Chico’s 30-year-old Wildflower still one of the best centuries to test your riding legs, even for a rookie over 50
By Tim Hauserman
When you get to a certain age — say when the women you are riding with says, “Oh, yeah, my Dad’s about your age” — you begin to think about ways to test your physical capabilities that are challenging but don’t require jumping off rocks or screaming down mountains.
A century ride fits the bill. A hundred miles on a bicycle is certainly a physically challenging day. And just about every weekend in the spring, summer or fall you can find a unique century somewhere in California.
Last year, I decided to embark on one of the most popular, the Chico Wildflower.
For most of the last 30 years, bike riding for me has meant mountain biking on the awesome trails around Tahoe. But a few years ago, I found myself spending a lot of time riding on pavement: grunting up Barker Pass Road or hitting the bike trail between Tahoe City and Squaw.
So two years ago for my 50th birthday, I gave myself my first real road bike (that ten-speed in college doesn’t really count) and discovered the world of road riding. I began spinning on the flats, trudging over Donner Summit to Cisco Grove, or venturing to Sacramento for the 60 miles of pavement that is the American River Parkway.
The next step, once you begin to love road biking, is to take a dip into the world of century rides, metric first.
A great place to start for me was last June’s Tour de Manure in Sierraville. It’s a very civilized century: 200 feet of climbing and a nice metric distance of 100 kilometers (62 miles) through the expansive Sierra Valley set at 5,000 feet. It was all about spinning and holding on to a group that is going your speed.
Then in November it was off to Solvang for the Solvang Prelude Metric Century — a beautiful rolling journey through vineyards, farmland and fancy estates on the Central Coast.
Now I was ready for the next challenge — a full-blooded 100-mile century.
The Chico Wildflower, which celebrates it’s 30th anniversary ride on May 1, has been in the back of my mind for years. Primarily because it’s in Chico, where I went to school on the five-year plan. What’s the hurry when you are living in Chico and the tuition is $100 a semester?
Ah, Chico in the springtime. Bidwell Park. Frisbee. Jumping in the creek at One Mile. What a great place for a century … and the town is flat so how difficult can it be? To put the icing on the cake, the ride was on my birthday, so I had to do it.
Lots of Tahoe riders I’d met were effusive in their praise for the event, although they all seemed to have their own special shortcuts that would drop eight to 20 miles off the total.
What’s up with that? If you are going to do a century do the whole damn thing, right?
And do the whole thing I did. It was an incredible ride. You wind through Chico in the chill morning air and then warm up with a four-mile climb up Humboldt Road, a narrow rough pathway dishing out the quick realization that this isn’t going to be just a flat cruise through the orchards.
After a swift downhill on Highway 32 showcasing a nice view of Chico, you hit Honey Run Road and begin winding along Butte Creek, which in the spring is more of a small river coursing through a progressively deeper walled canyon of red-hued igneous rock. The route heads past delightful countryside with expansive estates hidden in the trees to the first rest stop at the Honey Run Covered Bridge, a Chico-area landmark.
Now comes the big climb, up narrow, switchbacking Honey Run Road to Paradise. Like all substantial climbs, it seems to go on forever, but it’s a great ride in the shade and the numerous chalk signs on the old pavement offer encouragement to help pull you up the hill.
When it eventually tops out at the next rest break you’ve reached Paradise — literally, not just cause the climb is over — and you begin to appreciate what an organizational undertaking this ride is. Hundreds of riders mill about or wait in line to drink and eat and use the loo. It seems like it is all running smoothly.
With lots of miles to go, however, the milling must end and I am off to Pentz Road and a big-ring downhill toward Oroville. Give me the long steady hills and even the flats, but my chicken feathers flutter on the downhills. When I see a sign that says 12% grade, I put on the brakes and feel the breeze of dozens of riders roaring past. Near the bottom of the hill is a sign, “Speed limit 55, so pedal harder.” I put on the breaks and more people pass me. The number of fearless flyers amazes me.
The downhill is followed by lovely views of the coast range capped with snow, impossibly green fields marching on for miles and wildflowers galore bringing you to the shores of Lake Oroville’s Thermalito Forebay and another well-organized rest stop. Only 15 miles and the dreaded Table Mountain between me and lunch.
