Thomas B // Grand Epic

On the day of the GE, I wake up at 3AM. I knew a limiting factor was going to be daylight, so I planned on starting in the dark and giving myself 16 hours until sunset. My brain is slow, yet I'm able to pee, eat a bowl of cereal, and load my bike in the car in a mere 40 minutes. I head over to REI, set up my gear, and head out just after 4AM.

The first hour or so of the ride is dark, but full of optimism. I try to keep the speed up while capping the power. I force myself to drink regularly and to eat a Belgian waffle and a vegan cookie. Neither of the baked goods feel like a good idea in retrospect. Perhaps too much fat?

At least the roads are totally empty. I have blinking running lights and a headlight to help me see, and I feel great. It doesn’t start getting light outside until Calero Creek Trail, which is great because it’s hard to dodge horse poop by headlight only.

I had debated taking my gravel bike or mountain bike. The time trial I did the week prior showed me that I’d need all the time I could get, so I decided to sacrifice comfort for speed, and do this on my gravel bike with 27.5 x 47 tires—still fairly plush by gravel bike standards. I have a burrito bag on my handlebars full of snacks and three water bottles strapped to the frame, only one of which is filled when I start the ride. I'll fill up the rest when the day is hotter and there are longer gaps between rehydration.

Rancho San Vicente is closed when I arrive, as they don't apparently open until 8AM. I was here last Saturday when it was packed with people on full suspension bikes, and now I have the park all to myself. It's a quick pass through the park, and then into New Almaden, where there are a bunch of homemade signs reminding you that the speed limit is 25mph. I suspect they get a lot of through-traffic that blows past the houses. I wonder whether all of the houses made their own signs, or whether one person just made a bunch of signs and handed them out. I wonder further whether the signs are about more than just safety—respect, maybe. “We exist, don’t just blow past us!” they seem to say. “And have you checked out our Quicksilver Mining Museum?”

I get to Quicksilver park, and this is when I start seeing other humans again. There seems to be some organized run event going on; there is a tent set up and people are coordinating. There’s no more water access until Los Gatos, so I fill up all of my bottles before heading out. On the trail, there are chalk markings pointing out where to go and indicating “NO” on paths that runners shouldn’t enter.

I take a quick selfie at the San Cristobal Tunnel. I try to descend fast, but not so fast that I wear out my hands with the handlebar vibrations. I got off to a quick start with the gravel bike, but now I wonder whether the cushioned descents on a mountain bike make it a faster choice in the long run. Too late to change my mind now. I just try to keep my weight on my pedals, not on my handlebars.

I stop and use the restroom before Sierra Azul. The night before, I made tortillas with jelly, assuming that I’d be desperate for carbs in any form. That was naive. I forced myself to eat one back in Quicksilver, but now that I pull out another, a quick smell is enough for me to decide that it’s not gonna happen. I put the tortilla back in the bag, and plan to throw it out in Los Gatos. I switch to dried fruit: mangoes and dates. The fiber content may be too high to eat later on in the ride anyway.

The climb up to Kennedy Trail starts off slow. I pass a mountain biker coming the other way. He’s on a full suspension and he says, “Right on” as we cross. What a cool way to greet other riders! I like to think I’m a friendly traveler, and I typically say “hi” to anyone I see on the trail. Maybe it’s time to upgrade? The climb steepens quite a bit close to the top. I typically feel defeated when I hike-a-bike, but I remind myself that energy needs to be conserved. I do quite a bit of hiking.

On the descent down Kennedy Trail, I’m again reminded of the downside of gravel bikes. I try to keep my weight back, but with no dropper post, I’m limited by the saddle. This trail has some steep declines, too. I notice a pattern: I gain speed because I want to go fast (and because it allows me to loosen my grip on the handlebars), I find myself going fast on a rocky patch and my bike starts to bounce uncontrollably, I firmly grasp the breaks and feel the full force of impact on my hands. My poor hands. At least it’s a beautiful view out to the east. The day started off overcast, but now there is a good mix of clouds and sky.

I get to the bottom of Kennedy Trail and eat a few more dates. I see a pickup truck is about to get on Kennedy Road, so I let them go ahead of me. The road descent to Los Gatos is a huge relief after the bumpiness of Kennedy Trail, but I quickly catch up to the truck. I had wanted to get to leave Los Gatos by 11 to stay on pace, but am annoyed to be slowed down. It’s a very short descent, though, and the truck pulls quickly away when the road flattens out.

