Lessons Learned, Part 2: How to Identify When a Friendly Ride Becomes a Race

I have participated in the Ride to Conquer Cancer (RTCC)  twice as part of a team called the Massey Mashers. In time I will share those stories too, but this particular post is actually about a series of lessons I learned while training with the Mashers in the lead up to the 2009 event.

Writers Note: My unfaltering ability to misconstrue things, combined with my propensity to dive headlong into situations without fully thinking them through, provides me with an unending stream of opportunities to learn life’s lessons. It’s unfortunate, but it keeps things interesting. Plus it gives me things to write about. There have been many of these opportunities, and there will surely be more, so I’ve decided to make this a serial post called “Lessons Learned”. I declare this to be Part 2 of the never-ending series. The Bee and Me, wherein I learned the hard way not to panic and close my eyes while biking at speed, now becomes the de facto Part 1.

The 2009 RTCC was the first for the Massey Mashers. The team was built around a core of teachers from a local school (my sister, Leanne, being one of them), and a group of their siblings, friends, and spouses. Most of the team members were familiar with each other from Wednesday night spin classes organised by one of the teachers, Darrel, and held at the school throughout the winter months.

The Mashers shared a desire to do something good by raising money and awareness for a great cause, but the cycling experience of the team members varied widely. For some, riding over 100 km on each of two consecutive days was just another weekend. Others were regular riders, but not accustomed to sitting in the saddle for such long hours. A few others were fairly new to cycling, or hadn’t been on a bike for a while, and were nervous about riding hills, in groups, near traffic, or all of the above.

We decided to fit in some outdoor group rides before the event to get to know each other, discuss fundraising, build some endurance, and give the newer riders some experience. We selected the Highwood Pass for one of those rides. It is a good distance and a beautiful ride; it would introduce people to climbing a bigger hill than what they might otherwise encounter in and around Calgary (it’s the highest point that can be reached by paved road in Canada); and Kananaskis Village – or more specifically the tasty brunch at Kananaskis Village – is located convenient to the end of the ride. Most importantly, the road is closed to traffic in the winter, and until it opens each year on June 15, cyclists can enjoy it without worrying about vehicles.

I had driven over the Pass enough times to know that it is a long and sustained climb with some particularly steep sections. I was intrigued to get out there and try it on my bike, and it was comforting having seasoned riders in the group acting as guides.

We parked at the gates where the highway is closed each year at the north end. From there it is roughly 17 km to the summit, mostly uphill. We rode together for the first while, but eventually started to spread out. For the next few kilometres the lead group slowed intermittently to allow everyone to catch up, until the climb really started with about 5 kilometres to the top. With everyone focused on their own efforts, there would be no more regrouping until the summit.

Those last few kilometres felt really steep but I was able to stay within sight of the more experienced riders most of the way up, and arrived at the top just fashionably late. The actual summit was not reachable on skinny tires, because there was still snow on the road, but the sign could be seen a few hundred metres away.

I was elated having climbed the Highwood by bike for the first time, and pleased with how good I felt.  It was a nice affirmation of my potential as a recreational cyclist, and taught me my first lesson of the day: as hard as it is, climbing these mountain passes is entirely doable, not to mention immensely gratifying. I liked it.

We waited as the last few riders arrived, had a snack and put on some layers in anticipation of the cold descent ahead. A few of us took the opportunity to walk through the snow to get pictures, standing proudly beneath the sign proclaiming the elevation to be 2206 metres.

I have always enjoyed descending on my mountain bike but I am (to this day) rather petrified of maiming myself, so I do so slowly, and tend to be the last one down any given hill. The descent down the Highwood that day offered up lesson number two: things are different on a road bike.

The ride down is long on mostly good pavement, the corners are wide and sweeping, and without traffic you can ride in the middle of the lane where there is much less risk of loose gravel than on the shoulder. I got into the most aerodynamic position I could dream up, pedaled my way to the biggest gear, and descended with only a few quick pulses on my brake levers.

