The Three Bitches and Twenty Bastards meet at the Horribly Hilly 100

Pre-Ride Partners“Isn’t this pretty?” I asked my companion Sue at the 30-mile point of the Horribly Hilly 100 ride.

“It’s a valley,” she responded. “So it’s not that pretty. It means we have to go back up again.”

And that, my friends, perfectly summarizes the Horribly Hilly 100. The 75 miles we rode gained more than 6500 feet in climbing altitude. Yes, there were descents involved as well. But it’s the climbing that you really notice.

Part of our purpose in riding the Horribly Hilly was to get in some hillwork for my companion Sue, who is doing the Ironman Wisconsin race in September. That bike course leads from downtown Madison out the “stick” through Fitchburg and Verona to Mt. Horeb. From there the course does a pair of loops that include climbs known as the “Three Bitches.” They are hard climbs, but not insanely so. We’ve now ridden them several times in practice rides, Sue more than me.

But the Three Bitches aren’t the only climbs on the course either. Not in southwest Wisconsin. So the training for Ironman Wisconsin needs to include plenty of ups and downs to cover the 112 miles of cycling that makes up the heart of that race.

Horribly ClimbingSo we signed up for the Horribly Hilly 100 with the goal of perhaps covering a set of hills that I’ll semi-officially brand the Twenty Bastards. It was a challenging course, and you’ll note that the last climb goes from about 600 feet up to 1800 at the top of Blue Mound State Park. That, my friends, was a tough climb.

Olympian hills

It was once rumored that if Chicago had won the right to host the Summer Olympics, the cycling road races would have been held west of Madison, Wisconsin where the hilly terrain makes an honest rider out of anyone. It would have been interesting to watch world-class cyclists on the two combined climbs leading to the top of Blue Mound State Park. With a net elevation gain of nearly 1500 feet from bottom to top, and several grades topping 10% along the way, it may not equal the difficulty of some Tour de France courses, but it’s an honest-to-goodness climb from any perspective.

There were even steeper sections of riding along the Horribly Hilly course The hardest among these reportedly exceeds 15%. Quite seriously, when you came around the corner that first hill looked like a wall. With flies on it. Because the cyclists clinging to its sides were as thick as flies. 

HORRIBLY MAPPYThat’s when you really know you’re in Horribly Hilly territory. After all, back home in Illinois the steepest section of glacial hill lasts some 30 meters and tops only 9%. By contrast, the two steepest climbs in the Horribly Hill 100s were almost double that grade and lasted 200-300 meters. So if you’re from Illinois, you can’t truly prepare for the Horribly Hilly 100s even if you ride the best hill available over and over again. So you go with the legs you’ve got.

Adjustments and the funny part

Which meant that in many cases those steep sections and the mile-long 8-10% grades brought many cyclists to a lurching halt. Chains clacked. Cleats returned to contact with the earth. Cyclists sought out breaks in the climbs to catch their breath and regain their wits. 

The funny part:

It was not uncommon for cyclists pushing their bikes up the hill to nearly keep pace with those still pumping pedals in a hopeful, grinding spin. At one point my companions took a short break, walked a few moments and then got back on their bikes to ride when the road again allowed. All the time I continued climbing. Yet the sound of their voices behind me never seemed to recede. That’s how slow you sometimes rode up those hills.

It turns out that four-miles-per-hour is the semi-magic speed for climbing really steep grades. Go any slower and you’re done. Finito: Pull over or fall over. Go any faster and you might be cooked. So that was the rule. Keep it steady and keep moving up almost any grade. And wish you had one more easier gear to pedal. The Granny Gear. Some folks had it, but it did not always help.

Slow rollers and keen visions

Featured Image -- 4823Here’s the truth. You really don’t feel any sensation of a breeze when riding at four miles an hour. There is really no benefit to drafting behind someone at that speed, either. Frankly, you can’t afford to ride so close behind in case they falter or come to a stop. So unless you are out in the open with a wind blowing in your face, you ride alone. Fortunately, most of the climbing sections were mercifully sheltered by thick forests of mixed hardwoods. The lack of wind kept the course from being insanely difficult. 

