The Music of the Gears

Mountains of Misery
Newport, Virginia
May 27, 2012

“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.”

So ended my report on the unrelieved sufferfest that was last year’s Mountains of Misery ride.  What a difference a year makes.  And a new bike.  And riding with people.

And only riding 100 miles.

My two previous blog posts covering the century and double-metric century versions of the Mountains of Misery ride read like epic tales of Tolstovian woe.  Nevertheless, if you aren’t familiar with this ride, do check them out, since they offer a pretty good description of what each version has in store for the rider brave/foolish enough to sign up.

So let me just cut to the chase and say that this race report will not bear much similarity to the work of any Russian novelist.  This ride went pretty damn well, all things considered.  Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a ride where you need to put on your big boy pants, the distance (103 miles) and the climbing (almost 10,000 feet) combined with temperatures this year in the high 80s  to make for a challenging day in the saddle.  But it was a much shorter day in the saddle than the last time I did the century two years ago: riding time of about 7:20, and a total time of about 8:55.  That is a solid 40 minutes faster than my previous time for the century.

(The official results aren’t yet out and my ride time may be slightly longer; right at the end, on the final epic climb, I ground to a halt at one point, slumped over the handlebars and banged my head on the handlebars. . .switching off my cyclometer, a fact I didn’t realize until I’d been walking about a quarter of a mile).

This was, in fact, the first time I’ve done MoM when I haven’t got off the bike feeling absolutely destroyed.  So, what things helped to make this day a lot of fun ?  Well, having a rather sick sense of what constitutes fun for starters.  But there were some other factors.

When you ain’t gettin any younger. . .
You do what guys have always done: buy a younger ride.  I’ve done this ride twice on a tri-bike and once on a hybridized mountain bike.  This year I finally graduated to an actual road bike and one that I’d chosen and specced out (within my limited budget; aero wheels will probably have to wait until I am appointed university president) with climbing in mind.

I’m not sure that the bike made me a whole lot faster on its own.  But it made the whole ride a lot more fun in numerous ways.  Riding the tri bike on this kind of route you are always aware (often painfully) that you are riding something not really designed for this kind of endeavor.  I never felt that riding Ginger.  In fact, all day I felt confident that I could meet any challenge the road threw at me, from the ridiculously steep climbs, through the technical descents, to successfully negotiating and unbelievably treacherous stretch of broken, badly patched, residual graveled downhill that had my life flashing before my eyes several times (note to self: get a more interesting life).

Slapping the big 32 gear on the back didn’t make me climb any faster (at least I don’t think so), but it did make the climbing a lot more comfortable (none of the climbs on this ride are easy).  I still need to figure out how to climb most effectively on this bike, however.  It spins so easily that there is a real tendency to charge too quickly up the climbs; this was the mistake I think I made on the first big climb.  On the final climb I dialed it way back, dropped my cadence to keep my HR down, slowed my breathing and as a result climbed steadily further up the mountain than I’ve been able to reach before.

Your mother was right. . .
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  I’ve been doing multisport races for years and for years I’ve been doing the standard thing: bagel (perhaps getting funky with and a banana, maybe really going wild and having an English muffin instead of a bagel. Yes, it works, but you are typically nervously choking down something that’s cold, stodgy. . .

This year I’ve gone in a different direction with a pre-race meal.  Oatmeal, with cranberries, pecans, salt, and a little honey if I have it, brown sugar if I don’t.  This feels substantially and it seems to “hold;” i.e. I don’t feel hungry an hour later.  I’ve been eating it before all my long rides, my duathlon races. . .the big test was Kinetic, since I wanted to know how it would react with the swim.  No problems at all, as long as you have it well in advance (a couple of hours).  Plus its hot.  Plus there’s just something about oatmeal.

Magic Potions
If you are a cyclist sunscreen is your best friend.  There’s one sunscreen that Mary and I have been using it for years.  We stumbled across it when we were doing bike tours, where we were outdoors most of each day for an entire week.   Aloe Gator Gel is an SPF 40 sunscreen that you can get from a variety of places online, but REI is the only place we’ve found that has it reliably.  It is a very thick gel (more like a paste really) and it feels more than a little disgusting when you put it on.  The added bonus is that everything–and I mean everything–sticks to it, so it is not uncommon for you to finish a ride looking as if you’ve been serving as a bug collection device for some overly-enthusiastic entomologists.  So, why would you subject yourself to this?

