A Climber’s First Organized Ride

My friend Aaron West, who dazzles us with his exploits climbing tough hills and even mountains on his blog Steepclimbs.com, favors us with a guest post. He wasn’t always a mountain goat, and here,  Aaron recounts what it was like when he joined his first-ever organized ride.

We all start somewhere. My first organized ‘cookie’ ride was ambitious, unflattering and sometimes embarrassing. In reality, I had no idea what I was getting into.

I signed up after hearing about it from the cycling club at work. It was late in the year when I joined, and there were not many events remaining. Rather than wait through the winter, I threw my hat into an autumn mountain ride. The ride was the Tour de Leaves out of Tryon, NC, just across the border from Spartanburg, SC.

Green River Cove, part of the Tour de Leaves route.

Green River Cove, part of the Tour de Leaves route.

I signed up for the shortest route — the ‘Lite’ version. This was 31 miles, and did not go over the toughest climbs. I can handle this, right?

After arriving early, I watched with awe as car after car pulled in. Athletic beasts emerged with their expensive bikes. Many riders were from out of town. I marveled that these weekend warriors probably went from town to town just to ride their bikes.

After fumbling around with my steed, an inexpensive yet robust Specialized Allez, I scooted to the starting line. I was wearing bike shorts, an Under Armor T-shirt, and a brand new pair of arm warmers. No jersey meant no pockets, so my car keys and cell phone went in a big, brown fanny pack. That pack stayed with me for months until enough chiding convinced me to throw it away. I was caught off guard by all the bright colored polyester. It was like being surrounded by a cult or aliens. Who were these people anyway?

The ‘Lite’ riders left together, and this was an easy going group. I rode most of the early going with a trio. We spoke a little, not much. If they snickered at my outfit, I didn’t hear. The course was hilly, but I was able to keep up with these folks.

The organizers had said to follow the fishes to know the route. What in the world? I thought they would be elevated signs at intersections. I kept looking ahead and found no fishes anywhere. If I ended up riding ahead of the group, I had to stop at intersections, bewildered as to where to go. When I was behind them, they turned without hesitation. How in the world did they know where to go?

Eventually, as I expected, I got tired. The hills added up, and I simply wasn’t used to this type of riding. The other riders sped past me. At that point I was worried I would get lost in the North Carolina country. I remember stopping at an intersection, fumbling through the cue sheet to figure out where I was. An older gentleman, who I later learned was over 70, sped on past pointing in the correct direction. How did he know?

I would finally wise up to the fish mystery at the very end of the ride, when I saw three fishes spray painted on the road pointing to the finish line. At first I wondered why someone would draw such a thing on the roads. I considered reporting the vandalism to the police, until finally making the connection. Doh!

At one point we reached a higher elevation. I have no idea how high it was, probably not more than a few hundred feet from the start, but it was enough to see a view of the colorful countryside. Despite being exhausted, at that very moment is when I became hooked. It was baffling that I had climbed to such heights under my own power, and was rewarded with a breathtaking view.

Towards the end of the ride, we went down a steep descent. Now that was awesome! After the road leveled out, there was a marking that said “Steep Grade, Use Lower Gear!”. The road turned up, straight up, and it killed me! Not only did I not have the fitness, I didn’t have the gearing either. I would later learn that this short hill is a 17-18% grade at its steepest. It was too much for my rookie legs. Maybe a quarter way up, I got off my Allez and started walking. That was humiliating, especially as I got passed by other riders who climbed without issue. I looked back and saw my senior citizen friend a few hundred feet back, also walking. At least I wasn’t completely alone.

I learned a few things from watching those other riders climb such a beast of a hill. Gearing was important. It would have been tough to attack that hill even with stronger legs. I also noticed that they got into a comfortable rhythm, and slowly spun their way up the hill. They did not exert themselves too much, just found their pace and stuck to it. When I got back on the bike, I had no choice than to ride hard, which would tire me out and force me to walk again.

I will never forget the Tour de Leaves. It was a great experience, however painful. It motivated me to challenge myself, and learn better how to become a climber. Over time, I worked at improving my cycling fitness. Other hills would fall, and then mountains.

