Adieu to France…

Another day, another col. Or 6.

Or perhaps ‘au revoir’ would be more accurate.

I have taken my bike to Europe on three occasions, and each time about a week before I left I had misgivings. Why was I taking my bike apart and putting it in a box, and then consigning it to luggage handlers and security agents, who could undo my careful packing job in less than 30 seconds? Why was I spending so much money to travel thousands of miles in the ‘comfort’ (purgatory is more like it) of coach seating on an eleven hour flight? California and the western United States have many scenic cycling roads that are much easier and less expensive to travel to, and there are plenty of domestic bicycle touring companies to help you discover them.

 

But once I arrive in Europe, all my misgivings fade away. To put it quite simply, European roads are better for cycling than American roads. And the roads on the Cevennes Tour, and the rides in Provence we did afterwards, were the best cycling roads I have ever enjoyed riding.

Arrows and Options: fun in every direction.

 

The number of wonderful cycling roads we rode was quite amazing. Little twisting roads that follow old animal paths and trails and footpaths. Roads that trace the contours of the land because they were built before modern equipment made it possible to change those contours. Those little roads pass through the scenic beauty of the French countryside, with rivers and gorges and mountains, and very old stone houses and bridges and  churches in every little village. At intersections signs with arrows point in different directions,  a guide to cycling adventure.

Going Down! The 'traffic' is our van; no other cars in sight.

 

Many of these roads are remarkably devoid of traffic. The climb up Mont Lozere took me 90 minutes, and I  encountered one car and one motorcycle. On the descent into Meyrueis I had the road to myself for 15 km, which was fortunate since there was a drenching rain falling for the first 10 of those km’s.

Which Way, Gerry?

Even when there was traffic (rarely on most of the roads of our tour) French drivers are very courteous to cyclists. Cars will follow you at a safe distance, not tailgating impatiently as seems to be common here. When it is safe they will pass quickly and smoothly and give you plenty of space. Cars coming from the opposite direction will even move over to give the passing car additional room. That almost never happens here. French drivers (Italians too) don’t just tolerate cyclists, they accept us as being a normal part of traffic. Some drivers here are like that, but it is certainly not a majority.

My friend Jack is a fine travelling companion, but he tends to be a ‘glass half empty’ person. While I gush about how great everything is, he will point out something that is less than perfect which I may have noticed but chose to ignore. But he agreed with my conclusion about these being the best roads he had ever ridden, and he has been more places cycling than I have. If he says that, you can be sure these roads are pretty special.

Quiet, hilly, twisting and occasionally very steep roads through scenic country. Courteous drivers. Great food. Maybe purgatory was worth it.

Stone bridge on the high plateau

 

 

Yellow flowers on the road to Mont Aigoual

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bon Appetit!

Can't get started without an entree

As evidence that one can burn lots of calories riding a bicycle I submit the following: I did not gain any weight on my recent trip to France. But that wasn’t for lack of trying.

Cycling Languedoc kept us very well fed on the tour of the Cevennes Mountains. Every restaurant they chose for lunch or dinner was a delight. And when my friend Jack and I ventured out on our own during our second week of riding, I can say I was never disappointed by any meal.

Dinner in France seems to be an event not to be rushed. Except for the airport hotel in Marseilles I don’t think we ever completed an evening meal in less than 90 minutes, and 2 hours for dinner was not unusual.

Most evening meals began with an entrée (first course, in the U.S. we have corrupted this term to mean main course). There were usually two choices. Here are a couple of examples: salami, ham and pate salad, fish tartlet with greens, and gazpacho with crayfish.

What's on your 'plat'?

 

After the entrée comes the ‘plat’ (main course). Again, there were usually two choices and occasionally three. Fish, lamb, veal, and sometimes beef or pork or chicken were typical options. Every place we ate offered beautiful presentations of each dish, which as a hungry cyclist I proceeded to tear apart as politely but completely as possible. The French don’t seem to mind if you use bread to soak up the last of any delicious sauce that might be on you plate, and I certainly did so at every opportunity. Featured in the photos are scallops, veal with creamy mushroom sauce, salad with shaved parmesan and prosciutto, rack of lamb, couscous at a Moroccan restaurant, and more veal with a brown sauce.

