Life is tough to figure. It's the compulsions that are the most baffling. Just when you think you've gained the restraint that is supposed to come with age, you inexplicably find yourself volunteering $35 to spend a Saturday bicycling 100 miles on public roads.
The occasion is the Gourmet Century-- Century for the mileage, Gourmet for the food the organizers provide before, during and after the ride. Apparently the concept is alluring, because about 500 souls in tight shorts have converged on Los Olivos, near Solvang in the Santa Ynez Valley, this sunny morning to have a go at it. The wiser ones, perhaps a third of the congregation, have committed themselves to a saner 50 miles. You, however, are attempting the full century although you're the sort whose bike collects dust between rides and your idea of a long outing is 40 miles. But this is the Gourmet Century, and you're a glutton for punishment.
At the 7 a.m. check-in amid the vines at Brander Vineyard, the tight-pants are nonchalantly talking about riding this century and that century. Some ride centuries on consecutive weekends. In Davis, Calif., a popular annual event is the double century, in which participants do 200 miles in one day.
You begin to realize that you are an interloper in a subculture that doesn't know that a bicycle is supposed to spend most of its life hanging vertically in the garage. You also realize you have cleverly left your cycling shoes at home. Not a good start.
On the heels of that discovery comes another surprise: The sheet of directions indicates 38 different turns. The first 15 miles alone require nine turns. "Left onto Alamo Pintado; left onto Hwy. 246; right onto Hwy. 154; left onto Armor Ranch Road" and so forth. The Tour de France has fewer turns.
Standing in a vineyard in improper footwear, you study the sheet, trying to commit at least the first three turns to memory. A fellow in tight shorts chuckles as he walks by. "Got it all figured out?" he asks amusedly. You look around. No one else is studying the directions.
Inasmuch as this is a ride, not a race, there is no starting time. Riders may begin whenever they like. Slowly they trickle out, mostly in twos and threes. You head out on your own, worried about all those turns. Miss one and you end up at a Dairy Queen in Des Moines.
The route, you discover early on, is marked with white chef's hats painted on the roads at each turn. In 1,000 years, archeologists will puzzle over these and attach some religious significance to them.
The early miles glide by effortlessly. Verdant meadows in three hues of green, oak-studded hills, mares and foals frolicking in corrals. In the midst of this pastoral scene you find yourself riding alongside a pleasant fellow named Jules. Jules is a doctor. You hope he's around later, when you need him.
The route loops back on itself, and at 30 miles you are back at the Brander Vineyard for the continental breakfast stop. It is mildly disconcerting to see that many cyclists aren't stopping, choosing instead to press on toward the lunch site 21 miles away in Los Alamos. This becomes more disconcerting when you discover that the organizers have run out of the breakfast mainstay, oversize muffins. A muffinless rider named Irwin is miffed. His wife says, "You shouldn't have waited for me, Irwin." Irwin seems on the verge of violence.
The road to lunch includes nasty head winds and a formidable climb. Everyone has developed a keen interest in heavy breathing, and the collective mood of the riders seems to darken. On the flat stretches, some riders cheat the wind by tucking in behind another cyclist or, better yet, behind one of the many fast-cruising tandems on the course. Such drafting is considered fair play, but being a glutton for punishment, you don't indulge in it.
Meanwhile, curious pinging noises are emanating from somewhere in the vicinity of your rear wheel. All this time you were depending on the bike to get you to the finish, and now you realize that it may turn out the other way around.
The lunch, highlighted by a superb pasta salad with morsels of marinated chicken, is worthy of the Gourmet Century's name. You eat your share, then Irwin's, and then it's back on the road, where you immediately encounter Jules the doctor. The farthest you've ever ridden in one day, you volunteer stupidly, is 65 miles. "There's no difference between 65 and 100," Jules says.
Seventy-five minutes of hills and head winds later, at the 68-mile cookies-and-melon stop on the mission grounds at La Purisima, you are still searching for the logic in that remark. You are also searching for Jules, who dropped off your pace on a two-mile climb that persuaded some riders to walk. Soon he materializes, complaining about leg cramps and asking how you are feeling. "Not bad," you shrug. Jules receives this news joylessly. A moment later, you look around and discover he has gone.