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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  3/1/2000

Make That A Double!

Click for the Davis Bike Club Site - Davis DoubleBy Bill Oetinger

Someone has put jalapeno peppers in my shoes! My feet are on fire! It's 130 miles into the Davis Double Century--my first double century--and I'm experiencing for the first time the exquisitely painful phenomenon known as "hot feet." I've never ridden a bicycle this far in one day before, and if all goes according to plan (meaning: if I finish), I still have a third of the ride to go. Whew!

As I try to find a way to make my feet hurt less, I'm wondering just what the hell I'm doing out here, in this godforsaken, jerkwater middle of nowhere, hoping and trying to ride 200 miles in one day. As vividly as I remember that moment--many years and many doubles ago--I recall with equal clarity the first time I ever heard of such a preposterous thing as a double century...

I've cycled all my life, but for all the years leading up to my 40's, I did it on my own...often for commuting or basic transportation, and on weekends for leisurely backroad explorations. Somehow I managed to remain almost entirely oblivious to the larger community of cyclist and their more-or-less organized activities. To me, a long ride--an epic adventure--was a 45 or 50-mile loop out into the country, by myself. (Mind you, I'm only guessing about the miles, because these rides predated cyclometers. See my earlier essay, Confessions of a Cyclometer Junkie for more thoughts on this subject.)

Anyway, sometime in the mid-80's, I woke up to the interesting notion that there were other cyclists out there. Maybe it was the American juggernaut at the '84 Olympics, or Breaking Away, or maybe the emergence of a skinny kid named Lemond. Whatever it was, I suddenly realized there were such things as bike clubs, races, time trials, centuries--100 miles? Whoa!--and a vast, colorful tapestry of tradition associated with this simple pastime. I was just coming to grips with the idea of doing a century...something which at the time seemed to me like the holy grail of cycling accomplishment...when I fell into a conversation with a fellow at a party. We discovered a mutual interest in cycling, and at some point he mentioned a double. That stopped me cold... Excuse me? Was he really suggesting riding Two....Hundred....Miles....? All in one chunk? My eyes goggled. My mind boggled. I looked at this guy. He didn't look like a Greek god. Not even a garden variety jock. In fact, he looked kinda wimpy...a wispy little twig of a man...someone who might have posed for the "Before" picture in a body-building ad. And yet he modestly confessed that, yes indeed, he had done this ride called the Davis Double. How long did that take?, I wondered. Oh maybe 12 hours or a bit more. Twelve hours on a bike? It took a quantum leap of imagination to see myself on my bike for that many hours at a time. (Only later did I discover that many people, including me a few times, will need substantially more than 12 hours to pedal 200 miles. Had I known that at the beginning, I might never have allowed the seeds of this madness to find fertile soil in my hapless little mind.) But the seeds did take hold. And in 1993, after a few years of doing centuries--enough to make them seem routine--I set my sights on Davis.

Everyone I talked to said Davis was the easiest of the doubles on offer in California (of which there were about five at that time, with all the others in Southern California). Davis is run in mid-May, and I'm sure I must have trained through the winter and spring at what I took to be a fevered pitch. I had 2700 miles on the books for the year going into the ride, but only two rides of longer than 100 miles, which in retrospect seems like scant training for a double. (We get all sorts of incremental steps to build up to our first centuries...35, then 50-mile club rides, then a metric century, etc., until we can sneak up on 100 miles without any great leaps into the unknown. But there aren't a lot of supported rides between 100 miles and 200 miles. A few 200Ks, the Death Ride, Climb to Kaiser... You either go out on your own and ride 150 miles or so, or you just go into the double cold, and hope you'll figure out what to do when you're deep into that second hundred. Which is pretty much what I did...) So there I was, at 5:00 a.m. in Davis, California, milling around in the chilly, pre-dawn dark with hundreds of other sleepy cyclists, yawning away our nervous tension, making one last, hopeful run to the can, and otherwise, in other ways, gearing up for a very long day and a very big challenge. For me it was all new and daunting, but clearly, for many others, it was old hat...if not quite ho-hum, at least an old, familiar ritual, replete with pleasant associations, including reunions with old friends from other clubs, other regions. (I have come to cherish this camaraderie with distant, seldom-seen cycling friends as one of the nicest aspects of the doubles scene.)

Some doubles are timed, with mass starts or some system of timekeeping and structure imposed on the event. Not so at Davis. One of the things that makes Davis a good entry-level double--besides its relatively flat topography and great support--is its wide open time window: start whenever you like and take as long as you want. (I think they do have some sort of time cut-off, but I've known folks to take most of 24 hours to muddle through it.) Even as I arrived at the start at 4:30, there was a steady stream of departing cyclists, gliding silently off into the night, trailing a long line of twinkling taillights behind them.