Simple.  I rode for 9 hours.  I sweated like a bastard; I had water dumped over me.  I stood around for another couple of hours watching my team mates finish.  I got a little bit of faint brown color on my knees.  That was it.

Eat, drink, and be merry
I think I nailed the nutrition and hydration on this ride.  I carried a double strength bottle of sustain and another bottle of water with me and consumed both of those about every 30 miles, which was roughly the distance between every second rest stop.  Every hour I had a gel (I also alternated gels between chocolate and espresso to keep me from getting sick of the same flavor), and took a salt stick every half hour (knowing that because of the heat I was going to sweat a lot).   At every rest stop I basically downed at least another bottle of water only, and ate a lot of fruit (the ride had lots of watermelon, which was awesome; I’m pretty sure I swallowed half a banana whole in the later parts of the ride).

I never felt as if I ran out of energy or was dehydrated.  Of course, the thing about an event like this in a temperature like this, is that you need to drink and eat lots because even if you do, you still end up massively behind in both calories and liquid.  According to the more conservative calculations on Strava, I expended over 5,000 calories; there’s no way you can take in that many without your stomach going on strike.  Ditto water; so for the hours after the ride I made sure that I always had liquid of some description in my hand.  (There was a woman who finished the ride very late, got more or less straight on the shuttle (so didn’t rehydrate) and took a turn for the worse on the way down the mountain; at first we thought it was carsickness, but when she got out she began to shiver and shake; fortunately there was an ambulance behind us).

Misery Loves Company
The single most important factor in making this a great day was the company.  I had a core of strong team-mates to help drag me weary arse around the countryside all day long.  More than that, however, they kept it fun, and remained upbeat and positive no matter how un-fun things got.  Last year we had a handful of Team Z people doing this ride; this year, almost 40 out of the 600 registered riders were part of our team, many of them doing the ride for the first time.  Prior to the ride there had been a flurry of advice from MoM vets so our riders seemed pretty well prepped and everyone finished, which was great.  Here again, the new bike played a role; I’ve never felt uncomfortable riding in a paceline on my tri bike (not in the aerobars, obviously (well, I say obviously but that basic point seems to escape people)).  But the lightness of the roadbike means that you use so much less energy keeping up with those little surges and corrections.

I’ve been with this triathlon team for several years now, but today I had the feeling that roadies must have all the time.  There was one point just after our first rest stop in Newcastle where we had half a dozen of us, all in our matching kit (if you ignore my garish (yay for garish!) PI bib shorts) motoring along in a line, a ribbon of green snaking its way across the countryside.  But the moment was about more than just matching kit.

There were several point at the ride, when I was riding with my friends, that the cursing of the cycling and terrain gods momentarily abated, and no one was saying anything.  All that remained was the pure music of cycling: the sound of gears ratcheting up and down and notching into place with a satisfying clunk.  The whirring of tires against the road, the minor rattles of a bike finding its way across the terrain, the soft ongoing collision of bodies with the resisting air.

I’ve always thought of myself as a cyclist, and not because I engage in all the absurd testostoposturing of roadies (I don’t have the size of quads necessary to carry that off) or because I can talk gear with the geekiest of bike geeks (I can’t). It is because I have always been able to hear this music, the accompaniment that defines the difference between cycling and everything else, that I know to listen for it and appreciate it and give it thanks for being there and allowing me to be there.

When it comes to cycling, there’s music even in misery.


3 responses to “The Music of the Gears

  1. Nicely done..both the ride and the words, ahem, music.

  2. Glad the pirate swagger returned a little this year! It’s amazing what a difference the right bike can make. If only every ride could be miserable.

  3. my favorite line, ” (well, I say obviously but that basic point seems to escape people)” I think the asides were the most fun about this post. Glad the misery worked out for you.

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