By Bill Bryant
There were four American 1200k events during 2005, including Gold Rush Randonnée in northern California. July saw the second running of this quadrennial event hosted by the Davis Bike Club. Its out-and-back route goes north and east from Davis to the Oregon border region and turns around at the hamlet of Davis Creek. In between these two points riders have to cross the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains, so all GRR participants need to bring good climbing legs and a lot of determination.
Overall, the event went well. At the start there were 101 randonneurs and randonneuses from all parts of the US, along with foreign riders from Canada, Germany, Finland, and Sweden. The Davis Bike Club put 75 volunteers into the field to help the riders. The controls were generally well run and there were sag drivers patrolling the route at all times. Almost every checkpoint was organized by PBP veterans and their collective experience showed. The GRR workers stayed busy throughout checking riders through the controls and making food. There were also some unexpected tasks to fulfill. At Taylorsville a sleepy rider put on someone else's riding shoes by mistake and left the checkpoint, probably marveling at how his swollen feet felt so much better after his rest. When the other fellow realized that his shoes had mysteriously shrunk one size while he slept, a driver was dispatched to retrieve the missing shoes and get the correct ones back to their proper owner.
The riders had a good event—considering the circumstances. Riding 1200 mountainous kilometers in 90 hours or less is never easy, but excessive summer heat made this GRR harder than other similar events. After a 6 p.m. start to allow nighttime riding in the hot Central Valley lowlands, riders began ascending the Sierra foothills around midnight. The climbing after the 120-mile mark was constant and overall riding speeds dropped. Worse, during the first day the heat was brutal; things were a good 10 degrees hotter than four years ago. Temperatures topped out at around 105 in Susanville at mile 249, while temps at altitude were only marginally cooler. Of the 101 starters, 74 finished for a 27% DNF rate. Four years ago the DNF rate was about 18%, which is probably a good indication of how hot things were this time. Having the turnaround 5000 feet higher than the start/finish certainly makes the first part of the ride tough, but it (usually) offers a little relief from summer temperatures in California's vast Central Valley. Outbound times for most riders were a little slow, but overall finishing times ended up being good compared to other 1200k events. Perhaps it could be said that if the GRR isn't the hardest 1200k event—BMB probably earns that dubious distinction—it likely has the hardest first half.
Most DNFs happened in the first 20-24 hours of the ride before the majority of riders reached the lonely Grasshopper water stop where Lois and I were stationed (miles 282 outbound & 480 inbound). Quite a few riders looked absolutely ghastly going outbound, but most of them looked better coming back 18-24 hours later despite the 200 additional miles they had ridden; by then the heat had moderated somewhat. The club had planned for Grasshopper to be just a simple water stop at the halfway point in an otherwise empty 70-mile mountain section north of Susanville, but as the second night fell, and riders' fatigue accumulated, our little water stop became a popular place to pause a long while. The empty 16-foot rental truck used to transport the riders' drop bags was frequently full of sleeping randonneurs. At times we had to lay sleepy (or sick) riders down under space blankets on the smooth asphalt driveway of the adjacent fire station.
And who would have thought some lowly Cup O'Noodles cooked on a camp stove under the light of kerosene lanterns would ever be so popular? There was a nice sense of gallows humor from the fastest riders to the slowest and we enjoyed working at our dusty outpost in the desert. The randonneurs also liked the full moon for night riding, but perhaps there was more of that than anticipated due to the excessive daytime heat. At our little encampment out in the boonies, coyotes' nearby howling added to the nighttime ambience. We worked most of the event without sleep, so by the end we were howling with them.
We frequently heard from the out-of-state entrants about how scenic the GRR route was. They seemed surprised at how rural and bucolic otherwise bustling California could be. Along with fine scenery, they also saw quite a lot of wildlife, including some black bears at Antelope Lake. Riders also reported seeing porcupines, bobcats, and deer in various spots along the course. As we were packing our gear after the last rider passed through Grasshopper, the local forest ranger was chatting with us and remarked that he was pleased that none of our riders had had problems with mountain lions. It seems these beasts frequently prey on the cattle and other livestock in the region. Lois and I exchanged looks of relief—but then wondered if a smelly randonneur would have been very appetizing.
