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.