Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Suffering Succotash Century


It was just about a year ago when the announcement was made.  The UCI (the world governing body of cycling) announced that in 2015, the World Championships would return to the US for the first time in a quarter century and be held in Richmond VA.  Most of the world went, “Huh?!”

You can’t blame them.  The US isn’t known for doing much in the world of competitive cycling, other than sending our really good riders over to Europe to compete.  We do hold the US Pro Championships in Colorado every year and the Tour of California, both of which draw many of the great and nearly so from outside the country.  But we haven’t had a really big thing here since the Tour De Trump / Tour Du Pont about 20 years ago.  (The Tour De Trump was the one where the riders rode stages around The Donald’s Hair for a week.  It was breathtaking!)

The Donald & his Hair

Richmond isn’t known to be particularly bike friendly, isn’t even on the List of Top 50 cities for cycling in America.  And yet, somehow, someone’s efforts had gotten us the nod to host the world of cycling for 10 days!  How cool!

About eight months later, another announcement came out from The Sports Backers (a local organization that puts on sports events) along with some of the 2015 organizing committee.  This announcement had to do with an event to begin the countdown to 2015.  The Martins Tour of Richmond Gran Fondo would take place in October, 2012.  In addition to a 102 mile course that completely circled the city of Richmond, there would also be a metric century and a 29 miler, too.  At the time, I had just completed my first century ride, the Tour de Cure, and the pain had subsided enough to make me think I wanted to do another one.  (Just to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke, I suppose.)

Official Poster

I debated for about a week or so and then decided to go for it.  I also reached out to a colleague that I thought was a cyclist (He is a much stronger rider than me!) to see if he’d like to join me.  He said he would but would need to get back into shape.  We started riding together whenever we could make the time and, after a few hundred miles, we declared ourselves ready.  Okay, willing.

The Course

The planners of this event should take a bow.  Everything was well thought out, extremely well executed, and downright enjoyable!  (If they’re using this as a tune up or learning opportunity for 2015, the cyclists and spectators will be in for a treat!)  When you consider that 7 jurisdictions of police and EMS had to be coordinated in order to provide all of the riders with a safe route, in addition to the normal logistics of an event for about 1,000 people, it begins to dawn on you that many things could have gone horribly wrong.

The Century ride began and ended at Richmond International Raceway (RIR) which hosts 2 NASCAR races every year.  It’s a huge complex with all kinds of space, parking, facilities and is just perfect for an event like this.  (The shorter distances began at alternate sites along the loop, starting at a time that would get most of the participants back to RIR for the victory celebration. It worked well, I think.)

The Raceway Complex

After leaving RIR, the course ran into the downtown area of the city of Richmond known as Shockoe Bottom, across the James River and then along it for quite a ways into Chesterfield, and Amelia counties.  Once out west of the city, we turned north and re-crossed the James into Goochland, and Hanover Counties, up to the city of Ashland, and then back southeast to the RIR complex in eastern Henrico County. 
Look! It's a full loop!

The ride was a combination of flat sections along the river, rolling hill sections just above the piedmont, and a number of short but intense climbs.  Based on my calculations, there were about 3,000 or so feet of elevation changes.  A couple of those rollers were ball busters, though.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Start

I picked up my ride packet Friday night at the Raceway Complex which was very useful because I could better understand how to get there, where to go once I had gotten there, and what to expect.  I got home and spent time pinning my participant bib, #188, to my jersey along with applying the same number to my bike.  (Electronic timing on my bib and suddenly, I felt like a real competitive cyclist.)  I also prepped everything I intended to take so that I wouldn’t be stumbling around at 5 am trying to remember it all.  The 7:00 am start meant I needed to leave my house by no later than 6:00 to get there and set up.

After rolling out of bed at 5, I ate a quick, but healthy, breakfast, performed necessary pre-race ablutions, loaded up the car with my bike and all my provisions, kissed MB good bye and told her I’d be back in the afternoon, and headed out.  Since it was so early on a Saturday, the ride took far less time than normal and I was at RIR by 6:30.

