there can be only one

Not everyone has the time, sponsorships, or level of fitness to be a pro tour cyclist.  In fact, very few people do.  It takes a lot of dedication and desire to have a perma-farmer tan, miniscule upper body and the physique of a skeleton.  However, there are a few weekend/weekday warriors who elect to subject themselves to the rigors of a long, tour type ride.  You’ll find most of these people working side by side or cube by cube with you every day.  They look longingly out the window when it’s sunny with a light wind.  They look at every road to measure the width of the shoulder and calculate the % of grade.  You might catch them sneaking a peek at a cycling site or perhaps checking prices on new tires or rims.  The funny thing is, they are not the skeletal types.  Sure, they’re probably in reasonable shape, but even people over 200 pounds sometimes feel the desire to climb on a bike and ride those skinny wheels up and down hills over and over and over again. 

Every year, people like this descend on the ski village of Bristol, NY for their turn at one of five tours.  You can check out the site for full details on them, but in essence there is one option for the fat tire enthusiasts (mountain bikes) and four options for the skinny tires (or at least people who want to ride on the road even with not so skinny tires).  The plan is to find a few friends who are as crazy as you are, meet at a certain time, and head out on the journey.  The beauty of the tour style ride is a suggested start time (range of an hour) that will get you back within a reasonable amount of time (with reasonable being up for debate of course).  Our crew chose the Midlander this year.

I read on the site that in the past, the two hardest hills were set in the beginning of the tour when you were “fresh”.  This year they split them up so one was the very first hill and the other was the very last hill.  We left the start at roughly 0730 EDT heading south out of the main lot.  The “neutral” warm-up zone was a nice three miles of rollers before a hard right and the ascension of monster 1: Gannett Hill.  I had ridden this hill with my friend Bruce last summer on my first ride on the new road bike.  I recall stopping at least five times during the ascent.  Of course, that was around mile 40 of the day’s ride.  This was mile 3 and a nice steady tempo around 5 mph had our group up the 1.3 mile ascent in decent shape.  A slight mist combined with the cool temperature made the clothing choices rough.  Arm warmers were the best option for this ride since you can slide them up and down on your arms.  Of course, I don’t recall mine ever sliding down, by the time you heated up, you were heading back down a hill and would be freezing anyway. 

After cresting the first hill, a rather dicey downhill awaited us including some loose gravel, stones and a few curves.  We heard at the next rest stop that one person had crashed on the descent and separated their shoulder.  That is a heck of a way to start your day.  The coffee hadn’t even kicked in when we hit the next short rise on Porter road that laughed at us before sending us from pavement to stone over fresh oil.  Stone and oil is lousy to drive a car on and you have nice wide tires on a car.  Negotiating that stuff with a road bike is really no fun at all no matter if you’re going up or down.  We were going down on this stretch and the main plan was to not ride the breaks too hard since that risks blowing a tire.  Ah, the things you learn by listening to other people. 

Right around this time, it occurred to me that I had neglected to bring my Road ID tag.  This has my name, address, wife’s name and cell number and a note that I am allergic to Sulfa drugs listed on it.  I wear this (and many do) so that if I ever were to crash and couldn’t speak, it would relay the information.  Instead, I informed one of our group members of my sulfa drug allergy and asked him to remember that in the event of a crash. 

This tour took many turns, you can find the map here if you care to follow along.  I won’t give you a play by play on all of them, but I did write some notes following the ride.  One of which simply reads “merde!” in reference to French Hill Road.  I guess I didn’t like that one much either.  Our group was seven strong and would remain that way until the rest stop where our tour split with the Highlander (a full century – 100 miles) and we would lose two in that direction.  My notes on Corners  Road and Tabors Corner Road read “some sort of climb followed by a crap your pants descent”.  (Note: I did not actually crap my pants, for starters, I was not wearing pants, but even if I had, they would not have been crapped.)  This is where the top speed (for me) was achieved:  44.4 mph.  Yep, for me, that’s damn fast.  For others, no biggie.  In fact, I was losing ground on a few of my group members.  Those people are a little more comfortable with their bikes than I am.  Oh, and I had promised my wife and kids that I would come back in one piece, so there’s that. 

At the rest stop, we bid farewell to our two members heading off to add another 30 miles to their resume.  After refreshing water, Gatorade, PBJ, bananas, etc. it was back in the saddles for a nice ride along Canadice Lake.  The mist continued to fall which was annoying since it collected on our glasses.  Riding glasses are helpful for keeping the wind out of your eyes on those fast descents and stones from knocking out contact lenses, but they tend to get spotty when you are riding in the rain.  A right turn from the lake on Burch Hill  shows “lousy hills!” in my notes.  I wasn’t all that wordy after the ride.

In most cases, actually almost all cases, of hills, the order went like this:  Denise (our lone female member and by far the best rider in the group) could start from back, front, middle of the pack, it didn’t matter and then crank her way to the top without so much as a pause.  The next three were either Abe, Peter or the other guy (I’m trying to recall his name, in fact, I’m not even sure the other guy is Peter. I know Abe, Denise is his wife and I met the other two that morning.  By the end of the ride, I’m surprised I recalled my own name.)  I would crest the hill and either catch up with the others as they pedaled slowly or find them at the next rest stop. 

