Monday, April 6, 2009

How I Won the Heart of the South 500

The past weekend, I won the Heart of the South 500 race, in Birmingham, AL, finishing the race in 30 hours and 24 minutes. This made for an average speed of just over 17 mph over the 517 miles, with climbs over Fort Mountain, in Chatsworth, GA, and Mount Cheaha, the tallest peak in Alabama.

Crowds cheered, ladies swooned, and grown men wept. Had he been awake when I came into the parking lot of the Bank South, the mayor of Birmingham would have given me the key to the city and declared April 5th "RandoBoy Day." There probably would have been a parade, too. With marching bands.

I was "assisted" by Alan Gosart, Vida Greer, and Jeff ... um ... oh, yeah, Bauer. I let them ride some short, easy sections of the course for me, which obviously accounts for our overall average of 17 mph being so much less than my personal moving average of near 40. It was a "team" effort though -- much in the way that Rambo movies are. Would you appreciate the un-stoppable force that is Rambo if you could not see how anyone that is briefly fighting alongside him tries hard to carry on when they get shot a few times? So, Adam, Verna, and ... oh, whatever their names were ... they were my Colonel Troutman. Their weakness made my strength that much more obvious.

I purposely did not use the PowerTap, since the power output display is limited to only three digits. Saris: What were you thinking? Did you not realize that RandoBoy might use your product? Tsk-tsk.

At the end of the race, I donated my jewel-encrusted trophy to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and once again declined the rather insistent advances of the podium girls (Ilsa and Genevieve: Nothing personal, but my heart belongs to the RandoWife). I had then hoped to finish ending hunger, but rain clouds moved in (I draw my power from your planet's yellow sun, you see), so I had to limit the rest of my day to discovering an ecologically sound renewable source of energy.

Wow. That's Not the Way I Heard It

Okay, it may have gone a little different from that ...

The truth is, Team Gran Fondo Heart of the South actually was the fastest four-person team in the 517-mile race this year, finishing in 30:22. The other four-person team, Georgia Chain Gang, finished just behind us at 30:29. For the two-man teams, Roadworx put in a blazing time of 29:58 and Get Bent was 31:29. Kevin Kaiser was the only solo finisher at 35:41.

For a better breakdown of the times, go to the results page on the Heart of the South website.

We were the only four-person mixed team this year, and the only team to ever do this race self-supported, so that we had no non-racing crew members. Every rider took turns driving the support vehicle or navigating, so that you never had more than 45 minutes to an hour of "down" time. This made for some sleepy people when we finally got back to Birmingham.

This was truly a team effort, with all four of us -- Vida Greer, Alan Gosart, Jeff Bauer, and RandoBoy (in his guise as mild-mannered endurance cyclist Robert Hendry) giving 100% towards the goal. It was a beautiful example of how thoughtful planning, dedicated training, and hard work -- plus incredible luck giving us the best weather this race has had in years -- can yield success.


Above, from left, is RandoBoy, Vida, Alan, and Jeff.

(NOTE: Lots of pictures and other information on this is available on the Gran Fondo website).

The Ride Begins

Friday, we drove down from my house to Birmingham, checked into the hotel, did our grocery shopping, and ate dinner at the late afternoon team meeting at the hotel. Everyone then went to bed, managing to bank an extra 4-5 hours in preparation of the ride. We all got up about 11 pm, checked out of the hotel, and headed to the starting line at the bank.

We ended up being the second team out, at two minutes past midnight. As we had planned, Jeff and Alan would ride first, each doing two sets of an hour each, before Vida and I rode.

The team of Gary Carter and Doyce Johnson, Get Bent, were soon breathing down our necks. These were two excellent recumbent riders who had been on Team Gran Fondo Fixies with Jeff and me on the Race Across America (RAAM) last year, so it was a good-natured rivalry as Jeff and Gary dueled on the first hilly miles. Eventually Jeff pulled away -- although Gary later told us it was because he hit a pothole on one of the descents and blew out a front tire. He managed to stop the bike without crashing, but the tire was damaged in such a way that they would have later have trouble with it descending Cheaha Saturday night. These issues slowed the team considerably.

Here's Gary at the start, all wrapped up in a recumbent prophylactic.


Jeff and Alan got the team through the first time station in four hours, maintaining over 18 miles per hour. I then got on the road, enjoying the frosty temperatures for an hour, before Vida came on and cycled as the sun rose.