I arrived at the bottom chilled, eyes watering profusely, and ahead of the group. The elation I had felt climbing was now matched by the joy I felt descending. It was really a lot of fun, and a hell of a lot faster and less stressful than bombing down a rough trail on my mountain bike.

As the road levelled out I sat up and coasted, thinking I had a sizeable buffer between me and the next rider, but Darrel soon passed me by. I quickened my cadence to catch back up to him and as I pulled alongside him with a giddy smile on my face, he asked me a simple question, “Do you want to go?”

Darrel was a seasoned rider and the organiser of the spin classes and our RTCC team. I didn’t know him well, but apparently he had a competitive streak. I was intimidated, but buoyed by my experiences up and down the mountain. I accepted his invitation to race with plucky spirit, responding with a firm “yep” as I accelerated with all my might. The race was on.

Over the next minute or so I pedaled as hard and fast as I could in the biggest gear my knees could handle. I was bent over with my hands in the drops and riding on the smooth yellow line, trying to maximise my speed however possible. I was digging deep and quickly depleting my energy, but he was right on my tail. Despite my best efforts, I could not get a gap.

The burning in my legs was making a convincing case for me letting up. I gave in for just a moment’s reprieve and he was by me in a flash. I pursued in earnest for a few seconds and after that only half-heartedly. In an embarrassingly short distance I had exhausted my reserves, both physically and mentally. I let up and watched Darrel pedal away.

I spun lightly and slowly for the remaining kilometres, coasting where I could. As I wheeled up to Darrel, now standing beside his bike back at the gate, he smiled and asked “What happened to you?” I stopped, leaning heavily on my bars in the universal “I’m an exhausted cyclist” position. I looked up in defeat and described how I had blown up after throwing everything I had at him after his challenge to race.

With a grin spreading across his face, and the patient demeanour of an adult speaking to an impressively naïve child, he corrected me. Where I had distinctly heard “Let’s get it on, sucker!”, he had actually said something much more like “Let us ride together for the remainder of the distance and take turns drafting off each other so we can be as efficient as possible and still go relatively fast. You know, like cyclists do.”

As stirring and spirited as my efforts surely had been, it turned out I was the only one racing.

And therein lays lesson number three of the day: know how to identify when a friendly ride becomes a race. Or, more correctly, know how to identify when a friendly ride has, in fact, NOT become a race.

With only minor analysis of the evidence at hand, I also conclude that there is an inherent fourth lesson. In the future, even if I do, by some stroke of luck, manage to correctly identify that a ride has become a race, I should probably still just sit it out.

What treasures, all these lessons.

Please contact Darrel Hargreaves by email to DAHargreaves(at)cbe.ab.ca if you would like to find out more about the FREE Wednesday night spin classes held at Vincent Massey school through the winter. Bring your own bike and trainer.

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A Man, his Mouse, and a Cyclist

Reader beware caveat: though the following may seem very much like a twisted fairy tale, it is actually a factual relating of one of the stranger things that has happened to me on a bike. I believe it is such an odd story that if, after reading it, you were to tell me that you were not left wondering “you mean this is not THE strangest thing that has happened to you on a bike?”, well then, I might accuse YOU of telling a tale.

On June 4, 2011, I set out from home for a training ride. I was getting into pretty decent cycling shape having trained for and ridden the Tour de Victoria, and was focused on the upcoming Highwood Pass Gran Fondo and my first solo attempt of the 24 Hours of Adrenalin mountain bike race. I was down in weight, I was feeling great, and I was even starting to enjoy the climbs.

I cycled west at a brisk (for me) 32 km/hr pace for the first hour and then hit Cochrane Hill, a nice local climb. I could have ridden straight home to Calgary from there, but I wanted to do 100 km, so I opted for an out and back side trip on Lochend Road, a quiet country road.

I was 40 km into my ride and my legs were starting to get tired from my first hours’ efforts, so I was impressed with how high my average speed was. I did not realise the full extent of the tail wind pushing me along as I continued north, and due to the rolling terrain I also failed to recognise the net elevation loss. I just rode along, enjoying the pace and the scenery, blissfully unaware of the events unfolding before me.