Table Mountain is a steady mostly unshaded climb. The heat gets the attention of us Tahoe guys. 80-plus degrees in April? That’s not what we’re acclimatized to. I pass a sign that says four miles to the top and about three days later I reach the three-mile mark.
Eventually Table is topped. After a break for flower peeping on the mesa, it’s easy rolling terrain, with a couple of sucker uphills before a winding, steep downhill on a lumpy road brings you to Highway 70 and the lunch stop. I relax with the crowds of people lying like dogs under patches of shade.
Sixty miles completed, only 40 to go with no major climbs. Piece of cake, right? Well not exactly. It starts out easy enough. More magnificent riding across the grassy, wildflower dotted terrain. How did I miss this springtime glory when I was at Chico State? Too much time tubing down the Sacramento, or was it those countless hours in the library?
Crossing Highway 99 we ride through miles and miles of orchard country to Durham and Dayton. It’s flat. I’m tired. I understand that at this point the trick is to jump on a group riding by and stick on the back rider like my life depends on it. The problem with this theory is that you’ve got to have enough oomph to latch on as they pass you. After several attempts, I realize my turbo will not kick in. I manage to hold on to one group for a few minutes — until Mr. Hammer takes the front and begins pounding nails in my hurt locker.
Just before Dayton I come upon a moment of decision that many century riders must face: One rider is telling two tired ladies that if they just take this little old road instead of the main route it will cut 10 miles off the remaining 25. He is like the little devil of conscience sitting on my shoulder and egging me on … But I stubbornly refuse to listen and press on. And on. And on.
The last 20 miles of a century can be an uncomfortable tug-of-war between your will to finish and your body’s aching desire to get off the bike. Time and distance seem to creep along in slow motion. But I keep the pedals turning on fumes and centrifugal force and the green power of pride.
Suddenly I am on the tree-lined streets on the outskirts of Chico, and my spirits rise with a tide of energy born of relief and accomplishment, knowing that the end is near.
It’s a great day because I realize that even though another year had accrued to my personal tally, I can still ride one hundred miles … One hundred beautiful miles with nearly 4000 other cycle-happy folks sharing the road and the common bond of a rewarding achievement.
Tim Hauserman is the author of Cross-Country Skiing in thee Sierra Nevada and Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children.
If You Go:
This year’s 30th Wildflower Century is on May 1. The registration deadline is April 15. The ride is limited to 4,000 riders. The entry fee is $65 and includes a 30th Anniversary Chico Wildflower Century t-shirt. Contact the Chico Velo Cycling Club for more information: www.chicovelo.org
You can camp at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds where the ride begins. There are restrooms, nice grassy areas to set up your tent and it’s fun hanging out with a bunch of other riders the night before. Just camp as far away as possible from the go-cart track. It’s very loud and they ride late into the night.
February 26 — Spring Death Valley Century
Death Valley, www.adventurecorps.com
March 12 — Solvang Century & Half Century
March 26 — Hell’s Gate Hundred
Death Valley, www.adventurecorps.com
April 3 — New Moon Century Ride
Santa Monica, www.newmooncentury.com
April 16 — Mount Laguna Bicycle Classic
San Diego County, www.adventurecorps.com
April 16 — Tierra Bella Bicycle Tour
April 17 — Diablo Century
Walnut Creek, www.ccjcc.org
May 1— Chico Wildflower Century
Butte County, www.chicovelo.org
May 1 — Grizzly Peak Century
May 1— Delta Century
May 7 — Wine Country Century
Sonoma County, www.srcc.com
May 7 — Tour of the Unknown Coast
Humboldt County, www.tuccycle.org
May 14— Hungry Buzzard Century
May 15 — Strawberry Fields Forever
May 28 — Heartbreak Hundred
Frazier Park, www.planetultra.com
June 4 — 2008 Auburn Century
Gold Country, www.auburncentury.com
June 11— Fiesta Metric Century
San Diego, www.shadowtour.com
June 11 —Sierra Century
Rocklin, Placer County, www.sierracentury.org
June 25 — Summer Solstice Century
June 26 — Climb To Kaiser
August 7 — Mt. Shasta Summit Century
August 13 — Tahoe-Sierra 100
Soda Springs, www.globalbiorhythmevents.com
TBA — 2007 Marin Century
September 24 — Tahoe Sierra Century
Squaw Valley, www.TahoeSierraCentury.com
October 29 — Fall Death Valley Century
Death Valley, www.adventurecorps.com