Monday, July 28, 2014

The Rapha Rising Challenge: Up, Down, Repeat.

I do love a good challenge and 8,800 meters (or 28,871 feet) of climbing is nothing to sneeze at, especially if you need to complete the goal within nine days. As with most endurance cycling challenges, though, it was not the riding that made matters so difficult, it was finding the time and navigating professional and personal waters to successfully get it all done. Having just returned from a four-day trip to undertake the Lap of the Lake 1000K, I've been working through a backlog of professional and household projects that makes it difficult for me to get out and ride for sustained periods of time.

As a result, I sought to ride the hilliest roads I could find within the shortest distance from my house. In other words, to get this done, I needed to be either going up or going down a hill. No flatlands for me. Anything lateral was a waste of time. Up, down, repeat.

All told, I completed the Challenge by climbing 31,689 feet in 265 miles, which involves climbing an average of 120 feet per mile. Phew! While my plan did not strictly involve a series of hill repeats, I did make quite a few out-and-back trips over the local ridge line. For my last big day of climbing, for instance, I crossed the Mohonk ridge six times collecting 5211 feet in just 32 miles or about 165 vertical feet per mile. 

I think Strava should award a special honor to those riders who cover the greatest vertical distance over the shortest lateral distance. It's the ratio that's important, isn't it?

Finally, at the top of the Popletown climb (yes, they spelled it wrong not me) I spied this interesting and cryptic sign. Apparently, there is some French hill-climbing group in the area of which I am unaware. I should keep my eyes out for them, though, as I'm sure they'd make good training partners, especially as we all gear up for Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015.

Up next: a Catskills 200K permanent is in the works for the end of the week.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rapha Rising Challenge: A Great Day for Up!

Like most endurance cyclists, I respond well to a challenge. An organized challenge says to me, “other people are crazy enough to do this, what’s wrong with you?” It's hard not to take the bait, especially when the competition between participants is minimal and the main emphasis is on completion of the task itself, which on a good challenge is just a little bit harder than is comfortably easy to execute. In this way, I find the Rapha Festive 500 (winter) and Rapha Rising (summer) challenges a lot like randonneuring in general. Complete the challenge, get a free patch (and maybe some modest bragging rights). What could be better?

As Dr. Suess has written, it's a "great day today! Great day for Up!"

This is my second year participating in the Rapha Rising Challenge (RRC), which is scheduled to coincide with a week of major climbing on the Tour De France. This year, we have nine days to climb 8800 meters (28,871 feet), which is roughly the amount of climbing the pros will encounter on three major Tour stages this week. The rules are simple: Ride your bike and upload your GPS tracks to Strava. Unfortunately, the exchange rate between Garmin and Strava is currently not running in my favor, so it looks like I will need to climb an extra 5% to meet the minimum, but I guess I'm the one who benefits, right?

As any realtor will tell you, finding a good home involves three important variables: location, location and location. I would argue that more than school district, tax levy and proximity to shopping, serious cyclists should calculate exactly how long it will take them to be riding on fine roads after clipping in right outside their back door. While we live on a major road, which is great for my wife’s business and safe travel during the snows of winter, I can reach a network of delicious low-traffic hilly roads that stretch on into infinity within 200 feet of my driveway. As a result, I am never further than 5 minutes from an amazing ride and never need to drive to the start.

When I say these roads are quiet, I mean QUIET. It is not uncommon for me to ride for hours without being passed by a soul. On yesterday’s ride, for instance, I rode without seeing a car for the first hour and fifteen minutes at which point I was passed by a flotilla of tree-pruning vehicles on their way to an important assignment. After that, all was still and quiet again for another hour. Here's a rundown of the week so far:

Day One: Rapha Rising Prologue. This particular Saturday was a busy day in our household with my son heading off for a week of camp in the early afternoon. As a result, I was only able to steal away for fewer than two hours to ride so I clipped in and sought out the closest hills to my back door. (19 miles; 2627 ft.)

