Saturday, June 13, 2009

Riding Around the Bear

Well, Saturday was the big bike ride for which I’ve been training... biggest bike ride of my life. Realize that I haven't done a lot of cycling... I've only done one bike century before, and that was three years ago. I'm more of an "occasional cyclist." But in March, I began struggling with plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the arch of my foot) that limited my running, so I started biking a good bit again. I rode some big climbs I've always wanted to do (such as Palomar Mountain and Mount Baldy Road). After biking up Onyx Summit for the first time, I thought, why don't I attempt a biggie... the Ride Around the Bear. I always like a challenge. :-)

The Ride Around the Bear is one of the tougher bike centuries... 100 miles through the San Bernardino mountains, with over 9000' of climbing involved. The last climb is the toughest... topping out on Onyx Summit (8,443'), the highest paved road in SoCal.

I confess I was pretty intimidated by this ride. The event website states that this century was ranked one of the 10 most difficult centuries by Cyclist magazine and then warns in all-cap letters, "THIS IS NOT FOR BEGINNERS." Three years ago, I wanted to do this century but then backed out because I didn’t think I could make it up all the mountain climbs. But I wasn’t going to let that happen this year. The challenge motivated me to get my tail out the door and on my bike. Weekly rides up Hwy 38 became a regular staple of my main training.

In years past, sometimes the weather has been scorching hot for this ride... like in the 90s. Fortunately, we were blessed with thick "June gloom" (the SoCal term for the overcast cloud cover typical of this time of year). The low-hanging stratus clouds made for a moist start, and ten miles into the ride, it actually was raining in Highland at the start of the first big climb up Hwy 330... "It never rains in California..." ha!

On the rolling hills in the opening ten miles, I was taking it easy and got passed by a dude on a recumbent bike. I was going to draft off of him on the downhills, but I couldn't keep up with him without overdoing it. I thought, Yikes, I’m even more undertrained than I thought if I can't tail recumbent guy. But I passed him a little ways into the first climb and he told me he knew I’d pass him on the uphills. Nice guy. I hope it went well for him. I felt a little better for what lay ahead.

I've never biked up Hwy 330 before... and for good reason. It's a rather narrow two- and four-lane highway winding into the mountains with little to no shoulder. It was a little unnerving having traffic so close, but there's comfort in numbers since 400 of us would be biking up the road that day... spread apart with large gaps but all single file. And I will say, I liked the clockwise direction of the route we took. I'd much rather climb slowly up Hwy 330 and come flying down Hwy 38 than vice versa. There's more wiggle room on 38 for a fast descent when you get hit by an unexpected crosswind.

The climb up 330 was a long slow climb. We gained nearly 5000' elevation between miles 12 to 30. It was steeper than I expected, but I maintained a conservative pace and used my gears. I knew if I spiked my heart rate, I'd be toast for the day. The low-hanging clouds made for thick fog as we ascended. I was glad I was wearing my new fluorescent-yellow bike jersey... thanks, Lauren, for the discount!

I was making steady but gradual progress up the relentless slope of Hwy 330, when another disheartening moment occurred. I got passed by a tandem bike, yes, a tandem bike, that went cruising past me and quickly out of sight. I thought, Sheesh, I really must not be doing well. But I found out afterwards that tandem couple actually finished first last year... yes, they finished faster than every cyclist out there on any kind of bike. I was very, very impressed. They finished in 5th and 6th places on Saturday in 5:29. Wowser. I don't know if there is such a thing as competitive tandem bike races, but if there is, I'd bet the farm on that couple.

On the climb through the thick fog, another cyclist mentioned that there was a low ceiling on these clouds and we would probably come out of them about 5000'. I must admit, I doubted that was possible, but I didn't say anything and just hoped he was right. Sure 'nuf, when we got to Running Springs, we had climbed right out of the clouds into bright blue skies. It was really amazing as the skies just opened up and we were bathed in endless sunshine.

We then cruised along on the rolling hills of Hwy 18 from Running Springs, through Arrowbear, and on towards Big Bear. We passed Snow Summit Ski Resort where SAG stop #2 was located, but I skipped this one since I had plenty of liquids and food.

We climbed up to Lakeview Point (elev. 7,112') which is the highpoint on "Rim of the World Highway" (Hwy 18). As the climb tops out, you're suddenly greeted with some of the most amazing views of Big Bear Lake far in the distance... absolutely stunning vistas of unending mountains and forests. Way in the distance to the east, I spotted Sugarloaf Mountain and thought, We've gotta bike around that... even though it's still miles away. A swift steep descent down Hwy 18 (fortunately unaccompanied by vehicles) brought us to Big Bear Dam, the western end of Big Bear Lake.