Given the clouds and overcast day, the damp roads looked mostly featureless at average speeds. Yet at four miles an hour you had time to study the shape of a pothole or a sneaky tarsnake for quite a long moment as you ground on past. Details like that seemed to mock the mind as you tried to go faster, only to look down and find what looked like a fully pixelated digital road below your feet. Asphalt beggars the mind at some point. 

Heavy breathing

The sound and rhythm of your own breathing is quite audible as you chug along. Same with the cyclists you’re passing, or those passing you. That means the Horribly Hilly 100 is an intimate experience of breathing, huffing and listening to other people uttering soft words of encouragement. “You got this,” several riders offered. Or, “Keep it up.” Time slows down as you go, yet on you go. You mutter back. Something stupid perhaps. “Yah, you too.” 

That climbing pace ideally would give you time to consider your surroundings. Yet there’s something disaffecting about consistent climbing that makes you focus a bit more on the ground below than the trees or leaves of above. Perhaps it’s a law of personal physics that keeps one from looking up at the road ahead or the scenery around you. First, there is equilibrium to consider. To stay the course and keep balanced, it helps to keep your eyes focused on the near section of road rather than staring uphill into the narrow crevasse of daylight at the top. 

往上走 = Up you go

china-a-mountain-pass-antique-print-1859-88165-pThat’s if you’re lucky. More often the road ahead simply made a turn around a bend into what appeared to be a flat wall of trees. Cyclists ahead of you disappeared into these flat panels as figures do in those Chinese screen prints depicting life in mountain country. We were all peasants carrying our own burdens. 

Indeed, it was a work of performance art getting up some of those hills. Some of the participants were a bit disadvantaged by the bikes they rode. Tri-bikes with those aero frames are not really suited for steep climbs over 10%. That meant progress came to a halt for riders whose bikes were designed more for pedaling flat-out on level ground than climbing unglaciated hills. There was no shame in jumping off the bike in that case. The forward riding position of aero-designed bikes makes climbs over a certain grade an uncertain proposition at best. 

Fat Tire BikesYet there were also people who turned their bikes into a statement of sorts. One couple was doing the entire ride on fat-tire bikes.

There were heavier riders as well on the course. As I inevitably passed them by it seemed there was a higher purpose to their efforts. Their statement was one of resolute commitment to something other than being fat. But we all need to remember that having fat on your body is not a sin. Everyone is built different. Some tend toward thin while others put on weight easily. Even heavy trainers must strike a balance between calories taken in, calories burned and saving the really lean times for point of competition. 

Overall, a great ride

Sue and LidaThe ride is for everyone. The entire Horribly Hilly enterprise is so well run that it accommodates riders of all types and abilities. The rest stops and water stops were staffed with enthusiasm and insight.

In fact my entire ride was rescued by a mechanic from Erik’s Bike Shop, a Madison-based store. At the very beginning of my ride a newly installed back tire tube burst thanks to a flaw in the wheel tape. I ran my bike 300 meters back up the steep hill and 10 minutes later was cruising down to the start with a new tube intact. Thanks, Erik & Co., who also adjusted my companion Sue’s derailleur so that her shifting wasn’t all messed up on the hills. 

As riders queued up at rest stops there was humor and conversation and the strange ebb of latent energy wherever groups of cyclists come to a halt. The fact that 1300 riders sign up (in fact, there’s a lottery for entry!) to join the sufferfest known as Horribly Hilly is testament to its reputation as one of the Midwest’s most interesting and well-run rides.

Birdiness

Ovenbird.

Ovenbird.

