Around the Bay

July 17, 1999. First double century: 207 miles.

One of my goals this year was to ride my first double century. I thought of doing one of the organized rides (and in fact did my first organized ride ever, the Sequoia Century), but by the time I felt I was ready for a double century, all of those had ended. So I had to come up with my own route.

I had three criteria for the route: It had to start and end at home, minimize climbing, and minimize headwinds. Trying to do all three of those in the Bay Area is pretty much impossible. I figured there was no way to completely eliminiate headwinds, but I wanted to get tailwinds as much as possible at the end of the ride when I needed them the most. This eliminated coming home from the East or South Bays, and meant the ride pretty much had to end by coming down the Peninsula. On the other hand heading down south is about the only way to keep things flat for a long time....

I often visit Lucas Pereira's excellent cycling pages, which include among other things gradient measurements of the various climbs around here. On one page he describes some long rides he's done, including two over 200 miles. The San Luis Obispo trip sounds like a great one I'd love to do sometime now that I know what a great place SLO is, and it seems to have relatively little climbing and favorable winds, but unfortunately doesn't end at home. However his other trip, "Around the Bay", seemed to be just what I wanted. Using my mapping software (Wildflower's "Topo!" and a newly-purchased "Topo USA" 2.0 be Delorme, which I've already found to be better for bike trips than "Topo!", not to mention a lot cheaper) I shortened his route a bit and also decided to ride it in reverse, which with luck would give me the tailwinds at the end. I was originally thinking of actually cycling down Highway 1 at the end and then climbing Highway 84 (which I've never climbed in either direction yet, although I've descended both sides), but realized that would add about 30 miles and a lot of climbing to the trip, and so decided to just return home via Highway 35 and Canada Road. This turned out to be a very good decision.

I sent Lucas email to ask him about some details of his trip, particularly how he got through the very tricky section of Marin County. I had hoped to just buy the Kreb's North Bay bicycle map but every bike store I went do didn't have it. It turns out it was out of print and they were just releasing a new edition. By incredibly poor timing it apparently came out just after my trip--I saw it in Palo Alto Bicycles on Monday the 19th! I bought it so next time I should be okay.... Anyway Lucas was extremely helpful, sending me a lot of detail in particular about how to get from Novato to Sausalito, and this really saved me from getting lost. I had no problems other than going the wrong way when a bike path split in Sausalito, which added about 2 miles and 15 minutes to the ride.

The ride itself was terrific. I started off in the dark, which I'd learned last year that I love riding in, and bicycled across the Dumbarton Bridge and through Niles Canyon before it started getting light out. I was disappointed that although my front light (Cateye Microhalogen) says it lasts for 3 hours on batteries, it only lasted for one hour although luckily it was light enough by then that I didn't need it. Around Pleasanton I was passed by many cars which had road bikes stapped to the back of them! It turns out there was a triathlon that morning. Looking on the web later I saw this was the "Tri for Fun", an apparently low-key event, but these guys all looked pretty serious to me....

One of the highlights of the trip was Vasco Road, in particular the descent. The wind must always blow in the same direction there, because I had it to my back and it was quite strong in the early morning. The windmill-covered hills were beautiful and the descent was just a blast. I'd only timidly crossed the 40mph barrier a couple times earlier this year, but here I found myself going consistently over 40 and it didn't even seem fast since there was no air resistance. But then there'd be a dip in the hills to the right and I'd be hit with a cross-wind and have to slow down to keep control. Definitely one of my favorite descents and I'll have to figure out a way to work it into other rides.

After that there wasn't much of interest until the Antioch Bridge. One interesting thing about this route is that it uses all three of the only toll bridges across the Bay that allow bikes on them: Dumbarton, Antioch, and Golden Gate. This was my first time on Antioch and it was, as Lucas had mentioned, not very pleasant. Although there's a shoulder that you can bike on, the traffic lane is quite narrow. But it's nice you can use it at all.

After the bridge I noticed that even though it was morning (before 10am) there was a very strong wind blowing from the west, right into the direction I'd be going once I got to Rio Vista. Sure enough once I got there it was right into the wind. This was the most miserable part of the trip. Highway 12 is just awful, with no shoulder (so I didn't feel safe using my aerobars), completely exposed, and on top of that the area is extremely ugly. I got down on my drops and found a reasonably comfortable pace at 10mph, just hoping I'd get through. I'd mentioned to Lucas that I was hoping that by reversing the direction of his trip I would avoid most of the headwinds. He said "we'll see...". I'm not sure which way is better, but if one has to have terrible headwinds having them right in the middle of the trip is probably the best place.

