I meant to write about the ride of my life last week, but things got busy and I just didn't have a good chunk of time to sit down and write it in the detail I wanted to. Theoretically the 'ride of my life' will happen this weekend when I ride in America's Most Beautiful Bike Ride. I did the Tour de Tahoe last year in September (same ride, just later in the year) and in spite of being sick with a cold (came on quickly the day before on my way up - how awful is that?!), it was truly one of the most beautiful and best bike rides I've ever experienced. I'm looking very forward to this weekend and should also have great pictures to post.
But that is next week. This week, this is about a ride that made an impact with me and reminds me of just why I love cycling so much. More recently, I experienced a run that allowed me to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the California coast in finer detail than a bike ride would provide, and reminded me that running, too, can be fun. :)
The Amazing Ride took place on Sunday, May 20, 2007. We were slated for a 68 mile ride that would involve much climbing and...dirt. Yes, dirt...on road bikes (one of my greatest fears). In addition, this ride had a climb on a road called Sweetwater Springs Road (comes off of Westside Road, a beautiful road through the Russian River Valley) - known for grades of 20% and so steep that apparently when Pat (known in our bike group as "The Spinner" because he spins up hills like nobody's business and makes climbs look EASY) attempted it 3 years ago he had to get off his bike and walk it. No wonder I was concerned about what I was getting myself into.
We met up at Larkfield Shopping Center in the northern part of Santa Rosa at 5:45 a.m. so we could roll out by 6 a.m. By 6:07, we were on our way headed northwest out past the Schultz airport and on our way to Westside Road. On our way, I marveled at the fact that one of the toughest rides of the year so far had drawn 9 riders - a record for our group! Typically there's 4 or 5, sometimes 6. But 9?! Maybe we ought to do hard rides more often...
We'd been warming up our legs and spinning along, catching up on the latest with each other when suddenly there it was...the turn to Sweetwater Springs Road. I joked how, the last time I'd been out with Lee and Tim, we'd passed by it and I briefly turned my bike onto it and made a quick loop, pronouncing "I rode on Sweetwater today!" This time, however, there was no loop. We made the turn, and I noticed everybody slow to a stop. "What're you guys stopping for?" "Piss break" one of my male companions replied (when you're the only chick in the group, you get used to it). "Oh" I said, with a tone that implied "okay, well I'll just stand here and whistle while you guys do your thing, since I can't."
We were just about ready to roll out when an SUV began to drive onto the road. "What the...?" We were all dumbfounded as to who in their right mind would want to drive up Sweetwater. The car pulled over at the turnout and we began to joke "yeah, that's right dude, you definitely made a wrong turn." As I clipped into my right pedal, I heard a noise behind me. "HEY!" I turned around and there was David - ready to ride with us! His wife Anna had driven him and he was hurriedly getting his bike out of the car. Talk about TIMING!!! He had gotten the start time wrong and had every intention of getting the Sweetwater ride in. Ten riders strong, the real journey had begun.
Sweetwater begins gently and beautifully. Couple rollers but gorgeous wide-open countryside that makes you forget how close to civilization you really are. I got a head start on the group because I wanted to focus on what was ahead of me and I knew many of them would catch me eventually - might as well enjoy the lead while I had it!
After awhile, the open road began to head into a more canopied area of oak trees. The group began to get closer together and pretty soon, the climbing would start. I counted the number of riders and only counted 9. Who was missing? I realized it was Matt. I was near the back anyway and told David to go ahead - I wanted to wait and make sure he hadn't experienced a mechanical that would require us to go back down after we'd made it to the top. However, about 30 seconds later, Matt came around the bend. "Just wanted to make sure you hadn't had a flat or something!" I said. "Nope, just wanted to climb those small hills slowly so I can be ready for the big ones," he replied. We rode on and I admired the beauty of the trees around me as they changed from oak to redwood and everything was still silent. We hit the hill and not long after the climbing began, we hit a patch of dirt and gravel.
My first reaction as this hill pitched steeper was to stand up. My back wheel began to slide out from under me and spin without traction. "Sh** Sh** Sh**!!!! OH MY GOD! SH**!" were the words that flew out of my mouth. Matt yelled at me to "sit down and keep your weight over your back wheel!" I sat down, no less fearful that I was going to crash and never be able to get back onto my bike on this huge hill.
Slowly grinding up the hill, I managed to make it out of the dirt, but still slightly hyperventilating. As my breathing became more relaxed, Matt gave me a quick lesson on riding on dirt and told me that if I remember nothing else, to keep my weight on the back wheel. Okay.
From there on out, the climbing continued (but no dirt!). At times I simply imagined myself on a stair master with the highest level engaged, and it was all I could do to keep my bike moving forward. I had to weave in a snake-like fashion from the left-right-left sides of the road so that I could pick up some momentum. I had never been on anything so steep, and my bike does not have that third ring that would have been so helpful in a time like this. Still, I thought "okay, this is tough, but doable. What about the part that Pat had to walk up? When does that start?"
