Friday, September 4, 2015

I am a Cyclist

Well, not really. I’m an old (58 years), skinny-fat guy that occasionally rides a bike.

That’s usually the way I think of myself when I’m getting ready to take a ride.
If it’s a group ride, a gran fondo, a charity event, I tend to think more like “I’m a cyclist” because there’s a bunch of people that look like me out there. Baby boomers with a little more weight than they’d like to be carrying, all kitted up like their heroes in the pro peleton. (Perhaps I should be riding in more group rides!)

One reason I don’t think I’m a cyclist is that I’m convinced that I’m a really awful climber. This is caused by my power to weight ratio being out of kilter. That means I either need to develop the power of the Incredible Hulk without gaining any weight OR lose 25 pounds. This would probably require me to only eat really healthy stuff and not much of it. I’d also have to stop drinking.

To quote a famous philosopher, “Ain’t nobody got time for dat!”

Climbs I have done

Both of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I’ve done some climbs as part of my Tour de Cure rides up in Northern VA. (For purposes of this post, I’m categorizing a climb as being over a kilometer in length and a gain in altitude of 4 to 5%, or more.) The first year of the TdC I had to walk up one major climb because my ass cheeks were about to ignite and the second year, I was in much better shape and sailed up it like a boss. (Okay, I rode the whole thing without having to walk.)

Most of the riding around here contains some hills but there’s only one spot that meets the criteria listed above and it’s just barely got enough elevation change to make it. I’m so used to doing it that I just ride it without thinking about it, unless I’m at the end of a longer ride and it’s really hot or something.

All this to say that, I don’t have all that much climbing experience; certainly not enough to definitively state that I’m no good at this.

Until last weekend.

Giles County, Virginia

Last weekend, MB and I were invited by friends to spend the weekend at their second home in Pembroke, a small town in Giles County, VA. It sits very near the VA/WVA line and is bisected by the New River, the oldest river in the US. It’s also about forty minutes west of VA Tech (Go Hokies.)
Just one of many hills in Giles Co.

The weekend included three couples and we planned to play golf, play bouree (it’s a Cajun card game that combines poker, bridge, drinking and swearing) and play some music. So I brought poker chips, golf clubs, a cooler of beer, my guitar, and my bike. No one else in this group is much of a rider but I figured I could get a ride in Saturday morning before we went to the golf course.

After driving for three and a half hours, we arrived in Pembroke and followed directions to the house. I turned off of Rt. 460 and headed up a very steep hill for about a quarter mile before turning into their driveway.

All I could think was “I’ll have to climb that thing on my bike at the end of a ride.”

Several of us went to the grocery store for supplies, and took a drive down some possible routes that I could ride in the morning. The home owner gave me some recommendations about where to ride and, more importantly, where not to ride. Pembroke is known more for mountain biking than for road cycling and the concern was that I’d be mowed down by one of the locals. The roads there are either really narrow with barely two lanes on them or four lanes with high speed limits and no shoulder. Sweet!

We spent the rest of the evening eating a wonderful meal, drinking lots of good beer and wine, and playing cards.

The hills make you stronger?

Saturday dawned overcast. MB and I got up and got a cup of coffee and went to sit on the front porch overlooking the valley. There were large swaths of fog hanging down in the various valleys between the hills as far as we could see. Poking above them were the tops of the hills and what passes for mountains on the East Coast.
I had a little something to eat and then changed into a kit for my ride. Only one other person was stirring, sitting with MB on the front porch, when I pulled out of the driveway and headed down the hill.

I held the brakes the entire way down that first hill. I knew if I just let it roll, I’d hit a speed that would be very exciting going around the turns on this little road. I kept it around 20 mph as I dropped down to the main road.

At the bottom of the hill, I checked for traffic and shot across to the other side of 460. There didn’t seem to be anyone up although it was 7:30 in the morning. I thought country folk were early risers! I pedaled up the first street I came to, heading in the direction of the local recreation area and golf course we’d play later in the day. It was a smooth 2 lane blacktop, going slightly uphill. After about half a mile, the road turned left around a small hill and started going up at about a 5% grade. I continued up it for another few hundred yards and then it got steeper. I rode up that a little longer and just as I was about to go into the red zone, I decided to save the match and turned around.

I rolled back down the hill, well above the speed limit of 25 and then slowed to make the turn at the bottom. I continued to re-trace my ride until I was back to the main road.

Mamil - Not actual size
I went down to the next street and turned up that. This was one I had driven on the night before and I knew that it headed over the river, crossed a bridge and then disappeared around a bend. The homeowner had told me that it followed the river for a little while and then turned up to the top of Commissary Hill, whatever that is.
I rolled past some small houses and then a campground appeared on my right, next to the edge of the river. Lots of tents and RVs filled the available space and people were just starting to stir. Everyone who saw me stared for a lot longer than I’m used to; must have been the MAMIL in their midst (Middle Aged Man in Lycra).

The road rose up to cross a railroad line and then dropped down to a fairly new bridge which crossed the river. I rolled across that, looking at the old train trestle to the right which had been taken out of service some time ago; it was rusted and in pretty rough shape.

Kudzu in all it's glory
Back on the road, I cruised through an amazing kudzu display, draping all the trees in a lush green curtain. (If you’re not from around here, kudzu is one of those things that just moves in and takes over, covering everything in its path. This was no different.) The kudzu coating went on for a few hundred meters and then, abruptly, stopped.

