Thursday, June 25, 2009

The InKredible Kevin

Sometimes I feel like the janitor at the Justice League headquarters.

For you non-nerds out there, the Justice League is a group of superheroes who regularly save the universe. This is not to be confused with guys like Spiderman, who just saves New York, or the Fantastic Four, who spend their free time saving our planet. No, these guys save the Whole Freaking Universe.

What do you expect? You've got Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. These are all folks that have saved the world at one time or another, so put them together and you can open a major can of Whoop A$$ on some bad guys.

I was very fortunate last year to crew for Team Gran Fondo Fixies on RAAM -- the Race Across America. The Fixies were the two-man team of Jeff Bauer and Kevin Kaiser, who rode fixed-gear bikes across the country in eight days, two hours, and 21 minutes. I got to meet the Supermen and Wonder Women of Ultra-Cycling -- folks like Jure Robic, Dani Wyss, Pete Penseyres, and Susan Notorangelo -- the kind of folks that do not just ride 3,000 miles on a bicycle, they race those miles.

Racing like this is a super-power ... the kind that you only get from being born on the planet Krypton, or because you're an Amazon queen, or a dying alien gave you his power ring.

It's easy to miss Batman in this kind of crowd.

Yes, Batman is a member of the Justice League. We forget this because he's a loner in the movies ... The Dark Knight and all that. But Batman is a key member of the Justice League because, along with being a good fighter, he is smart and he is determined.

At RAAM this year, Kevin Kaiser was Batman.

No Big Red S

First off, Kevin was not out there in a kit covered with sponsor names ... probably because he didn't have very many. Superman has that big red "S," which is supposedly his family crest from Krypton (but then shouldn't it be a "K" for Krypton or Kal-El, or "J" for Jor-El?) and Green Lantern has that lantern emblem (hmm, yeah ... maybe). Like those guys, Robic and Wyss had jerseys and vans covered with the names of companies who were paying their freight and/or giving them free schwag.

Kevin just had Chain Reaction Bicycles, who set him up with three bicycles, some spare parts, and a few jerseys. He also had support from crewmember Gator Cochran, who built a rig in case he suffered from Shermer's Neck. But otherwise it was either Kevin or friends paying for everything -- rental vehicles, gasoline, plane trips, hotel rooms, food. The budget was for around $15,000, and most of that came out of Kevin's pocket.

But here's one way that Kevin is not like Batman -- he is not really a billionaire playboy, but is instead a pharmacist at a Publix grocery store in Augusta, GA. Whereas $15K is chump change for Bruce Wayne, it's real money to Kevin.

No Magic

Kevin also cannot fly, doesn't have heat vision, can't make things from light, and has no magic lasso. Like Batman, Kevin gets his power by training. A lot.

Now, all of the RAAM riders train. You can not do this kind of race without lots and lots of miles. For some of them, training is their job ... or at least their duty station in the Slovenian army.

But Kevin has a day job, so training is what he does evenings and weekends. And he's been working at it for 10 years.

How far has Kevin come in 10 years? In 1998, Kevin did BRAG -- the Bicycle Ride Across Georgia. That sounds hard, but I've done it twice and I can tell you: It's a piece of cake compared to RAAM. On BRAG, you ride about 60 miles per day, with lots of stops on the way for cold drinks and cookies and sandwiches, and trucks full of folks offering to take you to the next spot if you get tired.

You get to sleep at night -- for the whole night, if you want -- on BRAG. Nobody does that on RAAM.

Kevin did not finish BRAG in 1998.

So, in short, it took Kevin just over 10 years to build himself up from a BRAG DNF (Did Not Finish) to Fifth Place in the The World's Toughest Bicycle Race.

Enter the Villian

Like most super-heroes, Kevin has an arch enemy: Heat. In all great comic books, the super-hero has to come close to defeat at the hands of his nemesis.

On Day Two of RAAM this year, Heat almost got him. He had averaged just under 20 mph over 90 rolling miles between Lake Henshaw and Brawley, CA, but when he got to the dessert nauseau struck. Kevin had trouble keeping food or liquids down, and threw up on the side of the road. He was getting dehydrated and over-heating, but there was nothing he could do about it if he kept riding.

So he kept riding.

Between the fourth and eighth time stations -- the 200 miles from Salome to Flagstaff, AZ -- his average was about 8.4 mph. It took him 25 hours to ride those 200 miles. Batman, swimming thru a pool of acid with chunks of sharp glass floating in it, could not have hurt more.

