Well, I’ve done a good job neglecting the blog over the last month….Lot’s going on and not much time to sit down, or even still, to write a post. Things are going well in the workshop and have a really cool project almost done and have knocked out a couple small repairs but didn’t really document them. But today I am posting about the really big, totally ridiculous ride I did a couple weekends ago.
It seems to always take a bit of time for me to catch up with life enough to want to sit down and recall everything that happened. I’m always in a bit of daze afterwards, not really from being exhausted, my endurance is getting pretty good and I am not needing much physical recovery but I’m just a bit off kilter simply from the intensity of the experience. Though I am usually away for at the most a weekend, and not even that far from home, I always feel like I have been on some grand expedition and return with images of my journey running through my head and the adrenalin from tackling a new challenge pumping through my veins. Life back in town hardly skips a beat; no one really notices my absence. My eagerness to see my friends and family upon returning is usually not reciprocal as it’s only been a couple of days since they saw me last and my invitations for going out for a pint are usually met with “oh, we are tired and just gonna stay in tonight.”
This ride was the last big one I will do before Paris-Brest-Paris, from now I will stay on the bike as much as possible but will do higher intensity and lower mileage rides. No need for wearing myself out and taking time off to recover between now and August. The 800 km ride was actually 2 separate events, a 600 km Saturday and Sunday and then a 200 km on Monday. Both started out in Mineral Wells from the Lone Star Randonneurs Western Outpost, the 4-star Executive Inn. I had actually ridden both of these routes. I rode the 600 km last September and have done the 200 km route a couple of times. Before I started out I had thought to myself: “Well, this will probably make for a boring read talking about the same route that I have posted about before.” From the get-go the ride was far from boring and though the roads were familiar it turned into a whole new journey through new and very difficult conditions.
Once again, everybody took off from the start and as usual my legs were pissed off for being on a bike at 7 a.m. instead of still in bed so I instantly feel off the back. The road took us to Palo Pinto and then south on FM 4 to coast down the curves of our beloved Cherry Pie Hill. A few miles past Cherry Pie Hill I received my first dose of pain. I was stung by a wasp on my left ankle! Ouch!!! Not a whole lot I could do about it, so I didn’t even stop, just cursed loudly for a few minutes. By the time I got to Lipan for the first control my ankle was swollen. Over the past few years I have actually been stung by plenty of wasps while riding my bike, the swelling is uncomfortable, but as I am not allergic can’t really do much other than keep going.
The group left Lipan a little bit before me, but I guess the shock of the wasp sting woke my legs up a little and I was able to catch up with them. We soon encountered what would become the theme for the weekend; strong relentless wind. Occasionally we would get a break from the wind on our way to Glen Rose when we started heading slightly east, but the wind was traded in for some rolling hills.
After Glen Rose we headed due south to Meridian and were faced with the second element of the ride; the heat. So now we are riding right into the wind and it’s getting hot, maybe 97*F (36*C). Throw in some hills and a busy road with bad drivers and you get the picture, not fun. I tried to do some of the work in the front, but no one took to my wheel and I really just wanted to get this section over with asap so I rode ahead at my own pace into Meridian. Between the heat and wind I am sure I died a million small deaths and came back to life somehow and literally crawled the last mile or so into the control.
A couple of people caught up when we were arriving in Meridian, but it appeared that the conditions had split the group up. Apparently half the group made an unscheduled stop in Walnut Springs about halfway there to escape the heat briefly and get some water. We had a longer than usual stop in Meridian to try and have a slight recovery from the wind and heat, taking as many cold beverages and ice cream as possible to try and cool down.
It was another battle with the wind and heat to Cranfills Gap. At this point we were just a few clicks shy of 200 km, with about 85% of it being into a head wind. I felt very rough at this point. I’ve suffered plenty of times in hot weather with dehydration followed by cramping and could tell I was always on the verge of that happening. I was taking plenty of electrolyte tablets, drinking a lot of water, and simply just holding back my effort to avoid overheating . I knew trying to battle the wind was futile and though it would take longer, keeping things very light and easy was the best method for survival. I usually hate putting my bike in the small chain ring. It’s mainly a pride thing that I probably have from riding a fix gear for several years. But with this wind carrying on the way it was, there were long stretches I was literally in the small ring and the easiest gear on the cassette on the flat!! Can you believe it? Luckily we were in the middle of no where, so other than a few horses, cows, and a dead armadillo or two, no one saw me or my whole self image would have been completely shattered….
I came so close to throwing in the towel at this point, but I have a pact with myself that the only way I would ever DNF (did not finish) from any kind of event is from severe injury or a completely unrepairable mechanical. Probably not the smartest mindset, but basically you are gonna have to peel me and my bike off the tarmac before I quit. After leaving Cranfills Gap, we started to head north and my near personal breakdown was replaced with the most glorious tailwind. I was restored, reborn, riding bikes was great, life was great. I loved everything! We were tanking it towards the next control in Hico, with laughs and smiles a plenty.
