What would possess an otherwise sane and relatively boring 58 year old man to climb on a bicycle and ride 100 miles in a day? I wish I could tell you because this summer I became afflicted with the virus called road cycling and did just that. I pedaled, sweated, endured, and obsessed over riding my first “century” in Savannah, Georgia last weekend and I can’t wait to do my next one. It turns out, I’m quite a bit crazier than I realized; I like the idea of seeing what my physical and mental limits are and finding out whether I can expand them. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about myself, my capacity for suffering, and my triumph over my natural born curse of laziness.
A Century Ride is a rite of passage for cyclists, apparently you can’t be taken seriously by other riders until you’ve done one, and it seems like you need to repeat the dose with added hills every so often to keep your relevance. There are legions of these crazy people throughout the world, big ones, little ones, young ones, old ones: all willing to demonstrate that propelling two treadless tires, a greasy chain and twisty handlebars through countryside and around maniacal drivers while being impaled by a bicycle saddle is actually fun. Don’t be deceived, it isn’t fun: it is a BLAST. Didn’t you ever get on a bike as a kid and wish you didn’t have to come home for dinner when the street lights came on? Now we don’t!
We can ride until our legs go numb and then ride past the numbness. We can ride through cramps, with sunburn, and in the rain, all while wearing spandex and plastic hats. We ride without racing, riding for just for the sake of riding while recording it all on little GPS connected computers strapped to our handlebars or cameras strapped to out helmets. We are rolling A/V clubs: nerds in tights.
The Ledesma Sports Medicine Savannah Century is an annual event held on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and it begins with a ride over the very steep Talmadge Memorial Bridge and into the low country of South Carolina and then loops back into very rural eastern Georgia. About a thousand of us rode through cotton fields, pastures, and pine forests while trying not to succumb to the heat of a brutal southern summer day. It doesn’t take long on a bike to figure out that working together is better than going it alone and we randomly formed groups, riding together in packs that the professionals call a “peloton.” Whereas my speed on my training runs of 60, 70, and 80 miles was around 18 MPH, by riding in a pack I was able to ride to ride over 20 mph with much less effort.
The trick, of course, is finding the right pack and that was a bit of a challenge.
My first drafting partner, a much younger and stronger rider from my hometown club was patient with me to a point but eventually we got separated (I decided that I could either keep up with him and enjoy chest pains or I could watch him go off with a faster group without chest pains.) At each rest stop you found more people who rode around your speed, the faster riders having already sped on. I was lucky enough to find a group who worked together and rode with them for about 30 miles, staying in line and switching off the lead as if we’d ridden together for years. Riding in a group is a different sport than riding alone, you must be willing to stay in line, do your share of pulling, and to try to pedal at the same cadence as the rest of the riders. When someone in the group doesn’t follow (or know) the rules it becomes pretty obvious and not just a little dangerous; I learned this lesson the hard way as the guy who always seemed to be right in front of me was in and out of line, backpedaling constantly, and always moving unpredictably. He was willing to ride in the group’s slipstream but not willing to contribute to the energy and I was happy when he slingshotted around everyone with 10 miles to go obviously eager to finish alone and claim his triumph.
Finishing alone was my fate too, but not so triumphantly: I lost my group. I took the lead as we came to a fairly steep highway overpass around mile 90. Just previously we were going along so well that we all agreed to ride through the last water and rest stop, figuring that we could do the last 11 miles in around a half an hour. After I led up that overpass we all came to a stop at a highway intersection that was so hot I swear I could feel my bike sink into the new asphalt. I was baking. When my group pedaled off I was still there, watching them, I simply didn’t have the power to jump onto the back of the pack. Off they went, getting smaller as they flew down Highway 80 into Savannah. Like a kid who watched the ice cream truck drive away without stopping for him; I was alone, hot, and miserable.
On I went, pedaling at a fairly slow speed until I reached first a shade tree and later a bank drive-through to catch my breath and regroup, I wasn’t going to cool off, the heat was relentless. After riding 150 miles a week all summer, you wouldn’t think the final 5 miles would seem so hard, but I was running on the last of my reserves, out of water and electrolytes. I wish I hadn’t skipped the last rest stop. I wasn’t going to quit, I was damned-well going to finish, but my fantasy of sprinting across the finish line seemed unlikely. I decided that if I was going to collapse and die, it would be on the way to the finish line, and I moved on.
Speaking of the finish line, in the interest of science I also decided to add another variable and become lost. I hadn’t seen another cyclist for about 20 minutes, my time was still pretty good, there should have been a LOT of riders behind me: I must have missed a turn. As I realized my mistake I looked up and saw the top of the bridge where we began the day and I turned down a street I sort of recognized from my morning ride the day before. AND I found more people on bikes, I was saved. I followed them, no energy left to join in their pace line, I just pedaled on until I found the finish, I’d made it! I leaned my bike against a tree and found some water, then Teresa, who had come looking for me, long after completing her 26 mile morning ride. I was never so happy to see her beautiful face, my summer of hard work complete. I was a Century rider.
There’s something to be said for willingly embarking on a pursuit that will cause exhaustion, discomfort, boredom, and a little danger. It speaks to the fact that “feeling good” is not always the best long term goal, that setting goals and achieving them is worth some pain and doubt. There’s a lesson to be learned from being a good soldier and working in a group, that trusting strangers with a common goal is sometimes a good risk, and that being a lone wolf has a price.
I’ve already signed up for my next Century Ride, it’s in a few weeks, and I can’t wait to apply my lessons learned in Savannah, I’ll bring a map this time and make sure that I stop at the last rest stop!