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Fifty Times Up Torrey Pines
(aka: "How I got into bike racing.")
by Dan Goese ✪ #TorreyPinesChallenge

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Dan Goese & the late, great Steven Flack take a break at the support van marked with the "old" goal of 40 times.

In 2005, at the spritely young age of 46, I decided to challenge myself on the bicycle once again. It had been seven years since I rode from Everett, Washington to Washington DC (3,300 miles) through the snow, rain and tornados of “El Niño.” I wasn't up for anything that expensive, time-consuming, or knee-shredding, but I wanted to do something unique.

There’s a hill near our house that provided the perfect venue for a new, modest challenge. "Torrey Pines Grade" is a hill along Old Highway 1 in Del Mar, California. It's not very steep (there's a steeper path inside the adjacent park), but it's one of the bigger blips along a relatively flat Southern California coastline. I had ridden up Torrey Pines as many as 5 or 6 times in a day. These "repeats" were a good way of getting some hill-climb training without going too far from home. There aren't intersections and driveways along the grade, which makes it a safer descent than the slopes of Mount Soledad (the legendary Herb Johnson's training hill), just to the south.

Here's a GPS map of a 10-lap ride up Torrey Pines. I didn't have GPS on my bike in 2005, but my bike computer's lap-counting and total distance (162 miles) data concur with these more recent figures.

So one fine spring day in 2005 I decided I was going to ride up and down Torrey Pines 40 times in one day, after a month or two of preparation. To prepare for this challenge, I went out and rode it 5 times, then 10 times in a day as part of my early training. I did simple math, multiplying the time it took to do 10 repeats by four to figure out how long the whole ride would take. If you're thinking this mathematical theory has flaws, you're right. The last 10 times aren't quite as fast as the first 10 times, no matter how much I try to pace myself. Never mind the math. After a few training days, I had set the date of July 14th, 2005 as the "big day." I would park my van at the bottom of the hill, stocked with food and drink for a long day of hill climbing.

Riding up the same hill 40 times in one day is not something most sane people would think of doing. Should I care? As the day approached, my enthusiasm and confidence were so high that I decided I could easily climb it 50 times rather than just 40. Fifty is a much rounder number than forty. “Forty” sounds like you fell short. Climbing Torrey Pines 50 times adds up to over 21,000 vertical feet (somewhere in that range, anyway...I didn't get a GPS until a couple years later) over a distance of about 165 miles. Somehow it sounded appealing to me. (Go figure.)

One thing I knew for sure…this could get very boring. For safety reasons, I don’t normally listen to music while riding, but I figured music would be a “must” on the big day. Since I would be in a bike lane without cross traffic all day, I figured the risk was worth it. I borrowed all three of my kids’ iPods. I figured I’d learn a little more about their musical tastes while grinding through the climbs.

Fortunately, I had more than iPods to break up the monotony. My friend Lisa Thompson, “spin class” instructor and sports massage therapist, came by with extra food and lots of encouragement. As it turned out, my calculations on how many calories I would burn were WAY off. My stash of food would not have done the trick. Without her food and encouragement during the day, I’m not sure I would have made it. Lisa also rode several laps with me. It was great to have good company along the way.

Another “guest rider” was Dan Wulbert, a UCSD professor on his bike commute to work at the university. When I explained to him what I was up to, he was intrigued. He apparently wasn’t late for work, because he decided to do a few laps with me before continuing on his way. I remember talking with him a little bit about my vague interest in bike racing, and he was explaining some of the basics to me. Later that year, when I joined in on a “club ride” held by the San Diego Bicycle Club, I saw Dan there. He was one of the older riders in the group, but had no trouble keeping up. In a short span of time, Dan became one of my cycling heroes.

Yet another guest rider was my old riding buddy and fellow former trombone player, the late, great Steven Kjell Flack. This challenge was right up his alley. Steven was inclined to do things that might make others question his sanity. He loved challenges, however bizarre. He appreciated the concept of a "personal best" when it came to athletic achievements. He loved that I was going to try to do this crazy thing, and he was stoked – even a bit incredulous – when I changed my goal from 40 to 50 laps just a couple days before the ride.

Steven was a very busy man on July 14th, 2005. He had an important meeting with his boss. He had a meeting with his attorney (finalizing his divorce). On top of this, he was battling fatigue and complications from leukemia. Steven Flack had plenty of other things he could be doing that day. But what does Mr. Carpe Diem do? First, he comes out and rides 10 laps of the hill with me. This was twice as many as he had ever done before, but he was there to seize the day and celebrate life. Then he took some videos, including ones where he's going down the hill at almost 40 miles an hour, with one hand on the handlebars and one hand on the camcorder. (I have a copy of these videos as a permanent reminder of what a nut-case he was.) After doing 10 laps, Steven took off to take care of business. But that wouldn't be the last I'd hear from him that day.

I didn't calculate very well how just long it would take me to climb 20,000 feet on a bicycle, so I was still out there repeatedly climbing and cautiously descending well after dark. I didn’t have a bicycle light, but fortunately I had a small flashlight in my van, so I fastened it to my handlebars with a bandana. It was a very dark and lonely scene at 9:30 at night. Even the traffic had disappeared. Me, a hill and a goal. But then, like a guardian angel, Steven shows up in his convertible with the top down, headlights flashing and tunes blaring, cheering me on to finish. He was a one-man escort parade. Carpe diem! Seize the day and the night, too. In classic Flack style, his enthusiasm made the day.

I had scheduled a massage for the end of the day, but by the time I finished, it was too late for Lisa to muster up the energy for a massage. It was just as well…I think I needed sleep more than anything by that time.

Through my own tenacity and with the encouragement of others, I rode those 50 repeats up Torrey Pines that day. After celebrating briefly with Steven Flack, I put the bike and my tired carcass into the van and drove home. With a smile on my face, I proudly told my wife Katie that I achieved my goal. Her enthusiasm didn’t seem to match mine. With a contorted face, she asked me, “Why don’t you try racing against OTHER people?”

Apparently I thought that was a good idea. That fall I tried my first “time trial” on Fiesta Island. The following January I tried my first criterium. Within two years of that fateful day, I was not only a member of the San Diego Bicycle Club (SDBC), but I was a board member and sponsor.

On that day, through my wife’s subtle suggestion after my small accomplishment, I unlocked a Pandora’s Box of passion for a sport that I should have known I’d love but never really followed very closely. Granted, this climb took place while Lance Armstrong was winning his 7th Tour de France, but practically everyone was aware of that. I went from being an occasional subscriber to Bicycling Magazine to being an avid reader of VeloNews, ProCycling, Cycle Sport, Road Bike Action and others (see links at La Jolla Vélo here).

My biggest inspirations are the guys in their seventies, eighties, and nineties who race their bikes. They show me that despite the 35-year delay of my discovery of bike racing, there’s a lot more fun on the road ahead. While I know there are many, many riders out there who can climb Torrey Pines grade much faster than I can, there are very few who are both tenacious and insane enough to try it 50 times in one day.

Footnote: This ride took place three years after our first "Team in Training" ride around Lake Tahoe, which was a fundraising effort to help fight leukemia (which Steven Flack was suffering from). Photos from this ride can be found here.

Update (August 2009): I learned that one of SDBC's ride leaders, Mike Abell, decided to celebrate his 52nd birthday by climbing up Torrey Pines 52 times yesterday. Now he and I both know that there are MUCH more enjoyable ways to spend a birthday. Congratulations, Mike! (I would have enjoyed doing a dozen or so laps with him, but I've been in Berlin on business for a couple days now.)

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