Sunday, November 08, 2015

The beauty of riding nowhere

Each year, Elden the Fat Cyclist — world-famous bike blogger and fundraiser extraordinaire — hosts a charity event called the 100 Miles of Nowhere. He first formulated the idea while riding a virtual 100 miles on his trainer, and now challenges cyclists from all over the world to donate to charity for the privilege of riding a "nowhere" century of their choosing. Creativity is encouraged, and pretty much any crazy century that one could imagine has been done — 100 miles on rollers, 3,000 rotations around a driveway, masochistic hill repeats, you name it. 

Although I've been a regular reader of Fat Cyclist for a decade, support his causes, and enjoy pondering my own versions of a "nowhere" ride, I hadn't participated before. This year the event announcement went out just as I was beginning to formulate a plan for winter training. It just clicked. "I've been talking about 100 Miles of Montebello Road for three years now. I'm finally going to do it." 

Why Montebello Road? I think any cyclist who lives near hills has a go-to climb, and this is mine. Climbing on a bike is my favorite activity, so I ride here a lot. The name means "beautiful mountain" in Italian, and it's appropriate. Starting 3.5 miles from my home, Montebello Road snakes up a scenic hillside beside a small creek, shaded by oak and cedar trees, with occasional steep drop-offs that open up big views of the South Bay and Mount Hamilton. It accesses a few homes and vineyards before the pavement ends 5.1 miles and 2,000 vertical feet above Stevens Creek Reservoir. I enjoy this climb and it doesn't get old for me, even though I've ridden it well over 200 times since I moved here in 2011. Because I ride Montebello so much, I know every switchback and driveway. I know where the grade steepens and where it levels off. I know where the pavement becomes especially broken and I have to hang on for dear life. I notice when cracks widen and when new tarmac is laid down. I notice when chunks of the hillside and larger trees come down, even after the debris has been cleared away. I've had to slam on my brakes for deer, rabbits, rattlesnakes, coyotes, and even a bobcat. There aren't many surprises left for me on that well-trodden road. 

So why Montebello Road? Because even though I've ridden it so many times I know every pothole, it never gets easier. And no, I don't get faster, because it takes a hearty helping of oomph to push the pace for a five-mile climb that scarcely lets off the resistance. My legs are usually quivering by the final steep pitch. The descent, with all of its hairpin turns, steep grades and broken pavement, hardly provides recovery. I think one Montebello is plenty difficult, and two Montebellos break into mental-game territory. So of course I started to wonder, what would happen after five repeats? How about ten? 

A hundred miles of Montebello Road requires ten out-and-backs with more than 20,000 feet of climbing. One participant, Karl, commented that the elevation profile would look like a "sadistic comb," which was an apt description. In all of my years of cycling, I've never climbed that much elevation in a day. Beyond the personal record, a century on one five-mile stretch of pavement requires a whole new set of challenges. There is, of course, the "boring" factor in the repetitions. It's not only the same road ten times — it's the same road I see all the time. On a road bike you don't walk, ever, unless something has gone quite wrong. But the gearing is stiff enough that you always have to pedal hard just to stay upright. Even if your speed is dipping precariously close to three miles per hour, it's always strenuous. I mentioned the hairy descents. Where would I find my motivation when things started to hurt? When I could only slow down so much? When bailing was always as easy as turning around and bombing downhill to my car? In other words, this would be a great mental training ride for the big, physically draining, often monotonous days on the Iditarod Trail. 

When I posted my proposal online, I was surprised to see a lot of initial interest. There were nine "going" and nine "maybes" on my Facebook event page. A couple of ultrarunner friends who almost never ride bikes said they wanted to give it a go. Then Beat came down with pneumonia and Liehann was worried his three-week cough would deteriorate to something worse. One by one, all the others bailed. I can't say I was surprised, as it wasn't the most conventionally fun way to spend what turned out to be an absolutely perfect fall day in the Bay Area. I assumed I would be riding alone and failed to show up on time for my proposed 6:15 a.m. start. So I was embarrassed to pull up at 6:19 to find three cyclists who I'd never met geared up and ready to go. Karl, on the right, wanted to try to best his personal record on one lap, and Eric (middle), had time to try for five. Dave (left), said he was in it for the long haul. Great! Let's get it started. 

Karl and I rode together for the first lap, and then I stuck with Eric and Dave for the next four. It turned out to be a surprisingly social ride. Dave kept a strong pace and commented on the fourth lap that he was surprised it wasn't getting much harder. It was then I knew both Dave and I were in this to the dark and chilly end, because neither of us was going to back down as long as the other was still plugging along. Such is the wonder of human sociality, and the reason why races are so much more fun than solo efforts, and why we were so content to grind out Montebellos on Nov. 7, riding in spirit with as many as 500 other "100 MoN" participants all around the world. We're all striving together. 

Around lap six, Beat came out on his mountain bike to join for a couple of rounds of what would be his first real venture outdoors in a month, besides bike commuting. We also saw friends and acquaintances who were out for their own Saturday rides. Jan, who was just finishing up a 17-mile trail ride, and who has been helpful with tips for dealing with my recent breathing problems, just shook his head. I was buzzing with endorphins and could only reply with a goofy grin, "I just love this stuff. I really do. I don't know why."