I'll be honest: I didn't think Kevin was going to make it at this point. I was hoping that he could just finish the first 1,000 miles of the course -- roughly, the Race Across the West portion of RAAM. But then, remember: I'm the janitor at Justic League. I'm used to seeing Superman do incredible stuff, so I sell Batman short.

Kevin recovered, of course. He dug deep and found the will to go on (fortunately, this did not require his memory of seeing his parents killed before his very eyes), and not only made the time cut-offs but starting passing other riders. He missed being the first American finisher and winning Rookie of the Year by just over four hours.

More Than An Everyman ... A Randonneur

If you look thru the list of RAAM solo male finishers this year, you will find that only one other rider (Daniel Rudge) is a member of Randonneurs USA. Kevin is not only a RUSA member, but helps manage the Georgia brevets that are held in Augusta. He does the same 200K, 300K, 400K, 600K, and 1200Ks that we do ... although usually faster.

He's one of us. Or, maybe, the "one of us" that we could be if we worked hard enough.

The difference between an ultracyclist and a randonneur is this phrase: Self-supported. In ultracycling, you have people passing you water bottles from the pace car and massaging your legs when you stop. In randonneuring, you nap in ditches and know that there's usually a water spigot on the side of rural Baptist churches.

So maybe it's the "loner" in Batman that a team like the Justice League needs -- somebody who can do it all on their own and get past the bad guys when everyone else has been trapped or beaten. Someone who may not have super powers, but who is willing to work just a little harder, be just a little bit smarter, and will not give up.

Welcome to the Justice League, Kevin.

Confessions of a RAAM Junkie

As I mentioned last week, I crewed for Team Gran Fondo Fixies on RAAM last year. Between pre-race preparations and getting back home from the finish line in Annapolis, it was 12 of the busiest days of my life. Except for one truly miserable day when I had a migraine, I rarely got more than five hours of sleep at a stretch. We rose early, did laundry, rode in a van to catch up with the riders, then drove the RAAMinator thru the night, typically not getting into the night's hotel until 5 am.

I did not expect to be spending as much time on RAAM this year, but it's coming close.

The thing is, Kevin Kaiser, who was half of Team Gran Fondo Fixies (along with Jeff Bauer) is doing RAAM solo this year. One week ago, in the Arizona dessert, less than 500 miles into the race, we were thinking that his race was over. Today, he has just about locked up fifth place.

When it looked like Kevin's race was over early in the Arizona desert, friends and fans started regularly checking the RAAM website, sending emails, burning up the news groups, and making lots of phone calls. "How is he feeling?" "Is he able to keep food down?" "Is there anything we can do to help?"

As Kevin recovered, got back into the race, and started moving up the ranks, I got to where I kept the RAAM site up all the time. About every hour, I refresh the page to see who is where.

And it isn't just Kevin that I'm hooked on. Dani Wyss and Jure Robic -- both past winners -- are virtually neck and neck right now, and the deciding factor will probably be the hour of penalty time that Jure has picked up. Both of them are riding like machines, and I have the proof here in a picture of Robic from the RAAM web site:

Obviously, the RAAM photographer caught Jure with his antenna out, like Uncle Martin from My Favorite Martian. It shows that he really is a machine ... and that the machine is Johnny Five from Short Circuit.

Except Jure can shoot laser beams, too.

Kevin, on the other hand, looks more like a real human being, so we don't expect this kind of thing. Maybe this is how Superman has been able to hide as Clark Kent for so long. Nobody expects somebody who is "mild-mannered" to be faster than a locomotive.

I'm going to send an e-mail to Ally Sheedy, though, and ask her which one she thinks is cuter. I'm pretty sure that Kevin would win (sorry, Ally -- he's married).

But I've got to do it quick, so I can refresh the RAAM web page and see how Ann Woodridge is doing since her crash. Then I need to see if Team Type 1 is going to finish before any of the solo riders. And, of course, I have to check on the Georgia Chain Gang guys, since we raced against them on Heart of the South.

If I have time tomorrow, I may take a shower.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Training Aides

In 2006 and 2007, I had gone to ride the Cherohala Challenge with my friends and Heart of the South teammates Jeff Bauer and Vida Greer. We did not go in 2008, since Jeff and I had just finished RAAM -- the Race Across America (he rode and I supported) and the Harpeth River Ride was the same weekend.

But this year the River Ride is a different weekend (actually, this Saturday ... so sign up!), and Kevin Kaiser is racing RAAM by himself (more on that below). Thus, with nothing to stop us, we reformed the band.

