I am beginning to feel the excitement of autumn returning. There are events for me to ride – in Portland Maine this September and in Salisbury Maryland in October. Today I found myself riding a club event that I wasn’t expecting.
The Taneytown (MD) Twister is a club ride that took the place of the Potomac Pedalers usual Backroads Century. It was planned by some of my friends in the club. Events are usually planned in the spring, but this year was uncertain and many of my favorite local events were cancelled. That included our club century. However, some of the Potomac Pedalers best minds thought that they could put a new event together, and they did. They organized the starting place, rest stops and courses on a tight budget. My preparation for my centuries is going well, and there are times when you just have to get on the bike and ride. I rode 63 miles today at the Twister, and it was a lot of fun. It wasn’t a very large event, but it gathered over 150 riders. The ride had a starting place and a single rest stop with 25 miles between them. From the rest stop, loops were available to cover various distances. Depending on where you started, you could ride 25, 38, 50, 63, 75 or 100 miles.
It was a rolling ride, and a lot of fun. I wanted to put in some miles, and I had a lot of fun seeing old friends and riding the hills. A metric century was the perfect training ride for me, and despite the humidity, it turned out to be a good time. At the end, my habit of handing out post ride beer earned me a brew from a friend who had accepted some from me in the past. Good Karma never goes to waste. I’m not sure if there will be another Twister next year. I know the club would like to hold their annual Backroads Century as usual, but maybe an event like the Twister has a place on the club calendar too. Having more cycling events to ride will be a good thing.
I recently had a careful look at my cycling clothes. It’s been a while since I replaced any of my bike shorts, and as it happens, I needed replace a couple of them. I ordered replacements. I’ve been collecting these items for years, and it got me thinking about all the things that I take for granted as I prepare for events, because what you wear is a part of the process. That process starts with training, but it also includes what to do just before you go and how to manage your ride once you get started.
I’ve ridden events held from May to October, but for me, the best time for event rides is in the autumn, and this year I’m riding centuries in both September and October. These are warm months where I live, but not usually hot. Ideal conditions for a long bike ride. 2020 locked riders out of events, and a lot of people have been looking for events to return to in 2021. Some haven’t ridden a century before and want to test themselves. Some riders may be enjoying their “pandemic bike” and want to see what an event is like. There are a lot of things to think about apart from training. Preparation and strategy can make your event a success. Lack of them can cost you. Here are a few tips that may be the difference between a great event and a difficult one.
The first thing to prepare for is the expected weather. What you wear can make or break your ride. The key is to bring the right clothing to keep you comfortable. The events I’m riding this year come in places where the daytime high during the event will be in the upper 60’s to upper 70’s, though early in the morning, when these centuries start, the temperature can be in the 50’s. That can create some problems. Know what weather to expect.
Dress for mile 5, not for mile 0. I have seen people who wore a warm jacket at the start of a century, only to find it too hot once they warmed up. Then they found themselves carrying it with them for over 90 miles. That initial comfort was offset by the need to carry the jacket. Be prudent about what you take with you.
Arm and leg warmers are great accessories, and they pack small for your pockets. They’re great for that extra bit of comfort as you set out. If you can get away with taking less, you’ll be more comfortable in the long run if the weather will warm up during the ride. Centuries take hours, so take the temperature changes into account.
Century day is no time to break in new clothing. You should know what your shorts and jersey and shoes are like before you set out on a century ride. It’s a good idea to break them in beforehand so you know you won’t be uncomfortable or chafe.
Speaking of chafing, chamois cream is a good idea. 100 miles is a long painful distance if your shorts are chafing you!
Think about post-ride. Can you change out of your cycling clothes? Bring a bag to put your cycling gear in. I like to use 2.5 gallon size plastic storage bags to put my cycling laundry in when the ride is done.
Another thing to think about is your bike. Before the event, here are a few things to consider. Remember that you may have to get your bike into the shop a few weeks before the event.
Make sure your bike is tuned up. It should shift smoothly and run quietly without squeaking or rubbing anywhere. Nothing can ruin a ride quite like a bike that needs maintenance.
Wheels should be trued. Wheels that aren’t true can cause brake rubbing and wear your tires quickly.
Lubricate your chain. It seems obvious, but a clean and well lubricated chain is easier on your gears.
Check your tires. Replace them if they’re worn out. Nothing will interrupt a good ride like a flat tire. Anything you can do to prevent one will pay off on event day.
Charge all your electronics. Computers, lights and if you have electronic shifting, charge that.
Some preparation for your ride begins the week before ride day. Here are a few things to consider:
Last minute training will only wear you down. Ride easy the week before your event and come in fresh. Your training should be complete a week before the event. Harder rides just before the event won’t help you. Rest will.
Most people aren’t fully hydrated day to day. The week before your event, drink an extra glass or two of water per day. Also, be careful with alcohol. I’m not saying abstain, but be careful to moderate! Going in well hydrated means you’ll get a good start. Those two extra glasses of water every day can help, particularly if your event is on a hot day.
