What am I doing here?
As yet another cyclist passed me on the way up Squaw Pass, I looked down at my legs churning away beneath me. I’m a Clydesdale…a helmeted draft horse on two wheels. Gravity messes with me at what you might call a higher level. I’m strong, but I’m not fast – at least going up the hill.
Push through the top of the peddle stroke…drop the heel at one o’clock. 2700 miles of training, and I’m barely holding my own. I reach to shift down one more gear, and it dawns on me for about the 11th time today that I have no more gears.
Strength to weight ratio is a real bugger. It’s the great equalizer as gravity tugs us backwards. A rider weighing 140 lbs needs less strength for their weight to ascend – than yours truly at 218 pounds. In a sport where 170 lbs is considered heavy, it’s a world where I scarcely belong. But I’m drawn to it. It’s on these mountain grades where I’ve pushed hard enough to find some very special moments. But of course there’s one consolation: Like all Clydesdale’s I descend like a loaded shopping cart. Drop me on the climb, but I’ll see you again on the descent.
2013 CYCLING SEASON IN REVIEW: Confessions of a Clydesdale.
It’s been quite a season – with expected and decidedly unexpected highs and lows. It began with a winter that would not end. Just as the roads were becoming passable, BLAMMO…another dump of snow. We didn’t get on the road to stay until the last week of April. Our season in the hinterlands is ending with a signature Northern Minnesota grey, drizzly and 40-ish late October. Rain is one thing, cold another – but both at the same time is all about being wet and chilled in two layers of soggy spandex. It’s time to stop.
To share with you a few of the ridiculous and sublime moments, I give to you my 2013 Top Ten List:
1. The Crash. I touched wheels in a pace line and went down HARD in July – which necessitated leaving the Habitat 500 tour. I trashed my bike, broke my helmet and left a fair bit of skin on the tarmac. Bad crashes have a way of renting space in your head. But from this concentrated intensity I’ve learned so much. Recovering from the pounding I took and recovering my confidence took time – but with it came perspective. I’m a safer and better skilled rider because of it.
2. Going 47 mph. Actually, anything over 34 mph qualifies as escape velocity because I’m going faster than I can pedal in my dead-high gear. The Steamboat Springs side of Rabbit Ears Pass was the culprit: perfect pavement and wide, soaring turns. Absolute focus is a pretty good idea – all things considered. More about this later.
3. My First HC Climb. France is the mother ship from which we received the sport of cycling. In endearing French fashion, they created a rating system for climbs on a bicycle. The system categorizes climbs on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the hardest. But then someone figured out there were climbs that were harder, or Hors Categorie – which means above category. On an HC climb UP lasts for a long time.
4. New Bike. Trek has a crash replacement program, and after my crash they over-nighted a new frame to my bike shop. Talk about saving my season. It’s insanely fast and handles oh so well in the wind. I’m a Trek customer for life.
5. Bananas. If you’re one of the 9 people who regularly read this blog, you know that I’m a believer in the secret powers of the banana. Nothing pulls your ride out of the crapper faster than downing a banana. There’s an art to hucking your empty peel safely off the road. Under hand, over the head, behind the back, slam dunk. It never gets old.
6. First 200K Ride. I entered the world of randonneuring [unsupported long distance cycling] this fall by completing an entry level ride of 125 miles. We climbed 8300 feet of elevation along the way, which was probably why the ride was called Hills of Wisconsin.
7. Accidental Century. Early this summer I went out for a ride, took a wrong turn and found myself on an unplanned century ride. It was one of those times when you keep going because that road must be up here somewhere... You end up far from home, and calling sweetie for a pick-up is NOT an option. Food? Improvise at gas stations.
8. Stopping to Smell the Pictures. When it comes to training, I always seem to go hard and fast. I trained like a Type A tyrant…until I stopped to smell the pictures. One of the benefits of a late, wet spring is wildflowers – and we had them in abundance in Northern Minnesota.
Yes, Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus, AND you can have fun on your bicycle.
9. Training Camp. I attended a week long hill climbing camp in Wisconsin sponsored by Cycling House. Wisconsin you say? Hills?! Yup: to the tune of 1000 feet of climbing every 10-15 miles. All told it was 25,000 feet of climbing over 340 miles of riding.
10. Freshly Shaved Legs. What does a devoted cyclist do when dreading the next day’s climb? Get up early that morning, put a fresh shave on your guns and your face, and dress in your sharpest kit. Looking good makes all the difference. Don’t tell me that you had a good day climbing with sweat and road grit fowling your leg pelt. It just isn’t possible. You had a bad day.
The 2013 Season By the Numbers
All told I pedaled 4578.7 miles and climbed 165,841 feet. That’s like climbing Mt Everest 5.8 times from sea level. I rode four centuries and two 200K events, while wearing out a pair of cycling shoes – but Northwave was very kind to send me replacements at no charge. I went through 3 rolls of bar tape, 1 quart of citrus degreaser, 6 quarts of Hammer Gel, 2 sets of cables, 2 chains, 1 rear cassette, and a Garmin GPS.