After the ‘plat’ is was usually time for the cheese course. Sometimes a waiter would bring a huge selection cart with 10 to 20 options and you could select whatever you wanted. Other times a small plate with 3 or 4 selections was served to each diner. The cheese course  seems designed to prepare you for the finale: dessert!

I gave in to temptation. More than once.

 

I almost never eat dessert at home, but in France I ate it every day; sometimes twice, at lunch and dinner. A few examples: crème brulee, a dessert assortment, real ice cream with real whipped cream, and a creamy custard topped with chocolate sauce and a chestnut glaze.

So if you are off to France and not planning to be cycling 3 to 7 hours each day, be prepared add at least a couple of pounds you will want to lose when you get back to the U.S. But the French dining experience will be worth it!

 

 

 

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Losing it on Lozere

The Climb that Made Me Skip Lunch

 

To give you an idea of how bad I felt at the end of the ride, I skipped lunch. In France, where lunch was coq au vin, with some delicious first course and of course dessert. I couldn’t eat a thing.

I have succumbed to heat exhaustion twice before. Both times the symptoms were  the same; severe dizziness, feeling faint, loss of vision, gastro intestinal distress and nausea. So I  knew what was happening to me, which did not  make matters more pleasant but did give me some confidence that I was not going to die, despite how badly I felt.

Our fourth day of cycling in the Cevennes Mountains was only 50 miles, but featured 6,300 feet of climbing, with much of that coming over the last 20 miles. The climb up Mont Lozere via the Col du Pre de la Dame is a significant ascent. It is 9.5 miles long and climbs 3100 feet. Then after the descent there was another 1,000 foot climb over 4 miles to reach our hotel in Garde Guerin, one of the 10 most beautiful villages in France.

Garde Guerin, a Top 10 Beauty of a Village

 

On the previous day’s long ride I had a few leg cramps near the finish. So I drank lots of water, and took electrolytes to deal with what was turning out to be a very hot day with a little more humidity than I am used to. Too much water and way too many electrolytes, as it turned out.

I started the climb of Mont Lozere feeling fine. It really is a beautiful climb.  There are 12  switchbacks with signs displaying the number of the turn and its name. I felt pretty good for about 8 of those hairpin turns. But then I started to get tired, and hot. I kept drinking, and I found I was going much slower. My friend Jack caught up to me and went past and I didn’t even think of trying to stay with him.

I finally reached the summit, and even though I wasn’t feeling really strong I thought that the 10 mile descent before the last climb would cool me off and give me a chance to recover. But as soon as I started up the last climb I knew I had a problem. I was using my lowest gear on a climb that really wasn’t hard enough to need it. I was barely turning the pedals and making very slow progress toward the village at the top.

I finally got there, but when I stopped pedaling the heat exhaustion hit me hard. I didn’t faint, but I looked enough like I might do so that the tour guides were very worried. Then GI distress required  time in the WC. After that and splashing some cold water on my face and arms I was strong enough to skip lunch and head for my room, where I lay down for the next several hours doing nothing except sipping on a bottle of water. The tour guides checked on me a couple of times to make sure I was ok, or at least not in need of medical attention.

I recovered enough to eat dinner. When I sent an e mail to my spouse/Stoker that evening, I just said that I had a few cramps but nothing serious. Why worry her with the truth? And the story has a happy ending; I was fine on the bike the next day and for the rest of the trip. I felt great climbing Mont Ventoux a week later, after being completely wrecked on Mont Lozere. Before the trip I would have expected it to be the other way around.

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Eat to Ride….

Rose Wine means this is Lunch

 

Or ride to eat?

Cyclists who ‘eat to ride’ consume energy bars, goo’s, gels, protein powders and the like. They want to get easily digestible energy, fluid and electrolytes into their system as efficiently as possible.

I am more of a ‘ride to eat’ type. I pay attention to hydration and electrolyte balance (not always successfully, but that is another blog post). But when it comes to eating, I prefer ‘real’ food. And Cycling Languedoc’s tour of the Cevennes mountains provided plenty of that. Since we were in France there was plenty of opportunity to eat well, and we certainly did.

