Davis 600K Brevet

Bruce Berg
May 2003

Every four years, Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP), the oldest running bicycling event in the world takes place. It is a 1,200 kilometer (750 mile) ride that must be completed within 90 hours, starting in Paris, going to Brest on the western coast of France and then returning to Paris. Approximately 3,500 riders start. To participate in this event, the have completed a series of rides. A 200, 300, 400 and a 600 kilometer (375 mile) brevet (qualifying ride). Each of these has a time limit, from 13.5 hours for the 200k to 40 hours for the 600k ride.

This year's 600 kilometer Davis Bike Club brevet was in early May. Starting at 4:00pm on Saturday and finished by 8:00am Monday. I was told by experienced PBP'ers that riders taking over 36 hours had a significantly smaller chance of completing PBP.

When I arrived in Davis at 3:00 pm it was raining steadily. Not a good sign. As I registered and picked up my brevet card it started to pour and visibility was terrible. Standing around with other randonneurs, the French term for long distance riders, we were all hoping the rain would let up. Luckily, by the time Daryn Dodge, the organizer, made a few comments and we headed out, the rain turned to a light drizzle. We all took off our rain gear within 5-10 miles as it clearly stopped raining. After a fearful beginning, things weren't looking so bad. With the excitement of 135 riders starting en mass, people were riding strongly for such a long ride. Also, we could see a small cloud dropping a lot of rain and approaching the valley we were headed for, so we wanted to get past that before the rain hit. Once we reached what's called Cardiac Hill, those who had pushed really hard started to slow down. Others charged ahead wanting to get in as many miles as they could before dark. I had decided I didn't want my heart rate over 140 - 150 on the early climbs. My experience and what I have read indicates more just takes too much out of you. The goal here was to keep going, not break speed records.

After about 74 miles, we rolled into Calistoga, the first control, as the French call a rest stop. This was the obvious place to get set for the night riding. I was riding with Wayne Dunlap, a friend I'd ridden with on many doubles. He had to repair his chain. By the time we were ready to go, it was pretty dark. We headed off towards our next destination, a 24 hour mini-mart in Cloverdale, 35 miles away.

A group of 8 rolled in around 11 pm including Elaine Astrue and fellow GPC'er Jim Bradbury, two experienced randonneurs who did PBP in 1999, and were a source of much helpful knowledge for the rest of us. Getting coffee and food at the mini-mart ready to keep us awake and going, we interrupted a stoned and bored group of teenagers. It was odd to see these two groups avoiding each other and very comforting not to be alone.

Leaving Cloverdale, we headed towards Mendocino on Highway 128. The grade steepened significantly for the first really tough climb of the ride. I found my pace matching Elaine's and we continued on up this steep climb until we turned back north onto Mountain House Road and a great descent. In the daytime, this is a quiet, demanding and very beautiful cycling road. On a very dark night with no moon, stars, homes or cars, it was comforting to be riding with Elaine. We were feeling good, so we kept on rolling. It was only 17 fairly level miles to the next control at a Motel 6 in Ukiah.

We rolled into that control at about 1:30am. We'd covered 140 miles in 9-1/2 hours, ahead of my own schedule. There were lots of riders eating and resting. Some used a motel room to get a few hours of sleep, but I was feeling pretty energetic after some soup and delicious rice balls. I lounged around some and then left with Wayne to go over Boonville Pass and out to the turn around, 40 miles away.

As soon as we started to climb, the rain started. I knew I'd be fine as long as we were climbing, but I was worried about being cold on the descent. The turn around was just a campsite in the woods near the ocean, affording no chance to warm up there. A good steady rain just kept coming. I really wasn't looking forward to a steep, very windy descent in slippery, pitch black conditions. Thankfully, I had splurged and bought a Schmidt hub generator and lights. As long as I was moving, the lights would keep working and I wouldn't have to stop and change batteries in the middle of a descent. Still, the descent was horrible. The switchback turns were hard to see around; the brakes barely worked in the rain and my hands just never got a rest.

