Sunday, May 5, 2013

Ups and downs at the Rapha Gentlemen's Race ...

Back in March, I got an IM on Facebook from my friend Gary:

Hello folks,
I am looking to put together a ramshackle group of people to do the Rapha Gentlemans Ride May 4th. I helped scope out some of the roads as they are in my neighborhood ... I also have to have a team of 6. I am looking to have a group of people that would be fun to ride with and have a good time on the bike. Information is attached.
Who wants to have some fun and explore the roads I bounce around on?
The idea intrigued me. I've never had any interest in racing on the road - and still don't - but this seemed more like a really fun, hard day in the saddle around some (more or less) local roads. I've known Gary for a long time - in fact, when I lived in Doylestown, he lived right down the road from me. He's a genuine bike guy through and through who knows how to keep it fun. So it didn't take me long to decide: I was in!
I had one issue, though: my road miles for the year were really low. In fact, I think they're probably something on the order of a fifth of what I've done off-road. And since I ride SS, there is definitely a difference in riding one vs. the other. I don't think it's a huge problem - I'd already done a few long rides and races off-road - but as May 4th approached, I have to admit that I wasn't 100% certain how my body would hold up over the course of 130 miles with over 10,000 feet of climbing. But I wasn't about to let that stop me from having fun. 

And, as it turns out, my body wasn't the thing I had to worry about.

Ibis Silk SL
I talked to Gary the day before the ride and he suggested, given the amount of dirt road sections, that if I had access to a set of 25s, I should throw them on instead of my usual 23s. So I stopped by my LBS after work and picked up a set of Specialized Roubaix tires. I had the bike tuned up earlier in the week because I knew the cables were about due for replacement and I figured getting a once over couldn't hurt before a 130 miles anyway. At any rate, I was ready to go by Friday night.
So, bright and early Saturday morning, I was up and out the door to the Rambling Pines Summer Camp in Hopewell, NJ for the start.

