Day 4: the final stage of the Tour. And I was worried.
This was the longest day, with each leg delivering its own dose of pain. Leg 1: Strawberry Fields, a short but intense climb leading to a long run to the rest stop. Attacking here is a must, but then it's almost hopeless to hold a gap the rest of the way. Leg 2: Harris Grade. This is the most challenging climb on the whole official route. It winds up a hill, with multiple right-hand-turns presenting themselves as strong candidates for the summit, until eventually you hit the actual peak and it's a technical descent to the rest stop in Lompac. Then next is Gaviota Pass, a long, painful, windy grind ending in a final steeper pitch to the summit and a screaming-fast descent to US101 and the final rest stop. Then finally the long run to Galena along the Hwy 101 shoulder. From the exit it's still a considerable distance to the finish, but along scenic Cathedral Oaks and Foothill Ave, a purely enjoyable finish to the long day.
So I was scared.
At the start, as we were gathered in the parking lot of the Rose Garden Inn in San Luis Obispo, I mentioned to Dave Hover that I viewed the day as 3 big doses of pain. "Is that a prediction or a plan?" he responded. I admitted it was a plan. "Dan says he's going to win the KOM on Strawberry, Harris Grade, and Gaviota!" Dave shouted. It was funny, but really I hoped he was right.
I rode near the back of the group until the strawberry fields appeared on the right and left, then I moved up towards the front. Katherine shouted "Dan's moving up!" So much for stealth.
Then the tandem attacked. It was a bold acceleration, opening an impressive gap well before the right turn onto the climb. I thought this was useful: if the tandem had a gap going into the climb, fewer riders would be on its wheel by the top of the climb, and that was fewer riders dragged back to me when, as was inevitable, I was caught before the "sprint".
I didn't react immediately. Instead I waited for the turn and the climb. Immediately after the corner I moved up past the few riders ahead of me then accelerated hard. I quickly caught and passed the tandem, but at that point, I realized I'd overdone it for my present fitness and freshness. I started to fade. Fortunately nobody was with me, but I was breathing hard, struggling to keep my speed, as I crested the top with Eddie with his video camera capturing the view of me riding with snool dripping from my chin.
I crossed the summit and began the first, brief descent. It used to be the key on the descent was to not have any cross-traffic at the intersection at the bottom. Now it's to get a green light at the traffic signal which replaced the stop sign. Last year I got stopped. This year I got the green. I needed all the help I could, and I appreciated the good luck.
It's rollers from here. I felt a bike approaching from behind: this was the tandem, obviously. But it wasn't; it was Jeff. Cool. We traded pulls, I reminding myself when I slot onto a wheel I want to be in a lower gear to accelerate, not a higher one. Jeff was looking back frequently, but I didn't care about what was happening behind. This was all about sustaining the pain.
Jeff finally said the tandem was approaching. There was nothing much to do other than to keep going. The tandem is expert in "the catch": they pass with a huge speed differential, making it extremely difficult to get into their draft. And that's what they did here. We descended past another video cameraperson (I didn't catch who this was) and almost immediately after the tandem conclusively passed on our left.
But never give up, I told myself. Jeff kept at it as well. We briefly stabilized the gap, maybe even closed it a bit, but it was too little. Eventually, mercifully, we reached the sign marking the sprint. Jeff and I didn't contest it between us. The rest stop was soon after. We arrived seconds before the food van. Leg 1 was done.
It turned out Jeff had made the green light, but the others had all gotten red. Only the tandem was fast enough to cover the gap. We had a good time at the rest stop recounting the fun and so this stop was even longer than the typically long stops of the 2014 MDR. But it was all good, as we were enjoying each other's company.
After a long break finally a large group of us set off. I'd seen Pucci leave but I wasn't sure who'd gone with him. Our group were almost immediately split by one of the many red lights on the way out of Lompac. I was in the trailing group, and expressed frustration that we'd sat around for so long waiting for a large group to depart together, then we were going to be split up by stupid bad luck at a traffic light. But the front group missed a light 4 or 5 blocks later and we were back togther.
