Every year, I try to get out to a brevet in a different area. I feel that the exploratory notion of randonneuring can’t be met if you just keep doing the same rides, year in and year out. The Gila River Valley 200k came up rather quickly, but seemed like a good idea to get out to for a fast 200K in new area.
This ride is relatively flat. It doesn’t climb more than 200-300 feet at a time over 5-10 miles. The challenge with this ride is the wind. Apparently the wind in Phoenix is a little unpredictable, and this year’s ride was no exception.
Prior to the ride, I got in touch with some of the local riders and one of them, Gerry, offered to put me up for a couple nights. His wife made me feel like I was staying at a resort – thick, soft towels; shampoo and soap set out in different locations; and she even left me some dental floss! Thanks Sandy!
I arrived later than expected on Friday night (I didn’t realize there was a time change), and we were up at 4:30am to hit the road. Not a problem…I had been sleeping well the week before the ride so I was fresh even at the early hour!
I wanted to ride this one fast – my goal was to beat 7:30 – and set a new, personal best for myself. I knew several of the riders who would be showing up. Gerry was on his Bacchetta CA2.0, David B. was on the CA2.0 we built up for him last spring, Carlton was a familiar face from some of the PCH events, and Lonnie Wollf from Utah kept me company for a few miles in our January 200k.
Since I wasn’t expecting any fast descents, I went with the most aerodynamic set of wheels I had – a set of Zipp Firecrest 404s with a wheel disk cover on the back. I didn’t bother with any lights and kept the bike as uncluttered as possible.
It was cold at the start! My Garmin read mid-30s, but I think it was really in the low 40s. From the get-go, we were off like a cannon. I lead the paceline with Gerry and David right behind me for the first 8-10 miles. The sun rose and it started warming up as we headed south towards Sacaton. The first 25 miles flew by, but David and I stopped to pee and the lead group got away from us.
The first climb (if you can call it that) was outside of Sacaton. We could see one or two riders ahead of us, and as we crested the climb we passed both of them. This was the first part of the course that was “scenic”. You need to understand, Dave and Gerry prepared me for looking at dirt all day. Actually, I have found that as I have gotten older, I appreciate the desert more and more, and I found this course quite beautiful. The cactus waved at us in their variety of contorted shapes, hawks combed the skies for some breakfast, and tumbleweed frequently rolled across the road.
After the brief ascent, we bombed down into Casa Grande to the second control (the first was the start line). At that point, we caught up with the lead group, and we all proceeded out together to discover the wonderful pavement in and around Casa Grande. In a word, it sucked! We left town and started heading SE on Main St. on rough pavement and into a slight headwind out of the east. We tucked into a paceline, but it seemed rather dis-jointed. It kept breaking apart and I couldn’t figure out why. After a brief pull for a couple miles, I settled in the back with Gerry and Dave.
We finally arrived in Eloy, our third control at mile 51. I had a quick snack and then hit the road with five other riders – Carlton, Clint, Michael, Steve, and another rider whose name escapes me. We were heading due north and I took off. A few miles down the road, the group caught up with me and I pulled us along at 23mph for about 4 miles. We then started rotating pulls, but I noticed that every time Clint or Michael got to the front, the speed picked up to 25mph. This started getting old as our speed bounced back and forth, making it hard for the riders in the back to stay with the group. Dave and Gerry, who has also caught up, fell off the back rather quickly due to the frequent changes in speed.
A note about riding style – a brevet is not the same as a hammerhead club ride. Experienced ultra riders know how to pace themselves. There is no jumping anytime someone passes someone else – if riding in a group everyone tries to work together to minimize effort so the whole group goes faster. Sometimes, local club riders come out for 200k events, and the conflicting mentalities can cause problems. It’s not that either group is “right”, rather it is just different styles of riding. When I was pulling the group at 23mph, I was riding at an easy 130-140w, a pace that I could keep for many, many hours. Pushing up to 200w to stay with the group was a quick way to lose energy and end up burning out.
As we started zigzagging into Coolidge, we could tell that we were going into a stiff headwind out of the east on a very gentle ascent. I tried staying with the group, but the bouncing paceline kept dumping me off the back (I stayed in the back position so that the DF riders could get the most advantage from the draft – there was no use having me in front given the wind, but I did offer). I finally decided to ride my own ride and let them go. The wind had knocked their speed down to about 12mph, while I was going about 11mph, and I watched them disappear slowly down the road.
I didn’t really know how long this wind/road would last, so I just settled into my pace and kept riding. I expected Dave and Gerry to catch up any time, but they didn’t. I even stopped for a few minutes to try to pet some horses. It was warming up into a gorgeous day and I intended to enjoy it at whatever pace I was riding.
The route finally crossed Pinal Pioneer Highway and a mile later, I made the turn onto Diffen Rd. that put the wind to my side. The course slowly started descending to the next control at mile 85. The cactus through here started taking on more interesting shapes and the views across the valley were spectacular! All too soon, I arrived at mile 85 and met up with Thomas, one of the local volunteers who was signing brevet cards. We chatted for a couple minutes – apparently he spent a lot of time in California doing brevets in the 80s and 90s – and he told me the fast group was only about 10 minutes ahead of me and that Dave and Gerry were 3-4 minutes behind me. I waited a little longer for Gerry and Dave, but they never materialized. So I bombed down the mountain, past the Arizona State Prison, into Florence for a quick stop at the Circle K to refill bottles. The lead group was there and I left with them.
The next 25 miles became a race. Given the slightly downhill terrain and tailwind, I quickly passed the group, figuring it would be an easy ride back to the finish. When I saw two riders chasing me, I knew exactly who they were. Soon enough, Clint and Michael were on my tail, drafting and working to stay with me. After the first five miles of having them draft without pulling, and getting turn directions from me, I was getting a bit upset. The course was now zigzagging again, and at every other turn we were either in a cross wind or head wind. It was easy to tell how hard they were working by looking at their open mouths in my mirror as they tried to keep up (keep in mind, I was pulling 130-140w and just moving along nicely). It was rather entertaining to watch them slowly catch up, at which point I would bump it up to 190-200w for a minute or two and they would disappear again behind me. I didn’t know if I was going to have to keep this up for five or 25 miles, so I made sure to ride a pace that I could keep indefinitely. After 20 miles of this, they pulled ahead of me and pulled off the road. I assumed someone needed to pee, but quickly turned around to check on them. They had a flat tire and the tools to fix it, so I continued.
Since the “race” was over, I slowed way down to about 100w and tried to just enjoy the scenery for the last 15 miles. We were riding through farmland and it was fascinating to see all of the horses, sheep, cows and crops (I didn’t realize that south Phoenix was a farming community). About five miles from the finish, I nearly stopped at a county fair – the signs advertising fresh pie sounded great after my 7-hour diet of fruit and water. But I continued on and soon arrived at the finish. I was the first rider in at 7:27. The three other riders from the lead group arrived at 7:32 and Clint and Michael arrived at 7:36.
After chatting for a few minutes, Clint and Michael (who were really nice guys) and I went over to the Cantina for some food and drinks. I had the food, they had the drinks! We hung out waiting for Gerry and Dave, chatting about the ride and just enjoying a sunny afternoon. Dave and Gerry arrived at around 8:12 (Gerry beat his time from last year by over 30 minutes – yeah!). We all agreed it was a great course and a great day and I look forward to riding with this group again soon!