Wearing tight jerseys announcing their most recent cycling event conquest, six petite women straddle their shiny carbon-framed bikes and cluster together inside a meager circle of sunlight in front of the Pink Box bakery in Santa Rosa. They are the Hilly Jillies cycling club gathering on a chilly Saturday morning for their monthly beginning level bike tour through Sonoma County’s pot-holed wine roads. But the women’s pricy equipment and tight-lipped welcome leave me skeptical that this is the route for a novice athlete. Having started late in life, leisure cycling is a weekend sport I’ve grappled with for years, trying to find the right balance between leisure and cycling.
But the Hilly Jillies are serious, lean, and driven, and I am about to discover how they got their name.
With little ceremony or chitchat, the Jillies and I embark on a 37-mile trip east to Sonoma Valley. I quickly fall to the back of the queue, huffing and puffing just to keep up with the group that is easily flying up the first grade. Our terrain is renowned: Sonoma County is one of the top five bicycling destinations in the world, and cycling is the number two tourist draw. To me this morning the landscapes are indistinct. I’m so focused on keeping up that I barely see the new growth on the vines, and so intent on taking deep breaths that I don’t hear the robust grunts of the wild turkeys flushed out of oak groves. Already, before we even get to the steep grades that will summit this route, I’m getting discouraged as I see the entire pack of Jillies disappear around the bend.