Since the tandem wasn't with us to take command of the front position, we had a nice, steady paceline with long, smooth pulls along the highway shoulder to the base of Harris Grade. First you resist the temptation to exit at Vandenberg, then the grassy hills appear on the right, then you take the right turn onto the very rural-looking Harris Grade. I was near the front.
First, there's a straight flat portion before the road does a right-angle right turn and begins to gently climb before turning left, disappearing from view. As we turned onto the flat portion I could see up ahead on that first climbing bit maybe 5 riders clumped together. That must have been Mike Pucci's group, I decided. I was a bit surprised it was that big. I wondered if I could catch them.
We crossed colored chalk marks on the road: "MDR 2014!" Janine had announced that she'd purchased colored chalk for road marking, but this is the first I'd seen it used. It's goofy, but it really does boost spirits.
When we took the right to start the climbing, I accelerated, getting a gap. Up that first climb, then a left, then a bit of a descent before beginning the climb proper.
I rode steadily, charting my progress by the group ahead, which was coming into clearer view. Finally I caught them, but as I did, so did one of the food vans, a motorcycle, and several other cars. It was a mess. I tried to be patient, waiting for the congestion to break up. Finally it did and I was on my way again.
Past the main group there were a few other riders from that group further up the hill. Finally I hit the "end game" of the climb, a series of right hand turns which appear to be the top, but then when you clear them, you see the road snaking further into the distance to the next right turn. There's around four of these.
Mike Pucci was ahead. I tried to focus on closing the gap to him, but it would be hard. Usually on this climb I'm hoping for top, but this time, the more road I had, the more chance I had to catch him. As I chased, Wes came descending the other way. He'd obviously reached the top and was returning to join one or more other riders. "200 meters!" he shouted. More chalk marks on the road here: "MDR" and other messages. Oof! I wasn't going to catch Mike.
A few riders were gathered at the summit. What was this, Team In Training? Hardly -- the game was on: the race was to the rest stop. Mike had slowed for the group, but I powered past, going straight into the descent. As I did so I could hear extremely heavy breathing well behind me. It was Peter Tapscott, who's asthma resulted in him making a disturbing sound, but which didn't seem to slow him down much.
My bike was fine on the descent, but Harris Grade has had an issue with gravel in corners, so I was cautous. Michael caught me, not surprisingly, and I followed his wheel the rest of the way. But we hadn't gotten far when we were joined by another rider. It was Peter! I was impressed. He'd closed a considerable gap in a relatively short descent. Peter's a superb descender, as I've long known, and he obviously had more confidence in his ability to react to uncertain road conditions than I did. But Peter's safety record descending is excellent. No excuses here.
Now it was three of us. Peter was the clear favorite for a sprint. But instead of a leg-ripping paceline to hold off a chase, Peter was actually chatty. He was talking about the climb, talking about late apexing corners, talking about all sorts of stuff. Meanwhile I was grimly focused on the serious competition in which we were engaged. Of course, if there was a sprint, Peter was going to take it, no matter who joined us excepting perhaps the tandem.
Like Strawberry Fields, the run-in to the rest stop after this descent was longer than I remembered. Yet there's no obvious sprint point: just a series of traffic lights in Lompoc. We rolled into the rest stop together.
Later, when I checked Strava, my Harris Grade time was a full minute slower than last year, when I'd been trying to hold off Paul and Kerry. They weren't here this year. A part of that time was the much heavier bike this year (heavy fork, rack, handlebar bag, tires, and the frame was likely heavier as well, although I didn't weight the stripped frame). Part was that traffic in which I'd been caught. But a part was fitness: Strawberry Fields took more out of me this year. Last year I'd gone into MDR with the Devil Mountain Double behind me. This year my longest ride had been an SF2G in the low-50's.