On days when we could finish riding by 1:30 or so, we enjoyed sit down lunches in restaurants. Entrée (1st course), Plat (main course), and maybe cheese and/or dessert. Repeat that evening at dinner. When the rides were longer we enjoyed picnic lunches; sandwiches, couscous, fruit, and pastries.

Fuel for the next 50 km

When pizza was available for lunch after a shorter ride, it was our first choice. We weren’t in Italy, but southern France has lots of places making delicious pizza and we took advantage of them whenever possible.

Hungry After the Ride? Not For Long!

On Saturday, we were taking the day off of the bike to transfer to Nimes. We went to a very special place for a memorable lunch. We dined outside in a shaded courtyard with a view of the surrounding countryside, and I had a dish I will not soon forget: cuttlefish cooked on a wooden plank, served on top of decadent risotto. Stoker and I have been fortunate to see cuttlefish while snorkeling in Mexico and Belize, and now I got a chance to find out what they taste like. Delicious!

That pretty much covers the lunches on the Cycling Languedoc Tour of the Cevennes Mountains. Dinner will be another post!

Cuttlefish on Risotto: Unforgettably Delicious Lunch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Counting Cols

Count the Cols, Win a Prize!

 

‘Col’ is a French word and means a pass between two mountain peaks or a gap in a ridge. This makes it distinct from a ‘Mont’ (as in Mont Ventoux) or an ‘Alpe’ (as in l’ Alpe du Huez). I am not sure what the difference among the three is, since they all involve riding uphill to a summit.

At breakfast the morning of the fifth day of the Cevennes Tour, our guide Gerry reminded us that after the 4-mile descent from our hotel to the lake below, we would be riding another 71 miles and climbing 7,100 feet over 5 cols. But after reflecting a bit, he allowed that maybe it was actually 6 cols, or perhaps even 7, depending on how they were counted. By the end of the day my legs were pretty sure there were at least 7.

If I consider my top ten days on the bike for best scenery and most entertaining roads, I think at least 4 of them occurred on the Cevennes Tour. And this day would prove to be top 5 material.

A Welcome Sight After 40 km of Mostly Uphill Road

After the descent the next 40 km were almost all uphill. The first 10 km were quite gentle, but then the gradient got steeper and we crossed the Col des Tribes and the Col de Finiels  over Mount Lozere. A steep descent led to the climb to the Col des Faisses, and then another drop led to the Mystery Col and the summit where we would enjoy a picnic lunch. Although I didn’t get this col’s name or remember any sign, it was actually the steepest and hardest climb of the day, or perhaps I was just getting hungry.

 

We lunched under a tree at the summit with a beautiful view. Unfortunately throughout the repast I had this road sign in view, and it doesn’t need any translation. This certainly did not help my digestion.

Elevator Going Down!

 

But the descent, although narrow with some very steep switchbacks, did not cause me any problems; there was no traffic that I remember and no wind at all. There were, however, some clouds making an appearance, foreshadowing conditions to come.

On to the final climb, the Col de Perjuret. In the 1960 Tour de France, a talented young French rider Roger Riviere missed a turn while descending the steep side of the Col, which we were (fortunately) climbing. He went flying off the road, breaking his back and ending his career before it had even started. I paused on the climb to get a picture of the monument. A sobering testament to how close even expert riders are to disaster.

As we continued up the climb, the clouds started to thicken, and there were a few rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning, so I did not stop for a picture at the Col de Perjuret sign at the summit, wanting to get down to Meyrueis before the rain. A futile effort;

Tribute to a Fallen Racer

as soon as I started down it began to rain hard, and there were hail stones on the road, although none hit me. I went very slowly in order to avoid Riviere’s fate, and I arrived at the bottom soaking wet and riding a filthy bike, but safe.

