Mountains of Misery, May 29 2011
In the end, not very much to report about this ride. It went pretty much how you’d expect a ride that you haven’t trained for to go.
Despite all the doubts I fronted up on the day feeling really positive. The weather was cool at the start, we arrived in plenty of time, and I felt very prepared logistically. The wave start was a lot better organized than last year, and since those of us doing the double were in the first wave, the whole thing felt a lot less frenetic. Of course, that meant that I wasn’t passing anyone, and was instead subjected to 40 person pace-lines zipping past me as each successive wave started.
All the Team Z people I started with disappeared into the sunrise pretty early on; I latched onto the back of a Team Comet group for a while, and they proved capable riders so I followed them down the dodgy descent into New Castle; big improvement over last year when I was trapped in the middle of a couple of nervous riders. Throughout the early part of the day I stuck to my plan. I skipped the first rest stop, filled my bottles quickly at the second and then jumped on the bike again, committing to the double metric with the first big climb of the day. I was slow, but worked my way over the top OK and into the plunging descent into Paint Branch. I skipped the third rest stop, which turned out to be a bonus, because the downhill continued for quite a ways into the valley; I ended up with about an hour of downhill or flat tempo riding where I was motoring along quite happily. By the time I reached rest stop four at about the 63 mile mark, I’d spent about 4 hours riding; a pretty good pace for me with the climb and a few nasty rollers thrown in. Because I rode the century last year I’d forgotten about the little valley between stops 3 and 4; it was just gorgeous. Generous shade, tiny roads, streams in full throat from all the rain, just stunning.
The second climb was even worse than I remembered, but at least it was short; I paused halfway up to get my breath, but pedaled the whole way. However, it was clear that I wasn’t as strong as I needed to be. I briefly departed from my plan by halting at stop 5 just to get something a little different from the Sustain, but even so I survived the tortuous upward trending rollers of the next section (my least favorite part of the ride) and made the rest stop 6, at mile 95, by about 2:15 in the afternoon, a little less than 7 hours of actual riding. I was pretty pleased with my pace.
Mark to Legs: Shut up Legs!
Legs to Mark: You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to ME?
But when I started the third climb, I had nothing. I had no climb in me at all. I didn’t feel spent, my legs weren’t cramping, I was sore in various places (my wrists hurt, not used to being out of my aerobars and up on the pursuits for any length of time) but not unexpectedly so; I just had no power at all when it came to going up a steep grade. So I ended up walking for about a mile and a half, encouraging the people who rode slowly and steadily past me, but feeling like shit every time someone did so. I hadn’t planned on stopping at the top, but even walking on the grade had been hard work; filled up on liquid, took more endurolytes and a fist-full of M&Ms (isn’t that a Clint Eastwood movie?). Then it was an extremely sketchy descent back to the main road; here my legs seemed just fine; although I was aided by the fact that it was mostly downhill for the next 8 miles. I went aero and spun along quite happily, even on the slight uphills. Legs seemed just fine here!
Although I felt as if I coped pretty well with the next part of the route, I had to stop once going up the nasty little “bonus” climb that lies in wait just before the penultimate rest stop, and while there was one, tiny, flickering, hopeful part of my mind that kept saying idiotic things like “Come on Mullen, show `em what you got left,” I knew the answer was “Nothing.” No way was I going to be able to ride a reasonable portion of the final climb.
The Kindness of Strangers. Fuck that shit.
It was about a mile before the start of the final climb proper that Alexis and Mary found me. It was strange, however, because at that point, in that state, when you are so tired and things aren’t going well, even gestures of kindness are inevitably tinged with insult. They had to come looking for me. Because I’m taking that long. They got worried and they had to come looking for me.
I felt the same way about the SAG riders and the medical people that cruised up and down the final climb as I trudged mile after weary mile. I’d hear the engine, the slowing, the sound of a window being rolled down, a solicitous “How are you doing?” This ride is no mean feat, and they need to do their jobs and make sure that you aren’t about to keel over, a real possibility. I knew I wasn’t about to do so. I just couldn’t climb. I had a ready stock of pat answers–“just getting my breath back,” “I’m all out of climb,” “I’ll be fine once I make it to the next rest stop”–but in my head I was telling them things like “Yes, I know, I’m walking and I’m not exactly fucking happy about it, so just fuck off and let me get on with it in peace.”
Even though I had expected it, I was shocked at how soon I had to get off the bike. At least a mile before I’d had to do so even on my previous attempt at the double on my mountain bike.
I made the final rest stop and told everyone there that this was by far and away my favorite rest stop, because it was the one I needed the most. I grabbed some more liquids, packed my jersey with ice, and then actually managed to get back on my bike and pedal. For about 50 yards. Then the legs quit again.
Up ahead I could hear the unmistakable hullabaloo that marked a Team Z cheering station. In fact, I’d been able to hear the moan of the vuvuzelas for the last mile. This was pretty much the only thing that had been keeping me going. I would have loved to replicate the experience of last year when I rode most of the last part of the mountain, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen, so I just trudged my weary way around the corner to be met with an onslaught of enthusiasm.
As always, my team-mates were incredible. Supportive, jubilant, complimentary, even though as you can see I was a dead man walking by that point. Their support didn’t magically lend me wings or help me to defy gravity, but it strengthened my resolve that there was no way I was going to walk over the finish line. Even if it killed me I would ride over. I walked to the final corner, climbed on to the bike and began turning the pedals. Somehow I managed to keep going, and just when I thought I was going to quit, I saw the event photographer, strategically placed at the beginning of the finishing chute. It is amazing how not wanting to look like a pathetic failure on film can harden you up.