As I descend into Los Gatos, I pass by the 7-11. I had planned to pick up food there, but I’m not going through my stash fast enough to need to refuel. After getting a block away, I remember that I had planned to get corn nuts (high in salt and carbs) but I’m too lazy to turn around. I refill all my bottles, mix in Skratch, and stop by Summit Bicycles to fill up my tires—which seemed low. A staff member asked how much pressure I wanted, and I answered 30 PSI. When I got the bike back, the pressure felt the same. It’s possible, I’m realizing, that my floor pump at home isn’t calibrated, and that I’ve been running higher pressure than needed for these tires. I also feel bad asking them to fill up my tires since it wasn’t necessary.

On my way up Jones Trail, I’m passed by a hiker. He was definitely on the fast side, but still a hiker. “No shame in pacing yourself,” I tell myself, but I’m still not proud of this. I plan on not acknowledging the shame, but out of the corner of my eye I can see that this man is staring at me as he walks. I look over and say “hi” (seems like I haven’t earned the coolness of “Right on” in this scenario).

“Where’d you start?”

“Saratoga,” I answer. I realize that from here, that is only a short bike-path ride away—probably not making me look any better. But I suppose I shouldn’t really care what people think. (Right?) He says something about how he hates this trail on his gravel bike, and that he prefers using his full suspension.

Looping around Lexington Reservoir, I try to eat more. My appetite isn’t much help. I eat more dried fruit. After crossing 17, I consider buying fresh fruit from the pop-up vendors on Bear Creek Road, but then I question whether they would accept Venmo and whether I should be rinsing the fruit before eating it. As I deliberate, laziness weighs in, and I press on without stopping.

Black Road is difficult, and where I start to feel symptoms of bonking. It’s a nerve-wracking climb because it’s windy and there are some single-lane sections. Further, some people drive downright recklessly on this road. My uncle included. He lives up in the mountains, and I consider texting him to give him a heads up that there will be a biker on the road. I decide against it. Against all odds, though, I see a hot teal—not my choice of color—mini cooper heading downhill. That’s their car! I wave wildly as they descend, but just as they pass, I notice that it is someone else. I’m shocked. I guess at least two people like hot teal.

I thought that the even grade and smooth surface of a paved road would be an easy way to rack up altitude, but this doesn’t feel easy at all. I’m hitting The Wall. As I ease onto John Nicholas Trail, I make deals with myself. "Just don't quit until after you get to Skyline," I think. I know that at the top of the JNT, I'll have done the overwhelming majority of the climbing. Before the JNT climbs, it descends to a reservoir. I’m out of the saddle and I try to lean back and keep the weight off of my wrists. Earlier in the day, when I was more worried about time, I was more mindful of keeping my speed up. Now, I just want to minimize discomfort and I have an I’m-going-as-fast-as-I’m-going sort of mentality. I’m not doing great on time, either. Every hour or so, I mentally update my ETA for REI, and I'm 50-50 on whether I'll make it before it gets dark. (I won't.)

From the reservoir, the JNT climbs up to Skyline. I'm passed by 3 generations of mountain bikers: son, dad, and grandpa. They stop to rest, and I pass them. We play leap frog in this way up the JNT until it becomes a joke between us. Right before the top, I say, "See ya in a bit!" but I don't see them again.

After getting to the ridge, I am feeling better. A handful of easy miles along Skyline, and then a quick jaunt in Montebello, and then I'm basically done. I will find out that I'm wrong on all three counts. Even though the elevation profile doesn't look bad around Skyline, the miles are so tiring. There aren't any really big climbs, but there are a lot of climbing feet gained. From the top of the JNT to Castle Rock, it is only a few miles, yet I quickly realize that these are very slow miles.

The miles are also slow because I'm tired. I don't feel as beat as when I turned off Black Road, but I’m still plenty tired. I have now lost all shame in hiking my bike. My balance isn't what it used to be, which is unfortunate because the trail is more technical, and the steep drop offs and poison oak lining the trail have raised the stakes.

I stop at Cal Fire for water—the last water stop I end up taking—and then get back on the trail. I've hiked along Skyline before, so all of this is feeling familiar. My mind is focused on getting to the next big climb. I know that I'll be climbing Black Mountain in the Montebello Open Space Preserve later on, but the segment on the west side of Skyline is unfamiliar to me. I remember reading that "Slimmy Jim" (it's Sunny Jim, which I'll find out later) was tough, so I'm mentally preparing for it.

