Safety in numbers and pushing myself to a new plateau
It’s that time of year when cycling is left to the hard core riders. The temperature has dropped to the 40s and 50s during the day, the amount of sunlight is limited by the angle of the sun and that same angle causes visibility to be compromised. I’m sure you’ve noticed when you’re driving your car into the sun, the glare on the windshield is nasty and makes it difficult to see things; like bike riders.
Yes, it scares us, too.
A couple of Sundays ago, the weather turned beautiful in central VA with the temperature soaring to 70. I hadn’t been on the bike in several weeks due to, well, life I suppose. My back was out for a couple of weeks (getting old is not for sissies) and family stuff had taken some time, as well. Plus, the weather had sucked whenever I did have time to ride.
With a gorgeous forecast and my favorite pro football team (Washington Redskins) sucking again, the day was mine!
Then, I received an email from RABA – the Richmond Area Bike Association – announcing a ride nearby. I’ve been a member of RABA for 3 or 4 years and have been on a couple of group rides but they typically don’t match up to my schedule. I also really struggle with the concept of driving in my car with my bike to go for a bike ride and then driving back home. This one was relatively close, though, so I decided to take advantage of the safety in numbers concept; more riders must to be easier to see, no?
I loaded up my bike and changed into an outfit that would match the weather. It seemed too warm for anything other than shorts on my legs but I put some arm warmers on to keep my upper extremities a little warmer. I filled a couple of water bottles and grabbed a Clif bar for a snack, just in case, and stuck a couple of dollars in my pocket.
According to the RABA site, this ride is called the Ashland Ramble a ride of about 28 miles that begins on the campus of Randolph-Macon College
I loaded up Fast Eddy and headed to Ashland, arriving about 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time. There were already five or six others offloading, including the ride leader, so I introduced myself all around and prepped my bike. I took a quick spin around the parking lot to make sure everything was working properly, chatted with some of the others and we set off at 2:00.
As we moved through town and out through a housing development, I had a chance to chat with several more folks. I’m always amazed at all of the different stories of how people ended up cycling. Some of us have recently re-discovered it after not riding for decades while others have always ridden sometimes commuting, sometimes racing, sometimes exercising. But now, we all ride.
After putting suburbia behind us, we came to a Stop sign where everyone queued up again. The ride leader took a head count to ensure everyone was okay and we broke into smaller groups as we headed out on country roads where passing of cars can get a little exciting. Smaller groups of riders makes it easier for cars to pass and blocking traffic is one of those pissoffable offenses to drivers so, we work to avoid it.
I wound up riding with two guys (Peter and Young Dude) who apparently didn’t get the memo that this was a B pace ride. We took off from the Stop sign and ramped up to around 21 mph, holding a very tight pace line. (Truthfully, I was holding tight to the wheel in front of me, riding third, to keep from getting spit out the back!) We kept cycling through, each of us taking a pull of about a mile or so, holding a very steady pace.
At one point, we came to one of Hanover County’s
famous rollers (this county sits on
the fall line of the piedmont area of the state and the land is rarely flat) and I had just taken
the lead. I held the pace solidly as we headed up the incline for about 100
yards or so, spinning feverishly as I downshifted a couple of cogs. We crested
the hill still holding about 19 mph and then crept back up to 21. I held that
for the full mile of my pull and then tapped my right hip and swung left to
fall back into line. As Peter and Young Dude rolled by, they both said, “Nice
pull!” I nodded, unable to respond due to the lack of oxygen currently
The pace continued for about 10 miles when we came to another Stop sign and waited for the rest of the ride group to form up. I slammed the rest of my first bottle and ate half a Clif bar,
hoping to keep my energy level up. I felt
surprisingly good although my legs were vibrating, a little. The rest of the group
appeared and there was happy chatter about how beautiful the day and the ride
I nodded and smiled, still trying to get my breathing to return to normal.
Once everyone was accounted for, Peter and Young Dude looked at me (evidently checking to see if I’d expired) and when I said, “Ready?” they headed out with me on their wheel, thrashing along to keep up.
We resumed our pace line tactic for the next half hour or so and I managed to pull my share, although I could tell I was burning a lot of matches in the process. Despite that, I was really enjoying this level of suffering; I’ve never pushed myself like this before, never seen what it was like to be part of a group that was hammering away. (I recognize that some riders will be thinking, “That’s hammering?” Yes, dude, it was for me.) I’ve pounded out some miles solo before, and felt like I was hammering, but it didn’t compare to this.
It felt good because it felt hard, I guess.
We came to a series of rollers that came at us like waves. I managed to hold it together up front and then I realized that the next one wasn’t a roller, it was an actual climb of about half a mile. I started up it, trying to hold the pace but I could tell I was gassed. I tapped and moved over as Peter and Young Dude blew by me.
I proved definitively that, as a climber, I’m a great descender.
Once I finally crested the hill, I could see the rest of my paceline as a small speck off in the distance. They had sat up but there was no way I was going to catch them without some form of mechanical assistance. As I continued to spin in an attempt to recover, someone else passed me. It was Dani, Peter’s wife. He had been telling me that she was an All-American swimmer in college who had just taken up cycling earlier in the year. Judging by the speed she was effortlessly going, she seems to be getting the hang of being on two wheels.
With about 5 miles left in the ride, I decided that now would be a good time to lick my wounds and ride comfortably back to the starting point. All in, I felt pretty good about putting myself out there with two obviously strong riders for the better part of 20 miles at what qualifies as an A pace. Being a lousy climber, I just knew I was going to be dropped on hills. My strength to weight ratio is just too low; I either need more strength (probably not going to happen) or less weight (more likely but not this time of year). At least it gave me a taste of what it feels like to ride at the next level, or a couple of levels above my current one.
Back to the Start
A couple of other riders caught up to me and we re-entered town through another housing development, turning back and forth through suburbia, eventually ending up back on the campus. I turned off the street and into the parking lot, rolling past my car in order to speak with Peter, Dani, and Young Dude who were slowly loading up at their own.
I thanked all of them for the ride, mentioning that it was the fastest I’d ridden for that long and that I hoped I hadn’t slowed them down. Peter gave me props for hanging with them, which was very nice of him while Young Dude just grinned. Dani gave me thumbs up, too.
I got off the bike and spent a few minutes stretching out; my legs had that jelly feel that you get after a hard effort and I didn’t want any cramp. I finished the rest of my 2nd bottle and the Clif bar and loaded up my gear.
As I drove back home, I started thinking about the past 90 minutes. Had I gone to a new level on the bike? Was my body really capable of doing more, far more, than I thought? If I did some training, maybe lost 20 pounds, and focused on it could I start racing with the Masters groups? Ride a century ride in less than 5 hours? That’s when I realized it.
Dopamine does weird shit to your brain.