Despite the wet finish, this day’s ride is certainly in my top 5 most wonderful days on the bike. Quiet, small twisting roads, lots of climbing, a bit of tragic Tour history, and the fantastic scenery that seems to be standard every day of the Cevennes Tour. And 5,6, or 7 cols, depending on how you count. I’m taking credit for 7!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Giant of Provence

A Picture Worth a Thousand Gasps for Breath

You remember Joe Friday from ‘Dragnet’ and his famous request of people he was questioning, ”Just the facts, ma’am”? Regarding Mont Ventoux , here are the facts from Wikipedia:

South from Bédoin: 1617 m over 21,8 km. This is the most famous and difficult ascent. The road to the summit has an average gradient of 7.43%. Until Saint-Estève, the climb is easy: 3.9% over 5,8 km, but the 16 remaining kilometres have an average gradient of 8.9%. To serve as a comparison the climb of L’Alpe d’Huez is about 13.8 km at an average gradient of 7.9%. The last kilometres may have strong, violent winds. The ride takes 1h30m-2h30m for trained amateur riders. Professional riders take 1h-1h15 min.

Well, the climb took me 1h56m, so I suppose I qualify as a ‘trained amateur rider’ although some of my friends are going to get a major chuckle out of that description.

The Ventoux ascent turned out to be one of the best days I ever had on a bike. I was nervous about the climb. I expected it to be very hard, and it is, especially the middle section through the forest, where there is an 8 km stretch that averages 9.6%. But I had great legs. When our guide in the car passed me and called out “One km to the Chalet”, which is where the forest ends and the gradient eases, I could hardly believe I was there already.

The Start of the 'Moonscape'

 

On a beautiful day in June you are not going to be alone on Ventoux; cyclists from all over the world are laboring up its slopes. And I could hardly believe how many people I passed on the way up. 50? 75? 100? I took it easy on the gentle slopes that start the climb, but in the forest where the going was steep I started passing people in bunches. And no one passed me on the entire climb. I do not intend to brag, I know my limitations and I know many riders who are much stronger than I am. But it was exciting to feel I was far from the slowest rider climbing this giant mountain.

After the Chalet the gradient eases a bit and you enter the famous moonscape, completely devoid of trees and vegetation. The going is a bit easier here unless the wind is blowing or it is hot. But the day was cool and calm; perfect conditions. The last km is 11% and it feels like it. Our guide had parked at the top and I heard him call out “One more turn, Rich” as I neared the summit. I got out of the saddle and sprinted through the last switchback and up to the line, unclipped and started to grin. I felt great and elated. I could hardly believe where I was or what I had just done. I climbed Ventoux in under two hours, when I had expected the ascent to take at least 30 minutes more than that.

All Smiles at the Summit

I have had good days and bad days on mountains, but I cannot remember feeling as strong on a climb as I did that day on Mont Ventoux. A big thank you to the cycling gods for giving me good legs and keeping the Mistral winds absent. Earlier in the week I reached the top of Mont Lozere completely wrecked (more on that later). But for this one very special climb I was allowed to feel like I was ‘pedaling without a chain’.

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I’m back from France…

My Best Cycling Trip Ever, Courtesy of Cycling Languedoc

 

But my bicycle is still in Europe.

This is not a big problem. The Sampson is my travel bike; she gets to see the world and occasionally takes a little longer to get home than I do. I’ve got two other single bikes and a tandem so the delay will not hamper my riding. But maybe the Sampson decided the roads in the Cevennes Mountains of southern France, or the roads of Provence where we did 4 additional rides, were more to her liking than the roads around here. So she conspired with British Airways to stay behind and force me to return. After 11 fantastic days of cycling there, I can’t say I blame her.

My idea of a perfect vacation is to ride some exquisite cycling roads, eat superb food, and do almost nothing else. And Cycling Languedoc provided me with exactly that. I’m going to be writing a lot about this trip, and this is the only time I’m going to give them a shameless plug. It is a small owner-operated company. They can put together custom rides for you, guided or unguided, from relatively easy to extremely difficult. Their specialty is providing transfers and support for cyclists who want to climb Mont Ventoux, which definitely falls into the ‘difficult’ category.  They offer a week long tour in the Alps, and a week long tour in the Cevennes Mountains which was the first part of my two week trip. If you are considering cycling in Southern France you should contact these guys; for more information about Cycling Languedoc click here .

No Boring Scenery Here!

