Every once in a while, the fog would thin a bit and let the sun peek through a bit, causing a number of riders to stop to take photos or to just gawk.

Ridgecrest is a set of rollers that generally increase in elevation. Eventually, we popped out of the marine layer and saw the bright sun, above a thick blanket of fog, which was penetrated by some peaks further to the south. The road rolls through green hills with incredible sightlines. Perhaps this is why numerous car companies use this road as the setting for their commercials.

At the end of Ridgecrest, you turn left toward the summit of Mt. Tam, which is the highest point of the ride. The climbing itself isn’t too tough but given the sun and warm temperatures, I had planned to keep my heartrate down, knowing that there was still a lot of miles to go. As I started to climb, I saw Alfie and Lisa (a couple of my 4 am cronies) speeding down the hill. This gave me a kick in the butt…I needed to pick up the pace or I was at risk of getting a DNF (did not finish).

As I struggled up the last kicker to the checkpoint at the summit, I knew that there would be no hanging out up there. Get checked in and get a move on down to the next checkpoint by Muir Beach. The descent to Muir Beach is most excellent. The roads were basically empty (albeit a little wet). Thus, it was possible to descend at a pretty good clip (although there were others that went much faster than me…I like to descend but do not like road rash). After getting off of Panoramic Road and past Muir Woods, I rolled into the next rest stop.

The mood here was very upbeat. The fast riders were arriving after the great descent. The volunteers were happy to see us and ready to help. The dining options were fine. The lines at the toilets were kind of long but not too bad. “Top off the food and drinks,” as Paul Sherwen says, and get on the road.

In 2008, I got a flat just after this rest stop and knew that if I got another one, the ride would be over, so as I climbed out of Muir Beach on Highway 1, I was extra careful about holes in the road and glass. As I reached the top of the first climb, I got a good view to the north. Although it was overcast, the wind and clear air made the coastal hills beautiful. The coastal road is far from flat and can give the rider a little bit of a challenge as you ride north, since you dip down to cross the creeks and then have to climb back out. Nonetheless, the riding into Stinson Beach went quickly.

From Stinson north to Pt. Reyes Station, one stays on Highway 1 and basically rides along the Bolinas Lagoon (behind Sea Drift), climbs over the hill past Dog Town, and then rides rollers and flats to the next rest stop. The climbing shouldn’t be too hard but for some reason, the section out of Bolinas over Dog Town always seems like a struggle. Once over that, it was a quick zip into the rest stop at Pt. Reyes Station.

I cannot exactly say why, but it seemed to take forever to get out of the rest stop at Pt. Reyes Station. The volunteers didn’t have any Gatorade out, which meant he had to find some. The lines to the toilets were a little long but not too bad. The food was tasty, so maybe I hung out for a while. Who knows? It just took me way too long to get going.

The astute reader may be sensing a pattern in this narrative. Each rest stop, I am getting more and more nervous about the time. As I pulled out of Pt. Reyes Station, I thought I was in real trouble. Why? The leg from Pt. Reyes Station to Petaluma follows the route used by the San Francisco Randonneurs for a number of their brevets, so I knew that it went in a northwesterly direction with some climbs not nothing too tough. The problem was the wind out of the west that was starting to pick up. It was the next leg (out of Petaluma to Valley Ford) that had me worried, since it is almost due west (i.e., straight into the stiffening wind).  As a result, I really tried to push the pace on this section and started to pick up a couple of the riders that had left in the 4 am crowd.

Knowing that time was tight, I flew through the Petaluma checkpoint, quickly grabbing food and drink and then heading out for Valley Ford.

