We had made big plans, big goals—100 miles of dirt and road split 50/50, with 10,000 feet of climbing. Lofty stuff. We had our bikes ready, our minds prepared, our pockets packed and our attitudes adjusted. What we lacked was a Plan B.
The Redlands Strada Rossa is a relatively new ride. This was its third year and the first offering a 100 mile course. The previous two capped off around 100 kilometers. For those unfamiliar, Redlands is about 70 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It’s part of what’s known as the Inland Empire. Fontana, Ontario, San Bernardino and Riverside are some of its neighbors. The city of Redlands is fairly flat but to its north, south and east, are foothills.
For most SoCal folk, Redlands is not a place for a day of fun and recreation. It just doesn’t come to mind. Instead, Redlands gets the description of being dry, dusty, boring—someone close to me refers to the area as “Dirtville.” That’s really not nice. And not fair.
Add water to Redlands and the city has a nice shine. Rain keeps flying dirt grounded and turns the foothills into a beautiful, emerald backdrop. And Redlands, while not the bright lights of Hollywood, does have its claims to fame. A Facebook page devoted to Redlands’ star power says that Joan Baez went to high school there, Mr. Green Jeans of Captain Kangaroo was a Redlands resident and magician Harry Blackstone Jr. has ties.
We rolled to Redlands before dawn, our minds to fuzzy due to lack of sleep and diverted by the big day ahead. My friends Carey, Marilyne and Bob had also committed to this day of Gravel madness. All of us on ‘cross bikes with light knobs. Three of us mounted Specialized Trigger Pros, 33mm, tubeless. More on bike setup a little later.
The Redlands Strada Rossa is run by the area’s bike coalition, The Inland Empire Biking Alliance. The IEBA is all about getting more people on bikes. The Strada Rossa is just something they do. They have one of the smartest entry fees. It was $65 for the 100 miler. But by joining the Alliance for $15, the entry fee is reduced to $45. Pretty easy choice.
The sign in and start location were at the Bicycle BBQ. It’s one of those co-op bike shops run by the Alliance. The finish was at a house a few blocks away. It was classic, grass roots stuff. About 80 had committed to the full route. There was a nine hour cut-off.
The dirt came quickly. Less than five miles in we hit our first sector. We were still in the flats but the struggle was on. Sand, loose stuff and unfamiliar lines brought the senses alive. Some strong boys, led by Neil Shirley, were at the front ready to make a race of it. The rest of us just hoped to find a comfortable group with someone who knew where we were going. The route sheet was two-and-a-half pages long. There were more than 100 turns.
My mishap came at the bottom of the first technical section. I’m pretty sure I was on the Shelton Trail. My chain dropped and got tangled up in my chain watcher. Yuck. Carey and Marilyne were behind and stopped to help. Good thing because it took four hands to get my chain back in place.
At mile 14 we caught Bob. Flatted. He had just finished repairs. Our race was done. No glory in our future but 85 miles of adventure were still in front of us. At least we hoped.
We hit Yucaipa Regional Park and began a series of single track climbs and descents. During the first ascent towards Zanja Peak, we could hear a bagpiper. It took a while to bring him into view—we followed our ears. The groan of the pipes, the green hills and the remnants of the morning fog lent the feel of the Scottish Highlands. That sense was erased when someone in front of us came across a rattlesnake. We yielded to the snake.
The park is where we also had our second flat. Carey took a rock to the sidewall. Sealant temporarily did the job but eventually he would need a tube. This was also the first time I started having thoughts that this ride may be cut short. We were about 30 miles in and had been riding for three hours. The RSR is front loaded with dirt and climbing. So with the second flat fixed we aimed for the next set of hills with the idea that the back half of the ride would be a place to make some real time. It didn’t take long for that dream to end.
The flats kept coming. Bob was the lone victim. In a ten mile period he must have had four. Wildwood Canyon was right there in front of us but we made little progress towards it. The series of flats turned from frustrating to funny. All we could do was laugh. With two tubes remaining between the four of us we cancelled the 100 mile effort and headed for the 100k route. Then came another flat. And another.
Yucaipa is another town near Redlands and it does have a bike shop. At mile 42, we flipped around and headed for town. I can proudly report, the Yucaipa Bike Center has a fine selection of tubes. We stocked up and then waived the white flag. At this point our puncture per ten miles was exceeding 1:1. The math said go home.
We’d filled our stomachs with jambalaya and beer by the time the 100 mile finishers started coming in, just after 3:00 pm. That’s a little more than 8 hours—FOR THE LEADERS. We knew we had done the right thing. The Redlands Strada Rossa promises a challenge and good times but does not guarantee search parties.
This story may sound incomplete but it’s not. I was, and I believe my ride partners were too, happy with how the day was spent. “Gravel Grinding” is what some have tried to label it and I use that term too. But the more I do them, the more I prefer “Adventure Rides.” Because grinding is just that. It’s plodding along until the finish shows up. Adventure is really what can and should happen. Yeah, sometimes that adventure involves a half dozen or more tubes. But I will take the unexpected over the predictable any day.
Some notes on the Redlands Strada Rossa:
- If you plan on doing the ride in 2017, the 100k gives a much higher chance at completion. And it’s plenty of course. But if you must, here’s the 100 miler on paper.
- Due to the time of year, the dirt should be in excellent shape. However, there are technical sections and plenty of sharp, sidewall-slashing rock. Some people do ride road bikes with 28s. The organizer strongly recommends a ‘cross bike. We say ride the latter with tubeless tires. A light, 29er is not a bad choice either. A 100 mile rider finished in 8:04 on a mountain bike.
- The aid stations are well stocked with fresh fruit, granola bars and gummy bear-type candies. We only saw plain water so bring your own mix.
- The finish house is just that, a house. You sit in someone’s backyard with the chickens and dogs, eat a hot-cooked meal and listen to a live band. You are an hour from L.A., but it seems so far removed.
- The locals are the best. During one of Bob’s flat stops, a lady stopped and offered Bob a Gatorade and a Coke. He accepted both. And then she drove home, got him a tube, and drove it back. This bike angel was Joy McCulloch of the KHS Cycling Team. They are based in Redlands. She also gave me a Coke.
Final thought: Start the Redlands Strada Rossa. Do not worry about finishing.