|“I’ll never do another Willie ride”
Willie Hunt designed and hosted this audacious 600K (377mile) ride that made a huge loop from the coast, along the Santa Ana River, up San Timoteo Canyon and through San Gorgonio Pass between Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio descending to Palm Springs and down along the Salton Sea before turning eastward to the overnight control in Borrego Springs. From Borrego the route climbed Montezuma’s Grade (aka RAAM’s glass elevator) then gradually descended to Oceanside and back up the coast to the start.
Actually, it didn’t look too bad on paper. “Only” 17,000 of climbing spread out over 600K, with the biggest chunk on the morning of the second day when it should be cool and we’d be fresh after some sleep.
Michael Bratkowski did the pre-ride solo a week earlier and encountered unseasonably high temperatures and brutal headwinds all the way from the 86 turnoff (near Salton Sea, mile 211) to Borrego Springs, prompting his (only half-serious) vow to never ride one of Willie’s routes again.
Michael is a tough, experienced randonneur with rides like the 2014 VanIsle 1200K, the cold and rainy 2013 Gold Rush Randonnee 1200K and Willie’s infamous Vegas-to-LA 600K under his belt. If Michael says it’s hard ride, it must really have been hard. After a few hours rest in Borrego he was ready to continue. Unfortunately the second day was hot and difficult as well and he ended up finishing the ride, but with only 10 minutes to spare.
We were hoping for better luck, but as it turned out, the conditions were pretty much the same on the day of the official ride. Record high temperatures for that date in Riverside, Palm Springs, and other cities on our route. We even got the same headwinds into Borrego.
The ride started off cool and pleasant from Willie’s house in Foothill ranch. We were glad of the warmth our reflective vests provided on the downhill course to Newport Beach, through the fog we encountered in Irvine.
Despite taking it easy, we reached the first control shortly after it opened. A quick snack and we navigated through the road construction in Newport Beach to the Santa Ana River Trail which took us to San Bernardino. Except for a short section through Norco the SART is a paved car-free multi-use trail that follows the Santa Ana River from the beach to the San Bernardino Mountains.
We rode with old rando friends Foster Nagaoka and Linda Bott and new rando friend Doug Church who was riding his first 600K, and completing his first Super-Randonneur series.
We also rode for a while with ultra-cycling legend John Marino, founder of and competitor in the Race Across America. You can see the video of the first RAAM, back when it was called the “Great American Bicycle Race” on YouTube. It’s a great account of the first bicycle race across the United States between John Marino, Lon Haldeman, Michael Shermer and John Howard – complete with the original commercials.
This year John, like us, is riding a series of brevets to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris. John was planning to ride on an all-liquid diet for the ride, but we wanted real food so he rode ahead as the rest of us stopped for lunch.
By the time we started climbing San Timoteo canyon it was starting to get hot. Foster noticed that when reached mile 100, the thermometer on his Garmin showed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. By mile 101, it was reading 101 and by mile 102 it was reading 102. Fortunately the trend stopped there.
Between Banning and Cabazon the I-10 is the only route, so we rode the freeway shoulder. We exited the freeway for a while where there were frontage roads, then got back on until we reached the 111 which took us to (and through) Palm Springs.
The trip through Palm Springs was pleasant, and the slight downhill and light tailwind made the riding easy. It was late in the afternoon and we were getting hungry, so we started to keep an eye out for a place to eat. Fast food and convenience stores are de rigueur on randonneuring rides, but since good restaurants were available we thought we could do better. Eventually we decided on the Eureka! restaurant in Indian Wells. Stacy got fish tacos and I got a watermelon salad with arugula and kale. Real food has an amazing restorative effect, and taking a break from riding helped too.
Heading south after dinner we entered the agricultural area of Mecca and Thermal. The sun set and we rode south along the eastern shore of the Salton sea. It finally cooled off, with the temperatures dropping to the 70s, a real pleasure.
As we neared the turnoff Hwy 78 that would take us to Borrego Springs we could feel the wind increasing. Unfortunately it was a headwind that made the next 30+ miles slow going. Riding slowly, we did see more wildlife than we might have otherwise even though it was dark. A coyote ran across the road behind us. Tiny pale scorpions ran around crazily as we approached, dazzled by our lights. Sidewinders, about a foot long, lay coiled on the roadway soaking up it’s warmth.
Eventually we got to Borrego for a much appreciated rest. It was already warm and starting to get hot when we started off again a few hours later. The climb up Montezuma’s was beautiful as always, and it was great to speed down the other side once we reached Ranchita. Met up with Foster and Linda again at the biker-bar near Lake Henshaw. Rode at a moderate pace, enjoying the downhill sections and taking it easy on the uphills. We probably were a little too relaxed at it became clear we’d need to speed up to reach the Oceanside control before it closed.
By that time it was cooler, and stepping up the pace felt good. Made the control in time, then cruised up familiar roads to the finish at Willie’s.