September 16, 2016/ Guest
This is a guest post by Jason Perez who just achieved an incredible California Triple Crown Stage Race Series win. His victory on a the Vendetta V20 was unprecedented. No other recumbent has ever completed the infamous double century series, much less soundly beaten all of the competition. Did we mention these double centuries are notorious climbing races?
The White Mountain Double Century
At 4 a.m. on Friday morning I started the five hour trip to Bishop, CA for the White Mountain Double Century (WMDC). The WMDC is the final event of the California Triple Crown Stage Race Series and it wasn’t supposed to be on my calendar because I was supposed to be up in Oregon for a 24-hour mountain bike race. I debated whether to make the longish drive out to Bishop. In the end, pleas from a few friends and the promise of getting to descend from a 10,000 summit were good enough reasons to go. I drove via Highway 120 through the northern parts of Yosemite National Park, taking in the spectacular park views at dawn. I arrived in Bishop at around 9 a.m. and found the La Quinta host hotel. Rider checkin didn’t begin for another seven hours or so, so I had more than a little time to kill. I figured I’d go ride the upper half of White Mountain to familiarize myself with it. I drove out the 15 miles from town to the start of the climb then continued up the ominous looking canyon. The climb doesn’t lead in gradually, it goes from flat strait to steep and just keeps climbing with no end in sight as it constantly weaves between and around the canyon walls. As I was driving I began to think, “Damn this looks harder then I imagined and I still have 18 more miles to climb.” I decided to turn around and head back to the bottom so I could pedal the whole 20 mile climb. Most people would think a 50 mile out and back ride up a 6,000’ climb the day before a 200 mile race would be a bad idea, but I’m not most people. Life is an adventure and what kind of adventure doesn’t include a few risks, right?
It was a nice 2.5 miles of flat road to warm up before starting up the climb, but before I knew it I was already a few miles into the canyon. The best way for me to describe the road is a roller coaster of asphalt. It is never strait and has all kinds of rolling undulations like a dragon’s back. I finally reached the halfway point of the 20 mile climb and turned onto White Mountain Road. Unlike the previous canyon climb, White Mountain road exposes the full view of the surrounding valleys and Sierra mountain range as you continue to snake up the side. I finally reached the top after nearly 3 hours on the bike, so I chilled out in the warm sun enjoying the cool high altitude air.
After a nice 10 min nap and a few pictures, I headed back down the mountain. The descent was fast but I knew from the climb up that it was pretty much gravel free. A few miles into the descent I suddenly found myself airborne and drifting toward the oncoming lane. There were a series of buckles in the asphalt too small to see but large enough to royally screw up my balance and contact with the ground at over 45 mph. I quickly sat up and forced the bike back under control, then took a deep breath and let out a deep sigh of relief. I made a mental note of the road buckles for tomorrow and continued on my way. The second half of the descent was back down the more enclosed canyon section of road I earlier described as a roller coaster. This part was a blast as I weaved left and right up and over many of the small rollers that make up the long dragon’s back. At one point I was doing a bit over 50 mph over one of the many rollers and suddenly gravity failed me. My stomach hit my throat as my wheels floated away from the road surface as it steeply dropped away. The next turn was coming up fast but I couldn’t steer or brake without being in contact with the ground so I just froze and waited till the road rose back up to meet me. The air time only lasted a moment, but it was unnerving enough for me to check my speed for a few corners before I resumed destroying the 45 mph speed limit now wearing a massive grin ear to ear. Would this harder than normal pre-ride hurt me tomorrow? I thought, probably, but the chance to ride down the canyon section which would only be climbed during the race tomorrow was totally worth it. I mean how often do you get to experience slowly floating off the ground over a smooth rise?
I made my way back to the host hotel and tried to find a little shade to take a nap in my truck for an hour until check in began. It didn’t take more than 10 minutes before I woke up sweating inside a sweltering truck. It was too damn hot outside even in the shade to sleep so I took a walk for some ice cream instead. People finally started to show up and check in for the event and a nice complimentary pasta dinner was being served as well. A random fellow picked me out of the crowd as I sat in the grass reviewing the contents of my goodie bag. I think his name was Tom. I must have had an air of experience about me because he started right in asking for advice with this event only being his second Double Century. After sitting down with George and Lori who were a duo I met at dinner, the conversation turned to racing nutrition, drink powders and calorie intake. George and Lori have been doing Double Centuries for several years and sounded like they could put down quite the pace on a tandem. After a few more triathlete jokes directed at Tom, I headed back out to the parking lot to unload and prepare the Vendetta for tomorrow. I was forgoing getting a room at the hotel because my money tree was currently out of season, but the memory foam mattress in the bed of my truck works fine. I couldn’t really sleep until around 10pm when the temperature finally dropped below 80, but when I finally did, I slept well.
