I feel a singular attraction to the Berkeley Hills Road Race. With increased attention the past few years to trail running, a road marathon, and double centuries, adding in a few minor injuries which have derailed my progress a few years, and my bike racing experience has been restricted to hillclimbs. But with Roaring Mouse, my team, co-promoting Berkeley Hills with the venerable Berkeley Bike Club, I was planning at being at the race anyway. It was just a matter of selecting a volunteer option compatible with racing. And so I signed up for clean-up, and registered for the 45+ 1-2-3 race.
I was nervous going in. As I reported here, the previous Wednesday I did 100 miles, a bit much, but it was a commute ride I'd committed to months before and I didn't want to miss it. That left me three days for recovery. And when I went out for a light shake-down cruise on Saturday, the day before Berkeley Hills, my legs felt okay, and my bike seemed in good condition.
On Saturday morning, before my shake-down ride, I'd swapped the chain for a KNC I had laying around, the old chain having reached 0.75% elongation. I swapped the SRAM Red 11-26 cassette for an 11-23, even that overkill for the gradual climbs of Berkeley Hills with my 34-tooth little ring. I contemplated putting my 36-ring on instead, but it was on my Ritchey Breakaway and that seemed like too much hassle. I finally put my Speedplay X-1's with aftermarket Al bow-ties on, preferring my Bont shoes (on which I've finally dialed in the heat molding, after daring to increase the oven temperature higher than on previous molding attempts) to my new Specialized shoes. The Bonts are drilled for Speedplay cleats while the Specialized are 3-hole with Shimano SPD-SL cleats. The Specialized shoes have been putting pressure on a nerve in my ankle, and I didn't want to deal with the kludged shim I'd used for DMD in a road race. I also found to my horror I had a steel water bottle cage bolt on the Fuji. I found an Al one and put that on instead, saving close to 3 grams.
A big question was how many water bottles to use. We were climbing the hills three times, the feedzone being at the bottom of Papa Bear, the second sustained climb and the climb to the finish. So if I took only two bottles, with the forecast high for the day over 80F, I'd definitely need to get a bottle feed during at least one of the first two times up Papa. That seemed too risky, since the feed zone can be chaotic, and delay there can be fatal if you then need to close a gap on the climb.
So I decided to take the extra 400+ grams and carry a third bottle in my pocket. There's around 8 minutes of climbing between Mama Bear and Papa Bear, including the minor climbs at their tops. So 400 grams would cost me around 3 seconds total, since I am presently 57 kg and my bike is 5.8 kg, then add in clothing and something for wind resistance. 3 seconds is a lot, but then I decided to play it safe.
One thing I noticed in warming up was when I shifted from the big to little ring with my chain in my 23 cog, the derailleur threw the chain. This was something I was supposed to have caught the day before. I tried adjusting the ramp screw on my rear derailleur to see if that would help, which seemed unlikely, and it turns out it didn't. Worn chainrings? Possible, but not super-likely since I don't ride my Fuji much. Maybe the derailleur angle needs to be adjusted. But I didn't want to do that on the start line. So I resolved to not attempt this shift during the race.
The race started with a neutral climb out of the boat house area where registration is held. These neutral starts are often nervous, and this one was, as the motorbike kept a steady pace, while the riders tended to accelerate as the grade changed. So there was some braking involved, but we got to the top intact.
And when I did I was almost immediately sprinting to close a gap. The group had gone from the narrow road from the boathouse to wide-open San Pablo Dam Road with its two full right-hand lanes + shoulder available to us (centerline rule was in effect). Riders were blasting away at the front, shouting at each other. I tucked into the pack, and then there was more shouting. What? These guys had applied too many testosterone patches this morning or something. I wondered what I'd gotten into.
Around we went, passing the elite 3's along the way. They'd started several minutes before us, but were obviously dawdling: they had to race an extra lap, after all. But more than that, the 3's don't have the strong teams the 1-2-3 master's groups have. They lose incentive, the pace dropping. It never really dropped in my race.
Other than this, I arrived without incident at the base of Mama Bear. As is my tendency, I was too far back here, but the road is wide and I set off at a decent climbing tempo and started moving up. I made good progress, moving toward the front half of the pack by the top of the climb.
This used to be the finish of the race back in the 1990's, and I have some nostalgia for it, but now the top of Mama Bear has no significance. Afterwards, there's a slight descent, a short climb, another false summit, then a slightly longer climb before the fast descent to Happy Valley Road and the start of Papa Bear.
I tried my best to descend as aerodynamically as possible, but at 57 kg I just don't drop as quickly as bigger guys. So I lost some places here. My 46-11 may have been the smallest top gear in the race, but I don't think that was limiting. It was fast enough for coasting. I just wasn't coasting as fast as the others.
