35 Miles, on 2 Wheels, in Fresno

So I've mentioned before -- several times, and probably more than is necessary -- that my knees are bad.  Bad, BAD knees.  No dessert for you.  I can't walk/jog like my wife can, and it can even be a challenge to walk a 5K without limping for a day or two afterwards; but without the impact of walking I'm not too bad off.  For instance, I can ride a bike pretty well -- my butt might not appreciate the bicycle seat very much, but my knees appreciate the exercise.

That last rambling paragraph leads me to this: we were just in Fresno to attend and celebrate my niece's graduation from Fresno State University, where she got her Master's degree (congrats again to her!)  As it happens, that same weekend is the bicycle portion of the California Classic event, which is a companion event for the California Classic half marathon / 5K that took place and in which we participated back in March.  Because we got the finisher's medallion from the walk portion, we decide to get the matching interlocking cycling medallion as well.  The pedestrian events consisted of a half marathon or a  5K fun run; the bicycle event has the options of a 100-mile "century" ride, a 60-mile "metric" ride, or the 35-mile "mini-metric" ride.  Seeing as how the longest we've ridden so far has been a little over 21 miles, we opt for the mini metric.

Because it's Fresno, in May, the ride starts at a very early hour to avoid the Valley heat; so we arrive early enough to get a really good parking spot (a combination of lucky timing and my sister-in-law's keen observation and quick thinking, we get the first two spots right at an intersection, making our exit strategy after the ride simple and easy) and head over to the starting point, where a large number of cyclists has already gathered.  We take a few obligatory group shots (try as I might to be the guy taking the pictures, I still end having to pose for a few myself) and a few minutes after 7 the ride begins.

The first few miles are along closed streets downtown, winding past office buildings and through residential neighborhoods, past police officers directing traffic as we gradually ride along larger and busier streets, until after about 5 miles we hit the highlight of this particular ride, where for a ten-mile stretch we ride north along a section of southbound California State Route 168 which has been closed for the occasion.  According to the California Classic web site, it's the only ride in California where Caltrans shuts down part of a freeway for a bicycle ride... and it is a glorious thing.  Instead of a three- or four-foot strip along the shoulder of a street where cars are whipping past your left elbow at far-too-quick speeds for my liking, we have a full four lanes of smooth road, hundreds of cyclists enjoying the still-cool morning air and clear sky, peace and quiet of no vehicle engines nearby, encouraging cheering from the spectators along the freeway overpasses above us; all of which add up to what almost seems like a wonderful post-apocalyptic outing, without any nuclear winter or zombie attacks (the absence of which is also nice.)  I use the wide lanes and abundance of space to entertain myself by taking some video from my newly purchased mini camcorder which I've installed on the side of my bike helmet, and by taking a few shots with my iPhone, both of the other riders on the freeway and a few selfies with family members in the background.  I'm a geek; this is what I do.
One thing I definitely notice during this stretch is that the gentle rolling hills of the freeway -- which we had driven down just over an hour ago in our car getting to the starting point -- seems much more daunting riding a bike than when in a motor vehicle.  Sure, the first long hill isn't too bad, but the second one comes much too quickly before I have a chance to recover; and while I do get a good amount of speed coasting downhill after the climb I immediately have to climb a third hill, and then a fourth... the underpasses we encounter along the Guadalupe River trail in San Jose are quite a bit steeper than these, but they're only a few hundred feet long instead of a quarter or half mile, and my leg muscles let me know they don't really appreciate the longer distance climbs.  We're all able to manage the hills, though, which is good -- I'm glad they came at the beginning of the ride instead of near the end -- and after a total of about 15 miles we exit the highway and take a quick break at the first rest stop.

We parks our bikes, grab some of the snacks they offer (licorice, fruit, and other simple sugars and carbs for energy), I take a minute or two more to get my knee working properly again (the vastus medialis muscle, or the quadriceps femoris muscle, or the kneecapsicum hurtialis, or whatever the name of the thing is that hurts so dang much when I bend my knee sometimes) and we're off and riding again, this time along the side of country roads around the outskirts of Clovis.  There aren't any legitimate bike lanes along the roads here, but the shoulders are wide and there isn't much traffic, and after the mostly uphill first leg of this ride -- a net rise of 150 feet or so in the fifteen miles of freeway, but quite a bit more than that taking the rolling hills into account -- this portion of the route is mostly flat, so my legs appreciate the easier work.  As we get closer to our second rest stop, however, I do start getting some complaints from a different body part -- while I do have a bicycle seat that is wider and more cushioned than most, my butt is also wider than most butts (no comment on the cushioning comparison), so I'm getting a little tenderness in my nethers the further we ride.

I take the second rest stop as an opportunity to refill my water bottles (it's getting warmer and they have both water and ice here, which is a very welcome thing) and stretch my legs for a bit before the final portion of the ride.  As we ride through the streets through the southeastern portion of Fresno toward the finish line, the traffic gets heavier, the shoulders narrower, the day hotter, and my butt grumpier; but we persevere.  After a few miles of riding through the downtown area (they do have bike lanes here, but also a lot more traffic; and by now all three bike routes have reconnected so there are a lot more cyclists than during our last portion) we begin our approach to the finish line.  I get a little concerned as we notice a huge column of thick smoke emanating from where we estimate the finish line to be, but as we find out later it's a three-alarm fire at an abandoned Del Monte packinghouse a block past the finish line, which thankfully doesn't affect the bike ride and -- more importantly -- isn't anywhere close to where our cars are parked.  I get a few video clips and iPhone photos of the smoke from various distances as we ride the last mile or two of the route, because it's newsworthy and just in case we need them for insurance purposes.

We cross the finish line triumphantly to the cheers of volunteers and spectators and maybe a hobo or two, make a U-turn before we ride into the fire trucks, and head toward the valet bike parking area where we also receive our race medallions. We walk (a bit stiffly, at least in my case) into Chukchansi Stadium and partake of the free light lunch they offer to riders, and I also have a cup of free ice cream that they're serving from the Cold Stone Creamery cart (their coffee ice cream is one of the better coffee ice creams out there) to help cool off a bit, as it's almost noon and it's getting pretty darn hot out.  The free lunch consists of decent but dry rice pilaf, very well-done (almost rubbery) tri-tip, salad, a roll, and crunchy green beans.  It's protein and carbs; maybe not fantastic fare but needed after riding for three hours -- my Cyclemeter app says I burned 3400 calories during the ride; that seems a bit high to me but I do need to hydrate and make up for some of what was burned.  We'll make it up with a much better lunch later in the day.

The finisher's medallion is a Fresno cityscape, with a tiger head on the bottom (it's sponsored in part by Chaffee Zoo, and the tiger is their mascot critter) and some cyclists  in the lower left portion; the half marathon medallion is the same cityscape and tiger, but with runners in the bottom right.  The medallions fit together in such a way that both event names are visible, along with the runners and cyclists... it entertains me greatly.  The 5K was the first walk/run event this year for us, and today's bike event was the longest ride we've done to date; it's a whimsical little thing to have interlocking medallions, and both events are something to be at least a little proud of, so I am happy about having gotten them.

Even if my butt's a little whiny about it.