I was 65 km into my ride when I was stopped by a cattle drive blocking the road just beyond an intersection. As I dismounted my bike I realised my legs were quite fatigued, so I decided to make that my turnaround point. I watched bemused as the cattle drive turned at the intersection and headed off in another direction. It was a peaceful moment as I stood there, resting and appreciating the sun-bathed serenity of the mostly uninhabited farmland around me, and enjoying the small amount of food I had brought for the day.

First time I'd ever had to stop a ride for a cattle drive.

A pickup truck passed by on the other side of the road, heading the opposite way and slowing down, presumably to take the same turn the cattle drive did, towards a small town called Madden. The driver – an older fellow – brought the truck to a stop, backed up, then pulled across the road, stopping with this truck angled in front of me.

Leaning out the window he commented how nice the day was, to which I agreed. He seemed pleasant and friendly. I wondered if he had stopped for directions, or perhaps to warn me about something up the road.

A smile spread across the man’s face as he explained how he had just come from a garage sale in the city. He was excited about the great stuff he had bought. I was intrigued about his treasures, but couldn’t help wondering why he had seen fit to stop in the middle of nowhere to tell a random cyclist about it. Maybe he was lonely and just wanted to talk.

As the meandering and mostly one-sided conversation continued, I started to get a weird vibe. It was clear from the way the man offered to show me his special purchases that he felt I would be as excited as he was. He pulled out two Mickey and Minnie Mouse dolls, each about twelve inches high, in full wedding regalia. It was hard to hide that I was, in fact, not as excited as him.

As I stood there alone in the middle of nowhere with this confounding stranger, my mind sought a rational explanation for what was going on. I would have assumed that a good old country boy like this might actually try very hard to avoid someone like me, clad as I was in Lycra from head to toe.  Exactly what about the lawfully wedded mice was so important that he was compelled to stop his vehicle and show it to a complete stranger on the side of the road?

I was able to come up with a few scenarios. It wasn’t even the scariest of those that ended with me locked in his barn, dressed in a wedding dress, and wearing one of those Disney mouse ear hats.

I looked around nervously, hoping a vehicle would come by.

None did, and the fun continued with my new friend “sharing” a random slew of very inappropriate and exceedingly racist jokes. I was growing steadily more uncomfortable. I laughed nervously after each punch line, buying time to plot a polite withdrawal that would hopefully not set any perverted or psychotic wheels in motion.

I went with the simple approach, and the man seemed to accept my assertion that I had to be getting back on the road. Looking back as I pedaled away, I saw that he had pulled back onto his side of the road, but had stopped on the shoulder and was just sitting there. I could only hope he was admiring his dolls and not looking in his rear view mirror.

I pedaled fast and hard, fuelled by adrenaline and the duelling banjos soundtrack looping through my mind. My legs burned. The headwind felt strong, and the gradient steep. I was trying to escape a seemingly crazy man, and I was pedaling into an unexpectedly strong wind up an equally unexpected steep gradient. Looking back at my Garmin data, I had averaged 45 km/hr for the last 6 km before running into the cattle drive, so I really should have had a better grasp on the terrain as I initiated my retreat, but it somehow came as a total surprise.

It was a very long ride home indeed. That first hill dragged on and on as I kept looking back over my shoulder, and then the rollers continued for another eternity.  For as long as I could look back and see that spot, the truck was still parked there.

I eventually got over the hills and out of sight and relaxed somewhat as the adrenaline surge subsided. I realised the toll the event had taken. My legs felt like wood, and it was so hard to pedal that it felt like my tires were flat. I was spent. I had no food left, limited water and the sun was beating down hard on my shaved head through the vents in my helmet. The wind hurt my ears and annoyed me to no end. In hindsight I was likely experiencing my first real bonk. I stopped several times to sit and rest in the ditch, always keeping my eyes open for the blue truck.

I could have called my wife or my sister to come pick me up; at one point I even had my phone in my hand and started to dial one of the numbers. In the end though, my pride won over, and I plodded ahead hungry, sweaty, tired, sunburned, and frazzled.

