By Elaine Astrue
In mid-March Jim Bradbury asked - did I want to join a flèche team? It wasn't required for PBP, but with spring and a 400K around the corner, a long voluntary ride seemed like a good idea. Then there was the beautiful custom steel bike I was about to acquire. The flèche could be her maiden voyage. We recruited Donn King and Tom Kuhn of Sonoma. They were team-minded, adventurous randonneurs. Jim charted our route using AAA maps and reserved rooms in a B&B on the Sacramento Delta. Donn and Tom slept at my house the night before. After breakfast we heard the unremarkable weather report: gusts of wind on the hilltops. Outside, the sky told another story: windy, cold and streaks of thin grey clouds. We met Jim and another friend Kim Freitas in Palo Alto. Spirits were high, route sheets handed out and we were off down the expressway. The wind was really something, at times blowing large articles across the road and the shaking metal newpaper racks at intersections. I laughed, it was so outrageous. As we headed east, it was sometimes at our backs, which was a real thrill.
After overpasses and long expressways, we began to climb. Mt. Hamilton at 4213 feet is the high point on a ridge that separates the Bay Area and Central Valley. The road up the mountain is 21 miles long and good bragging material. The views are usually spectacular. Donn and Tom had never climbed Hamilton, so we pointed it out in the distance. Dense grey clouds obscured the peak, and Jim said something negative which I shook off. We all climbed at our own pace, and I enjoyed watching a huge hawk fly low across the road. Halfway up, we regrouped and added layers.
Near the top it was grey, windy and freezing. Jim rode up to ask if the weather report mentioned rain. I laughed and then noticed silver spraypaint all over the roadside grass and bushes. White dust began to fall around us. Better than rain, I thought. At the summit, it was seriously snowing. We ran into the Observatory and shared the heater with two other cyclists, one wearing a Death Ride jersey. In survival mode, we put on every stitch of clothing and ate most of our food. I found another heater in the bathroom, then Kim showed up. In front of the mirror, we held a fashion show of plastic bag hats. Kim wore a Ziploc bag like an old McDonalds hat. I tied a plastic grocery bag under my chin like a bonnet. We laughed hysterically.
None of us had clothing for snow, but someone remembered that janitors store extra bags in the garbage can. Sure enough, there was a stack of heavy duty garbage bags under the liner. We modified several with arm and neck holes and started the descent. The back side of Mt. Hamilton is twice as steep as the front, with hairpin curves and cattleguards. I was barely in control of the bike, shivering and nursing numb hands on the brake levers. Soon we met a squall of dark clouds, and it began to hail hard - a wet hail, which melted on the road. The road became quite wet, as did we. At one point, Tom stopped by the side of the road to savor a microscopic patch of sun.
Finally, our bedraggled group arrived at the Junction Café and left the blizzard outside. We ordered hamburgers and hot drinks, then laid hats and gloves on the wood stove to dry. The proprietor gave out more plastic bags - I tied one on each foot. This was the point of departure for Kim to head home. Kim wanted to ride back over Hamilton, the shortest route. But after talking with some cyclists who had just come over the summit, she left for Livermore. Tom, Donn, Jim and I headed down Del Puerto Canyon - east again, toward the Central Valley. The sun came out. Birds sang. Horses frolicked in green pastures. Good smells wafted from barbeques at a public park, and I felt recharged.
We regrouped at a convenience store next to Interstate 5, which runs through California from north to south. It was after 5 pm - several hours were lost in the blizzard. In the broad valley with nothing to stop it, the wind blew so hard grown men struggled with the door of the minimart. Airborne dust made it hard to see. Inside, we bought snacks and batteries and teenage clerks initialed our cards. Our plan was to ride north along the California Aqueduct toward where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converge and feed San Francisco Bay. We brought maps but from now on, no one had first-hand knowledge of the route. Turning onto the aqueduct path, we felt the brunt of the northwest wind. It was time to pack up and set a blistering pace of 10 mph. The 30 mph head/crosswind gave us a crash course in echelon, or staggered, pacelining, and total concentration was required to draft without touching wheels. The path was also narrow, requiring effort not to fall into the water. From time to time the wind shifted, forcing us to adapt. Our speed was slow, but no one wanted to drop off the back.
The strategy was to take 2 minute pulls, enforced by Jim. At the start of each pull I felt heroic and at the end, completely demoralized. We joked about heading for Lake Tahoe instead, in the direction of the wind. Wind dies down after sunset, I thought. Night fell, and the wind remained. We rode and rode, in 2 minute intervals, mostly in silence due to the static of wind noise. The canal offered some strange sights: a mouse scurrying across the path, a white car overturned in the water, headlights on the opposite side, coming toward. Our next challenge was finding Coral Hollow Road without street signs. We shone lights on every aqueduct bridge, looking for a street name. Donn and I detoured to get directions at another minimart along I-5. Finally we turned on the next road to end the misery - it was Tracy Blvd, which the guys took into town. I lagged, feeling tired and left out, dodging flying tumbleweeds. We patronized another minimart and found warmth in a laundromat. After 13 hours on the bike, this would be the last town for a long time. Something like `You know, I'm going to need some real food at some point' came out of my mouth. Bleary-eyed, Donn and Tom and Jim stared at me like a Martian, but Jim suggested the Mexican place next door. They were still open. Hot plates of tamales, burritos, rice and beans soon arrived along with great chicken soup, coffee and Coke. I was in heaven! My stomach thanked me over and over, and things began to look up. It was 9:45, and quite clear we would not make it to the B&B. Jim placed a call to the owner and cancelled our reservations. Shedding the deadline was a relief. Donn said he'd be willing to ride all night if necessary.
