My first brevet

January 24, 2010. 5:00 am. Getting ready for my first brevet. If you want to see the photos and skip the text, click here or watch the slideshow below.

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I was supposed to ride my first brevet today, from the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge to the lighthouse on Point Reyes, then to Marshall, and then back to the Golden Gate Bridge. I have never done one of the mysterious events, which seem to have lots of rules for participation. It is pouring rain.

The rain in Richmond was not promising. I had my “normal” bike prepped for the ride (based on the NWS info from two days before). When I heard the rain, it was time to decide whether I wanted to get my normal ride soaked or to ride my “rain” bike. After a bit of mental back and fourth, I opted for the rain bike. Upside: fenders. Downsides: heavier, not a very good seat, double chainring, and I had to transfer stuff from one bike to the other. This put me a little behind schedule. (Since I had never ridden a brevet before, the whole starting protocol seemed a little daunting, so I wanted to have plenty of time to get things right).

Driving westbound on I-80 toward the start in San Francisco, I got stuck behind a pretty big accident at Golden Gate Fields. Another delay. Still raining. Were the powers-to-be trying to tell me something?

When I finally got across the Bay Bridge, through SF, and to the official parking lot near the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge,  it was nearly full: I got one of the last few spots. Yanked out the bike, the Camelbak with all of my spare clothes, and headed to the starting point. No rain! There were a ton of folks standing around, with Coordinator Rob giving out last-minute instructions. I found the sign-up sheet, got the card, and felt a little more under control. I immediately noticed that my rain gear was nowhere near as elaborate as most of the other riders about to start the brevet (I had a a non-breathable Performance-brand yellow rain jacket with a velcro “zipper” and a vintage ONCE bicycle cap).

Suddenly, it was time to go. I usually don’t try to ride in the rain. I don’t hate it or anything. It just seems like the rain amplifies certain riding-related risks. However, if caught out in the rain, I don’t dive for cover, either. Since the weather speculators were saying that it would be scattered showers, I could live with that risk, so off I went, trailing a long string of riders crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on the sidewalk on the east side (normally, riders stay on the west side but at this hour, there were no pedestrians, so almost everyone used the east side).

I have lived in the SF Bay Area for almost my whole life. I have been a road rider since 1994. However, in all that time, I had never ridden from the Golden Gate Bridge through the little towns in southern Marin County and continued on to Point Reyes. Today would be a first.

After crossing the bridge and descending into Sausalito, I hooked onto the back of a group and soon we were on the bicycle path heading toward Mill Valley. The group was quite diligent about stopping at traffic signals (yes!), so after a little waiting, we got off of the bike path and started the climb up Camino Alto. At this point, the group broke up, with me falling off the back, struggling a bit with my lack of gears. Once over the top, it was a slow descent into Larkspur, given that the road surface was quite wet. At the bottom, I caught on with another group and hung with them through the twists and turns through Larkspur, Ross, San Anselmo, and Fairfax, finally popping out onto Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

As we rode through these sleeping little towns, there was lots of talk about the vigorous enforcement of traffic laws, especially when (1) it was early in the morning, (2) there was almost no traffic, and (3) bicycles were involved. Everyone was still on their best behavior, stopping (or at least slowing down significantly) as we hit traffic signs/lights.

After climbing and descending the hill outside of Fairfax, it started to drizzle, which quickly progressed into full-on rain. I would now see how my cobbled-together rain gear would perform. Pulling on my jacket and cap, I continued past the turn to Nicasio, toward the coast on Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

I had never ridden on Sir Francis Drake through Samuel P. Taylor State Park. I had heard the horror stories about the road surface and was pretty sure that I would opt for the bike path that Rob had discussed at the pre-ride briefing. The surface seemed fine to me, at least until I got past a little market on the north side of the road, where some randonneurs had stopped for a snack, some warm beverage, and a little respite from the rain. As I made the left-hand bend, the road surface changed from smooth to a pot-holed nightmare. Given the rain, I was not riding very fast but the holes in the road slowed me down even more. After hitting my fourth or fifth deep hole, I was CERTAIN that the bike path was in my future. The only question was: where was the thing?

After a few miles of the silliness on SFDB, I saw a rider turn left and head into Samuel P. Taylor Park. Figuring that they probably even knew what they were doing, I followed them and, after weaving around a bit, finally found a restroom, some water, and the bike path.

