2012 Crystal Ride

Over 1,800 of us gathered in Crystal City Sunday morning to ride six 15 km laps around Northern Virginia.  As I waiting patiently in the starts corral, I was pretty sure a few things were about to happen:

  • It would be hot
  • The course would be fast
  • There would be at least one crash

Subsequent events would prove me to be right on all counts.

A portion of the 1,827 riders at the start

After a brief delay to ensure the police had the roads properly closed, the starting command was given and the Great Horde began to inch forward.  I was hoping to improve on my 17.9 mph average pace through better fitness, weighing less (I am about seven pounds lighter than this time last year), and carrying less (my wife had volunteered to act as my support team, keeping my food/water available for me on each lap).  Immediately, I knew my suspicions of a faster course to be accurate.  Gone were the pothole-stricken side roads and hairpin turns from last year’s event.  In their place was the wide-open Route 110 Highway to Arlington.  It was easy to find a paceline moving at 22 mph and latch on.

A second prediction came true very quickly as well.  At Mile 3.5, the peloton came to a dramatic halt as three cyclists wrecked.  With much shouting of warnings to trailing riders, catastrophe was averted (for us, at least, if not the riders who crashed) and we were able to slowly get past the incident.  Nobody appeared to be seriously injured, which is to say they were conscious and able to limp about with a fair amount of blood but no obvious bone fractures.  In short order, we were zipping along again toward the USAF Memorial on the very road that was closed to my wife and I during the unfortunate Bike DC SNAFU a month ago.  After climbing the hill to the Memorial, we flew back down and made our way into Crystal City for the completion of Lap 1.

Average pace: 19.9 mph.  WOW!

Life was good.  I was feeling fresh and there were plenty of pacelines to latch on to.  I was positively elated when I completed Lap 2 with an average pace of 20.0 mph.  Even faster!  I stopped briefly at the There And Back Again Cycling Team Resupply Point (my wife), got a new water bottle and some Clif Shot Blocks, and was off.

I was reminded of why I liked this event so much last year – even though it is a relatively short (56 mile) ride, it is conducted at breakneck speed and with chaos all around you.  It definitely has the feel of the chariot race scene in Ben Hur, although I did not see anyone with scythed wheels (something for me to consider for next year).  Bikes were breaking all over the place, their riders hurriedly performing tire changes or swearing at their derailleurs, broken chains, or other mechanical issues.  There were occasional crashes and rumors of crashes.  In addition to the accident at Mile 3.5, I saw a man being loaded onto a stretcher in Crystal City near the end of Lap 3.  He was bleeding profusely from his knee, leading me to believe he probably hit a patch of gravel on a turn and laid his bike down.  While I find great enjoyment on touring rides, there’s something to be said for an annual foray into the madcap world of criterium-style racing.

I dropped about a minute off my pace after Lap 3, giving me a slight cause for concern.  The field had spread out by this point, making finding a paceline increasingly difficult.  The sun was also climbing into the sky and it was  becoming quite hot.  My Garmin (which was once again loyally providing me data) informed me the temperature was 85 degrees and steadily rising.  I had brought more energy food and liquid than last year and hoped that would be the difference.

A rare photo of Yours Truly riding a bike, sadly without a paceline – a condition all too common for me after Lap 3.

At this point, let me share with you my official Gripe Of The Ride.  I’ve always got at least one thing to complain about, and here is this ride’s gripe: overjudicious use of the phrase, “On Your Left.”

Cyclists are expected to “ride right,” meaning they should stay as far to the right as possible (for readers in the UK, Australia, Japan, Fiji, and a few other places where automobiles are on the wrong side of the road, simply hold these instructions up to a mirror and they will make sense to you).  When attempting to pass another rider, a cyclist should check his blind spot and ensure nobody is coming before beginning the overtake.  Cyclists approaching from the rear should shout, “On your left” to let other riders know of their presence.

That’s the rule.  It’s a good rule.  You will note that nowhere in the rule is there a God-given right to scream at people who are in your way, just because you are going faster than them.  More than once, I was in the act of overtaking a cyclist when an even faster cyclist would catch up with me, whereupon he would scream, “ON YOUR LEFT!!!!” and attempt to shoot lasers at me out of his eyeballs.  I get it that he and his little group wanted to maintain their pace, but the road is sometimes crowded and things need a moment or two to sort themselves out.  Terribly sorry.  The pompous attitude was annoying and gave me thoughts as to how I might silence the perpetrators.  These thoughts weren’t helping me to do well in the race, or even keeping me out of prison, so I discarded them and focused on riding as fast as I could.

