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A California Triple Crown on Fixed Gear
by Luis Bernhardt

I started racing bicycles over 40 years ago in Northern California, and I remember being quite impressed with the California state champion’s jersey. It was patterned after the state flag, with the grizzly bear on it, and I’d always wanted to win one, except I moved to BC and was no longer eligible. Fast forward to some recent rides, and I’m seeing the same pattern used for the California Triple Crown winners. This is basically the same design, with the bear and the star, but it’s way easier to earn one of these: you only need to ride 600 miles.

Every year, various organizers in California put on around 20 double centuries spread throughout the state. Some, like Solvang in the spring, are reasonably gentle, while others, such as the Devil Mountain Double or the Alta Alpina 8 Pass Challenge, are totally insane, with 18- to 20,000 feet of climbing. They are all 200 miles or longer, some are timed, and all require you to finish in one day. Finish any three and you become a California Triple Crown winner and are allowed to purchase and wear the bear flag jersey.

Simple enough, so I drove down last May to Davis, CA to ride the first of my doubles. Just to make it a real challenge, I decided to do all three rides on the fixed gear, even though they don’t keep track of small things like that.

The Davis Bicycle Club is one of the biggest and most active in the state. They put on daily and weekly rides throughout the year, a number of brevets, and some major rides including the Gold Rush 1200 and the Davis Double Century.

200 miles is a good distance for an all-day ride. My rule of thumb is a 25 kmh average speed (which includes all the stops), adding an hour for every 1000 meters of climbing on the fixed gear. This would put a 320-km ride at 13 hours, plus the 8,400 feet of climbing would add close to three hours, so 16 hours would be a rough measure of prospective elapsed time. This would mean that the first and last hours of the ride would require lights.

We left at around 5h30 from Davis, in California’s Central Valley, and rolled across the broad expanse of flat farm fields as the sun rose. Large packs formed, bumping up the average speed slightly until we reached the first of the many food stops after about 40 km. From here, things broke up as we reached the Coast Range. The route winds thru the hills east of the Napa Valley, with no major climbs until we reach Cobb Mountain. Not only does this hill get steep, but it gets quite warm and the road climbs forever. Even when we reach the food stop near the top, there are still about three km of climbing before the road finally summits. My legs started to cramp up just before the food stop, and it didn’t get much better even after slowing down. I was even cramping up on the descents as I kept the fixed gear cranks spinning. I had to take one foot out and pedal downhill with the other just to try to stretch out the cramps. I managed to reach the lunch stop just past the halfway point where I could rest, eat, and cool off a bit, and things improved for the second half of the ride The rule of thumb worked pretty well, as I finished in about 15 hours, even with the cramping. The sun was just starting to set after 8 pm, so I didn’t need to turn on the light.

The next day, after driving into the Sierra foothills at Lotus, CA, I made the mistake of riding the Motherlode Century. I was going to do the 100-mile ride as a convenient training ride after the first double, but I had to cut it down to the metric century as it was far hillier than I had anticipated. I couldn’t believe some of the climbs! I had to walk up a narrow grade just after crossing a narrow bridge at the bottom of a wild ravine, and it had to be about a 20% grade, but it was certainly scenic. My ride partner decided to hitch a ride in the sag back to the start, but I managed to finish.

After spending the week in Reno, NV, with an easy ride around Lake Tahoe as part of the recovery, I drove down Highway 395 and deep into Southern California. The Borrego Springs Double sounded like a real adventure, and scheduled for the week after Davis, it made for a convenient second double. The journey starts on the floor of the Anza-Borrego desert near the Salton Sea, climbs 1,300 meters over the mountains, descends to the coast, reaching the beach at Oceanside, then returns. The notable thing about the return trip is that it pretty much follows the roads used by the Race Across America between Oceanside and Borrego Springs, at least this year, when the double century was rerouted down the “Glass Elevator” into Borrego Springs rather than down the traditional Banner Grade due to forest fires.

The ride started at first light, around 5:15 am, so we wouldn’t need to have the lights on, and after leaving town, we immediately began the 20-km climb of the Glass Elevator. The road twists and turns at a reasonably gentle grade up the side of the escarpment, and every now and then you get a nice view of the desert floor as it drops further and further below. The climb, though, was less of an issue than the heavy winds that had been gusting for the past several days, ever since Reno. You’d round a corner and be brought to a complete stop by the stiff wind and the grade. I heard that one rider got knocked over by the wind. The sun rose as we were about halfway up the ascent, but the warmth of the desert turned into cool, then cold winds as we approached the clouds at the summit.

In addition to the wind, there was rain. The roads became wet at the summit, and the high winds were replaced by a light, cold drizzle. I fortunately had my PBP vest, knitted arm warmers, and lightweight leg warmers on, and they were just enough to keep me comfortable until we descended back into some warmth and dry roads. I also heard that at least one rider had to quit because he hadn’t prepared with warm clothes.

We followed the mountain roads as they rolled and twisted down to the coast, reaching the ocean at Cardiff, where we turned and followed the beaches to our lunch stop at Oceanside, at the very spot where RAAM would start a month later. I stopped for too long, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the ocean breezes, so I felt better when I was back on the road, at first a bike path that ran for over 10 km, then onto reasonably quiet roads that took us out of the metropolitan areas. I followed a couple of local riders, but they made a wrong turn (the cue sheet was kind of sketchy at this point) and I naturally followed them, even after we rode thru some gravel sections. We finally turned around, but we must have added at least 10 km to the route.

