This one did not go easily for me.
I arrived at the Reston Town Center without event and picked up my cue sheets. There was no line at the registration tent, which was nice, but it was also an indication of how few people were leaving at 7:00 AM. This was a “rolling start,” meaning people could leave as early as 6:30 and as late as 9:00. Generally, people riding the century would start earlier and those riding shorter routes would head out later in the morning.
On its surface, this is a very convenient way to start a ride. There are no lines, no “crush of humanity,” and people can start as they deem best for them. It also means the field is dramatically spread out, which means pace lines are unlikely to form. In my first century last May, I was in a paceline for much of the first 50 miles. I was about to find out how painful it would be to ride 106 miles on my own.
In short, it was very painful.
I didn’t see another rider for the first 2.2 miles. I eventually happened across a small group, all riding casually. I closed with these folks and mingled amongst them for a bit. It was here that I picked up a “friend,” who decided to sit on my rear wheel without so much as a “Good morning,” for the next seven miles. He was riding a hybrid with flat pedals and was wearing gym shorts, so I took pity on him and let him pedal away in my wake. While I was willing to put up with this cycling faux pas for a while, after seven miles he was still sitting there and I began to feel like a potential stalking victim. There was a rest stop at Mile 10 and ordinarily I wouldn’t have bothered to pull in after such a short distance, but it was an opportunity to lose my leech and ingest some calories – a strategy which I had decided would be important.
The next 20 miles were a leisurely ride around the city of Leesburg. I met a man who had just completed RAGBRAI for the sixth time and he regaled me with stories of that epic event, where 20,000 riders descend on small Iowa towns as they spend a week traversing the state. We stopped to render assistance to a rider who flatted and couldn’t figure out how to make her pump work for her presta valve system. For a moment, I was concerned I would have to give up my one and only CO2 cartridge in the name of chivalry when my RAGBRAI friend got the pump working properly.
A few miles down the road, I met a lady who was cycling the 60-mile route with her teenage son. Amazingly, they TOO had just completed RAGBRAI. I guess I should get myself out there. It seems to be the thing to do. I also met a fireman who was laboring under a rather significant set of muscles and some people with neat jerseys, like the one pictured below.
After a brief spin through Old Town Leesburg, we traveled over some significant hills, including a nasty haul up Woodburn Road, known by the locals as “Thigh Burn Hill.” At 15% grade for half a mile, it was an apt description. The hills took their toll and when I rolled into the next rest stop at Mile 30, I was mildly concerned at my level of fatigue. I was nowhere near spent, but I shouldn’t have been this tired so soon. The rest stop was very well supplied and I helped myself to several orange slices and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I refilled my bottles and set off on a 30-mile loop that would eventually take me right back to the rest stop at Hamilton.
At this point, the early morning haze was burning off and the sun was shining brightly. It was warming up quickly. The country roads were great to ride on and I was once again traveling in a very loose knit group of five or six people. Imagine my dismay when all of them broke off when we arrived at the turning point for the shorter 60-mile ride. We weren’t exactly drafting one another, but it seems rather silly to sign up for a large group ride and not actually ride with other people. I do that every weekend from my own driveway. There was no need for me to pay a registration fee and drive 40 miles at 6:00 AM for the experience. Still, the scenery was nice and afforded pleasant views of the Blue Ridge, the gateway to the Shenandoah Valley. I pedaled along and watched my GPS thermometer climb to 91 degrees.
This is when I met Carol, who saw me pedaling on my own in the distance and sped up to catch me. Carol came down from Maryland for the ride and found herself alone like me. She’s hoping to do a century in Moab, Utah, later this year which features a large climb known as “The Big Nasty.” I have since learned that this hill features 3,000 feet of climbing in seven miles at sustained grades of 19%. Yikes. I found that to be interesting, since Carol (by her own admission) is not very good at climbing hills. Climbing mountains in Utah – which is thousands of feet above sea level on its flat lands – can be quite arduous. She’s already done a century at Lake Tahoe and seemed to be quite experienced, so I guess she knows what she’s doing.
I must have been looking a little ragged, because Carol became very interested in what nutritional supplements I was using in my drinks. When I told her it was just Gatorade, she suggested I try one of her Nuun tablets, which supposedly offer all the key vitamins, minerals, narcotics, or whatever that you can’t find in Gatorade. I happily took a tablet from a total stranger and dropped it into my water bottle, where it fizzed like Alka Seltzer. Alka Seltzer is good for you, so this must be as well, right?
I can happily report that I suffered no ill effects from the tablets (Carol eventually forced a second one on me at the Mile 50 rest stop). They may have even helped me as I seemed to get a fresh bit of energy around this time. This could also be attributed to the friendly company of another rider or the rest stop at Mile 50. In any event, I did not become worse off and there is a lot to be said for that.