While staying to the right.  Except to pass.  After checking my blind spot.

End of gripe.

After Lap 4, I pulled over for my final resupply of shot blocks and another water bottle.  I noticed I had lost another 90 seconds over the previous lap.  My average pace had dropped to 18.9 mph and I could feel the onset of significant fatigue setting in.  The shot blocks were increasingly difficult to eat and the Gatorade was increasingly too sweet to drink.  I think a better combination at this point would have been plain old water with the shot blocks.  Live and learn.  Others were feeling worse than I.  I saw many riders walking their bike up the USAF Memorial hill and there was even one fellow laying on the ground, his buddy trying to massage some severe leg cramps.  I decided to save what little energy reserve I had left for the final lap.  I finished Lap 5 with a pace of 18.4 mph.  It was now over 90 degrees.


With the possibility of failing to best last year’s pace looming before me, I put the hammer down.  At this point, my “hammer” was quite small, something along the lines of what a jeweler might use in watch repair.  Still, it was all I had left and I used it as well as I could.  Then, a really bad thing happened – while climbing the stupid hill leading to the USAF Memorial for the final time, I cramped in my left hamstring.  This has never happened to me beforewhile riding, so it was quite an experience.

Now, a normal person probably would have gotten off his bike and tended to his condition.  But I was on that hill and there was NO WAY I was going to get off my bike on that climb and have people think I couldn’t make it to the top.  The shame would have been unbearable.  So, I massaged my own hamstring while continuing to climb as best I could.  It was an interesting sensation – feeling my muscle spasm while demanding it continue to crank my pedals.  I made it up the hill and enjoyed my final descent.

(By the way, thin guys, please think of us heavy guys on the descent and move your butts over so we can fly by you.  It’s the only time we truly have an advantage over you and we’d like to enjoy it. Thanks ever so much.)

I was well and truly gassed for the last three miles.  Any serious attempt to pedal hard brought on new spasms in the hamstring.  I did what I could as I slowly watched my average pace shrink before my eyes.  As I crossed the finish line, I grimaced at the result: 17.9 mph – the same as last year.

I hopped off my bike and joined the line of riders waiting to collect their medals.  There, I was greeted by my bride and crew chief of the There And Back Again Cycling Team, who gave me lots of praise and more fluids to drink.  Although I didn’t best my pace from last year, I didn’t do worse and that is something, at least.  I believe I just need to tweak my food and hydration strategies and possibly not go out quite so hard in the beginning.  Stay tuned – only 364 more days until I get to test those theories out at next year’s ride!

Sporting helmet hair and feeling a tad warm at the finish


37 thoughts on “2012 Crystal Ride

  1. Congratulations on avoiding the wrecks, not slugging obnoxious passers (ooh! That’s where the scythed tires would come in handy!), and matching last year’s time.

    (By the way, thin guys, please think of us heavy guys on the descent and move your butts over so we can fly by you. It’s the only time we truly have an advantage over you and we’d like to enjoy it. Thanks ever so much.)

    Preach it. I got stuck behind packs of clueless riders on the GW Parkway and Air Force Memorial descents during Bike DC and it nearly killed me to ride my brakes the entire way down.

    • There I was, flying downhill at 100 mph (or so it seemed), when some guy weighing 80 pounds dripping wet gets into a super cool aero-tuck and proceeds to eek out a few extra mphs, all the while forcing me to lock up my breaks behind him. I guess it’s just a light person’s sport, eh?

  2. What a great post, Steve. Laughing all the way through it…

    As for your average speed (which is 3 miles faster than mine would have been, probably)–have you worked it out yourself? That Garmin stops calculating it at the tenths and there are plenty more digits beyond that–I’ll bet you DID best your pace from last year.

    Hope the hamstring heals quickly! Congratulations for gutting it out.

    • I’m not going to split hundreds of a mile per hour, although now you have me thinking…

      The hammy is fine. I didn’t pull it our anything – just cramps.

  3. It was absolutely brutal out there. Absolutely phenomenal that you were able to finish while cramping at a great pace. I saw a bunch of the riders hooked up to IVs awaiting transport to the hospital. Thankfully, there were shady spots to watch the races or I might have had to join them. Did you stick around for that? There was an unbelievable crash on the final sprint — road rash down both sides of one of the Team Exergy riders. And the women weren’t allowed any bottle handups despite riding in the just about the hottest part of the day.

    I did see one guy in an army jersey, but he was clearly not handsome and, therefore, not you.

    • We didn’t stay for the race after ours. I was in no condition to hang around and my wife’s tolerance for cycling had been reached after four hours of watching me. The course was littered with people in various states of distress – usually involving their broken bike but sometimes their broken bodies. I’m sorry we didn’t link up. A shout out from you would have given me massive cool points with my wife as an uber-famous blogger!

