Expensive Organized Rides

As I sat indoors on an unseasonably cool, gloomy day today, it occurred to me that an organized ride is coming up that I was thinking about doing this year. I got out the laptop and jumped onto the ride’s website.

Oh, no! The ride was Saturday — and today is Sunday! That’s what I get for “thinking” about doing a ride, but not adding it to any kind of a schedule, and holding off on registration until I’m “sure” I want to ride it. I just — forgot.

I wonder, though, if that forgetting was any kind of a clue that maybe I really didn’t want to do the ride in the first place. I’ve written before about my ambivalent feelings toward organized rides — how they’re a way to get an expensive t-shirt. Then I changed my mind, and rode a few in the ensuing months. I enjoy the camaraderie of riding in a large group, but without the hassle of being in a pace line. Mostly, when I do organized rides, I keep to myself or stick with only one or two friends.

Waiting for the start of an organized ride early in the morning.
Waiting for the start of an organized ride early in the morning.

There’s another ride coming up in May that I haven’t done for several years, and would enjoy doing again. But when I looked at their registration page, the $60 entry fee put me off. It seems that what used to be $25 rides — $30 if registering on ride day — have now ballooned into costly ventures. I don’t know about you, but I think $40 is about as much as I care to pay if I’m going to join a t-shirt ride. I know it’s expensive to put them on, to provide the expected food and maybe drink at the end. I’ve volunteered as staff on a couple of rides, and I think I have an appreciation for the effort it takes to put one of these together. But I have to draw the line somewhere.

I’ll be passing up that ride in May, although I might do another one within a week or two of it. This time, I’ll make up my mind early, and be sure to get my registration taken care of — before the price goes up.


The Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred

The Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred in Wichita Falls, Texas, is considered a must-do ride for people in this region of the country. Over its 31-year history, it has grown into what it bills as the largest ride of its type. I’ve always wanted to ride it, because…well, it’s just one of those events you’ve gotta do. This year, the stars came together for me, and it turned out to be one of my cycling highlights. My good friends Russ and Debra have been going to the HHH for several years. They rent a recreational vehicle to have complete independence over the weekend. When they invited me along, I jumped at the chance. Several of us joined Russ and Debra. Their friend Toni took the 350-mile ride up there with us.

Bike Noob, Toni, Debra and Russ ready to hit the road. Russ said this unit was the smallest available at the RV rental place. (Click all photos to enlarge.)

Yeah, we were living in the lap of luxury for this trip. Our friends and fellow club members, Jerry and Maggie, met us in Wichita Falls, along with Nancy. Even in a bus the size of ours, that many people bunking in created some interesting living conditions.

When three bikes are stowed inside, traffic patterns are a challenge.

We carried Debra and Russ’s bikes on an outside rack. When we got to the RV parking area, they were coated with road dust. An early order of business was to get everything shipshape.

If you want a clean bike, call Debra.

The weekend is about everything bike. A big bike expo crowds the convention center. Ride organizers put on a carbo-loading spaghetti dinner the evening before the ride, and then we went outside to watch some of the criterium racing that was part of the weekend.

Just some of the people at the spaghetti dinner. Service was available for four hours.
Sanctioned criterium races ran Friday evening and Sunday morning. A 100-mile road race was also part of the weekend’s events.

The weather forecast is always on everyone’s mind as ride morning breaks. Because August in Texas is hot, hot, hot, the ride starts just after 7 a.m. That meant 12,000 cyclists got up at the crack of dawn, and many (including yours truly) headed back to the arena for a big breakfast. Then, we rode a few blocks in the dark to the starting area. We all grouped in the starting grid for the second group of 100-milers, even though only Nancy, late arrival Barbara, and I intended to ride the full 100 miles. I thought I had Russ talked into joining us, but he opted for the 100K along with the others. Tandems took off first, then the official start came at 7:05, for the fast 100-milers. Our group was held back until 7:25 before we got the go-ahead.

Looking back at some of the starters about half an hour before the cannon sounds.
And they’re off! (Photo from the Wichita Falls Times-Record.)

The only similar experience I’ve had on a bike was at the MS 150 from Houston to Austin. The group didn’t really start to thin out until well after the second rest stop, 20 miles into the ride. Nancy, Debra, Toni, and Barbara got well ahead of Russ and me right off the bat. The two of us rode together until we reached Iowa Park, about 10 miles out of Wichita Falls. There, the route made a left turn and crossed some railroad tracks. Just as we made the turn, the gates started coming down and we could see a long freight train heading our way. Russ shot across the tracks before the gates lowered all the way. I was trailing, and had to make a split-second decision. I decided to go around the gates — something I’ve never done in my life. Good thing the freight was moving slow.

The split between the 100-mile and the 100K routes came soon after. I was torn when I saw Russ turn off on the 100K route, but I plunged into the 100-miler, and soon picked up a nice paceline. The southeast wind blew briskly at our backs, and pushed us along at around 23-24 mph.