To get back on route, we took busy roads between isolated towns. This meant pacelining with little or no shoulder and a fair amount of fast traffic. Several times I clenched my jaw to keep fear in check, but the instinct to stay together was stronger. Every landmark was a morale boost, even Byron, a sleepy little town with a parking lot full of empty RVs. Jim felt like breaking into one of them to take a nap. Using AAA maps to navigate some tricky intersections, we got off course again. Tom patiently straightened us out. Wandering the dark flatlands with no landmarks, progress was slow. We probably stopped a dozen times to get reoriented, looking for street signs that didn't exist.
After several more wrong turns, Oakley was a welcome sight. Jim took off in search of a store and we all followed out of habit. Could it be true? - a parking lot and huge 24-hour Lucky supermarket. Normally I hate chain superstores but this one did rescue us! We filled Camelbaks, bought Gatorade and Ensure, bananas and candy. Ringo Starr songs followed us around the aisles, and Jim sang along. The clerk initialed our cards, and we dined on the floor of the produce section. Jim described the next leg, following the Sacramento River east, then west to Davis. It seemed long and indirect. There was a silence, then Tom said "What's the most DIRECT route to Davis?" Roads that were usually busy and dangerous, but it was 2:30am and we went for it. Outside the cold was brutal, and riding into the wind my body shivered out of control for several minutes.
The Antioch Bridge, which crosses the mouth of the San Joaquin, waited at the edge of town. I have never seen the bridge in daylight, but it is a long arc with short ledges on each side. Passing the toll booth, I wondered what the toll taker thought, crazy cyclists in the middle of the night. The wind on that bridge was tremendous, supernatural. The bike pitched this way and that and in its granny gear, barely moved forward. I deliberately watched the pavement and jerky headlight beam, not the churning whitecaps on the river below. Up the incline the wind grew stronger and stronger, deforming my face and stretching the skin away from my cheek and jaw bones. My jaw was forced open and saliva streamed across my chin, but the fear of being blown into the river drove me on. After many minutes we regrouped on the other side, and Donn and Tom said they saw something whip out of my jacket pocket into the river. I felt my pocket - the brevet card and its Ziploc baggie were gone.
We crossed several more bridges on the way to the next town. Made of metal girders, they offered no shelter from the wind and a fairly good view of the consequences if you fell. The cold moon shone on the tossing trees and organic debris all over the road. The guys took bio breaks but I tried to keep on the bike to prevent shiver fits. No shoulder on this rolling, narrow highway, and I couldn't believe the amount of traffic on the road at 4am. What did drivers see from behind as they approached? I was so glad for my teammates and their lights. Finally, our turn took us out of harm's way. Everyone's spirits lifted a little. We were cold and exhausted but on track, our distance from Davis about what it should have been (minus a stay at the B&B). The sky began to lighten.
On the last leg, the wind had actually let up a little. Now it was back with a vengeance. The flat farmland offered no landmarks or shelter as we pressed on in hill climbing gears. Our paceline attempts were laughable - the gusts were too strong and frequent. Around 7am we all rested at a deserted crossroads outside town. We looked like hell, but for some reason Donn was in unbelievably good spirits. Getting back on the bike was a hard sell. My knees ached from fighting the wind all night and it was hard to believe we were almost there. It was a grim few miles into Dixon, especially after missing one more turn due to migrating road names. We were supposed to get cards stamped but the town was deserted. On farm roads to Davis, we were alternately airborne by a tail/cross wind and battered by a head/ cross wind. Finally, an intersection had the familiar pink brevet mark. Exhausted, everyone did their best imitation of a strong finish. Around 8:45 we rolled into downtown Davis and found our way to Easter brunch. The sun was warm, the wind actually calm. Several other teams had arrived from the north, looking fresh and rested. The free ride on a tailwind had them hungry for drama, so we croaked out a few highlights of the blizzard, hailstorm, and nightmare of wind. The scones and coffee were delicious. Another team from the Bay Area arrived. Tom stretched out under a table, and Jim and I sneaked out to catch our ride home.
That week, playing myself in my regular life, I felt a little ashamed and foolish at struggling all night for no good reason. But this flèche experience would be invaluable on PBP - surviving the absurd, getting lost and unlost, riding silently with others when you are beyond talking. Riding through the night when you want to be in bed. And time really does heal - Donn asked recently "Don't laugh.... but are you interested in doing another flèche?"
Davis RBA note: The flèche teams that enjoyed the tailwind all the way to Davis were almost embarrassed to show their faces at the Davis brunch, knowing the teams that had the headwinds would be there with stories of grief and anguish. After hearing Elaine's story of woe and confirming her ride with her team, I replaced the flèche card that had flown off in the wind and gave her credit for the ride.
Webmaster note: Be sure and read Elaine's PBP adventure.