The Story of a Bike, a Man, and his Impressive Tool

Garrett County Gran Fondo
Savage Century
June 23, 2012

Without a doubt, this was the hardest bike ride I’ve done to date, and that includes the Mountains of Misery Double Metric.   The MoM double has more climbing and, with one exception, the climbs are longer and often steeper.  Garrett county has nothing like the final climb on MoM which starts out ridiculously steep and just when you think you are handling it, abruptly steepens enough to blow you up.

Why then, was this ride so much harder?  MoM packs most of its elevation gain into 2 (for the century) or 4 (for the double) really big climbs but then intersperses it with small rollers and a lot of tempo riding.  With the Gran Fondo there is almost not a single moment where you aren’t climbing or descending.  Some of the tougher climbs are only a mile or a mile and a half long, many of the shorter ones are half that distance.  But they are all pretty much a consistent grade for which I believe the technical term is “bloody annoying;” too steep for you to just sit back and take it easy, not steep enough to make your lungs explode.  What goes up must come down, of course, and there is a lot of descending.  However much of it is on twisty, narrow country roads, many of them in deep shade or (worse) moving from sun to shade, with some broken pavement and fair bit of a debris from a storm the previous night (although the road crews had obviously done a magnificent job; we were told that the night before the organizers weren’t sure the ride would go on as planned because of the downed trees and shattered tree limbs all over the course).  Thus, many of the descents were fast, technical, and sketchy enough that you could easily slide over from “whee!” to “sweet jesus help me!”

So the thing that made this ride so much harder was that with one exception there wasn’t a single moment where you could really relax and switch off your brain.  The MoM double has miles and miles of downhill where you can mentally take a break, or just churn your way across some gentle rollers (oh yes, that was the other thing that the Gran Fondo threw in, Culpeper-type rollers).  Throw in the fact that you are doing all this climbing and descending with a group of, by and large, total strangers whose bike handling abilities are completely unknown to you, and there almost wasn’t a single moment where I wasn’t concentrating.  I finished this thing more mentally drained than physically tired.

At the risk redundancy, then, this ride had a lot of climbing.  But it also had a lot of other high points.

Check your six, bandit high and closing
A Gran Fondo is supposed to be a celebration of cycling, an adventure, and this certainly felt like one.  I joined over 60 Team Z riders at this event  which every year raises money for the Joanna M. Nicolay Melanoma foundation.  The team was spread out across the five available distances (ranging from 25-125 miles) but there was a fair number of people doing the century, including Dana, Bob, and Tim, folks I’d ridden with at Mountains of Misery, so I knew I would have great company.

When biking in a group communication is everything.  Therefore, the previous night while carbo-loading at the Creamery (just like the pros) I decided–somewhere deep into my triple scoop cake batter ice-cream sundae with hot fudge sauce and sprinkles–that this process would be aided materially if we all had call signs.  Bob would be Pieman (for his love of all things pie, and a not inconsiderable skill at baking his own), Tim would be Hot Fudge (for a passion that revealed itself at the Creamery), Dana would be The Hammer (anyone who has ridden with her needs no explanation).  As for me?  Well, no one seemed interested in giving me a call sign (at least not then).  I tried out a couple (Jolly Roger–pretty obvious if you look up–and Bugcatcher–thanks to my awesome sunscreen) but they didn’t stick.  As Mary said, callsigns are something that are given to you; you can’t give them to yourself.  So maybe the rest of the team was just planning to refer to me as Dickhead or some such.

Clearly a Top Gun viewing is needed.

Na Sgoran fo cheo
The ride starts on the top of Wisp mountain; the morning brought dense mist that completely obscured the lake and made for an atmospheric drive up to the summit.  Close to the top we broke out through the cloud and from the ride start you could look down on a series of green peaks (I tried not to think how many of them we would be going over) jutting through a soft grey blanket.

Ride Start

On top of the World

There was plenty of time to contemplate the stupidity of what we were doing as we watched the certifiably insane Diabolical Double Metric Century riders head out.  And pose for pictures.

