April is a month of doing something different, if we choose not to count the Apple Pie crit, that is. Something different other than racing every weekend. While I love it and genuinely enjoy it, the routine does get to me at some point, and I figured it would be good to take April off from racing bikes and do the other cycling things I like – ultradistance events. April is also the month where I plan to complete two-thirds of my California Triple Crown requirements of riding three double centuries in a year. The first of these was Mulholland Double starting in Agoura Hills, CA.
Evgeniy and I woke up at 3:45 and started getting ready. The start was about 45 minutes from his house and we needed to be at the starting line at 6:15 for a mass rollout. I originally planned to wear a light wind vest over my jersey in the morning, but after looking at the temperatures, I quickly changed my mind and opted for its heavier counterpart. It was 33 degrees at the start of the ride and the first 20 miles were mostly downhill and flat. “This is going to be a frosty one,” I thought to myself.
Around 6:10, E and I pull up to the start, drop off our lights with the staff, got the final instructions and the go signal. There was a split start, with some slower (by self-designation) riders starting at 5:30 and our group at 6:15. I didn’t take a head count, but it seemed that there were about 20-25 people in our group, with some who may have been running late to the start, as there were a few people getting ready in the parking lot when we rolled to the start. I had on knee warmers, arm warmers, a heavy vest and long fingered liners under my cut-off gloves and I was still extremely cold. The 33 degrees alone was enough to make me chilly, but rolling downhill and on the flats, with the wind, made it feel like way below freezing. I was on the verge of brain freeze quite a few times within the first few miles. I did my best to hide behind someone from the wind. My fingers were in pain from the cold and the only soothing thought that came to mind was that feeling them in pain was better than having them be numb.
This went on for about the first 10 miles, and then we started getting closer to the coast where the ocean air made it feel about 10 degrees warmer and my body slowly started to defrost. By the time we got down to the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), I was feeling pretty good and the sun was also helping quite a bit with the defrosting process. At this point, I think most of our 20-person group was still together, in a strung out peloton rolling down PCH toward our first climb up Topanga Canyon. This is where things started to shake up. The strong climbers came to the front and started to set the pace. I was about 3rd wheel out and held my own as we made our way up the first climb. We were going at a very stong pace, but to my surprise, most of our group was still together.
This is where I realized the toll that a few months of racing had taken on my brain – I was racing a double. I wasn’t consciously thinking that I need to beat the guy ahead of me, but my body and mind seemingly conspired and forced me to do my best to hold the wheel of the guy ahead of me. There were two guys on the ride who were clearly mountain goats and had great climbing legs: one was in a Helen’s Cycles kit, the other in a dark kit with a Mt. Tam Hill Climb water bottle (I’m going to call them HC and MT). At some point on a climb, I mentioned it to him and asked if he was from the Bay Area – he was – but I didn’t get his name. These guys set a pretty high tempo and by the time we reached the top of Topanga Canyon, the field was shattered.
There were probably about seven of us as we hit the first descent, and I was second wheel, but gave the guy ahead of me plenty of room. By this point, we were heading back inland, so the temperatures were dropping again, but with the climbs, it wasn’t horrible. And the sun had started to come out even more, which helped a great deal as well.
By the time we climbed up to the Rock Store (mile 46), HC and MT had about a 30-second gap on me, and I knew that eventually they would drop me and the rest of the field, but while my legs were feeling good, I figured I should do my best to keep up. E was a bit behind me, but always close enough that I knew he’d eventually catch up, which he did. In fact, as we started to climb Little Sycamore, E, HC and MT went ahead of me and that was the point where my legs and my brain realized that there were another 150 miles to be ridden and that I need to stay with my double century pace.
As I reached the top of the climb and the first stop at around mile 53, HC and MT were saddling up and heading out – that was the last I saw of them – they would both finish the ride in around 12 hours. I topped off my bottle, inhaled a banana and quickly went to make use of the Port-A-Jon. What followed was the worst descent I’ve ever had the displeasure of encountering. Every single line I picked ended up having a crack or gravel in it – too much braking, too much unevenness, too much bumps and an occasional oncoming vehicle made it a huge pain in the ass.
