I first heard of the Gentleman’s race several years ago and became quite intrigued. At first I thought they were completely crazy and anyone attempting to do one a little wrong in the head, but then I started digging deeper. Reading race reports, looking at pictures, checking the routes, and talking to people who had done them. Crazy? Absolutely, but also an experience, and challenge, you will never forget. My interest in this race evolved into slight obsession and I became determined to ride one. It took two years to get into shape and get on a team, but I rode my first Gentleman’s race in August of 2011. They notoriously fall on one of the hottest day of the summer and over a grueling 100+ mile course are beyond challenging. I still think it was the hardest ride I have ever done. They are a poster child for Rapha’s image and motto “glory through suffering.” Gentleman’s races equal suffering.
Fast forward to March, 2012, we are invited to San Francisco to ride an inaugural all women Gentleman’s like race. A team is recruited, plane tickets and hotels are reserved, we are committed. I am thrilled and nervous, as we have been riding, but not the distance or the elevation this ride will be. Stacy and I turn our spring riding plan into our spring training plan. Every weekend we are out on the bikes, but now we need to get in long miles, climbing, and, of course, gravel. Luckily Donnie’s VeloDirt ride up Dalles Mtn was scheduled and we rode the beautiful gravel route on dry and sunny days in March where it was pouring in Portland. I’m feeling okay about our training but not great. During the last 2 weekends before the race I kept bonking on rides around mile 60 and then once at mile 33. Not a good sign if I’m going to ride 100+ miles.
With one week before the ride, sickness and injury plague our team. We drop from 6 rides to only 3. Luckily last minute another team had to withdraw from the race and we make plans with some ladies from Metromint to form a more complete team. Racing aside, all of us just want to ride. Day of the race we turn out as 5. Tonya, Stacy and I are the Sorella contingent. Korina and Ashley are our local Metromint course masters. The route was announced a week and a half before the ride and it looks beautiful. We are the 3rd seeded team and roll out of the Rapha Cycle Club at 8:10 onto the streets of San Francisco. We make our way to the Golden Gate Bridge and cross into Marin County. We ride through Sausalito with very little traffic. The day is beautiful and I’m able to take a moment to look out onto the bay where the sun glinted tide is slowly lapping at the shore and birds are moving through the metallic haze of water meets land miles away on the east bay.
At Mill Valley we turn off the flat pedestrian path and start our ascent of Mt Tamalpais. First up a street called Summit, which someone says boasts 20% grades (although probably more like 8%). Soon we cross a gate onto Old Railroad Grade, the looming gravel climb to the top. The gravel is great and I’m feeling great, it’s nice to be away from houses and traffic, the view south of the city and the bridges is stunning in the still morning haze. I’m cruising and loving the climb, but realize I am all alone and definitely need to be sharing this view with my teammates.
Soon team DNF rides by with their 6 members and then right as I decide to pee 3 guys, who must be oblivious because they asked if everything was okay. Shortly after I see Tonya making her way, she informs me Ashley had gotten a flat, rats. Tonya and I ride up to a picnic table at a mid-point and take in the view, get our photo taken by the guys who I peed in front of.
Tonya decides to ride on and I wait for Stacy, Korina, and Ashley. Soon enough the four of us continue our climb, but are plagued by yet another flat! Ashley is riding racing tires that are just not cutting it on the gravel. I change the tire for her all while planning a contingency plan if it happens again….swap Stacy’s front tire for her rear and hope that doesn’t flat… Luckily it held and we mosey up to the top where we regain forces with Tonya and snag water from a support car one unnamed team (Tibco) has out. The following 15 miles from the top of Mt Tam, roller-coastering Bolinas Ridge, along Alpine Lake and into Fairfax were phenomenal. Big screaming rollers with ocean views, meadows full of flowers, never-ending descents and gradual climbing with lake views left me with a permagrin. See!??
