Time to ride! After a decent breakfast, Vikki loaded me into the car and off we went. Sky was clear and temperature was 48 degrees with a mild westerly breeze.
There were about 1100 riders pushing off at 7:30 am. There’s something always invigorating about seeing so many other riders starting with you–it’s a psychological boost but one has to be careful not to cross wheels. In addition, it’s always tempting to go faster than you should just due to the atmosphere of a big group of riders, so I had to consciously dial back the pace in those early miles. I had some thin layers on and glad of it with cold muscles and the early am chill combining against me, but I didn’t want to be burdened with a lot of extra clothing to peel off later in the day–I had to be self-sufficient for 100 miles.
The first ten miles were flat–a good warmup. The first climb was pretty easy: 5.5 miles but the average gradient only 5-6 % . There were lots of cyclists going up the same hill at the same time, so it was a little tricky negotiating around them but I did pass many even though my exertion felt only mild. The downhill was glorious but chilly as it was in the shade. Then the first rest stop at about 22 miles–well-stocked with friendly people, good snacks, and lots of porta-potties (Some of us guys went out to the adjacent fencerow ).
During the next 15 miles or so I started to feel tired and thought “Oh, no, I can’t feel bad yet-I’m not even halfway”. But then I slowed down, relaxed and got back in with some different groups that helped break the wind and my legs came back.
I stopped at every rest stop (total five) for 10 minutes or so each, stretching, using the bathroom, eating, refilling my water bottles. After passing into Alabama, the second climb was steeper (average 8% for 2.5 miles) and moderate to hard exertion but I never feared not making it.
At the top were some lovely views off Sand Mountain looking west. Then we went across the plateau on top of with some rollers for the next 15-20 miles before a delicious descent down to the GA state line near Trenton. Crossing over I-59 we all knew what was approaching: the climb up Burkhalter Gap.
Right before Burkhalter (starting at 82 miles) was a wonderful rest stop with dill pickles, PB&J sandwiches, a water hose, mechanical help, and shade (temperature now in low 80s with sunshine). I knew I couldn’t linger, but I massaged my legs and tried some positive self-talk to prepare me for the ordeal ahead.
Burkhalter Gap goes up for 2.5 miles averaging 9% without undulation for the first 2 miles–just up. There’s a brief respite of 3-4% gradient, then the last 200 meters cants up to 13 % just to finish you off. Now remember-I had made it up once before and crapped out one other time trying it, so today was the tiebreaker. But I had never done it after two previous climbs and 80+ miles of riding–or so that little devil kept whispering.
I got into a rhythm and cranked along. I stayed seated for the first 50%, knowing I would need to conserve my standing leg strength for the last steeper part. During the first half of the climb, I was passing a few other cyclists during the ascent and thinking “you’re going to make it”. During the second half, I started to have doubts. I got tired, the sun was hot, the mileage was taking its toll, and I alternated sitting and standing. The small respite in incline came and I tried to spin the legs a little to release the lactic acid. Then came the last stretch at 13%. Boy, was I tempted to quit. The little devil kept whispering “you’ve made it 90%, it’s no shame to walk the rest, you don’t know anyone out here, no one will care . . .” Then my guardian angel appeared.
Some young man was running up and down the last 100 meters of the climb with a cowbell ringing it like he was calling the dead to life and screaming at each and every cyclist “You’re almost there, keep going, you’re going to make it, just a little more, you can do it . . .” I was too stressed to even look up at him, but that cowbell galvanized me and reversed my thinking. Now it was “Well, I can’t let him down, can I?” I stood up in the saddle the last 100 meters and went over the timing mat, turning left into the rest area at the top. Hanging over the handlebars and gasping for breath, I was overcome with the emotion of the moment, thinking to myself: “you actually did it” Then I saw a ten-year old boy come up right behind me–oh well.
The rest of the ride was anti-climactic, though my legs were starting to cramp up.
Actually just as I crossed the finish line my right quadriceps seized up and had to coast to the curb, almost falling off the bike. Vikki and Helen were there to greet me, and the beer trailer was a short walk away. The sense of relief was tremendous.
What did I learn?
- Fitness is a spectrum-the same first hill I found to be a mild exertion would have been impossible for many others, just as the KOM cyclist up Burkhalter traveled at almost twice my speed during his ascent.
- It’s so important to eat and drink a lot while riding these long distances: I probably consumed 80-100 oz. of sport drink and 800-1000 calories.
- Intensity (hills or fast rides on the flats) is the key to increasing your fitness.
- Long rides are essential to prepare for, well, long rides.
- You can always do more than you think you can.
- There are kind people everywhere and I am grateful for them (someone give that cowbell ringer a medal or a six-pack or a second cowbell, please!)
- My wife and children kindly put up with my schedule disruptions, fatigue and sweaty clothes while training.
Mt. Ventoux, here I come!