The way back is mostly uphill, with the longest, steepest climb up the section of road leading towards the Palomar Observatory. The climb was so hot that I finally took off the arm and leg warmers here, but the cold temperatures returned as I reached the top, back along the ridge where we had been in the morning. I put the warm clothes back on at the final food stop, where they had some welcome hot food, then started the final leg as darkness started to descend.

It was pitch black by the time I reached the top of the Glass Elevator. Because I could see nothing over the edge, just the tunnel of light reflected by the dry road ahead, the descent was no different than riding any other winding descent, other than the strong, gusty winds returning, so there was no apprehension about pushing the turns a little. The increasing warmth that came with the elevation loss also helped spur me on, and it wasn’t long before I reached the town of Borrego Springs and a burrito feast to finish the second ride.

I had to fly down to Sacramento for the third ride, as I didn’t have the time to drive down. I chose Knoxville because it uses some of the same roads used by Davis, starting in Vacaville rather than in Davis, and going the other way up and down Cobb Mountain. The official California Triple Crown breakfast was also scheduled for the following day, so it might be interesting to meet some of the riders and organizers in person.

I left the car in Bellingham, at a private lot near the airport. They charge $7 per day, compared with $9 at the airport, and for an additional $10 they hand-wash your car, probably a good idea after sitting outside all weekend. They also provide a free shuttle to and from the airport. I flew Alaska Airlines to Sacramento, with a transfer in Seattle. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the bike arrived safely in Sacramento (Alaska does baggage pretty well), where I rented a car and drove to my motel in Vacaville. After reassembling the bike, I rode to registration at the start, then rode back a different way, finding a convenient bike path thru Pena Adobe Park that would reduce the distance I’d have to ride to get to the start the next morning.

As usual, I didn’t have breakfast, anticipating enough to eat at the food stops, and I started the ride with an empty bottle. This had worked quite well at Borrego Springs, as the first 20 km to the first food stop is up the Glass Elevator, the temperature was quite cool once on the climb so I wouldn’t need to drink anything, so I managed to save over a pound on the climb. For Knoxville, the first food stop came quite a bit later, but there were still a few climbs to get over. However, I think it’s a good idea to start with a decent breakfast, as about 150 km into the ride, I suddenly started to go anaerobic with any modest effort.

I have gotten to the point where I can no longer bonk, even if I try. I think that after a while, your body becomes so efficient at cycling that you expend very little energy just rolling easily. I’ve gone on three- to four-hour training rides in the winter without a bottle, just eating the odd Clif-Block or gel packet. But I think that Knoxville was so hilly that I needed to eat a bit more, and this loss of energy was basically bonking without the bad feeling of hunger that accompanies it. I made it to the lunch stop, and after downing a burrito – quite a common food item on these California rides - some fruit, and a couple of cans of Coke, I felt fine.

And then I hit the backside of Cobb Mountain. This is a road called Loch Lomond, and it gets very steep. When I was at 5 kmh, almost at a standstill pushing the cranks in 44x17, I finally got off and walked up. I can walk at 5 kmh, plus the shade was on the left side of the road, so I was able to cool off a bit as well. Anytime the climb eased off, I would get back on the bike until I was back down to 5 kmh, then I would get off again. I didn’t feel bad about walking, because one of the advantages of a fixed gear is that you have an excuse for walking. There were lots of guys walking their geared bikes, but I don’t think there’s any excuse for that. You should be able to ride a geared bike up just about anything; the gears are doing all the work after all.

At the top of the climb, there is a short technical section where I was able to keep up with geared riders freewheeling down on the tight turns, but once the road straightened, I was pretty well spun-out and watching the geared riders recede into the distance.

There was a full moon that morning and it reappeared in the evening on the finishing leg, as darkness descended, I could see the immense moon presiding over the mountains as I headed east. There is a demoralizing series of rolling hills leading to the final food stop, and after that it’s an easy 12 miles (with just one easy climb) back to the finish. It got completely dark by this time, but I followed the wheel of a rider with a very strong headlight. If I took the front, I could see my shadow ahead of me, so I just rode behind him to make the most of the extra illumination. The final section of this 12-mile road, just west of Vacaville, is long and straight, so you can see the taillights of cars a mile up the road. When we could see the taillights turning, we knew we were close.

I finished in the dark, probably another 15-hour ride, but they don’t take times at Knoxville; they just record whether or not you finished. They served a pasta and chicken dinner at the finish, and I rode back to the motel.

The next morning I rode to the breakfast, where they managed to run out of food, but after I had eaten. About 20 of us had completed our first California Triple Crowns this year, so we were recognized, as were those who had ridden 50 CTC doubles and were thereby inducted into the Hall of Fame. Each HOF rider had provided a long bio, and the Triple Crown organizer, Chuck, took a lot of time reading each one, so I left somewhere in the middle to ride back to the motel, pack the bike, and catch the flight back to Bellingham.


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November 18, 2012