Wednesday, May 28, 2014

MDR 2014 day 2: Carmel to San Simeon

Prologue

Day 2 of the 2014 MDR was the highlight. I'd done MDR tour four times before, but three had been the "inland" route through King City. Only once before had I ridden the coastal route, and that year it was cold and damp through Big Sur. This year looked much more promising: some low-hanging clouds, but it looked to burn off if Friday was to be anything like Thursday, and indeed the forecast was for it to be warmer.

Last night had been interesting. After my regular roommate bailed out on me to get his own room, exploiting spots made available by cancelled riders and willing to pay the single-room rate, I ended up with Mike Morgenfeld as a partial roomate. He'd been in a room of 3 and slept in the free bed in my room, keeping his stuff in his original room. Roomates are more interesting: I have a lot of good conversations with them on MDR. The only real issue I fear is sleep incompatibility, as I very rarely sleep over 8.5 hours except when camping, but that's never been too much of an issue.

As we staged in the parking lot, I asked David Hover if he'd done Nacimiento Fergusson Road. The previous time I'd done this route, I'd been suffering, fixated on the wheel ahead, when Wes has suddenly peeled off the paceline, crossed to the left side of Hwy 1, and ridden over a cattle guard onto a minor-looking side road. I later learned he'd climbed Nacimento Fergusson, a climb John Summerson called the best off the Pacific Coast, and on which Jared Gruber did a photo essay in Peloton Magazine. I've wanted to climb it ever since that MDR, and this was my chance. But after yesterday, I was still tired.

David said he hadn't, but I could tell he was interested. Later, he told me that Steve was going to do it with us. I was committed, although I didn't admit so yet.

With the navigation today so trivial, I decided to use it as a test for my Garmin 800 navigation. Surely, riding along the coast with continual line of sight to satellites and not a single turn to be taken in over 90 miles of official route, the Garmin would indicate perpetually smiling approval of my navigational rigor. Heh.

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Opening instructions

First Leg

We rolled out punctually at 8 am, and after a few pedal strokes were on Highway 1, which we'd follow all the way to San Simeon. Sure enough, the views were far better this year. We crossed several scenic bridges until we hit the most scenic and most famous of them all: Bixby. Bixby Bridge is an iconic photo every year of the Tour of California and a major landmark of the annual April Big Sur Marathon.

The group was in a long single file due to the lack of a major shoulder and the relatively heavy car traffic. This provided a good excuse to not be competitive: I'd bridge by obvious gaps, but I wasn't going to swarm the front in an effort to keep up with the tandem or anyone else. Sure enough, a group got away fairly early, and I was riding with David, Lauren, Dan, Jeff, Katherine, and some others: a nice, pleasant pace.

As we rode, I got quick results on my Garmin navigation experiment. I got multiple instructions to turn onto obscure side-roads, including one alley. By the second warning to take a U-turn, I turned to the course page and shut off the navigation. In fairness, some of these side roads are fairly close to the highway, and if this had been a century ride or brevet, there might have been a critical check-point on one of them. So the Garmin navigation algorithm faces a challenging task. But the programmed course included no side alleys and no obscure alternate roads. But they simply need to do better if it's going to be a useful function. For example, have a user-settable matching threshold associated with each course to limit how strict it is about trying to keep you on the official route. U-turn warnings while crusing down Highway 1 are simply failure.

At one point I passed a yellow Mustang convertable, which I suspected to be a rental car, parked on the right side of the road, the driver standing on the opposite side photographing it. Indeed, the view to the right was simply spectacular. I signaled my intent to pull over and take a photo. The others followed my example. This produced my best shot of the trip.

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Photo opp

Eventually we continued. The distance passed quickly to the first rest stop. This is traditionally on the right side of the road, but Sherri Smith, the front-group sag driver, put it on the left by a gas station, based on the route sheet which clearly said left. Tradition or route sheet? Route sheet won.

