I saw the trail of wet drops before I noticed the rider bent over his bike. They culminated in a multicolored puddle between his legs that caused me to think, “I wish throwing up could make me feel better.” I’ll get to the source of my pain in a bit. Honestly, I was impressed that he’d been able to go so deep. But this was the first big climb of the day and there was another climb to come that was going to be like bank robbery—easy enough to start, but really tough to see through to success.
And while I knew all the trails I was riding, I’d never hit them without occasional stops to recover. Sustaining such a pace was humbling.
When I made my list of reasons for wanting to move to Sonoma County, Bike Monkey events were honestly in my top ten of reasons. I like being around people that celebrate cycling culture. I also dig people who go out of their way to make a memorable day, rather than just a finish line.
With the exception of the Howarth Park Dirt Crits (which are too short to count for this occasion), the Bike Monkey events I’ve ridden all start the same way—with me hopeful that I’ll discover a new level of fitness within. They all also finish the same way—with me utterly wrecked, but happy and smiling. In terms of giving good race, they’re batting 1.000.
The Annadel race is Bike Monkey’s signature, even more than Levi’s Gran Fondo. First, Annadel is right in the back yard of Bike Monkey’s Santa Rosa home. It doesn’t get closer than this. And owner Carlos Perez started as a mountain bike event promoter, so a race through Annadel State Park is a showcase of what he wants a race to be.
Depending on the category participants choose, the course is either 19 or 25 miles. There are trails enough that that you can send people on a 25-mile course at the edge of the city and never loop back over previously ridden trail. That tells you a lot about what a gem Annadel is.
But it’s crazy difficult. Consider that on the opening descent I got bounced left by a rock, failed to sufficiently shimmy around a tree, tagged the end of the bar and ended up down and in a heap so quickly most of the fall wasn’t even committed to the hard drive. Oh, and I broke my finger and bent a brake lever.
A short time later I saw Levi Leipheimer coming back down the fire road. What I didn’t know was that someone out for an early morning ride had decided to descend the fire road the race was ascending, nevermind the signage. The dude had plowed into him and destroyed his front wheel. Leipheimer nursed it back to the start, got a new wheel and then started the race all over again. Of course, I didn’t know that until a good bit later.
Putting on a race in a state park like Annadel isn’t easy and to ensure that Bike Monkey would have access to the park for years to come, two years ago they submitted a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) study. As one friend explained it to me, it’s basically an Environmental Impact Report on steroids. The upshot is that Bike Monkey agreed to do an extraordinary amount of work to mitigate the impact of the race and ensure preservation of the park’s sensitive areas. That meant taping off sensitive flora and hammering home the message to stay on the trail at all times, among other measures.
So why go to so much trouble? Most mountain bike events I’ve done in my life that accommodated more than 100 or so racers were held on blown-out trails and fire roads that didn’t do much to challenge you. Annadel, by comparison is a constant test. I had to ride in a manner completely different to what I normally do there, backing off on spots because I knew a big technical challenge was around the bend and I needed to have something in reserve to clean it and there’d be no chance for later recovery.
Annadel draws plenty of dedicated mountain bike racers, but it also draws a number of people who just love to ride mountain bikes, and ride them hard. So on the start line, you see plenty of trail bikes. People just run what they brung; to race Annadel is to publicly state how much you love this place. If you win, well, you’re a badass, but most of us aren’t even vying for the podium. You could say we’re okay-ass.
One of the real testaments to Bike Monkey’s ability to unite North Bay cycling culture is that why NorCal Bike Sport had neutral support at the start of the race, at the far end of the course, following the rocky, dusty and well-forested descent of Lawndale, Kevin Gambini, the owner of Breakaway Bikes was on-hand to lend support. I can attest to this first-hand as he handed me a bottle to drink while he straightened my bar and adjusted my brake lever into a reachable position.
The 19- and 25-mile courses rejoin late in the race and after working through some traffic I could hear another rider behind me start complaining about all the slower riders in our way. The voice sounded familiar, but I was so shut down and into another realm mentally, I wasn’t really paying that much attention to what he said. Then I tapped my brakes in a turn and he shouted out, “Don’t hit your brakes now, man! Hammer!” Or something along those lines. I can’t be certain. What I am certain of is that I recognized the voice as belonging to Leipheimer. He had caught me and was now having some fun heckling me.
I laughed so hard I had to scoot over to let him by.
Once clear, he did another funny thing; he looked over his shoulder to check if I was on his wheel. I swear, I went as hard as I was able, considering my condition, and despite the fact that I was on a 5-inch trail bike and he was on a 4-inch cross-country race bike, he dropped me on the descent into the finish.
After crossing the line, I got a splint and a couple of wrist bands that entitled me to two beers and a big plate of paella. Not everyone needed a splint, but I’m reasonably sure we all needed beer and food. For those who have had the paella at the finish of Levi’s Fondo, this is the same outfit. I could have wandered over to the iPads to check my finishing time; Perez’ wrote the code for his Rhesus timing system and it serves up flawless results in real time. I could have, but didn’t. I didn’t need a clock to clarify my effort. Just talking myself into racing 23 miles with a broken finger was enough.
And while I competed in the Old Guys category, I’m hoping I’ll get to race my favorite category some day. It’s called the Over/Under and it’s pretty straightforward. It’s the lowest combined time of parent and child over the full course. That kid standing on the top step, Austin, can’t yet drive and rode away from me at the Dirt Crits each week. Kid’s going to be a monster.
If this sounds less like a traditional race report and more like a review of Bike Monkey, I’m good with that. Had it been almost any other event promoter, I’m not sure I would have done the race. I live next to these trails and can ride them any time I want. The culture and community Bike Monkey fosters is what was missing for me in so many SoCal events I did.
Images: Vic Armijo