Until yesterday, I didn't think of myself as a cyclist. I've had Tsar Bicycle the Great for all of 6 weeks. Prior to yesterday, I'd ridden it a total of about 320 miles. Most of the folks I saw yesterday have been riding for years. I'm a runner, and every time I hop on a bike, I feel like I'm breaking some law of physics.
Yesterday, I bicycled 100 miles.
Today, I feel like a cyclist.
The Tour de Keuka is a charity ride that supports the Food Bank of the Southern Tier (of NY). The 45, 58, and 100 mile rides all go around Keuka Lake. The 58 and 100 mile routes also include a ride up what feels like a mile and a half long sheer cliff. More on that later.
I had heard about the ride first, but had dismissed it as being a suicidal lunatic's fever dream. Then I made the mistake of mentioning it to Meghan and Geoffrey. None of us individually thought it was a good idea. But when all three of us look at an event like this, it becomes a race of "who's the biggest a$$hole." Because if one of us signs up, then all three of us have to do it. Geoffrey won the a$$hole contest this time (as he often does).
We called our team "Czar's Lightning Machine", after our bike names: Tsar Bicycle the Great, White Lightning, and the Green Machine. Our team had a fourth individual: My archnemesis: Lesley. You will recall her from my Utica Boilermaker race report.
Lesley exists on some higher realm of crazy that I only glimpse for brief moments before I shrink away in terror. If I am a warrior, she is the dragon that idly grinds up continents with her tail. I mentioned the bike ride to her less than a week ago and she signed up two days later. She's one of those people you read about in "Super Epic Fitness Magazine", and think, OK, what planet is this chick from.
I have yet to see her spaceship, so I don't know.
|Me: "This century ride is going to devour me."|
Lesley: "I am going to devour this century ride."
Being my archnemesis, she suggested I do a long run the day before the ride. She did this via sneaky reverse psychology, saying I should definitely not run far the day before. So Friday morning, I got up at 3:40am and ran 18 miles before work. I was up at 3:40am again Saturday morning. I ran a 2 mile streaker keeper (because I'm retarded), and then waited for Geoffrey and Meghan to accept the reality of what they had signed up for and drag themselves out of bed. We were on the road by 5:15.
The riders gathered at the Hammondsport Fire Department were a small but friendly group. I encountered my coworker Harland there, a great guy and a legitimate cyclist who's done countless century rides. He reminds me of Clark Kent; no glasses, but you wouldn't think of him as a superhero at work. But when he puts on those bike shorts, watch out. I'm pretty sure he eats bicycles for breakfast. I can't afford that so I stick to bagels.
Geoffrey and Meghan took their time getting ready, and Lesley and I got to the start first. I'm not sure she realized that she was about to spend 8 hours with me. If she had she may have ridden with one of the other bikers she had no problem befriending (building up her supervillain squad no doubt!). At 7:30am, we were off! I don't think I had yet accepted that I was about to bike 100 miles.
Except for a few brief moments, I didn't really see Meghan and Geoffrey. I'm not going to lie or exaggerate. Their ride was a DISASTER. I considered writing our stories concurrently. Instead, you're going to have to suffer through my tale first. But rejoice, for I will recount every last one of their many encounters with fate. So read on!
I went way too fast in the first 30 miles or so. My archnemesis is a lightning pedlar. I just looked that word up and it means she sells narcotics. That... I mean, I don't know, maybe? I doubt it. I meant she's a fast biker, and I tried to keep up. In that first stretch there's a really huge hill, and I blasted up it like an idiot. That earned me the title of "King of the Mountain" from one of the other cyclists. I'm not sure he realized that I blew my entire, um, load (totally not PC) in that first portion.
Thankfully, when I started to feel pretty gassed, we got back to the Fire Department (at about mile 45) and took an extended break with lots of food and water. I saw Harland for I believe the third time. He was always ahead of me and I would briefly catch up with him and his team at rest stops. But he was super supportive, and it helped me a lot to get encouragement from a real cyclist! At that point I wasn't entirely confident I could survive the entire 100 miles!
|Black coffee only powers you for so long.|
Geoffrey and Meghan caught up with us as well. One of their many disasters befell them shortly after Lesley and I left. But again, you're going to have wait. Ha! If I can suffer bicycling in the heat all day, you can suffer reading my fluff for a few minutes. The rest break did me good and I set out with renewed vigor (vigour if you're British... maybe Canadian?). I pedaled vigorously (not narcotics).
The next 20 miles along the West side of Keuka Lake were fairly luxurious. It was pretty flat, with just gentle rolling hills. The view of the lake, when it wasn't blocked by $200,000 garages, was gorgeous. But deep down inside, I knew I would soon be murdered by a hill that rivals the Himalayas. Keuka is shaped like a letter Y. At the northwest tip there were two signs.
One said, "hello 45-milers! Go on straight and rejoice!"
The one for the 58- and 100-milers said, "turn right here and be forever lost from the world (probably)".