Even though I have ridden in this area for many years, I had never actually ridden from Petaluma to Valley Ford. In the past, the Mt. Tam Double route went from Valley Ford to Petaluma (as you were heading south toward the finish) but the ride organizers decided to tweak the course and send us in the opposite direction today. As I climbed out of Petaluma, I started chatting with Mark, who it turns out is a friend of Jack’s (another of the double century/brevet riders from Grizzly Peak Cyclists). Mark said that he was looking forward to the next section of the ride, since it went through Chileno Valley, which is very lovely. I agreed about the scenery but noted that it was 12:20 pm and we had to be in and out of the next rest stop (which was 25 miles away) by 2:30 pm and, by the way, there was going to be a howling headwind. Mark hadn’t caught this fact on the route sheet, so my comment must have got his attention because he immediately suggested that we team up and ride together. Mark was a great “team time trial” partner. He recognized that there is no reason to pull on the front for 10 minutes at a stretch (he suggested 1 minute pulls) and that when you got on the front you shouldn’t immediately drop your partner (he checked his mirror to make sure I was hanging on). We made great time along Chileno Valley, catching a couple that had been riding a bit ahead of me on Highway 1. Unfortunately, when we slotted in behind them and asked if they wanted to work together, the man in the lead put the hammer down, leaving us (and his riding partner) in the dust. Huh? After we would ride together and catch the dude, he would sprint off the front again, leaving his partner behind to get pulled by us. What was this guy thinking???

All of this foolishness took its toll on me and I finally just dropped off, even though we were still heading into a the wind. Mark continued on and rode with the couple for a bit but they ultimately split apart, too. As they rode off, I looked at my watch. It was a bit before 2 pm and I had about 6 miles to go to the rest stop. I started developing a strategy: ride in, grab some food, and then pull out of the rest stop and eat up the road. If necessary, get some drinks at the market in Valley Ford. Just do not get DQed.

It turns out that the last 6 miles went very fast (except for that one nasty hill right after turning north) because of the great tailwind, which blew me all the way to Valley Ford. I hit the checkpoint at 2:15. Time to spare! I grabbed a burrito, sat a bit, and even got to use the toilet and get some drinks.  The volunteers (a group of high school mountain bike racers) gave everyone plenty of warning about the impending cutoff time but, realistically, I am not sure how many riders missed the time cut, since I was passed later in the ride by a number of riders that were coming into the checkpoint as I was leaving.

Having (1) busted my tail to make it to Valley Ford and (2) wolfed down a chicken burrito for lunch , I decided to take it easy over the next leg (or, as Amy says, I was riding at a “digestive pace”). There are a few very large rollers between Valley Ford and Bay Hill Road, which I just crawled up. After turning onto Bay Hill Road (which loops around the town of Bodega Bay), I continued my snail’s pace up to the top of the ridge. Since I was in no hurry, I took in the scenery. The hills were just gleaming. The views down to Bodega Bay were pretty spectacular. The place was so pretty that I didn’t even mind the rough road surface. The sightseeing continued after I turned north onto Highway 1 as I checked out the beachcombers next to the road.

All of the fun ended when I made the right-hander onto Coleman Valley Road. This thing is not as tough as Sierra Road, but it does have its moments. From the initial gradual climbing, the road points almost straight up as it makes a sharp left turn. I am not embarrassed to say that I did a bit of zig-zagging on this road. However, that was not easy since it seemed like there were more than the usual number of motos, autos, and pickup trucks out. As I reached the “King of the Mountain” spot from the Tour of California, I had a brain freeze and seemed to forget that there was still a bunch of climbing after that first intermediate summit. Looking at the route sheet, it seemed to imply that the checkpoint/rest stop was not far from the KOM. Wrong, sir! It seemed like it was another 4-5 miles of gradual and not-so-gradual climbs before I finally found the checkpoint, which came none too soon since I was completely out of water and Gatorade.

It seems that the fellow running the rest stop had decided that he didn’t want to set it up at the official location. While I commend his rugged independence and individuality, I was quietly cussing him out as I kept riding along, wondering if I had missed the stop or if he had just packed it in. When I finally found the checkpoint, it was time for serious measures, so I downed two cans of Mountain Dew. In the real world, I never drink this stuff. However, on a ride like this, it has all the key ingredients; sugar, water, and caffeine. As I rode off, I could feel the buzz starting.

