July 26, 2009
I got a disappointing result of 5th place and 344 miles (my goal was 400) while noting several excuses including weather delays, a slow wheel change after flatting a tubular, a slow cassette replacement, a slow spoke repair and replacement of a faulty tail light that together kept me off the course for a lot of time. And for the first 10 hours or so I didn’t seem to be properly fit.
The 12- and 24-hour races both started at 8am on Saturday July 11th and finished respectively 12 and 24 hours later. The course is a 32.5 mile loop with one significant climb up Beacon Hill and otherwise flat to rolling. Drafting is not allowed. You keep riding around and around the loop and the rider to cover the most miles wins.
Beacon Hill seems no big deal at the start. It’s one mile of about 4-5% average, including about a quarter mile of 8-10%, followed by another mile of gentle climbing. After about 10 runs up it is a much bigger deal than it was.
The 12-hour race
And in the 12-hour race the hill was decisive. The climb starts 2 miles after the start/finish checkpoint, where many people set up the supplies and have a helper. At close to 8pm, 2-time solo RAAM finisher Rob Morlock led ultra-marathon neophyte Sven Stoltz through the start/finish. From there, Sven chased over the first 2 miles and positioned himself about 50 yards behind Rob on the climb. Then Sven attacked on the gentle second mile of the climb, passed Rob who couldn’t match speed and was soon recorded at 1 mile ahead by the end at 8pm. You don’t always get a close finish in these kinds of races.
Not to detract from Rob’s result (in a race like this it was equivalent to a photo finish in a sprint), it was a brilliant debut from my friend Sven, whom you might meet sometimes on the Quad rides. 236.50 miles in 12 hours is 19.71 mph! Remember that’s not drafting and not stopping the clock when the bike is stopped like a cycle computer usually does. I wonder if, with less adverse weather and more experience in these events, Sven could better Sandy Whittlesey’s course record of 250.3 miles.
Also of note is that another well know Boston-area rider David Lafferty came in third with 227.5 miles, course record for a fixed-gear bicycle. (Boston’s messenger-wannabe fyxomatosis sufferers can suck on that!)
My 24-hour race
But I was in the 24-hour race which started at the same time as the 12-hour but finished 12 hours after at 8am. I started close to last because I was absolutely determined to ride relatively slowly for the first lap and not get caught up in the excitement and exuberant speed that characterizes the start. I had been warned over and over by Melinda Lyon, 24-hour women’s course record holder, to pace it gently early on. Nevertheless I expected to pass more of riders during the first 3 laps. The first clue that I was not fit was that I didn’t.
After 3 laps I was in terrible shape and needed to rest. I don’t know what was wrong though I have hypothesis — it’s a long story but, in short, my guess is chronic dehydration since the weather warmed up around the end of June and possibly related to some remaining diabetes insipidus (i.e. my kidneys aren’t working as well as they should) from my problems in 2007-8.
I did a 60-80 mile fastish ride most weekends in the winter and that picked up to 100-130 mile rides since April. Being clapped out after 3 laps at a moderate speed showed something was really wrong.
Diet and recovery
I switched food at that point from high-tech overpriced sports drinks and gels to real food and drink. Potato chips and coca-cola helped greatly. It was silly of me to not follow my own advice from the start. (Sven eventually relied on the same formula in his ride too.)
After a rest, change of clothes and a turkey sandwich I began lap 4 feeling pretty good and started to enjoy the ride a bit. But in the last few miles of that lap the same abject grottiness came over me again. So I took another slightly shorter food rest.
A few miles into the 4th lap I crossed 100 miles at exactly 2pm which gave me an average speed that would get me to my goal of 400 miles if I maintained it. That was disappointing since lap times don’t generally get any faster over the course of a 24-hour race. Towards the end of the 3rd lap I had noted a very satisfactory average speed so I must have stopped for a long time at that first rest.
I lost count of laps after the 5th so I don’t know which of the following events happened when. But with the change of diet, more cola, water, chips and sandwiches I was feeling stronger and ride more comfortably. Then the technical problems began.
I flatted about 2 miles from the start/finish. A big fat rusty sheet metal screw with washer all the way in my nearly new Vittoria CX tubular front tire (those things aren’t cheap!). I had to unscrew it to get it out. There was sealant in the tire so I tried inflating it but it held pressure for only a few seconds. (Now that I think of it, if I had left the screw in perhaps the sealant would have worked.) Being so close to base, it wasn’t worth putting on the spare tire so I called Eva, my beloved wife and support crew, to get my spare wheels ready and rode very slowly back to the car.