Jeff, Vida, and I drove to Sweetwater Friday night, and had an excellent dinner at the Gondolier Restaurant there. We then checked into the Comfort Inn, slept, got up the next morning, put on Gran Fondo kits, and headed to the ride start in Tellico Plains.

This is just the way we did it in 2006 and 2007. It's kind of a tradition.

In 2007, I did this ride in just over seven hours. That's not too bad considering it's 114 miles long and has just under 9,000 feet of climbing. I thought I was stronger this year, although my weight was up three pounds, and felt that I could do the ride in less than seven hours.


Jeff got held up at the start by things that I'd rather Jeff tell you about, but Vida and I rode together for the first 50 miles. It was a pretty fast pack -- but big with at least 60 riders -- so that it surged and stalled a lot. Vida and I worked together just past Vonore and got the group into a better paceline, which we pulled to the base of the Tail of the Dragon.

The great thing about riding with Vida is that she challenges you. Saturday she would work her way to the front and take the pace up. I stayed with her because it was fun and I was feeling great. But as we started climbing the Dragon the pace caught up with me, and I fell back.

After a couple of miles, knowing that Vida was not too far ahead, I took my pace up for the second part of the climb. About a mile from the top I caught up to her, and even managed to pass her to take the King of the Mountain points and state-line sprint.

I paused at the rest stop there to drink some water, top off bottles, and eat some snacks. Vida does not usually descend as fast as I do, so she left the stop before me, and I began my descent a few minutes later.

Under the Tail of the Dragon Lies a Hot, Stinky Place

Apparently, while we had been higher up climbing into North Carolina, the world had become hot. As I rode hard to catch up with Vida, pulling together a few straggling riders into a paceline, my stomach began to complain. I tried to quell it with sports drink, but the liquid was fairly warm itself by now, and made things a little worse.

Soon, Vida and I re-united our respective pacelines, and we continued up the valley toward Robbinsville at just under 20 mph. But the pace and the heat, and not being able to drink, started to get to me.

Just before the next rest stop, I saw a small grocery store. I fell to the back of the paceline without alerting Vida and pulled in. It was cooler inside, where I quickly drank a Diet Coke, and after a minute I felt better. I then rode another half mile to the rest stop, where I found Jeff.

Now, in case I've never mentioned this before, Jeff is one hell of a cyclist. He is very strong, fast, and has great endurance. But, more than that, he is really smart. He had started this ride with the Camelbak full of ice, while I had thought, "Gee, that's gonna be heavy. It will slow him down."


Jeff and I left the rest stop together, riding thru the Joyce Kilmer Forest towards the Cherohala Skyway, which is a pretty much un-broken climb of over 11 miles. I felt pretty good again ... at first. I made myself drink, but the liquid was warm and did not seem to help.

Right after we started up the Skyway, the first cramp hit. Left adductor. I pedaled thru it, but slowed down. I told Jeff to go on, but he stuck with me.

Three miles later, the right hamstring seized up, and I had to pull over. I told Jeff to go again. He stayed.

At the rest stop half-way up the mountain, I ate some Tums, drank two full bottles of water, and tried to choke down some pretzels. My mouth would not make saliva -- a sure sign of dehydration. Again, Jeff refused to leave me.

We had to pull over to the side of the road one more time before we reached the top, thanks to another full-leg seize-up. When we finally began our descent back towards Tennessee, it was 2 pm. My seven hours were up.

Back to the Furnace

It was cool up at Santeetlah Gap, but it quickly warmed up as we began the 32 miles back to Tellico Plains. Most of it is downhill, but there are a few remaining uphill portions -- one of them almost a mile long. Fortunately, at this point I was too close to the end -- I ignored the cramps when they came and rode thru them.

Again, Jeff stuck with me the whole way. You can't even tell from this picture that I'm suffering, because he kept talking to me and keeping me distracted.

We got to the finish eight hours and 20 minutes after the start. It was 94 degrees. Vida had been in for over an hour. Jeff and I got some food with the other suffering riders streaming (and steaming) thru, while Vida changed into street clothes. We then headed for home.

I spent a lot of time the next day thinking about what I could have done differently. Getting my weight to back under 180 pounds would have helped, as would wearing my own Camelbak and filling it with ice.

But one thing I would not change is the friends with whom I rode. They challenged me to ride at the peak of my abilities, then shepherded me home when I went a little too far. What more could you ask for?