While many folks start in the wee hours, the largest bulk of the event's 1200-1500 participants wait for first light, anticipating being able to get the job done during daylight, and thus carrying no lights. So right around dawn (5:30), there is a great belching out of bikers onto the farm roads west of town...a vast, pig-in-a-python, critical mass scrum of milling, jostling riders, like one of those nature films of bats leaving a cave en masse at twilight.

Off we go, with the rising sun sending a first, fresh blush up the eastern sky at our backs. Things sort themselves out soon enough: there are the slow-but-steady riders, plugging along at the right-hand shoulder of the road; there are the hot shots and the wannabes, darting through the thronging crowds like feeding barracudas; but mostly there are the tandems and the solo bikes that love them. Because it's so flat, Davis is tandem country. You'll never see this many of the big bikes anywhere else, except at a tandem rally. Tandems rule here. The course record is held by a tandem...mountain bike legends Otis Guy and Joe Breeze hammering it out in under nine hours, if memory serves me. (Yes, I know I said this is not a timed event...not officially. But people do keep track. Oh, you betcha!) And wherever you find tandems, you find wheel-sucking single bikes trailing along behind them, like remoras following a whale shark. Especially during the first 30 miles or so--all as flat as a fry pan--there are huge pacelines strung out behind every tandem, regardless of its speed. As they roll down the road, they collect solo riders like a magnet dragged through a pile of iron filings. Sometimes you'll see 50 or more riders strung out behind a couple of strong tandems.

These massive organisms can be squirrelly though: as the long lines negotiate the many 90° turns along the section-line farm roads, the many bikes brake and then accelerateThe further you are away from the front of the line, the more pronounced the changes in speed become, like the stretching of a big bungee cord. You're constantly doing little out-of-saddle sprints to close up gaps in the line. There also is an increased potential for accidents back in the pack (as I can attest from first-hand experience, having been taken down in a paceline pile-up on Davis...not in that first year though). Pacelining is of course a form of tailgating, with all its inherent risks, and the more folks you have doing it, the more chances you have for something to go wrong, especially when many of the riders are operating at or near their personal limits of skill and stamina. If you're a clever, wily rider, you manage to slot yourself in near the front of the line, where the pace is smoother and the visibility better...what I call the Alpha Suck positions. But this prime real estate is jealously protected by the riders already in place there, and an unspoken cycling etiquette takes a dim view of bulling your way into line right at the front.

Wheel suckers are always fickle, and never more so than at Davis, where a new, faster tandem is always just around the corner. Riders are constantly abandoning one tow--usually without a word of thanks--and jumping to another, quicker paceline going by, until eventually, they find a pace that suits them, typically well above any speed that rider could sustain alone. In fact, during that first frantic rush across the flat valley floor west of Davis, the pace can be amazingly high, if you want to mix it up with the fastest of the tandems. You can watch the average speed on your cyclometer climbing steadily, until, when you reach the first hills at 30 miles or so, it's not unreasonable to be averaging 20 to 25-mph. (I know the pros in the Tour de France do much better than that, and so do the local hammers at your neighborhood crits, but for the average recreational rider--meaning me--these are heady numbers.)

This is exactly what happened to me that first year. I reached the first hills with an average speed in the low twenties, and I thought, "Cool! At this rate, I'll be done by...let me see..." Of course, you can't--I can't--keep up that pace in the hills, and predictions about finishing times made a quarter of the way into the ride are meaningless. Every time you come to a climb the dynamic changes. The hill-meisters scoot off into the distance, the plodders settle down to grind it out, the tandems are tossed aside like yesterday's papers, and then, once over the top, new alliances form with whoever is around at that point...with any luck another solid tandem, or at least a few new friends willing to work together.

1999 Davis Double Rest StopThere are so many rest stops on this well-supported ride (13) that many riders skip at least half of them. Now that I've done Davis a few times, I may skip two thirds of them. But that first year, I hit almost all of them, except a couple I blew past without realizing I'd missed them. There is a tradition of service at these rest stops, with the same folks doing the same stops year after year, with even a little friendly competition between the stops to see who can have the most fun and treat their riders the best. One stop has a Hawaiian theme, with leis handed out to all who stop there and Hawaiian cowboy music wafting down the mountainside. Another has valet bike parking, along with another wonderful service I'll get back to later. It's impossible at this point for me to do a simple diary of my first double, because after doing so many of them--especially so many Davis DC--all of my impressions blend together into one long ride. But I can recall that I felt quite good at the midpoint of that first ride...a point which goes by on Big Canyon Road, between Middletown and Lower Lake. It's a lovely road, in many places flirting with a frisky little creek. It also features the steepest climb of the day, which comes early in the second century.