There were already hundreds of riders there and there was an air of festivity in the air.  Music was playing, a public address announcer was giving time checks to ensure we all got to where we needed to be, and everywhere I looked I saw guys my age all kitted up and ready to ride.  (It was looking like an old guy fest, to tell the truth and, suddenly, I didn’t feel so out of shape.)

Greg, my riding partner, texted me that he was there and we set a meeting spot.  I finished unloading, topped off the tires, loaded up my pockets with Honey Stinger Waffles, put on my cleats and rolled over near the starting line to meet.  He showed up about 30 seconds later.

We took turns holding our bikes and using the restroom one last time.  Finally, at five minutes til seven, the PA announcer called for riders to queue up in their respective positions.  He then asked for quiet and invited us to sing the National Anthem.

I immediately yanked off my helmet and placed it over my heart and was glad to see others following my lead.  Directly in front of my, a young man wearing a US Army cycling jersey was standing at absolute attention and seeing that made me stand just a little straighter, too. 

Once the anthem ended, we mounted up and then the signal came to start us off.  The fastest riders in front, followed by the B+ group, followed by us in the B group (15-17 mph) and then everyone else rolled off.

It was really cool to ride off with 450 people all at once.  The police had traffic stopped at every intersection, lights were flashing, the sun was just starting to rise and we were sailing along the Richmond – Petersburg Turnpike heading toward downtown Richmond.  What a sight to look around and see all the colors, the bikes, the blinking bike lights, and flashing police lights!

The Ride

The initial rush wore off, for me at least, as we headed into the Shockoe Bottom area, a very historic section of the city that includes a couple of blocks of cobblestones which we hit around the 9 mile mark.  If I had to ride over cobblestones on a regular basis, I’d probably quit cycling.  It just about shakes the fillings out of your teeth on this section and I was hoping I wouldn’t lose a piece of my bike before the end of it.  I was very glad to get back on pavement after a right turn just past the Farmer’s Market area.

We rode up Main Street, which has a nasty little rise to it for about 4 blocks, and that’s where I began to lose my riding partner.  As I said, Greg is far stronger than me and I knew if I tried to keep up with his favorite pace, I’d have to abandon somewhere around the 60 mile mark.  As it was, he was leading me by about 100 meters as we headed across the bridge into Southside.  I got close enough to say, “don’t wait on the old guy” and then I lost him about 10 minutes later on the next short hill. 

(Greg finished the ride in just under 6 hours, in 100th place overall, about an hour ahead of me.  I’m glad I didn’t slow him down.  Nice ride, bud!  I can’t wait until I’m your age….oh, right, I already was.)

The next 25 miles or so I rode in various groups, hanging on for periods of time, getting passed or dropped on the hills.  Although we were riding along the river and is mostly flat, the road traverses a number of hills and some of them are very steep; like 20% grade in spots.  Fortunately, they’re short little bumps but they always take the measure of me.  I’m such a crappy climber although a good descender.  (One of my goals for next year will be to train on the climbing part of this.)

On one steep descent that twisted back and forth very sharply, I spied a rider on the other side of the guardrail looking up the hill, with his bike parked on this side.  I hit the brakes as I noticed another rider next to him, lying on the ground with his bicycle on the far side.  I asked if he needed help and he yelled back that EMS had been called and to continue.  Evidently, his riding partner had taken the turn too fast and collided with, and gone over, the guardrail.  He was moving but I’m guess he was injured pretty badly, too.  I never did hear the outcome but I hope he’s okay.

I stopped at the aid station at mile 23 to refill bottles and get a quick snack.  The volunteers were excitedly handing things out, exhorting the riders, and there were a lot of smiles.  My stop was short, only about 3 minutes, and I was back on the bike and heading out, again.

At about mile 37, we turned north on Maidens Road and headed back across the James River and into Goochland county.  We followed this road for about 10 miles, a combination of flats and some rollers with a gradual increase in elevation all the way.  At one point, the road surface changed from very nice blacktop to a thin coating of loose, fine gravel.  Good lord!  It was like riding through sand for about 3 miles, really tough to hold pace.  I was thrilled when we turned off that section.