      • I’m thinking we go with you being such an uber-famous blogger that I was too star-struck to approach you.

    • Excepting, of course, for Team Sky which has Gatorade as an official sponsor:

      “We strive to work with only best in class partners as we know it’s the marginal gains that they provide that help us to reach the podium. Gatorade is that partner when it comes to our team’s sports nutrition.” – David Brailsford, Team Principal – Sky Pro Cycling

      And Livestrong.Com:

      “Drinking Gatorade intermittently during periods of activity has been found to significantly increase endurance. In a study published in the April 2009 issue of “Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism,” researchers found that drinking Gatorade during prolonged cycling in the heat preserved leg muscles, which increased the endurance of cyclists. Cyclists who drank water to rehydrate did not experience this result.”

      And the British Cycling Team:

      “Gatorade’s expertise in sports hydration and nutrition will give our riders a competitive advantage.” – Ian Drake, chief executive of British Cycling.

      • And if you look in the bottles of the riders during the competitions – there is no Gatorade anywhere in sight. See, getting a company to give you sponsorship dollars does not require actual consumption of the product. There may be deals in place for them to drink from a Gatorade bottle on camera in certain situations, but I can safely bet my children that no Sky member is downing Gatorade during races.

        Also, those “studies” conducted are almost always funded by the parent company. Happens every day.

        Gatorade contains sugar – the bad kind of sugar. So bad, that they changed the name of it from high fructose to whatever the more technical name is in order to convince the public that it does not have bad sugar in it. But when you look up exactly what those fancy-named ingredients are in Gatorade – it’s sugar. The bad kind.

        I know first-hand from Jonathan Vaughters, Johan Bruyneel, Levi, Thor, Horner, Zabriskie, King, Carmichael, Armstrong, the list goes on — that no one is drinking Gatorade during competition.

        If it was a good thing, they would drink it. They don’t. Despite what the marketing folks say.

  4. Pingback: Tour dem Parks, Hon!! | porta-john

    • I can’t disagree, but what this means is we cannot consider the views of any professional cyclist, their teams, or anyone involved with their national teams – all of whom receive sponsorship dollars. This includes riders who DO NOT drink Gatorade, as they most likely are receiving a financial incentive to avoid the beverage and perhaps even say disparaging things about it. We certainly cannot trust the sports drink beverages themselves, so what does that leave us? Basically, we’re left with some studies conducted by medical researchers and even those could be corrupted by the studies’ source of funding. It’s pretty darn complicated, IMHO, and the true science is far from settled.

      • And just a point of fact – no one is being paid anything to disparage or not consume a product. There is a massive difference between what you read about in the media (and in press releases) and what actually goes on inside the teams. Massive.

        There is really no science involved. The product contains amounts of certain sugars that any team nutritionists know is not as effective for you in competition as other ingredients – not in those amounts. End of story.

        But we’re all recreational cyclists and can do whatever we want. My only point was – I would bet heavily that your issues during that ride would likely have been different had you not been putting so much of that type of sugar into your system. That’s all.

        And my other point was simply to not buy into anything you read/see/hear that involves money/marketing of any kind.

        The only way to know is talk to the team members themselves – in a non-public situation, and/or look in their bottles.

  5. The cramp bit had me laughing out loud only for the reason that you stayed on your bike and treated yourself were exactly the same reasons I stayed on my bike and treated myself! Must be a Squaddie thing. Oh, and I am SO calling you out on who drives on the wrong side of the road!!! 🙂

    • It’s probably a Squaddie/male/stupid thing! 🙂

      One of these days, I’ll research the history of how two peoples ended up driving on opposite sides of the road, and then the matter will be settled once and for all!

    • Thanks, Tuck. Believe it or not, I sometimes actually think about what I am going to write while I am riding. That line came to me at the start of Lap 6.

  6. Great race (& good humour in the recap 😆 ). Regardless, that was an amazing pace. I did a ride on the same day – it wasn’t even a race, but it was also very hot, reaching a high of 35 (95F) with humidity & also a bad crash. A girl dropped her water bottle in the peloton & decided to stop & pick it up. The whole group had to swerve around her except for 1 guy who didn’t. Blood all over from what I heard!!

    • Thanks, Cherry. I have heard it said that where more than one cyclist gathers, there is a race on, and it certainly sounds like that was the case in your ride. It also sounds like someone unfamiliar with the nature of group rides paid a high price for learning a lesson. I hope she’s ok.