Next problem was that, as the rain started, the SRAM Open Glide cassette started to malfunction. I had noted intermittent problems with it in the past and I had though about swapping this cassette with a Shimano while preparing for the race but didn’t (rats!). I rode two laps using only the biggest 4 cogs, the others performing so bad that I was afraid the chain wouldn’t take it. After that I swapped the cassette with the Shimano from the tubular wheels I started the race on. A big delay.
Another problem was a broken spoke on the rear non-drive side. Thankfully I didn’t notice it out on the road or I might have tried to fix it out in the dark and rain. It took ages to get the tire, tube and tape off, replace the nipple and spoke and reassemble/adjust everything. The hubs and rims on these Neuvation wheels seem solid but this event confirmed my doubts about their no-name spokes and dubious-looking aluminum (i.e. not brass) nipples.
Next failure was the Planet Bike Superflash I had on the back. It’s a great performer when it works but it started to turn itself on and off at will, apparently cycling through its modes. (I had another rear light on, a Cateye, so I wasn’t in grave danger.) While I tried to fix it at the start/finish check, John, the race official, mentioned he had some of the same model available for sale. I bought one.
And my Polar CS200 computer/HRM failed owing to the rain. (It has since recovered.)
Considering the result
Here’s the most annoying thing in all this: as the rain started in the evening I was starting to ride well and really enjoy myself out on the bike. I continued to get better through night and, while I was on the bike, I was having a really good time, feeling good and soaking up all the unfamiliar sights and sounds of overnight riding in the countryside. I picked up speed relative to the first hundred miles and could probably have made my goal of 400 miles if I hadn’t had so many technical problems. But they just kept on coming.
The last lap and a half were hard going. On the previous evening I had steeled myself to do the best I could despite the problems and I paced myself to ride to my limit at 8am. I paced it about right and gave it my all on the last half lap so I was really ragged at the very end. It was a relief when John picked me up in his van and drove the last 7 or 8 miles.
So I have to address the question: why was I riding on racing equipment rather than something more conservative? That’s a very good question that I’ll maybe answer in full in another blog post. In short, it was just a fancy, a whim, though one I’ve harbored for two years, and I’ve learned my lesson: a broken bike is not a fast bike and support vehicles are a necessary part of cycle racing because racing equipment is delicate. Unsupported long distance riders, even many of the fastest in the world, e.g. Sandy Whittlesey and Melinda Lyon, both course record holders as I already mentioned, use more conservative, heavier gear.
It was very hot and humid for most of the day with a stiff southerly wind which offered little advantage going north on the way out but slowed me down to 10-15 mph coming south along the Hudson on the return. The wind let up somewhat as the rain came in the evening. There were two big downpours and I was lucky to be fixing some problem under the canopy at the start/finish for one of them. The other downpour was much more fun.
I left the sort/finish some time after midnight with light, on-and-off rain, distant lightning lighting the sky and landscape but no thunder. The storm came gradually closer. Eventually I became a bit anxious. Around mile 15, shortly before the half-way checkpoint and exactly as I got to the traffic light at 32 and Bluebird, the clouds opened and I headed for cover at the gas station there. The roof of the Stewarts Shop there provided cover under which there was a bench for me to sit and watch the storm. Perfect timing! And thanks for the accommodations, Stewart. The sky put on quite a show, one of the best I’ve every seen, with several ground lightning strikes within a quarter mile, shattering thunder and rain so heavy I’d be scared to drive a car in it, let alone cycle. As the storm moved off to the east I set off and met up with the unlucky official at the half-way checkpoint who had stood under a modest canopy through the storm. (He shared some coffee with me. Thanks! I’m sorry I can’t remember your name.)
The freight train passing through Gansevoort blowing it’s whistle, narrowly avoiding some critter on the road that turned out to be a skunk, intrepid frogs (it was a very wet night), slugs in sufficient number to clog my rear brake caliper, several high-performance cats sprinting across the landscape, swirling fog around dawn, the sun appearing suddenly through the fog perfectly framed straight ahead just above the horizon, watching my first shadow of the morning riding beside me along the Hudson River.
Would I do it again? Hard to say. Part of me wants to go back and get my 400 miles, which I’m now sure I can do. Another part says there are many ways to have more fun on a bicycle. Repeating the loop is less fun than doing one long loop or out-and-back. That part of New York is very nice but not so nice I want to do it 11, 12 or 13 times.
No drafting is really antisocial. The rules say you’re not even allowed to ride side-by-side during daylight. And the 10 meter separation rule makes riding near people with about the same average speed really annoying — you keep passing one-another since people’s instantaneous speeds vary in individual ways and that makes it hard to keep a steady effort.
So while this particular cycling discipline is not my favorite, I did enjoy the evening, night and morning riding and I hanker to do better after this disappointing result.