Jun 112011

Did you know that last year I rode my bike from Sacramento to Reno? It’s true! I did! And, as per usual with my other longish bike rides, in order to see a Huey Lewis and the News concert… In previous years I’d ridden 65 miles from Sausalito to their shows in Saratoga. But last year that ride did not appear to be possible. So instead I made other plans…

The following is an adaptation of what I’d posted on the Huey Lewis and the News fan board. Had my blog been working at the time I also would have liked to have posted about it here then. But better late than never? Especially since I’m starting to think about doing another ride this year…

It started with a throwaway comment:

Saratoga on a Wednesday??? How am I supposed to bike there then? Or am I expected to bike to Reno this year instead?

At the time I wrote it, I was just being silly. I had been fully expecting to bike to Saratoga again (after all, after having ridden to it three times I wasn’t sure I was even ALLOWED to drive to it…) and was truly disappointed to see that last year’s Saratoga stint was but a single date on a Wednesday. Somehow that immediately disqualified it for biking purposes. But, hey! The Reno concert was on a SATURDAY. Surely that would be better, right?

Ha ha, who are we kidding? On what planet is a three-day bike trip to Reno an improvement over a one-day trip to Saratoga? And yet…

I’m not one to follow pipe dreams. I only allow myself to daydream about things that are plausible. So if, in the next minute, I’d looked at the map and seen that Reno was clearly out of bike range that would have been the end up it. Instead, upon my quick googling, I saw that it actually looked quite possible. It was a lot of miles, but there would be places to stay along the way. It would be a lot of hills, but I immediately found posts around the Internet of people talking about the various routes they’d chosen to get across the Sierras. I knew this sort of thing was actually done by cyclists. But by much better cyclists than me.

You can see in these old posts the wheels turning (so to speak) as I looked into it further. I pretty quickly settled on the Kirkwood route, but I still was unwilling to fully commit to doing it. It was so far beyond anything I’d ever done (in distance, duration, altitude…) it seemed just a matter of time before I’d realize the folly of the idea and abandon it. And yet, in the intervening months I found the idea inspiring enough to get me out on my bike much more than I ever usually bothered to. I started doing routes I’d long thought about but had never gotten around to riding. New routes. Long routes… Whether I ended up doing the ride to Reno or not, just having ever considered it was already having a noticeably positive impact on my life.

Before I could make a proper decision about it, though, a few things needed to happen. One, I needed to at least see the route. It’s one thing to look on a squiggle on a map and think you can ride it; it’s another thing to see an actual road and draw the same conclusion. In June though I had the opportunity to go to the Sierras for a friend’s wedding (a fellow HLN-fan friend, as it happens), and on the way home I decided to check out the Mormon Emigrant Trail part of the route. Which was disastrous. The MET is an unplowed road, and even though the heat of summer had set in, the heavy snows this winter had yet to completely melt away. My attempts to drive my low-flung Sentra through one such pile on the road failed completely and utterly: I was totally stuck. Were it not for the kindness of strangers, with a powerful truck and strong tow-rope, I’d still be there…

You’d think getting my car stuck on the road I intended to ride my bike on would be a pretty strong signal to give up on the idea. On the contrary: it simply made me determined to beat it…

But a few more pieces still needed to fall into place. One, because I’m essentially just a casual rider, my bike doesn’t usually see much in the way of service. I think it’s had maybe one tune-up in the 10+ years I’ve owned it. This spring I did have to replace the front tire as a result of a sudden rare flat though. I was hoping I could have salvaged the tire and just patched or replaced the inner tube, but given its age the bike store encouraged me to replace it all. (At which point it then similarly seemed prudent to replace the back tire too.) The bike store then made the pitch that I get my bike completely serviced as well, especially once I told them I was thinking about this ride, but loathe to spend any more money I hemmed and hawed and put it off. But after coming back from some Huey Lewis and the News shows on the East Coast I decided I didn’t want the lack of maintenance to be the reason I didn’t end up attempting this. So I got it done. And immediately was glad: not only did my bike’s new shininess inspire me to ride, but because the mechanic had replaced the old crud-filled bottom bracket with a brand new one it was now MUCH easier.

