Caffeine Peter Colijn

August 13, 2017 (link)
Ride Reports: Gravel Gauntlet

For a few years now, I had wondered what it would be like to ride to some of Murphy's gravel rides, the "Gravel Gauntlet" series. Compared to other rides I've ridden to, Murphy's rides are a lot more intense, both in terms of the more technical nature of the roads and in terms of the pace needed to finish the ride. I wasn't sure if I would be able to ride to and from all of them (both from a logistical/timing standpint and from a fitness standpoint), but I figured I would at least ride to the first one.

Panoche Desert Hills

Because the Murphy rides are a lot more technically challenging than most road rides, I decided I should get at least some sleep before the ride itself, rather than riding through the night to start the ride in the morning without sleep. As such, I booked myself a room at the "lovely" Best Western Apricot Inn. My plan was to ride down there after work on a Friday, do the ride itself on Saturday, and ride home after. From work to the hotel would be almost exactly 200km.

The Friday before the ride happened to be Saint Paddy's Day, so I rode down to work with some friends on our traditional pre-work barway, on my gravel bike and carrying everything I would need for the whole weekend (extra kit, toiletries, etc.) I left work at around 1530 and figured if I could manage 25kph (a solid "long distance" pace for me, without tiring myself out too much for the ride itself) I would get to the hotel at 2330 and be able to sleep a solid 6-7 hours.

The first 100km or so went quite smoothly. Leaving work and getting through Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and San Jose sucked due to all the mega-long suburb lights. (Why do suburbs make their traffic lights take 10 minutes per cycle? It's SO ANNOYING.) But, once I was through that and on to Monterey Road, things were going pretty well. I had a bit of a tailwind and not too long after the turn on to CA-152 I stopped a place called Casa de Fruta to get some dinner. As the name might suggest, they sell fruit, but there's also a restaurant. Turns out the only vegetarian food they had was their breakfast stuff, so I had some French toast and coffee and coke before heading out.

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The rest of the ride to the hotel would be a small climb (Pacheco Pass) on CA-152, then various small roads winding south next to I-5. The climb went well, as I still had a bit of a tailwind and was feeling pretty good after dinner. However, it was dark at this point and during the descent I was going fast enough (70-80kph) that it was hard to keep up with all the shit in the shoulder even with my headlights cranked all the way up. I flatted about 1/3rd of the way down, but fortunately in a controlled (i.e. not spectacular) way, and managed to find a decent pullout area to fix it.

With the descent done, I just had the "easy" flat part next to I-5 to get to my hotel. Or so I thought. I had created the route on ridewithgps following Google Maps directions, but in the dark it was incredibly hard to follow. It would tell me to turn at seemingly random locations where I couldn't even see a trail, let alone a road. Getting through this section involved a lot of hopping fences with scary "no trespassing" signs. A lot of it was directly beside the aquaduct, which I guess is supposed to be restricted to prevent people from dumping stuff into it? In any case, I was pretty worried about getting caught during this stretch, and got another flat to add insult to injury. I considered more than once whether I would get in more trouble for riding on I-5 or these "closed" roads, but decided that there were way more people on I-5 who would probably call in a cyclist. At one point in a restricted area I passed a house where a dog started barking and chasing me, and was super worried somebody would come out and yell at me, but I was lucky and nothing came of it.

Eventually I landed at my hotel, but at 0030 it was way later than I had hoped due to my flats and navigational issues. In order to get something to eat and make it to the ride on time the next morning, I'd have to set my alarm for 6ish. I think I chose 0615 just to give myself that extra 15 minutes of "luxury", with the understanding that there would be no time for snooze. But, before hitting the sack I had a few things to take care of. I patched the tubes that I had flatted earlier in the evening, so I'd be back up to my full complement (3) for the ride the next day, and got a giant fruit smoothie from Micky D's, the only source of food that was still open next to the hotel. I also briefly hopped in the hotel pool in an effort to loosen my legs, but it was freezing cold so I didn't stay in long.

When I woke up in the morning I was still pretty tired, and hadn't slept well since I was anxious about missing my alarm and getting to the ride on time. I got some of the free hotel breakfast, said hi to my friends Pau and Rebecca, and rolled to the start.

