Big Cycling Events

My first century ride was at the Seagull Century in 2006.  I’ve ridden every Seagull since then, with the exception of 2015 when the event was cancelled due to a hurricane coming up the coast. The Seagull is one of the largest century rides in the US.  There are larger rides, such as the “Hotter than Hell Hundred” in Texas, but the average century ride will have less than 3000 participants, and the Seagull typically draws more than 7000, particularly if the weather is good. It’s a flat ride, and while that presents it’s own challenges, the lack of hills makes it popular to a lot of riders. Big events draw a wide range of people and they create some unusual riding conditions.  You’ll often see both the best and worst of cycling on display at events like the Seagull, and this year was no exception. Big events can be dangerous environments. I have friends that don’t like riding the Seagull.  It’s flat, which means you’re constantly pedaling, not coasting, and it puts stress on your contact points with the bicycle – hands, feet and seat. But it’s also a fun event with a lot of activities and despite the crowds, it can be a great time.

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From left to right: Amy, Carmen, Stephanie, Carol, Myself, John S, John K and Ron at the Assateague Island rest stop during the 2017 Seagull Century.

I have the good fortune to ride with good friends.  We all know the risks we face, and how to minimize them. We communicate well, we ride within the conditions, and we know our limits. This doesn’t come by accident. We have experience that has been hard won and passed among us through stories, lessons and advice over many years. We’re aware of what to do, what not to do, and what to avoid. This year we had a first timer with us. Amy had never ridden a century, but before she started she already had more information about what to expect than most new century riders and many experienced riders.  Even so, she had questions afterward, and they were good questions. Between the experience and the information, I think she has passed the “beginner” phase, because she has the information she needs and the experience to know how and where to apply it.  In this post I’m going to try and relate a few things about the art of cycling, and I should state for the record that my knowledge is not comprehensive, though it is extensive. We’re all still learning.  I’m going to talk a lot about my ride at the Seagull this year, but much of what I’ll relate will apply to large events. They’re unique in many ways. Some of those unique elements are good, and others less so.

There is limited room on the typical road to accommodate cyclists, traffic control can be a thorny problem at big events, and a big event draws everyone from the least experienced newcomer to the seasoned bike racer, and if you’re not aware that there is an art to the game, you won’t learn it at a big event.  The difference in styles between the riders in limited spaces expands the chances for accidents and makes being alert and careful much more important than many riders realize. Many riders, through no fault of their own, make elementary mistakes simply because they’re not used to riding events at all, much less events with so many other people to cope with.  There are places where you can expect to see problems at a big event.  Here are 4 of them:

  • The start
  • The early miles up to the first rest stop
  • Crowds around rest stops
  • The last quarter of the course

This is a common sense list, and it applies to any event, but at a big event like the Seagull Century, problem areas are multiplied by the sheer number of riders. The chance for trouble if you’re not careful is much greater than at smaller events. At the start, riders stand or mill around looking for friends. Some are eager to leave, others are lost, some are looking around for people or frantically calling or texting others to find them. Some are socializing. In short, it can be a maze of distracted people.  My team met before the start, and got going together. It takes some coordination, and we had to slowly make our way from the campus of Salisbury University where we parked to the place where we found open road ahead of us.  Rides are usually “show and go” and many people will leave early to avoid crowds, but some will socialize as they gather, and the chance to get split up or stopped is good. The lesson from experience is to go slow and have a plan.

The early miles of a big ride like the Seagull Century are always tense. Legs are fresh, riders are excited, and adrenaline flows. Some want to complete their ride in 5 hours, some just want to finish. Some ride side by side and talk with their friends, leaving much less room to pass them safely. Others find themselves charging ahead as though they’re racing, forgetting the way they trained and using more energy than they might otherwise. It’s a chaotic time. My friend Carol has a talent for finding open spaces between knots of riders at the start of the Seagull.  We trusted her to find us a clear path, and she rode at a strong pace. Riders begin to string out after a few miles, but there are still an abundance of them. Not everyone will let faster riders pass. Not everyone will pass safely. This year, the first segment of the ride was through a mist or very light rain. That created problems as well. By the first stop, the rain had ended, and the roads were starting to dry.