At the mid-point station I stopped for about 5 minutes to refill, eat a snack, and stretch.  I was still feeling pretty strong.  I was also right on pace for my undeclared goal to finish in less than 7 hours, about ninety minutes faster than the June ride.  At this point, the ride was still fun.  Little did I know, that was about to change.

The Suffering

I’ve found that there’s a point where, no matter how well I’ve prepared or how good I feel, that I’m going to end up suffering.  On this day, it began somewhere around mile 55.  The road was good and the weather was terrific.  I noticed that my legs were beginning to feel heavy and whenever a rider or pace line passed me, I struggled to cling onto their wheel for a draft, at least for very long.  They kept dropping me.  Without a draft to recover, and the energy savings is about 40% I’m told, my legs were taking a pounding to keep my pace up.  I ground on though, until I managed to meet up with another solo rider and we took turns pulling each other for about the last 5 miles into the aid station at the metric century mark of 63 miles.  I never did get the guy’s name but he probably saved me.  That break gave me a badly needed recovery period.

This aid station was across the street from Bethany Baptist Church and was the closest aid station to my house, only about 3 miles away.  The station was staffed by members of the church and they were acting like it was a revival.  There was great cheering, laughter, high fives, and enough smiles to make any weary biker feel good.  I refilled my bottles while they cheered my soul, had several Clif bars, hit the portajohn, and headed back out after a ten minute rest.

The route turned onto Greenwood Church Road a few miles further along.  It was nice and flat, with good pavement, and I wondered why I hadn’t ever included it on any of my rides.  We weren’t far from my house, I should figure out a new route with this road on it.  And then we started to go downhill, a nice steady drop, not too steep.  My brain began to remember this part of the road and I realized why I hadn’t ridden it.  There was a hill coming up.  If it was the one I was remembering, this was going to really suck!

There it was.  Around a bend, the road looked like a wall; okay, it wasn’t straight up but it was easily 20% or more for the first 100 meters and then it eased back to something like 10% for another 500 meters or so.  I kept my revs up as the road began to rise and started passing people that hadn’t.

I eventually geared down to my second lowest gear and pounded my way up the hill.  By the time I crested the first section, I was sucking air in big lungfuls.  I stood up for the last 25 meters or so and then dropped back into the saddle to make the rest of the climb.  I’m proud to say that I kept my speed around 10 mph the entire climb and didn’t even think about dismounting.  By the time I got to the top, however, I was gassed.  I managed to get into a slightly higher gear and pushed up to 15 mph but was getting passed by a bunch of riders.

As we went up a small rise, I heard a girl call out, “On your left” and saw a pace line coming up behind me.  They swung out to pass, 3 younger women around 25 or so, and as they came alongside, the leader said, in a very cheery voice, “Good work!......uh, sir.”  I had to laugh at that. 

“Thanks!” I responded. “I look a lot younger from the back, don’t I?”  They all giggled as they continued on by.  Admittedly, the exchange gave me a little boost of energy as did the solo rider I was able to partner with for about the next 7 miles.  We teamed up, drafting off each other, and I managed to get my legs back as a result.

By the time I got to the aid station at mile 76, I was feeling a little better.  I pulled in, took a 10 minute break for drinks and refills, a banana, a Clif bar, a PB&J and a Stinger Waffle.  I also had a bag of nuts.  This station was staffed by a group of local high school kids who, evidently, are cheerleaders.  They were engaging in a series of cheers they had made up that had everyone grinning and clapping.  It was great!  I stretched, hit the portajohn again, and headed back out.

And then the wind came up.  Here I was with about 25 miles to go, still on pace – actually slightly ahead- and a headwind of about 10 miles an hour started blowing!  This section of the ride is relatively flat, thank goodness, but the wind was brutal. 

They say that hills make you stronger but the wind just makes you mad.  They’ve clearly seen me riding into it.  I’m pretty sure I was snarling.