Kevin's in Sixth Place

I mentioned last week that Kevin Kaiser, who was Jeff's teammate on RAAM last year, is doing solo RAAM this year. He had a couple of dehydrated days early in the race in the desert (more queasiness ... guess I'm in good company!) that saw his average speed fall to single digits, but has since been tearing up the race! He is now in sixth place overall, and is the leading American in the race.

Kevin has wanted to do RAAM for as long as anyone can remember. We are all proud of him, and happy that he is having such great success. The fact that he dropped so far behind in the early days, only to force his way back into the race like this, is a classic Cinderalla story.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

You Call This a Bike Lane?!

Yesterday, we began our discussion of the State of Cycling in Ireland by looking at urban riding. In Dublin, this differed from urban warfare only in that nobody wore helmets or cleaned their weapons. Today, we will talk about rural Irish cycling.

Basically, riding a bicycle in the country in Ireland is the best way to go, because:

  • The roads are usually too narrow for cars, anyway.
  • The fuel for cars is too expensive.
  • There are not many journeys that are more than 300 kilometers (190 miles) long. That's just a day ride ... if you're a randonneur.

They even have bike lanes there … although they are about as well-maintained and designed as bike lanes here. They tend to come and go on a whim, are just wide enough for a bicycle (in the same way that the roads are just wide enough for two cars … ha!), and tend to collect all of the crap that washes down off the rest of the road.

Driving a car in Ireland, however, is not fun. Many of the roads are pretty normal, except for the confusing roundabouts and weird “traffic-calming” zones. And, of course, they drive on the left side of the road, which keeps things kind of weird.

The real joy, however, comes the further you get out in the boonies. Out there the roads become, basically, paved goat paths. And they're not even paved very well, with the kind of potholes that bounce your head off the roof. And they're too narrow for fat goats.

Near the southwest coast, we did a drive called the Ring of Kerry. The road is fairly major – think of the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Natchez Trace here in the States. However, before you go out there they advise you to do the route from north to south because – and this is critical – that’s the way that the buses go, and you don’t want to try to pass them going the other way.

Yes, this translates to: If you do the route from south to north, you will have to get off of the road when a bus comes by, since the road is not wide enough for your car and a bus!

But wait, it gets better.

Halfway on the Ring of Kerry is an optional loop: The Ring of Skellig. It’s a little more … secluded, shall we say? Of course, we decided to do it.

Buses don’t go on the Ring of Skellig. Partly this is because it is rather hilly, but mostly it is because the roads are not wide enough for a whole bus. They’re barely wide enough for a car.

Imagine how much fun it is to be going up a 15-degree hill on a 0.6-lane road and encounter a car coming the other way. We did that.

Now, to be fair, it was also beautiful. As you can see from this picture, the views were easily worth the terror of driving the roads.

Of course, I say that because RandoGirl had thoughtfully signed us up with the rental car company, and she was the only one allowed to drive the car.

Sometimes it’s good to be the passenger.

And it's possible that, if you had a more major road out there, lots of people would take that road and it would spoil it. If I lived there, I certainly wouldn't want a big road. If they have zoning meetings out there, the one for that would be a doozy.

Here’s RandoGirl illustrating how narrow the roads were. This is an alley in Kilkenny, through which our GPS insisted we must go in order to get to our hotel. We made it, but had to fold in the side mirrors. Needless to say, we subsequently walked around a bit in order to find a way out of Kilkenny that did not involve this alley.

After a week of no cycling in Ireland, RandoGirl and I broke down and rented a couple of bikes for a day in the city of Clifden. We did a little two-hour ride from there out on one of the peninsulas, stopping for tea in a fishing village.

You have no idea how cool it is to say that you stopped for tea in a fishing village. It's even cooler to say than it is to actually stop for tea in a fishing village.

The terrain was pretty mild, with just a few little hills, but the winds were fierce. It had also been a long time since either of us had ridden hybrids, wearing blue jeans and sweat shirts. All in all, though, it really felt good to be back on a bike -- any bike.

At one point, we're riding into this 25-mph wind and come across some sheep. I stood up (mostly because I had been riding for a couple of hours in blue jeans) and started chasing the sheep down the road. RandoGirl was very amused. The sheep were not.

The route to the quiet lanes of the peninsula required that we get on the more major road in the area. During this stretch of about 15 kilometers, we were regularly passed by a variety of vehicles.

The interesting thing about this, though, is that at no point was I worried about these cars, trucks, and buses. They all seemed to appreciate our space and rights as vehicle sharing the road. Although they passed quickly, it was never at a “stupid” time, with another vehicle coming the other way or on a blind curve. And it seemed to me that giving us this little bit of consideration never seriously inconvenienced the Irish drivers. Nobody yelled at us, threw stuff at us, or even passed us very closely.