So obstacles began to drop by the wayside, but some remained. There were still a lot of logistics to coordinate. Like, how was I to get to Sacramento (the kicking off spot)? How was I to get home?

And more importantly, how could I do this completely alone?

I don’t mean the ride, per se. Riding solo is harder than riding in a group, because a group of riders (a peloton) working together travels more efficiently than a single rider on its own (think wind resistance; it saves energy to be able to ride behind others who are knocking it down). But with a solo ride you can set your own pace and be accountable only to your own rhythms, which I think I prefer. At minimum I’m simply not a fast enough rider to keep up with a group.

What I mean is that, as with anything, in order to succeed, you must be able to fail. I don’t mean that you focus on failure. But you need to make it so any failure will not be catastrophic. For me this meant that I could not ride off into the wilderness with no back-up plan for if my bike or body broke down.

Fortunately a fellow fan friend volunteered to be my SAG wagon. This meant that I could carry less stuff on my bike every day, since she could meet me at the hotels to bring me what I hadn’t needed out on the road, and it meant that if I got stuck she had a car we could load me and my bike into.

Her help was a big piece of the puzzle, but I still had a few more to fill in. I needed the hotel rooms, which I’d held off booking because of poor cancellation policies. I ended up booking them at almost the last minute, and while on retrospect it probably wouldn’t have been a problem to have booked them even later, as time grew tight and I recognized how I’d nearly jeopardized the ride by not securing the housing it made me realize just how much I wanted to do it!

As it got closer I had also started talking about it more to people. Casually — I wanted to be able to bail on the idea without losing face — but increasingly. I didn’t know if I could finish it, but I did know I could at least attempt it. And if I didn’t try it now, then when? When would I find myself in better shape, with more time, with more logistical ducks in a row than here in 2010 when I’d been thinking about it and planning on doing it for six months? If I ever wanted to say that I was someone who could bike across the Sierras, it seemed it was now or never to go for it.

I’d pretty much decided on the basic route the day I first looked into it: Sacramento to Placerville, Placerville to Kirkwood, and Kirkwood to Reno. I couldn’t have started any further west than Sacramento because with the concert in Saratoga on Wednesday I just didn’t have time to start any further away. Sacramento also held the appeal of being at a convenient junction where I-80 and US-50 met, meaning I could peddle out along the southern route and then hopefully find a ride heading back on the more direct northern I-80 route to where I would have parked my car.

But then I couldn’t figure out where to park my car for several days safely in Sacramento that wouldn’t be far away from my intended route, so I started thinking about other options. Fortunately I have a friend who lives across the street from a BART station, a friend who had expressed willing interest in trying out this “Huey Lewis and the News” thing I kept talking about and come with me to the show in Saratoga. In a notable bit of early kismet we managed to get her a seat RIGHT NEXT TO MINE, despite hers being bought an hour before the show and mine having been bought in April… Then afterward I drove her home, parked at her house, and the next morning took BART to the Richmond Amtrak station, from where it was an easy trip to Sacramento.

At 10 am on Thursday I disembarked the train, mounted the bike, and I was off.

The first part was extremely easy, about 25 miles along the American River Bike Trail, pretty much at sea level. Like so many spots I was to encounter later it could have been better marked, but it was either flat or gently graded and I zipped along at a pretty good pace until Folsom. Folsom, unfortunately, was extremely confusing and under construction. But fortunately, for the first of many times, I encountered lots of helpful strangers who helped me out with directions. (See, it pays to ask for them!) Someone got me onto Folsom Boulevard, from where I turned onto Blue Ravine, which then turned into Green Valley Road. And that’s where the climbing really began.

Most of the climbing was ok. Slow and steady basically did the trick. But it was hot, and my granny gear (the easiest one) was not really as granny as I needed it to be. As I approached Placerville, the road got narrower, steeper, and more heavily trafficked. And I was tired. With five miles to go I’d nearly had it and seriously wondered if this trip was doomed. Fifty miles in and I was already broken by a foothill.