At Fairfax (mile 36) we catch a water break and ride past Sorella café and make a note that we must return for a photo. (We will have to do this another trip, which there definitely will be!) The riding from Fairfax north until our turn off at Hicks Valley is uneventful in a way that 20 miles of seemingly effortless pedaling pass and the sun moves in the sky, insects buzz by your helmet, ravens float above, and robins sing on posts along the road. At Hicks Valley we come upon the Rapha team whom we had been trading paces with since Mt Tam and for awhile we all ride together along sweeping flawless tarmac, amidst eucalyptus trees, bubbling creeks, and several vans photographing the ride. It was surreal riding next to a car at 20 mph while they drove in the left hand lane. Stealing pedal strokes and effortless 22 mph riding was short lived as the road soon turned upward with a vengeance and the Strava QOM challenge started up the Marshall Wall. At first this climb didn’t seem so bad, it was punchy at the base and then mellowed into a steady climb. I thought I was at the top where the photo vehicle was parked and the driver and the photographer were on the roof dancing and encouraging everyone. Quickly my premature relief faded and I looked upward where the road continued. After a pitchy final section I reached the top where baby coca colas and views of Mt Tam 50 miles away soothed my already pretty pleased spirit. At this point we check in and in the back of the car is the “leaderboard” I see that Upper Echelon, who started last and an entire hour after us has somewhere passed us and been through this spot over a half hour ago. Whoever was manning the “board” told us they didn’t even stop and were “all business.” I guess as defending champs and having the pressure of starting last they took on the challenge and crushed it. Since we were not riding this competitively, we spent some more time refueling before saddling up again for a nice descent down to the coast. Ocean awaited us in Marshall and so did wafting smells of barbeque from the few restaurants advertising oysters.
The remainder of the ride, almost 50 miles, was back on Hwy 1. We rolled along the coast and through the woods. Toward Stinson Beach the road turned completely flat and everything in my body was screaming. I couldn’t get comfortable on the bike, my chamois was rubbing, my shoulders were on fire. I was a hot mess and here we are riding right along the coast, where sea lions had beached themselves, pelicans were feeding, the sun was warming my skin, the wind was blowing off the water. I should have been in paradise, but I couldn’t enjoy it and was counting down the seconds until we could be done with the ride. Thankfully Stacy pulled off at the end of Stinson beach for a quick stretch before we started off on our last big climb back over to Sausalito. I chomped several Bloc shots and refilled my water. When the road turned upwards at mile 92 and we were moving again, I was a whole new person. The climbing felt great, the views were amazing. Stacy and I stop at what we think is the top of the climb, but as soon as we get moving again and the road sweeps back around to the left we see more climbing in front of us, but the Rapha team had recently past us and instead of dreadful climbing ahead I had the most picturesque view. All 6 riders evenly spaced in matching kits were climbing steadily up a switchback along a white railing, blue skies above them, down below cliffs with the ocean crashing. In that moment it was the perfect cycling moment. We catch up with Ashley and Korina after these two fairly substantial climbs at mile 97 and they tell us there is one more climb, but it is gradual and not too bad. I think they were trying to be nice to us, because it was not either! It was another 2 miles of climbing, 600 ft of elevation and grades that crept from 9% to 10%. I was suffering, but once I reached the top I recovered really quickly and like childbirth only recall the outcome being worth the pain and possibly wanting to do it again. It took us a long while to descend back to Sausalito, as there was a ton of traffic on this sunny and warm holiday weekend. Once into Sausalito we bounded slowly up to the Golden Gate where some of the most treacherous riding of the day would occur. The pedestrian traffic was all routed on only one side of the bridge. We rode very slowly and had to make our way through two-way traffic of throngs of tourists capturing photo memories and more tourists wobbling their way across on rental bikes. We all made it safely, save for one close call, across the bridge and rolled into the Rapha Cycle Club as the complete team of 5 we started as.
We didn’t go out to win the race, nor did we come in last. It was an experience to be shared by each and every rider and each team. Herein lies the beauty of these rides. The juxtaposition of the first team to start, last team to finish and last team to start, first team to finish. A team destined for lantern rouge, spending enough time on the course to chase the sun across the sky. Another team riding their legs out, with nothing to win, only the glory of an unsanctioned race and the experience with 5 of their teammates. Either experience will live on. With only 5 miles of gravel, this wasn’t the gentleman’s race I was expecting. I was prepared for suffering and brutal grinding must-stay-seated never ending gravel climbs. Yet, 115 miles and 9,000 ft of climbing is still an undertaking no matter how you slice it. Most of all sharing the experience with a team that rode together, stayed together, and took care of each other was crowning glory on a day full of adventure.