The long descent took us back down to PCH and warmer temperatures. By this time, we were going at a scorching pace for a double, averaging near 20mph. E and I grouped up with two more guys and started to get into a rotation on PCH, then for an unknown reason to me (at the time), E got on the front of the group and took a monster 8-mile pull. I was sitting last of four guys and observed at least once where the guy in second tried to pull through, but could not make it around. Once we turned onto Las Posas, the other two guys pulled around and began to pull. I asked E why he thought it was a good idea to pull for eight miles and he apparently thought that someone would go around him. I explained that all was necessary was for him to move over and wave people through – group ride experience comes in handy at a time like this.
As the two guys got to the front on Las Posas and took their turn, E asked me if maybe we should drop them. I told him to relax and stay behind me and out of the wind for the time being. I knew both of us were stronger climbers than those guys so there was no need to drop them on the flats. It would be much better to “use” them as much as possible to get through the chore miles. As we navigated the flats into a headwind, we came upon another rider who was one of the few who held on during the climb, but I didn’t really notice when he went ahead of me, so I was surprised to see him up the road. My guess is that he skipped the stop at mile 53 and rolled on while I was in the bathroom. So now there were five of us approaching the next climb, Potrero Grade.
Potrero Grade started off mild, but kicked up to 20 percent near the top. As we churned our way to the top, I got a gap on E and everyone else. I crested first and continued to descend, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the others catch up to me. Sure enough, on the flats they came up behind me in a few minutes. I turned to one of the guys and said, “Well that was a bitch near the top.” He looked at me and said, “That’s nothing, wait till we get to Balcom, that goes up to 26 percent.” So there, I had something to look forward to now.
One climb remained before we hit our lunch stop, Potrero Road. It wasn’t a big deal of a climb and we all rolled up it at our own pace. As we were going up, a guy (whose name I later learned to be Rick) rolled by and I jumped on his wheel. Turns out he was in front with the others, but got a flat and caught us. I kept pace with him and the two of us dropped everyone else, but I was pretty sure that E was going to catch up, and so were others. However, they didn’t really catch us until we rolled into a park for lunch. There we had a large regrouping. At this point, we were at mile 92, with 108 miles to go and we were looking at a pretty good finishing time and my goal of a sub-14 hour finish seemed to be within reach. The two fellows who joined us earlier on PCH were much faster eaters than we were and were off as I still had bottles to fill and use the bathroom. I would not see them again.
After lunch, E, Rick, another rider and I all set off together. The next few miles or so were rather boring as we navigated suburban streets. Then, Rick got another flat and he and his friend were left behind, and it was just E and I now. As we exited the residential area, we rolled into some farmlands and orange groves. There was nothing exciting, other than the headwind, which seemed to be coming from all directions – this was odd to me. At around mile 120, there was another small water stop I was going to skip, but before I did, I asked how long until the next one. After hearing that there wouldn’t be a stop for about 50 miles, I figured it would be a good idea to top off my bottles and eat a bit of something. But we really didn’t spend more than two minutes there before continuing our journey.
Up to now, we were used to yellow arrows marking nearly all the turns, so it was no surprise that when the next turn came along without any markings, we missed it. It wasn’t a big deal, as the road we were on ended about half a mile after the turn we were supposed to take, but alerted me to the fact that I need to keep my route sheet handy.
At this point, we were at mile 120, and my legs were beginning to feel fatigue. Then we hit the wall. No, not the kind of wall where you sugar drops and you want to fall of your bike, but the kind of wall called Balcon Canyon Road. It starts as a rather innocuous climb, but as we were warned, it quickly pitched up to way over 20 percent. The best I could so in a 34x28 was about 45rpm and quickly wished I had another gear – something that almost never happens with that setup. I got out of the saddle once or twice, but that was probably counterproductive as the grade was so steep that my rear wheel was slipping slightly. I figured I’d sit and mash the pedals until my legs stop working or I reach the top. Luckily, the latter happened first.
The next 20 miles were really boring again, and as previously, into a headwind. They took us through strawberry fields, open roads and farmlands. I noticed that E was getting a bit fatigued and offered to do the pulling, but anytime I took the speed up over 17mph, I’d gap him. After a few times of this, I figured I should just press on, and let him catch me on PCH (if he could), where the headwind was not as bad.
I hit PCH for the third time in one day at mile 144, and I knew it was about 13 miles before we were to climb Decker – the last hard climb of the day. There was no headwind on PCH and I could roll at 18-20mph without much of an effort, so I figured I’d keep it in this gear and see if E would catch me, which he did in about five miles. I pulled the rest of the way to Decker. I figured this would be my 8-mile pull on PCH to pay back for the one earlier in the day.