Rest stops are another trouble spot. They are choke points, with riders slowing and stopping, getting in each other’s way, forming queues for water, food, bathrooms and bike service if it’s available.  Most riders won’t skip a rest stop, and most will charge into the first rest stop while still feeling strong. The general chaos as riders stop and go is common to any rest stop, but the more people, the more chaos.  Getting what you need and starting again without cooling down too much is important. In our case, we had become separated by the first stop, but we managed to regroup, resupply and get out without any delay. When we got going again, there were still a lot of riders on the course with us, but the riders thinned out because of the rest stop congestion. It felt like we had more room to ride in. By this time the riders on shorter courses were also separated from the Century riders, and riders were settling into a pace. Managing rest stops is an art, but if you’re careful, you can make it through even the most congested rest stops without accidents.

In the final miles of a century, riders have usually become so tired that they lose focus. The final 25 miles of the course is another place where you have to pay attention. By this time your body has had to refuel and if you’re not eating and drinking enough as you go, the chances of you losing focus and crashing increase. I heard about a crash that required an ambulance in the final miles. It wasn’t a surprise to me. With a lot of tired riders close to each other, mistakes are easy to make. Thankfully, by the end, the road tends to be more open.

The Seagull gets it’s share of accidents because of the sheer number of riders.  These are usually avoidable. Entering the second rest stop, volunteers asked riders to dismount and cross the train tracks at that point because of large gaps there.  One rider apparently crashed trying to ride over it rather than dismounting. We saw a crash on the road between the second rest stop and Assateague island, with a rider going down after touching wheels with another. One of the riders with the rider who crashed turned his bicycle perpendicular to the direction of travel to look back at her, partially blocking the road. That wasn’t the way to help. Inexperienced riders often make mistakes when riding in the middle of groups, because they seldom train in groups. You have to be careful around them.  Finally, what you’ll find at big events are people who try to draft others without knowing the first thing about drafting or riding etiquette. The pros make drafting look easy. So too many clueless riders think it’s easy.  It isn’t. Neither are these events races. They shouldn’t be approached like one. A lot of riders end up trying to save some energy by wheel sucking – which means they cling like a leech, without saying a word, as if they have a right to be there, or they’re just doing you a favor by riding close behind you without saying a word. They form up lines without a clue as to how fast they’re going, and they sometimes burn out early in the ride – all because they think they know what they’re doing. They’re not interested in pulling you along – only saving energy by following. Do they introduce themselves and ask if it’s okay to ride along with you? No. They think they’re doing fine. The best thing to do is drop them. Ride them off your wheel. I like to show them all the courtesy they show me when they latch on to my wheel without communicating.  Which is essentially none, but you have to understand that most of them are just ignorant. They don’t even realize they’re being rude. Big events like the Seagull concentrate these lost souls.

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At the finish line with John S. We earned our beer!

Despite the dangers, my friends rode well.  We were together for much of the ride, but Amy, Carol and Stephanie all had injuries to care for by the end and we split up and got to the finish in smaller groups. I finished as strong as I could with John, and we all gathered at the beer garden afterward. It was a fun ride, and a good experience with good friends. One thing I have to say for my friends is that we know how to celebrate!

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Cycling along the Coast of Maine

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Portland Head Lighthouse

For the third year running, I have gone to South Portland Maine in early September for the Maine Lighthouse Ride. This is a century ride that begins and ends at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, and over the course of 100 miles passes 9 lighthouses as it winds it’s way along the coast from Portland south to Kennebunkport and back again. This ride is the most scenic and enjoyable experience on my cycling calendar.