Start of Garrett County Gran Fondo

Hot Fudge and [Fill in the Blank] Await the arrival of Pieman and the Hammer

There would be a lot of moments during the day where I struggled to even form the initials “WTF?” in my exhausted brain.  But there were also a lot of moments where I found myself thinking, “Damn but I love this!” and the ride start was one of them.  A mass bike start on a narrow road is a thrilling thing; the adrenaline is pumping (which is of course what makes it so dangerous which of course is what produces the adrenaline in the first place).  But there is nothing quite like the sound of a mass of bikes shifting and clattering around you.

The ride gradually spaced itself out and soon we were plunging down through the mist: wet roads, tight turns, and lots of cyclists.  Most people seemed to know what they were doing, except for the group immediately in front of me that decided to brake abruptly on a sharp steep corner to check out someone with a mechanical on the side of the road (it turns out it was our teammate Seb, who got all of four miles before blowing out his back tire with such force that it–no exaggeration–took pieces of his carbon wheel with it); I was just thankful for a snappy handling bike.

The entire first section trended downhill but that didn’t meant there wasn’t a pretty nasty climb thrown in there, just something to give you a Holy Shit moment when you hadn’t had any chance to warm up yet.  I’d studied the profile, I knew that this thing that was already causing me to lose a lung less than ten miles into the ride was a bump on a log.  At that point I knew that it was going to be a very tough day.

This first section would have been stunning without the mist, but even with everything shrouded in mist I just loved it.  You would be hurtling along through a dimly glimpsed forest and then suddenly would burst out into a patch of sun bathing golden fields, red barns, like a Calendar photo.

The best part of the first section was that I set a new landspeed record.  There was one section where the road dropped away incredibly steeply and for once didn’t twist but stretched out into the distance as a clean, smooth, ribbon of grey.  I hunkered down over my bike, made myself as small and flat as possible, and let aerodynamics (and the extra ten pounds of Christmas that have really never left me this year) do their work.

You know you are going fast when the wind is roaring in your ears.

You know you are going really fast when the wind stops roaring and starts making a cracking noise in your ears.

I tell all my new cyclists not to look down at a moment like that, but I couldn’t resist sneaking a quick glance at my speed, hoping that it wouldn’t be the last thing I would see.  What I saw was 55mph.  When I looked at my Garmin afterwards I got up to 56.2.  When I loaded the ride into Strava later it gave me 57.3 (naturally I am going to take that one).  For all you folks on the bottom half of the world that is 92kph.  (My previous best had been 49.5 on the run into Keen on the Lake Placid Ironman course).

I think I’m done now.  I don’t expect to best that and am not sure I want to.  I felt perfectly fine, calm and in control at the time but, can I just say, Fuck that is fast!

SAGging with Style
Dana abandoned us pretty early, blowing past the first rest stop when we pulled in.  Maybe she was still pissed that she’d had no say in her callsign.  But that will teach her not to go to the Creamery before the race!

And so it went.  Up and down.  Down and up.  And up.  And up.  Much of it through truly spectacular scenery. . .what I could see of it at least, through the film of sweat.

A theme today was mechanical failures.  Not ours, for the most part, although Bob quite early on discovered that he couldn’t get into his smallest gear, a soul-crushing liability on a course like this.  Bob simply responded by crushing all the climbs in his next-to-lowest gear.  No, we spent a lot of the ride helping other people out.  Early on we came across a team-mate who had been shedding screws out of his cleats and Bob stopped to help him.  Then, just after the turn where the  metric century people split off I came across the two of them talking to another cyclist at the side of the road:

“What’s wrong?  Need help?”
“No, not unless you’ve got a chain tool. . .”
“Well, funny you should ask. . .”

A big shout out to Crank Brothers for making a nice multi-tool with a chain tool on it.  The woman had really torqued the chain, bending one side-plate substantially and damaging a couple of the nearby links.  She was pretty bummed because her husband had already had to drop out of the Diabolical Double after two flat tires in a row and now it seemed as if her day was done.  I’d put chains back together on the road before but it had been a while.  Twenty grease-covered minutes later, after I’d removed the damaged links and was trying to re-thread the links Tim, who was holding the bike looked down and said:

“Mark, that is an impressive tool.”
“Tim, if I had five bucks for every time I’ve heard that. . .”