The rest is history.

A long way from the TYour de Leaves.

Aaron West — A long way from the Tour de Leaves.

Conquering That Hill

I was planning to do a 50-mile or so flat ride southeast of town today, but some of my fellow club members did that ride Saturday, and they were headed for the hills today. That’s okay, because the route allows a convenient turnaround for me and other B riders at about the 17-mile mark. I figured 34-35 miles of hills would equate to 50 miles in the flats, so I showed up.

It was a morning for riding we haven’t seen around here in a long time. Rain came through last night, and the sky was heavily overcast, with temperatures in the low 70s (22C). No wind. Conditions were perfect for a fast ride, and the peloton took off like a pack of scalded dogs. I knew they’d be held up by stoplights along the way, and while I pedaled briskly, I didn’t push myself. I was the only B rider to show up this morning (apparently, the cloudy skies had enough promise of rain that they scared some riders off).

One of the really fast guys flatted about two miles into the ride. A few of us kept going, while the bulk of the group stood around while he changed his tube. We figured they’d catch us sooner rather than later. I had company in the form of Steve J., the state time trial champion of Texas in the 65-69 year old age group. He rode fast the day before, and was looking for an easy ride, so he was fine with loping along with me, chatting about a myriad of different topics.

We turned onto Barton Creek Blvd., which is a smooth, wide road through a (very) wealthy neighborhood. Here’s where the hills began in earnest, with a series of rollers that get higher as you go north. Sure enough, I was passed by the guy who had had the flat, then a couple more, and several more. We reached “Hail Mary Hill” at the end of the road in a group. This steep hill has caused me problems in the past, although I was able to climb it the last time I came through here, about a month ago.

Today, I hit the initial uptick for the hill with a surge of energy. Unlike past efforts, where I was loaded with doubts at the base of the hill, I knew today that I would climb it — and with no trouble. I shifted down, put more power to the pedals, and felt the bike surge forward — a bit. I wasn’t going to pass anyone today, since I carry a substantial weight disadvantage over most of these folks.

When I pulled into the church parking lot at the top of the hill, a couple of riders made remarks like, “You were climbing well today,” and “You had an easy time of it.” Hail Mary Hill is never easy, but I had an “easier” time of it than I ever have in the past.

I rode much of the rest of the ride with a 20-something cyclist who has had his cycling interrupted by work and school, and was happy not to race with the large group. The rollers went by with less effort than they have in the past. I didn’t have that fatigued feeling I often get on this route.

So why the big improvement? I include a decent, but not too tough, hill on some of my weekly rides. It’s got three or four short, steep segments and a long steady climb. I use a stopwatch on that long climb, and I’ve dropped my time by six seconds over the last two weeks — although I was eight seconds slower when I did it Saturday. Ever notice how a mediocre performance can presage a good performance in the next day or two?

Other than that, I haven’t done anything different. But I can feel that my legs are putting out more power. I’m sure the cooler weather today had something to do with it. Doesn’t matter. I’m just happy it’s happening — just in time for the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred this coming weekend.

Putting It All In Perspective

Guest poster Don Blount looks at different kinds of pain.

Suffering sometimes is all about perspective.

I recently had two old dental fillings replaced without use of anesthesia. More than a few people cringe when I tell them that story.

I did not ask for this experience. Before the dentist started the work, he tested the area with a blast of cold air and then of cold water. “You didn’t flinch,” he said. “So I’m going to try this without giving you anything. Why numb you up and have you put up with needles if you don’t have to, right?”

WHHHHAAAT????? I thought.

Maybe I didn’t flinch because I have a high pain tolerance. Maybe I didn’t flinch because I was too tense to move.

However, he assured me that he would give me anesthetic if I was in pain.

As my dentist poked, prodded, drilled, polished and went about his work, my mind drifted to cycling. Specifically it drifted to suffering on the bike.

Middle Bar.

I remembered some of the climbs I did in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains last year. I was taken on a club ride up road called Stoney Creek. I don’t remember seeing any stones or a creek, I remember a never-ending climb, pedaling squares and gasping for air.