I kept as positive an attitude as I could, put my head down and my hands into the drops, and ground out a pace of 14 mph.  I put all my focus into pedaling circles, good riding position, using all my muscles instead of just some of them.  I worked to keep my mind blank; as many of you know, this is very easy for me, sometimes.  I didn’t see another rider during this phase of the ride but, for all I know, I passed or was passed by a bunch, so narrow was my field of vision.

 I pounded along until I got to the last aid station.  When I pulled in there, I was suffering.  My head felt like it weighed 100 pounds (the weight of my knowledge alone is pretty stout) and my neck was killing me.  My triceps were screaming at me, too, from taking most of my upper body weight for the last hour or so.  I rolled into the parking lot and crawled off the bike.  I’m pretty sure that my eyes had that “Survivor” look in them.  Several people asked if I was okay.

After a drink, a snack, and a stretch, I decided I was going to live.  But only if I found someone to draft for a little while.  I kept my eyes on a group of 4 riders that looked like me, except they were fresher; must not have been doing the century.  When they started to make movements like they were leaving, I swung over the bar and got going with them.  Good choice!  They were doing a nice 15 mph pace that I could wheel suck for a while.  I rode behind them for about 20 minutes until they decided to slow down for the one member of their foursome that was struggling to keep up.

With less than 10 miles to go, I knew I was going to finish.  The question was whether or not I could still beat the 7 hour mark.  The headwind had really slowed me down and it was going to be really close.  Every few minutes, I pushed the pace up and kept grinding to the finish, pushing through the wind as best I could.  It seemed like the wind could tell I was going faster because a gust would come knock my speed back down.  I would then look down at my bike computer, realize I was slowing down again, and kick it back up.  Or try to.

With about 4 miles to go, I realized there were still 2 hills left to climb.  This first one was over a highway and then up a bluff (RIR sits on a series of bluffs; it’s the only place they call them that around here) for about a quarter mile or so.  I wheezed my way to the top, rode down the slight descent on the other side and then came to a stop at a traffic light, the last one before I’d reach RIR.  It was downhill for about a half mile, then uphill for the last half mile climb.

I took off from the light, bent over the bars for maximum speed and shot down the hill, passing 5 riders in the process.  At the bottom I kept driving the pedals as hard as I could to make the climb go quickly.  At the top, I was still holding a good speed, over 14 miles per hour, and turned into the entrance to head toward the finish.  There were 3 others in tow behind me and they all thanked me for the pull up the last hill.  I hadn’t even realized they were back there!  I was too busy grinding it out.

As we headed toward the raceway, I wondered if we were going to go out on the track for a lap!  (I’m told they’re thinking about that for next year.)  Instead we, turned just before the grandstands, shot down a slight hill and across the finish line with the PA announcer exhorting us once again.  A large crowd was gathered, cheering each person as they finished.  I grinned as I cross the line.  Even if I didn’t hit my mark, I was secure in the knowledge that I hadn’t left much in the tank doing it.

Some folks were handing out water and sport drinks as the riders came in.  I grabbed a bottle of water and racked my bike so I could go enjoy the BBQ feast that was set up.  I wondered how long Greg had been in, too.  My iPhone had died en route so I had no way of communicating with him.

For now, I was finished and happy. 

After grabbing my gift bag, which included a finisher’s t-shirt, a finisher’s medal, and a bunch of coupons and freebies from the sponsors, I ate a plate of BBQ and drank Diet Coke, which tasted like heaven.  There’s something about the end of these rides; I feel so alive and life feels like the volume is turned up!


I got back to the car and called MB to let her know I’d be home in about 45 minutes.  She was surprised I’d finished so quickly.  Me, too!

Later that night, I received an email with my official time.  7:03:14 dammit. That friggin wind had gotten me.  Maybe next time.

Listen, any time I can ride over a hundred miles and still make it to an Octoberfest party the same night, and get out of bed the next morning without help, I won’t complain!

Can’t wait until the next one!