I had planned to limit my time at rest stops to about five minutes, but it was apparent that that wouldn’t happen. At rest stop 2, the first one I used, I stood in line for food, then stood in line to refill my bottles, then stood in line for the porta-potties. It took almost a half hour before I was back on the bike. Barbara and I had agreed to meet at that rest stop, but I couldn’t find her, so I got going again. She sent me a voice mail minutes later that she had waited around for me for 10 minutes, then assumed I had gone on ahead and hit the road. We didn’t see each other again until I caught up to her at the 74-mile rest stop. She had had two flat tires, which slowed her down. But she was just leaving as I arrived, so I never saw her again for the rest of the ride.

The landscape in North Texas is featureless. But it’s the mostly flat ride that attracts so many first-time century riders.
The Bike Noob still going strong at about 60 miles. Honest, I do not normally ride with my elbows locked.
Oilfield services is an important industry around here. This is a pumpjack graveyard.

The sun broke through the overcast skies at about 1 p.m., and the day heated up quickly. It wasn’t Hotter ‘n Hell, but the strong wind made it windier than all get out. Even so, one rider I talked to at a rest stop said his Garmin was showing a surface temperature of 107-111 degrees (41-44C). Obviously, that was because of reflection from the road surface.

By now, the route had turned east, and the wind was hitting us from the right front quarter. It made the going tougher, but I could still keep up a 15 mph average. I stopped at every rest stop to top off my bottles with ice. As the day wore on, ride organizers set up new rest stops at closer intervals — so you never had to ride more than five miles without a break.

I was starting to slow. My butt was sore on the saddle, but I could see lots of other riders stand up to shake out the soreness as well. The SAG wagons did a land office business. Actually, I saw my first load of riders sag out at about 38 miles into the ride, which amazed me. Why sign up for 100 miles if you can’t do half of that? But now, after 75 miles, it seemed that I was passed every 15 minutes by another pickup pulling a trailer loaded with bikes and a bunch of guys (always guys) in the back. And a lot of these guys looked like they were real bikers, too — big guys who probably went out too fast and couldn’t finish.

At Burkburnett on the border with Oklahoma, the route turned south ¬†onto the I-44 frontage road, and dead into a strong wind. Cyclists dropped to their lowest gears and made slow headway. I caught up to Roy Jones from San Angelo, whose blog — “Pedal Pushers” — I read. “This isn’t any fun anymore,” he said.

Despite the rest stops every five miles, the scorching sun and the fierce wind forced cyclists to rest whenever possible. Some just stopped along the roadside and stood over their bikes, heads drooped into the wind.

“You okay?” I asked one.

“Yeah, fine,” he barked back. He didn’t look fine.

The route was wide open, with no shelter from either sun or wind. A clump of trees off in the distance beckoned. They turned out to be part of a roadside rest stop along the Interstate, but worn-out cyclists filled it. Many flagged down passing SAG wagons, but they were all full, and wouldn’t take on anyone else. I got back on my bike and slogged ahead.

Worn-out cyclists make their own impromptu rest stop under shade trees along I-44.

The effect of the wind and all the stops showed itself while I was at the next-to-last official rest stop. A volunteer strode through the tent, and announced that if we wanted to finish the ride, we had to leave the rest stop immediately, or be sagged out. Heck, I hadn’t even had a chance to get one of the sno-cones they were handing out there.

After another three miles, we hit Sheppard Air Force Base. This has always been a treat for the riders, and this year for the first time in a long time, the 100-mile ride was routed through the base. A highlight was riding past a collection of jets — a B-52 bomber, F-15 fighter, T-38 trainer, A-10 Warthog — cool stuff. A little farther down, the cadets lined both sides of the street, cheering for riders and high-fiving.

Cadets at Sheppard Air Force Base hand out water and cheer on riders five miles from the finish.

Five more miles to go. I passed a few more riders and turned onto the same street we had left earlier that morning. I turned into the convention center area, passed under the big balloon arch, and was handed a medal signifying my accomplishment.

It was a bittersweet feeling. I intended to finish this century strong, unlike others I’d done in the past. But I didn’t put in enough really long training rides, which hurt my endurance. The wind was something no one could prepare for. My on-bike time: just over seven hours. But I crossed the finish line nine hours and 39 minutesafter starting — pretty miserable. My average speed over the last 20 miles couldn’t have been more than eight miles per hour.

Still, this was a great event and I’m glad I finally did it. Many thanks to Russ and Debra for sharing their RV and the rest of the gang for putting up with me. Thanks also to Development Counsellors International — the marketing group for Wichita Falls — for comping my entry fee. I’ll be back — but it might be for the 100K next time.

Armadillo – Turkeys and Chickens and Skunks, Oh My!

The Armadillo Hill Country Classic is the Austin Cycling Association’s main fundraiser every year. It’s a nice supported ride starting from Liberty Hill, northwest of Austin, and I like to ride it if my schedule lets me. I’ve done the 50-mile version the past two times I’ve ridden it, and was looking forward to do the 60-miler this time around.