After 20 miles of headwinds I finally reached Suisun City a little before the halfway point, and stopped at Taco Bell for a much-needed lunch--this was the only real meal I had all trip. The rest of the time I just ate snacks (granola bars and candy) that I'd brought along, those plus the numerous maps weighing me down quite a bit. Past Suisun City I was finally able to get on some back roads. Although I was still going into the wind I could at least use my aerobars. I'd bought the aerobars a couple months ago, specifically with a double century in mind. They were mostly for resting my wrists (which are in bad shape from too much typing), but I found them invaluable on this trip for the wind as well. I'd used them a little before, but never before have I spent so much time on the drops and aerobars. I got pretty comfortable in that position, and in fact don't fear the wind now as much as I used to. However I found I used some new muscles, particularly in my left leg, in these positions, which started hurting, and my left knee started to get annoyed after a while as well. That was worrisome but nothing really got that bad.

I thought there was another 20 miles of headwinds after Suisun City, and it certainly felt like it, but looking at the route after the trip it seems it must have only been 10-15 miles more. When I reached American Canyon Road, which was downhill, things started getting better. I was prepared for Highway 37 (another exosed 20 miles near the Bay, but the scenery is a little better) to also be into the wind, but luckily the wind came more from the South there, so it was a crosswind and much more bearable. Once I made it to Novato the winds were finally behind me, and were tailwinds for most of the way home. However I was too tired at this point to really enjoy them.

As you can see from the elevation profile Marin Country consists of a lot of short but steep climbs, but I found I liked these because I could just go up slowly and then cruise down. I'd hoped to get home before dark but when I arrived in San Francisco at around 7:30pm I knew that wasn't going to happen. I considered taking El Camino home because that would be better in the dark but decided to follow my original route. I bought some more batteries in Daly City which was good because Highway 35 and especially Canada Road were unlit and would have been impossible to follow without a front light. I found Canada Road, with fog covering the mountains, the reservoir next to the road, and hills blocking light from the peninsula, to be really spooky. It was interesting to do once, but I wouldn't do it again. I found I prefer to be closer to civilization when it's dark out.

The front light again went out after an hour, but by then I'd reached Stanford which was lit enough. It was fanatastic to bike down a well-lit Palm Drive and then into downtown Palo Alto at the end--it's special when you both leave from and arrive at home, which is why I like to start and end my trips there. Although I was very tired, surprisingly I never felt at any time during the trip that there would be any problem making it. Furthremore I actually felt better at the end than I did at the end of my first 100 mile trip last year, and my first 100K (62 mile) trip two years ago. So I feel like I'm making some progress. The Reno trip especially got me into good shape, and I'd wanted to do this trip fairly soon after that one. I must say, though, that 200 miles did feel like a really long distance, and this hit me particularly when I reached San Francisco after 160 miles and realized I still had to get home! During that last segment, especially, I was wondering if it would ever end....

Incidentally my first 100K trip was around the south tip of the Bay, going around Milpitas and ending by crossing the Dumbarton Bridge. That's the one part of the Bay I actually didn't go around on this trip, but if you combine the two together I've done the whole thing.

I can't say I really recommend this trip because of the headwind problems (the climbing is pretty minimal, though), and also because the entire section that was new to me (from Pleasanton to Sausalito) had just about nothing interesting except Vasco Road. However for a double century fitting my criteria it was definitely the way to go, and I'm really glad to have done it once. I don't think I'd do it again without some large modifications. Once the new Benicia-Martinez bridge, which will apparently allow bicycles, opens up (2001?), that will allow one to cut out the worst part of the route and create a much nicer trip.

I seem to be getting more and more addicted to long distance cycling. Since it's going to be tough to come up with other good long routes around here, especially that cover new (to me) areas, I think next year I'll try riding some of the organized double centuries as an opportunity to visit other parts of California. Perhaps I can try for the California Triple Crown.


Distance and speed were measured using an Avocet 45tt cyclometer, distance rounded to 1 mile and speed to tenths. Comparing my distance at various points to what I calculated using the mapping software, the Avocet looks like it was quite accurate.

The climbing was measured using my new Suunto Vector wristwatch altimeter, which I had wanted to get in time for this trip (and I wish I had it during the Reno trip as well). I used 1 minute sampling (which from my tests can underestimate total climbing quite a bit on rolling terrain compared to 20 second sampling) and started a second log book on Highway 37 just as I arrived at 101, since the log book can be at most 12 hours long. I was planning for this and reset the reference altitude, although it was only off by 10 feet. The Suunto seemed very accurate at measuring altitude during the ride, but total climb measurement suffers from sampling errors. Also I must have accidentally turned off the second log book about 1:45 before the end of the ride. The measured climb to that point was 6260 feet, and I'd guess there were only a few hundred feet of climbing after that. Adding that in and figuring this was underestimated, I would guess there was at least 7000 feet of climbing on this route and possibly quite a bit more. This is fairly low for a long ride in the Bay Area, though.

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