Daytime Riding

My 4 AM stint, with temperatures in the upper 30s, had chilled me to the bone, numbing my feet and hands. I put on more clothes before taking over at 6 AM, which helped me stay much more comfortable as the sun continued to rise and bring us some warmth.

The brightening day also meant that the van was no longer forced to stay immediately behind the rider and we could do "leapfrog" support. Thus, the RAAMinator stopped for gas as I rode on into Little River Canyon. Morning mist and roaring waterfalls, with blooming greenery all around made this a great stretch of the course. The road is also almost perfect for cycling -- smooth and empty, with just enough roll to keep you shifting as you try to sprint up short steep pitches and zoom down little descents.

Midway through the canyon, the RAAMinator caught back up and Vida took over. I could then enjoy the view from the warmth of the van, and even stop to shoot a few quick pictures from the overlooks.

Here's Jeff in front of the falls. He is smiling.



Jeff took over again just before the next time station, getting the state-line sprint into Georgia. During this section, we frequently swapped positions with Georgia Chain Gang. Get Bent had managed to pass us during the night, after fixing Gary's flat tire, but we would regularly see their support vehicle and knew that they were close.

Here's Vida getting ready to pass a rider from Georgia Chain Gang.


Coming into Lafayette, we leapfrogged Jeff a couple of miles and stopped at a convenience store. The course here had him on the shoulder of a four-lane road, which was littered with debris, and he got a flat. We were again ahead of Georgia Chain Gang, who came upon Jeff as he finished putting in the new tube, and they pumped up his tire.

Leaving the convenience store, we saw the Georgia Chain Gang rider go by before Jeff and knew something was up. As we began to climb the long hill out of town, he explained what had happened, and I noticed his tire still looked pretty under-inflated. At the top, we quickly put Alan on for a couple of minutes and topped off Jeff's tire pressure, then sprinted back ahead of Alan and put Jeff back on to finish his hour. This was just another example of how excellent teamwork, combined with a great support vehicle with the perfect bike rack, made this ride so much easier and faster.

Alan's second hour of this shift got us through the next time station, and I took over about 10 miles from Chatsworth. Alan had closed the gap again on the Georgia Chain Gang rider, and I was able to pass him again within the first couple of miles, mostly because I was still fresh. Georgia Chain Gang did not pass us again for the rest of the race, although they were always close behind.

I pushed the pace pretty hard going into Chatsworth, managing to catch up with Gary Carter just before town. I thought I was riding strong, until I pulled even with him and realized that he was eating a piece of pizza. Talk about an eye-opener! Once he finished eating, he passed me again.

Fort Mountain

On the other side of Chatsworth we would begin climbing Fort Mountain, so Jeff came up with an excellent idea here. We put Vida on a couple of miles before the climb began to warm up, and then let her do the first two miles of the climb. Then, she and I swapped off each mile to the top.

We had trained to do our long climbs in this way, with Vida and I attacking Alto Road like this on our training ride last month. The tactic worked brilliantly, mostly due to Vida's incredible prowess as a climber, and we were up and over the 7+ miles in no time. I then took the descent down, before passing the reins to Vida as we headed for Ellijay.

Here's Vida rocketing up Fort Mountain.


We fought steep rollers and headwinds for the next couple of hours before Jeff and Alan took over again about 5 pm. We passed through the next time station, and were able to leapfrog for each of their next sessions. This enabled us to get gas and ice for the RAAMinator before falling back in behind Jeff near Coosa, GA, as darkness fell.

Night Two

The RAAMinator just before sunset, at the end of our last leapfrog.


Alan's typical blistering pace got the team through Cave Spring, GA, where I came on. This night was not as cold as Friday night had been, and I rode hard across the state line back into Alabama. I crossed the Silver Comet Trail to get on a route that I remembered from the old Georgia 600K. Once back in Alabama, I remembered why I didn't like this route: The road was painfully bumpy and steeply rolling. I was glad when my hour ended and Vida took over again.

While Vida did her hour, I grabbed a quick half-hour power nap. Although these will not completely replace real sleep, I have found that I can stretch the amount of time that I can function if I can get a couple of these during very long rides. I had actually dozed off for a few minutes in Ellijay, so this nap and another brief snooze got me back to Birmingham.

