A few people have asked me some variant of this question, “Now that you’re done with tri season for the year how are you keeping?” I tell them that I love this time of the year because I can do whatever I want now that I’m free of the training plan. What they have a little harder time understanding is that I’ve been spending so much time in the saddle. But it’s all guilt-free. Want to ride 100 miles one day and 75 hilly more miles the next? Sure! It’s not going to mess up my focused training, since I’m not doing any. Plus it was fun! And that’s what this time of year is all about.
Robyn, my college classmate and fellow triathlete (easily) talked me into riding a metric century (100 kilometers, or 62 miles) with her and some of her peeps a couple of weekends ago.
It was dark when I left the house around 6AM, and it never really got brighter on my half-hour drive to the start of the ride. In fact, I drove through light rain for most of the trip. My bike had just returned from Tahoe, and I was glad I remembered to put the blinking lights on it before leaving home. I was also glad to have grabbed my heavier, waterproof jacket.
The first hour of the ride was pretty soggy, alternating between a warm drizzle and a heavy downpour. Eventually, the sun came out and dried up all the rain—but not before I approached an unexpectedly tight corner too fast and went across someone’s front lawn rather than trying to see if my tires would hold in the rain. Lesson learned.
The ride was fun. Robyn and I had roughly the same time at the Mass State Olympic-distance triathlon in July (which evidently I forgot to write about) so we rode together off the front of our little group for most of the day. I think I convinced her to ride in Burlington, Vermont, next year. (You can join us, too!) The 65 miles passed very quickly . . . except when we were reviewing the cue sheet after making the wrong turn which added three “bonus” miles to our ride. At the end, Robyn invited me to ride a century with her the next Saturday.
On ride #1 we followed the yellow arrows on the pavement marking our route, but we saw a bunch of “N”s with arrows for a good portion of the course. On ride #2 Robyn, Matt, Katrina, and Kate followed each “N” from Sudbury, Mass., to Hollis, New Hampshire, and back via Stow, Harvard, Littleton, Ayer, Groton, Pepperell, Dustable, Westford, Carlisle, Acton, Concord, and Lincoln. With the exception of the previous weekend, this was new riding territory to me. But it shur was purdy. The New England leaves have started their annual fireworks show. It’s also the height of apple- and pumpkin-picking season, and the wild grapevines are laden with deliciously smelly fruit. Unlike the previous weekend, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. As we rode through small towns and farm country, I felt like we were rolling through a postcard.
Although we were following the NVP’s route, we were a couple of weeks late to the organized ride. So it was just us. Our group of five would spread out into little clumps for most of the ride, stretching out on the flats, breaking apart on the climbs (yay, real hills!), and regrouping at turns and stop signs. We were all pretty strong riders, but it was on this ride that I was reminded others don’t like the hills as much as I do. Matt had arranged with some coworkers who lived ride on the route to let us use their house as impromptu rest stops. At one we used the water spigot on the outside of the house, and at the other we refilled our bottles and ate snacks Matt’s wife had dropped off earlier in the day. It was a great, easy-feeling hundred miles!
Hills are my friends. From my earliest days of teenage riding, I haven’t been bothered by them. People have called me “stoic” before—including a Russian student at Grinnell!—and this basically described my feelings toward hills for a long time. They were just part of the ride, not an obstacle in getting to my final destination. At the same time, I idolized the mountain climbers of the Tour de France. Those guys suffered and succeeded, and there was no doubt how difficult it was. I wanted to be like them.
Over time my attitude towards climbing has changed a little. I’ve discovered that hills and mountains treat me well, so I seek them out. It’s wrong to say that I find them easy. Pushing 160 pounds of bike and rider against the force of gravity for minutes upon end is never easy, but my mind is wired to seek the top of a hill and enjoy the process of getting there. It’s difficult, but I need that feeling of suffering for a ride to be truly complete. There’s something redemptive and transcendent about being able to shut off the part of your brain that says “No!” or “Why?” and just doing what needs to be done. Moreover, I take no small measure of pride in being able to do it well, which of course motivates me to try to do it even better, regardless of the difficulty.
I had this realization as I was pedaling up the last big climb of the day outside Hartland, Connecticut . . . for the second time.
Four other JDRF riders and I had rolled out of Windsor Locks, just north of Hartford, a few hours earlier on the morning after my century ride. All of them had done the Ride to Cure Diabetes in Burlington earlier in the summer. Steve and Erin, who rode with me around Lake Tahoe, were getting ready for Death Valley in a couple weeks. We chatted on the flat sections of rural road and when we stopped for breaks, but early into the big climb I had ridden well off the front.
Here’s what you should know about me: I am not a patient person when it comes to the bike. Waiting for a ride to start? Don’t like it. Waiting at stoplights? Don’t like it. Anytime I’m kitted up and not turning the pedals? Don’t like it. Not pushing a hard gear when I’m turning the pedals? Don’t like it (usually).
Don’t get me wrong. I like talking with people as we ride down the road, and I like hanging out before and after the ride. Plus, I don’t go into any ride intending to be first or to embarrass anyone. Furthermore, if I know that the ride is going to be a casual affair, I can get into the right mental space and enjoy the experience. On those outings, it’s just the appropriate thing to do: Look around, take pictures, socialize, relax every hour or so, eat pie, etc. Occasionally, I’ll let the bike run, but those are short and atypical.
But when I want to ride, I want to ride . . . especially when there are hills involved.
Which brings me to my dilemma and why I was riding my bike up the 2.4 mile-long hill for the second time after summitting it once, turning around to descend it, and then starting over at the bottom.
I had found myself unintentionally riding off the front all day whenever I came to a hill. One the first big climb of the day, I put myself into the easiest gear I had and hung out, keeping everybody with me. The back half of the ride was full of hills, though, and I found this strategy to be both unsatisfying and ineffective; despite my best efforts I was riding away from my group. As I was going up one particularly long climb, I realized that this would be a perfect road to chat with Erin about triathlon (since she had questions). When I got to the top, I turned around to catch her again on the uphill, and we talked for a while. She’s a very good rider, by the way, and we hung together for the majority of the rest of the day. This strategy seemed to work out pretty well: Hang with the group for most of the ride just enjoying the scenery and the company (as I did on ride #2) and then accept that the hills are my strength and indulge them.
All of that climbing meant some really wonderful descending. There was the big sweeping descent into New Hartford. Then the fast downhill to the start of the 2.4 mile climb. And of course, the 2.4 mile hill itself. The best was yet to come though. After the last big climb, we turned onto Mountain Road. With a name like that, I knew it was going to be steep. We went down one long stretch, with Steve the Coach blowing past me like a rocket. After that, I was checking the cue sheet to make sure I didn’t miss a turn, when I saw the “12% Grade” sign. I quickly put the sheet back into my pocket and prepared for the excitement.
The road was recently paved and beautifully smooth. There were no cracks or debris on the road whatsoever. Best of all, it had great sight lines. I quickly ran out of gears, got into a tuck, and hit 50 mph (80 km/h)! It was the best.
Do I ever love riding a bike!