Many people (including commentors on this blog) advise not to try new things when embarking on a long ride. This is good advice. New equipment may not perform the way you expect it to. New food may not agree with you as you had hoped. A lot can go wrong with new things and it is best not to try them out as you attempt something challenging. I thought about this as I put on my brand-new long sleeve compression shirt and loaded my brand new full finger gloves and my brand new sun glasses into the car. The thought also occurred to me as I loaded my three-week old bike, clipless pedals and shoes. I even pondered it as I drank Gatorade’s Prime drink mix for the first time, 15 minutes before the start of the ride.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The day started off well. Remarkably, I packed everything I wanted to bring, ate a light breakfast of toast and jam, loaded the bike on the rack and departed for Culpeper right on schedule. It was cold out and the sun was just beginning to rise. Light fog was burning off in the fields as I passed through Nokesville. It’s a 45 mile drive to Culpeper and I briefly thought this was a long way to drive in order to ride a bike. It then occurred to me that if 45 miles was a long distance to drive, how would one describe the 65 mile distance I was about to pedal. A sobering thought, that.
I arrived at the start point – a store named The Bike Stop – precisely on schedule. This was a bit unnerving because things were going too smoothly for me. I fully expected something to go wrong and preferred it to occur as soon as possible so I could get on with things. I did have a minor challenge during check-in when the volunteer briefly refused to wait on me because I have the same name as her ex-husband. It was all in good fun (I think) and she eventually gave me my T-Shirt, yellow wrist band, and cue card.
There were about 200 riders participating in the ride. By 8:20, most of them were filling the street in front of the bike shop, where a lady from the country rec department welcomed us, thanked the sponsors, and quickly raffled off some door prizes (none of which I won – darn!). At 8:30, a police motorcycle escort led the group out of town. As we started, I was presented with my first challenge: clipping into my pedals in a crowd. I slipped on the first attempt, but caused no harm to anybody. I quickly regrouped and was on my way on a sunny cold morning, with the temperature hovering around 50 degrees.
The pace heading out of town was pleasantly slow. Everyone was in a good mood, joking with each other and happily waving to the police officers who were blocking the intersections for us. I was polite to the police officers, but didn’t chat with many folks. I focused on getting a feel for the group and not slamming into anyone. At this point, things were kinda chaotic. Many fast riders were working their way up to the front while less experienced riders (even less experienced than me!) were weaving erratically and generally making things harder for the rest of us. After two miles, we were outside of town and things had mostly sorted themselves out. It was at this point that I met Jimmy.
Jimmy was a gregarious fellow who was cycling alone, talking up a storm to anybody who would listen to him. When I pedaled past him, we struck up a conversation that was to last the next 25 miles. Jimmy lives in Ashburn, where he is a network administrator for an IT company. For years he has been an ultra marathon runner and has participated in runs over 50 miles long. Jimmy took up cycling this Spring when his doctor informed him he had microtears in his hips that would eventually make it too painful to run anymore. He had never done a century before and was still debating whether to go on the 100 or 65 mile route. Apart from being a great guy, he had one interesting aspect: he absolutely refused to believe any of the data my Garmin GPS was providing. He was convinced that we were going much slower than the computer suggested. I eventually took to grossly exaggerating the read out to play into this paranoia. “Now it says we’re going 55 mph, Jimmy!” Jimmy seemed amused by all of this. We took turns drafting and pulling and even joined a small four person pace line. It was all very cool. You can definitely feel the difference – when I was in trail there were times when I was barely even pedaling.
The biggest event on this first leg occurred around Mile 12, when a woman strayed into the left lane and was almost rear ended by a pick up truck flying past our group. After that momentary scare, we reached Mile 15 and the first rest stop – the Rapidan Volunteer Fire Department. This being my first organized ride, I have no idea if this was a good setup or not. I can report that many of the riders were very pleased with the place, including ample supplies of cookies, PBJ sandwiches, trail mix, energy bars, water, sports drinks, and an on-site mechanic. The volunteers even went to the trouble of placing many of the snacks into zip-lock bags so the riders could put them in their jerseys and eat on the road. A nice little detail, I thought. I texted my wife and informed her I had lived to see Rest Stop #1. After refilling my water bottle, I was ready to head back out. Little did I know that I was three short miles from making a fool of myself.
