In the days prior to Fish Rock, the weather forecast promised much, none of it to our liking. Even as a prediction of rain for Friday came and went, Saturday stubbornly stuck to its guns: rain. My concern about what sort of day would unfold only increased as I drove up to Boonville in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County. This is serious nowhere country, removed from the towns of Mendocino, Ukiah and Point Arena. Boonville is the dab in the middle of those. Hydroplaning on the 101 sparked a pessimism in me. What was I getting myself into?
Miracles, do happen though and by the time I had pulled into Boonville, the rain had stopped. The air held the chill of the low 50s. We began tap dancing near the start, bouncing on our feet to stay warm as the start time neared, then an announcement: The race was delayed by 45 minutes. Why? Well, there was snow up on top of the aptly named Mountain View Road. Bike Monkey impresario Carlos Perez wanted the snow on the road to melt before we passed that way.
My recollection of last year’s race was that it was the cruelest opening 15 miles I’d ever encountered. After the Low Gap Grasshopper I’m not positive on that, but it’s still on the podium. I told myself to stay calm and not try to do the whole climb in the first mile. Not 200 meters into the race the road turns up. Mountain View Road isn’t a single climb; it’s three shorter climbs followed by descents that took us first to 1100 feet, followed by a 700-ish foot drop, a climb to 2100 feet, followed by an 800-foot drop. A few rollers interrupt the incessant up and down, only to be followed by yet an 800-foot climb that took us to a height of 2400 feet.
While it was dry when we started, we didn’t stay dry for long. The forest gradually swallowed us as we made our way over Mountain View and nearly as quickly the rain began. This isn’t old-growth forest. The road is lined with smaller trees, bushes and grasses. Redwoods periodically rise above, making me wonder if those redwoods rising three stories were saplings when this area was logged. We passed the occasional dirt driveway, gate, even saw a few homes not far from the road. The trees grew thick, choked out all but the most hearty ground cover. Rather than going up a hillside, the road cut across steep slopes.
The deeper we rode into Mountain View Road the weirder the weather became. From the rain earlier to a combination of ran and fog, to then seeing evidence of snow flurries in the grass, then to complete ground cover by snow, finally we arrived at an elevation such that the road was covered in slush.
I looked down at my front wheel, watched my tire part the slush like a straw passing through a Slurpee, and shook my head.
My buddy for the end of the race, rep Terry Curly.
We passed over the high point in the course—though it was only marginally higher than two other spots on the course—which at 2250 feet or so was not that high, but represented enough elevation change to cause a change in the weather. There’s an initial descent followed by a short flat and then a screamer of a descent. In just three miles the road drops 1400 feet, which represents a double-digit grade for the entire descent, often at times hitting 16 percent. It simply wasn’t smart to try to drag brakes all the way down, so I did what I could to find places where I could just let the bike run. Every time, however, I found myself entering a turn too hot and genuinely wondering why I still had traction.
Speaking of traction, I was running the revised Donnelly Sports USH in the 40mm width. It features a wide central slick that gives it great speed on asphalt, while the width of the tire plus the small spikes in the tread meant it could hold on to anything I steered over. It would be difficult to overestimate how good that tire was between that rain-soaked and credit-card-interest steep descent to later in the day when I had to descend Fish Rock. It’s possible I would have been faster with less tire, but I saw too many people pulled over fixing flats and I prefer to ride with confidence.
Not long after finishing the descent the road rolls into farm land just outside of Point Arena; it’s the closest the race gets to the coast. Just before the hill that takes you into Point Arena, the course enjoys what is arguable the longest single flat of the entire distance, just a nick under three miles. A hill just long enough to contain two switchbacks brought us into the outskirts of Point Arena, and just after we made the right to descend into town, we were immediately directed left onto Riverside Drive. By “we” I mean the sextet I hooked up with on the hill into Point Arena; prior to running them down I’d be alone for at least five miles. Riverside brought us to Tenmile Cutoff Road where the storm really bore down on us. Though we were no longer in the farmland surrounding Point Arena, and we weren’t in the tight forest we’d ridden through earlier, we were pedaling directly into the wind-driven rain.