When the team woke me 10 minutes before my ride began, Vida had put away a lot of miles. My first few minutes on I felt incredibly cold, even though the temperature outside was almost 50. After 10 minutes of chattering teeth, I hit some rollers that finally warmed me up, and began riding a decent pace all the way to the start of Cheaha.

As I began up Route 281, I found another reason to curse Alabama roads. The chip and seal surface, with lots of pea gravel in the road and big gravel along the side, was bumpy and a little slippery. Plus, the steepness of the pitch had me almost immediately crawling along on the small chainring of my triple. The descents were not at all pleasant.

After two miles of this, I was again glad to let Vida take over. Although some of the sections here are leg-shattering steep, she was able to zip up them easily -- and she didn't have a triple! When we would ask her how she was doing, she would reply cheerfully that she was "fine ... maybe a little warm."

Jeff took over again about four miles from the top. We got a kick out of plugging an iPod into the PA system here and playing some "climbing music" for him. Vida choose The Who's "Eminence Front," which perked him up and got him over the top.

Smelling the Barn

Near the end of the perilous descent down Cheaha Road, Alan took over again. With only 70+ miles, we decided that each of us would take one final, slightly longer session, so Alan gave it his all to the last time station in Talledega. During this stretch, we had the only "rain" of the ride, although Alan said only about 40 rain drops hit him.

As we came into town, we saw a rider's van in the parking lot of the Super WalMart. We recognized the van as Kevin Kaiser, who had ridden RAAM last summer with Jeff as Team Gran Fondo Fixies. As it turned out, he was the only solo rider to finish, and they had stopped there for everyone to get a nap.

It was after 2 AM, and the only place open in town was a Huddle House restaurant. We stopped there, and Alan got out of his riding clothes while Jeff and I changed back into ours. We also got a thermos full of coffee for the long road ahead. Kids from Talledega College were crowding the booths and driving the waitress to distraction, and we were an interesting change of pace in a small town after a late night of partying.

Coming on, Jeff quickly cranked out the miles through Talledega and across Logan Martin Lake, where I took over. It felt great knowing that this would be my last pull, so I let it all go as I went up and over the last long hill of the course on Route 41. Vida then took over again as the sun started up, devouring the final miles to the finish line.

Epilogue

As I said, this was a team effort. We could not have had a better group of riders, with a more perfect mix of skills and strengths and knowledge. We knew what was needed of us, and all pitched in to help out as best we could at every opportunity. More than just a team, it was a group of friends pitching in, and having fun.

Our preparation and process was excellent as well. As each of us came off duty, we would get rested and fueled so that we could get back out and do it again. If we were going to be off duty for at least five hours, we ate or drank a recovery mix. Although my legs are a little sore today, 24 hours after the end of the race, I feel like I could almost start the race again.

Another great piece of preparation was getting the Saris Cycle-On Pro bike rack on the back of the RAAMinator. Lynn Greer, at Gran Fondo Cycles in Nashville (a.k.a., the Greatest Bike Shop in the Universe) sold it to me at a price that I cannot legally divulge. Lynn also loaned us a spare Campagnolo rear wheel and a bag full of spare parts, tubes, tires, and so forth.

Alan would probably also give Lynn credit for how well his ride went. As we followed Alan in the van, we all marveled at his excellent bike position -- very aerodynamic, with superb power transfer. He later told us how comfortable he had been in that position, thanks to the setup he and Lynn had worked out on Alan's Salsa LaRaza.

Usually, after this kind of ride I look back and ask, "Would I do this again?" Today, I'm not sure that I would -- not because it wasn't a blast, but because it was such a blast. I might not do this again out of fear that the weather would turn bad, or something else would be different and ruin it. This one was so perfect that I am afraid to screw it up like that.

4 comments:

  1. Congratulations on a great ride! I have been looking for some word about the race, but the official HOS website still has results from last year. I am glad to learn that you did so well.

    David

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  2. Congrats on a great ride. One thing I've learned and experienced with this group is that all of you know how to have fun. I expect that somebody is already planning the next great adventure.

    Kevin

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  3. Kevin: It's funny you say that because we started planning it on the drive back to Atlanta Sunday morning!

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  4. Caroline EastburnApril 7, 2009 at 11:32 AM

    Congratulations! What a well-oiled machine. Great report!

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