Lunch is at a school in Lower Lake. Riders intent on cranking out killer times may race in here, grab a snack and hare off up the road, but most folks will stop at least long enough to sit down at a table and consume a sandwich and a supporting cast of munchies. This is one of those great social mosh pits at Davis, with lots of hallooing and how-you-doing? flying back and forth amongst the hoards.

I still felt strong and fairly cocky about life in general as I left the lunch stop and started on the homeward-bound leg of the journey. But as I pushed on into the region beyond 120 miles, I began to experience the first niggling signs of fatigue and stress. Various colonial outposts around my body started sending urgent messages back to the brain: a little ice pick digging into my back, just between the shoulders; a little unease in the lower tract; and then those feet...ah the agony of da feet!

One of the signature Davis features is a long, long hill on Hwy 20, east of Clear Lake. It's never steep, but it goes on and on for several, tedious miles. It climbs up out of Grizzly Canyon, and while the summit has no name, the unofficial and well-known name for this climb in the double is simply "Resurrection." This is where all the demons who have been chasing you for the first 120 miles finally catch up with you...where, as you begin to suffer a bit, you might also begin to question your sanity or your motivation. At least that's the case when you've never ridden this far before and the finish is still way too far away to be within reach. I've decided, after a number of doubles, that there is a zone from somewhere like 120 miles to 150 miles where you switch over from the typical piss-and-vinegar, hot rod momentum of the early ride and move into a robotic, grind-it-out, diesel sort of mindset that will carry you to the finish. Perhaps this doesn't happen for everyone, or perhaps it happens at a different point, but if and when it does, bridging through that transition period can be tough, mentally and emotionally. For awhile, you feel as if you're stuck in a slow-motion limbo...pedaling, pedaling, pedaling, and yet never getting anywhere. But eventually, if you persevere, the objects on the far horizon will begin to grow larger, to loom closer.

1999 Canon School Rest StopAs for those hot feet...that brings me, painfully, to the Schoolhouse rest stop, somewhere around mile 160. This is where they have the valet parking for your bike, and one other thoughtful, delightful touch: a kid's wading pool, filled with cold water and surrounded by a ring of lawn chairs. As they wheel your bike away, you stagger on your burning tootsies over to the pool, grab a chair, struggle out of your shoes, and sink your sizzling dogs into the cool pool. Ahhhhh! You can almost hear the steam hissing up as the feet hit the water, like when a blacksmith plunges a red hot horseshoe into his watertub.

For me, that little pool represented the true resurrection on that first double. From a low point of pain and fatigue, doubting whether I could finish, I was reborn, if not exactly fresh as a daisy, at least with the energy and will to continue and the confidence that finishing was within my grasp.

But the final 40 miles or so of Davis present riders with their own particular challenge. They are almost entirely flat, and while they may not be exactly the same roads you left Davis on in the morning, they might as well be: mile after mile of straight, flat, featureless roads tacking from one 90° corner to the next. Not much in the way of scenery to divert or entertain you. Just miles and miles of chugging along. Of course, if you have much energy left, some of that chugging can be very brisk indeed, especially if you catch a day with user-friendly tailwinds, which is common but not inevitable at Davis. If you hook up with a good paceline coming out of the Schoolhouse, and if the wind is right, you can boogie on home almost as fast as you went out at dawn. (I fondly recall looking down at my cyclometer on one of these good runs and seeing a steady 30-mph. At the time I was happily tucked into the Alpha Suck position behind a tandem ridden by two former RAAM stalwarts...as close to a free ride as you're likely to get in this life.)

On the other hand, I've been out there all alone when it was over 100° and when the wind was contrary, and on days like that, those last miles seem to go on forever.

Finally, the outlying suburbs of Davis come into view, and you know you've done it. A few miles to go, but they glide by effortlessly. You're tired, you're sore, you may be a bit goofy, but glazing over it all is a golden glow of accomplishment...of having done something you once thought was beyond impossible. As you round the final corner and come up on the finish, dozens of people sitting on the lawn of Davis High School cheer and clap and holler for you, sharing in your moment of glory. It may not be like wearing the yellow jersey on the Champs Elysees or standing atop Mt. Everest, but for the rest of us--the middle-aged and merely mortal--it's close enough!

If you've never done a double, you might wonder why anyone would put them self through such an ordeal. The answer to that question is too complex to be tossed off in a sentence or two, and like a double itself, this essay has gone on too long already. I will save the question of "why?" for another day.

(Photo's courtesy of Lavalle Linn - See her report on her first Davis Double done in 1999)

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net



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