It began to sleet. We spread out a bit and just kept our heads down and the pedals turning. I could scarcely believe what I was riding through. The rain was coming down so hard that one poor guy who must have been using too much laundry detergent had his shorts foam up like a brush at the car wash. I could only imagine how uncomfortable those shorts must have been.
Eventually, the need to space ourselves out due to the wind and rain took a toll on the group and it became less group like. I looked around to see three different groups of two to three riders; we’d picked up a few more riders and dropped a couple as well. This portion of the course features several long rollers: too long to charge over and not really long enough to be called a hill. Right around the 38-mile mark—just over half way—comes the day’s second rest stop. And this one is a doozy.
There’s no easy way to explain TeeRex Productions. They are cyclists. They like beer. They aren’t certain which they like most: cycling or partying. They are something akin to a tailgate party moonlighting as a cycling event rest stop. Normally there is a cadre of members dressed in those blow-up tyrannosaurus rex costumes. Not this time. The theme was KISS. Not a kiss, mind you, but the band K.I.S.S. They wore wigs, KISS Army T-shirts and had a sound system pumping out classics like “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” “Detroit Rock City” and “Love Gun.” While most rest stops face out, with the way the wind was blowing ringleader Sebastian Brewer and the misfits running TeeRex pulled their trucks off the shoulder and then set up their 10x10s facing the forest to minimize the rain blowing in because you wouldn’t want the cold rain to spoil the hot quesadillas (cheese and cheese with bacon) and the bacon and pizza poppers. They had a grill going (they’d done a pancake breakfast that morning mostly for everyone who camped out, but also for anyone willing to pay $5) and they were turning out food just as fast as riders could stumble over to the table. I know there was other food there, possibly even peanut M&Ms, but all I can recall are the quesadillas and pizza poppers and someone filling my bottles with Osmo while I sucked down a quick Coke.
Teerex instigator Sebastian Frehley, er Brewer. (Photo: Padraig)
To their credit, TeeRex is so thoroughly overstaffed, unlike most stops at organized events, that they have enough people preparing food, directing riders and filling bottles that they can even spare a couple to dance around and heckle you. Let’s just say its a service of relative value.
Not a mile from the rest stop we turned onto Fish Rock Road, the namesake for the event. Initially the road is paved and drops like a boat ramp, but with switchbacks. The road here was the narrowest so far for the day and was littered with debris from trees: leaves, pine duff and whole branches. The pavement gave out like a set of tired legs; one minute it was there and the next, gone.
The moment the descent was over it turns immediately back up. Might as well have been a creek crossing. The ensuing 3.6-mile climb is relentlessly steep because riders must ascend roughly 1900 feet in that distance. The surface, for a dirt road, was pretty okay, but saying it was a good dirt road would be overplaying, like complimenting your executioner.
I saw quite a bit of my Wahoo Elemnt as I spent bushels of time staring down at my bar, but I had to force myself to look out more because I began to feel discouraged every time I saw the gradient go north of 20 percent. I had a cadence of four.
Fish Rock is precisely what gravel riding in Mendocino County is meant to be. The road seems perfectly suited to a summer slasher flick; it starts in some forgotten place and goes nowhere specific. To be on the road is to be lost. Could there be a better road for gravel riding?
There were riders who I caught, others who caught me. Did we talk? Of the many things I recall from that road, I don’t recall conversation, but I can’t say that it didn’t happen. My mind devoted itself to the road surface, the temperature, the precipitation. But that road. It carries the undulations of a rumpled sheet, up and down and up, yet even so, it follows a ridgeline through that no-man’s land.
I’d spoken to Bike Monkey honcho Carlos Perez before the start and asked him about the condition of Fish Rock. His words? It’s chunkier; the rock is more exposed because of all the rain. Which is why I saw someone fixing a flat at least once a mile. But not me. I was rollin’ 40s with my homeez. Or maybe not that last bit. But the 40s, definitely.
Moments after the asphalt returned, the was a quick drop with a bend to the right upon which the road went right back up. Well the wind was channeled into that slot canyon and when I hit the exposed perigee of that road, I was nearly blown off my bike, to my right. In addition to the obvious—the wind is careening—there was another newsflash contained within: the last miles back west to the finish will be into a headwind.