The ride is gently rolling, and while there are a few climbs that will make you work, the hills are either short ramps or gentle grades and all have corresponding restful descents. The sum total of climbing for this ride is approximately 2600 feet over the course of 100 miles. The average recreational rider can manage this ride with appropriate century training and preparation, and shorter options are available. The ride itself is well supported, with road markings and signs that are easy to follow.  Route maps are available for GPS computers as well. Riders can rent road bikes from bike shops in and around Portland if needed. That’s all the technical information any rider needs; what really sets this ride apart is the scenery and the experience.

The ride begins on the Campus of Southern Maine Community College in view of the Spring Point Ledge lighthouse at the entrance to Portland harbor. Riders go to the Portland Breakwater (Bug) Light, and move away from the waterfront in South Portland along the eastern trail. Riders are asked to start at particular times based on the distance they’re riding to help ease congestion at the start, and there will be some congestion as you ride out, but despite this the early miles will reward you with some fine scenery, and it’s worth the patience required as you go through South Portland.

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At the rest stop in Kennebunkport

Be patient and careful until you find open road where you can safely increase your speed. The ride itself is run by the Eastern Trail Alliance, so it’s no surprise that this century is run on some of it’s trails.  Faster riders will want to get to the front of the pack at the start time, but it pays to be very careful, patient and keep your phone cameras available. Photographers should be very careful not to obstruct other riders when they stop for a photo, since some of the areas you’ll ride through are narrow, particularly in the early miles.

The route continues inland, heading toward the causeway over the Scarborough marshes. This is a two mile section of compacted sand and gravel pathway, and while that might not be easy for narrow road bike tires, (pro tip: make sure your tires are in good condition before you arrive) the surface poses little problem if you ride it at a slow speed (10-12mph). Volunteers will be nearby to help you if you need it. While crossing the marshes, take a moment to notice the water level. You’ll ride through twice, and chances are that tidal conditions in the marshes will have changed by the time you return to cross the causeway again.  After the marshes, the ride takes you to the first rest stop at Old Orchard Beach.

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The beach from Fortune Rocks

The next leg sets out through Old Orchard Beach before heading west through the towns of Saco and Biddeford and into the countryside until you reach Kennebunkport. This marks the southernmost part of the ride. After a stop outside Kennebunkport, riders go through the town and head north along the rocky coast, meandering along around the inlets and marshes. At this point you’re rewarded with views of mansions, harbors, inlets and rocky shores. Shrub roses grow in the sandy soil by the roadsides, and those that aren’t in bloom display a riot of colorful rose hips. The route winds along the coast past Fortune Rocks, back through Old Orchard Beach and across the Scarborough marshes again. You’ll go to Cape Elizabeth, and through Fort Williams Park to Portland Head Light before you return to the start.

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Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse

All along there will be places where you can view and photograph the lighthouses. You might miss one or two if the weather isn’t clear, but they’re out there, and the route passes them. Goat Island Light, Wood Island Light, Cape Elizabeth Light (East & West), Portland Head Lighthouse, and the Ram Island Ledge Light. The coastal scenery never disappoints.

The weather can vary widely. You can expect cool mornings, heat or rain. Southern Maine in early September is on the cusp of a colorful Autumn, and you’ll find the trees starting to turn color in places. Come prepared for differences in temperature between start and finish. You can expect good route markings, good support, and post ride food along with locally brewed craft beer. Portland provides many other distractions – you can browse the shops and restaurants along the Portland waterfront, take a boat ride through Casco Bay, or drive 20 minutes North to Freeport and the L.L. Bean Home Campus to shop the outlet stores. The salt air, the scenery and the fellowship among the riders and volunteers make this a memorable event. Enjoying the coast of Maine by bicycle is a unique and rewarding experience.

Getting Serious

Everyone I know has said it at least a few times, for a variety of wants: “It’s time to get serious about my…”
It’s an all purpose lament that could be brought about by a desire to get in shape, lose weight, save money, change jobs, finish a project, work on a hobby or anything else that we feel the need to accomplish.  I’ve told myself that I’ll get serious about a number of things, and as I have, life has interrupted me.

