Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge: A ride report


Quarter way in...
Quarter way in the right, about to enter Big Basin State Park
At Saturday’s first water stop at mile 10 after climbing up Mountain Charlie on the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge (we were riding the century version) , both M. and I were having such a hard time that we didn’t know if we could get to lunch, much less finishing the ride. I was at the tail-end of a 2-week bout with a cold that gave me incessant coughs and smothered my lungs with slimy fluids. Unfortunately I gave that cold to M. a couple of days into it and she was suffering the consequences also. The entire climb up Mountain Charlie I can hear her more-hurried-than-usual breathing, and she was sagging back on the climb—unusual for us as she has always been the better climber between us. At the time I felt disappointed, but a little resigned also given what we have gone through in 2012, getting a cold less than 2 weeks before a difficult ride is simply a confirmation that this isn’t the year for us.


The year 2012 has been a tough one, unexpectedly. We signed up for a challenge at our local spinning studio to train for and complete a challenging cycling event in late 2011 and started the training really well. We followed the base phase fairly religiously, and worked up our mileage in December to about 70 miles. And at the end of the year we were able to ride over the top of Santa Cruz mountains with a touring load at our end-of-the year tour. We even participated in the 3-hour year-end spin class.

Soon after that, a string of circumstances hit us which left us dealing with the aftermath ever since. We flew to S. Carolina to attend to M’s mom in January, and she passed away soon after that in February. M. had a series of health issues (probably stemmed from the trauma of loss) that prevented her from doing any exercise for about 6 weeks. While I continued to train and was still on target to ride our initial planned event for the Challenge the Davis Double, it became apparent that M. wasn’t going to be ready. We decided to switch our target to the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge (SCMC), which was later in the year. While SCMC only had half the length as the Davis Double, it has almost twice as much climbing (> 11000 ft of elevation gain).

Heading into Big Basin State Park
Corner of HWY 9 and Big Basin HWY
I was able to attend spin classes in May and June and we rode outside with increasing distance almost every week in those two months. All the while wearing our HRMs and keeping a tap on our efforts. I was on track at the end of June, after riding brevet style (unsupported) from Ukiah to San Francisco in approximately 10 hours—the best time I have ever done for a 200k ride. July turned out to be super busy for us with a combination of work and school. We rode in Mt Tam 3 weekends in July with increasing amount of hill climbs to prepare for the SCMC, and began felt confident that we would be able to complete the event. Then on 12 days before the event, I felt a scratch in my throat, and despite my best effort to fight it off, the cold floored me, then M. for the next week and half.

Back to the water stop at mile 10 before the turn onto Bear Creek Road. We told each other that we will try to do our best, and just enjoy the ride. We rode on with a sense of resignation, but also felt more relaxed. We got to the first full rest stop at mile 20 at Skyline. After chowing down rest-stop food, and looked at the map, we realized that we had climbed 3500 feet in the first 20 miles, and therefore had completed 1/3 of the climbing already! With this realization came the encouragement that we might be able to get close to finishing the ride after all.

Let me go back to Mountain Charlie Road, which was the first climb of the day. It started at mile 2, and went up almost 1500 ft (including two side streets near the top) in 4 miles to Summit Road on a narrow, winding, and absolutely beautiful road. We are accustomed to much more warming up than the rolling first 2 miles leading up to the foot. Lots of very fit cyclists passed us on the way up and made the climb seemed easy, but it was definitely a beast. It was on this climb that we were shaken and felt strong doubts about our ability to finish.

Ebisu at Park Headquarter
Ebisu at the Headquarter of Big Basin State Park
The second major climb of the day is Jamison Creek Road in Big Basin State Park 20 miles after the first full rest stop. The transitional section is a gorgeous stretch of rolling, quiet, covered, and beautiful roads in and near Big Basin State Park. Jamison Creek is relatively a short climb in comparison with the long cols of the Death Ride, but rises up sharply. The route sheet says that Jamison Creek climbs 1500 ft from HWY 236 to Empire Grade in 3 miles. Not all three miles of this road are equal, either. The road starts out relatively gently to pull you in, making you think that you are having a good day on a famously steep road, then all of a sudden a “gotcha” hits you in the face approximately half way in, as gradients hit up to 14% or 15% all the way to the end. 

M's Ebisu after Jamison Creek Climb
M's Ebisu taking a break after Jamison Creek
Me at the top of Jamison Creek
M. and I separated near the bottom to each do our own climb. I got down to my lowest gear—34/30T pretty quickly, and tucked in, in a seated position. I tried to find a good rhythm and not getting off the saddle too much, in an effort to conserve some energy. Many riders passed me, pounding on their pedals off the saddle, but several of them had to stop and take a break as I steadied past them later. In the end, I didn’t have any energy left in my tank to get off the saddle and power up near the top, but did manage to spin my way there without stopping—my original objective. SCMC organizers timed every participant, and I clocked in at 39 minutes and change--definitely in the bottom quartile and a far cry from the fastest time of 20 minutes. M. came up a minute or so later. We were both gassed, and even though lunch was only short 1.5 miles away, we sat on the chairs provided by the water stop folks at the top for a good 5 minutes before rolling again. Without the cold and more training on steep hills, hopefully I can ride approaching the low 30 minutes next time. 

The only dirt section of the day--outside the lunch stop
The intervening miles between the top of Jamison Creek and the final hard climb of the day Zayante Road have some amazing stretches of descents (Pine Flat Road, Ice Cream Grade, Felton Empire Road). I wish I stopped more to take more pictures. M. overshot a turn and ended up a ways down on Bonny Doon, and I went down hill after her after not seeing her catching up and realized what was happening. We ended up climbing the famous (via Tour of California exposure) Bonny Doon road back to the course. The final big climb of the day is Upper Zayante, which is at mile 70 or so, 24 miles after lunch. Zayante is a very nice climb, shaded and quiet, with glimpse of the valley below. It was also deceptively long and hard. We chatted with each other and spun our way up. After that, it was a set of rollers and a long descent back to the finish.

Because of the detour, we ended up being one of the last people finishing, even though we both felt pretty good at the end. It is by far the most difficult ride we did in 3 years since the Shasta Super Century we struggled through in 2009. 

A nice view near sunset; near completion of the ride
SCMC is a great route, and the metric double version is a way to get close to Death Ride territory in terms of distance and elevation gain without the long travel, the heat, the crowd, and the altitude. We highly recommend it! For those brevet-minded folks, the Santa Cruz Randonneurs used to run a Big Basin 200k, which is advertised to be the hilliest 200k in the U.S. (though several mixed-terrain 200k organized by the San Francisco Randonneurs, my home club, might top the climbing statistics of Big Basin 200k). The Big Basin 200k starts in Palo Alto and winds through much of the first half of SCMC before ending up in Davenport on the coast, then traces the route back to Palo Alto. 

I was about the only person riding a randonneuring machine, and many roadies, friendly or not, made sure I know about it. There was another guy on a Klein that had metal fenders on. I was chatting with an older gentleman riding on a carbon fiber Time about our respective machines. I think my set up might be close to a full 10 lbs lighter than his (mine weighs in at about 27 lbs with rack, fenders, and a bag). I told him that I lost almost 20 lbs in the last year, which more than cover than 10 lbs differential between his and my bike. Both of our Ebisu performed really well for us--smooth and comfortable, responsive during spirited pedaling, and no creaking sounds throughout the ride! My 42mm tires allow me to keep my lines on several long descents where the pavement is rough. On a well-supported ride in the Bay Area summer I should be able to ride an open-wheel lightweight racing machine, but the Ebisu isn't really what's holding me back--that would be my own legs. 
Post a Comment