I started cycling about five years ago and up till this past Saturday I had never done a century ride. (I had attempted the Primavera Century ride in 2010, but I gave up at mile 87 after 22 miles of riding in heavy rain.) Earlier this year I decided that I should finally try a century ride so I signed up for Levi's Gran Fondo, a 103 mile ride with about 9,200 ft of climbing.
Unfortunately, the weeks leading up to the ride were pretty stressful. I had assumed that committing to this event would help motivate me to train more and get into better shape. Unfortunately, that didn't happen and I didn't do any more riding this year than I've done in past years. Also, work was particularly stressful in the weeks leading up to the ride and I didn't do nearly as much last minute training as I would have hoped. Then a heatwave decided to set in for the weekend of the event, with temps going up to 95 F, and I normally perform much better when temps are in the 60s. Finally, since I've never done anything like this, I didn't really have any accurate way to gauge if my fitness level was sufficient for the event.
A couple days before the event I decided I should have a plan, so I started looking at my performance on long rides this year. I noticed that for long rides (50+ miles and 5000+ ft of climbing) I was averaging about 12.5 mph. So for a 103 mile course, going 12.5 mph, it would take me about 8.25 hours without any rest stops. (And there were 6 rest stops on the course, one of which was a lunch stop.) Looking at the schedule for the ride, it started at 8am and they would starting closing it up around 5pm with a final pickup for any remaining riders at 6pm. That would mean you would want to finish the course in less 9 hours, with 10 hours being a hard cutoff. Given this estimate, I was really worried about actually being able to finish the course in time. Ronda pointed out that I could do the Medio ride instead (65 miles and 3800 ft of climbing), but I dismissed that option since I'm stubborn and my normal "long" weekend rides are more challenging than that. I was going to try to finish the Gran or fail trying.
After looking at my past performance, the plan I decided on was to try and hit an average of 12.5 mph (with 13 mph being a stretch goal). I was going to try and keep my heart rate down below 170 for most the ride (heat allowing) and I would try to keep my power in the low 200s for any climb or longer straight stretch. I hoped that would allow me to survive to the end of the ride and finish before the course closed.
The night before the ride me and Ronda went up to Santa Rosa to stay at a small house on a farm about 5 miles from the event. In the morning I got up at 6am, got ready, and biked over to the event. The ride officially started at 8am, and when the starter’s pistol fired I immediately began rolling forward in a large mass of people (there are about 7000+ riders). Then, just as quickly I came to a stop as we all bunch up together and couldn't move any more. We all continued to inch forward until I finally passed the starting line at about 8:22. Hm. Not quite the amazing start I had expected. (Also, when I crossed the starting line I was freezing since it was about 50 F out and I had lost all my body heat while standing around waiting to actually start riding.)
Once I passed the starting line the ride became much more enjoyable. For the first 20 miles the road was closed to cars and filled with riders. It was pretty fun riding with that many people and mostly I was just slowly negotiating my way forward past slower riders. After the first rest stop (Monte Rio @ mile 20) I managed to get behind a group of about 5 fast riders that were pushing a pace slightly higher than I was comfortable with, but I held on for about 10 miles and we were trucking along at 20+ mph. We passed lots of other groups. Then when I looked behind me I noticed that I wasn't the last rider in our train, instead it stretched back behind me as far as I could see.
The second rest stop (Cazadero @ mile 30) was also the cutoff for the Gran route. If you didn't make it there by 11:00 then you would get shunted off onto an alternate and shorter route. I made it there by about 10:30, so I thought I was doing OK. My average speed so far was about 15 mph, which was above my target (which made sense since we really hadn't done any climbing yet). I was also comforted by the fact that there was a huge crowd there, which helped assure me that I there were lots of other folks going at a comparable pace.
Moving on from the second rest stop the climbing finally started. My normal riding routes include a lot of climbing and I really like it. I find it's much easier to gage and regulate my performance on a climb than it is on the flats. So when the road started to go up, and it still wasn't too hot, I felt right in my element. I managed to kept my power in the low 200s (as planned) and my heart rate in the low 170s, except in the sections where the road became too steep and I had to push a higher power to keep my speed at a decent pace. Luckily those sections were usually shorter and I noticed that my HR was recovering quickly whenever I backed off. Happily, this trend continued for the entire ride. I was pretty surprised (and slightly encouraged) when I saw people off of their bikes and walking up the very first significant climb.
