The Solvang Century
Well over two decades ago, a good friend talked my brother and me into riding the Solvang Century bike ride. It took several years of talking, because my brother and I swore off 100 mile rides after our first. We were totally unprepared both mentally and physically for that ride, which we must have made sometime in the late 1970s.
I'm glad Greg – the long-time manager of the old Bikecology store in Santa Monica, California – was ultimately so persuasive. On our second century, we were physically prepared and Greg served as our mentor to prepare us mentally. In particular, he cautioned us to set our own pace.
The Solvang century (and half century), a grand circle of a route held in the heart of the Central Coast Mountains of California, was a terrific ride. Since that first time, long ago, I've ridden all but one of the following Solvang centuries (and few half-centuries), and I've usually tried to keep Greg's advice in mind.
Herewith is my report of the 2010 ride.
Heading North on Highway 101, north of Ventura
For the past few years, I've had to travel to Solvang by myself. This year, with substantial rainfall in California, the drive was especially beautiful. The skies were blue, and streaked with clouds, while the green landscape was awash in places with wild mustard, blue lupine, and, near Solvang, golden poppies.
Solvang is a little town about 45 minutes north of Santa Barbara. It's a lovely place to live, and lots of fun to visit, as it's modeled on the popular conception of what a Danish village looks like. In fact, Solvang was originally settled by Danes.
Coming from different parts of the state, four of us met at a mutual friend's home, about a mile from the start of the ride. Staying with our friend, Lisa, has become a tradition over the past several years. We usually take Lisa out to dinner at the Hitching Post, located in nearby Buellton; the restaurant was featured in the wine-themed film, Sideways.
After dinner, we officially registered for the ride, where I picked up yet another bike jersey (for which I am both humbly ashamed and viscerally excited), a souvenir pair of socks, 'fridge magnet, route directions, etc. The cost of the ride is put to good use, which includes some charities, plenty of food, help from the local gendarmes, bike mechanics at each stop, emergency sag wagons, etc.
After registering, we toured the bike expo. Following tradition, I headed immediately to the Kucharik booth, which always features a wonderful selection of cyclists' clothing. The elder Mr. Kucharik is regrettably gone from the scene, but his son, John, still runs this family business from it's southern California base.
Returning to Lisa's home, we spent some time talking, and noted a change in the weather forecast. For a week, the prediction had been for mild temperatures and sun. Now the prognostication was for overnight rain sweeping down rapidly from the northern reaches of the state, followed by darkly-clouded skies and cool temps for the duration of the ride.
Bedding down felt half like camping and half like being back in a dorm. For once on the eve of the ride, we were asleep fairly early, and I managed to sleep well. I did wake up about 2 a.m., and checked the weather on my iPhone: now were were to have sunny skies in the morning, and wind throughout the day.
Lisa came out to wish us well
By 6 a.m., when we woke, the forecast had changed again: sunny skies, a high of 63 degrees F, and windy. By the time we pushed off, about 7 a.m., the thermometer registered about 45 degrees. I decided to forgo my leg warmers, which would prove to be a mistake, but wore both arm warmers and a windbreaker, and a cycling cap under my helmet.
One of the obligatory rituals
Yvonne and Silas
The scene a few blocks into the ride – most of the ride is free of traffic lights and stop signs
Over 5,000 cyclists were geared up for the ride, on fancy road bikes and in colorful clothing. For me, there is a sense of connection when I join that many cycling aficionados, which is as much pageant as it is an athletic undertaking. I know I am an individual, yet I'm part of a greater whole. And I know that I will have to earn my way to the finish line.
The ride begins with a long, leisurely descent from Solvang, west to the even small town of Buellton. In the early morning, the route is particularly lovely. The open road offers views of the surrounding countryside and Coast Range mountains, and the climbs are fairly gentle and mostly brief. In about 20 miles or so, I would reach the first rest stop, in the town of Lompoc.
There was one ingredient this year adding a degree of unanticipated difficulty: the wind. It seemed to be blowing steadily in my face. To ameliorate its effects, I'd hook onto the back of one pace line or another, or try to suck the wheel of someone with a larger physique than my own; I saved quite a bit of energy that way. None-the-less, I was a little sorry I hadn't worn my leg warmers, which weigh nothing, and would have made me more comfortable for much of the ride.
