Tuesday, September 24, 2013

When It Rains It Pours

The weather couldn't have been better and the sun was still shining.  So, I went for a ride.

It was an easy 22 mile loop, if I didn't take any detours.  It would take me just over an hour to finish and then I'd be home in time for dinner.

There aren't many things better than a quick evening ride to burn out the stress from the day.  I long for these days.  I plot all week long, hoping to find that one perfect day when the stars align, the weather cooperates and work doesn't drag on into the evening too late to make it worthwhile to head out on the road.  There's a sense of victory associated with the evening ride, as if I've pulled something off that the world has been trying to keep me from.

Last Thursday was one of those days and I was loving it.  There was a strong headwind on my way east, but I just reminded myself of the joyful tailwind it would give me on the way back home.  7 miles into the ride, I found myself staring out across the desert vista at a beautiful tower of dark clouds from which thick sheets of rain were pouring across the flat expanse.  Some trick in my mind told me the storm was moving away from me across the desert.  I didn't put it together that the headwind I was fighting might also be pushing the storm my way.  It was just too beautiful to think about, and I gazed at the contrasting billows of white towering thousands of feet into the blue sky under which raged a fierce rainstorm.  I thought to myself, that at moments like this I needed to bring a camera to capture and bring home these instants that passed along the road and were lost to time and memory only.

I wished the storm farewell and, three miles later, began the long curve that would turn and take me back towards home.  The promised tailwind pushed me along and I cruised into high gear, my wheels eating up the miles effortlessly.

The first drops to hit my arms came as a total surprise.  The sun was still beaming down from the west, it wasn't even quite to the mountain tops yet.  I looked off to the left and behind me and saw the storm cloud I had been admiring earlier, rearing above and curtains of water rushing towards me.  I still had over 6 miles to go before the safety and shelter of home.

I pedaled faster.

The first wave of the storm hit with large bullets of water, stinging my face, arms and head.  The drops were enormous and fell almost sideways until they crashed against the softer exposed flesh of my body.  I couldn't believe I wasn't bruising from their impact, they hit so hard.  The patter on my helmet was almost unbearable.  I made a right hand turn and the stinging rain slowly fell behind me.  I realized that I was in a race with the storm.

I pedaled faster.

My route home was a zigzag of left and right turns.  Whenever I turned right, I would be riding away from the storm cloud, and every time I turned left, the storm would be catching up to me.  Could I outrun the storm?

I pedaled faster.

Less than two miles from home I caught a stoplight.  I thought about sneaking through the cross walk, playing the part of the annoying inscrutable cyclist, but there were too many cars so I waited.  I hoped that I'd put enough distance between me and the worst of the deluge, that maybe there'd be just enough time to get to my house before I got caught in another burst of rain.  I was only a little damp as it was, and didn't think things were going to get too bad before I finished.

That's when I looked to my left and saw nothing.  There should have been a street leading half a mile to a track and gym, buildings and an entrance gate.  Instead, there was nothing.

50 meters down the road, the world ended in a turbulent swirl of gray nothing.  I watched appalled as two men jogging down the sidewalk towards the wall suddenly were blown almost to the ground.  They flailed helplessly as the storm engulfed them in a wall of white water.  Horrified, I could only watch as the gray nothingness began to devour the street, moving towards me.  I shook my head and stared at the stoplight, praying it would change.  I heard the driver in the car behind me swear loudly, then frantically roll his window shut.  I braced myself against the curb and waited for the inevitable barrage of water.  The sound was immense, a steady roaring in my ears as the monster neared.

Then it hit.  Like being caught in a wave crashing near shore, I was completely submerged in the swirling vortex of water.  I struggled to remain upright when the light changed and I soggily clipped into my pedals and took off.  Each pedal stroke was an effort in the suddenly flooded street.  Each buffet of wind nearly blew me off the road and sent me rolling into the mud.  Cars stuck behind me at the light cautiously creeped around me in the maelstrom.  I could barely make out their faces, aghast and staring at my plight.  Several times I considered pulling off, walking my bike into the lee side of a building, waiting out what might be the worst front edge of the storm.  But what if it didn't get better?  I had to get home.