I felt good at this point, no doubt to a large degree because I'd left the leaders go to avoid shenanegans. We hung out at the rest stop for a long time, as has been the pattern on this year's tour, before heading off for the second leg.

Second Leg

The highlight of the second leg was the 4th category climb from the Tour of California. The race had done a stage very similar to what we were riding, the primary difference being that they finished in Cambria, 4 miles south of San Simeon where we were stopping. The stage had three ranked climbs: a category 4 in our leg 2, then a category 4 followed quickly by a category 3 on the third leg. At this climb, I followed Wes's wheel as he set a steady tempo. Toward the top, he gapped me a bit, and I crossed the KOM line, still marked with yellow stickers, a few seconds after him. Grumblegrumble... He turned around to descend back to rejoin his group. After a pause, though, I decided to continue on, riding at a moderate pace.

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fog at top of first ATOC KOM

After the descent and some rollers, I was rejoined by the group. We rolled together to the second rest stop.

Third Leg

At the second rest stop I noticed Dave Hover wasn't there. When we'd rolled out I'd not seen him and assumed he'd been up the road. But clearly not. I was slightly worried because I knew he was planning to climb Nacimiento Fergusson. The other surprise was that Janine and Mike of the tandem were here, since they'd rolled off with a front group early on. But David arrived not too long after, so we were good. I quickly realized there was more knowledge and interest in the climb than I'd expected. It had gone semi-viral. Dan and Lauren and Jeff and Mike Morganfeld in addition to Steve and David were all in. People were talking about "the optional climb", as if it were indicated on the route sheet as an option. Cool.

Jeff told me he was doing it in part because he'd signed to sag the final leg today. I was a bit worried about this, since obviously the climb would add a huge time increment, and we'd already dallied at both this and the preceding rest stop. Not a problem, he said: Garrett (with whom Jeff went way, way back) was sagging the third leg, and so Garrett knew to wait for him.

The stats I'd remembered for the climb were 10.5 km and 850 vertical meters from having hastily reviewed a Strava segment. That's 8.1%, a considerable average for a climb with a relatively flat section part way up.

The weather wasn't as clear as I'd hoped. Despute the gorgeous blue skies we'd had for part of the first leg, here low-lying clouds blocked the sky. We were clearly going to climb into this, but the the clouds were bright, not dark, so they were thin. Wes, at the rest stop, indicated he thought we'd be through them by 1000 vertical feet.

I tried to drink some at the rest stop before refilling my bottles with a one-scoop solution of Gatorade powder. This was a long distance between rest stops on the nominal route: 30 miles. We were adding, I expected, 13 more, for a total of 43. I had to do that with two bottles, which is all I had. I had three Lara bars, however. So I was good on food.

Eventually we rolled out. 3 miles from the rest stop, suddenly Jeff called out the left turn. I was caught by surprise, as I'd thought it was 2 miles further. But sure enough, there it was: a left into a fairly steep grade containing a cattle guard, the road sign announcing "Nacimiento Fergusson". I had to do a quick U-turn, hitting the right-hand button on my Garmin 800 to initiate a lap, hitting the cattle guard at way less speed than I'd have preferred (but it was an exceptionally smooth cattle guard, fortunately).

We climbed a short distance, then there was a descent, losing some of that altitude we'd just gained. But the climbing began again, steeply, soon after. I glanced down at the unit to check progress. Whoops. That right button I'd hit was "start/stop", not "lap/reset". It wasn't running. So I quickly restarted it, then hit lap. But this error meant I lost the critical beginning of the climb and so I wouldn't match a full-climb Strava segment. After the ride, I spent probably two hours trying to hack the data to get a match, but without luck. Finally I decided to limit my losses. I know I did the climb, and the ride data show I did the climb. I just don't show up on the full-climb segment.

But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Along the side of the road green signs indicated "0.5", "1.0", "1.5", etc. These were clearly mile markers. The finish of the climb should have been 6.5 miles, I calculated, given the 10.5 km distance I'd recalled.