At the dam, we took Hwy 38 around the northshore of the lake. Highway 38 would now serve as our route for the rest of the day, the last 60 miles. Biking along the lake brought back lots of memories. This was the first time I had been on parts of this pavement since I ran here in the Big Bear Marathon last September. Fortunately, I was logging these miles a whole lot faster by bike on Saturday. Later, I also cruised past dozens of tents in Serrano Campground where my son and I had camped just four weeks ago. Good memories.

I made a quick stop at SAG #3 at Dana Point. I woofed down some PB&J sandwiches and refilled on Gatorade, and then I was off again. But within a mile, I had my first mechanical issue. For some reason, my chain jumped off the big chain ring. But it was a quick fix and I was back on the road.

It was nice to tick off some quicker miles on the flatter roads along the northshore of the lake. My legs enjoyed the change of pace. The weather was absolutely perfect... highs in the low 60s and gorgeous sunny skies. Big Bear is famous as being one of the sunniest spots in the U.S., and it lived up to its reputation on Saturday.

Highway 38 turns right at the far eastern end of the lake, and I thought, And the climb begins.... From the turn, it's roughly 9 miles of distance and 1700' of climbing on up to Onyx Summit, the highlight (and highpoint) of this bike century. Fortunately, the grades are not too terribly steep, but the air gets thin and the climb seems relentless at this point.

I was pleasantly surprised to find my legs were not completely shot. I can't say I was flying up the road, but I was passing rocks and trees like they were standing still. I was counting down the white mile markers carefully because I knew Onyx Summit was precisely at MM 39.36. The 8,000' elevation sign was encouraging to see, and then a short bit later I grinned in huge relief as the summit sign came into view.... I knew I had done it. Memories of Heartbreak Hill in Boston popped unexpectedly in my head... the big obstacle was conquered and the downhills were ahead.

The Orange County Wheelmen (the group who run this great event) strategically positioned SAG stop #4 at the summit. It was well stocked with carbs galore and liquids to spare. I chowed down on some watermelon, and it never tasted so sweet. I must admit I took a bit too much time eating and savoring the moment at this stop, but the hard work was done. Other than one brief climb before Barton Flats, all that was left was forty miles of downhill back to Redlands. I just hoped my back wouldn't seize up on the stiff descent (and it didn't).

I saddled up, pointed my bike downhill, and was quickly hitting 30+ mph with little effort. Within a mile though, I pulled off to don my arm warmers. The wind was rather chilly at these speeds at high elevation.

Since this side of the summit was my main training for this century, I knew this stretch of highway very well... every mile marker, all the sights, and every curve. This really helped as I came upon the last evil climb before Barton Flats. It's a rather steep grade about a mile in length... just pure evil at that point. That would have been a rude awakening and very discouraging if I hadn’t been up it so many times already in training. So I geared down and cranked on up the hill.

Soon I was cruising through the roller-coaster hills and curves towards Angelus Oaks. I waved to the good people at SAG stop #5 but didn't stop. The last long steep descent lay ahead of me for the next 11 miles.

At Angelus Oaks, another cyclist came up on me. We decided to work together for the descent. But geez, I'm a pathetic descender. I don't know if I just have poor form or I'm too scrawny or if I just don't have the nerves of steel it takes to fly down a winding mountain road. I dunno. But in no time, the other cyclist picked up the draft of another cyclist and they were both gone. So I was left to careen down the mountain solo... just not as fast as they did. Now that I think about it, this whole century was pretty much a solo effort on my part. I doubt I biked more than five total miles of this entire thing in the slipstream of another cyclist. The riders were just too spread out and doing too many different speeds.

We cruised on through Mentone and on into Redlands… left on University and there was Sylvan Park, my car, and the finish line. Came rolling in just a few seconds before 1:00pm. Finished in 7:07 which surprised me. Before starting, I really didn't know what kind of time to expect, not even a ballpark figure... I was pretty much going to be satisfied just to finish. But I think the cool weather really helped, and I definitely finished sooner than I expected. According to my bike computer, my actual cycling time was 6:49 (the timer doesn't run when the wheels aren't turning)... so yeah, I guess I did eat and stretch a bit too long at my three SAG stops. I now see that I finished 95th out of 366 finishers (and 400 registered starters). I'm certainly no elite cyclist, but this occasional cyclist is satisfied with that time and place.

Thanks for reading, and my apologies for such a long recap. This was a completely new kind of thing for me so it's hard to describe. Reducing this seven-hour bike ride to an extended blog post doesn't really capture the experience. But I type all this out so at least I won't forget some of the memories. It really was a blast.