I woke up a few minutes before my 4 a.m. alarm, so I jumped up and ran over to the start area to film the 4 a.m. starters rolling out. I made it just in time to capture the 60-70 riders roll out and into the darkness. I had an hour before the 5 a.m. fast rider start, so I walked over to the lobby to see if they had any donuts.
Instead of donuts I found a flustered rider desperately trying to get his shoe to clip into his pedal but it just wasn’t happening. He had just bought new cleats for his shoes and was just now discovering he had got the wrong kind, and of course he had thrown away the old ones. The cardinal rule governing this type of issue is, “Don’t try new things on race day without a test ride.” After trying to devise a solution to his problem that didn’t include duct taping his shoes to the pedals, I wished him luck and headed out to get ready myself. The rider did in fact find some cleats to borrow and did get to ride, so it all worked out.
I put all my gear on and rolled up to the start with about a min to spare and just chilled out at the rear because I had a plan. The goal for the day was to win the race by at least 30 minutes over Derek, who was currently sitting in first place for the series with a 30 minute lead on me. If I couldn’t beat Derek by at least 30 minutes, I would end up second, which would still be great, but aim for the moon they say. Derek and several other riders would most likely destroy me up the 6,000’ climb up White Mountain, so I needed to open up as much of a lead as I could in the flat first 18 miles to negate some of the damage. 5 a.m. struck and we were on our way with me at the rear of the group that was quickly stretching out. I gradually got myself up to speed going around 30 mph as I cruised by the long line of riders. Glancing in my mirror as I passed the leaders, I saw their numerous bright led lights all tightly packed together. A moment later, I noticed a frenzy of lights shifting around and it looked as though someone was leading out the pack to catch me. It’s hard to judge distance when a bike only has a single headlight so they could have been 10-100 feet behind me but I knew I didn’t want them drafting me all the way to the start of the climb, so I increased my speed. I was going harder than I would have liked for the start, but if I was pushing then so would the riders behind me. It was 15 miles of basically strait highway to the first turn and I had only opened a 90 second lead in those 15 miles even though I was pushing harder then I wanted. The Vendetta may be fast on the flats, but if a group of riders work together they can basically match its speed. I continued to push the pace for the last 2 miles before the climb and open an additional 30 seconds on the chase group.
Starting the climb I dropped down one gear after the other and quickly found myself in my lowest gear looking for another. I watched in my mirror as the group of chasing lights started to fall apart making their way up the climb. Normally a group of 5 or so riders would stick together at the front for a good part of the climb, but I’m sure my fast pace and them trying to chase me had left them all a bit out of breath. I was starting to roll by several small groups of riders from the earlier 4 a.m. start. It’s always cool riding with other people in the dark with only lights to light the way. Many of the riders are surprised to see a recumbent pass them on a climb, but they always cheer me on as I go by. I wasn’t more than 2 miles into the climb before the first rider from the chase group caught me. Derek was the first to catch me, as expected, but I’d hoped to hold him off a couple more miles. I said good morning and good job as he went by but I didn’t get much of a response as he continued his charge up the climb. I assumed he had his game face on. As much as I wanted to go with him, I knew it was beyond my ability to hold such a pace so I watch him slowly walk away. I could see him glancing back for my chasing led every few mins to see if I was still with him.
It wasn’t long before Mark Lowe, the next and only other rider to catch me, pulled alongside. He mentioned he’d had never seen a recumbent go uphill so fast to which I responded, “I do ok.” I told him good job and keep going as he chased after the now out of sight Derek. I had settled into my pace of about 230-240 watts on my power meter, but it was hard to watch Mark pull away. I like to sprint the flat sections between the steeper rollers so I don’t get bogged down. This method uses more energy but greatly improves my climbing speed on a bike that I can’t stand up on. My short burst of speed kept me in sight of Mark as we continued passed more 4 a.m. riders. About 6 miles into the climb, I caught and passed Mark for second place and I slowly opened up an advantage. As I got close to turning onto White Mountain road, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Derek as he left the aid station. No such luck. In fact, I doubt he even stopped at all.