  7. Steve,
    I started reading your blog last week in preparation for the Crystal Ride (mainly because I was starting to get nervous and didn’t know what to expect). The insight you provide about your own experiences in the ride helped me BIGTIME. The ride is a great event even though it’s a little intimidating when you see the 1800 people in line. I ended up only doing two laps in 1:56, but I reached all of my goals:
    1. Clipping in and getting out of the starting line without falling and embarrassing myself or my family family
    2. Avoiding major mishaps such as crashing, blowing a tire, etc…(my chain came off on the second lap, but it was an easy fix)
    3. Not slowing anybody down
    4. Climbing the MASSIVE hill at the Air Force memorial

    Your blog is great for us newbies and is very much appreciated. Congrats on your gold medal and major props for gutting it out and climbing that hill with the pulled hammy.

    • Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words. That’s a heckuva event to cut your teeth on – well done! Keep up the cycling and you’ll soon find yourself looking for hills that make the USAF Memorial look like a speed bump.

  8. I think the high spot is the helmet hair.

    I think from my own slight experience that perhaps you might think of how they run the marathon these days with the second half faster than the first half or negative splits as they call it. If you did the first half at last year’s speed, you would have plenty left for the second half. Mind you, finding a train to jump on going at the right speed is a matter of luck.

    I really enjoyed your writing. Keeping composing while you pedal.

    • You recommended something similar after last year’s race and I must say it seems to be a very sound course despite my failure to follow it. You allude to the only concern I have – in cycling, drafting is much more important than in running and it is therefore necessary to stay with the fast groups to the greatest extent possible. The good news is that this is a criterium-style ride consisting of a series of laps. Therefore, it is theoretically possible to catch a fast paceline in the later half of the race as they lap me. If I am better rested, I might just be able to hang onto to them. It’s definitely worth a shot.

  9. Well done, Steve. The truth about average speed is probably more like you need to find a good little peloton and hope they stay together for long enough to get the speed up. I’ve found that the group is everything and it’s even possible that speed means very little in these types of events (because you can draft or not). I find comparing myself to others, either overall or in my age group, to be a better gauge…as long as i compare favorable of course!

    Looking forward to next year’s race!

    • Good advice, Gerry. I was thinking of you as I climbed the USAF Memorial Hill. I would have been embarrassed to have you next to me, asking things like, “So, when does the hill start?” It definitely wasn’t Alpe d’Huez.

      • All things are relative. One of the guys I’m doing the first Etape with this year is a 64kg stick with a 7.1kg bike. It almost seems like gravity works backwards for him, and I hate him for it…You’re looking trim, by the way. Keep it up!

  10. Remember, if you maintain the same stats as former years, it really means you are getting faster and more consistent……….because the ‘anno domini’ will never be in your favour. As you get older, the effect is just like a gently increasing headwind!

  11. The army used to get hardship pay if they were posted in DC (ouch, don’t ask me to document that, but it’s something I learned as true) and YOU RACE A BIKE IN THAT WEATHER!! I was watching your area weather forecast and remembering the heat and humidity.

    Great report, great ride … big big congratulations!

    • They still do, although it’s called a supplement to the housing allowance to offset the cost of living here. Thanks for the compliments. I’ve ridden in hotter weather, but I don’t think I am acclimatized to it yet this summer!

  12. Interesting write up…found this trying to find photo albums of the ride. I did the ride, I got 6 laps in, average moving pace was 19.3 mph for me. Slowest lap was 18.9, fastest was 20.2mph. I had a flat in Rossylin on my 2nd lap after going through some glass. I would sit on a paceline in the headwind towards Rossyln, and invariably lead a paceline on the way to the Memorial and then back to Crystal City. I started cramping on lap 4 and then realized I hadn’t been drinking enough, so started to drink a lot more water and things were good.

    The guy on the Penny-Farthing was awesome, as well as the families on tandems and three-doms.

    • Photos don’t seem to be posted yet – there’s a dead link on the ride’s website for this year’s photos. I vaguely remember it taking them a long time to post photos last year as well.

      19.3 mph is outstanding. Congratulations! I do the vast majority of my cycling solo, so I need to be more assertive in seeking out (and staying in) pacelines. My wife saw the Penny-Farthing rider dismount after finishing three laps. She said he was in rough shape. When I passed him, I gave him a shout of encouragement and he responded with a friendly honk of his horn. Awesome effort, there.

  13. No photos to be had this year. The sponsors were unable to get an official photographer this year (which is strange because we received a flyer during registration and there was a link after the race, albeit a dead one). Kind of disappointing, as I hope to have some proof pictures of my very first organized ride.

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