The temperature had climbed up to 79 Fahrenheit when I rolled back into the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, conveniently located just about a block south of the headquarters of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California in the northern Sacramento Valley. I found a spot in the shade cast by the arched entryway leading to the fairgrounds’ Commercial Building. This 14,000 square feet event structure served as the headquarter and dining venue for the Chico Velo Wildflower Century.

Groups of people lined the side of the 300 feet long driveway leading into the parking areas of the fairgrounds, clapping and cheering for folks coming in, all with big grins on their faces, happy to have completed whatever ride they had signed up for. It was time for the post-ride lunch.

Stay for a night

Chico is about a 3.5-hour drive north of the San Francisco Bay Area, taking you past Sacramento, Yuba City, home to the largest dried fruit processing plant in the world, and Oroville, with its Table Mountain included in the Wildcat 100 and 125 routes of the cycling event.

Planned as a weekend trip, we arrived Saturday afternoon to sunny skies and sweltering 92 degrees. With the more upscale places already sold out, we opted to go for cheap and checked into the Budget Inn Of Chico for $65 a night. In short, you get what you pay for.

The Inn comprises several one-story buildings, each holding about five rooms with car parking right before each front door. Staying somewhere for a single night, you look past shortcomings of the respective establishment, like power outlets not working, bedside lights being burned out, or a particular, unidentifiable bathroom smell.

On the plus side, we had a fridge and, considering the date this establishment must have been built, a pretty modern, albeit noisy, air conditioning. It did the job for one night. And we had to get up at 5am to start riding at 7am.

Wildflower 65

The Wildflower Century was instituted as an organized ride in 1981. Ridership has grown steadily over the years, up to 4,000 participants in 2013, each setting out to conquer one of the seven routes offered, from a short 12-mile route for children to the Wildcat 125 with 8,500 feet of elevation gain.

All rides started from the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, a spacious areal donated to the Third District Agricultural Association by the City of Chico in 1938, and the site of a fair event of the same name, held annually over six days at the end of May. Quite possibly the only area in town big enough to accommodate the number of riders, most arriving by car at the starting line.

I had opted for the 65-mile route, which took us out east on Honey Run Road through Butte Creek Canyon and the 5.5-mile ascent up to Paradise. The rough pavement of the road, climbing upwards at an average grade of 5.2%, was decorated with messages written with crayons in primarily white and pastel colors.

Sweating and breathing heavily, the scene reminded me of the messages of fans at the Tour de France on the road up L’Alpe d’Huez. Despite that, I was thousands of miles away from this iconic milestone of Le Tour, and lightyears from the athleticism of the pros, those messages had a motivating impact on me to conquer this hill. Looking at the folks beside me, I found seeing so many people taking on this challenge inspiring. No matter how slow, they would eventually make it to the top.

What goes up must come down. Every uphill warrior eventually gets rewarded with a downhill, which on that day was a whopping 11% descent down Pentz Road. The 38 miles per hour that I topped out at felt like a hundred.

The remainder of the ride turned into a very flat experience while passing over Hwy 149 and through Durham and Dayton before making a right turn onto River Road, cruising by orchards lined with row upon row of almond trees.

Durham Elementary, the site of my last rest stop, and providing food and drinks, also hosted a small bike acrobatics show, where the crowd cheered for a young two-wheel artist who eventually jumped over the bodies of six anxious volunteers from the public.

Ride companions

With quite a few route options to choose from, the event attracts all different kinds of cyclists. There was the dad with his kids whom I met at the lunch rest stop at mile 27, who, being from the area, was quite familiar with the route. “I actually live close to the first rest stop,” he told me while we were both enjoying shade from a tree, sitting on a picnic table. There was also the guy sporting a beer belly, revealed underneath his spandex second skin, lifting his body from an expensive-looking Scott Aero bike at the first rest stop. “Upgrade your body before you upgrade your bike“, I thought.

Just as it was about to get really hot out there, I found myself back in downtown Chico, stopped at an intersection and engaging in a conversation with a fellow cyclist with grey hair and mustache, slim and showing national pride by wearing a jersey with a “Stars and Stripes” design. He had done this ride a few times but had gotten more into running recently, aiming to complete the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon in June. “It’s good you didn’t do the 100 miles. That one has Table Mountain in there. The pavement on that road is really bad, which makes the climb even harder. And my god, it gets so hot, by the time you are done, you think you did 200” he approved of my route choice.

A ride to come back to

The ride was very well organized, and as long as you remembered what ride you had signed up for (and the color of the waypoint arrows glued to the asphalt at critical intersections), chances were low you got off-course. The rest stops were very well stocked, with plenty of options to replenish lost nutrients. The friendly volunteers gave out nuts, fruits, and even cake and electrolyte drinks in different flavors. The lunch rest stop offered five different types of sandwiches and delicious chocolate chip cookies.

All these options rendered my attempts of frantically stuffing as many bars and GU gels into my jersey pockets in the early morning entirely pointless. You could have ridden this ride with only your filled water bottles and still picked up plenty of calories at the stops. Above all, the waste management was spot on, with guides at every rest stop (and at the lunch/dinner venue after the ride), making sure that everything got put into the proper bins.

If you think about it, driving for hours to a cycling event seems a bit much. But this ride in Chico is well worth the effort and lives up to its history and reputation, thanks to the sophisticated organization. The fact that it is hosted in a college town will transform one or the other rider back to their own college days, which might release some extra enthusiasm and motivation to give a little more on these climbs. Be careful, though, because nothing can bring you back to the reality of your own physical limits like exercising in 90+ pre-summer heat.