Friday, March 13, 2009

A Little Training Ride

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to be part of a four-person team doing the Heart of the South race in April. We've all been training pretty hard individually, and this past weekend we finally got together to train together in "near-race conditions."

I say "near-race conditions" because we were doing the training ride using the protocols we have laid out for the race. We divided into two sub-teams of two riders each, and during the race each sub-team will ride for four hours. This means that rider A will go for an hour, then rider B, then rider A again, and finally rider B again. The sub-team will then take a "break" as the other sub-team goes on and rides, basically, the same way.

I say "break" (Have you noticed that I'm using a lot of quotes today? Like there are deeper meanings to everything. If I was talking to you face-to-face, I'm sure I'd be doing that "finger-thing" to indicate stuff is in quotes. See!? I just did it again!) ... uh, anyway. I say "break" because the sub-team that is not riding bikes has to do crew stuff, since we must have a support vehicle for Heart of the South. As such, when you finish your stint of biking really hard, you get to either drive the van or navigate the course. Your legs may get a bit of a break, but you probably won't get a lot of sleep.

I mention sleep (whew! no quotes!) because this is a 500-mile race, and we don't stop. Or, at least, we don't stop to sleep. We stop to get gas, food, or perform certain necessary bodily functions, but sleep ain't one of those -- in spite of what "doctors" might tell you.

Oops. More finger-thing stuff.

During the day, the support vehicle can "leap-frog" the rider (sigh), which gives the crew a chance to tend to such things as food, etc. if there is a convenient convenience store, restaurant, and so forth. During the night, however, the support vehicle has to stay right behind the rider. If the van needs to stop to get gas or let somebody pee, the rider has to stop riding.

As you can probably imagine, it is a logistical dilemma. This is one of the things about a race like this that appeals to ultra-endurance cyclists, since we love to plan for contingencies and improvise innovative solutions. We are like the Eagle Scout seeking calamities in hopes of proving the value of those 42 merit badges.

The other appeal is, of course, the potential for 30-40 hours without sleep. Maybe it's a macho thing to show that we can hack it. Maybe it's the nirvana of approaching an altered state without having to climb into a sensory deprivation chamber. Maybe we're fighting our death wish with that pseudo-return to the womb. I think we're just nuts.

So, the Training Ride?

Our training ride was 265 miles, from my house in Brentwood, TN, down to South Pittsburg, then east thru Stevenson, AL, before turn north back over the ridge and on home. Our two sub-teams were Jeff Bauer and Alan Gosart, who rode first, followed by Vida Greer and myself.

Here we are before the ride start.

The weather was exceptionally good for this time of year. We started with temperatures in the low 60's, with a high in the afternoon near 80. That evening, it fell into the 50's, so that we had to pull out vests and arm-warmers, but we stayed comfortable.

The wind was less helpful. It blew a pretty steady 15 mph out of the south most of the day, and eased up as evening fell. Unfortunately, this was about the time that we started heading north, and could have used the tailwind. Not that I'm complaining, of course, since the weather on Heart of the South has been horrible for the past couple of years. If we get these conditions in April, I will be ecstatic.

Jeff rode the first hour down to Almaville, where Alan took the next hour to Versailles. Then Jeff came on for another hour, getting us to Bell Buckle. Alan then finished up the team set by riding to Tullahoma. At this point, they had covered 80 miles in four hours, all of it into the stiff headwind.

Meanwhile, we all worked on crew logistics. The trickiest part was navigation: How to call out turns to the rider, what to track on the cue sheet, how to tell the rider he/she is off course. This was compounded by the fact that the route was not in either of the GPSs in the vehicle, and that the cue sheet had some minor errors. This was, of course, my fault as I had only prepared the cue sheet as a back-up that I never expected us to use. Read above comment about contingency plans, and score me Fail.

Another logistical trick was bike shuffling. We had to ensure that the rider coming on duty had his/her bike ready without cluttering up the tailgate rack, moving the "off-duty" bikes up on the roof rack. We developed a good protocol for this, however, and many other potential issues, proving the value of the training ride.

Climbing Protocol

We tested another ride issue during Vida's and my turn. With Jeff and Alan now "off" (sorry), Vida took over riding in Tullahoma. She set a fast pace to near Alto, where I took over.

Now, if you've ever ridden this area, you know what this means. There's a big mountain ridge that goes thru here. About 20 minutes into my turn, I started up the three-mile climb on Alto Road up to Sewanee. Knowing that most teams would have to either slow down for climbs like this or burn up a rider, we had devised a different protocol here.

I started hammering the climb as fast as I could while the van leap-frogged me. One mile up, Vida was out and ready to ride. We overlapped wheels and she took off, while I got into the van and tried not to hurl. Then we leap-frogged Vida (who climbs really FAST) and I got back out. As I said, Vida climbs really FAST, but I had enough time to get my heart rate and breathing down to acceptable levels before she came up, and I then hammered the rest of the climb. We made it to the University of the South campus at the top after less than 15 minutes riding from the base of the mountain.

Back on more level ground, I resumed a brisk pace thru town. Here's what I looked like from the van going down Hwy 156.

As the shadows lengthened, Vida took over and brought us back down off the ridge and into South Pittsburg, TN. Here, we had one of those longer breaks for bodily necessities before I took over again and rode into Alabama thru Stevenson, where we finally began angling northward and out of the wind.

Jeff took over near Bass, AL, as night fell, riding back into Tennessee and to the base of the long climb back up Hwy 56. Since it was dark, we had to stay behind the rider and could not repeat our fast mile-swap climb protocol on this climb. As such, Jeff did the first "half" of the climb before Alan came on. The second "half" turned out to be more like three-quarters, but Alan still managed to maintain an impressive average and soon had us up and over that ridge, before descending back to Alto.

One of the reasons that we had planned such a long training ride -- and not started until after 9 am that morning -- was so that we could test some of the night protocols for the race. To make it even more fun and navigationally challenging, I had plotted a slightly different route for the return trip. Jeff rode fast along the Tour de Cure route back to Tullahoma, where Alan enjoyed more navigational challenges (with a few missed turns) heading to the George Dickel Distillery in Normandy, TN. There we joined our previous route back to Wartrace, where Jeff and Alan finished their cycling duties for the night. We took another quick break, enjoying the hospitality of the coffee shop on the town square, and Vida hit the road.

Although the wind had dropped with nightfall, it was still gently pushing us in the right direction, and our average speeds climbed in spite of the darkness. Vida rode to near Midland, where I took over and rode to near Murfreesboro. Vida enjoyed the last harsh climb up Independent Hill and to the outskirts of Nolensville, letting me do the last 20 minutes back home.

Total ride time was just over 15 hours, for an average speed of about 17 mph. If we can maintain this pace in April, we should be able to finish Heart of the South within our goal time of 35 hours.

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