I blew past the aid station with a thank you and started my accent on White Mountain Road. I had lost sight of Mark behind me but I was catching 4 a.m. riders more frequently now. In the final miles up the mountain, 4 a.m. riders became scarce. I started doing some calculations in my head and figured that at the pace I was going, there would only be 4 or 5 riders reaching the top before me. As I started catching one last rider before the summit, I spotted riders coming down through the trees. I yelled “heads up riders coming down” to the rider ahead me because he was basically riding on top of the yellow line with his head down, but he didn’t seem to care. The riders coming down rounded the next corner going very fast as expected and nearly clipped the rider ahead of me with his head still looking down. Next I spotted Derek flying down the mountain. We exchanged waves as I noted where he went by. I figured he was about 6 minutes ahead of me as I hurried up to the aid station at the top. I quickly refilled my bottles and tried to put on my sunglasses for the first time now that the sun was out and blinding. I fumbled and dropped my glasses onto the table, then when I went to put them on I forgot about the sun shield on my helmet and it too went flying off across the table. I was in a such a hurry trying to rush things along I must have seem flustered to the volunteers, but when you’re racing every wasted second feels like an hour. I thanked the volunteers and started racing down the mountain. When I reach the point where Derek passed me, 9 minutes had gone by so I was farther behind then I had thought.
As I flew down the mountain I was glad I had worn my wind vest and arm warmers because while wind chill was not as cold as I was expecting, it was still colder then I’d want to endure in a vented jersey. As I was flying down the mountain probably a bit faster than the day before, I started to worry about over-heating my disc brakes. My TruckerCo brake pads have never failed me before, but then I’d never abused them quite this hard. Some of the 50 mph sections lead strait into 10 mph hairpin corners and I could just envision my rotors glowing bright red like a F1 car. As always, my brakes worked flawlessly with no fade to speak of and never squealed even once. I was sure to avoid those bumps in the road that nearly made me crash the day before, and I reached the aid station at the bottom without incident.
I made the left hand turn onto Highway 168 which would be another 8 miles of downhill I hadn’t not ridden yet. In general, this next section had more relaxed corners so less braking was needed and I let gravity do the work. I soon found myself exiting the enclosed canyon and staring across a massive valley. There were still 10-20 riders ahead of me at this point because there were two route options for the day. The shorter route didn’t climb the whole White Mountain so they turned around early and got back ahead of us. Every time I could see a speck in the distance I forced myself to see Derek’s red and black cycling kit but as I got closer it was always someone else. As I reached mile 62 and the next climb, I stop for a minute to strip off my vest and arm warmers because the heat of the day was coming on strong. I passed a few more riders on the climb and skipped the aid station at the top because I planned to stop at the lunch stop in another 20 miles. I relaxed and enjoyed the descent into what seemed like another never ending valley. I focused on trying to keep my watt output at around 200 but I was struggling. I was still feeling the effects of the lead out and the quick 2 hour pace up the mountain. I spotted two more riders way up ahead and sure enough the one leaving the other in his dust was Derek. Now 85 miles into the race, I had 115 miles to open up a lead of at least 30 minutes. I laughed to myself because the task at hand seemed impossible, given how slowly I was gaining on him. As I passed, I said good job and he clicked up a few gears and tried to hop on my wheel. As much as I’d have loved to pull him along and chat about the happenings of the day, this was a race and I didn’t have a second to spare. I bumped up my power to 300 watts for a few minutes so he couldn’t attach himself and as soon as he gave up the chase, I relaxed back down to my original effort. I think finally passing Derek brought on my second wind because I was finally feeling strong again and holding 220 watts with ease, I started to think I had a chance.
I finished off the last of my water as I rolled into the small town of Dyer where the lunch stop was supposed to be. There seemed to be some kind of open street market going on with people selling knickknacks on either side of the road. There weren’t a ton of people, but there were enough that I slowed and coasted through town scanning ether side for anything that resembled an aid station. I was looking for anyone to wave a hand or yell out as I desperately scanned both sides, but saw nothing. Finally at the end of town I spotted some orange cones and ribbon that looked like it might be an aid station but as I pulled in, I saw it was just more people selling stuff. I was giving up valuable time looking for an aid station hidden in a crowd when someone should have been standing out front letting riders know where to go. I looked at my map profile and saw the next water stop was another 18 miles but basically flat miles so I was looking at around 50 minutes ride time.
