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Monday, March 28, 2011

Texas Hell Week 2011

Finally, it is Hell Week.  All year long I hunger for this week, but the longing grows particularly intense in the winter when I begin to yearn for color and warmth to dance in into the world once again, for my eyes and ears to be held hostage by the colors and the sounds of life. Winter seems even more cold and forbidding after Christmas is over.  Unlike most years, I see only a few people I know at registration, but then we are earlier than normal despite a stop in Austin to lust at a couple of bike stores.  I am already settled into my hotel room and have had a quick ride in shorts and short sleeved jersey to the local bike store. Bike stores always make me feel like a kid in a candy store window with my nose pressed against the glass but empty pockets.  Three is one day is really pushing it. The new Hell Week jersey is the best looking jersey there has been for a few years now, particularly as it does not have the nasty shade of green that has tragically beset the jersey the past few years, but there is nothing about it that screams Texas so I keep my money in my pocket.  I think how I wish Nick would go back to the previous designer.

Following dinner, we make plans to meet in the morning for one of my favorite Texas rides:  Windows on Doss.  Surprisingly, I sleep well even in the strange bed, maybe because I have brought my own pillow from home.  The morning dawns, cloudy and overcast, but warm enough to anticipate shorts and short sleeved jerseys later in the day.  My only extra is a wind vest that will be easy enough to take off and carry when the sun burns off the clouds.  Bill, Steve, Mike, Dave, and I head off into the morning air.  It seems that everyone has a grin on their face and my heart erupts with glee that ends in a giggle that is related to nothing except the exhilaration of being here yet one more time:  Fredericksburg, Texas.  "Hello, Fred," I shout, and nobody in the group looks at me strangely, one of the nice things about being with friends.  Work and home seem like another world, and as always I am glad that I married someone who allows me to pursue those things that make me happy when his health will not allow him to participate except vicariously.

I think about the meaning that Fred has had in my life.  Fred was the name of my brother's dog that I loved so.  For a moment in my mind his tongue is once again softly licking the tears off my cheek, tears from some teenage angst that seemed important then but now is as distant and painless as another life. For a moment I can feel that black silk of his ears and the curve of his jaw. Fred next became a pet name for my husband after he came home from work one evening yelling, "Wilma, I'm home."  And Fred has become the place of bicycles and vacation and a freedom from responsibility that sloughs cares and worries from me until I feel as unburdened as a child, the pack mule put out to pasture at the end of the work week.  I want to kick up my heels. I want to gallop and prance on my bicycle pretending I am young and wrinkles have not yet begun to etch my experiences on my face.

For quite some time, it seems as if we are the only riders on the road, as if we are the only people in the world surrounded by the gnarled Live Oaks with their short, stubby branches and hint of green that never seems to actually mature and free ranging cattle placidly lining the road.  It is nice when the first people we see are people that I know:  Steve Royse, Gay, Johnny B., and Steve Wyatt are ahead.  We chat for a brief bit.  When Steve W. asks how I am doing, I grin and tell him," I am in love", and indeed I am.   I am in love with these Texas roads and the hope of warmth and sunshine.  I am in love with vacation and the freedom it brings.  I am in love with my friends and the world.  I am in love with my bicycle.  I grow motherly towards this unmothered world.

Not too long after we run into that group, we begin to see other riders:  some from the shorter routes and some not.  Before long the pace is soaring.  For the first time in years I don't want to go for some reason, but Dave and Steve are off and the rest of us follow.  I grin to myself thinking of a few years ago when Bill told us, "You don't have to do this."  I find my breath coming in hard rasps that hurt my chest, but when the pace slows I find that despite my reluctance I feel good.  I know I don't do enough of these hard efforts, the price of riding alone so often. We slow down and stay together until the store stop where I have the same thing I had the year before:  chicken salad.

By the time we leave, the sun has broken through the clouds and the sky is blue.  I have needed sun and I turn my face skyward absorbing it as if it were a life-giving potion.  We will have all too little of it this Texas trip.  Dave and Steve dash ahead and I follow, but I am not able to keep up.  Bill and Mike are with me and when we finally regroup, Mike tugs at my heart strings when he says that he can't ride with us, that he is not in our class.  I try to explain that the first day is often like this, that I could not keep up this year either and the boys are playing, but I can tell from his voice that he does not believe me and we have lost his company. Indeed, he does not join us again, and I miss his gentle spirit.