Leg 3 is probably the most painful of all. It's dominated by a long, slow grind to Gaviota Pass, then a raging descent to where Highway 1 finally terminates into US101. This, for me, is the last really competitive leg, the fourth including a long slog along the US101 shoulder, which for me is literally an excercise in survival rather than any concern about speed.
At the stop, I noted to Peter I'd eaten less the preceding 24 hours than I'd expected. I even had problems swallowing any food at the rest stops. He concurred, noting he'd ordered "his usual" breakfast but could eat only half of it. Maybe it was the heat: today certainly wasn't hot, but was warmer than the cool weather we'd had so far.
We rolled out in a big group. Sooner than I expected we reached the right turn onto what Google Maps calls Julien Road. From here, it was a long slog on the chipseal shoulder all the way to the pass. Very gentle uphills, a few gentle descents, until the last uphill grind. And the wind: there was a substantial cross-wind which turns this section into long, protracted suffering.
Soon after the turn a group of four or five had established a gap. I'm not sure how, I'm not sure why. It just appeared.
The route to Gaviota pass was a long, long effort, and I was tired. Burning a match to bridge a gap which was going to close anyway would have been a big mistake. So I looked around: there was the tandem to the left, Wes on the right. No problem: one or both of these riders would shut this down.
I noted this to Kathleen, who was riding next to me. "The tandem's here, Wes is here; no problem!"
"The tandem won't be here long," she replied.
Kathleen was right. The next time I looked up the tandem had bridged, and was powering the lead group away. Damn. And where was Wes? I felt like I was trapped in a dream, where people and bikes teleported hither and thither without warning, or in the case of Wes, simply self-annihilated.
Ben was there, taking pulls, as was Dan and I. But it was clear we weren't making progress. Dan went to the front and ramped up the effort. This popped Ben, leaving only me on Dan's wheel. Then Dave Hover bridged up.
The three of us rode well, taking steady, even pulls. We finally passed Michael Rowe, punctured on the right side of the road. There were a bunch of punctures on this stretch. I later learned Wes had indeed not self-annihilated, but rather had been one of the flat victims, right near the beginning. This is why we'd not seen him.
Then Hover flatted. I slowed to help. "Go on!" he shouted. I hesitated, but then continued. If he was missing anything he could always get help from the following group.
Finally we reached the last, steeper climb to the pass. I put in a hard effort here, dropping Dan. Over the top, the descent to Gaviota....
The cross-winds here were substantial. There's basically no curves: it's more or less straight down, so I hoped I'd be okay. Last year I remember Wes shimmying in the wind, while I was okay on my Ritchey Breakaway. I was very much not okay today. I suddenly lost control of the bike, drifting from the right side to the left of the shoulder. A large truck descended the road just ahead. Getting thrown into the path of overtaking traffic didn't seem like a solid plan.
So I slowed: a lot. I came almost to a stop, then slowly increased my speed. This was the third time on the tour I'd had to slow subtantially down to control my bike, after Laureles Grade on day 1 and the first KOM descent on day 2. After the tour, I realized my headset had gone slightly loose. The stem is clamped by a single bolt, and it wasn't tight enough, causing the front end to develop excess play. I don't know why I didn't realize this earlier. I have an amazing ability to not notice things. Was this the cause of my instabilities? I've not tested that yet.
Dan repassed me on the descent, but then slowed when he was uncertain of the way. The end of Highway 1 is counterintuitive, because to go south, you turn to the north. The road eventually loops around so you're pointing south again.
The old rest stop which we've all grown to love in a way due to what it signifies was gone: blocked off for construction to some untrusted purpose. Instead we had a dirt pull-out. A bunch of riders were there already, including a beaming Peter Tapscott, who'd won the KOM to the pass. I tried to share his joy, to admire the impressive views of the nearby hills, but honestly I was bitter, so very bitter, that I'd missed the opportunity to bridge that gap at the base of the climb.