The signs didn't actually say that. They were just numbers with arrows. They didn't care. They just pointed. We turned right.
Lesley and I rode down a bumpy seasonal rode, ticking down the miles until we reached the bluffs at the crease of the Y. I was going pretty slowly at this point and she got ahead of me. But a couple of miles later I caught up to her. She had stopped and waited. I thought, that's so sweet of her!
Then she said, "I'm not going up that hill alone." Fair enough.
|I wouldn't go up that hill alone either.|
I had about decided that the hill didn't exist, that the race coordinators had thrown it on the elevation profile to panic us. Then we rounded a turn and there it was. It didn't look super bad.
Harland, however, had warned me ahead of time. He told me that the beginning of the hill was an 11-12% grade. And then a very brief respite. And then a 17-18% grade. If you don't know what that's like, try bicycling up an escalator that's going down. And it was really hot out. So pretend there's a guy at the top with a flame-thrower. Also, you hate yourself.
Lesley flew up the hill like a hummingbird that had just bathed in nectar. I put my bike on the lowest possible gear and cursed when it hit the end. I clambered up that hill an inch at a time, my screaming legs threatening to abort. There was a turn at the top of this first section. Some riders thought that was the end of the hill. I knew better. Lesley turned the corner and vanished.
A couple of minutes later, I turned the same corner. A sheer wall rose up in front of me and stretched into the stratosphere. Zeus sat atop, cackling at me with vengeful delight. I couldn't actually see him for all the swirling mirage-like clouds of heat that danced across the top of the hill, but I could feel his goading laughter surround me like a sweaty hug. My archnemesis was already halfway up, her Herculean legs slamming her bicycle into submission.
The blood in my legs had been completely replaced by lactic acid at this point, but I kept going. My entire universe was this hill and the pain in my body. I pulled so hard on the handlebars I thought I would tear them off. I would push on a pedal, the bike would move an inch, and then come to a complete stop until I pushed the next pedal.
Then I hit the 17% grade.
Are you in a room? Look to your left. Do you see a wall there? Good. Get on a bicycle and ride up that wall. But first, don't drink any water for a week to get the full effect. Enjoy.
I was pretty sure I was going to die. Nothing could sufficiently motivate me to go up this hill. Not Meghan and Geoffrey getting up at 4am to do this ridiculous event with me. Not Lesley being so divinely generous as to hang back with my slow plodding butt this whole way. Not Harland's persistent encouragement every time he saw me. I was going to lie down on the side of the road and let darkness consume me. But then it happened.
A couple hundred feet shy of the top, Lesley got off her bike and started walking, the cleats on her shoes clicking on the pavement audibly.
And that was it. I finally found exactly one thing I could beat my archnemesis at. I feel somewhat guilty writing this now, because she really was truly amazing throughout the entire ride, the 一番 companion one could hope for on a ride (your computer didn't just glitch out, that's "ichiban", which means "number one"). But in that moment, the one and only thing that would get me to the top of that hill was my ego.
I don't remember much of the rest of that hill. There was so much pain it blotted out all my other senses. I - very very slowly - passed Lesley at some point. It felt that hours had passed. I expected the sun to set and the moon to come out, the seasons to change. Leaves fall, snow piles up, then the sun comes up and the plants blossom once again. When I reached the top of the hill, I was surprised I hadn't grown a full beard.
But I never put my feet down. I got to the top, and kept going. No rest. I just scrolled up and apparently I've dedicated about 10 paragraphs to that hill. It was tough. Let's just leave it at that.
At the next stop we caught up to Harland's group again. At that point we were scarred veterans, survivalists who had conquered a seemingly impenetrable obstacle. I drank a gallon of fluid. After many long minutes, I got back on my bike. The wheel spun in the sand and I promptly fell on my behind. I laughed uproariously. We were off again.
I wish I could say that after that it was all "downhill" so to speak. But there was still almost 30 miles to go and I was completely exhausted. But I won't recount the rest of it in excruciating detail. We almost got lost at one point if it wasn't for Lesley's mysterious sixth sense. There were many more pretty views of the lake (obstructed by massive garages). My muscles took turns cramping. I drank the rest of my water and then drank the rest of Lesley's water.
After mile 90 I started ticking down the remaining miles, and prayed that my phone wasn't off on mileage. At mile 99 I got a massive cramp that paralyzed my entire left leg. I limped across the finish at a little over 101 with one barely functional leg. Lesley was already there, looking like she wanted to go do another 100 miles just for giggles. It had taken us around 6 hours and 40 minutes of moving time to finish. Our average pace was just over 15mph.
We hung out for another half hour, eating and drinking as much as we could jam into our faces. But she had to go. She was pet-sitting for half the cats and dogs in the county. Then I lay down on a bench. Gradually the volunteers tore down the venue and left. Eventually it was just me and one awesome volunteer named Paul who kept me company.
I waited for Meghan and Geoffrey for another two and a half hours. Here's there story. It's not for the faint of heart.
