Last year before my companion Sue signed up for Ironman Wisconsin, she made a simple statement and asked a simple question. “It’s going to take a lot of training. Would you be okay with that?”
We agreed that given the training load necessary for Ironman fitness, she’d likely be doing some longer runs, rides and swims than me. But over the winter we got up at 5:00 a.m. and did indoor speedwork. And you could see her progress in speed and form.
Come spring she lifted her mileage based on a plan delivered by Experience Triathlon coach Joe LoPresto. But nothing was extreme. If she ran 2 hours, I might run 1:20. If she biked 80, I might bike 80 with her, or else join my buddies the day before and ride a section of our planned ride with her.
This shared training regimen included last weekend’s Horribly Hilly 100. It was a fun ride. Difficult, yet fun.
Yesterday we rode in the Swedish Days Ride, a supported event provided by the Fox Valley Bicycle and Ski Club that has been going on since the early 1980s. I’ve always wanted to do the ride and it fit into Sue’s training program to do 100 miles.
So for what seems like the umpteenth weekend we rose at 4:45 and met up with other ET riders for the Century.
There are a ton of ways to ride a Century. You can group up and do it together, sharing pulls and stopping for nutrition en masse. But given this was my first-ever Century, all I wanted to do was ride smart and get through the thing intact.
Sue’s goals were a bit different. She’s building confidence and strength over the longer cycling distance in preparation for 112 miles of cycling in the Ironman. The course in Madison is hilly, hence our ride last weekend at Horribly Hilly. We’ve been up to ride the Ironman course and the “loops” out by Mt. Horeb, and her endurance and climbing is coming along well.
But there’s also no substitute for long distance riding. We started modestly as the group broke into smaller groups. Some tore into the ride with 127 miles on the docket. Others floated between waiting to see who was riding what pace.
By 50 miles it was up to us to maintain pace in our little group and that meant 18-22 mph based on the winds. The course was extremely flat despite the fact that Strava told us later there was 1100 feet of climbing. That was all due to the location of the start on top of a hill at Central High School in Burlington.
Riding In Styles
Other than that it was consistent pedaling and intelligent position on the bike that made the pace difference. Sue rides Aero most of the way, and I ride a road bike. There are times when I feel like a sail in the wind even with my hands down in the drops. Plus she’s strong. So strong on the flats it takes all my concentration to stay on her wheel at times.
In fact there were several women out on the course pulling men along. Same could be said for our friend and triathlete Maxine Franck-Palmer. In the post-ride review it was reported that Max was at the tip of a spear of riders trying to keep up with her, or use the draft she created at 24 mph. I’ve seen that woman pass me now in two separate duathlons. She can ride.
That’s the wonderful thing about cycling. It is an egalitarian sport. In fact political libertarians should love cycling for its independent spirit. Men and women simply most show respect to one another. And while the top levels of the sport may see differences in overall speed between world-class men and women, that is no differentiating factor in the day-to-day world of cycling.
Which meant that the mile-or-two-per-hour (at times) that Sue was able to ride yesterday put a little space between us. We finished perhaps five minutes apart at the end. But I can tell you that I was happy and proud to see her racing along the last 40 miles. For long stretches I rode in her draft unapologetically. I did my pulls sooner or later, but not as long as hers. This made me happy. She’s progressing in her fitness in all three disciplines. Swimming, cycling, running.
“I felt good,” she told me at the finish. Those are three words you love to hear from the one you love.
Learning Curves and Straights
As for what I learned about myself out there…well, that never ends, does it? I learned that 100 miles is harder than I thought and yet I rode well the whole way. Just under 18 mph on average. Not speedy, but not horrible either. With a pack of riders that speed rises a bit so that you average 19 or 20.
My friends have all ridden centuries under five hours. Road cyclists work together on such ventures. That’s the main difference in fact between cycling with triathletes and road bikers. Tri-people tend to go it solo. Bent over in aero, they must rehearse the discipline of riding alone since drafting is not permitted in the sport.
So in many respects it does not pay for Sue to ride in my draft. She doesn’t need it, and it isn’t really a healthy mental practice for someone plannimg an individual effort like an Ironman. Which was a marvelous excuse for not doing pulls in the middle of the ride while piling into the invisible teeth of a 10mph wind. As Sue pulled ahead a couple times I learned that my base pace is somewhere around 20 when not fighting the wind. So that is what I kept it at for the 20-mile loop at the southern base of the ride. My weakness as a cyclist is getting through long straights into the wind. That and false flats. I’m working on form and that has helped. I don’t blow up anymore, at least.
When we finally turned north, Sue led our group of three with Steven Mayer joining us for the second half of the ride. Sue hit the gas on smooth roads and we roared along at 23-25. Stopping at a country intersection with a red light, we sat waiting for a green when a group of cyclists came bombing past us. They could see the span of Route 38 to the east and west with all traffic stopped, and decided they did not need to stop. But it still did not seem like a good idea to roar through a red light at 20+ mph.
Soon enough we caught them and moved out into the lane to go around. This seemed to pique the lead rider who then chased after Sue. Behind us was one the best riders I know, one Damon Gowdy of Experience Triathlon. He’s qualified for duathlon Worlds and was on a 127 mile sojourn mostly on his own yesterday. The obnoxious moves of the aggressive rider gave Damon reason to give chase. His Tri-Bike has a green hue that resembles a Marvel Comics character. The bike makes an ominous roar when he moves into a higher cadence, and that was obvious as he pulled out into the lane and went by us at 30 mph, and kept going. The smartass rider gave chase but dropped pursuit after only a quarter mile. Damon was gone. I could not even envy him. We are all the rider we can be.
I tried to eat and drink well the entire ride. I’ve learned I need salt replacement. Those ten pickles I ate at the rest stop still did not cut it. The sweat and salt on my neck was thick by the time I finished.
And let’s admit it: blue Gatorade just gets nasty and unpalatable after so long in the saddle. You know you need fluid replacement and keep on drinking, but at some point it might be that water and food are better for you than sweet drinks. It was nice to have that available from the ride for fluid replacement, but you get sick of it and can get sick from it. Over the last few miles my stomach was convulsing a little.
Which meant that my pace dropped from 18-20 down to 15-16 those last two miles past 100. My Century was over, but the creeping climb back up to Central High School still needed to be done. In fact the last 10 miles of the ride were a bit of a tease because you could see the shape of the giant radio relay tower marking the top of the hill at Central High School. It looked so close, yet there was still quite a bit of road to cover before you got home. And at some point just past the 100 mile mark I did not care. Steve came rolling past me with a mile to go and I laughed. “I’m done,” I told him. He rode on ahead.
Sue was finished and changing into her run gear for a brick when I pulled up. “You did it!” she cheered with kiss. “You rode a Century!”
And indeed, I am no longer a Century Virgin. It feels good in a way to have that done and out of the way. I learned that among cyclists I am certainly nothing special. And yet every effort is special in its own way. It really makes no sense to compare. At some level it’s just between you, the pedals and the road. 100 miles of it. Complete.
Disclosure: I am a member of Experience Triathlon.