"Don't look back, something might be gaining on you" – Satchel Paige
Cruising into Lompoc well ahead of my friends, I had time to make a photograph of someone who still proudly wears what I think is a fine example of the first commercially successful hard-shell, and legendary, bike helmet, made by Bell.
Back on the road, climbing began in earnest; my cyclometer would register more than 1,800 feet of elevation before we would reach the next rest stop.
Up one, long hill.....
Down the other side
Pushing the pace to the second rest stop
Heading toward Santa Maria and the third rest stop
For whatever reason, I rode with more "con brio" than usual. Perhaps, after having a couple of stents placed in a coronary artery, I wanted to prove something to myself: that I still have some heart. Maybe, as I age, I don't want to feel as old as I am. Or as Satchel Paige said, "Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter." I pushed myself to chase down other riders, or to stay on the back of some of the lines of cyclists sweeping past me. I didn't slack off when I faced into the wind alone.
For several miles I hung onto one small group of riders, led all the way by a woman who looked to be about 40; she was indefatigable. At some point the riders in front of me dropped off her pace and she gained several yards on us. Trying to make up the distance lost pulled me onto the back of another line of riders who'd dropped me earlier. This time I stuck with the line, and then passed them by a little before the third rest stop at the Santa Maria airport, about 60 miles into the ride.
After Santa Maria, the wind began to blow at my back, instead of in my face. The setting was as rural and as beautiful as anywhere else on the route. At the base of a series of climbs, I stopped to peel off my windbreaker; my legs were cold no longer.
And I began to warm to my task. I'd already ridden 15 miles farther than I'd managed since the previous last July, yet I knew I was capable of finishing the final 40 miles. Even though I knew it would might bring on leg cramps, I began to push even harder. While I was caught now and then by younger riders (most of the strong cyclists had probably already passed by me), I began to pass every cyclist in front of me, on the hills, on the flats, on the downhills.
The next stop was near the tiny community of Sisquoc (“meeting place” in the language of the Chumash Indians), on a ranch. This is my favorite spot to take a break on the ride; I like it because it's the most rural of all the stops, tucked between green hills, next to a cute, red ranch house.
This man needs some Spiz (the ride's official sports drink)!
By now I'd stopped eating solid food; I wanted only more water, mixed with the interestingly-named energy powder, Spiz (which is the sports drink that I believe is the creation of Randy Ice, the person who started the Solvang Century almost three decades ago).
The human spirit to succeed can be inspiring. Look at the "stoker" on the tandem, in photos above and below. Note she has only one leg. (Earlier in the ride, I noticed a rider with his left arm in a sling.)
There were many tandem teams this year
There were more hills, notably the one just beyond the Foxen Canyon winery, which came after eight or nine miles of gentle upgrade. I took a break before that hill, downing a couple of electrolyte tablets, as I had done earlier in the day; the makers promise these tablets help overcome cramping. I did suffer some cramps, but I simply pushed through it. I think the Spiz and the Endurolyte tablets worked.
With a little under 20 miles to go, I was like a horse to home. It was time to put away the camera and concentrate on turning the cranks. As I had for most of the day, I often elected to shift up to a higher gear, rather than a lower one, on the final hills. It seemed counterintuitive – to make it harder, rather than easier, to turn the pedals.
Yet it worked. Although I spun my legs slower, I went faster. I was still following Greg's advice: I was following my own pace, a pace which this year happened to push me closer to my limits.
My ride was, in a way, like a metaphor of life. Is it not true that at least sometimes it's worth it to shift up a notch or two, to push ourselves to reach a goal? To strive, even against the odds? To test ourselves against ourselves, or against others, against even the forces – wind and gravity – of nature? And is it not right that, at least sometimes, we accept with grace the outcome of our struggles when it's not in our favor?
The last descent
Parking space for bikes
The final height was gained, just above Solvang; I savored the last downhill, re-entering a mass of riders heading for the finish line. I parked the my bike and enjoyed a few minutes walking through the bike expo, surrounded by the other cyclists who had completed their own journeys, who, like me, had found themselves not wanting in the effort.
Next year, my spirit will want to return to Solvang. And if the flesh wills it, too, I will return. I'll make the beautiful drive up the coast, see my good friends, stay at Lisa's lovely home, enjoy dinner at the Hitching Post, ride through the green landscape, and set a pace to test myself against myself.