Category Archives: Cycling

A hard day in the saddle (Part II)

The route and elevation profile
The route and elevation profile

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.

Before the start
Before the start

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.

IMG_3577 (1)
Best business slogan I’ve seen in awhile . . .

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.

Top of Sand Mountain climb looking back
Top of Sand Mountain climb looking 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!

A Hard Day in the Saddle (Part I).

From my first few months in Chattanooga, I wanted to complete the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge century ride.  In 2013 I planned to ride it but injured my knee and had to quit training. At the beginning of 2016 I decided to try again.

There were several aspects to completing this ride. First, the training. The basics of completing a century ride (100 miles) on a bike are well-known: establish a base of riding miles, add some intensity with increased tempo, practice climbing, and do long rides of at least 75% of the distance before the big day. However, when it’s January, 30 degrees and dark outside, and the bed is warm, it’s not easy getting on the trainer and pounding out intervals before going to work. (Sufferfest videos plugged into the TV really help-great scenery, interesting trivia, inspiring music, and a little humor). After the daylight savings time change in the spring, there’s more daylight at end of day, but riding then interrupts family dinner time, interferes with school activities, and conflicts with on-call duties at the hospital.

Avoiding injuries is next. During one training ride, I outran or out maneuvered five dogs out of six but the last one was too old or too fat or too slow to get out of my way as I tried to vector away.  Fortunately it was at low speed as I scooted my thigh and knee across the asphalt producing a beautiful road rash abrasion that kept me from sleeping on that side for several weeks-but no broken bones. Then I developed a low back sprain. Several sessions with the physical therapist and a better post-ride stretching routine helped clear that up.

Finally, the mental aspect. My chosen route had three discrete climbs, each between 1000-1400 feet ascents over 2 to 5 miles. I rode each of them separately, but one day about three weeks before the big day I tried to do 75 miles over climbs #2 and #3 and had to quit halfway up the second hill. That was devastating to my confidence. Lots of negative self-talk ensued:

  • If you can’t do two hills in a day, how are you going to do three?
  • That last hill is a beast, you’ll probably have to walk up
  • Maybe I should just do the metric century
  • Why am I doing all this exactly?

I started losing sleep, had trouble concentrating, experienced some very anxiety-filled dreams, and I told myself: “it’s just a stupid bike ride, dummy”.  Basically I was afraid–afraid of failing, afraid of quitting, afraid of the pain. Then I did one intense club ride averaging 19 mph for 25 miles, a metric century in Louisville at 18 mph and those efforts encouraged me. Finally, the weather on ride day was projected to be near perfect, and I committed to the endeavor. I tapered off training for the last week, washed and polished my bicycle, and laid out all my gear.  Game on!

Sandy adventures

When you combine a sense of adventure, exploring the unknown, and a little bit of history, you get the makings of a good bike ride. Watch out for tricky dropoffs, though.


Topsail ramble

We were on vacation at the beach on the Florida Panhandle recently, and I decided to explore nearby Topsail Preserve State Park. Topsail has a lot of varied ecosystems, including ocean beach, dunes, coastal lakes, and conifer forests. There are multiple good bike trails, including one 3-4 mile paved path and lots of other tracks through the woods mostly with sandy terrain underwheel. I just went exploring, though my goal was to findJB-2-Missile-on-a-sled remnants of the old WW II training site where some of the first US missile program testing was performed.




Well, as it turns out I wasn’t in exactly the right spot, but I had fun riding through the woods anyway.

IMG_3070 As you might expect, once off the paved path I didn’t encounter a single other person on foot or bike. The day was cool but there was some extra work trolling across the sandy surface since moving sand around with your bike tires doesn’t translate to much forward momentum.

Speaking of momentum, the other thing about sand is that it absorbs momentum pretty efficiently. Especially when your front wheel is airborne after a drop off, the bike is pointed down, your incompetent cyclist’s weight is forward over the front bar, and you’ve never ridden this kind of trail before. In about 0.5 seconds I was launched over the handlebar and landed on my head. I was wearing a helmet, but the real saving grace was the sand pit I landed in–it cushioned my impact and I emerged with just a sore neck. Fortunately.

A couple ofIMG_3069 days later Vikki and I went back for a hike on some of the other trails that were too sandy for bike travel. Once there we saw some lovely coastal lakes, tide pools and tall dunes up to about 25 feet tall.

