My first century ride — the Tour d’Organics last Sunday — was my favorite kind of day: up and down hills, on two wheels, with good friends. Granted, I had nothing to compare it to; I’d never done an organized non-race before. But I had a blast — and frankly, a much better time than I expected from a day when I’d be spending seven-plus hours on a bicycle.
The race started and ended in Sebastopol, one of my favorite West County towns. When Pete and I were first together, he lived in Santa Rosa, and I spent almost every weekend of that year somewhere in West County — wine tasting on Dry Creek Road, hiking at Annadel, eating cookies and ice cream in Sebastopol, lazing in the Russian River at Memorial Beach (open for wading only this summer, sigh). I’ve waxed emotional about my love for West County in this space before, and I was excited to bike these roads with Pete for the first time.
At the community center, where we arrived at 6:30 to pick up our bibs and maps, there were bagels and a whole spray of blue-and-silver balloons that I thought might have been left over from some recent teen dance. A handful of volunteers checked people in; the race director offered some course beta and asked us to remember that the legendarily poor Sonoma County road paving wasn’t his fault. (Foreshadowing!) The Taylor Maid people were making free pour-over coffee in the parking lot. West County at its finest.
Sufficiently fed and caffeinated, a group of about six of us rolled out together, ignoring the arrow that pointed the wrong direction — not the most auspicious start! — and heading south out of Sebastopol.
Start-mile 30 — Three Ox Farm stop
Our longest uninterrupted stretch of riding came at the start of the day. It was cool and gray, and our little group chatted and reminded each other that chatting speed was the right speed; this wasn’t a race; we had a long way to go.
The climbing started with short, spiky hills. Someone described this to me as “rolling” but I’d call it more “grinding” — little bursts of needing to be in my lowest gear, alternating with quick downhills. The roads were … non-awesome, and I would become glad later that I’d gotten them out of the way so early; I think I’d rather have terrible stretches at the start and end of a long ride than have moderately bad roads the whole day.
This stretch had the best animals: there were actual frolicking lambs, and piles of sleeping cows, and a farm kitten, and llamas and ducks and chickens and goats. I called out each one as I passed — LLAMA! DUCK! Alpaca? ALPACA! — because the second you put me around livestock, I become a 4-year-old. (I found out at the rest stop that there had been a group of lambs playing on a log, and I didn’t see them, and if I had, I’d still be standing there right now taking pictures.) I’m pretty sure it was in this segment that my friend and I literally got heckled by a herd of cattle.
I was riding alone for the last 10 or so miles, firmly in between two sets of friends, and to entertain myself, I made bets about how much I thought we’d already climbed. I settled on a number that would make me very happy (2400′) and a number that would make me very sad (1200′), and when I finally pulled up to Three Ox and leaned my bike against the fence, I let myself look: 1800′. Not so bad.
Three Ox was a lovely little farm and would turn out to be my favorite stop of the day. Within a minute of my arrival, someone handed me me a dixie cup full of kale smoothie; someone else pointed me toward a tray piled with Asian pears and Gravenstein apples. I ate fennel salad and roasted potatoes and brie on Ritz crackers at 9 a.m. We probably lingered too long, but it was a really good stop.
Miles 30-40 — Gabriel Farm stop
The shortest segment of the day was my least favorite. I never got into a consistent pedaling rhythm, and I never felt like I was choosing the right gear for the grade and the conditions. I was either coasting around big potholes or losing all my momentum chugging up yet another short but steep hill. There was one climb right after Three Ox where I was truly not sure I was going to be able to keep moving (apparently that’s what an 11% grade feels like).
I was grouchy when I pulled into Gabriel Farm, where it was suddenly very crowded: riders from all four ride distances were together for the first time. Some friends who pulled in shortly after said a course marshall had been giving them a hard time about being close to the cutoff, and I started getting nervous. I got out of there pretty quickly, but not before drinking some Asian pear/apple cider and eating some homemade jam on more Ritz-with-brie.
Miles 40-53 — Middleton Farms stop
Surprise! Offroading! Somewhere in this segment, we turned onto an unpaved portion of county bike trail. It was well-maintained but still gravel and sand and dirt, and it was a little shocking to suddenly be navigating it.
That mile was probably the worst of the day — but the bit of riding that followed was lovely, as I caught up to a friend we started really trucking as soon as the trail turned back into (reasonably paved) road. I don’t remember much about the scenery here, because I was so busy talking.
At exactly the moment my Garmin beeped for mile 50, the sun came out. We always used to say there were two kinds of days in West County: gray in the morning and 80 and sunny by noon, and 80 and sunny in the morning and 100 by noon. We were lucky that this was the first kind!
At Middleton Farms, they had great peaches, and — even better — a big container of watermelon and a big shaker of salt. I might have stayed there even longer had the next stop not been lunch.
Miles 53-63 — Dry Creek Peach stop
The ride to lunch was so much fun. It started out following the Vineman course, but then we turned and ended up riding one of my favorite winery-studded roads for several miles. We went past the place that makes my favorite mustard (I thought seriously about stopping for a jar) and a few of the first wineries I ever visited when I started living in California.