For the the health my my nether regions I applied 3 tubes of Chamois Butter, 2 tubs of Assos Chamois cream, and 1 tube of Desitin. [after several warm days in the saddle, an overnight application of Desitin is a guy's best friend] According to the Competitive Cyclist website, “Assos chamois cream will change your life…” I’m not sure it’s time to hit the road with a self-improvement seminar, but…it’s pretty sublime stuff.
The Colorado Rocky Mountain Bike Tour
I would describe it as a tour of attrition, though there was fair warning. The CRMBT is billed as the hardest tour in Colorado. Like all lofty goals, the anticipation is all glory, and the execution is hard work. Why I am drawn to these quests is anyone’s guess. Each day a few more riders disappeared, and as a big mountain tour neophyte, I found this more than a little unsettling. On the third day it was my turn to blow up – which happened to take place on the south side of Berthoud Pass. I stopped, refueled and rallied three times, but finally elected to have my sorry butt hauled to the top. Some days are like that. The next day I got back on the bike and rode 85 mile and climbed 5000 feet. Some days are like that.
My body was still healing from my crash, so I struggled with muscle spasms in my neck and right shoulder during the week. I rode several hours with gritted teeth – and recovered nightly beneath the hands of massage therapists. Each morning I was pleasantly surprised that my body was still working, and fighting the perfectly reasonable temptation to roll over and go back to sleep, got dressed and got on the road.
The rides unfolded in slow motion…one larger than life moment of beauty, pain or triumph after another. The magnitude of the climbs were too much to absorb in the moment, and contributed an almost surreal quality to the ride. 435 miles and 31,000 feet of climbing put the needle in the red daily. The morning of our last serious climb my fellow riders and I were absolutely giddy as we approached the summit: wild eyed and sweaty, born again survivors. [the climb profile is below]
Rolling to a stop one day later in a school parking lot in Loveland, I just stood there astride my bike in a cloudburst of emotions. I finally sat down on the back bumper of the Subaru, kicked off my cleats, drank 2 ice-cold beers in like 9 minutes, repeating a single word: wow. People who hardly knew each other exchanged knowing glances and sweaty high fives. Good ride. This two word benediction echoed in the locker room – the air thick with steam from running showers. Yes, it was a very good ride.
What I Learned About Very Large Hills
Alpine descents are a serious business. Though the speed is exhilarating, its also potentially very lethal. Roaring down a 20% grade in Wisconsin for two minutes doesn’t begin to capture a 15 mile descent in the Rockies. What the grades lack in steepness, they make up for in their sustained surrender to gravity. Only in the midst of this kind of descent can a rider begin to grasp the horror of a high speed crash. I gained new appreciation for the run-away truck ramps on the big passes.
For the most part I kept my speed around 35 mph, but there’s a trade-off between speed and overheated rims from too much braking. To some extent you just need to accept that you will go fast. The routine before starting a descent: slow down or come to a complete stop, have a talk with self and get focused. Then assume THE POSITION with hands in the drops – 2 fingers on the brake levers, pedals at 3 and 9 o’clock, pushed back on the saddle with knees lightly gripping the top tube for added stability. Aye Carumba. It’s not the best time for gawking at the scenery: descending demands complete attention to the road surface.
What Cycling Can Do for a Body
This year my body turned into a cyclist’s body…well, mostly. I’ve morphed into a low fat, lean, kind of athletic looking person. During the middle of the summer I lost another 20 pounds, and found myself training at 18 mph and roaring up hills. At age 53 I weigh what I did 20 years ago. Though, comparatively speaking, I’m still a Clydesdale, I’m possessed by a determination to hold onto this year’s gains. Yesterday I signed-up at the local YMCA and got an off-season strength training coach. How weird is that?
I’m looking at several options for 2014. In May I’m seriously considering a climbing camp in Greenville, SC. June will include my annual four day pilgrimage to Grand Marais, MN for more climbing miles. I’m also considering exploring Copper Harbor, MI for a few days of the same. My first big project – and major focus for the season – will be the Tour de Montana. While I’m there, I’m thinking seriously of running up to Glacier Park, visiting friends and riding the Going to the Sun Road. In August, we’re heading back to Colorado for two weeks. Though I’m tempted to sign up for the CRMBT again, I can see a lot of fun to be had in doing the Copper Triangle and some other classic rides [like Mt Evans] while enjoying sublime mountain living with my fam in Winter Park.
Nordic skiing will begin soon, and provide my yearly non-cycling outdoor outlet. Around the beginning of February I’ll begin pedaling on the indoor trainer, and then by March strength training and skiing will give way to more intense time on the bike – and the run-up to my first training camp in May. Until then my lofty goals will remain in glorious anticipation: nurturing my soul until they become my work.