Frankly, it had been more nerve-wracking being in a car on the same road.

Maybe this is a benefit of having such narrow tricky roads. You come to expect stopping for the occasional sheep lying in the middle of the road, or getting onto the shoulder for a tour bus coming the other way. In this environment, slowing down a bit and then safely passing a bicycle is not such a big deal.

Why a Bike is the Way to Go in Ireland

While in Ireland this past week, I took the opportunity to make an in-depth study of the differences between Cycling in America and Cycling in Ireland. I will be publishing this study next week in the Journal of Comparative Sociology, and expect to win a Nobel Prize for it. Or at least a copy of their home game.

For those of you who don’t subscribe to the Journal of Comparative Sociology, I will summarize the state of cycling in Ireland:

It could be worse.

First off, as you can tell by the above picture a lot more people get around by bicycle in Ireland than they do in the United States. This is in Dublin, and most of these people were in town doing errands, hitting the stores, or watching sports and drinking in the pub. Basically, doing the same things that we do in the states on a Sunday, but their carbon footprint was much smaller.

By the way, I'm not sure what sports they were watching over there. I could recognize cricket and soccer (although over there they call it "KillTheBloodyBastard!!!" ... or maybe "football"). There was some other game that we were pretty sure wasn't rugby, but had people running with a soccer ball and kicking it through uprights or into a net. I don't know what it was, but the Irish seem to love it.

There was even a tandem chained up outside of a department store.

We ran into the couple on this tandem later (I think), and it was cool to see that the woman was the captain and the man the stoker. They both looked very strong. I regret that I did not have the presence of mind to yell to them, "He's not pedalling!" It would have been petty payback, but payback nonetheless.

In spite of the gender confusion, this tandem is indicative of something else about the State of Cycling in Ireland: They need mechanics. For instance, you'll notice that the pedals are not in sync, so that the captain's pedals are almost vertical and the stoker's pedals are closer to horizontal. Now, you can do this with a tandem, but you usually offset them at 90-degree angles to avoid the "dead zone" in the stroke. These are just plain out cat-e-wonkus, as my grandma would say.

Here's a bike shop in Dublin. I went in there Monday (they were closed Sunday) and they had a mechanic. He seemed busy.

I saw a lot of people on bikes that were not set up correctly for them, with rusted chains and filthy drivetrains. Most of them had fenders (or at least what Bike Snob NYC calls a "filth prophylactic" like the one at left), to pay homage to the wet (and nasty, at least in Dublin) condition of the roads. And, while this will keep your clothes dryer, putting fenders on a bike in that climate -- particularly as close to the ocean as Dublin is -- but not regularly cleaning it and lubing your chain is classic penny-wise and pound (or Euro, now) foolish. It's like chewing gum instead of brushing and flossing your teeth: Sooner or later, things will fall apart, but before they do they will begin to creak and smell bad.

Which probably explains this view from the Millenium Bridge.

It's weird to see such a "disposable" mentality surrounding bicycles in a country that digs a five-mile tunnel to keep from disturbing old neighborhoods. I guess a castle is something that should be preserved, but (at least from a RandoBoy perspective) even a beater bike deserves a proper burial.

Another thing I noticed in Dublin was that cyclists there do not dress like cyclists here. And I'm not just talking about Discovery team kits -- the people over there mostly ride their bikes wearing the stuff that they walk around in.

This is good and bad. It's good because, frankly, if you're just riding a bike a couple of miles to work or shopping, you don't really need to get into cycling-specific garb. It's bad because most of the Irish also don't wear a helmet.

Now, we won't get into the whole "freedom of choice" thing surrounding helmets. The fact is that if you get run over by a cement truck, a helmet will not save your life; however, most bicycle accidents are not that extreme. Most of them just involve somebody's wheel getting stuck in a grate, or a car pulling in front of you, or you hit a curb or lightpost or a pedestrian or other cyclist. These things do not usually involve two tons of metal driving over your head, but do involve your head smacking something very solid ... like pavement. In these situations, a helmet means the difference between life and death ... or at least a permanent vegetative state (like Alabama).