In the first quarter of the ride, Meghan's brakes started rubbing against her front wheel. As she and Geoffrey headed up the first giant hill of the ride around mile 24 she looked down at her brakes to see what the he!! was going on. She fell. She also discovered that trying to start back up on a steep hill with clips is very difficult. She fell twice more. She was sore. She was embarrassed. But that's nothing compared to her bike. The seat was pointed in completely the wrong direction. Her right brake was on the wrong side of the handle bars. Her bike looked like it had just gone through a garbage compactor. And she still had 75 miles to go.
|Their last happy moment...|
As she and Geoffrey were leaving the rest area at mile 45, Geoffrey hit something and his tire spewed out hot air and died an ignominious death. With much cursing he returned to the car (thankfully it was right there). He replaced the tube in the tire. He pumped it up to 120 PSI.
The tire EXPLODED.
I mean that literally. It exploded. It deafened him in one ear. He threw his helmet into the lake in a fit of rage (well, it didn't quite reach the lake). He may have kicked a small puppy. What the frig had gone wrong?? He pulled out another spare tube. He slowly looked at the box. 700C. He looked at the previous box. 26 inches. Somehow, against all odds, he had packed the wrong tube. And then with valiant struggle had managed to fit it into his tire. And it had exploded.
He put in the correct tube and, with much delay, they were off again.
Remember how at the point of the lake we were supposed to turn right to head towards Mount Doom? Geoffrey and Meghan accidentally went straight. It wasn't until another rider pointed this out that they realized their error, after they had gone up an extra hill. They turned around, adding miles to their ride.
Then, of course there was the hill. They were already in a foul mood. Meghan described it thus: "It was worse than my nightmares." But they're still alive today, so clearly they made it up. At some point they got lost again. They gave up on trying to finish the race in any reasonable sort of time. They stopped at a gas station and filled Geoffrey's camelback with more fluids than it could physically hold.
By this time the course started shutting down. Among other things it meant they no longer had signs to follow. Whereas Lesley and I got to take a bunch of scenic side streets that ran along the lake's edge, Geoffrey and Meghan had to take the highway back to Hammondsport, adding extra hills to their already defeated legs.
It was during this point that Meghan's feet started to feel like she had dipped them into liquid magma. They were on fire. She showed us the blood blisters later on and.... yeah. Gross.
During this entire brutal trial there was a lot of pain, anger, and frustration. They yelled, they shouted, they cursed one another, they threw things. At one point Geoffrey told Meghan to put on her "big girl pants." But if it wasn't for one another, they could not have finished it. They were one another's heroes. Warriors. Champions. They did not let each other quit. And despite their absolutely atrocious mood during the ride, they were laughing as they told me the story in the car.
They crossed the finish after 5:30. I had been waiting for almost 3 hours. I got up on my sore legs and cheered them, even though it was probably the last thing they wanted to hear. Brave Paul, the volunteer who refused to leave until the last riders had crossed finally got to go home. And so did we. After 11 hours in Hammondsport we went home. Along the way we ordered 2 sheet pizzas and 30 boneless wings.
|Not even kidding.|
That day, that bike ride, was a microcosm for all of life. We had felt every single emotion you could possible feel over the course of a full and rich life. Anger. Elation. Frustration. Pride. Bitter hate. Overflowing love. Agonizing pain. And a wash of pure unfiltered joy that rivals having a child or getting married. It's impossible to know what that's like until you've done something like this.
A lot of people don't understand. Many never will. They may think, "why would I subject myself to such punishment or torture for no reason? You didn't even get a medal!" I ask them, why would you deny yourself the greatest physical and emotional high that one could ever experience in their life? Take the feeling of falling in love for the first time. Take the feeling of winning a million dollars. Take the feeling of your most amazing accomplishment. Compress those three things into one little ball and experience it all at once.
It's like a pill. And you can take it whenever you want. But in exchange you have to suffer - horrendously - for many hours. Personally, I'm an addict. I take that pill as often as I can get it.
|Geoffrey's version of the pill is chocolate chip pancakes|
with butter, peanut butter, chocolate sauce, maple syrup
and a side of mint chocolate chip ice cream
And I can't forget that, through our suffering, we got to help dozens - maybe hundreds - of hungry kids get fed. What a through-and-through achievement for the riders and amazing volunteers.
EDIT 7/27/16: The Tour de Keuka has raised about $65,000 for the Food Bank so far, which will provide about 195,000 meals for kids!!!
Thank-you Geoffrey. Thank-you Meghan. Than-you Lesley. Thank-you Harland. Thank-you to all the other riders along the way who helped cheer us along. Thank-you to the volunteers who helped us stay hydrated. Thank-you, Paul, for sitting with me for well over 2 hours. Thank-you to all of the friends and family who donated and helped make this adventure possible for us. Thank-you to the Food Bank for giving us a purpose for our grueling challenge. Thank-you to everyone I may have forgotten because I'm full of ice cream and sleepy as I write this. And thank-you, reader, for getting this far. I hope it inspires you to do something truly insane, but also truly rewarding, one day.