Obviously with the chain now shorter she probably wouldn’t be able to use some of her larger gears but if there was ever a course where that wouldn’t be a problem then this was it.  And even if you seat the pin back very carefully the chain will still never be as strong as before, but I felt reasonably confident that it would at least get her to the next rest stop where she could hopefully get a replacement from the bike mechanic.  She made it just fine, turns out, and went on to finish the ride.  She thanked the three of us profusely at the time, at the next rest stop and was still thanking me when I met her and her husband at the finish line.  It is a useful skill to have since so many people assume that a broken chain is the end of their day.  It also helps to have an impressive tool, of course.

Later in the day, after I’d been comprehensively left behind by everyone after the longest climb of the day I caught up with Bob and Tim who were at their repair work again.  Another rider had snapped a spoke and Tim had got the broken spoke wrapped around its neighbor and secured with a bandaid.  Unfortunately, the guy was riding a tri-bike and the wheel was too warped for the narrow frame tolerances.  Fortunately the motorcycle SAG support rolled up just then.  Even though we couldn’t help get him back on the road, the guy still thanked us all for stopping to help him out.

All in all we certainly could have done this ride a lot faster.  But a Gran Fondo especially is not a race; it is supposed to be about many people sharing the joy of cycling.  So at the end of the day, the thing that made me happiest was that we’d helped other people keep their ride going.

What goes in must come out
Triathletes are renowned for being unusually (some would say unhealthily) concerned with bodily functions, and for discussing in public what most people would hesitate to talk about in the privacy of their own homes.  You have been warned.

The day was not overly hot; a perfect temperature in fact.  Which was just as well, because the climbs were hot work.  I just tried to keep the pedals turning, and got up all of the smaller ones in pretty good shape.  After MoM I swore that I wasn’t going to walk again, so I concentrated on pedaling slowly, trying to keep my HR down.  On the two steepest climbs, Bowman and Killer Miller, I pedaled until I could feel my HR beginning to peak, and then I pulled off to the side and took a short breather.  My HR seems to recover pretty quickly, and these pauses tended to be short.  But they enabled me to attack the climbs (by which I mean crawl onward slowly and painfully) with renewed energy, and I found that the people who climbed continuously around me typically didn’t beat me to the top by more than 50 metres.

There were times, however, on the long haul up Spring Lick hill where I was pretty much by myself.  On one occasion I was sure that it was starting to rain, until I looked down and I realized it was a steady stream of sweat splashing onto my cross bar and splattering over my legs.

I followed my same nutrition plan from MoM, pouring salt-sticks, double-strength Sustain, gels and of course water into myself like a crazy man.  I was taking the equivalent of at least an extra bottle of fluid at every stop and most of that evaporated as soon as it hit my insides (the rest-stops were the only downside at GF; the people were very friendly and the food range was adequate, but they lacked the variety and creativity of those at MoM: watermelon would have been great.  Pickles and juice would have been even better).

My fellow riders didn’t seem to be having any hydration problems.  Tim in particular left no bush unwatered along the ride course.  Occasionally I’d come across he and Bob contemplating some stunning view while ensuring that the previous night’s torrential downpour hadn’t missed a spot.

The Angriest Man in Maryland
The worst stretch was just prior to the fourth and final rest stop.  We hooked up with another teammate, Marti, at rest stop three, and then road a long descent followed by some paceline tempo riding for several miles.  Then there was the long climb.  Then rollers.  Then more rollers.  All of us began to feel the final rest stop was a myth.

After resting and rehydrating, however, we were only 15 miles from the finish.  A couple more short, nasty climbs lay in wait, but soon gave way to a beautiful flat stretch along the lake itself.  In the back of everyone’s mind was the fact that we had to get back up to the start line, and there was one final hill.  I began prepping for it a couple of miles out, dumping excess water from my bottles, tightening my shoes back up, etc.  It wasn’t as long as the final climb at MoM, but the first pitch was just as steep, and my legs were pretty torn up by that point.  Nevertheless, I set myself to work and tried to keep the pedaling slow but steady.