Other things I saw in Dublin:
  • Fixed gear bikes (cool, if they had brakes, since skid-stopping into the rear of a bus is always a bad idea)
  • Women biking in high heels (cool, since they seemed to make it work in a very "Euro" way)
  • City bikes with chain guards (very cool, if you want to keep chain grease off your pants ... assuming your chain had grease on it)
  • Cyclists with both ears plugged by their iPod ear buds (way un-cool ... leave that crap for solo rides on empty roads)
In my next post, I'll discuss the state of non-urban cycling in Ireland. You are, no doubt, breathless with anticipation ... but go ahead and breath.

On a More Topical Note

My friend, Kevin Kaiser, starts the Race Across America (RAAM) Thursday. I helped crew for Kevin and Jeff Bauer on last year's RAAM, when the rode fixed gear bikes as a two-man team. Kevin is an awesome cyclist, and we all wish him well.

If you want to follow Kevin's progress, go to his blog or this page on the RAAM website.

Friday, June 5, 2009

There Is No "Bike" in Vacation

Saturday afternoon, RandoGirl, the RandoDaughter, and the RandoDaughter's Boyfriend (whom I cannot bring myself to call the RandoBoyfriend ... I mean, I like him alright, but, it sounds kind of creepy) ...

Sorry, where was I?

Oh, yeah. We're getting on a plane Saturday afternoon and flying off to merry old Ireland for a week. The Emerald Isle. Land of Fairly Good Whiskey But Not As Good As Real Single-Malt Scotch. Island of Inebriated Ex-Bombers.

For some reason, the Department of Redundant Irish Tourism Department does not use all of these.

Everybody ... and I do mean everybody ... that I have told about this vacation asks the same question:

"Are you bringing your bike?"

Admit it -- you were going to ask the same thing yourself.

So, when I tell them, "Not this trip," they ask if I won't go crazy.

RandoBoy is Multi-Facetious

As Lance Armstrong wrote, "It's Not About the Bike." (Speaking of which, congratulations to Lance on the birth of his son -- although it worries me that he named the boy Max. If Anna Hansen let it slip who the real father of the boy is, claiming that it was actually 70's porno star Max Watts ... well, that's for the courts and a DNA test to decide).

Sorry, got lost again.

But Lance was right in saying that a normal life does not center around cycling. Even Jure Robic gets off the bike to sleep ... at least when he sleeps with his eyes closed, which isn't often. And, of course, he sleeps in a coffin filled with soil from his native land.

But my point here (if indeed I have one) is that there is no bicycle in that coffin. Unless it's a folding bike ... and it would have to be a recumbent if he's going to sleep in it.

Zombie Cyclists From Heck

Since I am not one of the walking ... er, biking dead, I need to get away from a bicycle for a while. My last two vacations -- a week supporting the Gran Fondo Fixies on RAAM in June 2008, and another week doing the Rocky Mountain 1200K -- were definitely bicycle-oriented. I need a break.

So, next week, there will be no posts (although I promise to post some pictures when I return). After the Saturday morning group ride, I will not don spandex for at least nine days. No chamois shall touch my nether regions, yadda-yadda.

Will I go crazy? It's possible. We may find ourselves in some quaint tourist burg, and they may have some little town bikes to rent, and RandoGirl and I may just jump on them and tool around for a mile or two ... or 10 ... or 50.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Support Ho's

Last year, I needed a 600K to qualify to go ride the Rocky Mountain 1200K, so I did the one hosted by the Harpeth Bicycle Club's ultra-cycling group. It started from McMinnville -- about an hour's drive from my house -- and the middle 200K of the route is basically the Cherohala Challenge "century," which I had done a couple of times.

How hard could it be?

Well, about 26,000 feet of hard. You expect 375 miles of hard with a 600K, and you may think that you know how hard 26,000 feet of hard is going to be over 375 miles of hard.

But you don't. You can't. You just have to do it, and probably that isn't enough because your brain blocks out portions of it in the vain attempt to retain some semblance of sanity. Where was that sanity when you needed it (i.e., before you signed up to do this horrible thing to your body)?

Once Bitten ...

I would say that my momma didn't raise no fools, but I've got siblings (and a big shout-out Happy Birthday here to my brother, John!). I will say, however, that last year, at the end of the 600K, while the memory of this ride was fresh, I done something smart: I volunteered to help support the riders this year.

Jeff Sammons, the middle Tennessee RBA, remembered my promise and held me to it this year.

Thank you, Jeff!

And so it was that, with a heavy heart (and an even heavier rest of me, as evidenced by my inability to go uphill fast), I did not ride the Tennessee 600K last weekend.

Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee. That's gleeful laughing, in case you didn't recognize it.