About a fourth of the way down, we came upon another rider, Karen Bonnett. She's a strong rider who's done the Gold Rush Randonnee, a 1,200 kilometer brevet the Davis Bike Club puts on two years after each PBP. The three of us made our way down and through the absolutely quiet and dark hamlet of Boonville. With 20 miles to the turnaround in Paul Dimmick Campground I slid off the pavement shoulder, taking a minor fall as I tried to climb back onto the pavement and in the process, breaking the temple of my glasses. I had to tuck my mirror away, but luckily was able to keep the glasses on my nose. Reaching the campground, we were now half way, and every mile we rode brought us closer to Davis. The rain seemed to lighten at the campground, but we were soaked. We had to wolf down hot chocolate, soup and get on the road before getting seriously chilled. Some people around us didn't have any rain gear and were already chilled to the bone. The three of us headed back for Boonville, a gentle but steady climb. Wayne and Karen were feeling strong and I was barely hanging on. Finally, I just let them take off, relieved to keep an easier pace.

As I neared Boonville, the sky was getting lighter. I imagined a real breakfast and some hot coffee at a wonderful café in town, then remembered that a full breakfast before the climb back over Boonville Pass was not a great idea. Instead, I rode on, sucking on Hammer Gel to regain strength. The rain was not heavy and the fact that it was dawn gave me a wonderful feeling. The climb this morning was much easier. I descended into Ukiah looking forward to eating a lot, cleaning up and changing clothes.

When I pulled into the Ukiah control, they were serving fabulous strawberry waffles! I ate four, drank coffee and hot chocolate, got my gear and headed for a room where I could shower and change clothes. The day was looking up. I didn't see anyone else who looked ready to ride, so I headed south alone. The rain had finally stopped, so I took off the rain gear. About 10 miles later, I felt sleepy. All that food and no sleep were a great recipe for a nap. I wanted to keep going so I stopped in Hopland and got a large cup of coffee which did the trick. I headed up Mountain House Road with Curt and Rebecca from Marin Cyclists.

We had a spectacular descent into Cloverdale and pulled in to the control a bit before 3 pm. We ate sandwiches, lots of fruit and drank fluids. Leaving Cloverdale, we knew we now had almost 50 miles of fairly flat riding through the Alexander and Napa Valleys before we started the climb back over the Atlas Mountains to the Central Valley and Davis. The sun was out making a glorious afternoon. What a change from the previous night.

We made quick work of the climb past Lake Hennessey and headed on towards Moscowite Corner, pulling in just at dark. The temperature began to fall and we put on our arm and leg warmers and jackets, knowing it wasn't going to get any warmer before Davis. The ever cheerful volunteers at the controls were fixing soup, hot chocolate and just about anything else we wanted. We needed to really stoke up for the last 40 mile push to Davis. After we'd all fueled up, the four of us headed towards Cardiac Hill, the last climb of the ride. Oh did that thought feel good. We knew it would feel even better when it was over so we pushed on, staying in a real paceline. Also, our visibility would be better if we rode together at night. And, there would be a big payoff with a paceline on the descent and when we got down to the valley.

Back on the valley floor, my body was begging for a slower pace, but I knew it was worth sticking with the group. Somehow I did and thankfully, about 10 miles from Davis, we decided to stop at a 24 hour gas station for food. We knew the brevet was in the bag, but were all exhausted and just couldn't eek out another 10 miles without food. As we made our way towards Davis, I dropped off the back of the group with about 4 miles to go, but they slowed for me to catch up. At 11:13 pm, after 31-1/4 hours, we rolled up to the very welcome sight of Main Street Bagels the finish point for the Davis brevets. We'd made it and more important for us, it meant we were headed for Paris knowing we had completed this brevet with many hours to spare.

Editor's note: Bruce went on to complete Paris-Brest-Paris in August; he wrote an account of that as well.

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