One other really cool part of the day was that one of our team members, Josh Fonner, came through with team kits from Giant. That was unreal - as I've referenced a few times, I have a bit of an addiction when it comes to cycling gear. My Twin Six discount gets used pretty often. So I know that team kits aren't a trivial thing -- that kind of generosity is really cool and was very much appreciated.
Our team was set to start at around 8:24, and we started off nice and steady. We kind of rode in a pack for the first five miles, and then when we hit a busier road, we pretty seamlessly fell into a pace line. And on this point, I have to confess something: of all the unknowns of riding in this event, the only one that really worried me was this team element. And don't get me wrong. The other members of our team - Gary, Josh, Jake Davidson, Colin Williams and Scott Helvie - those guys were all really cool and really strong. My concern was with how I'd handle riding in a pack. As I mentioned, I've never been all that much of a roadie, so I can't say I really have much experience riding in a group wheel to wheel. In fact, I almost always ride alone - off-road and on. I was scared that in a group I'd do something stupid and hurt one of my fellow riders. It was definitely something that gave me pause. But in the couple sections where we rode pace together, I guess I either handled it or the other guys did a great job of hiding my ineptitude. Because I never took anyone out and I think I did okay with doing my turn and peeling off without causing too much disruption. 
And to that end, it seems all the things that made me worry before the ride turned out fine. At one point about 30 or so miles in, Gary rolled up next to me and asked how I was doing. As I always do, I replied that my legs felt crappy. They didn't feel great, but the truth is, that's just the kind of rider I am. I've spent the last decade or so turning myself into an endurance racer, and one of the outcomes of that is I don't really start to feel comfortable in the saddle until a good three or four hours in. I notice this on the road even more. So when Gary asked, I really hadn't broken myself in yet. In fact, the first time my legs started to feel opened up was after a really big climb about 45 miles in. I had hopped off the bike to walk a bit because I was concerned about burning as few matches as I could. But when I hopped back on, I oddly started to feel really good. We hit another incline and I was spinning easy and starting to look forward to what was coming up about 20 miles ahead -- the KOM climb. As tough as I figured it would be, I was curious to ride it and see if I could match it. The profile of the course made it look like a knife blade pointing upright, and I'd never ridden that road before. So I was curious to see how I'd do. 
But it wasn't meant to be ...
To understand what happened and why, I need to look back to the first twenty miles, when a seemingly mundane flat tire created a chain reaction that could have killed me if I didn't have one of the luckiest moments of my life.
About 15 miles into the day, I flatted on the first dirt road section. I didn't think that was any big deal. A road bike can flat on dirt roads. So I pulled over and fixed it as quickly as I could. Colin, a really experienced mechanic from Jersey, came back to help but I got it fixed fairly quickly and we were back at it. But then a mile or so later, on a short climb, I suddenly couldn't pedal. I looked at the wheel and couldn't figure out the problem - it seemed the wheel had fallen out of the drops. Colin took a look at it and diagnosed it pretty quickly. Somehow, my wheel was really bent. Maybe it had started out bent after I flatted, and the rest of the dirt road steadily made it worse, but by the time I stopped it was rubbing the stay enough to force the wheel out of the drop. Colin worked on it with a spoke tool to try to re-true it, but it wasn't working. So he decided to deal with it like a mountainbiker and bent it back with his hands and feet. Between that and the spoke wrench, he somehow took enough of the bend out to make it roll again, albeit with a wobble. The one catch was that I had to keep the rear brake dialed out. I figured that was a condition I could live with if it meant I could finish the ride. 
So we continued on. I was trying to be as gentle as I could be on the dirt road sections, and it seemed to be working. I even rode through the creek section without a problem! It was making some noise whenever I'd drop to easier gears, like my 23t or 25t. My solution was to stay out of those gear as much as possible. It made a few of the climbs tough, but at least I was still rolling. After the 20% climb around 45 miles in, we hooked up with another team at a section where the course was blocked for a rider injury (he was being attended by the medics and they had blocked the entrance to the road.) Luckily, Gary knew a way to pick up the course ahead, so we continued on and the other team rode along with us. Once were back on course, we stayed together as we approached the steep descent into Milford NJ on the PA side of the river. I'd ridden up that hill years ago during the Nocamixon century, so maybe I should have been a little smarter about what happened next. As we started along the road leading to the descent, a few of our guys took off and I followed. I went around a few of the guys on the other team and started my descent in the drops. The last few years, I've been getting better at descending (or maybe I'm just heavier so I have more gravity on my side!) So I was flying along at a pretty good pace, and just as we hit the last part of the descent I looked down at my Garmin and saw that I was over 40 mph. But then I looked up and realized I had to slow down if I wanted to make the sharp left turn at the bottom, especially because there was a stone wall right in front of me if I kept going straight. 
And that's when I realized I was in real trouble.
Remember what I said earlier about how I was able to keep going as long as I dialed my brake off? Well, that worked great at speeds below 40. At the speed I was going, I just couldn't sow down enough to make the turn. I realized I was going to - at best - side swipe the wall, which would have certainly broken my leg, or - at worst - well, you can use your imagination there. The physics were against me either way. I'm 160 lbs at my heaviest and that wall was solid rock. Any collision wasn't going to work out in my favor. So I did the only thing I thought I could - I laid it down as I took the turn. But as I did this, I was pulling the brake pretty hard and before I went down I spun almost 180 degrees as my rear tire slid. I hit ground with my ass and elbow pretty hard, and slid a bit along the road and my bike pitched up and hit the wall flat on the non-drive side.
After it was over, I didn't move right away. I just took stock - I could feel my arm was pretty banged up, but my head never hit the ground and I felt okay otherwise. All of the riders who were behind me stopped to help and they hollered for my teammates to come back as well. Scott and Gary had been ahead, and they came back. Everyone asked me if I was okay - Gary noticed my arm and I told him it was fine (even though there was already a pretty big egg on the elbow.) Colin stopped and examined my bike. I asked him if the wheel was okay, and he said it was but that I had another problem: I'd cracked the frame on the non-drive side stay.

Since the frame is carbon, any break is catastrophic. And when I grab this, it has the squishy feeling laterally that always makes me sick. I've had a carbon frame break before, so I know that sound. In this case, it meant the end of my day.
But now you can see what I mean when I said I was lucky. I wish I had a picture of that turn and where I went down. This crash really could have been much, much worse. I hit the ground pretty hard, but I walked away from it with just a few bumps and scrapes. My elbow is pretty swollen and purple, but I don't think anything was broken other than my bike. And while that's annoying and inconvenient, I'd rather have that than a bike that works fine and broken legs or worse.

My elbow a day later
The total of my injuries were the elbow and a bunch of bruises all over my legs with some road rash. Not too bad all things considered. I was disappointed that I didn't get to finish the ride, but I did get to spend the rest of the day with Janine and Christine, Gary and Josh's significant others, so that was a nice consolation! And I did hang around to see our team finish the ride, too, which I really wanted to do.
For the time I was out there, I had a really great time with these guys. They're all really strong riders and fun guys to be around. They showed a stubborn old single speeder that hitting the road can be just as fun as riding off road if you surround yourself with really cool people! I can't thank Gary enough for letting me be a part of his team!

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