The first thing that I discovered, in supporting this ride, is that it is not as difficult to get up at 3:30 am for a 600K ... if you know that you can go back to bed once the riders have all left. All I had to do was put on some clothes, wish everyone "bon route," and re-hit the hay.


A little after 5 am, I got back up, dressed, packed, and drove to Tellico Plains. Jeff had rented two cabins for Saturday night, and these would be the controls for the middle portion of the route. The riders had left drop bags with Jeff, and he would deposit them at the cabins so that they could replenish their gear and put on clean clothes. The plan was for the riders to grab a little sleep at one cabin or another in the wee hours of Sunday morning, after which I would fix them a big breakfast.

Dammed If You Do ...
Driving to Tellico Plains took almost three hours, with some extra time thrown in for getting gas for the RAAMinator and groceries for the breakfast. I was in a hurry because, once I got to Tellico Plains, I had to change into cycling clothes and ride the middle portion of the 600K, which is also the Cherohala Challenge 200K permanent. Yes, I could have just hung out at the cabin ... it's a sickness.

The Cherohala Challenge permanent is a tough route, with over 10,000 feet of climbing -- including the Tail of the Dragon into North Carolina over Deal's Gap, then returning to Tennessee via the Cherohala Skyway to Santeetlah Gap. Since it was just me, I stopped often to take pictures of my Lynskey (RandoBoy). If you read my blog from Canada, this is a theme for rides where I'm all by myself. It really just gives me an excuse to get off the bike for a minute.

The great thing about climbing is that you get to enjoy the views from the top. This is a view of Lake Santeetlah from about a third of the way up the Tail of the Dragon.

This is a very popular route with sports cars and motorcyclists, so it can be a noisy road. Fortunately, most of these drivers are at least civil with cyclists ... so long as we stay as far to the right as possible. Since that's where the view is -- and I'm not moving
particularly fast, anyhow -- I'm usually willing to oblige.

You descend a bit after Deal's Gap before starting the long easy climb into Robbinsville, NC. This stretch got a little warm, and I was starting to worry about my speed. I had originally planned to start the ride at 10 am, so that's what I put down on the paperwork for the permanent. However, it had been almost 10:30 by the time I got to the first control, and I had then missed a turn to get 10 "bonus" miles. I planned to be back at the cabin by 8 pm, so that I could eat and get cleaned up before going to the top of the mountain, so my schedule was tight.

After rushing thru a burger and fries in Robbinsville, I stopped at the store on the way out of town and got three more bottles of Gatorade Rain. These had to last me the 50 miles to Tellico Plains, including the 11-mile climb up the Cherohala Skyway.

When I (finally) got to the top, there was a couple on a motorcycle enjoying the view. Thus, you get to enjoy a picture of me and my bicycle.

The "fun" thing about this route, by the way, is just how hard it is even after you get to the top. For one thing, it's a little cool and windy -- even in summer. After dark, it's really cool and windy. More on that below ...

As you head for Tennessee, however, it warms up. Part of this is because you are descending, but the other part is because -- oh, joy of joys -- there's still more climbing! You start down for a mile or so, and then the road turns back uphill. It does this twice, with fairly steep and long pitches.

It is, frankly, a cruel betrayal.

Of course this, too, soon passes. After some good, fast descending, I eventually made it back to Tellico Plains. It was almost dark, and I had to then frantically clear the last control, get back to the cabin, pull a lot stuff out of the van (more on that below, too), put other stuff in, shower, dress, eat, and try to make hot water for coffee for the riders (the stove had two settings: Off and Meh). It was almost 10 pm when I finally starting speeding up the mountain.

Just over half-way up, Micah Fritzinger and George Hiscox zoomed past me on the way down the mountain in the dark. I was almost to the North Carolina line when Steve Phillips went by. They probably all would have welcomed a full bottle and the momentary comfort of the RAAMinator at the top.

Sorry, guys.

Finally, I made it back at Santeetlah Gap (elevation 5390'). I would have experienced some deja vu, but the gap at night looks nothing like its daytime version. In this way, it is like women I dated when I was still single.

I had not been parked long when Steve Godbey came by. He was still riding very strong, but was hungry. He said he got so hungry on the way up the mountain that he ate his roll of Tums. I gave him the last of my Gatorade Rain, along with some chips and pretzels, and topped off his bottles. He then went on his way.

Alone in the dark again, I listened to the wind as it picked up, growing back into the howl that I remembered from last year on top of this mountain. Then, it had been Jeff Bauer sitting up here in his van, and I had been very glad to see him as Jeff Sammons (no relation) and Bob Hess and I came up. I was so exhausted then that I fell asleep in the van for over an hour, and had to descend by myself that night. I remember thinking that my teeth would break from chattering in the cold fog.

