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.
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.