No sooner did I get cleared to ride again after my surgery than I had a family tragedy.  My father passed away at 83. This was expected, but such news is never welcome. So it was that my time to get back into shape was delayed. Still, when life calmed down I got back on my bicycle in a sincere effort to get back into shape. What I discovered was a pleasant surprise. In the run up to surgery, I discovered that I’m diabetic. That was a shock, but managing it has had a welcome effect: I lost 20 pounds.

My first event after I’d come back, for which I had virtually NO preparation, was the Patuxent Rural Legacy Ride. It had been 5 weeks since I’d been on the bike for more than a few short miles.

Pax

Eagle Harbor stop at Pax Legacy.

I wouldn’t have missed that ride for anything, because I love the event, but I was worried about fitness, and I was prepared to ride 40 miles instead of the full 64 simply because I wasn’t sure what I was actually capable of, and even 40 sounded tough. I thought I’d see how I felt.  To my surprise, I felt good. I rode the entire 64 miles and  enjoyed myself.

It seems that two things were actually working in my favor.  The first was the weight loss. 20 Pounds is more than the weight of a modern bicycle.  I haven’t lost all that much strength, so climbing hills was actually not as much of a chore as I might have thought.  The second thing was base mileage.  When you ride consistently, you build up a fitness base. This begins to erode when you have to take time away from your exercise, but it doesn’t completely go away, and building back up isn’t quite as hard as building that base in the first place.  My base miles were still in evidence, so the transition from inactive to riding more serious mileage wasn’t quite as difficult as I thought it would be.

June and July went by without any serious training headaches.  I was slowly building back up, and feeling positive.  Meanwhile some of my friends, who also have had difficult years, were feeling the strain. Where I had lost weight to compensate for my lack of training, they had gained weight due to injuries or circumstance, and were struggling to get back to the fitness level that they had last year.

Purcellville

Halfway through our ride.

With a cycling trip to Maine coming up in September, as well as other events in the fall, they felt it was time to get serious too.  So it was that we made an effort to get miles under our wheels.  The big test came last weekend on a trip from my friend’s residence in Chevy Chase, across the Potomac into Virginia, (meeting another friend on the way) and cycling up the Washington and Old Dominion trail to Purcellville.  A round trip of 105 miles.  I don’t usually enjoy the W&OD trail.  As a former rail bed, it’s largely straight, and it’s used by a lot of people and can be quite crowded, which is often difficult.  However this time it wasn’t too bad, and we kept a steady pace.  We all ended up feeling better than we thought we would.  It ended up being a good ride.  Unsupported rides are often interesting – you stop when you need to.  This ride was a straight out and back trip – since the trail is straight, it wasn’t the kind of ride I most enjoy, but I did need the miles, and the company was excellent.

At this point, the effect of our getting serious about our mileage has been a test of our fitness and some positive feedback.  In a few weeks, we’ll be riding events we love, and using the time we have until then to get serious about our preparation is starting to give us results.

Quality of Life

As I write this, I’ve been unable to ride for nearly two weeks. My last substantial ride was the 6 Pillars Century in Cambridge Maryland last week. It was a great ride, despite what I would describe as a lack of good preparation. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when your mind is in trim.  Having done that, the following Tuesday I went in for surgery on my deviated septum.

In the end, I had my sinuses opened, my septum straightened, and a benign blockage removed. Breathing hasn’t been my strong suit for years. Despite the pain, as soon as the swelling started to go down, I began to breathe better.  I sleep better.  I’m sure that as soon as I’m cleared to cycle again, and I regain some of the form I’ve lost, I’ll cycle better as a result.

I’ve been dealing with my poor airflow for a long time, and I didn’t have to. I made a decision for my quality of life.  Even though I’m not nearly healed yet, I already feel better. I can tell the difference, and I’m told that things will only get better still.  If you have to make a choice that can improve your quality of life, it’s certainly worth doing.