IMG_3082The day was quiet and warm. No one else was around. I wanted to find an alligator but never spotted one.

IMG_3084We also encountered some very old twisted wire in an oddly arranged pattern that resembled a long rectangular grid. I thought this might be some relic of the old WW II program but I couldn’t be sure.  In any case we were off the beaten path and enjoyed a great walk.


Cyclisme dangereux

Jack N Back photo2 copyWell after watching some of the Tour de France this month,  I wanted to relate one of my own cycling near-death experiences. A couple of  months ago I was eager to go out in the early evening for a quick bike ride. It was typical southern summer weather: hot, humid, with frequent afternoon thunderstorm cells popping up. I’ve come to rely on one of the popular weather apps for the iPhone which typically does an excellent job of predicting when it’s going to rain. When I checked the app, it didn’t describe any nearby storm cells by radar, so I clicked in and started off.

My route from home always involves some early stinger hills up which I trudged. When I got to the top of that ridge, I noticed the sky to the southwest was getting darker-not a good sign. I went on for a few more minutes, but then the color ahead changed to a deep purple blue and began to boil, with thunder booming to my right. Time to turn around . . .I started to book it home, but in a couple of minutes those telltale fat plops of rain began to splat and sizzle on the pavement.  Oh, so I’m going to get a little wet, I thought, no big deal. Only a little wet turned into a lot of wet very quickly. This was one of those quintessential gully-washing, cats and dogs, mad Englishman downpours that obliterated all vision.  I struggled on and came to the top of the ridge. There wasn’t really any place to take cover, so I decided to go on, heading down and back home.

As I frequently tell my overweight patients, you can’t violate the laws of physics (calories in > calories out = fat). Well, water + wheel rims = poor braking on a bike. And did I mention the 30 mph cross-wind?  So now I’m screaming down the hill at about 25 mph with the road awash in rain, my brake calipers crushed with all my grip strength, the wind howling, unable to control my speed as I approach the last turn at the bottom. “There’s no way I’m going to make this turn” I think to myself. Slowly I start to drift right, toward the edge of the road surface. A large ditch beckons with hazards unknown. The whole bike starts to chatter, and then I have a small flash of inspiration. I clamp the top tube between my legs, decreasing the vibration, which allows me to just barely maneuver around the turn and into a safer, straighter stretch of roadway.  Drivers approach me in the opposite lane and must think I’m loony–but they don’t stop, either. I limp home, grateful to have avoided road rash, fractured bones or worse.  I don’t tell anyone how close I came to a major accident. Until now.

The Perfect Ride

I was looking to suffer. For some reason, this cycling season I was motivated to get better at climbing. Hills are simple: there they are, now go up to the top on your bicycle. You either make it or you don’t. The outcome is binary. But the variables constituting each hill are infinite: length, grade, weather, road surface, as well as the cyclist’s fitness, all blend into the individual character of the particular climb.

We were on a family vacation in southwest Virginia. I had not scheduled any activities for the kids on the morning of the 4th of July. At 5:45 am I got out of bed at the hotel, gathered my gear, and drove to Emory & Henry College near Meadowview, VA. From a previous internet search I had set my sights on Hayter’s Gap, a nearby route over a ridge of the low mountains north of I-81. The weather was clearing after an early am shower and the temperature lingered about 68. After hydration and caffeination I set off.

Because of the holiday there was almost no traffic. I was passed by less than five cars on the out leg. I saw more birds than people. Even the dogs were still asleep-not a single bark. It was serenely quiet, just the sound of the pedals, the wind in my ears, my breathing. The route initially descended into the Holston River valley and when I crossed the bridge over the water I knew the warmup was over. The houses gradually disappeared, the woods closed in over the roadway, and the curves began. The higher I climbed, the slower I went, until the last cog on the cassette was reached. Every 20 to 50 yards the road curved away, around the corner and up. Always up. I prayed that each next curve would be “the one”-the one that disappeared over the top instead of revealing yet another stretch of up. I alternated sitting and standing out of the saddle. I chanted on successive revolutions of the right pedal, then the left, using the Jesus prayer, then the names of my children, then counting, and finally nothing, nothing except the turning.