The day was darn near perfect. The 105-mile ride had to be shortened to 90, because two cattle guards on the long route were under water from recent rains, and those roads were impassable. The long riders set off at 7:30, a half hour in advance of the rest of us.

The 105 and 85-mile riders get a 7:30 a.m. start from Liberty Hill High School, and I found myself in a poor spot to get a good shot.

Temperature was about 63 degrees (17C) at the start, and what wind there was wasn’t a factor. The day was sunny and bright. We started out on the familiar roads, and held together as a large group until the first rest stop at seven miles. I was surprised at the large number of riders who made a stop there, since our group was the 43, 50, and 60 mile riders. I wouldn’t expect anyone with the experience to go that far would need to stop so soon.

We’ve had some decent rainfall over the last week, which caused the route shortening, but the rain also is producing one of the finest crops of wild flowers I’ve ever seen. The roadsides were carpeted with them.

The colorfully-named Mexican Hat (foreground) and Indian Blanket.

But in my careful preparations for this ride, I forgot one detail: to check the batteries in my camera. Right after snapping this shot, the camera died. You’ll have to use your imagination to visualize the scenes I depict.

Yours truly, caught in mid-ride by the on-course photographer.

Shortly after the flower pics, we turned onto County Road 284 — one of the worst stretches of chip seal it has ever been my misfortune to ride. It shook my jaw, rattled my teeth in my head, and sent irritating vibrations (not quite painful, but almost) to my feet and hands. That was the longest three miles I’ve ever ridden.

My first rest stop was in the only town the ride visits: Bertram, pop. 1300, about 23 miles in. The rest stop here is a good one, as rest stops go, and I was glad to get some relief, a quick bite of food, and to top off my water bottles.

Some miles past Bertram, the route split, with the 60-milers going to the right. This brought me onto a part of the course I’d never seen before. Maybe it was because this area was new to me, but it seemed more “rural,” with houses and small ranches spread far apart, and a winding narrow country road. I got to the rest stop at the “Dillo Door,” where the 105-milers had to pass before 10:30 in order to be allowed onto the long route. I passed the rest stop and turned onto the 60-mile route.

It wasn’t long before the road took a turn that surprised me. Even though this ride is in the Texas Hill Country, the roads are mostly flat, or easy rollers. But a real hill loomed ahead. It compared with “Hail Mary Hill,” that I have struggled with on rides close to home. I stood and pedaled in my 34 x 28 granny gear, and finally crested the top.

As I eased my effort and continued along, two wild turkeys flew onto the road ahead of me, stopped, and started walking in the same direction I was going. The huge birds finally realized I was behind them, and they flew into the underbrush on the other side of the road, where I could see them walking away as I passed.

Just a few minutes later, another varmint crossed ahead of me. This time, it was a skunk! He was closer than the turkeys, and I had to swerve wide left to avoid him. As I pulled even, he raised his tail and took aim. I pedaled for all I was worth. I don’t know if he got off a shot or not, but in any case, I was untouched.

I turned onto the road to Oatmeal, and passed their iconic sign. The rest stop at the top of a nearby hill was a welcome sight, and it even had some chairs to relax. From here on out, it was back home on the roads we’d headed out on.

My bottom was starting to protest, and I decided I’d stop at each of the remaining stops, if for no other reason than to get off the bike and walk around for a minute or two. But at the next to the last stop, as I wandered over to the food table and found to my delight that they had some nice salty pretzels, I also found some critters milling around my feet. It seems a small flock of chickens weren’t going to be bothered by bikers and tables and ride volunteers, and were intent on picking the ground for any stray Clif Bar crumbs. My cell phone camera doesn’t do them justice.

Some of the chickens at the next to last rest stop. They’d walk right up to my feet and peck around if they thought they could get some goodies.

I knew I was 14 miles out from the finish, but my computer showed that I’d already traveled 49 miles. So the 60-mile route was really going to be 63 miles. No biggie, but now I just wanted the ride to be over. I had hoped to finish at about 12:30 p.m., for roughly a 15 mph average once rest stop time was figured in. Looking at my watch, it seemed that 1 p.m. would be a more realistic finishing time.

See ya later!

A nice tailwind let me cruise at 25-26 mph for several miles, and then the rollers — and that horrible chip seal on County Road 284 — slowed me again. On the outskirts of Liberty Hill, I passed some tired-out riders, then crossed the railroad tracks and turned into the school parking lot. I was done. The time was 12:49. That gave me an average speed of 14.4 mph, which I decided I’d be happy with.

Cars were sparse in the parking area, and I could change clothes in my front seat without risking anyone getting a look. A little glitch with the post-ride food caused me to wait a little longer, but I eventually got my burrito, a cup of iced tea, and hit the road home. The temperature was still only 75 degrees (24C) and I had been comfortable throughout the ride. A good route, with great support, and a mix of flora AND fauna — it’s no wonder I try to make this ride every year.