Soon we were within sight of the Team Z cheering station which was making enough noise to wake the dead; riding through it was deafening, way more so than even on the final MoM climb.  I could pick out individual voices–Mary’s, Alexis’s–but I couldn’t look at anyone because I was afraid that I would stop pedaling and fall off.  As a result, in the photo that Mary snapped of me I look like I’m angrily contemplating taking a chainsaw to my bike when it was all over.

On the Final Climb

“Honestly, I don’t want to kill anyone, I’m just concentrating!”

I was digging pretty deep to keep on going, but was thinking to myself that as soon as I got around the corner and out of sight of the team then I’d be able to stop for a breather.  That was when I was conscious of someone running up behind me, and the next thing I knew Julie (who I had ridden with at MoM) was screaming in my ear “Mark Mullen you are going to do this!  You are not getting off that bike, you hear me!”  Oh, the motivating power of shame!  I did ride it all the way up, and even had enough left for a bit of a sprint over the line.

Total time: 9:24:32
Total ride time: 7:32:52

The Reward for a Hard Day’s Work. . .
After a quick shower and grabbing some of the free finishing french fries (ah, alliteration) Marti, Bob, Tim, and I, together with Mary, all met up at the back of Bob’s car.  To celebrate the end of the ride, Bob had brought pie.  But because he is the Pieman he didn’t just bring one pie, or even two.  He brought four.  From two different bakeries.  That seemed about the right amount:

The Revenge of the Pieman

Finally, something not made by Hammer Nutrition!

This was a neat moment, being able to celebrate the end of a tough ride with the friends I’d ridden with all day, just by ourselves for a moment.  And the verdict? I liked the Strawberry and Rhubarb pie, but there seemed to be general agreement that the mixed berry pie with the lemon crust was the clear winner.

However, Bob had, it turned out, bought the pies for the entire team, so reluctantly, once the initial quality control was complete, we packed everything back into the cooler and drove back down the road to the Team Z cheering station.

. . .And the Start of More Hard Work. . .
The grill and the tent had been packed up by the time we got there, and most people seemed to have left.  However, there was still a good contingent of us there to help cheer the remaining riders up the hill.

Interestingly, I’d really had no conception of how steep the hill was, mainly because during the actual climbing of it I’d had my eyes fixed about two centimeters in front of my wheel.  Looking down the hill was terrifying, and it seemed like the height of lunacy to even attempt to ride up it.

So for the next several hours we did our best to encourage everyone, riders and walkers alike.  Coach Alexis in particular was amazing, running down the hill and then back up with the riders talking them up the incline.  For those who were walking we brought them water or salt if they needed it, or just a few words of sympathy and encouragement.  In the mix of Double riders and tail-end century finishers there was a mix of the strong, the wrecked and the utterly destroyed; sometimes it was hard to see if people were smiling or grimacing in pain.  What was cool was that when you gave people some encouragement you could literally see their pedal stroke get faster.  As people finished and then later drove back down the mountain many stopped to shout a few words of thanks out the window.

We got to see teammates who had been out on the double finish which was awesome.  In addition, it seemed that even off the bike I wasn’t relieved from mechanical duties.  One of our team, Austin, managed to get his chain jammed spectacularly between the chain ring and the frame.  He had been walking his way up, but Mary and I managed to lever the thing out without ripping the hell our of his chainstay and then Alexis got him on his way with a Tour de France style push.

. . .And then More Hard Work. . .
We stayed at our station until the second-to-last rider had gone by, then we packed up, drove up the hill, and helped the event team consolidate the aid stations.  Once we’d cheered the final rider in we helped pack down the stations, and the finish line, and transport all the equipment up to the Adventure Center buildings. They generously shared their beer and pizza with us, and then finally, it was time to leave the mountain.

This was a fabulous day.  I was pretty pleased with the ride time, and even the overall time given the amount of time we spent helping out others (and one long wait at a rest stop while Bob and a determined bike mechanic tried to regain his lost lower gear).  It was damn hard work, but the reward wasn’t just in the completion.  It was in sharing a tough day with friends and even more so, having helped to try and make the day a little easier for so many others.

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2 responses to “The Story of a Bike, a Man, and his Impressive Tool

  1. Selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself….that, and completing such an awesome day. Nice job!

  2. Excellent write up Mark, and a pleasure riding with you. One small correction, it was only every other bush.

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