There was another ride on Paloma Road that I I kept telling myself to just keep turning the pedals, keep turning the pedals, k-e-e-p t-u-r-n-i-n-g….. You get the idea.

And there was Middle Bar. I remembered riding (and walking) alone up a bumpy sorry-@#*! road. I never told anyone this but at one point I was going so slowly that I just toppled over and fell like a top that had lost its spin.

I was unhurt, my bike was fine but I managed to damage the new Deda handlebar tape I had put on just a few days earlier.

But all in all, this riding, this suffering, somehow made me a stronger, better rider.

And as I sat there in the dentist’s chair mouth agape, drill whining, I did not think of the fun, easy or enjoyable rides but those difficult rides. And I knew that if I could survive those bike rides then I could survive the dental work because I suffered more on those rides.

The Hills, Part II

Guest poster Don Blount continues his account of his struggle with the hills.

Part II

On a recent Saturday I joined a club ride, a roundtrip starting in Wallace, Calif. to Mokelumne Hill, Calif.

I thought this would be a route of about 40 miles with some 3,000 feet of climbing. I thought this would be a good test as I had completed rides of this length with just a little less vertical. In reality the ride was really 48 miles with 3,400 feet of climbing.

We started the day and I was fine. I rode from the middle to near the rear of the pack and stayed within my comfort range.

So far so good.

For a short time I had forgotten that hills are evil, and they hate me. I was actually enjoying myself!

We eventually came to a series of three long rollers. I made the first two but never recovered for the third. As Phil Liggett would say, I had cracked. And in short order, the group was long gone.

A rider riding sweep came upon me and asked if I was dizzy – I was walking or maybe even just standing at this point. She encouraged me to walk and would later tell me that I was weaving when she found me.

The sweeper continued on and disappeared over the hill. A bit later another rider came over the hill toward me. It was the cavalry. He and another rider paced me to the rest stop a few miles away.

I ate a Clif Bar, drank water and a Dr. Pepper and rested. I felt fine.

We left and I thought I would be in good shape on the return trip as the heavy climbing was behind me.

And I was fine most of the way, until we hit the last big climb of the day just after traveling over Pardee Dam, which  borders Calaveras and Amador counties in Northern California. Did I mention that the temperatures had risen and it had become quite toasty?

Now I had never before experienced leg cramps and after this day, I pray that I never do again.

The contractions in my quadriceps and hamstrings were so painful I thought the alien was going to burst through my skin. I unclipped and tried to stretch my legs. I massaged them. I pounded them. I stopped and walked. Yet the cramps came and went as they pleased.

I could not ride the inclines. I struggled to ride the flats. And I hoped my whimpering was inaudible. Any substantial stress on my legs brought on hellacious cramps.

Somehow I made it back to the starting point with the group. I purchased a 32-ounce Gatorade from a convenience store and drank it in what seemed like 30 seconds.

My legs cramped on my drive home and with less than ½ mile to my house, I pulled over because of the cramping.

Yet, I had survived the ride. In reflection people were right. Riding in the hills had brought variety to my workouts, made me a stronger rider and contributed to a weight loss. I would continue to ride them. That night I ordered an 11-28 cassette. I need to be prepared for my next time out.

Yes, I am going to continue riding in the hills, even if they hate me.

The Hills, Part I

In a two-part guest post, Don Blount expresses thoughts I’ll bet many of us share when it comes to climbing hills.

Part I

Beautiful scenery goes along with riding in the hills, including this view of Camanche Lake in Amador County, California.

I have always suspected that hills hate me. Maybe not when I am walking or driving a car, during those times they seem friendly enough. But the moment I approach a hill while riding a bike, it seems that hill’s goal becomes to not allow me to get up to the top of it. Sometimes it throws me down with a vengeance, causing me great pain and suffering.

Being a peaceful man, I usually take the path of least resistance and avoid hills. That’s easy enough where I live as I can ride for miles and not approach a grade of more than 4 percent.