Last time I'd missed a group roll-out from this stop, but this year we were in a nice group. I was mostly at or near the back, leaving a bit of a safety gap, since there were tire shreds and other debris littering the shoulder. To spice things up further there were for most of the distance rumble strips around 2 feet inside the fog line. The strips would come and go, disappearing near entrances, exits, and intersections. These gaps would typically induce people to use that part of the shoulder to avoid debris, until the strips would reappear, then riders would get caught in them. At one point a water bottle was lost, but I dodged it. I was getting good practice at dodging things, with all the tire shards, hub caps, random pieces of metal, and the odd tree branch.
Peter was pulling the whole way, which was quite nice. I thought back to my first MDR, when this was a paceline-from-hell death march, reaching the Goleta exit sprint completely spent. Not this year. It was a nice steady cruise over very un-nice roadway.
The exit finally, mercifully arrived, and we all tool the left for Cathedral Oaks. This used to be considered an "optional" route, but has been converted to the mainstream route when I helped convinced Janine of it's vast superiority. Yes, it's hillier, but it's so very much nicer than riding down the main road, which becomes State Street in Santa Barbara.
Cherries! (in the truck)
So we all went that way. I expressed how much I looked forward to buying cherries at the cherry vendor near San Marcos Road. It was the primary motivation for having bought this bike and handlebar bag, I said. Sure enough, when we arrived at the stand, I indicated my intent to go, and turned from the group. "Shouldn't we all buy cherries?" Peter asked. But the others were too close to the goal; they didn't want to stop. Several of them were after beer & pizza at a traditional stop near the Lemon Tree hotel, our ultimate destination. Peter described the pizza stop as a good place to wait for rooms to become ready. I think Peter was remembering a faster past for the ride. There wouldn't be much of a wait for rooms this year.
Wheelchair athlete on Cathedral Oaks/Foothill
So I was alone from here. It was still a considerable distance, over 10 miles. But I munched the occasional cherry, and it was nice. I made a few efforts on some of the gradual, short climbs. I passed an impressive wheel-chair athlete. It was all good.
The long-standing error in the route sheet, recommending Roque instead of Alamar, had been fixed. I arrived at the hotel. The tour was done.
The rest of the day was nice. Protein drink, snack, shower, hot tub, post-tour festivities in said hot-tub, ceremonial bike loading into the U-haul, awards dinner with my giant "vegetarian option" lasagna. I skipped the ice cream social afterwards (the lasagna had been plenty) as well as the crowd who went dancing in Santa Barbara and instead got a good night's sleep.
Mission Santa Barbara chalk art
The next morning I went to the Coffee Bean, and nearby coffee place I really like, and got an Odwalla. I also had some food left over from my SLO Trader Joe's run. I then walked over to Mission Santa Barbara for the annual display of chalk art, a wonderful event which Bob Stenz had introduced me to years before (Bob couldn't make the tour this year). Then it was time to load into the vans for the long drive home.
The highlight of that drive is the King City stop, where I got fresh tortillas (truly amazing) and some tacos in the nearby stand. The tacos are great because of the tortillas, baked the same day just down the street. The low point was clearly the one hour delay from a crash on Highway 101 just south of Gilroy. It's always a traffic choke-point, and the addition of the collision made it that much worse.
On the Baby Bullet
But I was in good company, so the 6 hour drive seemed a lot faster than that. We eventually got back to Dave and Michelle's. There I helped unload the bikes from the U-Haul which arrived around 20 minutes after us (I accidentally got a drivetrain on my pants... yuck). Then I fetched my rear rack and panniers, installed them on my bike, transferred my duffle bag and contents to the panniers and front bag, then rode back to San Jose where I arrived with 3 minutes to spare for the "weekend" Baby Bullet train. It was an exhausting day: more tiring than any of the four riding days But I was home.