gravel grinder

Swimming through Fish Rock

Fish Rock 2019

Boonville, CA

March 9, 2019

By Jennifer Schwarz

“This is stupid,” I thought as I drove north on Highway 101 toward Cloverdale. My car’s dashboard displayed a giant “X” through the words, “Eye Sight,” and my car, which had been cruise-controlling along at 65 mph started coasting slower and slower until I pressed my foot back to the gas pedal. If my car couldn’t “see” the freeway lanes or the cars in front of me, what business did I have riding my bike in this stormy weather? Miraculously, once I hit Highway 128, the rain lightened up, sun rays broke through, and I, literally, drove through rainbows.

It was chilly but dry at packet pick-up in Boonville, CA. My teammates (Amy, Meredith, Shelagh, Liz, and Mei) and I greeted each other between shivers, signing waivers, and fixing race numbers to our bikes. I swapped rain boots for cycling shoes with wool socks, toe warmers, and rain booties; I stuffed my pockets with extra gloves, hand warmers, and all the nutrition I’d need for the day; and chose to wear my rain jacket from the get-go, knowing that the tradeoff for being a little warm on the first climb would pay off once the rain resumed. Then, I learned the start was pushed back 45 minutes in order to allow the snow on the top of our first climb to melt. Rumor had it, Bike Monkey had people up there driving cars back and forth to expedite the melting process. I noodled around on my bike, in a few extra jackets, warming up or trying to keep warm with a few friends, while others chose to stay toasty inside their cars. I bet those seat heaters felt nice.

Eventually, it was time to stage. At the start line, we listened to a brief pre-race talk. It was going to rain, all day, but especially hard around 1:00 pm when a thunder cell was due to come through; we’d probably be in Point Arena on the coast then or descending the 16% grade to get there. Oh, and the sharp rocks of Fish Rock Road were extra-exposed in these rainy conditions. I looked around at the many familiar faces of cyclists around me, wondering, if they, too, were thinking, “Are we crazy? We’re not really going to race this, are we? Let’s all get back safely, ok?” The countdown came; and, apprehensively, I clipped in and started pedaling.



Course profile: 71 miles, 9600’ total elevation gain. I think of it in five sections: [1] the series of steep westbound climbs, which kick off with a 13% grade wall a quarter mile after the start, [2] the screaming 16% grade descent down to the coast, [3] the “flat” section in which we actually gain 2000’ while racing southbound on Highway 1 to Point Arena and up a never-ending approach to the mid-race aid station at the base of Fish Rock Road, [4] the race’s namesake, Fish Rock Road, which heads back east for 23 miles and is infamous for its first 15 miles of dirt with 10% average grade climbs and a chunky and loose descent before the road turns into broken pavement, and [5] 8 miles of paved rollers on Highway 128 that lead to the finish line back in Boonville.

My race plan: Don’t go too hard on the first climb, find a group along the Highway 1, don’t let up too much on the Fish Rock climb, don’t take risks on the loose dirt Fish Rock descent, and keep it steady and strong to the end.

From the gun, people are vying for position, I care less about holding mine than usual, as the road is wet and I know we are about to hit that first hill. I settle into a comfortable climbing rhythm in the first section, leapfrogging with a handful of guys, as the grade changes cater better or worse to our strong suits. Amity is ahead of me; Pia, teammate Amy, and Kristen pass me; I tell them to have fun. It starts raining, it keeps raining, it rains harder. It’s chilly, there is snow on the sides of the road, there is snow on the road, it is really cold, Amy turns around, it rains more, it’s freezing. Men assume women descend slowly so get in front of me but let gaps open in front of them; I wait until it’s safe, then, go around them and catch back on. We’re on Highway 1 and it’s windy, really windy, and really really windy; a couple guys and I take turns pulling; we’re not not going that hard, but we’re moving, and it’s nice to be with people. It gets colder, it hails, it dumps. My group catches Kristen, she joins us but stops at the midway aid station. I continue on, certain she will pass me again on the Fish Rock climb. I come up on my buddies James and Renard; James follows me and we ride the rest of the course together. We don’t see Renard again but it’s so cold we can’t afford to stop, and two hypothermic people is not better than one. Save a few slippery clay patches, the dirt quality is actually better than in dry years when it’s hard to keep traction because of fine, loose dirt. It’s pouring, we’re climbing higher, it gets even colder, it’s ridiculous. I do finger exercises to keep my blood flowing, I pedal while braking on descents and tell James it’s the only day ever that I don’t want his draft. There is still no sign of Kristen. I cross the finish line and take 3rd place for women.

I roll into the parking lot, confused. Where were all the cars? There were not that many people ahead of me. And, then, I realized, it was was a race of attrition. So many people got too cold to shift effectively or brake safely and called it quits either riding back after the first climb or SAG’ing in from an aid station. I learned 39 women had registered, 24 started, and only 14 (including teammate Mei) finished; these ratios were similar for men too. It was not easy for anyone out there, and I’m glad everyone made smart decisions to end the day safely. I commend Bike Monkey for their efforts to mitigate danger in the extreme weather conditions and help those who got unlucky out on the course.

Back at Anderson Valley Brewing Co., we were greeted with delicious paella, podiums, the indoors, beer, and survivor stories galore. The atmosphere was one of camaraderie and accomplishment. It was a day we’ll all remember.

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