What a joy it was to ride on this bike path! There was some tree litter on the path but, aside from that, it was smooth and nicely graded. I understand that this bike path was an early example of converting abandoned railroad grade to a bike path. The path followed Lagunitas Creek, gradually descending through the redwoods. Given the recent rains, the creek was gushing. I could see why many ride organizers decide to ride on this bile path when coming back toward Fairfax: no cars, no pot-holes, and a chance to enjoy the scenery.

All good things come to an end, however, and the bike path ended at Platform Bridge Road. After a little maneuvering, I got onto SFDB again and headed over the hill to Olema. Another first for me. The climb wasn’t as hard as I had anticipated and the descent into Olema was a blast.

Since this was my first attempt at a brevet, I really didn’t have a great plan for eating or drinking. I had filled my bottles in Samuel P. Taylor. However, I couldn’t think of what kinds of resources would be available on the road to the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse (which was the second  controle of the ride). So, when I passed the Pt. Reyes ranger station, I stopped with J.T. and a couple of other riders to try to find water for the next leg. In retrospect, this stop was probably unnecessary, since there are a couple of markets in Inverness. However, between the rain, the lack of sleep, and the newness of the experience, I wasn’t thinking so clearly.

After topping off my bottles and shedding my rain jacket at the ranger station, we headed off toward the next controle. The previous summer, Gail and I had ridden from Terra Linda out to a beach on the northern side of Point Reyes (our destination today was at the southern tip of Point Reyes) so I knew that there would be a fun section of flat roadway along the western edge of Tomales Bay, followed by a real hump of a climb over Inverness Ridge. After that, the route would be all new to me.

The climb up Inverness Ridge was tough, especially with my double chainring and lack of a real granny gear. Also, the sun had popped out, causing me to start pouring sweat as I climbed. At this point, I realized that in my haste to move equipment from one bike to the other, I didn’t have a cycle computer or heart rate monitor. Thus, I knew I was working hard as I climbed but I didn’t know just how hard.

After cresting the top of the hill, I started down the other side. About halfway down to the turnoff toward the lighthouse, I noticed a couple of riders standing on the side of the road. Pulling over, I asked if they needed a hand. One rider pointed to his wheel and grumbled something. He had ripped a spoke out of his wheel. This was NOT good, since his wheel had a relatively low spoke count. Because the spoke was ripped from the wheel, the wheel was really out of true. I took out my Topeak Alien multi-tool and tried to true the wheel as best I could.  In true randonneur form, the rider with the trashed wheel was weighing the possibility of finishing the ride (we were about 40 miles into a 125 mile ride). After a little back-and-forth with his riding buddy, he decided that it would make more sense to return to Inverness, call his spouse, and get a ride home. A good decision.

Getting back on the road, I caught up with Alfie and Lisa, who I had first met while riding the Knoxville Fall Classic staff ride in 2008 and then rode with quite a number of times in 2009 as we all earned our finisher jerseys in the California Stage Race. Alfie and Lisa ride everywhere and are really helpful and friendly. Thus, it was good to hook up with them. I peppered them with questions about  what was coming up over the next 12 miles.

I had an inkling about what was in store. I assumed that there would be great views, rolling hills (some quite steep), cows, and wind. I completely underestimated how much of each there would be. First off: the views are just great. From the top of some of the hills, you could see for miles (especially since the wind and rain had cleared the air). Unfortunately, to GET to the top of some of the rollers was really tough: some of those suckers are STEEP. It didn’t help that I had no granny gear. It also didn’t help that my shorts/knee warmers were pretty soaked (even though the sun was out and they were starting to dry) and I had a wet jacket in my jersey pocket. The road surface was just OK except for a couple of spots where there were either cattle guards or cattle crossings, which were just caked with cow shit. However, those are minor complaints. The riding was fine and we had a stoic audience of cows as we climbed and descended toward our goal, the lighthouse at the southern end of Point Reyes.

It was a long 12 miles but after one last tough climb, we were at the controle. It was well-worth it. Between the clouds, the sunshine, and the rough surf, the views to the north were breathtaking. Also, the volunteers at the controle had water and candy! I was tempted to walk over to the lighthouse but felt that I should keep moving, since I didn’t really know how my body was going to react to riding 125 miles on a bicycle that I had been using for commuting, rather than for long distance riding.