Final time: 11:30. Roughly 9:40 of that was spent actually in the saddle. That, however, may be a little variable, since I’m pretty sure that at times I was walking so slowly that my Garmin was counting me as having stopped by the roadside. I was the last of the timed finishers.
The finish line was great in one sense. There were plenty of volunteers around and they couldn’t do enough for you in terms of getting your stuff and providing you with drinks and food. But at the same time, everything was shutting down; all the teenage volunteers excitedly planning their evening as they got ready to leave. Only a few cyclists littered the ground here and there; some too exhausted to move, others who were friends and team-mates comparing this ride to that of previous years. No one from Team Z was there. Unlike last year, I had no one to swap war stories with. I caught a shuttle down the mountain as soon as possible, ending up in a van of people who all seemed to know each other, intensifying my feeling of isolation. I was missing the Team dinner, I desperately needed a shower, I wanted to sleep but knew I probably couldn’t. I wanted. . .it all to be different.
So, Mark, did we learn anything from this painful experience? Like, not to do it again, perhaps?
Thank you Mark, I’m glad you asked. Mistakes were made, and many valuable lessons were learned. Mistake 1 was probably doing the double in the first place.
However, in retrospect (and this was actually one of the things that made for a frustrating day) there were so many things that worked well:
- Bib shorts. Yes, OK, taking a wizz becomes a geometical challenge but there is a reason that the pros wear these things. Incredibly, for a ride this long, the one thing that didn’t hurt unreasonably was my arse. Yes, every time I eased myself into the saddle toward the end there was a momentary discomfort, but nothing really serious. At the end of the day my legs may have been telling me to go and fuck myself, but I was still on speaking terms with my arse and crotch (and let us just end that unfortunate figure of speech right there).
- Drinking, eating and carousing: Many people commented on how hot the day was. Honestly, I didn’t notice. That’s not, I’m sure, because I am particularly staunch. It is just that it was only in the 80s, large parts of the route were shaded, and after last year’s string of 90 and 100 degree rides this honestly didn’t rate. Plus, I drank like a fish and took an additional 4 endurolytes an hour. I finished the ride well hydrated but not awash in liquid (as measured by the ever reliable “how many hours/days before you are able to pee” test), fueled well but didn’t feel bloated. Took in enough salt I had no problems with either nausea or cramping.
- Making the most of what yer momma gave ya: I knew after the second climb that I had no climbing legs. So from that point on I just maximized all the things that I did still have going for me in order to try and keep my pace up. I descended like a crazy man, coasted as flat and aero as possible, and tempo rode for all I was worth if a piece of even remotely flat road presented itself.
But all the experience that was at the root of the positives I just mentioned couldn’t make up for a basic lack of training. That said, there is the astonishing fact that I completed a 128 mile ride (well, let’s call it 122 miles of riding and about 6 miles of walking) without really being trained for it.
I’ve done this ride three times. Would I do it again? It definitely wasn’t as much fun as last year in many respects. Mainly because I spent most of it riding alone. Only the lunatic crazy fast people on our team signed up for the double. In a delusional moment I counted myself among them. That lasted until about mile 2 and I never saw any of them again. Last year, doing the last part of this ride with friends, suffering it out until the bitter end with them, was one of the highlights of my year.
The double has a lot to recommend it; it has the most beautiful parts of the course, greater beauty and more of it than just about anything on the century ride. But I don’t think I would do it again unless I had a different bike. Especially given that I ended up only doing the ride about 7 minutes faster than when I did it on my heavier mountain bike! Now if this sounds like a bad workman blaming his tools. . .you are right! That is exactly what it is. Nevertheless, there is a reason why you don’t see the pro cyclists in the Tour de France climbing Alpe d’Huez on tri bikes. I’ve always liked this bike, and felt that it climbs pretty damn well for a tri bike (aluminum does have some advantages in that area). But that is like saying that a brick floats pretty well for a large rock-like object.
True, it is great for eliciting admiration from other riders (well, at least from those who don’t show you outright contempt; I suspect, however, that most of those riders were the ones finishing 4-5 hours ahead of me). When I was walking up the third climb one of the riders passed me (still riding of course) and had enough breath left to mumble: “Huh. A tri bike. You gotta respect that.” At the second-to-last rest stop I eased my wearied arse off the seat and muttered “I can’t believe I’m doing this again.” Another rider looked up and said, “Wait, you’ve done this before? And it wasn’t hard enough last time so you decided to do it on a tri bike?”
Now, true, a couple of the elite riders on our team have done the ride on tri bikes. And it is also true that it would do my ego no end of good to imagine that the only reason Andy Schleck doesn’t ride a tri bike up the Col de Colombiere is because he is a panty-waist. Furthermore, Mabel got me through the century version of the ride last year. Not prettily, but safely and in a relatively respectable time. But there is a big difference between 103 miles and 128 miles, especially when that difference is an extra 3000 feet of climbing. Realistically, this bike is geared as low as it can go. Physically, I can’t whip it back and forth out of the saddle in order to gain some extra power and/or give my legs a rest.
This year, I looked around me at the start, and repeatedly throughout the ride (when, that is, there were ever any other riders visible) and thought to myself: I really don’t belong here. Not a feeling I’ve ever had as a cyclist among other cyclists. So maybe no more MOM for me, until we win the lottery.