So I walked a little bit (which was tough because my bike shoes kept slipping on the pavement), then remounted and did a little bit of climbing at a time. Green Valley to Ray Lawyer Drive to Forni, where after one final little uphill it was a long coast into town. The wrong end of town from the hotel, of course, which itself was at the wrong end from all the restaurants. But the grocery store next door sold frozen dinners, there was a microwave in the room, soon my friend arrived with my fresh clothes, and, 56.2 miles/8 hours after it began (by bike), that was it for the day.

On my way into Placerville (~2000 ft) I’d stopped into a bike shop just before closing and the clerk helpfully stayed late to pump up my tires and provide me with directions for the next day. In my research I’d come up with a lot of competing routes for how to get out of town, and I didn’t know which was best. My hunch was to take Carson Road to Pony Express Trail to Sly Park Road to MET, but I didn’t know the best way to get to Carson Road that wouldn’t involve extraneous climbing. Today was “Crossing the Sierras” Day and I didn’t want to needlessly burn energy doing any more climbing than I had to.
So I fumbled around Schnell-School Road until I found the bike path (bike paths that used to be train tracks are great because they can never be graded too steeply). But there were no signs for where to turn off of it, so once again I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to point out that I’d just gone past the road I’d wanted to connect me to Carson Road. Which was much steeper than I remembered. First thing in the morning my legs were burning. If this is what I was in for all day I didn’t see how I could possibly make it to the end.

Fortunately it got a little easier once I hit Pony Express, and at the turn-off for Sly Park Road in Pollock Pines I stopped off for a proper breakfast. I can’t eat first thing in the morning, but I can’t burn all that energy without eating at all. The trick for this ride was to eat before I needed it so I’d never be in a deficit situation, but without eating so much it would slow me down.

After breakfast I did the relatively quick five miles (a few up, the rest down) or so to the general store near the beginning of the MET (~3500ft.). I stayed there for a bit to psych myself up for the 37 miles to come. I had with me a printout of the hill profile for the rest of the day so I knew the hills would be particularly sucky right at the beginning. But I was reasonably fresh and recharged by that point, so somehow I got myself on my bike and got going. As expected, those hills did suck. For a long time. (But for maybe a smidge less than expected.) I don’t mind a gentle, steady climb. I get cranky though when the climbs are 4-6%, and I seriously object to ones steeper than that. I started bribing myself with drink stops every half mile or so on the really nasty parts, and luckily there were many non-horrific miles in between them as well. Near the apex of the MET I had to walk my bike again, but soon I was at the top and rewarded with a great view. I ate some carrots and took a picture.

I thought the worst was over, and perhaps that was true, but by now I was tired and at altitude (somewhere between 6000-7000 feet) so even small climbs were arduous. And annoying, because for every up there tended to also be a down. Downs can be fun to ride, but when they come before an inevitable climb they are just depressing. I hate losing hard-won altitude I’m just going to have to earn back again.

My friend had been going back and forth on the MET in case I needed her, and at the junction of CA-88 she topped me off with more Gatorade and drove off further down the road. I crossed 8000 feet and then got a big downhill to Silver Lake from where it was time for the final climb. Some of the directions I’d seen said Kirkwood was just over the next “small hill.” Small hill! It was a MOUNTAIN. By now I was bribing myself with drinks and the Sweetarts I suddenly remembered I was carrying. But eventually I crested again, and 56.2 miles/12 hours after I started I coasted into Kirkwood, where my friend had helpfully gotten me checked in to save me extra riding around. Then she drove me around to get dinner, left me the things I needed for the next day, and headed off to Reno.

Which should have been no big deal — the next day I only had one significant climb, a HUGE downhill, and then a lot of long, flat miles mostly in civilization. Surely I could do all that on my own.

I got an early start in hopes of beating the heat in Nevada — and promptly rode right over a nail. My nightmare: a flat tire. I hate flat tires. I barely know how to change flat tires. I barely can. So I never do. But with 2.5 hours before the local bike shop opened and nobody around, it was up to me. So I did it. I kept my composure (in spite of a huge temptation to panic), found a seat, and got to work. Remember that flat I mentioned from earlier this year? I didn’t change that one — I paid the bike shop to do it because I find it so hard to get the tires on and off the wheels (my fingers aren’t strong enough). But because I’d had to get a new tire just a few months ago (which I was NOT happy about at the time), the new one was still nice and stretchy and so, when there was no one to turn to but myself, it turned out I could do it.