The road I was on dropped down to follow the river and then began to swing back up and away from the river, heading to higher ground and wrapping around the large hill/mountain on my left. I kept spinning the pedals at a good cadence and managed to hold about a 12 mph pace as the road began to climb.

I passed some beautiful rock formations that had been revealed over the centuries by the river’s inexorable carving; one tiny molecule at a time. I’m fascinated by these, sometimes by the colors, but always by the millennia it took to do it. The patience of nature never ceases to amaze me and make me understand how insignificant we all are.

The road kept climbing and so did I. Looking down at my Garmin, which changes from one screen to another every few seconds, I could see that my average incline was 5-6% and that my speed was holding around 11 mph. And then I could see a graphic image of the road; it looked like a cliff! I wasn’t sure if this was real-time or predictive but I didn’t like the look of it. I tore my eyes away from the computer and focused on my surroundings.

As the road angled up, steeper, I shifted to the small chainring and kept spinning. My breathing was becoming labored and I could tell I was starting to really work to keep the speed up. I couldn’t see the top, only the road disappearing around the next turn or fading into the mist. The fog that I’d seen from the front porch was in this valley and I was climbing into it! My glasses fogged over and I had to look over the tops of them to see clearly.

More time went by and I realized that I’d been on this climb for close to 20 minutes. Part of me was thrilled that I’d been climbing this long; most of me was worried that I was going to keel over. I rolled to a stop at the side of the road, stood over the bike with my head down, and sucked air. Hard.

It took about 90 seconds to get my breathing close to normal. I took one last deep breath and climbed back on the bike, determined to get to the top. I was surprised how much better I felt after stopping for a breather! I held my cadence for another few minutes and finally saw a Stop sign through the mist, meaning I’d reached the top. I silently congratulated myself, vowing to make it to the top without stopping the next time.

At the intersection, I spun around and headed back downhill. It was so steep that I reached 40 mph almost immediately without pedaling and despite sitting up (maximum wind resistance). I coasted back down the hill, enjoying the wind and the return of my energy.

After what seemed a very short time, I was back on mostly flat ground, then rolling back across the bridge and the railroad tracks, heading back into town. I pedaled up and down several shorter streets looking at homes and small businesses before finally turning around and heading back to that ball buster of a hill leading back to the house.

Sisyphus on a bike

After crossing the main road, I stopped at the bottom of the hill for a quick re-group and a drink. My goal was to make the entire climb without stopping. In my mind, I could see all my friends standing on the front porch cheering me up the hill. (I was clearly hallucinating.)

I clipped in and started up, switching to the small chainring almost immediately. As I rolled up the first pitch and started around the bend, I shifted up until I hit the biggest cog. I was in the “granny gear” or the “if this gets any steeper I’ll be falling off my bike” gear. As the pavement rose, I stood up and stamped the pedals continuing to hold my speed. I finally got past the steepest part and sat back down, spinning hard to keep my speed up. I was grinning because I’d made it past a really steep section. I turned onto the road going up to the house and realized I was going to have to stop to recover; my legs were quivering and my breath was gone again.

I stood astride the bike for a minute and then started again. I knew almost immediately that I wasn’t going to make it all the way. If I could just get to the cross street so I could ride across the hill to recover, maybe I’d be okay. I focused on that street sign, driving hard against gravity, and finally turned left across the hill. As I rode along, I could hear MB hoot, meaning she saw me.

I continued for about 100 yards or so, and then suddenly had a plan. I would turn around, get a head of steam up and turn up that last pitch with a good head start. Yeah, that’s the ticket! I grabbed my bottle for one last drink, spun the bike around and accelerated towards the intersection. No cars coming, good!

I was going pretty fast when I got to it but was able to carve a wide turn and head up the hill. I was back in the granny gear almost immediately and was spinning hard, trying to keep forward progress. I was about to stand up when the first cramp hit my quadriceps and I decide to abort. I rolled to a stop and climbed off the bike, pushing it up the hill in the international cyclist’s walk of shame. Sucking air, really hard, too.

I made my way the last 100 yards back to the house, parked my bike, grabbed a fresh cup of coffee and told MB, “We’re never moving to a place with hills like this!”


The big climb up Commissary Hill turned out to be about 6.7 kilometers with altitude gain of .4 KM. That’s an average of 5.9% and I know that some sections jump to 8-10%. I was curious about what that means in Categories that they use in the Tour de France and it looks like this was a Cat 3. That means there are only 2 categories that are harder. You know what that means?

I’m a cyclist. (Sort of……)

World Cycling Championships

Official Logo
Those of you that follow this sport know that the UCI World Cycling Championships are coming later this month, September 19th-29th. More importantly, they’re being in Richmond VA! I’ve arranged to be off work the entire week and have signed up as a volunteer in a number of capacities during the week. My plan is to drop a post in here every day with whatever I see/hear/experience during the event. Friday evening, I’ll actually be riding the Road Championship course in a fundraising event called Conquer the Cobbles with several friends of mine. Should be a good time.

I hope you’ll check back for my missives during the event!


  1. yer a cyclist, son. never doubt it.


    1. I can always count on you to keep my head right, TJ.

      Best to you, sir!

  2. Brian, I don't mind climbs which is good because a lot of my riding around here is either going real slow or real fast!!! Can you really be good at climbing??? I am just slow although I can always seem to keep moving.
    Hey have fun with the bike race and volunteering!!

    1. Thanks Jim! I just always feel like I'm dragging ass up the damn things. I can descend though! All that mass comes in handy on the way down!

      Thanks for stopping by!