Try and get good sleep. This makes sense, but often the best night to get good sleep is the night prior to the night before your event. Sometimes you can be too excited or worried the night before to sleep well, and good sleep leading up to your event can mitigate that somewhat.
Make a complete list of things to take, and check them all off before you leave! Even things you may think are trivial. Forgetting an item you need can be a nightmare on event day. It may seem paranoid, but better safe than sorry. Worry is best handled well in advance.
Finally, what can you do on Event day to make your ride a success?
Go in with a plan. Think about packet (number) pickup, where you’ll park, when you’ll start, and have an idea of when you’ll finish. Know where your keys, phone and ID are.
Remember to ride at the pace you’re trained for. Too many riders get excited and draft faster riders on event day. That means you’re burning too much energy. You don’t want to burn out in the second half of your event. If you want to stay out of the wind a little, find riders who are riding at your training pace and ride with them.
If you can, use the buddy system! Riding with a friend is social. It helps to share the experience. You’ll have a partner to draft with, and the company can come in handy in many ways. Riding partners motivate each other.
Eat when you can. Over 100 miles, you’ll need extra calories to get you through. If you have rest stops that offer food, take advantage. Don’t gorge, just eat when food is available. Take an energy gel or two with you in your pockets. Take one if you’re feeling drained. I have a friend who describes gels as “instant will to go on”. It’s good to have one for yourself or a friend in need.
As a guideline, you should drink one bottle of water or electrolytes per hour. I like to take a drink every time I see someone else drink. Remind yourself often. I like to keep electrolytes in the bottle on my down tube and water in the bottle on the seat tube. If you’re hot, the bottle of water can also be used to spray your head and neck to cool down on a hot day. Many events use powdered drink mix to create their electrolyte drinks. That commonly means they’re mixed “strong”. Often I find them too sweet, so I fill the electrolyte bottle half full and then dilute it by filling up the rest of the bottle with water. You can’t get the benefit if you’re not willing to drink! Drink smart on event day.
A typical century will have 4 rest stops. They may vary in the distance between them, but when you’re out on the course, it can help to think of a century as 5 separate 20 mile rides strung together. Breaking the ride into segments helps make a very long ride manageable.
After many years and a lot of experience with riding centuries and other events, I’ve come to see the points above as second nature. Still, you have to start somewhere, and even if you’re experienced, you can still learn more. I know that I’m still learning myself. I hope that reading this will prove useful for your next cycling challenge.
Am I making progress toward the fitness I need to ride centuries again?
Over the past 16 years I’ve ridden most of the cycling events that are held within driving distance of the Washington DC area. After Covid 19 struck in early 2020 all of them were cancelled for that year. There are relatively few events that have returned for 2021. However, there are two centuries that I am signed up to ride this year. The problem is that my training has changed. In past years, I would train indoors over the winter, and start riding with friends in the early spring. I would even ride a century in May. It was difficult, but group rides were plentiful, and base miles were easy to maintain. Once I had an event or two done, I never questioned my fitness. Covid has interrupted my training cycle and taken away the group rides and events I have always used to measure my progress.
My longest ride of 2020 was 42 miles. I was in a training funk after all the events I’d wanted to ride were cancelled. I rode a lot last year, but they were many short rides. 2021 is different. I’ve started riding longer distances, mostly alone. I’ve gone over 45 miles a few times, and I’m riding over 100 miles a week. I think I have enough base miles to do what I want. What I need is to regain confidence in my training. I remember being worried before my first century. I was ready, but not sure what was ahead of me. Now, after 2020, I feel that way again. Before taking on my first century of 2021 in September, I want to regain the kind of confidence in my training that I had in 2019. What I needed was an event to test myself on. I found one that was ideal for me.
The Delaware Double Cross is a little longer than the metric century distance at 67 miles, and as the name suggests, it crosses the width of the state of Delaware twice. It also crosses into Maryland for many miles. I’ve ridden it many times. The White Clay Bicycle Club from Delaware holds it, and they do a very good job of running an event. It would be the perfect test of my training. I admit I was worried. This event would be my longest ride of the year. How would I feel?
I rode with two good friends, Ron and Tony. We started at 7:30 in the morning on a grey day from the high school in Smyrna, Delaware. After getting warmed up in the first 5 miles, I went to the front and started setting the pace. 18 miles into the ride we stopped at the fire station in Leipsic, DE. I had pulled at the front for that entire time, at a good pace. As we had a snack and refilled water bottles, we talked about taking it easier. My doubts were getting quieter.
About 20-25 miles in, it started to rain. Most cyclists aren’t fond of rain. I’m philosophical about it. If rain is possible, I seal my ID and my phone in plastic bags just to be ready for the worst. If it rains, I get wet. I won’t melt. I don’t like to start a ride when it’s raining though. That’s just inviting misery. However, the three of us soldiered on, and by the time we got back to the school at the halfway point, the rain had stopped and the sun came out. We dried off a little, got some snacks and water, and headed west for the second half of the ride.
