Tag Archives: Road Cycling

Looking Back, and Planning Ahead.

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.

A rest stop at the Patuxent Rural Legacy Ride. Not a century, but a ride I love and don’t want to miss.

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.

Years ago I had a big team to ride with. That has changed. This picture was taken at the start of the Seagull Century in 2014.

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.

Cycling the Tunnel of Trees

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.

In Cross Village at the North End of the Tunnel of Trees, just before setting out on the ride..

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.

Outside a bicycle shop in Harbor Springs. No, that isn’t the type of bike to use when riding the Tunnel of Trees!