Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Grande Finale

I have good months, and then I have bad months.

October was a bad month for cycling, at least, in so far as I didn't get to very often.  Also, note the complete lack of posts for the entire month.  Let's just say that, well, work has not been kind.

The final event of the year for cycling was this last weekend.  The Tour de Tolerance (look it up on Facebook) was the first organized ride that Charla and I rode together three years ago.  We had purchased our first road bikes the year before and I had knocked out a couple 60 milers with some friends the summer before.  Since then, no dice.  I was on an extended vacation in the desert last year and missed out, while Charla was having a blast on her own.

After noodling my way through the 60 mile Oryx Challenge and then crushing the 100 mile Chili Pepper Challenge I was eager to see just how fast I could ride a 100 km.  This year's Tour de Tolerance would be my litmus test for all the cycling I've done since coming home in the spring.

The morning was crisp, almost frigid, but promised to warm up with the sun rising.  The dreaded wind from the east hadn't appeared yet (nor would it the remainer of the day).  I'd thown on my Death Ride kit, wanting to sport something unique for the last ride of the year.  The course was a rolling 10 miles to a single climb out of the Rio Grande Valley up to the mesa, then 16 miles out along a straight stretch of smooth pavement to the turnaround.  16 miles back, drop down the long hill, and cruise to the finish line.  Too easy.

I slid into the front half of the pack at the starting line hoping that I could find a group fast enough to challenge me, and not so slow that I felt like I was cheating myself.  What I ended up with was a group that would push my body well past my worst nightmares.

When the horn sounded the entire peloton took off and stuck together for the first 5 miles at a light 18-20 mph.  I was frustrated.  I thought we should be moving much faster at this point, but I held my line and my pace waiting for someone to start pushing away from the group. 

And push they did.

Just before the climb someone midway in the pack must have been sleeping, because about 15 riders suddenly surged away from us.  I realized it was too late to make the jump with them, I was too far inside the second half.  Coming around the turn that leads into the climb up to the mesa, I found myself riding away from my pack with ease.  I started thinking about what it would take to make the rest of the jump to the lead group.  Once I crested, though, I saw just how fast they were pulling away and realized I was going to need some help.  Soon enough, I was tag teaming with another rider and we tried for a solid mile to cover the distance but were steadily falling away from them.  I glanced at my heart rate monitor once to see that I was redlining against my maximum heart rate.  Just as I was thinking that there was no way to keep up this pace, a train of orange kits cruised along side and I jumped into their draft just as the last rider passed.

For the next 40 miles we worked together, never gaining on the lead group, but making good time anyways.  The pace setter would cruise comfortably at 23-24 mph, then suddenly surge up to 27 mph, leaving me behind so I had to fight to catch up.  We hit the turnaround point, slowing almost to a stop to make the tight u-turn in the middle of the closed highway, then someone stepped on the accelerator for the return trip.  They continued to surge randomly, throwing me off the back end, forcing me to scramble back into their draft.  I pulled twice, but otherwise struggled just to stay with them.  Every single time they dropped me was a heartwrenching, gut-churning moment.  I pushed so hard to catch back up that I thought I might pass out.  Each time I was sure that I wouldn't be able to catch them.  And when I did catch up, it was a struggle just to keep in their draft.  I was afraid of taking a drink of water, or grabbing a gel, afraid I would miss another surge and be left alone.  The last thing I wanted was to be left alone on this ride, 20 miles from the finish with no one to share the burden with.  I quit looking at my heart rate monitor, it was too depressing and was beginning to scare me.  At some point, I saw Charla riding the other direction.  She saw me and smiled and waved.  I tried to smile, lifted my hand and reached out towards her, my voice was gone and I couldn't cough out more than a whisper in her direction.  Less than a blink of an eye later, she was gone, and all that remained was the steady pumping of legs, the burning in my lungs, a dull ache in my thighs.

We made it all the way back to the turn leading to the descent when I fell off for the last time.  It was a half mile shy of the hill and I realized that they'd dropped me (and several others) for good.  I started to bridge the gap on the descent, but I just couldn't spin the gears fast enough.  My gears are great for climbing, but aren't so hot on the flats or the descents.  I couldn't get more than 35 mph out of them.  My heart began to sink as I watched them sail away down the hill without me.  10 miles to go. 

Someone fought up into my draft but fell off after only two miles.  I checked behind me to see if anyone was closing, hoping that I could pull together a little train, something big enough to make the last few miles a little easier and faster.  But every time I turned to look, there was nothing but empty pavement as far as I could see and I realized that I was truly on my own.

The finish lies on a short steep hill, no more than 200 meters in length.  When I hit the final turn I tried to stand up out of the saddle to get the little extra kick through the finish line.  There was nothing left in my legs though and I almost fell over.  I squeaked through the finish, rolled to a stop and stood straddling my bike and shaking for several minutes.

When I finally checked my Strava record, and then the posted results, I couldn't believe just how fast we were riding.  Then I remember my throbbing legs, shaking arms, gasping lungs, and it all makes sense.  For the final major ride of the year for me, I'd call this one a success.

19th out of 154 riders.  Not too shabby.

Check here for everyone's results, including Charla who rode like a mad demon girl, or a crazed honey badger.