We hit the base of Papa Bear, and I stayed to the left to avoid the feed zone. I again moved up, and approached a lead group as we neared the top. One rider on my wheel shouted at me to close the final gap, but I felt that would be too much, so I left the little gap for the rise which follows soon after Papa. In every race I've done here, in the 4's, in the 3's, in the 35+ 3-4, there's always been a let-up in the pace here. Surely I could latch onto the tail of the group and save myself time in Z7 for which I'd pay dear interest later. This was only the first lap of 3!
But I never closed the gap. They drilled it up this short rise, then were gone on the descent, setting I pace I simply couldn't match. Pedaling on this descent is tricky, since there's frequent pavement heaves, and if you catch one off-balance it could be an issue. I didn't see people pedaling here. It was pretty much tuck and go.
I wondered if having taken that third bottle made the difference here. It could have, but then had I kept better pack position that was a much greater factor.
On the descent I was recaught by the 3's. This was pretty much a disaster, as untangling from them would be difficult. I tried to hang in with them, but after the descent, they essentially crawled up Baby Bear, the short climb to San Pablo Dam Road. There was a ferocious crack in the pavement here, marked in white paint, and I had to steer around it, but I don't think it caused any crashes all day. On San Pablo Dam Road, the 3 pack continues riding a relaxed pace. The lead group of my race was long gone, any hope of chasing back with a second group was lost.
Finally a motor ref instructed the 3's to neutralize so my race could move forward. There were only a few of us who did so. What happened to all those riders I'd passed? We had no chance to stay ahead of the 3's, let alone catch the leaders, but what the heck, may as well ride.
So we traded pulls, catching a few more riders along the way, dropping another, so we ended up with a group of 4 or 5. I was taking 50-60 pedal-stroke pulls, so around 40 seconds. Others were doing similar. One guy was obviously punchy, and was pulling faster than the others. The rest were closer matched to me.
We hit Mama Bear again and I pulled away from my little group. Riders were visible up the road and I hoped some of them were from my pack, so if I could bridge to them, then that would be good. But they were stragglers from the women's race. I caught and passed them on Mama, then began the descent to the feedzone. I'd already drunk two bottles by this point, with one left with a single lap remaining, and contemplated taking a bottle, since I'd have no conflict in doing so.
But then I was caught by the 3-pack. They swarmed around me. I filtered to the back as the climb started, moving to the right, and took a bottle. I drank a bit of this, then tossed it back into the feedzone at the tail end. I didn't want to carry the extra weight up the hill.
I noticed now some of the guys I'd dropped had gotten a free ride with the 3's, and were back here with me. We crested the climb together, but then again I got gapped on the descent. I wasn't that far back, only a few seconds, but when we hit Baby Bear at the bottom they turned on the after-burners and were gone.
This was the second time in the race I'd been burned by a lack of top-end power. And was it a surprise? Hardly. I've not trained it. I've not been doing fast group rides and even if I had, one week of taper + two weeks of recovery from the Devil Mountain Double had deprived me of the chance to continue. This is why volume alone, SF2G and double centuries, for example, are not adequate preparation for road racing. The intensities involved there are just a different level.
Tim Westmore photo
The rest of the race was solo. Halfway through the lap I tossed my chain in the predictable way. I stopped and put it back on: SRAM isn't as good as Shimano for pedaling a dropped chain back on. This probably cost me 15 seconds, but honestly the rest wasn't a terrible thing. My last climb of Mama and Papa were substantially slower than my first two, and I suffered the minor humiliation of being overtaken by the leaders of the cat 4 race the last time up Papa.
I didn't dally at the finish, instead riding straight back to the start area where I was to meet the clean-up coordinator. I began my duty early, picking up discarded gel wrappers and bottles along the way, turning my jersey pockets into a gooey mess.
One thing I noticed at the finish is the vast majority of the riders there seemed to view the day's event as something of a failure. This is in contrast to trail runs, for example, where almost everyone is happy at their success in finishing the race. As much as I love bike racing, this is obviously a cultural problem with the sport. It's something I try to fight against in organizing the Low-Key Hillclimbs.
The clean-up coordinator was Dan Dole, cyclocrosser and mountain biker Krishna Dole's uncle (himself a former winner of the 45+ race). I rode co-shotgun in his pick-up truck and picked up cones, warning signs, and the official's tent at the finish line. This was fun. We had a nice discussion, he advising me that I needed to structure my training better if I want to race well. But I've not been training, really, I've been riding, and I don't apologize for that.
And then I did just that: ride. With my heavy backpack, I rode over Wildcat Canyon Road, down Spruce, and into Berkeley where I got a banana to eat at a small market I like right next to Cheese Board, then took BART back to San Francisco.