Ron’s knee brace had slipped, and he was feeling his injuries. We slowed a little, but we were still moving well, and I started to feel hopeful. This was the way that events were supposed to feel. I had energy to go faster if I wanted to. When we reached the 50 mile mark and the rest stop at the Fire Station in Millington, Maryland my doubts were draining away. A big thunderstorm cell was passing to the east, and as we looked out at it, we thought it might stay ahead of us and with a little luck we could get back safe and dry. We were wrong. 55 miles in, the skies opened up. It was a mighty downpour, and we were soaked to the skin. It started to ease up after we had gone a few more miles. It stopped before we got to the finish, and the roads were starting to dry up before we got back to the school. We still felt good, and we were happy that it wasn’t raining while we were trying to get our bikes on the cars.
After changing out of wet cycling clothes and having a beer to celebrate our ride, I had no more doubts. We had a late lunch at the Crab Deck on Kent Island, and despite the rain we all agreed that it was a good time. I may be aging and I may have lost my events in 2020, but I’m back. I felt good, and I could have gone faster than I did. When I got home I checked over, cleaned and lubricated my bike, because riding in the rain demands maintenance, and I need to keep it running smoothly. I have a lot to look forward to. If I keep up my rides, I’m going to be ready for centuries in September.
The second half of 2021 looks hopeful. I’ve been riding regularly, but I have not returned to the kind of riding I’ve done in past years. 2020 was an awful year, and it’s had an affect on my cycling. I’m finding that the few events I can participate in this year are becoming a lifeline of sorts. My personal landscape in cycling has changed from what it’s been for the last decade or so. I’m used to riding with a team of friends whom I could count on, and I have fond memories of those years. Over the last year, much has changed. My friends are retiring, and some are not riding the same events that we once got excited about. What has been a kind of comfortable certainty for over a decade has changed, seemingly forever.
My life is a series of challenges. As I take them on, I look for small joys that can be had along the way. I collect small joys. I don ‘t think happiness is a goal, or something big that you earn all at once to enjoy as you see fit. Happiness is a series of small joys that come along with the trials of life. A life well lived will have many small joys to sustain it. They must be enjoyed as you encounter them, and saved as fond memories to see you through times of change and challenge. This month I turn 60 years old. It seems like a daunting number, but I still feel strong and healthy. I realize that I have been road cycling seriously for the past 16 years. When I started in 2005, I was dealing with a lot of life changes and I needed something to keep me going. When I decided to pursue cycling, I started a life changing habit. As long as I keep riding, I have access to those small joys. As I plan for events in the fall, I’ve come to see that I’ll have to accept more changes and ride for myself. I think that what I’ll gain is new perspective, and many more small joys to add to my life.
Despite the need for change, I can’t help but get excited about the rides I’ve signed up for this fall. Perhaps I will get some inspiration and find new ways to enjoy these familiar events. I recently signed up for the Seagull Century. I have a low rider number – which for veterans of this event is a symbol. Before online registration those who had ridden the year before were mailed registration forms before they became available to new riders. Therefore a low number meant you were a veteran. Though this no longer holds true, something about riding with a low number at Seagull makes you feel like a veteran. In my case I am a veteran. At one time I had friends who would register as soon as possible, then email their numbers around to compare them with each other’s. It was a small joy. I don’t have that pleasure any more, but I still feel the thrill when registration opens and I commit to a ride that I’ve completed every time it’s been held since I rode it as my very first century ride in 2006. It has a lot of personal tradition attached to it.
I’m riding only a few events in 2021. Many of the events I’ve enjoyed in the past aren’t being held this year because their planning was interrupted due to the lingering uncertainties of Covid-19. From last to first, they are the Seagull, the Maine Lighthouse ride, which is perhaps the most beautiful ride I’ve ever done, the Covered Bridges Classic, which is a hot ride held in Lancaster PA in August, and the Delaware Double Cross, which is held in late June, and it will make a nice step in training for the longer rides. I’ll be with a co-worker at Covered Bridges, and with an old friend for Double Cross, but otherwise I can’t say who I might ride with. In many ways, that is exciting.
Now that I have my schedule, it’s time to stretch out my training. Now that Covid restrictions are being eased, I can start looking for club rides and getting fit for the challenges I’ve signed up for. I’ll have to approach things in a new way, but change is one of the only constants in life, and I’m ready for it. 60 years of age doesn’t bother me much, not when I consider the health and activity levels of the average man my age. I will continue to chase small joys on my bicycle, and I’m certain that I’ll have no trouble catching them!
I’m transitioning to Spring Riding and a more promising 2021.