Bill and I ride together and Mike trails behind.   Before you know it, we have made a wrong turn, at least Bill and I have.   It is a long downhill with a tail wind and I am loving it even as I think that I hope Bill was right about where we are going and that I should have turned my cue sheet over.  I am flying down the hill, the wind roaring in my ears rather than gently whispering.  Alas, we were not supposed to go down the hill and so we turn and climb.  I lag behind Bill on the climb fighting the wind that helped me soar like a bird on the downhill.  I tell Bill it is like sled riding:  the downhill is worth the climb, and even as I say it I think of being a child and Brian and I wishing there was a sled lift to the top of suicide hill, my childhood sledding hill.

Before long, we again make a wrong turn and decide to head back to the motel. We know that Steve and Dave are not doing the route, skipping Luckenbach, but neither of us know the short cut.  I am dismayed that we have lost Mike along the way.  When I call the guys to tell them we are back to the motel, Mike has found them and I feel much better.  I head off to complete my century since we had not gotten one hundred in due to getting off course.  By the time I get to the shower, my face has salt crusted on my cheeks from the unaccustomed heat and I delight in the warm water and soap that dissolves the salt and grease and leaves me clean, ready to fuel up.

The second day is the Camp Verde ride, not one of my favorites because of route 173.  The roads are rough and the traffic is heavy, but most of the drivers are patient.  There are a couple of delightful climbs on Stoneleigh and Center Point.  The air is cooler and except for a few brief moments, the clouds cover the sky.  Today it is just Bill, Steve, and I.  Dave's knee is bothering him again so he takes the day off.  One thing I do like on this ride is the lunch stop:  Vicki's Burger Barn, but since it is Sunday it is closed.  We eat at the gas station instead.

Monday's ride is Mountain Home and Away.  Once again it is just Bill, Steve, and I.  The first part of the ride is terrible as it is routed along 290, but after that it is a nice ride.  The brevet route also follows this course.  We see Johnny and Steve W. and wonder why Steve R. was not with them.  We later learn that he had a medical problem the previous evening so wasn't riding.

While we are at the first store stop, Dauhna's, a couple on a tandem riding the brevet come in.  The woman is quite small, shorter even than I am, interrupts our conversation to tell us the route sucks and ask if there is a way to get back to the start without going back the way they came.  Her partner comes in and asks her if he can get something to eat, and she tells him sure.  We are giggling at her abruptness and Bill explains it is a cultural thing and spends part of the ride telling me how different people are in other parts of the country.  I giggle at his story as he tells about moving to Louisville and people in the stores actually talking to you.  Another brevet rider has used all his tubes.  Steve gives him one and tells him just to pass the favor on to someone else and not to worry about replacing it. 

Further down the road, we come across a dead boar.  I stand and get my photo taken and various quips are made.  My personal favorite is, "Melissa 1, Boar 0."  Steve tells me that he has heard that rattle snakes in the area are learning not to rattle as the boars eat them and are able to locate them by their rattling.  While in Texas this time, I also learn that armadillos carry the leprosy bacteria. 

Before long we are the Mountain Home Post Office and I know that if we turn right we get to our favorite taco stand.  We bicycle by and I ask Bill if he smells it. "What," he says.  "The tacos," I answer.  I repeat the same to Steve and we decide to take a loop out of the course and to go to Hunt from Ingram instead and get tacos.  This is all planned with a vow of secrecy so that Dave does not find out as we know he will be terribly disappointed at missing it.  After all, Dave delights in food in a way that very few skinny people do.  It is entertaining to watch him. 

When we are back on course and at the store stop, we run into a cyclist that accosted me in a previous year demanding to know what route I was riding and what time I left.  He makes me nervous and I am glad we leave before him and get away.  But that is another story for another time.  Let's just say that Steve and Bill made me feel better and had me laughing for hours afterward.