As for me, I occupied the less hilly portions of the course by identifying more than 30 species of birds heard singing along the way. There were blue-winged warblers, yellowthroat, redstart, ovenbirds and yellow warblers as well as scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, wood thrush and eastern bluebirds, catbird, towhee. And yes, there were also vultures flying overhead. One must suspect they were hanging around in case of a really bad crash. Those vultures. They know good pickings when they see it. 

I mercifully did not call out all these bird species to my riding partners as we rolled along. That’s a distraction in a way. Yet all that bird song was a testament to the rich woods and diversity of environments through which we passed. It’s hard to take it all in when you’re under the physical pressure to ride, yet you come away with the feeling that you’ve finally done that thing you promised yourself to do after all these years of driving through the region on route from one place to another. Get off the main road. Feel the rhythm of the place. Soak in the farm smells and say hello to some cows. Nothing horrible about that at all. 

Driftless dreams

Southwest Wisconsin is simply one of the most beautiful places in the Midwest to ride. There’s no escaping the fact that the climbs are real and difficult. Yet cyclists who love a challenge really love riding in the Driftless Region. The descents can be thrilling. You can top 50 miles per hour quite easily on the longer chutes. One daring and skilled rider came past us going at least 50 mph. His teal-colored tri-bike and kit were a blurr in the dim light of a dark woods. 

More typically riders brake their way down at 35-40 mph to protect both body and soul. Sadly, there was an accident right at the start of the Horribly Hilly when a cyclist shot off the road and had to be airlifted to a hospital. So you can’t take the hills lightly. I personally have experienced the joys of a bike crash going downhill at 40+ mph during The Wright Stuff Century a few years back. I now approach the descents with keen respect, and knees clamped firmly on the top tube to prevent bike wobble. 

This year with far more experience under my belt the Horribly Hilly didn’t crush my legs or my collarbone. I made it up every climb and gained respect for every other rider out there on the course. No one gets off easy (pun intended) and that’s the apparent joy of riding with your buddies and appreciating the rolling party of 1300 cyclists doing the same stupid thing you’re doing on a cool Saturday in June. It rained. The wind blew. Finally the sun shone for 15 minutes near the end of the 75-mile ride. We saw it all, in other words. 

Long riders

Somewhere out there, the real heroes of the day were plunking out another 25 miles or more on the longer course. “God Bless them,” you think to yourself as you finish the final climb and pull to a stop past the Finish Line. 75 miles felt like enough for me. 

But Lo and Behold, there at the finish line stood a real, live Culver’s Custard Wagon with chocolate and vanilla treats just waiting for you to eat them. It was the hardest-earned cup of sinfully good custard I ever ate. Staring down at the cup, I made note that even the custard had a certain topography to it. Such is life in the Wisconsin hills.

In case you’re in the mood for a beautiful ride in the Driftless region, there are a couple other opportunities in July and August.

TaliesinThe first is the Wright Stuff Century held July 25, 2015. It also starts in Blue Mounds country and cycles west to the home of the late great architect Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin and Spring Green. The course also features challenging climbs and magnificent views of the Driftless Region landscape with its hazy blue skies and deep green valleys. Hints: for a great Sunday morning treat after the ride, try The Shed in downtown Spring Green. You can order beer before noon on Sunday and pies that will melt your appetite into tasty morsels. Make time to visit Taliesin the day before or after the ride, and do yourself a favor and skip The House on the Rock. 

The Dairyland Dare takes place on August 8, 2015 and starts in Dodgeville, Wisconsin on Route 18 forty miles west of Madison, Wisconsin. The heavily sponsored ride offers courses ranging from 50km to 300km. All take place on the extremely hilly, scenic land near Governor Dodge State Park. Course reach all the way up to the Wisconsin River if you choose. If you want to fall in love with some of the most beautiful landscape in the nation, this is a great ride to do as well. 

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About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @gofast and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and at 3CCreativemarketing.com. Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
This entry was posted in bike crash, bike wobble, Christopher Cudworth, climbing, competition, cycling, cycling the midwest, Tarsnakes, tri-bikes, We Run and Ride Every Day and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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