I was tempted. Places where I could pull off the road beckoned. I came close to quitting. But my training to date was just enough to keep me aerobic at the turtle-like pace I was keeping up the climb. There was a small cabin on my left. I started to see more blue sky through the trees, and I knew I was close. But how close? I gave up hoping on the next curve, and began to just accept the effort for what it was. It had its own way, one that anticipation could not alter. And then, there was a sign-literally, a road sign marking the county line at the apex, Hayters_Gap_apex
and the sunlight glistened on the
downhill slope of the descent on the far side. I pulled over to the side of the road and my quivering legs gave thanks.

The descent was quite a thrill as well, since there were so many switchbacks and hairpins. I kept my hands on the brakes and by no means was it a TDF performance but I got to practice following a line through the curve, keeping my head up and sighting my way out of the turns. I took a leisurely pace back to my car and savored my small but discrete achievement in the ages-old story of man vs. nature-aided by carbon fiber, low gears, and good weather.\

The End of a Season

At the beginning of the cycling season, my riding buddy Rob and I decided on a goal: we would finish the Jack N’ Back charity bike ride in October. Well, we did. After doing several other rides together this season, we both decided this one was the biggest, the best organized, and the most satisfying to complete. For the sake of brevity, I will make a list:

  • Lots and lots of volunteers, probably hundreds, at rest stops, manning the wrenches, serving food, helping at registration, standing at turns, protecting us at intersections, clapping, encouraging, directing, and thanking us repeatedly for riding in this event.
  • Excellent organization, from the luggage train segregated by bib number, twist ties supplied for the bike numbers, early packet pickup to reduce ride day congestion, perfect road markings, police stationed at all major intersections stopping traffic even 30 miles into the ride, etc.
  • Enthusiasm of the volunteers and rest stop helpers.
  • Great lunch stop: plenty of room, large cafeteria, enough bathrooms.
  • Large number of riders on a long course-one was never alone on the road not in sight of another ride, a psychological comfort
  • I have never seen so many sag wagons-seems like they passed me every 5-10 miles
  • The Gatorade and water never ran out (has happened at other rides)

A few personal observations:

  1. I am glad I installed my new cassette with a larger big cog: though the hills were moderate, the longest one was at the end of the first day, a half mile before the finish
  2. I’m also glad I spent three or four hours tuning up the derailleurs on my bike before the ride:although I made several mistakes in the process, once I had it zeroed in, the shifting was flawless during the ride: no skips, rattles, or clunks, no lost chains even when I mistakenly tried to down shift off the small chainring, for example.
  3. Riding into the wind for 50+ miles is a real test of determination, mostly psychological I think, and the discomforting knowledge that the same power output into the pedals results in forward velocity at least 2-3 mph less.
  4. Riders come in all shapes, sizes and outfits. One elderly rider had computer speakers mounted under his saddle broadcasting classical symphonic music. One recumbent rider went the whole 75 miles using only his arms and a top-mounted crank arrangement. Two guys rode unicycles! (Somebody said those guys are so good on one wheel, please don’t give them two…) Obese women rode mountain bikes at ten mph. Skinny guys dressed in identical kits hammered past in large TDF-like mini-pelotons. Women in bright green stockings, women on completely pink bikes, women with fuschia flapping skirts and high-viz jerseys, all provided a little extra color.

In summary, it was a great way to end a season of cycling in which I got fitter, learned more about my bike, achieved a goal, and had a lot of fun in the process. Please take a look at some of the photos in the gallery, too.

Night Rider

As the days grow shorter (autumnal equinox today), the time available for riding on the bike diminishes. Unless, of course, one is willing to ride in the dark. Yesterday, after not being able to ride for several days due to travel, work schedules, and laziness, I was determined to get in a good circuit. Although I rushed to finish work early enough, I still couldn’t get started until about 5:45 pm. I had a particular route in mind which was really tough (subject of another post?) but midway though the ride the dark descended quickly. That’s when I busted out the night gear:

  • 2 watt Blaze headlight
  • blinking red taillight
  • reflective left arm band
  • reflective mesh vest
  • shoes with reflective heel tab

Plus, by that time in the ride I was on roads with very wide shoulders. I felt as if
was actually more visible than I am during the daytime. I returned to my starting point without mishap. As I finished the last couple of miles, I was on Lower Station Camp Creek Road

View Larger Map
which runs along a wide brook. White men have been using this route for over 200 years in this community. There were few lights, the nearly full moon was peeking behind the clouds, and the only sounds were from the evening bugs and the nearly silent drivetrain of my bicycle. I felt as if I was skimming along the surface of the earth, a silent observer of the nighttime gifts, exerted but only with pleasure, a grateful recipient of the moment’s graces.