I finally turned back onto the main highway with 13 km left to go. I put my head down, mustered my remaining resolve, and pedaled as hard as I could in an effort to just get the heck home, but my best exertions were not getting me anywhere fast.

About half way home from there, my day finally took a turn for the better as two riders on sleek triathlon bikes slowly overtook me. The lead rider looked over, perched on his aero bars, and said just about the perfect thing considering my level of exhaustion and self-perceived lack of progress: “we’ve been trying to catch you for quite some time”. I was just thankful it was them who had caught me.

A summary of my ride.

My First Solo 24 Hours of Adrenalin – Part 3, The Grand Finale

Continued from Part 2, and (finally) concluded.

I returned to my tent and explained the situation to my sister, Leanne, in the most dramatic fashion possible. She kindly provided me sympathy. We decided that all I could do was stretch, drink some more and eat some salty food to replenish my depleted electrolytes. While she made me some noodles I wandered over to an adjacent building so I could use the wall to stretch.

I lay on my back and put my legs up against the wall, and then let them fall to each side, feeling a decent stretch that at least partially reached the affected area. It was while lying there in this vulnerable position that I looked up, squinting into the bright sky, and saw a girl in a wedding dress walk by. Obviously I was delirious with exhaustion and cramp pain.

As it turns out, it was all too real. The building I was stretching against had been rented out for a mountain wedding, and the bride pretty much had to step around my rank, Lycra’ed and spread eagled body on her way in to the most important day of her life (she was a great sport). My sister caught site of this and naturally rushed over with her camera.

The wedding party sneaks up

Yup. That's me. The one in the more horizontal orientation, right in the middle of the big day.

We returned to the tent, both of us laughing, and Leanne suggested I use the travel roller she had bought me as a birthday gift (for rolling out my IT bands), and try rolling out the cramping muscles. I lay on the ground on my belly and rolled back and forth, using my body weight to create as much pressure as I could handle.

It was heavenly, in an it-hurts-so-good kind of way. My eyes rolled far, far back into my head.

The heavenly roller

After a good long stretch I scarfed down two packages of Ichiban noodles Leanne had made me with a hefty dose of their salty flavouring packets. While she refilled my water bottles with Hammer sports drink I sat down for a quiet moment and tried not to think about my stupid legs.

Around 8:00 I decided the show must go on, so I mounted lights on my helmet and handlebars and headed out for a lap as day turned to night. The lap went much better, with the cramping occurring only every now and then, which was most certainly much more pleasant than always and continually.

When I returned to camp Leanne had boiled some water and poured it into a Nalgene bottle for me. It’s a trick she had learned winter camping – it’s not intended for drinking, it’s meant to be used as a hot water bottle – but with the hot water in it, it also happened to take the cake as the newest and best cramping muscle stretching thingy ever. My eyes rolled even further back in my head than before as I rolled on the Nalgene bottle while the heat soaked into my leg (anyone know how to get a patent?).

By this point I had exhausted my ability to swallow gels, so I opted for even more noodles, and then headed back out for my fifth lap.

I always find that the night laps seem to go by much quicker, despite my slower lap times, because I have no choice but to narrow my focus completely and just chase the small beam of light moving in front of me. That little beam of light is all that stands between me and a thousand different oblivions, which, as it turns out, is sufficient motivation to keep me focused. It’s the proverbial carrot on a stick.

With my attention fixated so deliberately and intensely some senses are heightened (for example, my ability to hear what I think is “a bear” from about five kilometres away), while everything else slows down or just fades into the background.

To put night riding in perspective, whenever I am giving tips to new mountain bikers I pull out the same hypocritical sage advice that I think most bikers do: look where you WANT to go, or in other words, DO NOT look where you DO NOT want to go, or you will go precisely there, and quickly. I find night riding forces me to actually do that. I can only see what is in my beam of light, and thankfully, it is typically pointed roughly where I want to go. Giant canyons can slip by just to the side of the trail, and as long as I remain blissfully ignorant of them, I also remain out of them. Maybe I should only ride at night.