And that is enough for tonight.  Hell Week 2011 part II to come.  I will conclude by saying we dined at Hill Top and were joined by Gay and Steve R. and it was delightful.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kentucky 300K 2011

The Kentucky 300K Brevet

It is the night before the brevet. All week I have been anxiously watching the weather forecast with a growing sense of doom as the probability of rain skyrockets from fifty percent to one hundred percent and the wind speed predictions increase in intensity with one source predicting a possible 20 mph wind. My heart sinks further when the weather man predicts that during the afternoon the temperature will begin to drop rapidly. My only consolation is that there is only a slight prediction for thunder storms. Don't get me wrong: I love a ride in a soft spring or summer rain when the world seems somehow cleaned, freshened, and transformed and every smell is intensified. I am called Puddle for a reason. But I know the difficulties that rain can cause on a long ride, particularly when combined with high winds, darkness, and cold. And while riding through a lightening storm can be exhilarating, it can also be quite scary when it is right overhead and striking all around you making you wonder if you said all your prayers the way you should and if the people who are important to you know that you love them. Perhaps I grow softer with age.

I receive an e-mail from Dave saying he is thinking of skipping tomorrow and just riding the 300K in Texas. I point out to him that there is no guarantee that the weather will be any better and it could be worse. I have seen winds in Texas, however infrequently, that almost took my bike from beneath me. Then to goad him and to emphasize my point, I call him a “wuss” and another not so nice word that actually is quite derogatory toward the female of the species now that I think about it. I grin thinking of how many things I did as a child that I should not have done just because someone dared me or called me “chicken.” Perhaps it was a legitimate way for my three older brothers to try to do away with me, the pest. I always will wonder if they “really” forgot to tell me about bikes having brakes when they put me on my sister's bike, wood on the pedals so I could reach them, and sent me on a first bike ride down a hill on a dead end street where the hill continued with trees and no road after the turn around;-) But back to my story. I have thrown down the gauntlet to Dave(easy for a female to do), but it also solidifies my own commitment to the ride. Meanwhile, Steve Rice and I e-mail back and forth with ideas on how best to dress for the weather. Normally this time of year you start a ride with clothing that you will discard during the day as the temperature rises, but nothing about the weather this year has been normal and tomorrow is no exception. I haven't heard from Bill so I have no idea if he intends to ride or to try to get his 300K somewhere else.

Soon it is time to prepare my bike. The first thing is to put on the clip-on fender that my husband was kind enough to go pick up from Bob down at Clarksville Schwinn. He tells me Bob put it up for me after my call yesterday as they only had one and I send Bob a mental thank you. Of course, I am not allowed to put it on myself, so I find myself directing the installation despite having absolutely no idea how the thing works. Meanwhile, I am praying that we should be doing this as I have learned that it is never wise to try something new on a 190 mile ride. Finally the fender is on, seems secure, and we find a way to fasten my seat bag. The only bad thing about the fender is that it will prevent my using my carradice, a large bag that allows me to carry an assortment of items. This means I must limit what I take and I make the decision to leave the folding tire I almost always carry on rides to be able to carry a spare pair of gloves and socks encased in plastic. I will also take an extra wool top. Some of this I will carry in my handlebar bag and some in the pockets of my jersey. I giggle thinking of the times I have left with my pockets stuffed and my husband telling me it does nothing to enhance the appearance of my derriere, like a hamster only I store myself in the behind region rather than in my jaws. While I have loaned my folding tire to others more than I have used it myself, I worry about leaving it behind, but there just is not any room. I think how hard it is having to ride such a small bike. I also think about how heavy my bike is when loaded, particularly when everything, including my clothing, is wet.

Through my rain rides, I have found that the Planet Bike tail lights are rather undependable when wet so I wrap mine in plastic baggies sealed with electrical tape. I decide that since it will not only be dark but wet, I will bring out the big gun in lights: my hub generator. One thing that my husband has urged me not to skimp on are good lights as he worries about me when I ride, and I have heeded his advice except for these darned tail lights. As it turns out, even with the plastic bag, only one of the lights will be dependable. But that comes later in the tale. For those of you who have these tail lights, following the ride it was suggested on the randon list that they work best if installed upside down as this offers more water protection.