The climb reminded me a lot of the climb out of Fairfax up to Bolinas Ridge (I believe known in parts as Alpine Dam). I simply put my head down and kept climbing, focusing on keeping my feet light, my legs spinning (or what was an attempt to spin...I think my cadence averaged 50 rpms, if that, and i was doing about 4 mph!) and enjoying the gorgeous scenery around me. For all the difficulty of that climb, it was cool, shady, silent and serene, and the towering redwoods that surrounded me were inspiring. Looking back (even hours after the ride), it's difficult to remember how long it really took or even how difficult it was. Now it doesn't seem so bad. Maybe because I like to climb, or maybe because I can just focus on what I'm doing, not how miserable I am (then again - I really was never miserable except on the dirt, which scared me).
Before I knew it, I could see a rider up ahead. I was gaining ground and coming from last to catch somebody! Rounding another turn, I saw it was Jim (aka Custer). Unsure of how much further we had to climb, I decided to bide my time - it wasn't a matter of IF I would catch him, but WHEN. In spite of my eagerness, I just focused on turning my pedals over and keeping a very consistent pace.
As I continued to gain headway on Jim, I began to see some sunlight. Off to my right, the trees suddenly opened up. There - that - was my reward. It nearly took my breath away and tempted me to get off my bike and savor it for a few seconds (damn that competitiveness in me). I only wished I had a camera with me to post it here, but this was the best I could find on the internet:
I know, very small. Doesn't even do it justice, but if you can imagine emerging from a canopy of trees and immediately looking out to a beautiful valley below and beyond to mountains on the other side of the valley - it was absolutely breathtaking.
"YES!" I thought. That was the moment - there's one on every single ride I do in the North Bay - where I think "this is why I got up early this morning. This is why I drove my butt all the way up here. This is why I do this." I would do it over and over again just for that. To boot, you could even see some colorful hot air balloons soaring over the valley as well.
That view gave me just the push I needed to close the gap between Jim and I. However, before I knew it, I began to hear voices up ahead. Was this really the top? Sure enough, about 100 yards ahead of us, the group was gathered waiting for the rest of us. I had to catch Jim! I stood up and began my attack. Just as I was about to jump past him, he looked back and easily realized my intention. "Oh no you don't!" he said. "DAMN YOU!" I yelled back. We raced to the top, pretty much tying. "I was trying to be sneaky," I said with a grin, "but I STILL caught you!" High fives from the group all around. Before we knew it, we were 10 again and ready to head down the other side.
Normally I'm on the less conservative side of descents, but this one was unfamiliar to me and very steep in some parts. I decided that I'd rather play it safe than take a turn too quickly and end my ride early. An awesome descent nonetheless, and I vowed to ride up Sweetwater many more times so I could get to know it and take some faster turns.
Before I knew it, we were on Armstrong Woods Road in Guerneville, headed out to 116 where we would then turn right and continue heading west, west, west.
We stopped at a really cute bakery in Duncan Mills to refill our water bottles. I love walking into a cafe as a group - it makes me feel like such a badass! ;-D
Onward from there and I experienced a portion of 116 I'd never driven or ridden before. It is just so beautiful out there - the road is lined with redwoods and you feel like you're up at camp somewhere. The air is crisp from the ocean just 15 miles away, yet so invigorating I even pulled the train a couple of times as we pedaled our way out to Hwy 1.
Upon reaching Hwy 1 (in a town called Jenner), we made a left and almost immediately made a left again back inland on a road called Willow Creek Road.
This would be the infamous dirt road everybody had been speaking of. About a mile in, the dirt began and would not stop for at least 5 miles. Initially it was flat, and so I began to relax a bit. The other thing is that there's a difference between dirt and gravel - dirt you can still get some traction on.
The difficulty began when the road began to ascend up the hill. I was in the front 3 people and settled into a nice climbing pace. No racing here, just intent on getting through it. Things went on like this, and I began to really feel better about being on dirt. A few skids here and there didn't faze me quite the way they used to, and I realized I was becoming more confident in my bike handling skills.
John soon sped past me as he tends to do. However, not too long after he passed me, we reached the first of "The Sisters." These were steep (STEEP) gravel pitches that, on a road bike, were impossible unless you managed to stay on the very left side of the road (the right was a drop off). I saw him eventually get off his bike and walk it up, so I decided to save myself the trouble and got off immediately. Brian rode past me and I shouted some words of encouragement at him. Maybe I could've done it with a triple crank, but not a double (though Jason M. is the MAN and successfully got through both Sisters - then again, he's done this many times).
The second Sister followed shortly after the first, and this time I (unsuccessfully) tried to ride up it. No luck. I immediately dismounted and walked my bike up the steep grade, sweating, breathing hard and realized that I'd hit a weak spot: I could hear some negative thoughts floating around up there. "Ugh, how much more of this garbage?" I thought.
After climbing back on my bike and a few switchbacks later, the thought repeated itself. Was this really how I felt? After all these miles, sweat and energy - I was reduced to thinking "how much longer?"
Come ON. I told myself that thoughts like that were unacceptable. I could not think that way because if I did, I'd NEVER get through this, and if I did, I'd be miserable. Cycling is NOT miserable.
