Rapha Women’s Prestige Race — San Francisco & Marin County

When Courtney rode with her bike team, Sorella Forte, in the 2011 Rapha Gentlemen’s Race last August and returned with tales of wicked gravel, exhausting miles, too little water, and more gravel, I was positive Rapha’s crazy unofficial epic races were not for me. Why would I do that to myself? Fast forward to March 2012 when Sorella Forte got the invitation to ride in the inaugural 100+ mile ladies only Rapha Women’s Prestige race in San Francisco, an unofficial, unsanctioned, and unsupported ride/race done for the glory and love of cycling. A team of six had to commit quickly, and I was on the roster since I’d already be in SF for a conference. We had two RGR alumnae, two women in training for the Leadville 100, a seasoned cyclocross racer, and me. I’m just a Cat 5, man.

We had six weeks to turn our regular race and ride plans into a training schedule. Crap.

Five days before the race we lost half of our six woman team to injury and illness. Double crap. Gone were the Leadville 100 ladies and one RGR alumna. We spent the next three days scrambling to find new teammates, and got really lucky when Metromint’s team bailed out leaving us a few women who still wanted to ride.

Plane tickets in hand and bikes packed into boxes, Courtney, Tonya and I  flew to San Francisco to meet two new teammates from the local team Metromint. I’d spend 7+ hours on a bike with three people I’d never ridden with, two of whom I’d never met. Good news: they’re all really nice women! More good news: the SF ladies knew most of the route and could navigate through town!

 

Race start times were determined by team strength, and of the 13 teams that made it to the race we started third at 8:10am on a gorgeous, sunny Saturday morning. We may have been the only team of 5 to ride, everyone else had teams of 6. The five of us had already agreed that we were in this to finish, not to win, and wanted to enjoy the ride as a team. As the day went on, it seemed that about half of the teams were racing, the rest of us just out for an awesome century on a beautiful day. We didn’t have any pros, we weren’t a development team, had no sponsor or local support vehicles to meet us with water, and Ashley and Korina from Metromint were our most experienced racers as Cat 3s.

GAME ON.

Departing from the Rapha Cycle Club in the Marina District we had to get out of town, cross the Golden Gate Bridge without hitting tourists, keep from getting ticketed in Sausalito, and make our way to the foot of Mt. Tamalpais to begin a 2,500ft climb. This is where my rear dérailleur had a panic attack and kept slipping gears, not a good sign at only 12 miles in to the ride. By the time we hit gravel I was shifting more smoothly and settled into the 5 mile gravel grind.

We were all kicking ass on the gravel when Ashley, a Metromint teammate, got a pinch flat after an especially rocky section. At least it meant we could pause and take in the views (awesome!) while we got the new tube sorted out. Then she suffered a second flat a mile later, same wheel as before. Three teams passed us. Lesson learned: if you are riding on any gravel, use really solid tires. Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons are the only way to go. Trust me.

At the end of the gravel we caught up with the Tibco and Rapha teams, snagged a little water thanks to Tibco’s local support car, and were off to some amazing descents as we wound down Mt. Tam into Fairfax. Yellow flowers blossomed on the hillside, their perfume heady in the warming air. We rolled along a lake, across a river, into town to get more tubes and water. Somehow, Upper Echelon’s team passed us like ninjas on bikes and we never saw them for the rest of the day.

Out of Fairfax we caught a ride on the Rapha train, high tailing it at 25mph outta town and back into some rolling hills. We realized we’d accidentally dropped Tonya on Sir Francis Drake Blvd., so we waited a minute before rolling on through Nicasio Valley. I didn’t know at the time that this was the longest ride and greatest amount of climbing she’d ever done in one ride, but I knew she’d be there at the end with us all. We were in this as a team, to finish together and have fun above all else!

We played leap frog with the Rapha team for the rest of the day, affording us the time to chat with some of them and catch a little wind break while we were at it. What a great group of ladies! I seriously have a crush on all of them and the way they ride: as a team no matter what, having fun on their bikes. And they’re nice! We rode with them for 20 miles to Marshall Wall, a 1.4 mile climb that was part of the day’s Queen of the Mountain competition.

I took off up the initial 8% climb because that’s just how I roll, hoping that if I got enough of a jump the rest of the group wouldn’t catch me easily. Could it be that I’d be faster than Cindy Lewellen? I was, but only for two minutes, then she caught me. Then she passed me. I rode alone, not sure how hard to push given we had 50 miles left for the day and knowing I wouldn’t be QOM. At the top of the climb I was in 10th place out of 31 in the competition, which feels like QOM to me considering I was up against pro riders, development team riders, and the indomitable Cindy. Seriously, that woman can climb for miles and miles, it’s impressive.

We wound down the hillside toward Highway 1 and the Pacific Coast, riding like a real team for a good stretch all the way through Point Reyes. Along the coastal roads I felt really strong, probably the result of a tail wind, and thought perhaps we’d be back in the city sooner than anticipated. We saw colonies of sea lions sunbathing on sand bars, pelicans, birds wheeling in the sky. Sun beat down on us and it was wonderful. I have an amazing sunburn on my calves to show for it.

The funny thing about having a 2,500ft climb on a ride is that it dwarfs all other elevation gain, giving you a false sense of the terrain. What looks like a tiny hill turns out to be a pretty nasty climb at 80 miles. Leaving Stinson Beach after a quick stretch break I had no idea what we had ahead of us. To my right: amazing ocean views! In front of me: climbs that just won’t stop, on a road full of cars that wanted to go fast. We were decidedly not going fast.

By the final climb my rear dérailleur was acting up again, leaving me to grind out the last mile in a lower gear than I’d like. But the descent was so worth it! Eucalyptus lined the road, scenting the air as we zipped down the road at 38mph. I felt rejuvenated and ready to take on the final miles back into Sausalito, across the bridge, back to the cycle club.

Riding across Golden Gate Bridge at 6pm on a sunny Saturday is a terrible idea. Pedestrians, tourists taking photos, children meandering, people on rental bikes pedaling precariously down the sidewalk. After 105 miles this was the most dangerous part of the ride. Mere feet from getting off the bridge a tourist on a rental bike crashed right in front of me into a chain link fence, not wearing a helmet, and sheepishly muttering an apology as she wobbled back into the fray. I made a promise not to complain about commuting across the Hawthorne Bridge for at least a month.

AND DONE.

Rolling into the cycling club we were welcomed with cheers and applause, everyone celebrating our finish and accomplishment. We weren’t first by a long shot, but we weren’t last, and most importantly we were still a team of five cyclists finishing together, having fun and celebrating the joy of the ride. Everyone received Rapha cycling hats to commemorate the adventure! We stuffed our faces with delicious flatbread sandwiches, uploaded our ride data to Strava, and started dreaming about our next ride.

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