The first third of the Panoche course is definitely the hardest. After a quick, flat road section you are plopped on to a super steep, unrelenting dirt climb. I had grand illusions of trying to stick with the front group, but after the first few rises it was clear that wasn't going to happen in my current state. After the climb there's a pretty terrifying descent before the first rest stop, where I was extremely disappointed to find absolutely no coke (but plenty of beer, for some reason). I drank a lot of water and tried to eat some stuff, but a lot of the food was too dry to eat easily, so I rolled out in search of coke at the next rest stop.

Between the first and second rest stops, the course is pretty straightforward except for one creek/river crossing where I couldn't manage to avoid getting my shoes and socks completely soaked. Fortunately, they dried out fairly quickly. The climb up to the second rest stop is long but not nearly as steep as the first climb, and I was able to keep a pretty steady pace up it. The second rest stop had plenty of coke, so I had two and ate a lot (they also had grilled cheese; thanks Chris!)

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From there, the course is a sort of roller coaster ride down to the third and final rest stop, followed by a flat "roadie burn" section through some fields/vineyards back to the start. I left the last rest stop with a few folks and we worked together for a bit to get to the finish. I think I was 19th overall or something like that, not terrible all things considered.

Of course, I was happy to have finished the ride itself, but I still had the ride home to contend with. My route would take me on Panoche Road all the way over to CA-25, then through Hollister and Watsonville and up CA-1 back to the city. It would be 300km from the ride finish, which seemed a bit daunting as I was sitting at the finish feeling pretty beat from the ride itself. I had some food, allowed myself to have one beer (and chose a pretty weak one), refreshed ye olde chammy cream, and rolled out.

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I stopped briefly at the gas station next to the hotel to buy some water and cokes to get through the night before continuing on to Panoche Road. The first part of the road is very rough and gravelly, and ironically I was listening to a podcast about infrastructure and how some states were reverting paved roads back to gravel roads while riding it :P I had do the creek/river crossing again, and then it was on to a long, slightly 'breezy' slog through dusk and in to night.

There was a climb up to Panoche Pass, though it was fairly gentle so when I saw the sign for the summit it felt a bit anti-climactic. The descent that followed was quite fun, though, and I soon found myself at the intersection of Panoche Road and CA-25. I stopped to have a drink, shuffle my water bottles and eat some food. This intersection, and the following ride through Hollister, Watsonville, Santa Cruz and up CA-1 back to SF would become a staple of my gravel gauntlet adventures, but I didn't know that yet. From the intersection it would be almost exactly 200km to my front door.

The ride down to Hollister and through to Watsonville and Santa Cruz went surprisingly quickly. I was excited to get to Santa Cruz, since that's where I felt like I would be on the "home stretch", so to speak. I was running a bit low on supplies and felt pretty tired in Santa Cruz, and I knew it would be the last place with anything open probably until Half Moon Bay (since at this point, it was the wee hours of the night). As a result, I stopped at a Safeway to get some more drinks and snacks. I especially needed salt, so I scarfed down most of a big bag of chips, and filled my water bottles with coke. Not exactly health food, but it got the job done.

Rolling out from Santa Cruz, I was a bit worried about the wind, but I actually got really lucky on this occasion and didn't have the traditional northerly wind. It was either calm or a slight tailwind almost the whole way up the coast. I'm not terribly familiar with the section of CA-1 between Santa Cruz and Pescadero, so I just kind of took things as they came and enjoyed it for the most part. Unfortunately, my backpack was really starting to hurt and as a result I ended up stopping for breaks more often than I wanted.

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When I finally did pass Pescadero and then a little while later the turn to Stage Road that I'm familiar with from coming southbound, I was very excited and definitely felt like I was back in my backyard. The rest of the ride, past Tunitas, Higgins, Half Moon Bay, Moss Beach, etc. was very familiar to me.

I made my way gingerly through Pacifica and up Skyline Drive before cruising down Callan and on to Mission to get home well before noon. As usual, showerbeer, Strava and sleep were all deeply appreciated.

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