Rebekah’s Great Bicycle Adventure
Despite the prediction of a horrible weather day, Thursday, September 16, we awoke to sunny skies. However, although the rain had ceased falling, the wind continued to whip all day long. With the high probability of Hurricanes Floyd's arrival in the area during the night, all the local schools cancelled classes and thousands of kids were enjoying a free day. I waited anxiously for a phone call or e-mail telling me of the fate of the long-awaited 1999 rendition of the bicycle “Tour de Blue Ridge”.
Earlier in the summer, I had fairly extensive surgery on both my feet and an ankle. With the prospect of not being able to run for at least eight weeks, I made an impulse purchase of a Trek road bike. Several years prior, in the throws of another running injury, I had also impulsively bought a Trek mountain bike on which to cross-train. But, by now, my 11-year old took over control of the mountain bike, leaving me with no other option than to buy another bike. The guys in the bike shop helped me with my selection, a 1200 model. I contemplated buying a higher line bike, but not knowing how much I would really ride, I settled on this one. Compared to my other bike, it was feather light and much faster. I loaded it into my truck and took it home.
A number of the docs at the hospital are avid bikers. In fact, one of the cardiac surgeons with whom I work, had been organizing a three day bike tour for he and his buddies over the last seven or eight years. Last year, my husband had agreed to be the sag wagon driver for the group. He took his task seriously. He had the aid organized and easily assessable to the riders. He kept track of the time distances between the riders, just in case they wanted to know what it would take to overcome another biker. He was mature, responsible, and always ready. The riders seemed to be quite pleased with his help. Hence, when planning for this year's tour rolled around, they wanted Gary to be Mr. Sag once again. I suspect my surgeon asked me if I was interested in riding more to increase the odds of Gary's participation than mine. However, whatever possessed him to mention the Tour to me, I readily took him up on the offer. Now, all I had to do was get my swollen feet into bike shoes, learn to ride, and get fit.
The ride normally starts in Front Royal, VA and proceeds down the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway and all the way back into Lynchburg. Due to the hurricane, the plans changed to driving up to the Parkway and staying the night at the Skyline Lodge. Although we would miss the 42 miles of riding on Thursday, we would resume the regular route on Friday morning. So, despite a lengthy time to get all parties gathered up and bikes loaded atop the rented van, we piled into the vehicle and started off on our adventure. I believe a herd of turtles could have managed a quicker escape. By the time we stopped in Charlottesville for dinner and picked up two more riders, I was a little intimidated by my presence amongst these experienced riders. I can understand the jargon specific to ultrarunning, but I couldn't understand squat when the Racer Rex riders spoke of the technical aspects of their equipment. It was so pathetic, I almost burst out laughing! What had I gotten myself into?
We arrived at the Lodge sometime after 11:00 PM. The wind was ferocious, nearly blowing the van off the road several times. Debris was all over the road. And, was it ever cold! Great. Not only was I going to get ditched in the morning, I would have to freeze off my butt doing it. Our leader, soon to be dubbed as "Captain America" by his ever-present red, white, and blue outfits, made the room assignments. I suppose he didn't have to put too much thought into who would be my roommate. Our room was certainly adequate for the couple of hours we would spend occupying it. Gary and I almost had a sense of camping out, since the wind blowing through the cracks in the doorframe hit us in the face as we were lying in bed. The wind howled all night long. The prospect of getting on a bike in these conditions was less than appealing. Somehow, I managed to get a couple hours sleep, awaking to a sunny, windy, and cold morning.
We met the guys in the restaurant for breakfast. I knew what I and most other ultrarunners ate before a race, but I had no idea bikers could pack in that much food. I had heard that the motto of this group was "we ride to eat". No joke! As was repeated with each meal, they would eat and eat, and then eat a little more to postpone getting back on the bikes. This breakfast seemed to take even a little longer, for procrastination gave the temperature time to rise a few degrees.
One other thing became obvious on this trip. The group does nothing fast- except for the biking. Trying to get everyone rounded up, packed up, dressed up, and ready to ride was quite the task. Personally, since I was anxious about the whole thing, I was out by the van, as ready as I would ever be. One by one, the biker boys all appeared, adorned in their finest spandex. They looked so proficient and professional. (Well, most looked professional. A few just looked a little overstuffed.) The guys were all making last minute adjustments to their bikes. Me? Well, I asked someone to pump up my tires. That's about the only thing I knew should be done. I sure felt intimidated. Here I was with my $699 bike and virtually no riding experience, standing amongst R-A-M rider, road racers, and very experienced bikers with bikes worth three to five times more than mine. In comparison, my bike was so heavy, I hoped no one would get a hernia from lifting it down off the van. But, with all that said, there was nothing more to do than start riding when the last of the guys snapped into their pedals.