Day Two: On day two, I crossed both the Shaupeneak and Shawangunk Ridges for a total of six noticeable climbs. If I didn't have a pile of household chores to do I would have ridden all day, but this was a good start. (42 miles; 4021 ft.)

Day Three: Tight on time again, I simply traversed the Shaupeneak Ridge four times in what I refer to as the Popletown Quadruple Bipass hitting each of the major hills four times. Luckily the terrain is varied enough on this short ride that I did not get bored. (27 miles; 3776 ft.)

Staying away from my bike for a full week after LOL provided me with just the rest I needed to return to cycling with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. As a result, the first several days of the RRC have been quite enjoyable. We'll see how these legs hold up as the week continues. More soon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Final Stage of Redemption: The Lap of the Lake 1000K

The Lap of the Lake 1000K brevet is the single longest ride I’ve attempted since my 2010 accident. It is an event that would test whether my physical repairs (specifically those in my shoulder and hip) would support my ability to ride hundreds of miles over multiple days. I have had this particular ride on my mind ever since I was unable to start after being sidelined (also in 2010) by a crash in which I broke my arm. As a result, this ride was about more than simply having a good time with friends new and old and seeking out adventure on an exciting and unique course. It was about confirming that I have the ability to successfully ride long brevets once again and, specifically, that I will be able to train for PBP 2015 with confidence.

Since I was unsure of my performance at this distance (especially since the LOL 1000K is run unsupported and offers no SAG support in the event of emergency) I thought it wise to team up with others. I was especially grateful that JB, a two-time LOL ancien, was interested in teaming up along with hearty randonneur Nigel G. Our plan was a simple one: we would ride for 300 miles on the first leg, 200 miles on the second and then finish with 125 miles on the final day. With a 7:00 pm start, this meant that we would also front-load our night riding by powering through the first night as well as the second day and that we would need to arrange hotel accommodations on both Thursday and Friday nights.

I would recommend this mileage pyramid to anyone seeking a successful way to divide a very long ride. By front-loading the event with big miles, one builds up a time cushion as well as a buffer against fatigue. One of the ways we handled the sleep deprivation that results from this approach was to take a few “micronaps” along the way. Once on the first night when Mike W. developed a flat tire, several of us spied a gazebo in the middle of town and laid down for a ten-minute snooze, which we all found to be strangely refreshing. We also grabbed a similar rest in a park in Kingston the following afternoon after eating our lunch at a fine little cafĂ©.

One of my least favorite sections of the route, due in part to my somewhat debilitating fear of heights, was the bridge crossing at the Thousand Islands. These bridges provide a spectacular view of the Thousand Islands region, but they also require cyclists to walk their bikes over two miles of vertiginous walkway with tractor trailers and cars speeding towards them at 60 miles an hour several feet away. As one nears the top of the bridge, the roadway literally bounces as heavy trucks power their way between Canada and the USA. Another low point of the route involved cycling through the sprawling suburbs of Toronto on roads that were both under construction and completely ill-suited to cycling. It is a blessed miracle that no one was hit by a car in this section and I hope the RBA seriously considers a rerouting to make for a safer and more pleasant way to navigate this major world city. While I’m a big fan of urban riding, suburban sprawl riding, where hostile drivers have no idea what to do with cyclists, is something no one should have to encounter, especially on a well-designed brevet.

My favorite sections of the route came before dawn on both Friday and Saturday mornings. On Friday, JB, Nigel, Gil L. and Mike B. and I clipped in around 2:15. It was a bit more chilly on Friday than it had been the night before, but I added my rain jacket and my new wool glove liners and felt more than adequately dressed to be comfortable in the cool morning air. It always seems to be a pleasant surprise to get back onto the bike after even the shortest of sleeps. As if by magic, the soreness and fatigue is gone and the excitement of starting a new day takes over on an emotional level. Several things made this particular section so remarkable. First, the roads were lumpy, curvy and rural, all of which added a mysterious quality that was accentuated by the full moon reflecting in the lake which popped into view on and off for the first 25 miles. Due to the amazing expanse of the lake, it appeared to my tired mind as if we were riding on a remote island rather than the shores of a massive lake and I almost thought I would see a goat cross the road as one might in Greece or some other romantic location.