I really enjoyed the ride to the third rest stop (King Ridge @ mile 47). Once the majority of the climbing was done we had rollers on hilltops through farm country, and it was really gorgeous. The only unfortunate part was that I passed a cyclist who had crashed while taking a turn and seriously injured himself (this was just before the third rest stop). There were lots of folks and staff around helping him, but he looked like he needed serious medical attention. As it turns out, he wasn't the only accident that occurred. After spending about 5 mins at the third rest stop I decided to move on, but at that moment they closed down the road. Apparently two more cyclists had crashed just a bit further on (where there was an extremely steep descent). The road was closed for about 40 mins while they brought in a helicopter to evacuate one of the riders, and the other was taken out in an ambulance.
During our 40 min wait at the third rest stop, many more people were arriving. When they finally re-opened the road, once again there was a sea of riders moving forward together. The most interesting part of this section was that it was an extremely steep and long descent being doing in a large crowd of riders. About 3/4s of the way through the descent, the was a loud gunshot like noise just behind me. It seems that someone with tubeless carbon wheels had overheated one of their wheels and it exploded. Not a good day for them.
After this steep descent we had lots more climbing to get to the fourth rest stop (Ritchey Ranch @ mile 58) for lunch. I was surprised at how good I felt when I got there. The only discomfort I had felt so far was a tightness in my neck / upper back which had started at about mile 20. But this is frequently something that happens to me when I'm stressed, and given how early it started in the ride, I attributed it to that.
I also had a really great appetite when I got there and I had to limit myself to just having one roast beef sandwich since I wanted to get going asap. Part of my plan for the ride had been to stop at every rest stop to eat something, to drink, and to use the facilities to make sure I wasn't getting dehydrated. But I still wanted to keep my time at each rest stop to a minimum to ensure that I still finished in time. So after scarfing down lunch and re-applying sunscreen I headed out again.
The ride after lunch was awesome since we headed out to the coast and met up with Highway 1. The temps dropped down to the low 70s, and once we got to Hwy 1 the riding was great. Many of the previous roads we had been on were poorly maintained back country roads, where as Hwy 1 was in excellent condition and the sharp turns on descents were well graded and fun. Not to mention the views were amazing.
I was feeling really good riding along the coast. Hwy 1 had lots of rollers and I found that I still had the energy to get out of the saddle and power up the hills, and then my heart rate would quickly recover during the descents on the other side. I was riding solo and I was still able to pass lots of other folks on the way to the fifth rest stop (Portuguese Beach @ mile 74).
Right after leaving the fifth rest stop I hit the final serious climbs, and once again, I felt pretty good on these. Since these climbs were moving inland it was getting warmer. I made sure to keep my power in check to avoid overheating. I was also rewarded with good views of the coast rapidly disappearing behind me. I took a quick and unnecessary stop at the sixth rest stop (Coleman Valley @ mile 81) and then another quick stop at the seventh and final rest stop (Occidental @ mile 87). At the final rest stop, I realized that I was still feeling really good and decided to try and push a stronger pace till the end. For the next 9 miles I was pushing a strong solo pace, and then a group of 4 other riders flew past me. I jumped onto the back of their train and road at an even faster pace for the last 7 miles of the ride.
I crossed the finish line 9 hours after starting and I felt surprisingly good when I did. I felt like I could have continued riding without any problems. I had an average speed of 14 mph (a moving time of 7:21), which was much better than I had expected, and I also felt like I left some performance on the table. I think I underestimated my abilities and overestimated the difficulty of the course. Had I known better and been willing to finish the ride with no remaining capacity, I could have definitely pushed harder and finished sooner.
Overall, the ride itself was beautiful and fun. I normally ride by myself, so it was fun to get into a couple groups and fly along the highway. It was also nice not having to stop anywhere and having police wave you through every light and stop sign on the road. Finally, the scenery along the route was beautiful. I'm used to riding through coastal redwoods forests, so I'm pretty spoiled when it comes to scenic rides. But this ride was still impressive with forests, rolling hills through ranch lands, classic dry California hills, and coastal cruising on Hwy 1. My main regret is that I didn't take a camera with me on the ride since there were countless opportunities to use it.
If you're interested in my stats from the ride you can find them on Strava here.