The climb was steep, and was sustaining that. I had visions of the other riders, now behind me, cursing me for recommending this route, turning back, abandoning me to my self-inflicted fate. But I continued to ride.

Wes's prediction proved true, and it wasn't long before I burst through the cloud layer and faced warming sunshine. Not long after the grade leveled out: I was at the flattish section approximately half-way up.

The mileage had continued to uptick at a remarkable pace. At one point I saw a sign and was surprised to see it was already 3.5. Climbing steep roads is normally a painful grind, but this one was such a special experience, that I didn't want it to end. The road surface was chip-seal, so somewhat rough, but with the 32 mm wide Strada Bianca tires at approximately 65 psi, not an issue.

The flattish part passed, and the serious climbing began again. But this portion wasn't as steep as the initial portion. The reduced grades combined with the fantastic views made the effort a pure joy. The views were of a cloud layer rather than spectacular sea cliffs, but it was still very nice.

It was getting hot: I had a long-sleeve undershirt, my Low-Key jersey, shorts, knee warmers, calf sleeves, gloves, a cycling cap, and my helmet. I was drinking a lot. One bottle was empty, and I started on my second. It was clear I'd need to find water before the next stop, but with a campground at the base of the climb, I was confident I'd get some. Failing the campground, I figured there was probably a store along the way. I'd manage.

Mile 6.0 passed, and there was no sign of the climb ending. Then remarkably I hit 6.5. Still climbing... whoops; this was the distance at which I'd been telling people we'd hit the top. I began to suspect the Strava segment I'd seen had started after the initial climb-descent, rather than at Highway 1.

Mile 7.0 and I knew I was in the end-game. Before 7.5 hit, I was there: a 4-way intersection, the road itself, which continued to King City, and an intersecting dirt road, which the roadsign indicated to be of considerable length. Some campers had set up a tent. It wasn't clear to me if it was an official campsite. I searched it for water spigots, but saw none.

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I finally climbed Nacimiento Fergusson!

A small truck drove by, the driver, in a cheery voice, shouting "do you know the way to Nacimeniento Station?" I had no idea, but told him if it had been on the climb I'd just done I'd likely have noticed it. He thanked me and headed down the eastern slope.

The flies hovered around me, as Wes had warned me they would. But they weren't that bad. No biting, not even any sweat-licking, They were at worst a minor annoyance. Overall, I was actually enjoying the heat, after two days of knee warmers and full-sleeve undershirts.

Not soon after, though, the driver was back. He waved hello and rumbled, 4-wheel-drive fashion, down the northern direction of the dirt road. I wondered what had changed his mind.

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Lauren reaches the summit on her very cool Guru Photon

My fellow riders started to arrive, then, to my surprise, since I'd concluded surely they'd have turned back, blaming me for exposing them to this steep, long climb on what was already a challenging riding day. But rather anger, they greeted me universally with gratitude for challenging them to such a spectacular road. I was pleased.

We gathered for a group shot but there was the issue of who was going to take the shot. Just at that moment the truck reappeared, the driver as cheery as ever. Someone asked him if he'd take our photo. "Sure!" he responded, and began to get out of his truck. "Do you have any water?" someone else boldly asked. I wasn't the only one who had depleted his supply. The driver produced, to our astonishment, a 1 gallon jug which he declared to be excess. We each refilled our bottles. This elicited enormous gratitude from our crew. I offered him one or more of my Lara bars, but he refused. Jeff took advantage of the opportunity, however, and took my cashew bar.

Photo shoot over and bottles refilled, we headed down the descent. Not long after we started we saw Mike Morgenfeld climbing, almost to the top. We cheered him on and continued descending.

I followed Dave Hover, the others falling behind for various reasons. The descent was fine, but we were cautious due to the blind corners. I was a bit concerned about the handling on my bike, but without sharp cross-winds, it was good. I appreciated the relatively wide 32 mm rubber, providing a bit less concern about gravel and rocks. Finally we passed through the cloud layer and faced a spectacular view of the coastline. Dave stopped for the photo op, and I joined him.

