By John Rieti
How is technology changing the way you ride your bike?
That’s the question I’ve set out to answer as a sea of Garmin bleeps – rather than the starter’s pistol – let me know the first-ever RBC GranFondo Silicon Valley is underway.
By the numbers, this is a 117-kilometre course featuring 2,130 metres of climbing. Numerous Canadian riders will tell me by the day’s end that it’s actually harder than the organizers’ well-known event in Whistler, B.C.
I’ve come to this fondo with a plan. Like tech companies that run A/B tests – essentially, serving up two versions of their website to see what people like best — I’m riding half of this route focused on data, and half completely unplugged.
Here’s what I found:
Online course profiles just can’t replace local knowledge.
Before the ride, cyclists who know these roads give me a key number: 45. That’s the number of minutes I should expect to spend climbing the first hill. Alarmingly, they also issue a warning: the second climb is worse.
Hundreds of cyclists stream out of the deluxe Four Seasons Hotel, the ride’s headquarters, along deluxe Palo Alto bike lanes (compared with Toronto, at least) and we’re soon into the hills.
As the road pitches up, I start timing out the climb on my GPS watch. I’m far less anxious because it’s giving me a clear idea of what’s next.
Which makes me think: would more bike tech help here?
One local tells me he’d normally consult power data, except today he’s just riding for fun. As we pass a friend, there are still plenty of theoretical data points floating around (“300 watts if you’re passing me like that,” the friend teases).
The Kings Mountain Road climbs, twists and turns, mainly tucked under trees, making it easy to watch the minutes add up, rather than think about what looms ahead.
Elsewhere, Angela from Vancouver is minding her heart rate, which has climbed to 170 beats per minute.
And then another Vancouverite, Oz, swings by to provide a cycling moment clearly made possible by Silicon Valley. He’s on his phone, video-calling his young daughters who are just finishing a sleepover party back home.
“These are daddy’s new cycling friends,” he tells them, as we smile and wave.
“They’re suffering along with him.”
Sure enough, at 45 minutes we reach the top, exactly as predicted.
I’m then counting minutes on the way down, too, realizing nearly ten straight minutes of descending equals ten minutes of smiling.
Tracking my ride is helping, especially when it comes to fueling. But there are drawbacks.
I cruise past several nice spots I want to look around, because my brain’s now intent on holding a good pace. I worry, because I’m just 40 kilometres in and my legs are burning. And for some reason I can’t help but do math in my head, even though I don’t particularly like math.
There has to be a better way, right?
Plunked down at a rest stop with a hunk of artichoke bread – the bakery’s specialty in the tiny town of Pescadero – I’m ready for Plan B.
I shove my watch in my jersey and ride on, now relying on my senses to record the details.
The first sight: a picturesque farm flying an American flag with a peace sign where the stars should be. I imagine Neil Young, who has a similar hippie ranch out this way, would approve of my unplugged approach.
I wave to farmers I pass, and get jealous of every local zipping the other way — it is unfair they get to ride these roads every day. During an all-too-brief descent along the coastal Highway 1, I catch myself laughing aloud at how beautiful the perfect blue sky and craggy coastline are.
And then we’re at Tunitas Creek Road, or “Tendonitis Creek” as the ride’s emcee cheerfully called it before we set off.
Here’s the description of the climb, with numbers.
It will again take most riders around 45 minutes to get up, with a punishing middle section featuring 12 switchbacks and an average gradient of around nine per cent. And after the steep part it levels out, there are still several kilometres of a four per cent grade to get up.
The race’s fastest men and women – including ex-pro Bob Roll, who told Canadian Cycling he rarely rides with his phone, let alone GPS – did battle here. Women’s winner Sara Headley, who took the women’s crown, cruised up the hill at just over 19 km/h, while the fastest male rider, Rob Whittier, consistently pushed well over 300 watts into his pedals. (Thanks to Strava for those details.)
Here’s the description without numbers: it is not easy.
I try to heed Roll’s expert advice and find a rhythm I can maintain, but it’s instantly a struggle. I lose count of the switchbacks, focusing only on the stretch of slope I can see. I spin my smallest gear.
But then a wonderful thing happens: the climb gets my full attention.
I’m gulping down air, which is clean and sweet. When I peek back, riders in bright jerseys seem to pop between the towering redwoods. And far down past my right pedal, I can hear a faint ripple of the creek far below.
Would a stream of data ruin this moment? Probably not. But at the top I’m glad I soaked up every second of the experience.
Whipping downhill en route to the finish line celebrations, I’m afraid don’t know whether A or B is definitively better. However, I highly-recommend you try this test out for yourself to see what works for you.
All the better if it’s on some gorgeous California roads.