Crossing the over/under bridge at the start of a night lap

I look much more tired than the time would suggest I should be

An hour and forty minutes or so later, I was ecstatic to be returning from a successful fifth lap – the most I had ever ridden at a 24HOA event – but I was utterly exhausted. I squeezed the newly refreshed hot Nalgene bottle between my legs, slumped into a folding lawn chair, pulled my toque down over my eyes, and fell asleep.

A much needed, but all too short, rest

Just before midnight, Leanne (bravely) shook me awake. She could tell I was in no mood to get back on my bike, so super nice as always, she politely asked for my permission to do so before berating me into getting back at it. This polite berating, as it turns out, is one of the most important skills of a good solo rider’s pit captain. That and the ability to make endless pots of salty Ichiban.

A few minutes into my sixth lap, just as the sound of the announcements over the loud speakers back at camp was starting to fade into unintelligibility, I could have sworn I heard something about a grizzly bear being spotted near check point 1. This was the last thing I wanted to be hearing as I started a night lap and it sent a shiver of regret up my spine as my thoughts turned from “lap number six, holy crap, I’m rocking this” to “is this worth it? Like, at all?”

I did not see a bear, but the cold tingling sensation of fear that persevered at the base of my neck for the rest of the lap left me thinking that just maybe, one saw me.

The face of exhaustion

Upon arriving back in camp and doing another epic round of stretches, Leanne and I agreed that some good rest was in order, and I crawled into the back of her minivan and quickly drifted into a deep coma of a sleep, turning a two hour lap into one lasting six hours and forty one minutes.

My seventh lap passed in a quick blur of relief. I remember that strong elated feeling of hope (manic hysteria?) that rises with the sun at dawn after a long night. And my maniacal smile in the pictures would seem to indicate that I was indeed, hysterical. All kidding aside, I was just very happy. My legs were much better and I felt fairly rested after my snooze, and although my forearms were so sore I could hardly grip the bars (the next day I would not be able to put on deoderant because I couldn’t hold it tight enough), I was extremely pleased with my performance on my maiden solo voyage.

Beyond tired and into hysteria

I was nearing the end of that seventh lap right around 10:30 am. This left me in an unfortunate predicament, based on the following five facts:

  1. I had to finish my last lap after noon but before 1:00 in order to not be disqualified from the event, but….
  2. I could choose to not cross the finish line at that point in time, but rather sit in my camp until noon, and then ride my bike across the line, thereby finishing “legally” without riding another lap; however….
  3. I had set myself a goal of riding 7-8 laps so one more lap would really be great, and….
  4. I most definitely had enough time to do so, but…..
  5. My legs and forearms were pretty darned tired.

Suspecting (actually knowing) I had the energy in my tank, I was leaning more towards venturing out for one last lap. As I approached my camp, which was on the way to the transition area, I saw that my wife had arrived and was standing there with our son in her arms, beside my tired but amazingly still upbeat sister, both of them cheering incredibly loud. It became clear that I would do one more lap, but there was no way I was not going to be spectacularly theatrical about it.

I rolled into camp, hugged them both, and breathlessly asked my sister to fill my water bottle. I purposely didn’t say anything about another lap, and for fear of hurting my pride, they purposely didn’t ask. I paused dramatically for much too long, and then stoically broke the news. Always at the ready to humour my shenanigans and support me, they did not disapoint. They both cheered even louder than before. Thankfully I did not crash my bike like an idiot as I pedalled off like a man off to war, although I’m sure it would have been fitting karma in response to my dramatic antics.

Feeling spent, I still finished my last lap in an hour and thirty five minutes, just a few minutes longer than my very first lap (you’ll recall the first lap included the run; however). Still, it was pretty fast, all things considered, and the perfect way to end the race. That lap, and the hope that my sister will pit crew for me again and Ichiban will sponsor us, is the only reason that I registered to do it all over again this year.

and........DONE

Best family, friends and support network for a recreational athlete ever!

My very supportive family. My son even has a whistle. Thanks Fanny for helping make these silly things happen for me!

and the best Pit Captain ever too! I can't thank you enough Leanne! You kept me going. UTAH!