I woke up knowing that it was going to be a long day but I felt like I had done everything I needed to be prepared. I had a good meal the night before, got a much sleep as I could, woke up on the right side of the bed and was fueling up for what was going to be my longest bike ride to date.
Over the last five months I had gotten way further into this new hobby that I thought I would. That said I sort of knew what I was in for. I am way, WAY too competitive to half ass it but at the same time I wasn’t looking to bust into the racing scene; I just wanted a challenge. I hadn’t really been challenged athletically since college. Sure I worked out but there was nothing that could compare to the pain, suffering and fun that crew brought into my life. For the last few years my excuse was that I was “catching up on all the sleep I had lost” during my college years but that left me sort of bored and looking for a reason to be in shape for something… anything really.
So in March I bought a bike and started riding. Five months later I was signed up, awake and ready to work through my first century ride. I probably wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have a group of people to ride with. Luckily enough one my awesome coworkers was embarking on this ride with some of his friends as well. So there I was, all suited up and ready to roll out from the Veteran’s Home in Yountville to cover 100 miles, roughly 5,600 vertical feet in what was going to be one of the hottest days of the summer (Sunday, August 16th).
We hit the road just after 6am. It was still in the 60 degree range which meant it was pretty damn comfortable. We had 10 or so folks in our group but with 2000 expected cyclists for the event we found ourselves along side quite a few others. I had done a few group rides before but had never ridden side by side and tire to tire with so many people before. The only thought going through my head was, “follow everyone else’s lead to figure out how things are done and don’t fuck up. You don’t want to be that guy causing a ruckus.”
We left Yountville, headed south toward the only part of the ride I had never done, which was taking Dry Creek Road up to the Oakville Grade then hanging a pretty quick left to go up and over Mount Veeder. I wasn’t too worried since I had the rest of the route down pat, I just didn’t want to hammer it for the first 40ish miles and be burnt out for the last 60. As we climbed up the hill we spread out slowly but surely, some breaking away and others hanging back and taking a bit more time to get to the top. I had already seen two other folks get flat tires by this point, barely 10 miles in, and I could only hope that my gear would hold tight for the day and not let me down. As luck would have it my chain jumped off about two-thirds of the way up this first climb but it was an easy fix. I really hoped it wasn’t a sign of things to come.
We hit the top of Veeder as the sun was starting to really shine. The valley was still pretty hazy from some of the fires in Lake County. We had a brief pit stop with a bagpiper to group back up and take some snapshots before heading down into Napa. The descent down Veeder was quick. Not knowing the road I sort of took my time … however, being a bit of a speed demon I pushed it where I felt comfortable only to hit an unexpected bump and feel like I was about to crash… and hard. I hit the breaks quickly thereafter and cooled my jets a bit. From there it was a quick ride to the first of five rest stops where we could snag some extra water and a bite to eat. We fueled back up, refilled water bottles and hit the road after a 5-10 minute break.
The next stop was just past Nichelini Winery on Highway 128 – so we had a ways to go. Through Napa and down the Silverado Trail was our route. We were cruising at what I felt like was a pretty solid pace. I wasn’t winded but I knew I was pushing it a bit. Then a few guys came cruising by our group of 10-15 and we settled in behind them at an even quicker pace. We road single file down the trail, whoever was “pulling” us at the front of the line would pull off as soon as they were feeling the burn a bit too much. Then it would be the next persons turn and so on and so forth. Soon enough it was my turn to lead this line of cyclists. I had no way to judge my pace, so I just dug in for what seemed like an eternity just trying to make sure I didn’t lose too much speed. It was the first time I had really noticed the difference between riding in the group and leading it. Long story short, drafting off of 10+ people is way easier than being the guy at the front doing all of the work. So I pulled as long as I could knowing that the route up 128 had a decent hill waiting for us. I peeled off to the side to catch my breath and let my legs rest a bit, getting a few thumbs-up and “nice jobs” from other riders and the guys I was riding with (I would later find out we were cruising at roughly 20-25 miles per hour from Oak Knoll to 128).
