As I rolled toward the crossing, I scanned the scene quickly. The run-in was steep, with a short stretch of mud before giving way to the slates and ochres of the river rock, seen below more than two feet of water. The far bank was twice as muddy.
It was the—I don’t recall how many stream crossings there had been, or were in total. I lost count. Some I rode straight across. Some required dismounts due to either ultra-steep entries or exits. One had a crazy entry between a tree trunk and its root followed by a drop to the water. By the time I got to the last few, I dismounted for no good reason other than fatigue.
Why was I so tired? Well, Bike Monkey’s SoNoMas is a 35-mile mountain bike race that rings Lake Sonoma like handcuffs. The course is as flat as the emotion of an unmedicated bipolar. The only real issue is just how steep the terrain was from moment to moment.
Despite the recent El Nino, trails in Sonoma County have dried out to the degree that a kindergartener colors inside the lines. It’s pretty good, but not perfect. I’d chosen to ride the only bike that was handy, a 27-plus hard tail with what proved to be an overgeared 1x drivetrain. The course opens with a road climb that takes you to the trail head where you turn onto the dirt. Factor out the sections of road that open and close the race and more than 95 percent of the course is singletrack.
The course is a single, massive loop, and because it’s part of a larger trail system, without Bike Monkey’s frequent signs directing riders, complete with signs saying “WRONG WAY” to keep us on the correct course, I’d have likely found myself somewhere in Lake County. Not only did the organizer make sure the course was signed, but knowing that many would race it with only a bottle or two, they had several water stops early in the course along with two full-serve water and food stops late in the course. If you bonked—which was easy to do because eating on such an unrelenting course was like trying to solve Rubik’s Cube while high—it wasn’t their fault.
I may have arrived with an intent different than some folks. Early in the race, it was important to stay close to the rider ahead of you, or be prepared to let the rider behind pass. That’s racing, right? I was an hour in before things broke up enough that I could ride at my own pace and pursue the race that I wanted, which was to see what I could sustain without chasing someone else’s wheel.
Years ago I recall reading an interview with drag racer Shirley Muldowney. In it, she dissed Janet Guthrie, the first woman ever to race the Indy 500. Of Guthrie’s performance Muldowney said, “Janet Gurthrie didn’t race the Indianapolis 500. She drove the 500.” It took me a few years to understand just what she was saying, but it speaks unequivocally to the difference between chasing the podium and simply surviving. That quote came to me as I entered a right hander and braked more than was truly necessary, and coming out of it, I pedaled hard, but not at a rate that would have caused a coach to talk about something like threshold power. I was riding SoNoMas.
I’m good with that.
I’m good with that, in part, because I was never under any illusion that I might ride at threshold for more than four hours. I’m not that variety of fit, haven’t been for more than 10 years, but to ride tempo with repeated threshold efforts, well I could at least attempt that.
SoNoMas comes with no ordinary warning. As the site says, “If you get yourself into this, there is only one way out.” All races advise you to be careful, to consider your ability. SoNoMas is different in that the 35 mile loop includes very few bailout points. There are three between mile six and mile 10. However, if you bonk 24 miles in, or break your seatpost or destroy a wheel, buddy, you’re on your own. There is an aid station at mile 21 manned with first responders, so there is backup in case of a real emergency, but parts of the course are truly remote.
Near the last bail point I passed a guy walking his bike. I asked if he was alright. He said he was and then gave a disgusted grunt. “I tore out all the spokes in my front wheel.” I have no idea what he went into, but his front wheel did look like some minimally spoked time trial wheel. I was glad that he was okay and was nearly back to the road. I’ll admit that I didn’t want to give up my ride to help him … but I would have had it been necessary.
It was at the final rest stop, some six-ish miles from the finish I saw a rider I’d spent time with on the opening climb on the road. He had a chain tool in his hand. There but for the grace of God and all that. He had broken his derailleur hanger and was doing the only thing you can do in that instance. Single up. At one point it looked like he had the chain set, but the moment he pedaled, the chainring threw the chain. Start over.
Looking at the course profile, I count 21 climbs long enough to be noteworthy. Terrain that you’d call flat, as in flat for long enough to make eating easier, well I don’t recall that except on the road. Here’s the stunner to me: there was so much terrain that shot upward at beyond 20 percent, I walked more of that course than I’ve walked on any other occasion. For this, I blame SRAM. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think 1x is an all-cases solution. Eagle may change that, but I’m inclined to stick with Shimano just so I can have two chainrings. The death of the front derailleur is an event prematurely reported.
The real problem I faced is that early in the race I gutted my way up too many steeps and I paid the price in the second half. As I fatigued I found myself unable to power through even more reasonable terrain and Strava made that second-half collapse painfully clear. No matter.
I may count as a local, but I see this land through a stranger’s eyes. Dry Creek Valley is an interesting place, not a suburban place, capital “C” Country. Over the years the area has been quarried for chert, mined for mercury and served as the bread basket of the Pomo Tribe. Deer and wild pig are still plentiful and the animals are hunted in season. Underbrush can be heavy and trails dive in an out of cover provided by oaks and redwoods.
There were multiple times when I pulled over just to take in the view. Land access is a growing issue for mountain biking and I couldn’t help but marvel at how fortunate we were to be riding at this location. Photos seemed necessary. Giving up another minute to riders ahead or behind me mattered less than whether you rinse and repeat when washing your hair. Twenty years from now, which is going to matter more, that I didn’t slow down or that I did, and when I did, I pulled over to get the opening shot of Lake Sonoma? In twenty years, unless I’ve pulled a Descartes and “overthrown all my preconceived notions,” I’ll be grateful for the few photos I captured.
A recurring theme in conversation here at RKP is why someone would pay to do a ride or race when they could do it on their own for free. I’ll grant that I didn’t require much from the rest stops, though I did take advantage of a Coke at one station. Without Bike Monkey’s course markings, map checks would have added at least another hour to the day. And then there’s the fact that the nearest town—Geyserville—is a bit of an outpost and there’s but one place for food (other than wine) within a 15-minute drive of Lake Sonoma, so Bike Monkey’s post-race paella wasn’t just welcome, it rescued a fair number of us. I sipped a Lagunitas IPA as I chowed, feeling the weight of the day, the helmet still on my head.
Final thought: There’s always next year.