I roll out of bed at 3:45 to drive to the ride start. It rains all the way to Shelbyville and I think how much harder it is to start a ride in the rain rather than starting a ride and then getting rained upon later. I ask what is wrong with me that I am not luxuriating in a warm bed, half asleep, listening to the rain singing on the roof. As usual, I don't have an answer to this question. It is warmer than I expected, however, and not so windy, so maybe it will all work out. When I arrive, the motel room where you sign in is full of people. I am surprised when I find that 22 of the 30 who registered are there. I am even more surprised to find that there are three other women, all on tandems. Jody and Steve are back for more and the two other tandems are from out of town. I think that Jody has a lot of guts. I know she is a strong rider. This is not a good “first” 300 K.

Despite my early start, I get there just in time to sign in and get everything ready. There is a hesitancy in the air while people wonder what they are doing and if they should be doing it. In our heart of hearts, many of us are hoping against hope that Steve will cancel the ride; but that does not happen in brevet riding unless there is significant danger. I know I am not the only one second guessing my sanity heading out into this weather for this distance, particularly since I don't feel 100 per cent committed to PBP. I do, however, decide to keep the door to that ride open. I think of a letter a newer but already cherished friend, Greg Smith, e-mailed to me talking about the meaning of fun on rides. He knows that I am struggling with my decision as far as whether to commit to PBP, and he e-mailed his thoughts on the matter. He worried that I would take offense at his advise, but I treasure it. I can accept advice when it is given with the right intention. It is a cherished e-mail, one of those that you save knowing you will re-read it throughout the years. His point is that there are different types of “fun” from rides. At one point, while listing the types of fun found in rides, he says: “The fun of making it through a tough day.  I believe Yvonne Choinard (the founder of Patagonia) said "it's not an adventure until something goes wrong".  For better or worse, these are the rides that stick in our memories - where the wind is howling, it's cold, we don't feel good but we manage to keep going.  I don't know about you but I remember these a lot longer than I remember the first kind and can usually rattle them off right off the top of my head.” (Greg, I certainly hope you don't mind that I shared some of the wisdom you shared with me. It helped me make the final decision to commit to the ride today if not to PBP.) For Greg is right: some of the rides I remember most vividly are those that were the greatest struggle to complete. There is a satisfaction in overcoming adversity to obtain a goal. I hug this thought to me as Steve gives his ride speech.

The bikes glide into the wet Stygian darkness and over the rolling terrain of Zaring Mill. I know from experience that this road will seem to last an eternity upon the return trip. The rollers will seem like mountains blocking my path home. Steve has cautioned us about the slickness of the metal bridges we will encounter on Oregon Road, but I am just as cautious on the railroad tracks on Zaring Mill having gone down on tracks twice before. I console myself with the thought that it is a light drizzle and not a hard, driving rain, the kind that makes you feel like needles are piercing your skin and severely limits your ability to see and be seen. I am not sure who, if anyone, I will ride with today. I am not sure of anything.

The first control seems to come rather quickly. By that time I am riding with Steve, Dave, and Bill. As usual, we gulp down a drink and some food and get on our way without lollygagging, all that is except Dave who does not do anything in a rush. This haste through controls will become more important throughout the day as we become sodden with rain and stopping means chilling. Funny how rain makes you appreciate a good hill.

By mile 82, I believe I have made my decision. I will finish the ride today barring something unforeseen, but I will not go back to Paris. The wind has battered me and my spirits are low. I know I have not been drinking properly and am dehydrated. I have a hard time drinking on rides when it is not hot, and I have an even harder time when my bottles are covered with grit and road debris. “So what,” I think as I force myself to take a swig; there is already grit in my mouth from the water being thrown from the road. Still I will finish the ride having drank less than ¼ of my bottle. I think that I need to work on this as I am sure it impacts my strength. I begin thinking of food and hoping that perhaps it will help to revive my morale. Alas, when we get to the turn around control, the lady working the control informs us that the woman who fixes the food had decided nobody was going to show and left. The only thing hot I can find is a “ham and cheese” puff. This turned out to be melted American Cheese and ham inside fried dough. “Only in America,” I think as I force myself to down this mess. While it does not satisfy, it does give me strength and I feel better as we depart. Once again Dave does not leave with us and I wonder if he gets tired of chasing, but chilling convinces me that I have to keep moving if I am going to complete this ride. He never really stays with us the rest of the ride, catching us just as we are leaving controls.