The Sampson probably stayed behind because she was reluctant to leave the best cycling roads she had ever been ridden on. Small roads, always twisting and turning, climbing and descending. Almost no cars and absolutely no dull scenery: vineyards, mountains, rivers and gorges, stone bridges and stone castles and stone walls. 505 miles and 44,000 feet of climbing in 11 days of fantastic cycling. The best cycling roads I have ever ridden. My friend Jack who was also on the tour said the same.

I think British Airways may manage to find the Sampson and send her home. But if they don’t it will give me a good excuse to go back and look for her. And that might not be a bad thing.

 

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The Butterfly Effect

Best Cycling Book Ever?

Small, seemingly unrelated and insignificant events can produce some surprising outcomes. Case in point…

 

I’m going cycling in France this summer because of a book, because I used to play chess, because I enjoy opera, and because I agreed to help a friend find a cycling guide for a vacation in southern France.  Here is the complicated chain of events.

If I didn’t enjoy opera, I wouldn’t have been in a San Francisco bookstore back in 2004 browsing the cycling titles. Stoker and I attended a matinee performance and afterwards decided to do a little pre-dinner shopping.

Most of the cycling books were familiar ones I had already read, but there was one called ‘The Rider’ that I had never seen. The author’s name was Tim Krabbe, a name familiar to me.

I used to play tournament chess, with lots of enthusiasm and very little skill. The monthly magazine ‘Chess Life’ had a column by an International Master named Tim Krabbe. But this book is about cycling; it couldn’t be the same guy, right?

Wrong. Not only is Krabbe a notable Dutch writer and talented chess player, but he was also a very strong amateur bicycle racer. He wrote ‘The Rider’ which was published in Dutch in 1978. It wasn’t translated into English until 2002, just in time for me to discover it before our post-opera performance supper.

The book is a first person account of a one-day race called the Tour of Mount Aigoual, in the Cevennes Mountains in southeast France. It is a fantastic book that will speak to anyone who has ever challenged themselves on a bike, whether they race or not. Before reading the book I

No Sleeping Bags or Donkeys for Me!

had never heard of the Cevennes Mountains, but I have since learned that Robert Louis Stevenson, before he was famous, wrote ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes’.

So to recap, no opera, no bookstore. No chess, no book; I would not have read ‘The Rider’ except for the Krabbe connection. No book, and I would have never heard of the Cevennes. With me so far?

About two years ago my friend KV asked me to help her find a guide to take her cycling up Mount Ventoux on her upcoming trip to France. For those of you who might not know, Mount Ventoux is one of the most famous and difficult  cycling climbs in the world.

Although she didn’t ride Mt. Ventoux. KV used the guide I had located, Gerry, to do an escorted day-long ride around Provence, and she came back singing his praises. I stayed in touch with Gerry via e mail and followed his start-up touring company ‘Cycles Languedoc’ on Facebook.

When Gerry announced that Cycles Languedoc was doing a new tour in a little-known cycling mecca called the Cevennes Mountains, I was instantly interested. ‘The Rider’ describes the countryside and the villages in vivid detail, and the idea of cycling those same roads was intriguing. When Gerry arranged to do some additional guided rides for my friend Jack and me after the weeklong tour, including Mount Ventoux, I decided to go.

I read the Stevenson book too. The donkey’s name was Modestine, and like the author I developed a fondness for this stubborn, manipulative, but stout-hearted beast of burden. Conditions on that trip were kind of Spartan, but Gerry assures me Cycles Languedoc has a van, not a donkey, for transfers, and that I will not have to sleep under a chestnut tree perched on a steep rocky ledge. Unless I want to!

 

 

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Max the Magician…

November 2000: Light bike, not so light rider

 

…made some of me disappear!

Writing last week’s article about weight loss, I came across an old picture of myself just after I started riding ‘seriously’. The photo on the right is of me back in November of 2000. I have just returned home after doing my first organized metric century, the Giro d’ Vino.  My weight at that time was something north of 190, and since I tended to gain a few pounds in the winter I was looking at approaching the 200 level during the upcoming holidays.

 

But starting shortly after this I got really enthusiastic about cycling. I started to do more club rides and more hills, and I got stronger. I also probably modified my diet and cut back a little, although I never did count calories or follow a specific eating plan.