Better than the scenery or wildlife, we saw lots of randonneur tenacity and camaraderie throughout the event. We saw (weary) smiles no matter how tired the riders were, or how much pain they were in. The GRR was a really hard ride but time after time we saw riders gird their loins and start cycling again. We found it inspirational how they would arrive shattered, rest a while, and then quietly rouse themselves to resume the battle. Strangers before the ride, quite a few riders gathered into little groups to survive the rigor of the event. We also saw experienced randonneurs encouraging new riders to keep moving forward, or small groups of friends from various brevet series around the nation stick together to help each other in various ways. There was a sprinkling of RBAs in the event: Kevin Main (San Luis Obispo), Dave Bundrick (Atlanta), Bob Waddell (Ohio) all did fine rides and set good examples for others to follow about sensible pacing and persevering in the face of tough conditions.
Randonneuring veteran Gerry Goode was there and it was nice to see him riding so well. He and Kevin Main did the entire ride together and seemed to have a fine time. It was also great to finally meet various RUSA members after so many years of e-mail correspondence or posts on Randon. RUSA webmaster and GRR sag driver Don Bennett went beyond the call of duty—some 48 hours into the event he drove hot pizza 35 miles out to Grasshopper on Thursday night, whereupon it was instantly devoured by famished riders. Overall, we had only a few whiners; the vast majority of riders comported themselves admirably considering the test they were enduring and we figured the others were just cranky from a lack of sleep and nutrition.
The GRR had two bad accidents, alas. Both riders were from the Randonneurs Ontario, but they were unconnected incidents. Scott Chisholm's carbon forks failed catastrophically and without warning as he was descending out of the mountains—what a bummer! Otherwise I'm sure he would have finished with a fast time. He got some nasty facial cuts but didn't lose consciousness. Luckily a rider a little ahead heard him crash in the darkness and returned to help. Since they were in the middle of nowhere at 4 a.m., the Good Samaritan got Scott to stay still, and then rode to the next control for help. After an ambulance ride to the little mountain town of Quincy, Scott got another ambulance ride and underwent plastic surgery in Chico. He looked pretty good at the finish line all things considered—but talk about having a rough ride!
The other Ontario fellow who crashed was Henk Bouhuyzen. After a parking lot mishap early in the ride that injured his shoulder and made him climb the Sierras with only one good arm, he then crashed heavily with about 100 flat miles to go. Hank did a face-plant on the final descent of the ride. After the doctors in Oroville cleaned / patched / stitched / stapled / glued him up, he insisted on being taken back out to the crash site and resumed the ride. I saw him at the finish and his battered visage was grisly. Henk is a gutsy guy for sure.
Another tenacious rider was Jim Kern of Sunnyvale, California. Jim was the first rider on the course during much of the second half, but he quit the GRR with only 16 flat miles to go. He developed a serious bronchial condition and was coughing up blood by the end of the ride. After medical treatment and bed rest while the medications kicked in, he asked to be driven back out to resume his ride. He found he could cycle without insult to his lungs if he kept his pulse below 100 bpm, so he rode leisurely and finished with about 20 minutes to spare before the ride's 90- hour time limit was up. He was the last rider to finish the 2005 GRR but to me Jim Kern symbolized the determination and courage all the GRR riders showed during four hot days and nights of arduous cycling. Some rode the event in only 59 hours, while others took ten, twenty, or thirty hours more—but they're all heroes in my book. Hats off to them all!
The GRR ended with an enjoyable banquet at a Mexican restaurant in Davis on Saturday at noon just as the event clock ran out, and while everyone seemed happy to be done, perhaps some were a little sorry to be going home too. Various trophies were awarded and the weary event volunteers got a nice salute of appreciation from the riders. It was a good way to end the 2005 GRR and everyone seemed to have a nice time. GRR organizers Daryn Dodge, Dan Shadoan, and Ann Lincoln did a terrific job overall and deserve our praise. I hope the next event in 2009 will be similarly successful.
The list of GRR finishers, a route profile, and other information can be found at: http://www.davisbikeclub.org/goldrush/