The next section of the ride has a little bit of everything: riding through bucolic valleys past one-room schoolhouses, insane steep descents on bad road surfaces, and gradual downhills on the road to Valley Ford. It goes by much quicker than the road TO the checkpoint and, as a bonus, you get MORE BURRITOS when you get to the next checkpoint!

After dawdling a bit at the Valley Ford checkpoint, it was time to head south. I was sort of nervous about this section since I was almost blown off the road by crosswinds on the SF Randonneurs’ 600k brevet. However, the winds from earlier that day had pretty much died down, so I had a very nice ride past the dairy farms on the way to Tomales. Exhibiting great restraint, I decided to skip the Tomales Bakery and headed south on Highway 1 toward Marshall and the looming Marshall Wall.

Right after Tomales is one of my favorite sections of road in northern California. The road hugs an estero of Tomales Bay. The road surface is excellent, the views are great, and it is just a lot of fun to ride, especially if the wind isn’t blowing too hard. After zipping through that section, there are a bunch of small and medium-sized rollers until you hit that hard left turn onto the Marshall-Petaluma Road, which is the start of the Marshall Wall.

This was another new feature of the ride this year. In the past, the ride had ridden over the Marshall Wall from the east. Although that climb is steep and has a nasty false summit, it is not nearly as much climbing as from the west and is a much shorter climb, too. Also, since I had only ridden this direction once before, I didn’t know when the climb was going to end (and it was getting foggy and dark, so I couldn’t see the summit). This was some slow going. Richard, who was driving SAG, zipped past me a couple of times, checking to make sure that I was OK. Zig-zagging was the order of the day. I also noticed a strange scraping noise as I climbed but couldn’t figure it out, so I just kept going. After reaching the top of the hill, it was a quick zip down to the next checkpoint at Walker Ranch.

The volunteers were starting to pack the place up but were very cordial. I asked if they had any brie (which I had on this ride in 2008). They found me some as well as some crackers! All I needed was a little white wine and life would have been perfect. It was going to be dark before I reached the next checkpoint in Nicasio so I changed my glasses, turned on the lights, and put on my reflective vest. One of the volunteers was going to head back to Nicasio and offered to accompany me but I said that there wasn’t any need. He said OK but that he would be checking up on me.

The road toward Nicasio was just great fun. I didn’t remember it being as much of a descent as it was, so it took no time at all to get to Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road. Along the way, I saw one of the strangest things I had ever seen: a cow had tried to jump over a wooden fence but didn’t have the legs to pull it off. As a result, it was stuck with its front legs on one side of the fence and its hind legs on the other side. The cow didn’t seem particularly upset by all this, which seemed strange to me. The volunteer from the ride had stopped, assessed the situation, and was going to knock on the nearest farmhouse door to inform the farmer of his cow’s predicament. I just rode slowly past the cow, gave it a thumbs up for trying, and continued down the road.

As I turned onto Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road, I noticed the scraping noise again. It was not coincident with my pedaling, so I knew that it wasn’t in the crank or chain. It got faster when I rode faster, which meant that it had to be on one of the wheels. At this point, I did a little risk assessment. What would happen if it was something serious? What if a tire blew while descending a hill? What if I was just hearing things? Could I make it to Nicasio, where there would be lights and a place to work on the wheel? Being a wimp, I pulled into a turnout just past the Cheese Factory and checked out the situation. It quickly became obvious what was going on: the bead on my front tire was starting to pull away from the wheel, which was making the tire bulge. Well, hell! Fortunately, the volunteer, fresh from getting the cow off of the fence, pulled up. Having his headlights really helped, since it was totally dark. My brain was not working too well at that moment, so it took me a while to decide that I had to deflate the tube, re-seat the tire, and pump the thing up. Once I figured out what to do, I remembered that I only had my mini-pump, which I was not keen on using to pump up the tire. Unfortunately, the volunteer didn’t have a floor pump, but he was kind enough to finish pumping the tire up for me when my arms gave out.  What a guy! After repairs were complete (and I was sure I hadn’t left anything in the turnout), it was time to get to Nicasio, which was a quick jaunt.