The ride back to Inverness was OK. I rode with Alfie and Lisa for a while until I went over a cattle guard and heard a horrible scraping noise. Slamming on the brakes, I realized that my rear fender was rubbing against my wheel. What was going on? After a little head scratching, I realized that I had lost a mounting band for my fender while going over the cattle guard. Walking back up the road, I found the bugger and put it back on. However, I was not confident that it would hold (ultimately, I had to tighten it up two more times on the ride). Also, after about 60 miles, I realized that my butt was really hurting. The bike I was riding had, at one time, been my main road bike. We had ridden Death Rides, the great cols of France, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. However, in 2007, this bike morphed into a commuting bike when I got my current road bike. As a result, I didn’t pay much attention to the saddle, since almost all of my rides were 10 miles or less. I knew that I was going to be paying for that lack of attention later on in the day today.

After getting over Inverness Ridge, I zipped along into Inverness, where the market was open. I was pretty hungry (a bad sign…the cardinal rules are to eat before you are hungry and drink before you are thirsty). So, I pulled over and joined a bunch of riders, buying food and drink and just lounging about a bit.

I was kind of surprised by the generally mellow tone of most riders. They were in no particular rush to get going. They acted like they were out on a Sunday ride with some friends, not a 125 mile brevet, for god’s sake! I sort of liked this. The riders didn’t seem as driven as lots of the folks that ride double centuries. “I could get into this,” I thought to myself.

From Inverness, we headed back to Highway 1, where we turned north, rode through Pt. Reyes Station, and then continued on to Marshall. This section of road can be fun, it can be tough, but it is always pretty, since it hugs Tomales Bay with views across the water to Inverness and the ridge. I was feeling OK but started to see riders returning from Marshall not long after I left Pt. Reyes Station, so I knew that I was nowhere near the front of the pack. Nevertheless, I felt like I made pretty good time up Highway 1.

It was good to finally roll into the third contole at the Marshall Store. It had rained off and on from Pt. Reyes Station but not enough to warrant putting on a jacket, so getting inside was going to be nice. Also, people had been talking up the clam chowder at the Marshall Store as something not to be missed.

The store was full of riders. The woman working the cash register knew the drill: take the cash and card from the sweaty rider, sign and stamp the brevet card, give the rider their change, and move onto the next person in line. She was very friendly and tolerant of the stinky riders filling up the place. I got chowder and water. Both were excellent. Some randonneurs opted for beer. I didn’t have the nerve to try that but it sure looked like they were enjoying it.

After a long stop (where I got a chance to get off of my bike seat and onto a chair), it was time to go. There were about 42 miles left and they wouldn’t get done if I didn’t get to it. The ride back toward Pt. Reyes Station was quick and uneventful, which allowed me to enjoy the scenery along the way.

We didn’t return to the start/finish the same way that we came out earlier in the day. Instead, we turned inland on Platform Bridge Road, past the Nicasio Reservoir, through Nicasio, and then ultimately hit Sir Francis Drake Blvd. With the favorable winds, the trip from Pt. Reyes Station to Nicasio just flew by. However, once we hit the climb on Nicasio Valley Road, things slowed down considerably. The climb was tougher than I recalled it being but that was probably due to the higher gearing of my bike. As I rolled into Fairfax, I was feeling pretty good, ready to zip through the little southern Marin towns and get the ride over with.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Since I didn’t have an odometer and since I was unfamiliar with the route, I got a bit lost between San Anselmo and Ross. It wasn’t like I was wandering around in the wilderness or anything; I just took a couple of wrong turns and meandered around for a bit while mentally flogging myself for not bringing an odometer.

I saw a group of riders heading toward Ross and I took a chance to follow them. Sure enough, they were randonneurs, heading for home. Even though they were behind me, it was clear that they were faster riders, so I had to pick up the pace to keep up. Once I got through Ross and into Larkspur, I knew where I was and slowed down, letting my guiding party cruise off.

There are two hills left once you get to Larkspur: the climb over Camino Alto and the climb up to the Golden Gate Bridge south of Sausalito. I was feeling the miles when climbing Camino Alto, so I took it slow and steady. There was plenty of time to finish, so there was no need to hustle. When I got on the bike path from Mill Valley to Sausalito, I noticed that the path was littered with driftwood and other stuff that had washed up on the bike path earlier in the day. Avoiding that, I rode through Sausalito, struggled up to Highway 101, rode across the Golden Gate Bridge, and was done.

What did I learn on this ride?

  • You have to think about things a LOT more on brevets than on double centuries.
  • Keeping fed and hydrated is important, especially on days where the weather changes from rainy to warm and sunny.
  • A good seat is a good thing.
  • Making last minute changes to equipment is a good way to forget something important (e.g., a cycle computer).
  • Knowing the route really, really helps make the riding easier.

Ride Statistics:

Distance:  125 miles

Elapsed Time: 10:54

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