I repeated Kevin's mantra to myself. "Pain is the weakness leaving your body. Pain is the weakness leaving your body."
No, that's not the right one. I wasn't in pain. I was feeling fatigued. Tired of the dirt. Tired of climbing through dirt. Tired of switchbacks.
But just because I was a little tired didn't mean I couldn't enjoy it. "This is NOT a race," I told myself. "You're not out to beat ANYBODY." I was still well ahead of a few other of the guys, so what did it matter anyway? This climb was MY climb. Taking a moment to look around me, I took a few long, deep breaths and savored the smell of the clean air. Again, I was enveloped in a canopy of redwood and oak trees. Bugs were flying around. Sunlight filtered through the trees. Things were still. My next thought was slightly improved but still not where I wanted my mind to be: "This would be so PERFECT to run through. I would enjoy this so much more if I were running."
I allowed the thought and then decided not to have any more of that. I was going to focus on each section. Live in the moment. This was here and NOW. Right NOW. Enjoying this piece of road, not thinking about how many switchbacks remained, and just focusing on deep breathing, allowing oxygen to reach every single muscle in my body so that my body could do what it needed to do. I focused on enjoying the power of each of my legs with every pedal stroke, keeping my arms light, and feeling my stomach rise and fall with each deep breath I would take.
Never, in all the time I've been cycling, have I ever achieved such a state of mental focus and meditation. It was brilliant, and I was so incredulous at how much my mind opened up to allow the positive thoughts to come flooding back in. Suddenly, I was thankful for my strength. I was grateful to be out in nature. I was happy at my accomplishments thus far. The list went on...
John and I reached a gate. We hopped off our bikes, lifted them over the gate and climbed through it. About 50 yards later, the road became paved again. "I don't think I've ever been SO grateful to see pavement!" I exclaimed. John was not so happy, but I was gushing with excitement at our accomplishments so far that day.
Eventually we reached a three-way stop where a few of the other guys were waiting for the rest of us. The first words out of my mouth were "WOW, I DID IT!" Jason M. congratulated me and then said "now, was that so bad?" I had to admit, it was the most difficult thing I'd ever done on a bike. "I supposed I'd do it again, now that I know what to expect," I said.
We turned left and began our descent down Coleman Valley Road into Occidental. As the trees zipped past me, I grinned with delight. This was truly what riding is all about. Hitting a wall and overcoming it.
We stopped at the store in Occidental. Sometimes, Coke has never tasted SO GOOD. Mmmmm, Coca-Cola! Unfortunately, something had happened to John's bike back on the dirt and he was trying to identify what the problem was. We didn't get going again until about 15 minutes later, which was far too long after riding that far and doing that much climbing.
As we headed out Graton Road and up the hill, my legs were screaming. I had nothing left and really doubted my ability to hang with the crowd. "I just think I'm gonna have to do this at my own pace and let them go ahead," I thought. My legs just felt so...dead!
Brian was struggling, too. He, John and I labored up the hill, and caught a break on a nice quick descent down the other side. I looked up and the rest of the group was riding away in a pace line. Miserably, I thought "Oh no! Now I'll NEVER catch them!"
Oh, the power of the mind. As we rounded the corner, I'm not sure what it was - the sprawling vineyards around us, the bright sun making its way up into the sky, the accomplishments we'd already made - but I made up my mind that we were going to catch them. We started as a group and we'd finish as one.
I stood up and as I rode next to Brian, I yelled "Come on! Let's go catch them!!" I jumped ahead of him, allowed him to jump on my wheel, geared up to my big ring, and put my legs into high gear. Pulling us along at 23 mph, constantly looking back to make sure Brian was hanging on, we began to make headway. The group was getting closer. Using this as my inspiration, I continued to push it. We were SO going to catch them.
Tim looked back and saw us gaining. He dropped back from the group, and pretty soon we latched on to his wheel. "Ready?" he asked. "HELL YES!" I said. In no time at all, we'd caught the rest of the pack.
We had about another 12 miles to go, but flat from there on out, with one grunt through the town of Graton. That grunt burned like no other, but I was so charged from it being such an awesome ride, I paid my legs no mind.
When we finally made it back out to River Road for the last few miles, the group separated again - about 5 and 5. I took charge and pulled for awhile, trying to get us up to the rest of the group, but as Tim put it - they were "cooked ducks." Okay, I got it. We all regrouped at the stoplight before the last "hill" - the overpass over Hwy 101.
At that point, even a tiny overpass felt miserable. Just had to get over and we were done! The rest of the group headed back to Larkfied, and Tim and I made a pit stop at the new Badass Coffee in Santa Rosa.
Similar to the Coke, iced coffee had never tasted so incredible.
We sat and recounted the moments of the ride, giving kudos to everybody involved, and enjoyed the peace that comes with post-ride coffee. 66 miles, 3500 feet of climbing, 4 hours of riding. This was truly one of the hardest rides I'd ever enjoyed, and I savored every moment.
I thought I'd end my incredible ride post with an incredible view of the Russian River Valley - this is what I experience on many a bike rides - the fog and the views. It's easy to love cycling when you love your surroundings.
Onward to Tahoe!