For a short while there is a tail wind and the course is relatively easy. All of us delight in this change. Steve counts the riders as they head toward the turn around. He has already gotten a call that a tandem had brake problems and DNF'd. Despite the continuing rain, I see some grins and hear an occasional laugh. I think that despite the rain, this 300K is not as difficult as that of 2007. By the end, I will not be sure if I still feel this way. I begin to rethink my decision about PBP this year arguing with myself that it may be the last time I am physically capable of completing the course and that many of my friends are going. I think of how lucky I am to have a husband who not only tolerates this unusual activity, but supports and encourages me. At one point, the rain ceases for a half hour to one hour, the only time the entire day without consistent rain. I remark to the others that my clothing is beginning to dry. As if to taunt me, the rain resumes and the temperature begins to plummet. My core is warm so long as I keep moving. Indeed, I have a dry shirt I could add; then I remember what I forgot to bring: dry clothing for the end.

At the next to last control, Bill, Steve, and I remain together. When we arrive Tim Carroll is there having waited for company in the dark. Despite the fact he is riding a fixed gear, I know there is no way I can keep up with Tim, but he is welcome to ride with us. He makes a comment about being able to complete the 36 miles left in two hours and I manage a laugh. In good weather in the light perhaps, but in this weather with a wind that has kicked up and is right in my face there is not a chance. We leave the control before Dave arrives. I worry as at the last control he said that he had a mechanical that prevented him from getting into his big wheel, but I am chilling and can't wait. At times rides become about survival. I am beginning to be cold even on the bike, particularly my hands. A few miles out from the control, Steve says he is going to stop and put on another pair of gloves. At this point it strikes me that I have a nice, dry pair of gloves. Manna from heaven. When we stop, I get them out of their plastic cover looking forward to being dry. I almost cry when I find that I am having trouble getting the last one on. The glove I have on is preventing me from pulling on the glove that needs to go on. Steve pulls with me and it finally slips on. I spend the next fifteen minutes thinking how nice it is to have warm hands. I also remember having to help Larry “Gizmo” put on gloves one time when like me he tried an expensive but useless brand.

The wind continues to strengthen and slap us around at times taking my breath away. I begin praying that I don't have a flat tire as I worry that I will not be able to fix it. As I age and my hands lose strength, I find that I am having more and more trouble with changing a flats even in the best of conditions. I have no trouble getting the tire off and changing the tube, but putting the tire back on the rim is increasingly demanding. I know that with hands that once again are chilled, I will not be successful. I have learned not to lie to God telling him that if he just gets me back to the damned motel room safely I will never do this again because I know and he knows I am lying. So I just ride on and ask him to please protect me from flats. I begin to use all the mental tricks I know to pass the time repeating to myself over and over, “courage.” I think of Buddha's quote, “Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.”

Tim has left us, but we catch up with him on the long climb to Southville. I hate this climb even in the best of times, and tonight I am whipped. My thighs protest at these continuing demands and threaten to fail me, but I know mental fatigue is as or more dangerous than physical fatigue. By this time, I am the only one other than Tim who has a consistently working tail light and I am grateful I took the time to wrap it in plastic. Prior to this, Steve gave Bill one of his lights and I pulled, but now I get relegated to the back of the line. When Bill and Steve get a bit ahead of me they are not discernible from behind. With the wind, I am not sorry to know I will have the draft the rest of the way home and I worry if I will be able to hold them on the climbs.

After an eternity the lights of Shelbyville cause the sky to change colors from black to gray, and we once again cross the railroad tracks that always signal to me the end of the brevet. Tim has dropped us and it is just Bill, Steve, and me. I have never been so glad to see a rather shabby hotel room and Susan's welcoming smile. Tim makes a comment about my snot icycle hanging from my nose. I had long ago given up wiping my nose as there was not a dry stitch on me with which to wipe. I smile knowing that I need to get warm quickly now that I have stopped moving or I will chill. While still there, Scott Howes came in saying that a group had gotten a taxi and decided to DNF. He had been nice enough to stop and help. I later find that of the 22 that started the ride, 9 did not finish.