For the most part, I am fine with this. I do not consider myself a climber. At 5-feet, 9-inches tall and 194 pounds, I am much more comfortable on the flats and inclines. If it is short enough for me to power up with my compact crankset and 12-25 cassette, then I am game to ride it.

But people keep uttering the benefits of riding hills. “Hills will make you stronger,” they say. “Hills will make you a better rider.” And they always end with the same words: “To become stronger in the hills, you have to ride in the hills.”

To get to real climbs with grades of 8 or 9 percent or more, I have to travel about 23 miles east to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California.

Rarely are those hills friendly and allow me to leave with my dignity. Most of the times they are hard and determined to show me that I am not welcomed there.

So wanting to test my fitness I joined a late May club ride of 40 miles with about 2,300 feet of climbing. I survived but barely. Most of the ride I had a good look at just about everyone’s back.

After that ride I decided to commit to becoming better in the hills. A few weeks later I returned alone and did a similar solo ride of about 40 miles with 2,300 feet of climbing. I completed it.

I became a student of climbing. I read what I could find I watched videos. I watched real climbers. I meditated on climbing and channeled those who had worn the polka dot jersey.

And I went out on the club ride that kicked my rear earlier. I was in better condition, I used what I had learned, and I completed the ride successfully. Progress I thought. Maybe the hills did not hate me after all? Maybe it was time for another test, a club ride?

I put it on my schedule but oh, how little did I know that deep down hills are evil.

Watch Bike Noob for the second part of Don’s saga of the hills.

Thinking about mountains

Back in Austin after six days in the San Francisco area. We were blessed with unseasonably warm weather for January, and were able to get around with just a light jacket or even no jacket at all. There was only one problem: no biking!

It was purely a family visit. We took Mrs. Noob’s mother out there for her 80th birthday, since it’s where she was born and raised, and where Mrs. Noob was born and mostly raised. We spent a lot of time with relatives, but did little sightseeing, and no biking!

That no biking thing really hit home when we went to a family gathering at the home of Mrs. Noob’s cousin and her husband. Their house in Danville, in the East Bay area, backs up to undeveloped land with a view of Mt. Diablo.

diabloMt. Diablo in the distance, seen from the swimming pool behind the house.

I’ve been reading about Mt. Diablo in biking blogs and biking forums for over a year now, and it’s really got me thinking about doing some biking on something more than just hills. The fact that one of Mrs. Noob’s other cousins is training for a triathlon, and he and I talked biking nonstop for much of the afternoon, just whetted that appetite even more.

So you California bikers, keep climbing Mt. Diablo. I’ll do my best on the hills in this area, but I’ll always be thinking about what it must be like to climb an actual mountain on two wheels.  I don’t know when I’ll get out that way again, but the next time I come, you can bet that biking will be on the agenda.

Pedal in a circle

I’ve been hearing this advice ever since I got back on the bike — but it never really made much sense, even after I got my first set of clipless pedals.

But on one of my weekend rides, it all came together.

I rode a route with long hills, and tried to make more of an effort to attack them than I usually do. As part of that, I pulled up on the pedals rather than pushing down. No, I’m not a complete idiot — I’ve been pulling up on the pedals since I went clipless, but in a jerky manner. This time though, everything seemed smoother. Suddenly, it occurred to me: “This is what they mean by pedaling in a circle.”

I could feel the pedals move in a circular motion, with constant pressure throughout the entire revolution. I could feel the bike surge forward a bit. The cyclocomputer had the speed rocket up from 5.6 mph to 6.2, to 6.8, to 7-point-something. I could feel my thighs burn.

On the way back, there is one longish hill that has been my nemesis since my first time on this route. I’ve always been able to pedal all the way to the top, but it’s been a struggle — pushing down hard in 34 x 28 — the lowest gear combination I have.

This day, I started two gears higher, and made an effort to pedal in a circle. I could feel the difference. I eventually had to shift down to 34 x 28, but maintained cadence as well as I could. I got to the top of the hill in better time than I have yet, and less winded.

Pedaling in a circle. A simple concept, and once I got it figured out, one that really helps.