The pre-dawn ride the next day between Niagara on the Lake and Niagara Falls was similarly magical. Nigel, JB and I clipped in around 3:30, this time to make it to the border control before it closed at 5:12 am. This deadline turned out to be a fantastic catalyst as we were compelled to ride through a glorious stretch of road bordered by regal estates with views of the Niagara River that were accentuated by the bright, full moon. Not long after leaving town, we stripped off a few layers to prepare to climb the escarpment, which was steep but not too terrible and magical in it’s own right. The Canadian government has maintained gorgeous parkland around Niagara Falls that makes the approach from the West very pleasant. Once we arrived on the top of the escarpment, it was not long before we entered the honky-tonk sections of Niagara Falls that cater to the tremendous volume of international tourists interested in catching site of this remarkable natural phenomenon. Our trip through town induced a bit of panic as the trail was not easy to navigate with signs hard to interpret and the clock ticking away. We very much did not want to break the border control and so were relieved when we entered the Rainbow Bridge in enough time to snap a few pictures and pass through the control at 5:10 am, two minutes before it closed. I’ve never before been the Lanterne Rouge at a control and the adrenalin rush associated with passing through just before the the control closed was not unpleasant.

Upon returning our passports safely to our bags, we pedaled over to the Denny’s in search of some coffee and breakfast. It was a joy to see Susan’s and Arthur’s smiling faces as they finished their meals and prepared for their next leg. We were not disappointed as the menu was perfectly aligned with our needs and I ordered a hot cup of strong coffee along with another plate of fried eggs, bacon, sausage and home fries. This was one of the many “real” meals we ate along the way, which is another strategy that requires an investment in time, but which pays great dividends with digestive comfort and energy management throughout the day. To hell with pocket food and liquid nutrition.

As with all long brevets, there were some times we were literally laughing out loud, and in this respect, “LOL” fully lived up to its name. One notable moment was our trek on day three across what appeared to be a post-apocalyptic highway along the southern coast of the lake. Not unlike the Palisades or Taconic Parkways in the Hudson Valley, this four-lane highway, complete with expansive green median was beautiful. The only thing missing was cars. We rode through the warm, dry and sunny afternoon as intrepid randonneurs might after a robot uprising has destroyed all other humans. When we spied an abandoned car in the shoulder, it caused more than momentary panic and fits of hysterics. Every so often, a lone car would zip down the road at 60 mph, but most of the time, the parkway was ours.

Another favorite feature of long brevets is the natural “hopscotching” that occurs when riders speed up and slow down and take breaks of varying lengths. As a result, I was able to enjoy the company of a wide range of riders over the course of our three days in the saddle. Mostly, I rode with JB and Nigel, with whom I had organized a strategy and reserved hotels to meet the demands of this unsupported ride. I was also able to meet and ride with an interesting assortment of riders of varying backgrounds and experiences that included: Gil L., a rider in his first season of randonneuring, Mike B., the president of DC Randonnuers, Steve Y., the RBA from Long Island Randonneurs, Calista, a quick rider from DC, Arthur from Toronto, Bob T., a strong rider from NJ with whom I have ridden before, Susan O., from Portland who (insanely) rode over 600 miles from Chicago to the start of LOL in what she lovingly refers to as her “Dumbass Tour” along with many others. It was also a real treat to be able to jump on the “Severna Park Peloton train” on day three as we made our way across the southern coast of Lake Ontario with a tailwind at our back and sun on our shoulders. With all of the hard work and motivation of this well-oiled machine, it was not difficult to keep a pace of over 20mph, which was a thrilling way to make up a bit of time across relatively flat terrain.

The penultimate control in Charlotte brought us to within 25 miles of the finish and afforded us some of the most spectacular frozen custard I have ever eaten. Since JB has been raving about this treat for as long as we’ve discussed this ride, I allowed him to buy me a “double” which we relished as we considered the final stretch. Having been separated from Nigel a bit earlier in the afternoon, we waited for him on the banks of the Lake and savored the rest before the final push to the end. When Nigel, Steve and Gil arrived with an appetite, they encouraged us to forge ahead and to meet them at the finish. With this encouragement, we clipped in and made the final approach. 