While I had forgotten warm, dry clothes to change into following the ride, I do have my wool top I did not use during the ride and I always keep a sweat shirt in the car. I also have a pair of dry socks I took on the ride and did not use. If someone had offered me a hundred dollars for these clothing articles, I would have declined. I decide to change in the car as there are others needing to use the motel room. I change and bundle my lower half in the blanket that I keep in the car greatly bemoaning my thoughtlessness in not bringing a pair of sweat pants.

On the way home, despite having the heater on high, I periodically have a bout of shivering. I also am dreadfully tired and force myself to stop and walk around twice during the hour long drive to make sure I don't fall asleep in the wheel. Like a siren, the thought of lolling in a tub full of hot scented water, a warm hug from my husband, and a soft bed lures me onward. I wonder if most people really appreciate these things in the way a randonneur does?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Cold and Icy Winter

January has been a challenge this year, mentally and physically.
I am used to getting regular exercise and soaking up the
outdoors to carry me through the sometimes dreary work day. I
am used to some sun, however muted and infrequent, in the
midst of winter rather than an oppressive gray sky that will not
yield. I am used to spending time on the road with a few, close
friends that know the “riding” me rather than those that don't
understand the love of the bike and the road and the freedom
that it not only promises but delivers. When Brian Borgman
was helping me put together my fixed gear (something that I
often think of when I begin to feel there is no kindness left in
the world), he let me pick a saying to put on my bike. It reads:
“My bike takes me places that school never could.” I have
found this to be true.

While there was a day befitting a century the first week-end of
the month allowing me to get my January century in, there have
been few days fit for even a short ride since. This has not been
because of the cold. I can deal with cold and freezing gears; it
was because of the ice and snow that covered the roads
claiming them as their own. Every time the roads would clear,
Old Man Winter would strike back, tatting furiously to lace the
world with white, panting his hoary breath in ragged gasps that
chilled to the bone. At one point, I contemplated joining the
SIW rides at Deem Lake, but trips to Cincinnati to deal with an
aging parent who had fallen always seemed to interfere when
Old Man Winter did not. My poor husband dealt with my sour
mood as I tried to temper it by slipping on running shoes to
travel the roads on foot that were not easily traversable by
wheel. Yes, I have an appreciation for running and the blessed
relief it can bring, the sound of my feet on the pavement, my
breath steaming warmly into the cold air, the chance to soak up
scenery in a way that riding does not allow, but it is no longer
my first love.

This week-end promises temperatures in the 40's and mostly
clear roads, however, and I am elated. There are no available
club rides that tempt, but a small group of friends intend to ride.
These are my favorite rides anyway, the ones where I am totally
comfortable with all the riders and don't have to worry about
stilted conversation and the other things that go along with new
relationships. I have traveled so many miles with these men and
spent so many hours with them that they are like family.
Because of this I know they will be patient with me on the
steeper climbs when I tend to lag despite my best efforts. I
worry about my ability to keep up with so few miles in my legs.
I know the route and I know that it is going to hurt. Larry
“Gizmo” Preble, when speaking of hills, once stated to me that
pain is “an acquired taste.” And indeed, part of me relishes the
thought of the ache in my thighs and the rasping in my lungs
that I am anticipating as a surety for this is a course that is
demanding even when it is midsummer and the legs are strong
and hardened by endless miles and challenges.

We meet at the ride start and as always I am surprised at the
ease of conversation despite the lapse in time since we have
met. I giggle to myself when Dave “Bam Bam” is late and
many times during the ride I think how nice it is that some
things never change, of how sometimes the foibles that define
individuals become part of their personalities and somehow
endearing rather than annoying, particularly and maybe because
of being tempered by absence. These are good friends, and I
never cease to wonder that they are my friends. I love the sound
of their voices, their laughter, and their jokes that cause laughter
to gush out of the deepest part of me, wholesome and real. I
know I will remember this and draw upon it to get me through
the rest of this winter, or at least until Hell Week where there
will be shorts, short sleeved jerseys, and friends.