Like many people, I found the year 2020 to be difficult. Most people don’t cope well with change, and I’m no exception. I had some bright spots during that time, and I did my civic duty of working from home and obeying the Covid rules, but now that we have reached the one year anniversary of “Let’s shut down the economy for two weeks to flatten the curve” of Covid-19 infections, I’m starting to see signs that an end may be in sight. It couldn’t have come too soon.
I’m beginning to see buds on the trees outside my window. Vaccine distribution seems to be moving along, and 2021 is just beginning to look like a year worth looking forward to. I like to look at the bright side and hope for good things. As Spring approaches and the last days of winter begin to lose their bite, I have begun to come out of hibernation.
I have spent many weeks spinning in place on my trainer. Trainers are something I see as a kind of beneficial torture device. Last weekend, I got outside for a ride with friends. While those nightly trainer sessions left me with good leg strength, I found that my lungs have to catch up. I’ll need to suffer through a few more outdoor rides before my breathing isn’t so ragged and my lungs feel strong and clear. The good news is that it feels like that every Spring. It often takes longer to train the lungs than to train the legs. I’ll be fine. Daylight savings time has opened up the opportunity to ride outside after work. I’m very happy about that!
I am starting to get information from my cycling club, (Potomac Pedalers in the Washington DC area) about rides, and I’ve gotten emails with sign up information from event rides I’ve enjoyed in the past. Hope may arrive with the Spring. I’m feeling excited about riding in a way that I couldn’t in 2020. Things won’t be exactly the same as they were before Covid. I think I can live with the changes though. The next 6 weeks before my first event of 2021 will be marked with joy. A very long hibernation is nearing it’s end.
You have a bike – this will help you form good habits to make the most of it.
Bicycle sales in 2020 were so strong that manufacturers couldn’t keep up with demand. Most of those bikes were intended to be ridden for fitness during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. The bikes selling the best were inexpensive models designed to get you riding comfortably. The shops were sold out. As I write this, 2020 is nearing an end. It looks like there may be a Covid vaccine ready by spring. Now it’s time to take that new bike you bought in 2020 and make the resolution to ride it in 2021. How do you start? Everybody knows that there is nothing more crowded than a gym in January, when the resolutions are fresh in people’s minds and their resolve to do something is still strong. You have the bike. You have the motivation. What you need now is a plan, and you need to start forming good riding habits. Here are a few tips to help you get the most from that new bike and keep your resolutions.
Before you get on the bike, stretch your legs. Learn a few simple stretches to loosen up a little. This is a habit that I have to develop. I may be one of the least flexible people on the planet – at least it feels that way. It always feels good when I stretch though. A little stretching warms up the muscles and helps prevent injuries. You don’t have to do more than you’re comfortable with. Just a few simple stretches will help. When you stretch, don’t bounce your muscles. Slow, sustained stretches are best. You’re not looking for a pain point, just enough to feel the muscle stretching. The more you do it, the more flexible you’ll become, so don’t worry if you’re not flexible now. Just do what you can. Hold each stretch for a minute and balance your stretches for both legs. You can find useful stretches for all of your leg muscle groups and advice for stretching safely online. Stretching is an excellent habit to get into before you ride your new bike.
How much time do you have to ride? Most of us have busy lives and riding seems like a big commitment. Don’t make it one. When you get started, don’t think about how far you’re going or how fast. Just use the time you have. In the summer, you might have an hour after dinner before sunset. Use that hour. Ride for 50 minutes, 25 out and 25 back. If you need to stop and rest, stop and rest. Build a little rest into your riding time. If you don’t need it, fine. If you do, take a break. If you have half an hour to ride, ride out for 12 minutes, then turn around and come back. Ride finished. Ride whenever you get the chance. As you get started, consistency is more important than how far you go or how fast. Those things may become important to you later, but until you’re in the habit of riding, they don’t mean much. It’s nice to have a computer so you can know how far or fast you’re riding, but they’re taskmasters. They focus you on speed and distance, when the most important thing to start with is just to keep moving. Most people start by fitting rides into their lives. After you get used to them, you’ll be able to schedule more time for them. When you get started, turning the cranks is the important thing, If you push yourself too much, it might start feeling too much like work.
Keep pedaling. Don’t coast too much. Part of riding is knowing how to apply pedal power efficiently. Learn your gears and when to change from the big chainring to the small chainring, what gear to be in for riding along on a flat road and what gear is better for climbing. If you’re starting with clipless pedals, practice using them and expect to fall at least once. Everyone does! If you’re using flat pedals, upgrade when you feel comfortable on your bike. Clipless pedals are efficient, and if you enjoy your cycling they make a great first upgrade. In the meantime, get used to pedaling consistently.
Use the buddy system. Do you have a spouse or friend or neighbor who has a bike? Invite them to ride with you. Make your ride social. If someone else is riding with you, you’re less likely to skip a ride. There is also safety in numbers. Riding alone is great, but for most of us, a riding buddy is incentive to ride more so you can get the most out of your bicycle. If you don’t have one, look for a local cycling club. Most clubs welcome beginners and they’re a great source of information you’ll want.
