Somewhere in the ancient history of the area now known as Southwest Wisconsin, oceans once covered the earth. The seas that covered much of central North America left deep layers of silica and shells that hardened into limestone and sandstone. These deep sea beds were then scoured out as water retreated from the landscape, leaving a landscape that is both rugged and serene. You can see those undulations in a map of the area, random and complicated, yet it all seems to come together as a beautiful place.
The Wright Stuff
Deep tree-lined canyons and gradual valleys formed for miles around the area where Dodgeville, Wisconsin now sits. The hills and ravines escaped glaciation a 10,000 years ago and the area is now called the Driftless Region. It is beautiful country, with scenic roads that creep up the hollows in alternate shade and sun, perfect for cyclists seeking time away from bike trails and reality in general.
The area is also famous for the site where famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright built his home and farm known as Taliesin. The property sits on an east-facing hillside surrounded by promontories that resemble small volcanoes. In summer those hills are marked by deep green forests and in winter by curving ridgelines and stark black skeletons of bare trees.
The Wright Stuff Century
The Wright Stuff Century for cyclists is held annually on Labor Day weekend, offering rides of 30, 64 and 100 miles. It is also one damned hilly ride in spots, with long gradual descents punctuated by sharp climbs at 13% at points.
You know the drill on a ride like the Wright Stuff. It is designed as a test for your climbing skills and endurance. A Century on flat roads is one thing. Riding 100K or 100M on steep hills is another thing altogether.
That’s especially true for Flatlanders such as cyclists from Illinois to the south where hills are a relatively rare commodity. In fact one organizer pulled aside a group of Illinois riders and asked, “How do you guys manage up here? We’ve been riding these hills since March this year and this is still a tough ride. We’re used to it. How do you do it?”
“We suffer,” one of the Illinois cyclists laughed in reply. “That’s why we come every year. For the suffering.”
Reveling in suffering HTFU.
As much as any other sport can claim, cycling revels in suffering. When you are reduced to 5 mph on a steep grade it takes every ounce of concentration to turn the pedal crank one more time. Your quads scream. Your butt locks. When you finally crest the hill and grab a larger gear, however, the suffering is soon forgotten. That is the secret for a Flatlander riding through the hills of Southwest Wisconsin. Ride hard. Suffer. Recover. And forget. Then repeat. Over and over.
And try not to notice that the tarsnakes seems to be mocking you. They sway and flutter in front of your eyes as you keep your head down on a long slow climb. When you falter slightly, they curl under your wheels in a mocking fashion. “You’re going sideways, you fool!” they seem to scream. Then they whip to the side of the road in mocking arrays.
The hills keep coming and that’s the way you like it. The road names warn you of what’s coming next. Any road with the word Hollow in it means trouble ahead. From the start in Tyrol Basin you fly along for 25 minutes before reaching the first climb and then join a batch of other cyclists in various states of speed going up the hill. Some almost seem to go backwards with hands gripped on the bars as if they were hanging onto the rail of the Titanic. Their faces are desperate masks and their calves bulge and tense with every pedal stroke.
“Keep going,” you mutter for no particular reason, not sure whether you’re encouraging others or talking to yourself. Secretly everyone is proud of their own pace because they have no choice. You either take pride in what you’re doing or stall out and fall over. So you keep pedaling. It’s the yin and yang of cycling. Darkness and light.
The descents can be furious. For this rider this year, not so much at first. Memories of last year’s bike wobble crash kept me humble and clamping my knees tight to the top bar in hopes of staving off even the slightest tremble that might lead to bike wobble. Swooping into the giant arc where last year I crashed into a ditch, I held the brakes loosely as advised and kept my bike under control. “This is where I ditched it!” I yelled ahead to the rider in our group closest to me. “Right there,” I pointed. Passing by that spot was a nervous triumph. The crash had produced a shattered collarbone, a torn hamstring and a bruised cycling ego. But I had survived thanks to some powerful instincts and a decent bit of bike handling to get off the road and onto the grass. That might have saved my own life.
So why return? Because cycling is beautiful as well as risky. Because one senses a loss in not completing a ride you’ve started. It was also a bit of personal redemption coming off a year where things did not go well in many respects.
But that did not mean that everything was rosy and nice the entire way. Fortunately the sun stayed behind the clouds and the weather did not get too hot. The humidity was sneaky though. Sweat drained off the brow like rain on a windshield. An hour and a half into the ride we reached the first aid station and I downed some grapes and Gatorade. It would not proof sufficient to carry me much further.
I don’t know why exactly I did not eat. Perhaps it was the joy of riding with three other people that were so into the moment. We shared leads and one women led most of the climbs with her tri-bike and a compact crank. The fun in seeing her enjoy the climbs was infectious. We all took the hills at our own pace, but her lead was the measure of our effort.
My best friend had ridden only a few times in August, so his fitness was not high. Yet his natural endurance is legendary in my mind, so it did not surprise me that he was able to sustain a good pace and even do a long pull into the wind when the road flattened out
But I’d learned to fatally imitate another of his strengths, as it were, in not eating much during the ride. He seems to operate like a camel in many respects, drawing off his body reserves on even the longest rides. So I’d begun eating less by result of association.
To Bonk or not to Bonk, that is the question
Which meant that 2.5 hours into the ride, on a long climb toward the aid station at 40 miles, my body began to revolt at the thought of more pedaling. I never bonked, but came close. That climb was part concentration and part stubborn idiocy. Then we pulled into the aid station and my lady friend said, “You need to eat.”
That was actually a second warning. The other woman in our group had passed me on the climb before and issued a helpful hint, “Don’t forget to eat if you’re tired.”
Well, heck, I thought. I had forgotten to eat. So that last climb before the aid station saw a Powerbar go down my craw in chunks. I do have a fear that someday I’ll choke to death while eating on the bike. They’ll find me in the ditch with a throat full of nauseous goo and proclaim me dead from ingestion of a Clif Bar or the like. Then the obituary will say, “He died doing what he liked to do.” Except that will be a lie. Because no one likes gagging on food even when they’re doing something they actually do love. So you have to be careful about the literal truth of any post-mortem statement. Please try to remember that for me, because I’ll forget to tell anyone when I’m dead.
You feel just about dead when you’ve come so close to bonking. Then the food kicks in and you wonder how you ever felt so bad, or why. The miles roll along and you get cocky again and take a pull only to find out that something precious went away during that bonk. There is sufficient energy to ride, but not to an excess. So you back off and take the draft with a welcome peace. It is ours to finish that day, but not to lead.
Two more big climbs and the course is finally ready to let you head home down a long descent into the valley where Tyrol Basin sits at the base of a set of ski hills. It has been a good ride and the confidence of doing 64 miles with hills and descents sets in with a smile as you clamp your legs one more time and reach 35 mph on a smooth road.
The cyclometer was left home this day but years of riding tells you how fast you’re going both up and down hills. The sensations of riding are profound. The sense of accomplishment is fulfilling as you reach the flats and pedal safely home. The bad things that happened a year ago are truly a memory now, replaced by the pace of good companionship and a completed circuit built on the back of ancient seas.
It all seems to come together somehow, sometimes. It all seems to come together.