The incident began innocently enough. A group of about ten riders were waiting to cross Highway 15. Jimmy and I were with them. Jimmy shouted, “Car left!” meaning to stop because there was a car (you guessed it) on the left. So I unclipped and stopped. Then Jimmy noticed the car had flashed its lights, so we all began to cross the road. Then another rider shouted “Car right!” So we all stopped again. Except this time I didn’t unclip. Oops. My weight was on my left pedal, which was at the downstroke position and the bike tilted to the left. I was going to fall and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
Shockingly, the fall was virtually painless. I tried to roll with the fall and avoided putting my left arm out to brace myself (an excellent way to break a wrist). I was pleasantly surprised to see my shoes come out of the clips, thereby avoiding a troublesome compound fracture, and I quickly regained my feet. Smiling, I walked my bike to the side of the road and checked it out. Only a few small scratches on the left pedal. That’s it.
Jimmy was good enough to wait for me. I quickly caught up with him and informed him that he witnessed my first-ever fall in clipless pedals. We both agreed this was a significant event and he probably owed me a beer. I told him that once I realized I was going down it was my goal to do it as gracefully as possible. Jimmy said that he didn’t see the fall, but suspected I was about as graceful as everyone else who has done the same (which is to say virtually everybody and not graceful at all). A few minutes after this exchange, two cyclists who had seen me crash caught up to us and asked if I was ok. After I told them I was fine, one guy said (and I am not making this up), “I got to tell you, that was the most graceful fall I have ever seen. You never stopped moving!”
At Mile 26, we came to the turn off point for the Century Ride. Jimmy decided he was going to go for it. I wished him well and was once again on my own. It was still quite chilly and I was very grateful for my new gloves and my compression shirt. Both were keeping me warm. I also was not feeling any ill effects from my pre-ride Gatorade drink. It appeared that I had drawn Aces on all three new items. The ride was becoming more hilly at this point. I was surprised at how hard some of the riders found these s0-so hills. I was passing several with little effort. Morale was high as I pulled into Rest Stop #2 – the Prince Michel Winery.
The fare at Prince Michel Winery was much the same as at Rapidan VFD. The volunteers were very nice and were eager to chat about the ride, where you’re from, or just about anything. I was a bit dismayed that sports drinks were only available in Dixie Cups. I thought it would be a tad rude to grab 20 of them and fill my water bottles. Instead, I drank four or five and kept one bottle full of water. I switched my caloric intake plan to bananas, cookies, and energy bars. After some stretching, I shoved off.
The rolling hills continued and I was still overtaking folks while the occasional cyclist passed me by. At Mile 35, I caught up with a rider sporting a Potomac Pedalers Touring Club jersey. I’d heard of this group and am an ocassional reader of their website. The rider told me he was, in fact, a member and we struck up a conversation about the club, other local bike clubs, organized rides, the better centuries in the area, and a whole bunch of Northern VA stuff. The man’s name was Sloan and he lives in Washington DC, working for the State Department as a lawyer. He rode a steel-framed Rivendell. About five miles down the road, I watched as Sloan almost died. Ok, that may be a bit of a stretch, but I DID watch him almost get hit while standing in the road by two cyclists traveling at well over 30 mph. Here’s how it happened:
Sloan had cleverly attached his cue card to his brake cables by means of a heavy-duty paper clip. During a steep descent, Sloan flew through a sharp right turn while a stupid minivan driver tried to pass him. I thought this is where Sloan was going to “buy the farm,” but he got out of that jam without incident – except that his cue card came undone and flew off his bike. Sloan didn’t realize this until I yelled this fact to him. He turned around and pedaled to that sharp right turn, where the cue card lay in the road. He dismounted and picked up his card. At precisely this point, two more cyclists flew into the turn and were surprised to see the shockingly-stationary Sloan in their paths. Both riders swerved, narrowly missing Sloan and threw a few choice words his way for their trouble.