Look up. Be aware of your surroundings. This is important for safety on the roads and trails you’re riding. Situational awareness is the key to being safe. It also helps you to look at the world you’re moving through. You’re out in the fresh air, why not take the opportunity to enjoy the scenery? Explore new areas by bicycle. Don’t go the same route day after day. Look for new places to see, even if they’re close to home. Mind and body work together. Keep them both engaged and you’ll get more from your rides.
Learn basic maintenance. Know how to fix a flat tire and make simple adjustments. Your local bike shop can help you there. Learn how often to lubricate your bike’s chain and get your bike serviced every year. A dependable bicycle is a terrific companion and you’ll enjoy your adventures more when your bike is in tune.
Treat yourself. On Saturday morning, ride to the coffee shop. Sit down to a coffee and a croissant. Then ride home. Bring your riding buddy. Take the long route to get there when you have the time. Cafe stops are great motivation. Make your rides part of something else you look forward to. Eventually the rides themselves may be the important things, but even then, the Cafe stop is part of the experience. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve gone. That can be adjusted. If you treat yourself, the bike isn’t just a workout, it becomes part of the experience.
Set a goal. If you have something to look forward to, you will get more from your bicycle. I ride a lot of local cycling events. While you might see them as too much for you, many events have courses that are less than 30 miles long. I have seen some events with family style rides as short as 5 or 10 miles. Sign up for one. Search for Century Rides near you. Most local cycling clubs hold events. The important thing to remember about cycling events is that they’re not races unless they specifically SAY they are. Lots of people who ride events look like racers, but it’s surprising how many people at events don’t look like racers or even athletes. You don’t need special equipment. Ride the bike you have. Racing bikes aren’t required. Bring your riding buddy to share the experience. If you don’t like bike shorts, wear whatever you want to wear. The way you look doesn’t matter. Ride the way you train. How fast you go doesn’t matter. Pin on a number. Go out and push your limits a little bit. Get a T-shirt to commemorate your ride. If you like it, go back the next year with new goals. Goals motivate you. Once you get experience, you can do more and know what kinds of changes you want to make.
All these things will help you get out on the roads to use that “pandemic bike”. Maybe you’ll be inspired to do more with cycling. The important thing to remember is that your bike can be so much more than a garage ornament. It has the capability of changing you. Take small steps at the beginning. That bike can take you farther than you ever imagined.
It’s mid-October and at this time of year I usually look back on my year and think about all the events that I’ve ridden. Not this year. I have ridden fewer miles than usual this year. All of the events I might have ridden if the pandemic had not cancelled them have past, and I’ve come to accept 2020 without events. Without something to train for, I changed my habits. While I enjoyed my rides, they felt different. I spent more time riding alone. I rode fewer miles, but my rides were more intense. I will need to adapt again. I have used Century events to plan out my year for well over a decade. This year was no gradual change – it was a shock. What do I do now? I thought I’d look back on my cycling history, and set some goals for 2021.
I’ll start with a little personal history. I began road cycling with my local club in 2005, after returning to Maryland from the Seattle area. I have ridden over 100 Century events since my first in 2006. For years I rode 10-12 centuries per year, most of them within a day’s drive of the Washington DC area. Rides like the Seagull Century, Indian Head 100, Backroads Century, Maine Lighthouse Ride, Bay to Bay, 6 Pillars Century and more have been part of my riding plans for years. I’ve written about all of them here in the past.
I have ridden over 11,000 miles in Century events alone. That doesn’t even consider other events that were less than 100 miles that I’ve ridden. I’ve spent a lot of money on entry fees, and a slice of that has gone to charities. Events have been good for my health. They have been good for my social life, and they have even done some good for others. I’m proud of that. I estimate that I have ridden over 36,000 miles since I took up road cycling in 2005. That’s 15 years of commitment to something that I look on as a hobby, which became a lifestyle and a passion. Cycling events have become part of my identity.
As a century rider I’m not unique. The fastest I’ve ever ridden 100 miles was just under 5 hours, averaging just over 20 miles per hour. I’ve only done that once, and while it felt good, I don’t think I will ride another 5 hour century. While I like to ride fast, I’m not a fast rider. I may be a strong rider, but I’m nothing special. Given my conditioning over the past 15 years, I’d say I’m a good rider for my age and size, but I’ll never be a racer. I climb well for a big man, and I enjoy rolling rides and climbs. I’ve ridden events from tabletop flat to mountainous. The average speed of my first century was 15.6 mph at the Seagull Century in 2006, a flat course. Last year I rode the Seagull averaging 17.4 mph – 13 years after the first one. The fastest I’ve ridden the Seagull was an 18.6 mph average speed. I was riding my fastest about 8-10 years ago. The speeds I’ve ridden have varied, but not wildly. I had to look up the speeds from my old training journals. As I get older, I expect my speed to go down. It’s a fact of life. I can’t compete with past efforts.