I’d been looking forward to lunch at Dry Creek Peach — the farm where Alice Waters gets the peaches that she’s famously served for dessert — but it was kind of a bummer. There were soggy wrap sandwiches that I was (incorrectly, thank goodness) told were almost gone, and there was a big, empty pan with chocolate crumbs in it that I assume was more delicious when the 70-milers and faster 100-mile riders went by. I was annoyed at what seemed like an overall lack of food considering how many people could potentially still be coming; the stop was open for another 1.5 hours! I realize that slower participants in all sorts of distance events have had this kind of experience at one point or another, but it was not great.
Miles 63-79 — Alexander Valley School stop
This section included the climb up Canyon and the descent into Geyserville, one of my favorite parts of the Vineman course. It’s honestly a weird part of the course to call my favorite, but I had plenty of alone time to think about why I loved it, so here’s my reasoning: The climb up Canyon is gradual and pretty quick for me, and the descent is smooth and perfect, with vineyards on both sides and beautiful rolling hills straight ahead. Often in cycling, I think the descents aren’t enough of a payoff. Canyon is the rare case where you get a better descent than you deserve.
I got a little competitive with myself here, realizing that I would be able to check my times against my Vineman Strava file. I caught up to Pete at the rest stop, and as it was our one non-farm stop of the day, we didn’t stay too long. I grabbed a handful of chips to stuff in my bento box, and we were off to conquer our last big climb of the day.
Miles 79-91 — Golden Nectar stop
It was getting warm, so I attempted to take one of my remaining salt pills (and ended up dropping all of them). I took that as a sign to chill out and not try to keep up with Pete, figuring I’d probably catch him on the Chalk Hill climb anyway.
I’d forgotten how much of Chalk Hill Road is actually lovely — flat, if not a little downhill, and shaded by tall trees. The shadows were playing tricks on me — pothole? or just dark? — and I couldn’t remember exactly where the hill started, so I tried to quiet my mind and enjoy the non-climbing stretches while I could.
Soon, we hit the little teaser hill for Chalk Hill, and not long after that the real climb started. My mantra for Chalk Hill is “it’s hard because of where it is, but not because of what it is” — and if that’s true at mile 45 of Vineman, it’s even more true at mile 85 of a century. It felt harder than I remembered — but of course I’d biked almost twice as many miles! — and yet I still knew, rationally, that it’s not a bad climb, that I regularly do worse than it, that I could definitely keep moving. So I kept gping up, and soon enough, I was catching up to Pete …
… who, suddenly, was pulling off to the side of the road with a broken chain, less than 100 feet from the top. Neither of us had a chain tool; frankly, neither of us knew how to use one, either. I could get phone reception if I stood in one tiny patch of driveway, so I called SAG and proceeded to have a cute but frustrating conversation (“We need a ride, or a mechanic.” “Aw, don’t feel bad, a lot of people have been calling saying they’re done for the day.” “No, no, we want to keep riding!” “Isn’t that just the worst, though, when the mind wants to ride and the legs just won’t go?” “No! We can keep riding! It’s just, the bike is broken.”). After 30 minutes, a SAG driver finally showed up — just by chance, apparently; the one we’d actually called came 10 minutes later — and was able to drive Pete down to the last rest stop, where a mechanic station was still open.
I rode down the hill and met Pete at the rest stop, pulling in as he was learning that riding the rest of the way would be feasible. We filled up our bottles one last time, I ate one last round of cheese and Ritz, and then we pointed our bikes back toward Sebastopol.
The ride between Golden Nectar and the finish followed a lot of the Vineman run course, which I have a new appreciation for having seen it from a bike: Some of those hills are hard! I think it looks harder from a bike than it does on foot; which way it feels harder is sort of a toss-up, at least 90+ miles into a ride.
The closer we got to Sebastopol, the worse the roads got — like numb-your-hands-and-rattle-out-your-eyeballs bad. I could not have dealt with a whole ride of roads like that! We were so close, though. The best thing I did all day was save the last of my amazing Japanese gummy candies (some bought earlier this year, some saved since 2013 for a special occasion) for this stretch. I was tired, but “bike 2 miles, eat a gummy” was a bargain I could accept.
There were some sketchy left turns in this section where I wish the traffic markings had been better, and they sucked what little momentum I had to spare, but who cared? This was mile 100, 101, 102. Right as I saw the car, my Garmin clicked over to our promised mileage of 103.
And, that was that. We loaded the bikes on the car. We changed into clean clothes and ate pork tacos. The rest of our group trickled in as we drank our free Lagunitas IPAs, and somehow we found ourselves closing down the party at the community center and regrouping at Screaming Mimi’s for ice cream.
All in all, the ride went better than I was expecting — physically and mentally. I was barely sore on Monday and back to normal on Tuesday. My Coeur shorts survived their biggest test yet. And I was impressed with how relaxed and positive I felt throughout the day. Before the ride started, I didn’t think I’d done enough long rides to be truly ready. Having done it, I think I did just about what was required for a non-race casual ride with a lot of stops. It wasn’t easy (5000′ of climbing in total) and I still ended up riding a pace I was fully happy with (14+ mph for the riding sections) while enjoying the day with friends and eating all the peaches.
In other words, yes, I’m already looking for the next one.