It takes me forever just to cross Skyline. Remember how the few miles to Castle Rock felt longer than I expected? Everything around Skyline is like that. Eventually, though, I do cross Skyline, and I think to myself, "Surely, Slimmy Jim is just around the corner." But it's not. I go up to Turtle Rock, then Long Ridge. Long Ridge Trail feels like it winds forever. I keep on zooming out on my Wahoo to see when the trail arcs eastward towards Montebello, but it's still so far away. “There’s no way I’ll finish this ride,” I think to myself. Though my metabolic low point on the ride was the beginning of the JNT, my emotional low point is this whole west-of-Skyline part.

When I arrive at Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, I begin seeing signs for Sunny Jim. I'm relieved to finally be here. "Once I get past this, I can start thinking about Black Mountain." Sunny Jim starts with a fairly steep, but short climb, and I naively ask myself whether all the fuss was about that short bit. But it wasn't. As I round a bend, I see that the climb continues. I'm so exhausted. This preserve is a fairly high traffic set of trails along Skyline, and my brain is confused at how I can be so tired, and yet how many fresh, energetic hikers there are around me. (Answer: we are on very different trips.)

I continue grinding up Sunny Jim. I've long ago stopped thinking about capping my power output, and I'm not even looking at my heart rate. I just want to get Sunny Jim behind me. At some point on the climb and without much thinking, I stop, drop my head into my hands, and breath exhaustedly for a few moments. I'm too tired to make deals with myself about giving up. And I figure surely I'm close to the end of Sunny Jim, anyway. (I am.) Eventually, and again without much thinking, I muster the energy to move on. Getting started on an incline, with clips, and with impaired balance is a challenge. But I do get moving, and manage to keep momentum for the rest of the climb. After that, it's mostly down and then a road segment towards Montebello Open Space Preserve.

I live nearby, and I like to bike up Black Mountain every now and then. As we approach the climb, I'm realizing that the route probably takes the singletrack climb instead of the gravel access road. The access road is what I truly wish for at the moment, but given the route so far, the singletrack seems much more likely. Sure enough, the route goes up the singletrack. The climb is slow, and the sun is already close to setting. I'm convinced at this point that I will not have enough time to do Fremont Older. "Whatever, I've already done so much."

I've eaten only a fraction of the food I had stuffed into my burrito bag, and nothing sounds appetizing. I reach for a sleeve of shot blocks, strawberry flavored, and pop one into my mouth. Delicious! Turns out I can still eat. I finish the remaining 5 and get back on the bike.

The summit of Black Mountain is extremely windy, and I'm still nervous about running out of daylight. I take a quick selfie, put on my jacket, and start my descent. The descent is bumpy, and I've never followed Canyon Trail all the way to Stevens Canyon Road. But, I get to the road faster than I expected, and judging the miles to Fremont Older, I figure that I may, indeed, have time to do the entire GE route.

I get to the Fremont Older entrance, and the gate is still open. Climbing up Coyote Ridge, I am convinced that this is the last climb (it isn't), and the thrill of being almost done keeps me pushing forward. At the top of the ridge, I zoom out the map on my Wahoo, and am dismayed to realize that I'll be winding through the park, and that I still have climbing to do. Clearly, I glossed over this end of the ride while I was preparing. On the way up Seven Springs, it's quite dark, and I turn on my headlamp back on.

I get to the Fremont Older parking lot, and by this point I'm certain there is no more climbing left. (There isn't.) I turn on all of my lights, and descend to the train tracks, which will take me most of the way back. As I ride back, it becomes totally dark, and I hope that the remaining roads to REI will be relatively low traffic. There's no good time to get hit by a car, but it'd be a particular shame to get hit before finishing the course.

The couple roads back are, indeed, fairly safe. They aren't necessarily low traffic, but the bike lanes are ample. I finally roll back into the parking lot, feeling accomplished and exhausted. From 4AM to 9PM, 17 hours have elapsed—which is longer than any ride I read about in the ride reports. I may have the honor of being at the bottom of the leaderboard. But I'm honestly just happy I made it; I was convinced for parts of this ride that I wouldn't.

PS: Big thanks to the race organizer for setting this up! When I explained my Saturday to other people, I had to explain that it was an unsupported organized ride, which left some confused. Even though there were no aid stations, swag, or finish line, it still felt very real, and I was motivated to stay true to the route without cutting corners. I'm also really appreciative of the route, which forced me to try new segments, ride segments on a gravel bike for the first time, or just link up segments in a new way.