It was Susan who first introduced me to the term “full value” riding to describe her pattern of riding towards the back of the pack on a brevet and planning stops strategically and efficiently to allow for a comfortable and manageable pace on the route. This was, honestly, my first experience with full value riding as I typically spend my time in the first third of the pack. Having now spent time at all parts of the field over the course of my randonneuring career from first finisher to last man through the control, I can honestly say that I think the latter has the potential, especially in fine weather with a good group of riders, to be a whole lot of fun. I guess I have been thinking that folks at the very back of the pack were somehow suffering. This certainly was not the case with this event. We were having a blast sucking every bit of value out of this brevet. Thanks, Susan, for introducing me to this helpful way of looking at things.

All told, the LOL 1000K was an amazing event. Not only was it a brevet filled with unique natural wonders and amazing weather, but it was also an opportunity to ride with and learn from some awesome randonneurs. The Lap of the Lake 1000K was most remarkable to me personally, though, because it proved to me that my body is ready to take on PBP and any other 1200K in the wake of my terrible accident. It allowed me to discover that I was not permanently and irreparably damaged. While I may never be quite as fast as I was before the crash, I am confident that I will be able to take on whatever cycling challenges come before me. None of the pain I felt at the finish of LOL was in any way related to injuries I sustained in 2010. My shoulder gave me no trouble and neither did my hip. It was only the pedestrian pains of palm and knee that caused me to pop ibuprofen tablets on day three. In other words, I’m back, baby, I'm back!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Planning for the Lap of the Lake 1000K: Almost There!

The upcoming Lap of the Lake (LOL) 1000K has been on my thoughts for a long, long, long time. I was originally scheduled to undertake this challenge in 2010, but was sidelined by an accident on the NJ 600K that resulted in a fractured arm. To make up for this disappointment, I clipped in for the Endless Mountains 1000K later that summer, which had an even less favorable outcome. 

It has been a long, steady climb back, but I finally feel ready to take on the 1000K distance again and with this confidence, my larger goal to complete PBP in 2015 seems a bit closer as well. The fact that LOL is completely unsupported adds a layer of planning and adventure to the picture. While my standard rear saddle bag probably has enough room for most of my needs, I decided to purchase and install a rear rack to allow for a pannier to serve as a “drop bag” with a change of clothes and extras like additional tubes and a spare tire. I found a great Tubus rack known as the Logo Titan, which is made of titanium and is really quite light yet holds a considerable amount of weight if needed. 

In addition to the rack, I decided to buy a redundant battery-powered tail light since it's hard to be too bright from behind. I settled on the B&M Toplight, which like the rack is made in Germany and the two fit together like hand in glove.

In order to take full advantage of the many wise (or crazed) minds planning for this event, I created a Facebook page several weeks ago called the "LOL Planning Task Force" and invited everyone I knew who was interested in the ride to participate. This has been a great way to get to know a few folks before we hit the road together. One rider even went so far as to create and share GPS tracks with everyone. The craziest story, though, for sure involves one rider who's taken the opportunity to ride from Chicago to the start of the event in Ontario, NY in a trip she's referring to as The Dumbass Tour.

This past weekend, I also posted my packing list as a Google doc and received some wonderful suggestions that will make my ride even more enjoyable. You know, stuff like the "personal hygiene kit" that I neglected to list. If you see that I'm missing something, please let me know in the "comments" section below. I can use all the help I can get. Some days it's hard to remember life before social networking.

There really is something thrilling about riding around a very, very large body of water. Many cyclists look at natural phenomena like this the same way mountain climbers look at huge mountains. It's there, I've got to do something about it. If things don’t work out, there’s no shortcut home and (with no support vehicles to speak of) it will be necessary to keep on pedaling. I'm luckily riding with two friends, one of whom has ridden this route twice before, so the enormity of the goal is not causing me panic.

I could not be more excited.