Easy Rider

Easy Rider

After 100 km on the bike yesterday (see H.O.T. ride entry) I decided to ride again the day after, partly because I’ve read that’s a better recovery strategy than a rest day, and partly because I need to do back-to-back distance days in preparation for “Jack N’ Back” in October. But I also remember the observation that most amateur riders “ride too easy on hard days and too hard on easy days”. So I decided to ride really easy.

I went about 25 miles. It was near sunset when I began and the last 30 minutes were in the dark, but I had a bright headlight (Planet Bike ***) and blinking tailight, plus I wore a reflective vest. I never got out of the lower chainring except on descents. I consciously slowed my cadence and never pushed up any hill. It was a very enjoyable ride. There was no pressure, no calculation about pace or timing; indeed I felt as if I was just sauntering around the county. I sort of made up the route as I went, which made for even more serendipity. The frogs were singing, crickets chirping, traffic generally light (all the good people were in Sunday evening church meeting), weather pleasurable with the sun down and a gentle breeze.

We need to occasionally do less, not more, in our quest for improvement.\

H.O.T. Bike Ride

The 20th annual H.O.T. (Heart of Tennessee) ride sponsored by Murfreesboro Outdoor and Bike (MOAB) was yesterday and I rode the 100 km “metric century” with my friend Rob Lennon. Had to get up at 4 am just to brew a cup of coffee, have a piece of toast, an\
d get to Rob’s house by 5 am. It was an hour to Lacassas Elementary school where the event was staged. There was plenty of parking, efficient check-in, more coffee and bagels, but
not enough bathrooms for pre-race necessities (when there’s a line in the men’s room you know there’s a problem). I was looking for a last minute toilet when the race was starting and so we were one of the last ones out of the parking lot. There were probably 400 cyclists or so. The weather was cloudy and about 73 degrees, but the humidity was high.The first few miles were easy flats on country roads, but like all these rides, when your in a group of cyclist one tends to go faster so I had to consciously limit my speed remembering that I usually make the mistake of going out too fast. Even so, at about 15 miles, my legs felt a little heavy and I thought “this is not a good sign at less than 1/4 of the way to the finish”. There was a rest stop at mile 17 or so, with a mass of cyclists and bikes and a too-long line for the water and HEED (electrolyte drink).IMG_0528
We got back on our bikes and the little rolling hills started to increase. Our next landmark was the little town of Woodbury, TN, because we knew from the route map that the major hill of the ride started just outside of town. It started off easily enough, but the curving little swale just kept going and going and going. At one spot, a cyclist had dropped his bike on someone’s lawn and laid himself out on his back, gasping for air. I was too damn dyspneic myself to even ask him if he was OK (though I heard him reply in the affirmative to someone’s inquiry behind me). At the top, there were several “false summits” but at last we saw a van ahead laying out water bottles and ice and knew this had to be the apex. All told, we climbed about 500 feet in a little over 3 miles-the longest climb I’ve ever done.

After rehydrating and refilling our bottles, we took off down the descent on the other side of the ridge we had just climbed. What a glorious feeling, to have the wind whistling past your ears and your freewheel singing at over 40 mph! At the bottom of the hill there was a bone-jarring stretch of road for several miles with a terrible rough surface but the legs felt good and we averaged 18-19 mph along this stretch. Nest was the little town of Statesville and the next rest stop at the Grange. It included water, HEED, brownies, bananas, pastries, fruit, a large industrial-size fan blowing air in the shade, and a Tennessee Walking Horse! (One of the locals was prancing his steed up and down the road there and came over to see what all the commotion was about).IMG_0531

At this point in the ride (43 miles or so) I was feeling pretty good and the next several miles went well. Then, at about 55 miles, my legs started complaining enhanced by the topography which included seemingly an endless series of little rolling hills that individually weren’t bad but collectively took their toll. At one point, about five miles from the end, I heard another cyclist on the road next to me say “I am just hilled out”. It rained briefly which actually felt good and Rob went on ahead of me when I started to falter, but at last the school came into view and I pedaled into the parking lot.

There was a spaghetti dinner being served, but neither one of us wanted to eat, so we just got some cold water, changed into fresh clothes, and headed home. My final tally: 66.5 miles at an average pace (while riding) of 16.6 mph. Estimated calories burned: 2886 Estimated fluid intake during ride: 200+ fluid oz.

The web site:

The route:\