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Another photo opp

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Looking down at Highway 1, most of the way down Nacimiento Fergusson

We waited he for the others, then waited some more to admire the view. Jeff clearly wasn't in a big hurry to get stop, so I wasn't going to worry about it. Finally David said we should be going, and I took the lead the rest of the way.

Back on 1, we continues south. Within a few miles we came to the next down, which had a store. I had gotten a gap on a climb to this point, and waited to see if the others wanted to stop. They did. The store became a virtual rest stop, which most of the crew buying food here. David bought a gallon jug of water which we shared. We were there for quite awhile.

At one point I asked Jeff if Garrett was going to kill him when we got to the rest stop.

The climbing was far from over. Along the way were the two ranked climbs from the Tour of California. The first, a cat 4, I rode with Jeff, with Dan not far behind. But on the descent things went bad for me: the gusting crosswinds off the coast made for very dicey handling on my front end, and I had to slow well below Jeff's speed. Jeff rides a Cervelo S5 with carbon rims, and excellent bike both in its aerodynamics and its handling, and while I could follow his draft without too much problem in good circumstances, after slowing for front-end instabilities he was long gone.

This is a big issue, because it's very disconcerting to suddenly feel front-end stability disappear with a wind gust when descending at speed. It would inhibit me the rest of the tour any time there was a descent with a significant wind. And while this obviously wasn't a race, obviously one likes to reap the awards of hard work going up.

The category 3 climb comes immediately after the descent. It's steeper but shorter. I put in a maximal effort to catch Jeff, but while I reduced to gap, I couldn't close it. Jeff took the points.

The third rest stop wasn't too far past here. To my surprise, I saw Gregg Ferry's group rolling out as we rolled in. It turned out we didn't cause the volunteer to wait so long after all.

Fourth Leg

Garrett had left, leaving the leg 4 driver to wait and watch both food vans, which were each here. This was was good, because the lead vehicle had delicious potatoes (not oily at all, my usual issue with potatoes). I'd not felt like eating these at stops 1 and 2, but at this point, with almond butter, they were excellent. So Jeff took over the lead vehicle here while the rest of us set off for the final leg of the day.

This fourth leg was substantially different from the first three, with the rugged coast gone, replaced with a flat tailwind-assisted run. It was easy to see how the break stayed away in the Tour of California stage: our little group, led by Mike "it was the Coke" Morgenfeld, maintained a considerable pace on the run into San Simeon. At one point we passed a beach packed with elephant seals. I pointed this out to the others, remembering the last time I'd done this route that I'd completely missed both the sight and the smell of them with my target fixation on the wheel ahead, to the amusement of Cara. I took a longish pull toward the end of the run, giving a maximum effort for the town line, but getting dusted by Mike, who like me is on Team Roaring Mouse. I could always claim I was giving him a lead-out. That's it: I was being the loyal team-mate.

And so we were done. This approach to San Simeon was in striking contrast to the 4-mile headwind-slog from Cambria to the south, the path followed by the inland route. It was also a strong contrast to my last time here, a paceline-death-march. The MDR has grown kindler and gentler since those days.

The Silver Surf Inn is a favorite, one of the two hotels which feature in both routes. I was disappointed to see they'd switched from their classic metal keys to electronic keys. Progress, I suppose. But the hot tub was the same as ever.

We ate dinner at the usual Mexican place across the street. I ordered my usual two tacos but the waitress over-ruled my order to a veggie tostada, which turned out to be a good choice but it was so large it provided not only dinner but most of my next morning's breakfast. They distributed pitchers of beer, refilled our salsa, served huge servings of food only the obese or the long-distance cyclist could come close to finishing, but wouldn't give us a water pitcher due to the drought. Water shortage, but clearly no beer shortage, no salsa shortage, no rice & beans shortage. Hard times. After dinner some of the others went out for ice cream as well. I went to bed.

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