This year, however, the fog had not yet rolled in when I set up the therma-rest pad and my sleeping bag in the back and took a nap. Less than an hour passed before Peter Lee and David Rudy came in, followed closely by Jeff Bauer and Mary Crawley on a tandem. They, too, were in need of fuel and a warm place to sit.

I just wish that I could have offered them coffee.

After topping off their bottles and energy reserves, they all soon headed out into the growing cold and wind. Perversely enough, they were in really good spirits.

Here's a picture of my sleeping accomodations for Saturday night. It was actually kind of cozy.

Once my visitors had moved on, I settled back into my bed to wait for the last two riders. I knew that they would have to be along before 5:30 am (local time) to have a chance of getting thru the control before it closed. I also knew that I had promised to fix breakfast for the riders at the cabin. Since I had no cell phone coverage on top of the mountain, I had no way of knowing whether the remaining riders had DNF'd. So, when 5:30 came, I left two jugs of water on top of a picnic table, and headed back for Tellico Plains.

Unfortunately, that was about half an hour before Hamid Akbarian got to the top of the mountain. Since he had gotten thru Robbinsville after the stores had closed, he had climbed the mountain without fluids. Since he didn't know who had left the water jugs, he didn't trust those, either. So, he rode all the way back to Tellico Plains without any help. He was very thirsty when he got there about 9 am. As this was after the closing time for the control, he then DNF'd.

Sorry, Hamid.

Meanwhile, when I got back to the cabin I fixed breakfast (do you know how long it takes to cook a pancake on a stove using the "Meh" setting?) as the riders began to wake up and get ready to move on. The pancakes and bacon (I had also brought a George Foreman grill, which worked great) were much appreciated, but the real winner was the espresso.

Remember me mentioning that I had unloaded a bunch of stuff from the van? You thought I was exaggerating.

After the riders had eaten and left, Hamid rolled in and we got him situated. One last rider -- Dave Harris -- called Jeff Sammons to DNF, so Jeff drove back over the top of the mountain to get him. Meanwhile, Hamid and Bob Hess -- who had DNF'd in Tellico Plains on Saturday -- got into the RAAMinator and we started back to McMinnville.

We followed the route, more or less, and checked on the riders along the way. This got us back to McMinnville just after noon, where we found Kevin Warren (who had also DNF'd on Saturday) returning to the hotel room control with pizza.

Micah was the first rider back to the room, coming in just before 2 pm. I decided to ride up to the top of Baker Mountain and come back in with some of the riders, and passed George and Steve Phillips on the way. Once up on Baker Mountain, I waited for half an hour, but no riders showed up so I rode back alone.

I had been back for almost an hour when Steve Godbey came in. He had gotten a little lost on the return -- as had just about everyone. Finally, just after 6 pm, the last group of four came in.

I  learned some interesting things from this ride. One is that, when I support it next year, I have to start the permanent earlier and not get lost, so I can help more folks out on top of the mountain. Also, somebody else will need to fix breakfast, because the person on top of the mountain at night should probably drive to Robbinsville to pick up the remaining riders on the route.

When it comes to that breakfast, toasted waffles will be fine, but I must bring the espresso machine again. And maybe we can set it up on a folding table outside, to let riders sleep a little longer.

I also learned that I ride with some really strong people, who can put up with a lot of pain. Jeff Bauer had done the Georgia 600K the weekend before, and that was supposed to be an incredibly hard ride. For him to turn around one week later and do this 600K puts him in the "legendary" class.

Strangely enough, however, I learned something else sitting on top of the mountain in the middle of the night. I learned that I really like supporting other folks doing this kind of thing, and did not miss doing it myself. Although I have only done one 600K, it was the most painful thing I've ever done. The shorter routes -- 200K, 300K, and even 400K -- can be a lot of fun ... maybe because you can get them done in a single day.

Next year, I have to do a 200K, 300K, and 400K to have a chance of riding Paris-Brest-Paris in 2011. But right now I don't think I will do a 600K, since I'm not interested in doing any 1200K other than PBP. Originally, I was thinking of doing the Cascade 1200K next year, but right now I would rather take that week of vacation and do a fully loaded tour on the tandem with RandoGirl. Ride maybe 100 miles during the day, and then eat a big hot meal and sleep in a nice bed.

Right now, that sounds better than a fast Wendy's burger and a cold, foggy mountain.