By 2003 I was down to 177. I was very happy with that, but I still felt like I needed some training advice. UCD has a sports medicine clinic in Sacramento, and anyone who wanted to pay for it could have a VO2 test and body composition analysis. The results would be used to prepare a training plan tailored to the individual’s physiology and cycling goals.

So I went to the clinic and met Max Testa. I refer to this as the day that changed my life.

Same Bike, Much Different Rider

 

If you do not know who Max Testa is, Google his name if you are interested. This world class sports doctor is also a very nice man who treats every athlete (and ‘wish we were athletes’ like me) with respect and care and attention to help them improve. Since he is from Italy and moved to the U.S. in his 30′s, he is also one of the few people to correctly pronounce my last name without even the slightest hesitation.

A VO2 test is basically a test to exhaustion. You warm up, then they put a clamp on your nose and a mask over your mouth so they can measure oxygen uptake. They start the test at 100 watts (for normal people like me) and they increase the load until you are about to blow up. It takes about 15 minutes and by the end you are drenched in sweat.

After a shower I met with Max (he insists you call him that) and he laid out some workouts for me to do with a heart rate monitor. I was dubious; the suggested workouts were at higher heart rates for longer durations than I had ever attempted. He also said my body fat was 17% and that I should lose another 10 lbs. I was really dubious about that too; I thought the 15 lbs. I had lost since 2000 was pretty good and doubted I could lose any more.

But I followed his advice, did the more strenuous workouts, and when I went back for another test in 2005 I was down to 165.  I’ve stayed close to that ever since. The second photo shows me in Italy back in 2011, at the top of the first summit of that amazing trip. I was probably as fit then as I will ever be, but I’ve managed to stay close to that level. It would never have happened without cycling and the Amazing Max.

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The Shrinking Editor

Used with the Subject's Permission

For many people, cycling can help them perform a kind of magic trick: they make large parts of themselves disappear. And riding with the Stockton Bicycle Club can help speed the process. The combination of hilly rides and spirited ‘non races’ to the top of climbs or the county line sprint point can cause pounds to drop even if you are not specifically dieting. In March of 1999 I hit the scale in my doctor’s office at 192 lbs., but after 5 years of riding longer and harder I was down in the upper 160′s and I’ve stayed there ever since. Rafi, LB, NLE, and many others have achieved similar loses. But none of us can come close to the disappearing act pulled off by the Editor.

From the first time he rode with our club two things were apparent. The Editor (Don B) was a very strong rider, and too big to be much of a climber. He could keep up, set the pace, or ride away from lots of people on flat terrain, but when the road went up he went backwards. I remember starting up Stoney Creek Road with him and C2K (Steve N). He stayed with us for about a minute, and then slipped way behind, and quickly out of sight, even though Steve and I were not riding hard at all. It took the Editor a very long time to make it to the top of Stoney, and longer, harder climbs like Mount Diablo were rides he avoided.

The Current Version at the Diablo Summit

As recently as April of 2013, the Editor weighed close to the 196 lbs. he was at in the first photo.  But then he got serious about doing something about it. He started carefully controlling what he ate and (more importantly) how much he ate. He went to the gym for strength training, and did as much cycling as he could, on his own or, when his work and family schedule allowed, with the club. And the pounds literally disappeared. In the Diablo photo he is down to 167 and may have dropped a few more since.

I kind of hope not. So far I have been able to stay a little bit ahead of him up the hills, but at the rate he is improving and shrinking that may not be the case for long. The Editor is currently training to do the Death Ride in the Sierras this July. Something like 130 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing in one day! What was unthinkable one year ago will become reality. When he finishes (‘when’, not ‘if’) The Disappearing Editor Illusion with be completed to wild, well deserved applause.

 

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    Rich Freggiaro

    Richard Freggiaro is a Stockton area native who grew up on his family’s farm. After an nine year detour to Davis for College, Washington DC for work, and Iowa for graduate school, he returned to San Joaquin County and spent the next quarter century farming with his father. He has been married to Diane for 31 years. He is (mostly) retired which leaves him plenty of time to ride each of his 4 bikes, and he is an enthusiastic and passionate cyclist. Read Full
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