We turned off Burch Hill to Canadice Hill Road, a rather busy road, and were greeted by the Lowlander riders heading the opposite direction.  I’m not sure what mile they were in, but my assumption is they were well along in their tour.  We were halfway through ours.  At this point, it was a good time for a body check.  That’s where you run through the muscles and areas to check for pain.  When you’re riding, you go feet, ankles, calves, knees, quads, hammies, glutes, sits bone, back, shoulders, neck, arms, fingers…okay, that’s the order I take anyway.  My only real pain other than annoyance from the water on my glasses was my lower back.  That had been bothering me for months, but on this day, it actually didn’t feel too badly after the first hill.

Before you sigh and say, “only half way through? this post is going to take forever,” I’ll skip ahead.  The next number of miles included, according to my notes “I think these were some long, steep roads with lots of patches” along with “long hill and Denise gets a flat tire” followed by “Abe fixes another flat” since he stopped and helped another person.  See?  This is why you ride with people who know how to do things.  Two members of our group went ahead and I was told to try to catch them to let them know about the second flat which, according to my notes, led to a “solo climb and the phone rings”.  I wasn’t going to answer the phone until I got to the top.  The notes continue “a few short steeps” before the group comes together again at the next rest stop.  There was actually someone taking pictures at the top of the “solo climb and the phone rings” and I didn’t realize until I rode past him that he is someone I see nearly every day at our gym.  Of course, that doesn’t mean I know his name.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m horrible with names.  Faces, I get.  Names, not so much.

We’re just about 60 miles in at this point with around 12 to go.  The thing that hangs over everyone’s head is the final hill (Bopple), a short, incredibly steep climb with a cemetary at the top.  Before we hit that though, upon leaving the final rest stop (for us, there was one more, but no one stopped there in our group) we were greeted by Miller Hill.  This was yet another long chug where you just stayed in the saddle, dug your heels in and tried to find a cadence that would get you to the top without stopping.  Our group gradually strung into a long, long line with me playing the “lanterne  rouge” once again.  Some cruel person had painted “almost there” in the bike lane about 1/4 of the way up.  Suckers like me read that and figured, hey, no problem before turning a corner and realizing I wasn’t even close. 

The biggest issue with a hill like this is trying to judge your effort.  I don’t have a sophisticated bike computer that shows my heart rate and watts generated.  I just have to go with how I feel.  When you know you have one more challenge coming up, you don’t want to use up the remainder of your energy in a spot like this.  So it became a slow grind, climbing up that hill.  A left turn at the top had me cruising down hill for a while wondering if I’d catch up with my group.  As the road reached the Lake once again I started getting that feeling of dread knowing the final challenge was ahead.  I’d ridden this one before and struggled mightily actually stopping at least five times.  You learn how to click into your pedals pretty quick when you’re starting on an 18% grade.  I was determined to make it to the top without stopping this time.  After all, I’d had over one year in the saddle at this point and much better tactics. 

The hill looms as the road moves ahead, you have nowhere to go but up and some cruel person drove by in a car cruising right up it like they had horsepower or something.   Bopple has one forgiving quality.  There is a short, flat section right around the middle of the climb.  If you’re smart, or at this point exhausted, you will pedal nice and slow in your easiest gear to let your heart get back into your chest as you prepare for the right turn that takes you to the steepest part.  Names were painted on the road.  I started looking at those names for people in my group or that I knew just for a distraction (see this blog for a nice description and a few pictures).  At one point, I nearly stopped and decided I needed to start tacking.  I don’t know if that is the right term for cycling, it’s more of a sailing term.  I worked the hill diagonally.  Going across to the left then turning and going back to the right, back and forth, past a few others doing the same thing, past a few spectators shouting encouragement.  I could hear bagpipes.  I wasn’t sure if I was having an out of body experience or someone was playing a joke on me.  Then I looked at saw the top of the hill.  My four group members were at the top waiting and shouting for me.  To my right was a cemetary and in the cemetary a bag pipe player and bass drummer.  Classic.  You couldn’t ask for a better way to finish the climb. 

In the end, that was really it.  We had a few miles to go to get back to the ski resort and cruised along to the finish.  ACcording to my bike computer, 72.9 miles and 5 hours 39 minutes and 13 seconds of wheel time (the clock stops when the wheel stops).  That is a long time to be sitting on a saddle.

What did I learn?  I learned that riding with a group of great people can make 73 miles much easier.  I learned that you need to brake early when the roads are slick and not worry about catching up on a hill when it’s not a race.  I learned that chocolate chip cookies are great with Gatorade and bananas.  I learned that the post race buffet is still never as tasty as you think it is going to be.  I also learned that training and a little stubbornness can make you do things you didn’t think you could.  Next year, we’re doing the full 100+ and if I’m feeling really insane, the half marathon the next day.  Or maybe I’ll just enjoy a tasty beverage instead.

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