I said screw it and figured I could make it 50 minutes without water and not kill myself. My renewed energy from my second wind was rather short lived as the heat started bearing down and my mouth turned dry as the desert sand. You remember when you were a kid watching the minute hand on the clock during your last class and thinking, why was it moving so slow? Well that was exactly the relationship I had with the miles data screen on my Garmin. Every time I glanced down expecting to see 4 miles go by it had only change 1 or 2. I sucked on each of my three bottles one last time hoping to get out every last drop but the total yield was barely enough to wet my mouth. As I approached the Fish Lake Road intersection where the next water stop was my heart sank. There was nothing. No signs of anything, much less a water stop. I looked down at my route sheet and it was another 8 miles to the next “planned” aid station, but it was on the other side of a 1,000’ climb and now the temperature was in the 90s. I kept pedaling and just focused on trying to keep my power above 180 because 200 was just not happening anymore. I had only brought Accelerade powdered mix with me, so on top of being thirsty I was now getting very hungry.
I started considering trying to eat the powder dry but thought better of it. Finally, I rounded the corner and I saw an aid station. I was so out of it by this point all I wanted was to get some water in me. I was the first rider of the day after already passing all the 4 a.m. and short course riders so all 6 volunteers wanted to try to help me at once. I ask if they could help refill my bottles while I got something to drink but they said no we can’t refill bottles. Puzzled I placed my two bottles on the table in frustration as I went back for my third. Then had to keep declining offers for everything under the sun except to help me refill my bottles. As I struggle to maintain my balance in the ankle high sand trap the aid station was placed in, one of the volunteers finally decided to give me a little assistance with my bottles. I grabbed a Clif Bar, trudged my way up the sandy hill pushing the Vendetta as it tried to sink into the sand. Thankfully the next part was downhill and straight for a few miles, so I just coasted and choked down the Clif Bar and finished off about 30 oz of water in one go. I had to do a triangle loop passed the previously missing water stop and then hit the same sand pit aid station one more time before continuing on to the finish. When I reached the end of Fish Lake Road the missing water stop was now in full service but I still had enough water to get me back to the sand pit so I didn’t stop. Now back at the sand pit there were half a dozen riders including a few I had met at dinner the night before. Everyone was starting to look a bit burnt out from the heat but I chugged a coke, filled my bottles and got out of there as quick as I could.
Wasps, Ghost Towns and Heat
I had one last climb up to 7,000′ before starting the 45 mile final stretch to the finish line in Bishop. The climb was 10 miles long and, although not the steepest of the day, the heat really made it last longer than it should have. I was starting to recover from my earlier dehydration but I wanted to stay ahead on my water intake to be sure I didn’t stumble in the final miles. The next aid station was at mile 167 in the town of Benton, so I made sure to pace my fluid intake so I’d finish off my bottles before I got there. If I could refill in Benton, I could make it the last 34 miles to the finish without needing to stop at the last water stop at mile 188. As I approached the California state line, there was a state checkpoint building with stop signs. I could see it was active and there were people moving around inside, so I decided to at least slowly roll through the stop instead of blatantly blowing through. As I slowed down I looked at the closed window wondering if they would say anything and then wasps. Suddenly I was engulfed in a flurry of wasps and I’m not talking a few dozen, it was more like a few hundred. It looked like someone had poured out an entire 2-liter bottle of soda on the floor and the wasps were getting their fill until I rolled up. I put the pedal to the medal and quickly sprinted out of there spinning the front wheel of the Vendetta with the sudden torque. The sudden pressure on my feet caused the pain of the hot spots on my feet to go from manageable to crippling. I had to soft pedal for about 5 minutes before the pain even started to subside. At mile 166 and I could clearly see the town of Benton so I finished off the last couple ounces left in my bottle and start pulling out my last two baggies of Accelerade powder to make the stop as fast as possible.
I’m wasn’t sure what side the aid station would be on but there didn’t seem to be many people wandering around so I thought it should be easy to spot. But no, the town was totally deserted without a soul in sight and that included the aid station at which I was oh-so looking forward to resupplying. In utter disbelief, I pedaled out of town weighing the situation I now faced. Again, I’m out of water, I have 21 miles to the next water stop and that’s assuming it’s there. If the water stop wasn’t there, I would have a whole 34 miles without water to the finish. It was now nearly 100 degrees with a solid headwind pulling every last bit of heat from the black tarmac and throwing it in my face. This really sucks, I thought.