Loyal readers will recall that it was at Mile 50 when I expected to encounter two Category 5 climbs after leaving the town of Lovettsville. I pedaled onward with a sense of excitement and foreboding, knowing that at any moment I would hit the first climb. Sadly, MapMyRide let me down again. Rather than two somewhat significant ascents, I was greeted with ten miles of multiple smaller climbs, each one at about 12% for a third of a mile. These were taxing but not nearly as eventful as I had hoped. Still, the cumulative effect of these climbs were beginning to stress me and altitude totals were building up. As I rolled back into the Hamilton rest stop, I had climbed over 3,000 feet in 63 miles. The sun was blazing. I was beat and in trouble.
I took an extended break. After eating another PB&J, a banana, and restocking my bottles, I felt a little better and was off again. My next task was to complete a 20 mile “South Loop” which would deposit me once again back at the Hamilton rest area. While turning onto Silcott Springs Road (west of Purcellville), I noticed very dark clouds approaching from the west. This was not good.
Not good at all.
Four miles later, I was engulfed in a thunder storm of biblical proportions. The rain was incredibly hard – almost like hail – and it was coming down in torrents. Lightning (some of it close) streaked across the sky and thunder (some of it loud) boomed over the valley. I began to contemplate my mortality and looked for shelter.
There was absolutely no shelter. No country store, no barn, nothing. So I did the one thing that every five year old is told not to do in a thunder storm. I stood under a tree. A few minutes later, two cyclists joined me. We all agreed this was not the brightest of ideas, but we had no idea what else we could do. Riding was too dangerous. We could barely see where we were going and therefore there was no chance a passing car would see us. I waited about 10 minutes and the storm abated somewhat. My fellow lightning poles-in-waiting were still eating a snack so I pressed ahead without them.
Let me just say that it was physically impossible to be more wet than I was. If I was pedaling underwater, I wouldn’t be more wet. As I looked down, I could see small streams running off my arms and helmet. Little gushers would erupt out of each shoe on my downstroke. The temperature had dropped 25 degrees in about 30 minutes. I was now freezing cold, especially in my feet.
I had 30 miles to go.
For me, this was no longer a pleasant bicycle ride – an attempt to test myself and perhaps reach some sort of personal best. This was now a matter of survival. I needed to somehow stay ahead of another line of thunder storms that I could hear approaching from my rear while not getting hypothermia or getting hit by a passing motorist in the poor conditions. In 30 miles, I could find my truck, some dry clothes, and some heat. That was my goal.
I believe it is now necessary to discuss the indelicate subject of chafing. If one soaks oneself in water and then executes a repetitive motion, the clothes one is wearing (no matter how form-fitting) will wear on the skin. This will result in chafing. If one does this for the better part of three hours, there will be dramatic amounts of chafing – trust me.
Cyclists have discovered this condition long before I did and thus the invention of chamois cream, which can lubricate key areas. Often with witty names such as “Nubutt” and “DZnuts,” many cyclists swear by this stuff. I have never had a use for it and always considered myself some sort of blessed soul who was somehow immune to the condition of chafing while on a bicycle. At 2:30 PM on Sunday, I decided that was no longer the case and that all I wanted for Christmas was a 50 gallon drum of chamois cream.
Onward I pedaled. Alone. I believe many people had abandoned the course at this point. As I approached Hamilton for the third time (Mile 83), I saw some folks leaving the rest stop. With the storm fast on my heels, I skipped the rest area and pressed on with them. I was completely spent at this point and this group of four soon dropped me on a moderate hill.
Pedaling around Leesburg’s southern side, I came across a glorious stretch of road that was essentially a five-mile long descent. Manna from heaven is what it was. I was able to get the Trek up to 25+ mph, outrun the storm (which was still drizzling on me) and build up some energy. At the bottom of the descent I jumped on the W&OD Trail and began the gentle climb back to Reston. By the time I reached the final rest stop (Mile 96), the sun was out. The volunteers could see I had been through some sort of travail, but I don’t think they quite believed my descriptions of the storm. No worries. They had free food and Gatorade and for that I was grateful.
I cruised the final ten miles and eventually made it back to the Reston Town Center, where a somewhat sedate party was underway. I was greeted by a cyclist who said in a surprised voice, “Are you just getting in?” When I told her that I was, in fact, just arriving, she said “Oh, I guess you stopped to get out of the rain.” That was apparently the only explanation for my late arrival. I shook my head, told her that I did not break for the rain, and that there were a great many people still behind me. She seemed confused by this information. She awkwardly smiled and said, “Well, welcome back!” Hooray.
There was some tossed salad and pasta salad, which I didn’t care for. There was free ice cream and soda, which was delightful. I wandered into a tourist information center which doubled as the ride headquarters, filled out a short survey, grabbed my T-Shirt, and headed to the car. It was time to go home.
Thus concluded the Reston Century. I did this 106-mile ride (4,300 feet of climbing, no pacelines, baking heat, and a near-death thunderstorm) in 8.5 hours. By way of comparison, I knocked out the 101-mile Cap-2-Cap Century (1,600 feet of climbing with extensive pacelines and ideal weather) in 6.5 hours. It was not my greatest moment, but I still am pleased that I persevered. I also learned a great many things, from the potential fun of RAGBRAI to the criticality of chamois cream. It was just about all I could handle on this day and I look forward to some more sedate pedals around my neighborhood!