After Hico we headed northwest to Dublin, Texas. We were a couple hours behind our usual pace, but still within the time limit. Our goal was to make it into Dublin before sunset, and managed to make it in before dark. After having a cold Dublin Dr. Pepper we were back on the bikes heading to the second to last control in Gordon, Texas. I seem to always feel better the longer I go for, it’s probably the buzz from the adrenalin or endorphins kicking in, but that combined with the heat of the sun being replaced by the coolness the night and that lovely tailwind pushing me along, I was flying.
At this point the other person in the group that was also feeling pretty strong was Shanna Armstrong . I had heard some of the other club members talk about Shanna before and I had seen her at some of the other brevets but she was usually way faster so never actually rode with her. Shanna is pretty much royalty in the very small obscure world of ultra distance athletics. While riding with her she told me all about competing and winning the women’s category for RAAM (Race Across America), other ultradistance cycling events and winning several Ultraman Competitions. If Ironman triathlons were not long enough someone went and started Ultraman which is a 6.4 mile swim, 270 mile bike and a 52 mile run. It is spread over 3 days and sounds totally insane. I am not really one to have heroes, especially athletic heroes, usually I get enough inspiration from friends, family and those around me. I think my only cycling hero is Graeme Obree. But hearing about Shanna’s racing career, her accomplishments, and personal stories was definitely inspiring(and I was able to keep up with her for a little while).
The two of us got into Gordon at around 11. This should have been the time that we finished the first loop, but with the set back of the wind and heat, things were taking longer. We got in and out of the control eager to get this over with. The rest of the group was arriving when we were leaving. It was about 34 miles back to Mineral Wells with a nice climb about halfway there. Once you make it to Palo Pinto you know that you are on the home stretch. There are a few rolling hills, but it’s pretty much a doddle. We got back to Mineral Wells at around 1:20 a.m. For how late it was I was surprised to be feeling as good as I did.
I had originally planned on getting up at 4:30 or 5 to get back on the road as quickly as possible to try and beat my previous course time, and basically get the whole thing over with. But by the time I had eaten and showered it was after 2 and I was quite beat. I ended up waking at about 6:15 and was some how on the bike again by 6:30. What was left of the group on day 2 was also heading out at this time. There were quite a few casualties, so the group was much smaller. Our first control was in Strawn and we made it there in a couple of hours and enjoyed a delicious breakfast upon arrival.
The next stop was Gorman and by the time we left, our old pal Mr. Headwind was back along with some hot temperatures. Luckily after Gorman we turned back to the north on our way to Ranger. We had a tailwind once again, but it was getting really hot by this time. We took a lunch break in Ranger. And then a quick stop in a Dollar General to by a pack of tube socks. It wasn’t time to change socks, but what we had learned from a rider from Houston that joined us was the benefits of the “ice sock”. Basically you pack a long tube sock with a ton of ice cubes and then put it inside your jersey and around your neck. The ice lasts for about 30-45 minutes, and within that time it pretty much numbs your back and the melted ice keeps your jersey cool with the breeze. It’s one of the best methods I have seen for combating the heat and I now keep a sock in my handlebar bag at all times.
The route took us to Gordon once again, and it was also the last control before finishing in Mineral Wells. The heat was dying out a little, but maybe I was just frozen from the ice sock. After Gordon we headed out the same way that we did the night before, but then made a couple of turns that would eventually lead us to Cherry Pie Hill. Throughout the second day I was having a little bit of pain in my right knee. Somehow, in pretty much the same location on the road that I was stung by a wasp, something happened to my knee and I could barely turnover the pedals. I was pretty much having to use my left leg to pedal, and my right just followed as if it was a dead but somewhat pliable appendage. I feel behind the others. A few miles later the pain vanished, and I gunned it to try and catch the others. I didn’t want to be the last one up Cherry Pie Hill. I caught them near the bottom of the climb, but as soon as we turned the last corner the pain hit me again and I feel back as the climb started.
At this point I just gritted my teeth and forced myself to ride through the pain. About halfway up the climb, the pain vanished. Once again I gunned it to try and catch up with the others. I caught up at about three-quarters of the way up and with adrenalin on full release kept revving up to the top. We all regrouped at the top and rode into Palo Pinto and made our last turn onto Hwy 180 back to Mineral Wells. I believe it was after 8 p.m. when we arrived back beaten and battered. It took us a total of 37 hours. That was two hours slower than my previous and less experienced time last September on the same route, and 10 hours slower than my glorious 27 hour Italy 600 km back in May. That should speak volumes about the conditions we had faced.
As late as it was we didn’t have time to clean up if we wanted to get some much needed dinner, so we stashed our bikes in our rooms and car pooled to the restaurant. Before the ride I had figured that I would knock some hours off my last attempt, get back have a swim in the pool, clean up real nice, go out for an early dinner, maybe a couple of beers and then have a totally quiet evening in my Mineral Wells hotel room were I could finally have some undisturbed rest, chill out with a book and maybe watch some trash T.V. about gypsy weddings, fall asleep early and be totally fresh for the 200 km on the Monday. By the time we got back from our delicious pasta dinner and I had cleaned up it was well after 10 p.m. I caught about 15 minutes of the gypsy weddings before passing the f**k out.