In 2008, I had reached this rest stop and was told that as long as a SAG vehicle didn’t pick me up, I could finish at any time after the time cut and would get credit for the ride (only to find out that this was wrong, I had missed the official time cut but the ride director had arbitrarily extended the cut off time by 30 minutes, so I was, in fact, an official finisher!). Thus, I didn’t want to have that happen again. I checked my watch. It was about 9:15 pm when I rolled into the Nicasio rest stop and the volunteers were closing things up. The final time cut was 10:30 pm. Thus, there was plenty of time to get something to drink, pump up the tire (the rest stop had a floor pump…yes!), and make it back to the finish. Gulping down one last Mountain Dew, it was off into the darkness, heading for the finish line.

I love the last section of this ride. The climb up Lucas Valley Road is not tough. The traffic is almost non-existent. Last year I rode it with Scott but this year I was on my own. It is quiet except for my breathing, the chain rolling over the gears, and the wind in my ears. Also, since it was clear that I am going to make the finish in plenty of time (unless there is a major mechanical), I can enjoy the ride through the quiet Lucas Valley (and past Skywalker Ranch) and ease into the finish.

Which is exactly what I did. I rolled into the finish at about 10:15 pm, which was pretty good given that I had two tire issues. I checked in, got my jersey (denoting that I had finished the ride), and went to grab some food. I saw Terry as I was walking to the dinner area. She had torn it up today and had finished an hour ahead of me. Kudos to her!

As I was sitting down with my plate of food, I heard some drama unfolding. There was a rider that was about 4 miles out and he only had 10 minutes to make it to the finish. There was no way he could make it in time, meaning that he was going to get a DNF. That put a melancholy tone to the end of an otherwise good day.

Lessons learned:

  1. Check your tubes before you start a long ride.
  2. A good riding partner can make a tough section of a ride zip past.
  3. Have a plan when you approach a checkpoint and then STICK WITH THE PLAN!
  4. A little recon ride before an event can help refresh the memory.
  5. Cows can’t jump.

Ride Stats:

Miles Ridden: 194

Climbing: 14,800 feet

Total Elapsed Time:  18:15 hours

Total Rolling Time: 15:57 hours

Average Rolling Speed: 12.2 mph


4 responses to “Mt. Tam Double: Bill is a Contestant on “Beat the Clock”

  1. Nice write-up, Bill! Congrats! I had to laugh at the mention of the jumping cow. How’d the SAG driver get it back over its side of the fence?

    I always wonder about fellows who act the way that one rider did, who took off like a bat out of hell when you wanted to ride together, and then kept yo-yoing out and back. Weekend warrior trying to prove something? It’s one of the reasons I’ve refused to ride pacelines in the Davis DC in the past. I see too much bad form, bad etiquette and dangerous pacelining to want to risk road rash or worse. I’ll settle for a slower time.

    Hope to see you out on the road soon!

    • Sterling,
      Thanks for the comments. I suspect that the driver went to the house, said your cow is trying to escape, and took off. I know that I would have no idea how to get the thing off of the fence. Perhaps dairy farmers have special equipment for such occasions…

      I think that the guy that couldn’t hold a pace was a very strong rider that was riding with a less-strong rider. So, when he would take off, she couldn’t hold his wheel. When he realized that, he would slow down, come back to us, and then do the same thing again (with the same result).

      I will keep your ideas about pacelines in mind. Probably a good call.

      Take care.

  2. My goodness, you are a prolific writer. I dare say you did not exert nearly as much care or effort on any academic term paper.

    Great writing and pix. I was busy watching the Three Stooges marathon on TV.


    • Edward,

      You seem to forget that even as a youth I would often have periods where the words just flew out of the fingers (back in the day, those words were on an old Underwood, as I recall). IMHO, I did most of my best work under tight deadlines for the CVHS Achaean. Term papers were never my forte.

      I may have seen some of the Three Stooges marathon, too, except that the stooges were named David Carr, Mike Singletary, and Alex Smith.

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