An hour later I was off again, climbing the last significant climb, a few miles up to Carson Pass. At 8574 feet, I’d conquered the Sierras.

It’s all downhill from there, right? Er, well, not as much as you’d think… True, there was a lot of descending until about Woodfords, but after that I had a few sets of somewhat ambiguous and conflicting instructions suggesting more circuitous routes than I thought I needed, although I couldn’t be sure without asking for more directions. I get the sense that some of those instructions had been written by people almost pathologically averse to sharing the road with cars and who would gladly take on longer, hillier routes in order to avoid them. I, however, am lazy and therefore all about efficiency, but I’m hesitant to trust the typically more direct Google bike routing algorithm without some sort of local confirmation that it bears any relation to reality. So I stopped for directions a few times. I was also running short on Gatorade (I basically drank my weight in it on this trip) and had to stop off when I could, since I didn’t know when I’d see another store again and it was hot out in the desert.

The ride was pretty fast up until Indian Hills, where I was confronted with an unwelcome uphill. And Carson City was even worse. For expediency I had decided to stay on Highway 88, which then turned into US 395, but in Carson City 395 turned into a freeway. To avoid it I had to fumble my way west into the hills using nothing but crummy Google directions, which meant I kept having to stop to check them ON ROADS WITH NO SHADE. Then, even worse, I had to CLIMB ANOTHER HILL, also in the sun. I had no idea how long I needed to climb. I had no idea how long I had left on my journey at all. I had no idea when the next time was that I’d see a store, or even a tree. I had no idea how I’d even gotten myself into this situation. It suddenly seemed the stupidest, riskiest thing I’d ever done.

But I did have enough (increasingly tepid) water and Gatorade. And the uphill did end. Then it was a coast down to the relatively flat (although seemingly interminable) Old US 395, from where I dashed across four lanes of traffic back to the real 395N in Washoe City. There I was informed that it was but seven miles to the border of Reno, but an indeterminate number more to downtown. Fortunately the first seven were largely downhill. Then, dodging traffic merging onto the freeway version of 395, I stayed on local 395 and worked my way down the infinitely long Virginia Street.

At 4:45pm I finally saw downtown. At 5:15 I reached it. And at 5:30, after 82.5 miles for the day, I was there. My long ride was over; I did it!

I am amazed I did it. I’ve never done anything like it. It was a huge stretch for my cycling ability, and more significantly, it was a huge stretch for me in every other way. I know I’m good at being stubborn, but this required a stubbornness at a level I rarely need to deploy.

To a large extent I do think I got lucky. I got lucky that my friends, old and new, were able to support me on this. I got lucky the weather wasn’t worse. I got lucky I didn’t flat again, or crash, or have any other ill fate befall me. I’m not particularly superstitious, but I couldn’t help noticing I did a portion of this on a Friday the 13th. Most Friday the 13ths pass unremarkably. But guess what day it was on the one occasion when I got hit by a car while riding a bike?

On the other hand, I did do a good job at this. It wasn’t just a physical project but a mental one as well. I planned it well (although I do wish I’d brought with me a few more maps), and I took good care of myself, eating and drinking (and sleeping) really well. Even when I did the single-day rides to Saratoga I always arrived feeling wrecked. This trip was farther, longer, and hotter, yet I felt ok.

It’s deceptive: now that it’s done, it seems so doable. But up until I reached the end, it wasn’t entirely clear I would. I need to remind myself that just because I achieved a goal doesn’t mean it wasn’t an achievement.

In any case, I am really, really glad I got the opportunity to find out I could do this. After all, if I can do this, what else can I do? I suppose if circumstances were right I would do these kinds of rides for other reasons, but I pretty much never do. There’s something about having a Huey Lewis and the News concert at the other end that inspires me the way nothing else does. For that I am immensely grateful.

 Posted by at 1:35 pm

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