Sloan was remarkably unperturbed by these events and we were quickly back on our way. In a few miles, we had arrived at Rest Stop #3, the Salem Fire Department. By now I had the drill down pretty well: dismount, take off the gloves/helmet/sunglasses, text the wife, wolf down some snacks, drink some sports drink, and stretch. As I went through this routine, I overheard some local riders learn that the route would take us over Drogheda Mountain. There were groans and much consternation at the prospect of this. They were no doubt referring to the large climb I had noticed during my highly scientific and detailed terrain analysis earlier in the week. I informed Sloan of this and we both agreed this was not a good sign.
Speaking of terrain analyses, it seems that almost nobody does this sort of thing. Almost none of the riders (including Jimmy, Sloan, and the people all around me) had any sense of where they were going. Most folks were perfectly happy to hop on their bikes and go. No doubt that’s because this was just one ride out of many for these people, but it still struck me as very odd. I guess it’s just the Army officer in me: I don’t go anywhere without a map and if I’m in an unfamiliar area, I will definitely take the time to orient myself using said map. This probably makes me an uptight anal-retentive cyclist, but there it is.
After five miles of mostly downhill riding, we came upon Drogheda Mountain Road. Any road named after a mountain couldn’t possibly be a good thing, in my opinion, and I was right. We did a little over a mile at a 13% grade, which will definitely take the starch out of your shorts. Again, I was pleased with my ability to climb the hill relative to the riders around me. Sloan faded back. I wasn’t about to leave my new-found friend on the side of a mountain, so I waited for him at the top. He closed up quickly and we set off to Brandy Station. On the way, we hit Mile 57, a spot of significance only to me as it marked the furthest I had ever cycled. I pulled out my camera and took a pic to commemorate the moment.
The final rest stop was at Mile 60, in the town of Brandy Station. In June 1863, the largest cavalry battle ever fought on American soil occurred here. I didn’t see any remnant of that battle. All I saw was AJ’s Deli and Rest Stop #4. It seemed odd to have a rest stop only five miles from the finish, but Sloan and I decided to partake anyway. Upon our departure, I told Sloan that I wanted to see how much I had left in the proverbial tank and I would therefore be leaving him behind. We agreed we’d meet up again at the finish.
So off I went, once again on my own. I had a lot of energy left and was ready to see how fast I could go the remaining five miles. I rode very hard, keeping my speed around 23 mph on the flats. I overtook about five riders, but I was quickly running out of steam. Still, I felt I would be in good shape at Mile 65.
Imagine my frustration when I hit Mile 65 and I still hadn’t reached Culpeper!
It seems the race organizers were just a tad off in their ride planning. As it turned out, the final length was 68 miles. No worries. I was able to gather myself for the final push. This was actually a positive event as the extra three miles put me over the 1,500 mile mark for the season. It was nice to be setting a single day ride while also breaking a signficant mileage mark at the same time.
The ride back to the Bike Stop was uneventful. People were slowly coming in all the time, so there were pockets of riders chatting in the parking lots and putting away their gear. I pulled up to my truck and set about putting my stuff away. The first order of business was changing my cycling shoes for some comfortable sneakers. After a few minutes, Sloan pedaled in. It turns out he parked only four spaces from me! He had pulled into the parking lot immediately behind me and remembered his bemusement at my New York Yankees and Buffalo Bills car magnets. We walked into the Bike Stop to let them know we had safely returned. We chatted a bit about our upcoming rides (mine is a 65-miler in Warrenton in two weeks and Sloan’s is the Sea Gull Century next weekend). I told Sloan I greatly enjoyed his company and then we shook hands and went our separate ways.
And that was that. I’ll write more about my impressions of the ride later, but suffice it to say it was a very nice day and it was all I could have hoped for. I had a nice ride, finished in good shape, learned a bit about group riding, and met some very nice folks along the way. I even have a couple good stories to add to my collection!