It’s the only life you get.  Do what you can to make the most of it.

Indoor Kiting 2017

Every year, I’m offered the privilege of participating in with the indoor kiting exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum on the mall in Washington DC.

No fans are used; we generate pressure on the sail by walking backward or manipulating the line. Since I build and fly fighter kites, I’m flying on a single line and I can use my feet as well as line manipulation to fly the kite.  My flying style is very kinetic; I tend to use faster music to fly to, and more modern music than most. Usually our indoor flyers prefer slower music that keeps a steady pace; many of them are on fixed lines.  I like to be a change of pace, moving constantly and quickly.

National Air and Space Museum - Indoor Kite Fly 2017

The photo is courtesy of Andrew Albosta.

The kite itself is my own indoor design. I use a bamboo spine and a graphite rod as a bow. The sail is made of Orcon, with a curved trailing edge. The kite I used this year (2017) was built the week of the event, and I tuned it before the museum opened and the actual demonstrations began. The photo above was shot at a downward angle from a stairway, but above my head are a few drone aircraft that we had to be careful not to tangle our kites in, and because my line length was always changing, I had to be particularly careful. While this let me fly over the heads of the crowd, it also limited the space I had to work with. It was still a thrill to do. The NASM has been supporting this event for years, and I’ve participated since 2006. It may be threatened by budget cuts eventually,  but I find it a unique and pleasurable event to attend, and to say that I’ve had the opportunity to do such a unique thing as fly a kite between the exhibits at a national museum is a rare delight.

A Morning Pause

I just finished a workout in the little gym where I live.  It’s still early, and before I left for the gym I turned on the coffee maker. It’s my reward for suffering before the sun rises.

Despite the aerobic workouts I can still afford to lose weight and get in better condition.  It’s not that I’m a lost cause, but like most people there is a gap between what I look like and what I’d prefer to look like.  So if I can’t get out and ride, I get into the gym and fight against the forces of age and complacency.

The real benefit of working out is getting home and taking a moment to drink a cup of coffee or two.  On a nice morning like this it feels like a luxury. The workout is complete; I have plenty of time to get out the door and over to my office, and this time in between belongs to me.

I’m sure everyone has a point in their day that they can look forward to.  Some people are clever enough to actually plan time to pause and soak in the quiet.  For me this time just popped up as a result of the need to find workout time. I can think back to a lot of moments like this. They all share the same things.  The stillness, the quiet and the feeling of being in the now.  Time won’t matter for a little while. Until it intrudes, I can bask in the stillness.

A Cyclist’s Urban Retreat

Last Saturday was an unusually warm day for January in the Washington DC Area.  I got the chance to ride a course that included two classic roads through the District of Columbia and the Maryland suburbs.  These are Beach Drive, which runs through Rock Creek Park, and Sligo Creek Parkway which runs parallel to it to the east.  These are both roads that run through parkland along local waterways. They are also known as two of the more scenic and popular places to cycle in the Washington DC Metropolitan area.

For me, this ride, which included riding to and from the local ride starting location from a friend’s house, is a joy. Part of the course is closed on weekends, and even where it is open, it isn’t crowded or heavily travelled on the weekend. Except for the times when we rode between these two park roads through suburban neighborhoods, we rode through parks. There are several such roads or trails in the Maryland/DC/Virginia area, and they’re generally well used by runners, cyclists and others.

I’ve ridden these roads for years.  You don’t have to be a great cyclist to enjoy them. You can ride a short distance on them or find them as part of a longer ride, but they’re always enjoyable. Most motorists expect cyclists on them, and there tends to be a kind of truce between cyclists and motorists. Whether you’re out for a gentle spin or hammering down the road at high speed, these roads are a great route through the Washington Area.  I try to get a ride on them a couple of times a year, just because I enjoy the park and these places are both familiar and enjoyable. To ride them early in the season is a very good way to start the year.