Whether you finish a century ride in 5 hours or 9 hours, you get the same prize – the satisfaction of having completed your ride. Centuries are challenges, not races. Another challenge I’ve done is riding two centuries back to back in a single weekend, Saturday and Sunday. I’ve done that 4 times. It will definitely make you feel run down the following Monday! I don’t need to do that again. Like the 5 hour century, It’s enough that I’ve done it at all. 2020 saw my club cancel group rides, and that was a problem for my motivation too. Club rides are excellent training and preparation. Assuming that club rides come back, 2021 may provide new friends and new groups to ride with. I’m definitely going back to club rides.
I’ve met a lot of people through cycling. Some are very close friends. Some have come and gone, some still hover at the edges of my cycling experiences, some will join me occasionally, and a few I won’t see again, and that makes me sad, but I’m proud to have known them. I’ve lost acquaintances and friends and drinking buddies whom I’ve ridden with over the years. That is the sad part of doing a group activity. The groups change. When a riding group stays constant, as mine had for several years, it becomes so familiar that you become a team. Unfortunately for me, the group I once enjoyed is breaking up and going in different directions. Nothing is forever.
As I look to 2021, I see that over the years I have built rituals around some Century rides that make riding them memorable. Some can be reduced in distance to a metric century, or 62 miles. The difference in the distance is significant, but a metric is enjoyable in a different way. It makes fewer demands of you, and lets you enjoy the scenery more. Yet it still feels good to complete one. Looking back makes me realize that I have nothing more to prove. Over the last 15 years I’ve done so much cycling that I’ve exceeded any expectations I might have started with.
My reason for riding all these events has changed over time. At first I just wanted to ride a century. Then I wanted to experience new century rides. Everything changed when a friend challenged me to ride 10 in a year with him. 10-12 a year became normal for 7 years. I scaled that back somewhat in 2017, but not much. I need to change my goals again. I’ll still ride my favorite events, but I will support other riders or maybe try new events, perhaps some multi-day tours. I’ll plan to ride 2 to 4 centuries per year. That’s still a lot. I may ride a metric century option at other familiar events. If a friend wants to ride one that I haven’t planned for, I can still join in. I’ll stay in shape, but I won’t do it in quite the same way. What I want to get from century rides now are small joys. These joys are found in the people, the scenery, the fatigue, the post ride celebration, the satisfaction of finishing and good memories. I will still use century rides as goals, but backing away from the frequency will keep things fresh and hopefully give me a new perspective. I’ll still make cycling a journey of the spirit though. Given all the time I’ve spent cycling, and my health, there’s no reason to stop, but less may be more in 2021.
I’ve been feeling acute cabin fever after working from home for months, and I miss my usual outlets. I didn’t know how much it was all getting me down until I got away for a week. Nothing will pull you out of a funk like some vacation time. This year I decided to accept an invitation to visit my now retired friend Ron in Mackinaw City Michigan. It was my first trip to the Great Lakes, and I was keen about getting out and seeing some of the things that had been described to me over the years. One of the most intriguing things that I have heard about was a road known as the Tunnel of Trees.
The Tunnel of Trees refers to Michigan route M-119 between the towns of Harbor Springs in the south and Cross Village in the north. The ride itself is short, about 20 miles long in either direction, but very scenic. As the name says, it is shaded by trees and it runs along the top of a bluff with Lake Michigan to the west. It’s a single lane road, not divided by a center line, with only fog lines at the sides. Cars can pass each other in opposite directions with care, though without a center line traffic tends to keep to the middle and riders should exercise caution and ride in line rather than side by side. The reason that I’d heard about the Tunnel of Trees was that it has been a part of the local event rides, and at least 3 of my friends had ridden it. It was one of the things that I wanted on this vacation – to finally ride it. In fact, two days before we rode the tunnel, we had the chance to drive it, and we had a scenic drive and stroll through Harbor Springs in addition to driving the tunnel. While the tunnel seemed better by bicycle, knowing what was there helped my mental preparation a great deal.
The ride isn’t flat by any means. There is only one steep climb from the North. From the south that same climb has a warning to trucks at the top about a 7% grade, but riding north to south it’s a long climb that feels just a bit steeper than that. In general, the road isn’t flat but has only a couple of climbs that could be called notable and they’re on the south end toward Harbor Springs. The rest was gently rolling. As I’ve often said, that’s why your road bike has a small chainring! The road runs mostly downhill when ridden from south to north, the way the local events take it. I rode it in both directions, starting at the north end from Cross Village. The interesting thing to note is that as many times as Ron has ridden the tunnel of trees, he had not ridden it in the North to South direction before.