The ride on Monday started off at 7 am. I had to check out of the room, so I got up at about 6:40, gathered up my stuff and went to through it in the organizer’s, Gary, room and was ready to ride by 7. By this point, there was only 4 of us left from the 600 km, Gary, Steven, Charlie and yours truly. We were, however, joined by and very pleased to see Brian. Brian was my pal on the overnight Italy 600 km. The ride started with about 30 miles of rolling hills. The first section of hills is called the 3 Amigos (after the movie), though there is actually four climbs. Once again, my legs had no go in them that early in the day, and I was actually very stiff and sore. I kept falling back on the climbs, and then fighting my way back to the group on the down hills. After about 30 miles or so we were at the first control in Graeme. The next control was in Caddo, but each of the previous 2 stores in the town that served as controls had long since shut. I had previously found that out the hard way, running out of water thinking that I would be able to refuel, and then flagging down a car and pretty much begging for any water they might have. It would be over 50 miles till we got to the first available store in Strawn, so we stocked up on water. I had a bottle in each of my back jersey pockets. It was due south to Caddo and then Strawn, and the wind had still not let up. Other than being a totally rad guy and strong rider, the other reason why we were happy to see Brian at the start of the ride was we knew he had fresh legs(or at least fresher than ours) and we could put him up in the front and do the work. Thanks Brian!
With the headwind and fatigue it was taking forever for my legs to come around. I pretty much figured that they weren’t going to feel good at any point that day so just hunkered down for the slow grind and throbbing legs. Brian helped me out a lot and anytime I dropped off the back he would come off the front, slow down and then pull me back to the others. Despite the head wind we made it to Caddo in relatively good time. When there is no control available or open, you have to mail a post card to your club president. The good thing about this is that we didn’t waste much time at the Caddo Post Office. We simply refueled and put the card in the post. We did find a water faucet behind the building which will be useful in the future.
We started to make our way to Strawn, riding on some of the same roads we were on the day before. A few months back this area had widespread wild fires. Recent rains produced bright green grass laying in sharp contrast to the charred mesquite trees. I continued to ride in the back of the group as the road pulled us down into a valley with rock walls on one side and trees on the other. Then there was a slight climb to rise out of the valley, and upon doing so Strawn’s silver water tower glistened off to the distance. After more than 50 miles of empty roads the sight of the tower serves as the first sign of any sort of an oasis. With this, we charged towards Strawn knowing that we could have lunch and a short sit-down. We also knew that Strawn marked the half-way point of the brevet and that once we got back on the road the wind would finally be behind us for the rest of the ride.
We rolled out, and after some food, rest and cold drinks it wasn’t long till we were passing the Mule Lip Bar in Mingus. Hopefully one day I can stop there for a wee dram. Shortly after Mingus we were in Gordon, for now the 3rd and final time of the weekend. There was not a stop this time, so we simply headed due north towards Cherry Pie hill, and with that came our tailwind. I was certain my legs were going to be stiff and useless all day, but to my surprise they finally came alive. I held back from bolting off in celebration knowing that Cherry Pie Hill was soon approaching and I needed to conserve my energy for the climb. Before we knew it we riding the twists and turns that brings you to the bottom of the climb. There are so many turns, that it is hard to remember after which turn the climb begins, so each right hand turn is taken with much anticipation. Then after the last one you are faced with an immediate wall of a climb.
If you haven’t noticed by my previous sultry remarks regarding Cherry Pie Hill (see other posts), I love this hill, and so do many cyclists in the region. It might be her name, her curves, or the fact that it’s the biggest darn hill we have. It’s the highlight of any ride I do out here, and I always try to get up it as fast as I can for fun and to gauge my fitness. Today was no different, with my legs finally feeling strong I took off at the bottom of the climb. I passed the others, and Gary commented “Oh, someone finally feels better”. I’m sure it looked kind of crap to sit in the back all day and then charge up the hill, but I know it wasn’t it a race. I wasn’t going to do the climb and then charge off onto Mineral Wells on my own. For now it was just about me and Cherry, and how fast I could get up the hill. About 3/4 of the way up I could see that Gary was trying to catch up. I kept going, but was slowing down a bit at the top. Gary caught me right at the summit. We stopped to wait for the others. Once we regrouped and once in Palo Pinot we made what actually be the final turn of the weekend towards Mineral Wells. The jubilation of nearly being down made the rolling hills feel like the flattest terrain possible and we were back to the Executive Inn before we could say “snap.”
After 10 grueling hours we were done. 200 km for the day and 800 km for the weekend. The distance seemed daunting before hand, it was a hard ride, several times I was ready to cave in, but by the end of the ride all of the suffering, the hundreds of miles that my wheels rolled over, seem vanish with the simple joy of being done. The distance almost sounded unbelievable to me. I felt like I was lying whenever I told anyone that I had rode 500 miles in three days. Though the distance still sounds enormous, I know I made it, and that I can do it again. I still have a little over two months to go till Paris Brest Paris, but as long as I don’t slack off, I feel ready to go even bigger.