A lifetime later, and a mile down the road, I again pedaled out of the storm.  I was dripping wet; my shoes felt like buckets of water attached to my legs.  I spun my heart out down the road, every ounce of energy combined with pure adrenaline and panic to propel me homeward.  I made the final turn onto my street and forewent the customary victory lap down the block, instead pulling into the driveway immediately.  The pavement here was still dry.  I coasted into the garage, dismounted and spun back to the open door just in time to see the whole world disappear into the mouth of the same monster I had just escaped.  10 seconds, maybe 15, and I would have been back in that mess of wind and water.

I closed the garage on the roar of the storm and turned towards the door leading to safety, warmth, and hopefully dinner.  I was shaking, whether from the cold and the water, or perhaps, because I'd left my dignity out on the road in a puddle somewhere.  Either way, I was home.

Some rides are more exciting than others, especially when you're least expecting it.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Old Man and Me

I met a character this morning during my training ride.

He came out of nowhere when I was at mile 32 of an 86 mile ride.  I was sure there was no one around when I took off for a second lap of my favorite hill run.  But just like that, he rolled up behind me at a stoplight and then pulled along side like magic.  Without a word we fell into line like we'd been riding together for years.  We took turns pulling along the rollers that parallel the mountain, each pulling about half a hill and downslope before switching off.  We moved along pretty fast, pumping up the hills and blasting down the other side.

He was hispanic, older, maybe 50-ish.  His skin was the color and texture of well worn leather.  His mustache was peppered with gray.  He was taught, no beer belly on this guy.  His kit was worn, peppered with snags in the fabric, not dirty, but used so many times it never really looked clean anymore.  He was sporting an older blue aluminum Motobecane that seemed tiny next to my 58cm frame.  (It's not a short Mexican joke, I just ride a really tall bike and he seemed really tiny next to me)

While I was puffing up the hills, he was lightly dancing out of his saddle, hardly breaking a sweat.  Maybe he'd been riding all morning, maybe he'd just left his house and pulled up beside me.  I didn't know and didn't ask.

The climb up Scenic Drive can be a pleasant, easy going jaunt.  That's when he started talking.

He asked me about my bike, about how long I'd been riding.  He been riding for 35 years, he told me.  He had his racing wheels on his bike.  We talked about our bikes, about riding and about climbing.  He laughed easily and never sounded out of breath, though we were climbing at a pretty demanding pace.  When we passed other riders, he seemed to know them all by name and he jovially called out to them in both English and Spanish, easily switching back and forth.

At the top he found more friends, and pulled off to talk with them.  And that was the last I saw of him.

I never got his name, part of me didn't really want to ask and spoil the mystery of riding with him.  Instead, he's the stranger that rode with me for 10 miles and helped make what should have been a long and tedious ride into something more.  He's not a real person now, he's a legendary character that I'll refer to in stories about riding, that I'll remember when I'm tired or bored.

He's the old man that let me ride with him for a piece down the road.

Oryx Challenged

A week ago Char and I completed the Oryx Challenge Bike Tour.

The Challenge you think you will face is not always what you think it will be.

I think this time I learned a little patience and more about what it means to be a part of a team.

The Oryx Challenge is an annual non-competitive bicycle ride in El Paso with a maximum route that covers almost a full 100km (62 miles).  I've ridden it for the past 2 years and this would be my third and final opportunity.

It was also the main event for which our little bicycle club had been training for over 3 months.  (That would be the "Imperial Bicycle Club", aka "Biking with the Brigade Commander", aka "I don't wanna do regular PT and I own a bike")

The Imperial Biking Team ready to go!
When I came back from the Death Ride in June, this was the next adventure in cycling.  It's what our group had been focused on during our multiple weekly rides.  We'd been cycling together, practising our pace lines and talking about nutrition on the bike trying to prepare ourselves for a 60 mile, out and back, scorcher of a ride.  Some of us were new to cycling, some were very experienced and some were right in the middle.

The Oryx Challenge course is one of my favorites.  There's not much room to get lost on the 100km route.  Ride off the installation, go east until you hit the turn around, then ride back to the start.  Sherriffs are stationed at every intersection to try and keep you alive, water and peanut butter await you on top of the hill that marks the turn around point, and even the climb up to the turn around really isn't that daunting if you've been in the mountains before.  It might be a Cat 4 climb near the top. 