When the dirt was finally overtaken by asphalt once again, I stopped pedaling for a moment and just coasted, just to relax. From that point, at 55 miles or so, the course was mostly downhill to the finish, but not entirely, and weirder still was how all the really steep grades that made the rest of the descents a blanched-joint affair were gone. The grades were single-digit gentle, and after descending something at 16 percent, even nine percent seems really relaxing. And while rain was no longer falling, we did have a fresh challenge to deal with, namely fog.
I took a brief break at the final rest stop, topped off one bottle and sucked down another gel and headed back out as quickly as I could.
There’s a slight downhill run to the intersection with the 128. In the distance, I could see a police officer directing traffic; I was able to roll through, making my left and I turned to thank him as I swung over to the shoulder. There were cars headed in the opposite direction with bikes on the rooves and hanging off the back.
They’ve had time to finish, clean up, change, eat, grab their winnings and are already headed back home.
I’d done my best to try to remember how many rises there were on the 128 between Fish Rock and Booneville. Was it three or four? I caught two riders, one of whom is the local Scott rep. Terry is younger enough than me that I don’t usually see him at or near a finish, so this was, on a small scale, rather thrilling. We made it over a rise and into he next descent—the road gives up 400 feet of elevation between the turn and the finish despite three short hills—and on the next rise, our next-to-last effort, the other rider rode away, leaving Terry and me to suffer when neither of us was feeling great. Meanwhile another rider had caught us; this finish was starting to feel like a road race, with riders clumping and breaking off before any organization can be established. He got away from us on that hill and opened a gap on the descent. Terry and I clawed our way over the last bump and I pulled through and gently began to accelerate. I could see the other rider ahead. Race instincts took over. I continued to accelerate on the long run toward Booneville. We passed farm pastures, the occasional house. I was starting to shrink the gap.
The final run to the finish is three miles, all downhill and drops a good 450 feet with only the last 50 or so meters dead flat. I swung right and Terry came through for a pull, and for a moment I thought my legs would rupture. He closed the gap a tiny bit more, but after less than a minute, he pulled off and I rolled through to take us to the line; as I passed him I managed to mumble, “Let’s go.” For no reason other than to see what was left, I began accelerating. I wound out my gear, shifted, wound out again, shifted. I’d cut our gap my more than half, but he rolled across the line with a good 20 meters between us. I looked back to see Terry seconds behind me. Ah well; I’d hoped he’d sprint off my wheel and catch that guy.
I coasted through town, looking at the handful of restaurants and other businesses, before making the turn back to my car. Rain started to fall once again. Jeez. I got in my car only to discover that my hands were so numb I couldn’t get the Velotoze off my feet. Sure my feet were numb, too, but that didn’t prevent me from removing anything from them. I hooked both thumbs in the Velotoze only to discover that my arms and shoulders were too tired to simply push the booties off. I rocked back and forth, tried different angles and eventually went around to the driver’s seat, reached in and turned on my car and with it, the heat. Nearly an hour would pass before I was fully dressed.
This was, to use an ironic turn of phrase, easily the hardest event of my life. When I did the Son of the Death Ride/Ride of the Immortals in the Sierra, back in 2010, that was stupid hard with something like 137 miles and 19k feet of climbing. But this was different. The cold and wet meant that the last thing in the world I would have wanted would have been to be plucked from the course and shivering in the back of someone’s SUV, or worse, in the bed of their pickup. Quitting wasn’t an option. Both my hands and feet were numb enough to affect control. I’d never seen such a range of conditions during a race, and I’ve seen some crazy stuff. But sliding around on a dirt road, descending some crazy-steep chute in the rain? Who does that? These days Tour de France riders don’t want to race descents or in the rain because they don’t want to risk their G.C. position with the ramifications of even one fall. Carlos doesn’t do courses that are challenging. He does HARD. And anything else I’ve ever done would have been easier than Fish Rock.
As I drove home I began to ask myself a simple question, one I apparently have yet to answer, one I may never answer: At what point are a bike race’s demands too much? When is enough enough?