Decker is a 3.6-mile climb that we hit at about mile 157, and it averages around 8 percent. I knew all of this before we even started to climb, but what I didn’t know was that the climb started at between 10 and 14 percent and would not level off until very close to the top. E got ahead of me from the get go and I let him go, thinking I would either catch him after settling into a rhythm, or we’d meet at the top where all of our gear was waiting for us.
About a mile into the climb, something I never had happen did. A sharp pain in my left Achilles tendon shot up through my leg. “Great,” I thought, “just what I need right about now, with about 2.5 miles of this climb to go!” The pain was very uncomfortable and each time I tried pushing hard on the pedals, it would shoot up again. I finally made it to the top, with my left leg very unhappy with me.
I got off my bike, and asked for ibuprofen and some Enduralites. This was mile 160, and I was starting to feel really beat up, and tendon pain wasn’t helping things. All I really wanted at the time were potato chips, but alas, there were none. So I stuffed my face with whatever goodies were available at the aid station, mixed more Accelerade into my bottles and proceeded to get my lights on the bike.
It was early in the day, and I knew that there was only a remote chance that I would need them, and that I would definitely be done with the last big descent before nightfall. With that in mind, I only put one of my headlights on my bike and stuffed the other one in the back of my vest. While all of this was going on, Rick and his friend caught us, did what they needed to do at the rest stop and kept going. A few minutes later, we rolled on. I was hoping that the mild rollers and the big descent down Mulholland Hwy would give the drugs enough time to dull the pain of my tendon – that never happened. I knew that I would have to spin an easier gear, which is easy on the flats, but on the climbs I’m used to a slower, harder cadence of about 70rpm max.
As we left Decker checkpoint and started to roll up the first roller, E got a flat and told me to go on while he worked on it, which I did. Over some rollers and down the big descent I went, coming upon the next rest stop at mile 175 or so. Normally, I would have rolled by having just stopped a little while ago, but I really wanted potato chips and hoped they would have some. They did not, but there was Ramen Noodle soup, which was a great salt substitute, and one of the staffers there happened to have a bag full of pickles, one of which I munched down with the soup.
By the time I was done with my salt feast, E rolled by and we took off to finish the ride. We were now joined by three more riders. There were another 5 miles of flats and rollers ahead, followed by a 4.7-mile climb and a 2-mile climb. All of this time I was trying to spin easy and not aggravate my left tendon. There was some yo-yoing back and forth with the riders as we’d beat them up the rollers and then they would catch us on the downhill and flats.
Finally, we made the turn toward Piuma climb. And this is when something totally weird and unexpected happened. I don’t know what it was, but my legs felt fresh all of a sudden, and I felt like I just started the ride. I started turning my pedals at a very fast climbing cadence for me – about 84 rpm. I dropped E, then caught and dropped everyone else who was near us at the time. Up the climb I passed Rick and his friend, who were stopped for something or other. A guy about my age tried to stay with me up Piuma, but half way up, I dropped him and by the time I reached the summit there was no one in sight. I felt great and really strong, like I could tackle another 100 miles.
I dropped down for a bit, then made a left turn and I was on the last climb of the day. I had energy through the roof and pedals were turning at a bizarre rate for this late in the ride. In a matter of minutes, I was at the top of the climb where another rest station was set up. I rolled in and before I could even unclip, I yelled out, “I need water a coke and a sticker!” Turns out they weren’t really giving out stickers at that checkpoint (as they told us they would), but I got the other two things in pretty short order. While one of the great volunteers was filling my bottle, I gulped down half a coke and off I went.
I bombed down the 4-mile descent at about 30mph average and was out on Mulholland Highway again. Then, it finally happened, I had a tailwind and there were only two turns and about 10 miles separating me from the finish. I looked down at my Garmin and realized that a sub-14 hour finish was about to become reality. For the last time that day, I got into my drops and hammered it home. I could smell the finish and the adrenaline was pumping at full force.
After the final turn on Agoura Rd., there were only 4 miles to the finish and I started hammering it with all the power I had. Over one of the rollers, my tendon shot up pain through my leg again, but I didn’t slow down, I just kept pedaling with the other leg. Nothing was slowing me down. Then, I saw the place where I parked my car and knew that the finish line was just a couple hundred yards up the road. Into the parking and across the finish line I went, giving my number to one of the ride staff. I was 10th out of 46 people to finish the ride and had attained my sub-14 hour goal.