The 2010 cycling season is ramping up quickly and this past weekend we took the much anticipated trip north to ride in the 29th annual Chico Wildflower Century. Renowned for its striking views, challenging terrain, and relaxed atmosphere, the wildflower is deservedly one of the most popular rides in Northern California. As expected, this year’s ride was no exception and they proved that by shattering previous registration records, with over 3,800 in attendance. Our team sent six riders this year, but only two had ridden this century before. Having spent a few of my finer years attending the CSU in Chico, I couldn’t wait to get back into town to tackle the ride, see the sights, and bask in the nostalgia.
As usual, the morning of the ride crept up fast and the conditions couldn’t have been better. The weekend managed to secure a few days of sunshine between intense rainstorms, revealing a crispness in the air and a lush feel to the landscape surrounding the ride. According to the weather report, a brisk morning would give way an afternoon in the low to mid 80’s and that was just fine with us.
Rolling out of the gate of the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, riders set out on their journey anywhere between dawn and 8am. With a crowd of this size, the casual start was the right choice and a natural diversion from the chaos and congestion of an organized start. With the steady stream of riders departing that morning, finding a group to roll out with was effortless.
Cruising past early morning shadows of the tall trees downtown, we rode two-by-two and gradually found our cadence. Settling into a building slipstream, the pace picked up slightly as we rolled closer to the edge of the valley and into the foothills.
Once we hit Humboldt Rd, the ride felt like it had truly begun. The rough composition of the fire road made it feel like we were riding atop a section of ancient cobbles and the steady incline got the heart pumping. Quickly adjusting to find our pace, we charged steadily upward, maneuvering around the never-ending stream of potholes. Once the initial shot of adrenaline subsided, autopilot kicked in, breathing relaxed a bit, and we found our stride.
Before long we’d reached the top and were rewarded with a quick descent back down into the valley. Pointing the front wheel down hwy 32 was a blast. A long and steady downhill grade, riders tucked in and did some light pedaling toward the flat lands, glancing up occasionally to admire the glow of the morning sun bouncing off the valley floor.
In the valley, riders regrouped and stretched into long lines, turning the crank with conviction. With only a few turns we were on to Honey Run road and quickly sweeping downward into the valley. This is a gorgeous section of road and a real highlight of the ride. With only some steady pedaling, we averaged a tempo of in the mid 20’s as the morning sun only peaked at us through the tree canopy overhead. Turning off my playlist for a moment, I could hear the rushing water that ran parallel to our route. This is the type of road you wish you could ride on everyday, but we all knew it was only driving us closer and closer to our first major climb.
After stopping for a moment at the historic covered bridge to regroup, we clipped in and made our way toward the Honey Run climb. The first couple of miles began gently before revealing a collection of steep grades and switchbacks up the canyon wall. Extremely challenging yet rewarding, this was one of my favorite climbs in a while. The switchbacks gave us only a short section of road to obsess over, forcing us to look up and admire the scenery all around.
After a few miles in the low gear, we reached the top and were welcomed to Paradise by a large crowd. Hearing the excitement of the crowd as you come over the crest of the climb somehow manages to erase the painful memories of the ascent almost immediately. Fast climbers or slow, we all accepted the praise and headed on to our first feed zone renewed.
The feed zone was packed. I’d never seen lines like this, but fruit, snacks, and water were all ready to go and morale was definitely high. We took a few minutes to fill our water bottles and tell stories before hopping on the bike to continue our journey. We would soon see the benefit of our climb.
Back on the road, we hit a few rollers that navigated us through the evergreens of Paradise, toward the skyway. Once we found the skyway, all bets were off. This was a long and relatively straight descent and we took full advantage of it. Throwing the hammer down, hit max speed and shot down the grade. This is one of those descents that we don’t get to see a lot. Lately all the big climbs we’ve hit have been followed by short technical downhills, forcing us to nurse the breaks and analyze every last corner. Not here. Reaching peak speed, we screaming down the mountainside on our trek toward Oroville.
Once at the bottom, the ride to our next stop felt fast. Wind was low and the rollers were kind. We found our way in and out of a few pace lines along the way, but it was really no time at all before we were wolfing down more calories to prepare for the infamous table mountain.
The stop in Oroville was very relaxed. Set in a park directly on the water, there were big oaks to provide enough shade for all. It was a great place to regroup again, but we didn’t stay long. We had bigger fish to fry.
In the saddle again, we joined up with Cherokee rd. and charged past the outskirts of town toward the base of table mountain. The route there began with a few miles of flat and then got a little bendy and as we descended quickly to the base of the climb.
Table mountain represented nearly 1,000 ft of elevation gain in only 4 miles and after having traveled 50 miles the legs really begin to notice. Fortunately, there isn’t much for traffic on the road and the grade is bearable. For the riders that needed a breather, there were some pretty inviting turnouts in the shade and more than a couple riders decided to take advantage.
Once again, seeing the peak made it all worthwhile. Directly at the top was a section to refill water bottles and wait for riders still on their way. However, for those with an appetite, lunch was only about 5 – 10 miles down the road. Dreaming of sandwiches, our group chose to forego the scenery and continue on our journey. Still, even with the climb complete, the next few miles were no picnic. The much anticipated descents were some challenging rollers, pushing our legs even further. I was definitely not too proud to hop on a back wheel a few times while we worked our way around the hillside.
Finally, it was time for lunch. Catered by Kona’s, delicious sandwiches, fresh fruit, and some chocolate chip cookies really hit the spot. An excellent spot to host lunch, morale was high. The climbs were complete! All that remained were some rollers on the way to Durham and the flats through the orchards back to chico.
Even so, the final leg of this ride was no piece of cake. The afternoon breeze felt like a full blown headwind to our weary legs and the rough orchard roads knew exactly how to remind us we’d been on our saddle all day. Still that is the nature of the final leg of any century and I don’t think any ride would feel complete without a healthy amount of suffering. Joining forces with our own team and other riders, we formed into pace lines an drove the ride home.
Those final miles rolling into Chico were completely satisfying. It was impossible wipe the smile off our faces as we rode through the heart of college town, downtown, and back to the fairgrounds. All in all, The wildflower was a great ride and will be on our annual calendar from here on out. If you rode it, share your experience in the comments. I can’t wait until next year.