We turned off of the trail and started making our way up the couple small hills that Highway 128 provided. Slowly but surely you could see this once long group cruising down the trail break up into a BUNCH of small groups containing 3-5 people. The hills provided a decent challenge at that pace; especially those that didn’t know they had a hill to climb up. Just past Nichelini Winery we had our second rest stop. We were officially just under halfway through the ride and all of us seemed to be feeling pretty solid. We weren’t overly tired, thirsty or anything. In fact it felt like the last 48 miles had been a good warm up for the last 52 or so.
As we eased into the second half of the ride we knew there were two big challenges ahead of us: First it was starting to warm up, second was going up Ink Grade. The goal of the day, and the reason for leaving as soon as we could, was to beat the heat and be done with the biggest climb of the day before it was 108 degrees outside. From Nichelini to Ink Grade the crowd had definitely thinned out. By the time we made it to Ink Grade most everyone was riding individually and at their own pace up the hill, our group included. I had gone up this climb half a dozen time so I knew what to expect. There were two spots where I knew I would need to buckle down and push myself up the hill. For the rest of the climb I knew I could conserve some energy for last little bit of the ride. While I was pretty confident about going up the grade it was obvious that there were a few folks that didn’t know what to expect. By this point there were more and more people who were stopping to rest their legs, snag some more water, a snack or walk it out a bit just to keep moving. I kept my steady pace and worked my way to the top where a water station was set up complete with a hose of cold well water to chill back down as the temperature continued to rise.
As our group reconvened, we rested up for a few minutes before making our way down Howell Mountain. The good news was that it was literally all downhill from here but by the time we hit the valley floor at Deep Park Rd the heat was starting to make itself known. For the last stretch we made our way north along Highway 29 to Larkmead Ln. so that we could get back to the Silverado Trail and head south to the finish line in Yountville.
By the time we got to the final rest stop in St. Helena it was as hot as it was going to get for the day and we still had 12 miles to go. It was our last chance to cool off before we would be out in the sun and on the asphalt in triple digit heat. At this point we wanted to hit the road before and get the last stretch of road over with. Our group spread back out again as we made our way south. I was moving at a pretty good pace for being on my own by this point (as least it felt that way) then..
A large pop got my attention and immediately felt my rear tire go flat. I was back at the intersection where we turned up 128 earlier in the ride. I had 9 miles to go and there I was at a dead stop in the sun with a flat tire. I popped of my bike, cussing incessantly under my breath, as I started to change the flat. As I got the tire off and tube removed I noticed that the flat wasn’t just a popped tube but the sidewall of my tire was slightly shredded exposing some of the wire threading that makes up the tire. This mean one of two things:
#1 – I was either going to inflate my spare tube and limb my way to the finish line praying that the next flat I get would be as I pulled up to my car.
#2 – My spare tube would quickly be punctured and it would be triage to finish the century. If not a car ride home was in my near future which meant not finishing with 9 miles to go…
91 miles in and I wasn’t sure if I could get to that 100 mile mark. It was at this point that my coworker caught up with me and stopped help. I switched out the tube, got it inflated and we hit the road. As every mile went by I took a deep breath thinking, “I’ll make it… I’ll make it. The tire is fine. Just keep riding.”
We hung a right on the Yountville crossed road to get to the home stretch. At this point I decided that if I caught another flat I would walk the rest of the way just to say that I made it. The cycling gods that were out on Sunday decided to let me finish in one piece though. We rolled back into the Veteran’s Home safe, sound and without any more technical hiccups. 100.9 miles was where I clocked in at the end. I was a little dazed, confused, dehydrated, ready for a cold shower and a nap. So I did just that before seeking out some fries and a chocolate shake as a part of my recovery ritual.
It was an amazing experience. While it felt like we were riding through a convection oven at one point I couldn’t have been any happier to participate and finish such a fun challenge. Like I wrote somewhere else in this post, it has been a long time since I was challenged athletically but this was a challenge worth conquering…
…now it is time to seek out the next one.