Ok, so it's a 10 mile long climb to the turnaround point.

I had been doubtful at first when Char told me that she wanted to ride the whole 100km.  I wasn't sure she could really keep up with the group we'd put together.  But over three months of riding, she'd become quite the beast on a bike.  She could hold a paceline at 16mph in equal headwinds, pull her fair share on the flats and not cry about the hills, and had just completed a 62 mile ride the previous weekend without too much complaining. 

60 miles in and things got out of control.
Good enough for me.

But what we hadn't taken into account was just how much another decision was going to affect her ability to ride.

Yom Kippur is the Jewish holiday of atonement.  It involves a 24 hour period of fasting.  And it was the day before the Oryx Challenge this year.  We'd talked about skipping one of the two, for safety reasons, but Char was feeling strong and decided she would be fine if we made sure to plan good meals, get lots of rest and focus on our pre- and mid-ride nutrition. 

And I'm just insane enough to agree with her.

We gorged Friday evening, just prior to sunset.  Then we prepared what we thought was an extremely nutritious and sensible meal after sunset on Saturday.  Baked chicken, quinoa and a fresh veggie salad.  We did splurge on a brownie and ice cream dessert.  But then, you don't want to accidentally die one ice cream short, now do you?

Sunday morning I fixed a simple power breakfast.  Leftover rice and hamburger, scrambled with eggs and some fruit on the side.  We had our pre-ride snacks and drinks at the course.  When the "gun" went off, I felt pretty confident in our group's fortunes for the ride.

For the first 10 miles, we managed a solid 18mph pace.  It was a little tricky with all the wheel suckers trying to break into our pace group, but we managed to stick together enough to keep our newer riders sheltered on the lee side and out of traffic.

At about 15 miles in, the machine started to break down.  That's about where you notice the definite rise in grade as the hill draws near.  Then it's a solid 10 miles of climbing with about a 1,000 foot gain.

First off the back was Chelsey, next was Char.  I decided not to leave them behind to fend for themselves, afterall, this was a group effort and we'd spent too many hours working together not to finish together.  Joe, the ride leader, came back to check and I asked him to take the lead group and I'd stick back with these two. 

I will admit, it was painful to make that 10 mile climb at a fraction of the pace I could have.  I've really learned to enjoy the struggle and pain involved in a solid climb like that.  Watching the other riders, many that I recognized,  descending while we were still plugging along was both a little humbling and frustrating.

10 miles of straight climbing definitely took its toll on the whole group.
We stuck it out all the way to the turn around where I took a much needed latrine break and grabbed a snack.  The girls recharged and we headed back down the hill together.  There were two fun-sized riders coming into the turn around point as we pulled out.  There was nobody behind them.  In fact, there was nobody left coming up the hill.  That's when I realized how close to last place we were.  I know it wasn't a competitive event, but I still feel the competitive edge that drives me to try and push myself faster than the riders around me.  And this was a sharp lesson in humility for me.

On the return trip, at first we were flying, and I was a little worried about dropping them on the descent, but they stuck right on my wheel the whole time.  I was impressed with the time we were making together, but as soon as we hit a few spots with a slight gradient, or the headwind picked up, I felt Char falling off the back end again.  I tried to keep her tucked into my draft, to keep them both out of the wind and spinning comfortably.  It became obviously painful for them just to keep moving.  Even I was becoming weary, struggling to keep them both moving, to keep the three of us together enough to draft and save energy. 

After 4 hours of riding we crossed the finish line together.  By then the raffle prizes were all handed out, there was no beer to be found and most riders had already taken off.  But we were still together.  We finished the same way we'd started that morning and that was my most important lesson of the day.  That no matter how fast I want to go,  it's more rewarding to stay with my team.

I had to ask myself, what if I'd been the one struggling to keep up with the group?  Who would have come back to pull me along?  Although it was a lot slower than I'd wanted to ride that day, I was happier for staying with my teammates (especially 'cause I'm married to one) and seeing the whole ordeal overcome with them.

Next up is the Iron Soldier Sprint Triathlon followed the very next day by the 100 mile Chile Pepper Challenge.  This time I might be the one falling off the back.