Late September in Northern Michigan is a beautiful season for cycling. We rode the tunnel on a Wednesday in late morning and early afternoon, and while it was hazy, it was bright enough to show the building fall colors. The temperature rose from the high 60’s into the low 70’s while we rode. Perfect conditions. When Lake Michigan came into sight the haze prevented a long view, but the lake was visible and the sight of it was part of the ride’s charm. We set out at a steady pace, riding strong and enjoying the views all around us. Seven miles from Cross Village we arrived at the general store in Good Hart. It’s a great stopping place, particularly when riding north, and it’s a great place to get water or a bite to eat. (Note – the very tame family dogs at the general store are part of the charm.) After another 4 or 5 miles we reached the climb of the day and I got into a steady climbing rhythm, finding the top of the climb bathed in sunshine. The tunnel winds along the bluff, and despite the occasional inconvenient driver, all the little curves and very short climbs and descents were accents to the character of that beautiful tree-lined road in autumn, with occasional views of the lake as a bonus. Unlike Cross Village, which is a very small community on the North End of the Tunnel, Harbor Springs is a bigger town with enormous old houses and a large Marina for weekend boaters. It is worth exploring. We turned around just before riding down into town though, and headed back north. At this point, I learned why events ride the tunnel from south to north – while just as scenic, the northward direction is more downhill, and despite enjoying the big climb on the way out, I found the return to be a little faster and easier to ride. We took a quick break at the General Store in Good Hart and had a smooth ride back to the finish. It was an outstanding ride, and I was very pleased to finally experience riding the Tunnel of Trees.
After getting back to the car in Cross Village, we gave a push start to a gentleman who was driving an old Austin Healy Sprite – while we were wearing bike shoes! People driving convertibles and other sports cars or motorcycles down the tunnel is a common sight though, and helping him out was the right thing to do. We can all do with a little good karma! Riding the Tunnel of Trees made up in some small way for the cycling times and special events that I’ve missed out on this year. Given another chance, I will certainly enjoy it again.
Yesterday was a good Saturday for a ride. It was going to get hot, so I got up early and I met friends for a ride out in the Agricultural Reserve west of Washington DC. The place we started from is called Riley’s Lock, which is a good location to access the back roads in the reserve and the C&O canal towpath by the Potomac river. It’s a place to see people paddling, fishing, running, trail biking and road biking.
We started early – but we were far from the first people there. It’s a popular spot, and on a good day Riley’s Lock can be a very busy place. I’m a road cyclist. I love the roads and what you can see from them. Yesterday was a banner day for wildlife. I saw an owl for the first time from a bicycle. I also saw a bald eagle, various other birds, and a red fox. Having said that, these kinds of sights are available to anyone doing just about any kind of exercise out in the countryside, and when you make the effort to go to beautiful places to get a workout in, these things are a reward.
When out on the roads we saw lots of other riders. I’ve seen a lot more riders who look like they’re just beginning, particularly closer to towns on the route. I’ve made a habit of waving to all the riders I see, no matter what they look like. I think of it as a kind of respect and encouragement that helps in small ways. Because of the pandemic panic, people have started looking for ways to escape their isolation. The bicycle business has exploded. That means more people are getting out on bikes for the first time. I want them to know that THERE IS NO WRONG WAY TO DO THAT. What you’re wearing or riding isn’t important. Riding is. I know that a lot of riders are inspired by the racing culture, and the difference between starting out and being experienced can be fairly large, but you can’t let snobbery decide what a cyclist is. I’m not built like a cyclist. But I am one, and nobody would dare say I’m not. It isn’t just the experience I have, or the speed I’m riding at, or the kit I wear, or the stories I can tell. It’s that I choose to get out there and turn the cranks, and nothing else is nearly so important. Therefore I want to be friendly and set a good example.
Cycling is healthy, scenic and fun. It’s easy to forget how much we all had to learn when we started out. A little encouragement can go a long way!
After the ride, we sat together in camp chairs by our cars in the shade with a cooler nearby and talked. We weren’t the only ones doing that. I saw a little family drive in with their bikes for riding the trail. I thought it was wonderful. The two little girls riding with mom and dad may be forming lifelong exercise habits. I saw the smiles on everyone’s faces as they came through. It didn’t matter if they were riding old mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrids or whatever they were rolling on. They were rolling. They were out enjoying the outdoors. No matter how they choose to experience it, they should be encouraged. Maybe in years to come those will be the people riding in the events that I love that have been cancelled this year due to the pandemic. Maybe this explosion of bike purchasing is a temporary thing, but how many people buying bikes could be catching on to a lifetime of enjoyment of the outdoors?