Well there’s no use crying over cotton mouth, right? As I continued on, regretting my decision to finish off my water heading into Benton, I again tried to focus on my cadence and keep my pedaling effort as high as possible. At this point, you’re basically riding down a massive valley with the White Mountain Range to your left and the Sierra Mountain Range to your right. On both sides of the road is farmland. As I passed through, they were watering the fields. I was starting to get desperate for some water and started to look at the large sprinkler system a bit more intently. I was figuring drinking the water would be a bad idea, but maybe just wetting myself down would help a bit. With only a few more miles to the mile 188 water stop I figured I’d give it one last chance before I dove for the fields. My Garmin clicked off mile 188 right as I was passing a cluster of homes to my left, but again, no people in sight. Just after the homes was a large gravel turnout to my right and a minivan had just pulled over and was opening the rear hatch. Could it be, I thought. As I got closer the gentleman pulled out a table so as I pulled up ask if he was here for the bike race. I started to help him unload, praying they had hidden some water somewhere in the van. Finally we found the water tightly packed in boxes, so I refilled my bottles one last time, chugged an apple juice and sprinted away thanking the volunteer.
The Final Stretch
I only had 13 mile to go. Even if the finish line wasn’t there when I arrived, as had happened at the last two Double Centuries I’d raced, it wouldn’t matter because I’d be at my truck and my truck had food. The heat wasn’t about to release its grip on the valley but now, with more than enough water, I was able to douse myself and that made a world of difference. By my calculations, I was easily 10 minutes under the old course record of 10:53 but the big question was how closely Derek had been able to stick with me through everything in the second half of the race. I reached the finish with a time of 10:41 and was greeted for an official finish with actual people waiting for me. I was pretty spent since I told myself to give it all I had in those last 13 miles, because if I came up a minute short of my goal, I’d feel the regret for months. I headed back to my truck and enjoyed a nice parking lot shower. I was able to load up my truck just as Derek rolled in at 11:19. I couldn’t believe after all the mishaps I was actually able to achieve my goal and take over the lead in the stage race series by a mere 8 mins after nearly 36 hours of racing.
Disappointment and Pride
I’d like to say it has been quite the adventure learning to ride the Vendetta on these super challenging mountain courses, where just seeing a recumbent show up and try to finish is a feat, much less seeing one challenging for the win. If you had asked me six months ago if I could win a double century with over 15,000’ of climbing in it I’d have laughed and responded with something like, “In my dreams maybe”. You’d most likely get the same answer from anyone six months ago but that has all changed now.
The perception toward recumbents has changed. Not only are they seen as a potential race winning machine with the right rider on a tough mountain course, the Vendetta’s performance is being called outright unfair. Days after the race, I was informed by Chuck Bramwell that they were revising the rules and that Derek would still receive first place in the stage race. I, in turn, would be given some kind of honorary recumbent first place. When I started this series, I honestly didn’t even know it was a race series. I just wanted to challenge myself on the ominous Devil Mountain Double course. Then per the overwhelming requests from my friends and family I continued the series even after breaking my wrist between the last two events and spending two months off the bike recovering. When this all began there wasn’t and still isn’t an official recumbent class to enter within the California Triple Crown Series. There are only Men’s, Women’s, and Tandem classes so basically if it’s human powered and only one male rider, you meet the requirements for the men’s division. I don’t even think there are any age divisions, so the 60 year old riders are racing guys in their 20s and 30s. Per the rules, I was classified in the men’s category right up until I won the White Mountain Double and clenched the Overall. Now, they’ve decided to change the rules and insert some kind of clause that only recognizes fast recumbent achievements as some kind of side note, from my understanding. If you’re a slow recumbent unable to finish in the top three overall, I think you receive a trophy.
Those who know me best know I love racing and I love winning, but a hard fought effort or self-improvement far outweigh any trophy or a title in my book. Being side-stepped in the results won’t make me lose a bit of sleep and if anything, it’ll only fuel my passion for ending bikeism. If anything I feel the California Triple Crown Series has robbed my supporters of an achievement that they helped me earn and for that, I apologize. I could understand adding a recumbent division beginning next year, but to change the rules for 2016 after the fact shows a lack of integrity. But, there is only so much change people can handle at one time. Together we can take pride in our achievement.
Kudos to the Crew
I want to thank all the racers and volunteers that made the White Mountain Double Century possible. If I could make one request to the event director it would be to schedule your aid stations and water stop for earlier arrival because being fast should be no reason to deal with heat exhaustion. I want to thank my friends and family for supporting me through the years. I want to thank everyone at Cruzbike for giving me the opportunity to ride a machine as cool as the Vendetta. I want to thank TruckerCo for supplying me with the best brake pads in the business as well as tubeless tire sealant to keep my tires bullet proof for 200 miles. I want to thank the guys at my LBS Encina Bikes for helping me source parts and fine tune any issues I come across that I can’t solve myself. I also want to thank my surgeon Dr. Schwartz and my hand therapist Patricia for helping put my wrist back together and strong enough just in time to make this final race.
Have fun and ride on.