Things started off casually at first. Everyone was in a good mood and the road had been cleared of some of the debris. As if to foreshadow the whole trip, I got the idea I may be in trouble when I was pedaling down hill and the guys would go flying by- just sitting there! Oops. Then the first long climb, I began to panic. I wasn't having difficulty climbing the grade - I was just doing it slowly. The pack awaited the top of the hill for me to arrive. When they saw I wasn't dead, off they went. I shed a few clothes, having worked up a sweat, and pursued them. I felt overwhelmed by being in the back of the pack. I mentally schemed how I could get pay back. Just wait until I get them to go on a little trail run with me!
Eventually, I calmed myself enough of enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. I felt as though my conditioning was sufficient for the ride. However, I was just riding slower than the others. The climbs didn't really bother me. I just slipped down into a low gear and cranked away. I felt bad that some of the guys would ride back down the hill to accompany me up the grade. I guess they figured I might keel over. At first, I took it as an insult. However, throughout the day, I came to appreciate the riding tips they would offer. I also realized that the "trail talk" that goes on during long runs also occurs in this sport. I genuinely valued getting to know those who dared ride with me.
The downhills were another story. I liked the downhills. I would get down on my aero bars and never hit the breaks. The wind whistled through my helmet as the scenery flashed by. Sounds like I was really flying? Not compared to the boys. Here I was, in my highest gear, pedaling as fast as I can, and every one of them would breeze right on by - just sitting there! They even tried to pull me in their draft, but to no avail. I was petrified of getting my wheel so close to another biker's back wheel. I did not want to be personally responsible for a crash. If I survived, I would never get invited back another year! Besides, each of the guys had a good 40-70 pounds on me combined with good technique. I didn't have a chance. It almost became a joke. Since they couldn't hear me, I yelled things like: "See ya later", "Have a nice trip", "I hope bugs get stuck in your teeth!" Such is life.
Near the end of the 80+ miles the first day, there was a very extended climb. Although I was feeling fine, I was once again toward the back of the pack. However, when I looked up, I saw I was actually gaining on two of the guys. Hooray! A first for me. I decided it was now or never. I pursued them. On each turn, I could see I was gaining on them. This was great! I passed one guy, and then the other near the top of the mountain. They were looking pretty well pooped. As was the pattern of the day, the "rescue riders" came back down the hill to pick up the last rider - which they thought was me. Oh no, honey buns. Not this time! Head on down the hill. I'm not last! What a great feeling to pull up to the van and have to wait on others.
At this point, half of the guys put their bikes on top of the van. I had heard the stories about the terrible, near impossible 12% climb into Wintergreen. The "more mature" guys had no intention of climbing that hill. The younger guys saw it as an opportunity to show off their manhood and surging testosterone levels. I figured it might be a good way to earn their respect. By the time I decided to try, the jocks had taken off. Good. No pressure. I could take that hill on my own terms. In my lowest gear, I cranked away. I told myself I should just be patient. It worked. I was still smiling as the loaded van passed me and I was smiling at the top. "So there, you big, bad, biker boys! I might be slow, but I can hang in there for the long haul!". It was more a mental victory than a physical one. But, I'll take it whatever way I can.
The dinner that evening was great. Food and conversation flowed. This was a great group, complete with many different personalities and backgrounds. Yet, there was a wonderful sense of camaraderie. The good feeling continued through breakfast in the morning. Again, those guys can put away the food and come up with great tales to tell at the same time.
Eventually, the turtle brigade managed to regroup to head off for another day of riding. Captain America again proudly displayed his colors and the others looked all too professional. It was more of the same; me at the back. But, I wasn't injured or hurt, there were great views to be seen, and I was doing what I could with what I had. I must admit, I did wistfully desire to hop on the Appalachian Trail for a short run every time it crossed the road. I knew I would feel more at home. We regrouped just prior to leaving the Parkway for the final stretch toward home. While some of the fast guys grabbed some lunch, the now tiring older guys and I took off to create a lead. We even made it to the top of the last mountain and had time to rest before the other group arrived. Then, they all told me to start down the mountain leading back to town. I got to 41 mph and got blown away by everyone else! I felt as if I was standing still. Oh, well.
For the final couple of miles, they once again put me- the anchor, the caboose, the tortoise- in the front. I'm sure they couldn't tell, but I rode as hard as I could so as not to be too much of an embarrassment to myself. I did feel that some might be tiring of me being on the trip. But, before I knew it, we arrived at our final destination. Actually, I got a bit emotional that the trip had ended so suddenly. We all gathered up our things and departed.
In retrospect, I enjoyed the biking. If you want to rest, stop pedaling. You still make forward progress. If you rest in running, you get no closer to home. There is little work on the downhills on a bike. Downhills, in running, can destroy you! Furthermore, you can eat a bunch more on a bike than in running long! And, assuming you don't crash, you don't get as beat up as with the pounding of running. So, will I give up running to be a biker? Nope. Trust me. If I get invited to joint the group again next year, I will do everything possible to become a better, stronger, faster rider. But, that will also help me be a better runner. Now, if I can just convince them to come play in my playground!