It helps to give the beginners some encouragement. Cheer them on. Let them know that there are no limits. With every pedal stroke those limits are pushed outward and every memorable bit of scenery, every wildlife experience, every new milestone can make that bike more special to them. I’m reminded of the finish to one of my favorite events. Riders who have finished are relaxing in the beer garden waiting for friends to join them, and riders keep coming past to the finish with huge smiles of triumph and joy. I have stood by the fence cheering and high-fiving these happy riders. The ones who have finished their first century are almost floating. You don’t need to be fast or look like a racer to feel that way. You have to get out and do it. Everyone has to start somewhere. Many who have started cycling this year as a way to get away from the boredom of home isolation will stay with it. They’ll be happier and healthier, and many will have inspiring stories. Encourage them. Cheer them on. Give them a smile and a wave. They’ve earned it by being out there on a bike. The encouragement you give may be the difference between a bike that is well loved and used, and one that serves as a garage ornament.
After I’m done with work for the day, I like to get out and have a short ride while the daylight lasts. The route I take is convenient and I ride it frequently. It’s a short hilly route that goes out and back, and it gives me a good workout without taking too much time. I found myself riding hard and fast on that ride recently. Conditions that night were ideal, not too warm or cold. I was breathing easily and had good focus. Traffic was light. I didn’t set out to ride fast, but once I was warmed up, I pushed myself to the end of the ride.
I was only competing with myself, knowing that I might just log my best time for that ride this year. I love the feel of speed and control and pushing my limits and the exhaustion and exhilaration of it all. This is just part of my personality. I’m competitive. I enjoy knowing my ride statistics – how fast and far I’m going, and comparing the ride to others using Strava. I sometimes get a feeling that my bike and I are a single unit. The feel of a beautifully tuned and responsive bike is a real joy. I think most riders come to know this feeling at one time or another.
These things are closely aligned to one of the driving forces of road cycling – racing. Racing is about excitement. It drives technological change. It inspires us to test ourselves. It’s part of the joy of what we do, and most of us have watched or followed a race such as the Tour De France, even if we have never raced ourselves. We respect racers and racing. In our own ways, we all emulate them. While that can be a good thing, and even great fun, most of us do not race. Thinking like a racer isn’t hard to do. In some ways. it’s encouraged. I don’t think that racing is something we can or should ignore, but sometimes it pays to stop thinking like a racer, and start thinking like a RIDER. Some people even find the racing aspect of cycling culture to be discouraging. Riding doesn’t have to be guided by competitive thinking. Thinking like a rider is important in two ways, practical and technical.
Practically, thinking like a rider is a matter of looking at the larger picture. Do you have a goal? Do you want to be fitter, or maybe drop a pound or two? Do you have events you’d like to try? Are you getting all the variety and enjoyment that you can from your rides? There are times when what I really want is an easy ride and I push myself anyway, or I set out to push myself and discover that I can’t. The important point is that I’m riding. In an ideal world I would be able to ride every day. That simply isn’t practical. You have to rest. I normally take Fridays off from riding, and on those days I clean the bike instead. The secondary benefit of this is that the act of cleaning your bike reminds you to maintain it. It’s a good way to build rest into your routine.
It’s also a good idea to do this when you’re riding: look up. Don’t just ride. See things around you! Birds. Scenery. All the things you pass that you might not notice if you’re focused on performance. There are many times when I’ve been riding a lot and my legs feel heavy, and I just don’t want to ride. I have two cures for that. The first is to do something different. Put the bike in the car and go somewhere fun. Shake up the experience. The second is to get some company. It’s harder to skip a workout if someone else is counting on you. Part of the joy of cycling is the experience. While it’s okay to push yourself, that isn’t the point of riding. You can get great satisfaction out of pushing yourself, as long as you keep your perspective. My absolute favorite cartoon character is a textbook fanatic – Wile E. Coyote. He is creative and focused and I love that, but he is a fanatic, because he redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goals. You can satisfy your hunger without catching the bird, and you can be fit without being fast.
The other aspect is technical. Racers use the best and lightest equipment, because it could be the difference between winning and losing. What if you don’t race? Do you need the best tech? No. If you want the best and can afford it, buy it. Otherwise if you don’t race it isn’t necessary. I love bikes and bike tech. I ride a “retro-modern” bike. It’s a classic lugged steel frame with 11 speed Campagnolo components. I love the look of old style bikes and components, but in reality, I want something that I can ride every day, so I want modern convenience of shifting from the bars and a gear range to help me on difficult climbs. By racer standards, it’s too heavy. It’s all wrong. By rider standards, it’s perfect.
Technology in rider terms is the difference between “good” and “good enough”. There will always be something lighter and better out there. Tech improves every year. In my opinion, the best “rider” technology is a step or two behind the leading edge. Component groups such as Shimano 105 are excellent, give you a wide range of gearing, and are an outstanding value. I like to think that having a wide range of gearing options is wise for all riders. The best gear is the gear you can afford, but there are a lot of beautiful second hand bikes being sold because there are people who love the best bike tech more than they love to ride. As a rider, think about tech in terms of the options you need.
Cycling is a wonderful form of exercise. It can be cooperative, competitive, fun and even relaxing, Sometimes thinking like a racer can be great fun, but thinking like a rider can prevent burnout and keep your mind and body working together.