Photo by Dave Thompson. I'm wearing my circa-2007 "original" Fat Cyclist jersey and riding
Beat's wonderful 2011 Specialized S-Works Roubaix. Yes, those are flat pedals. Stiff-soled, fitted shoes pinch
my toes and hurt like hell after a few hours. I can't even wear running shoes that actually fit — these are 1.5 sizes
too large. I know this is terribly uncool. I do not  care. If you ever experience frostbite nerve damage and put
your feet through 12+ hour rides, you  can give me a recommendation for clipless pedals.
Otherwise, I don't want to hear it. :P
On lap seven, I hit my wall. All the others had gone home and it was just me and Dave, and the mid-afternoon sunlight dipping low on the horizon. After a summer mostly out of the saddle my "iron butt" had gone soft and chaffing was developing beneath my cheeks. My hands and arms were sore from the descents, and I had to hold one arm behind my back whenever I could to relieve a knot in my shoulder. My quad muscles quivered on the steeper segments. I was certain cramps were coming on, which could only be followed by walks of shame, which could only be followed by bailing altogether. But I'd look ahead toward Dave and kept grinding, because this clearly was not as bad as the simmering anxieties would have me believe.

Dave remained ever stoic. Occasionally, when I could keep up with him, I learned more about his background — he'd lost a lot of weight, and designed and built a special tandem bicycle so he could ride with his adult son who is recovering from a brain injury. At the top, only slightly glazed eyes and flushed cheeks betrayed the appearance that this ride was far too easy for him. We'd stuff down some food — I ate string cheese, squeezable packets of applesauce, Rice Crispy treats, and sandwiches cut into quarters, and realized my diet now completely resembled that of a toddler whose Mom carried just enough snacks to shut her up in public. We'd wipe the sweat from our faces and put on jackets and gloves, because it was always cold on the way down. And then we were off, screaming toward the glistening sprawl of San Jose.

We strapped on lights before lap nine because we'd finally burned all the daylight. The sun set at 5:11 p.m. Climbing the initial steep segments, I thought, "Only two more Montebellos!" which ignited a grumpy backlash because two Montebellos is still a lot. So I looked inward, to a stark white landscape of somewhere in Alaska, perhaps the Yukon River, beneath an unobstructed sky pulsing with emerald light and stars upon stars. Then the wind was howling, and I was hunched over my bike in a whiteout — broken, humbled, and awestruck by the power of it all, by this expansive nothingness on the edge of nowhere. All in my imagination — and perhaps in my future.

We descended in fading light and climbed into the tunnel of our headlights. Dave's light dimmed to almost nothing, but instead of quitting, he shadowed closely behind me as we ascended the quiet corridor. I was hurting all over. It seemed every muscle had to work for this final climb, and my breathing had become raspy and shallow. In part, I believe shallow breathing has become a habit after months of fighting real obstructions and constriction in my airways. So I consciously focused on taking deeper breaths, thinking about all of my quivering muscles and the reality that they just needed more oxygen. "Breathe, just breathe," I chanted quietly, and thought that this was probably going to become my new personal mantra.

"We did it!" I proclaimed at the top. Dave smiled quietly; his lips were quivering. It was 45 degrees and a cold wind whisked along the ridge, heralding an oncoming storm. We both sucked down the last of our water — even in the cold darkness, one bottle was no longer enough. I descended behind Dave with my high-beam on, but he seemed to manage just fine with his flickering commuter light. We rolled back to the cars after 105 miles in 13 hours and 5 minutes, including breaks, and about 11:45 of moving time. You can say that's a long damn time for a century, but I think it's pretty good for ten Montebellos, which are actually nothing like a century.

As I drove away, I realized that while the 20,000 feet of climbing was quite hard, I barely noticed the repetition. Each climb and descent was its own journey, with different light, different conversations, different thoughts, different challenges.

Still, a repetitive ride does provide beneficial numbers for comparisons. These are the times recorded for each 5.1-mile climb up Montebello Road. It's interesting to see the consistency when I was feeling good, and also how it started to break down on the later laps. My "personal best" on Montebello is 39:08, but I generally ride in the 45- to 50-minute range.

Lap 1: 59:18
Lap 2: 52:05
Lap 3: 50:51
Lap 4: 50:21
Lap 5: 50:24
Lap 6: 50:19
Lap 7: 56:01
Lap 8: 54:43
Lap 9: 58:53
Lap 10: 57:26

Maybe it really doesn't get that much harder as you go. I just have to get out of my head once in a while. And remember to breathe. 


  1. nice, where is that? got a full map of the race route? if I ever go down that way I'd like to give that a go...

  2. Great write up, Jill. I knew you could do it. I'm glad you had company. I remember thinking the same things when I did my hill repeat 100 MoN last year. You and Dave rock. And great training for your ITI. Now take a couple of rest days!

  3. 20,000 feet of climbing. I can't even imagine. Seriously impressed with you guys.

  4. Regular shoes and flat pedals are so wrong...unless of course you're a total badass and can do Montebello 10 times in one day...then you can wear whatever you want :-)
    Awesome job! Truly impressive! I can't even imagine that....

  5. Great job! I was glad to have the excuse of having an afternoon engagement as I cracked on lap 5 (when my time went from 50 to 55 minutes) and was going to slow y'all down the rest of the day. But I agree that it wasn't repetitive at all - so much easier to keep going with company. Thanks again for organizing!

  6. Great entry, I love the idea of the Nowhere event, that was a great challenge you picked too.

  7. Dang that is a LOT of climbing!! I would have had iron butt after lap 4.

  8. Hi Jill, I'm sorry I didn't make it out with you guys. I was really looking forward to this but sometimes you have to make the smart choice. Hopefully I'll get to make good on the event soon! I'm glad you finished and your pacing seemed spot on. Good job!

  9. This is such a cool idea and an impressive ride, Jill. We have a similar climb in distance and elevation gain here in Harrisonburg VA that I've thought about doing some repeats on. I'm glad you had good company too! As always, thanks for sharing.

  10. Cross race that night meant I bailed! Sounded like stupid! I love stupid! haha


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