Photo: Tony Allen-Mills

Photo: Tony Allen-Mills
The Charge: First Race, First Climb

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sleepaway Camp (for Cyclists)

When I was twelve, I had wealthy friends who would dissapear for several weeks at a time during summer.  They attended camps with silly names where I understand from innumerable cinematic renderings they spent their time endlessly canoeing, competing in foot races, and making out at night with kids from the neighboring camps.  Finally I get to do the same, absent the boats, foot racing, and getting to first base, or summer weather, for that matter.

Team training camp begins tomorrow.  I promised a kidney to get free of work and began negotiations months ago to attend the three-day span of the event, but somehow I managed.  We will be doing four organized rides through the mountainous wilds of West Virginia, three days of a serious amount of kilojoules expended in my attempt to stay with the group during radical 5 mph ascents, or so I'm led to believe.  We've rented a string of cabins, and will be recieving our new kits as well.  Should be fun.

Welcome to WV, Wild and Wonderful

Early to rise.  In the car.  Traffic congestion worse than I recall -- usually I am sheltered from surface urban morning commuter woes in an aluminum tube with other metro area morlocs.  But eventually I break free of the misery that is the federal enclave and find myself buzzing down 66 to 81 to 48 to 55 to 259 to Lost River State Park in rather rapid succession.  I'm actually early, the first on the team to arrive according to the state parks lady responsible for handing out cabin keys.  As a result, I get the choice of beds, and I conclude that my teammate, the indomitable 55+ racer I've mentioned already, is entitled to the larger single-bed room as he has a podium already this year.  My first-race DNF entitles me to the shared space in room two.

The first camp ride was advertized as a chill, 32-mile session.  The weather was about as I expected: high 30s to low 40s, heavy rain, fog.  Somehow in my preparations I failed to pack more than one set of bibs and forgot my excellent Craft baselayer entirely, and I was soaking wet and nearly hypothermic as soon as I began the decent from my cabin to the appointed meeting spot at the base of the park.  About 18 of us set off together, and the two leaders shot off the front at a fairly rapid pace.  I followed their wheels, and felt fairly strong despite the cold and wet, until within about 1 mile I had hit a pothole at 26mph or so that jettisoned my sole water bottle into the abyss of the roadside forest primeaval.  I already had no clear idea where I was, and definitely none at all where the group was headed so I shrugged off the lost bottle as a propitious sacriface to the woodland gods who patrol those roads and stayed with the group, steeling myself for the test whether I had 30 more miles in my legs waterless without cramping.  Fortunately, a teammate spared me the need to find out when he passed me one of his.  And bonus -- it contained a great tasting drink mix the name of which I really need to learn.  A further aside, the rain was heavy by this point, and I ended up riding sans glasses -- I found it nearly impossible to keep the lenses free enough of mud, water, and general road grit, and the risk-benefit equation of blinding myself to road hazards temporarily versus risking permanent eye injury from flying particulate matter fell in favor of squinting it out.

WV soil -- good for the pores
So, the ride; in a nutshell, it was a lot of fun, mostly in retrospect.  The pace remained energetic throughout.  We encountered lots of chained dogs, kamikazi squirrels, collapsed barns, the most horrendous smells wafting from definitively non-free-range chicken farms, and then a cat with an apparent death wish as well.  By mid-ride the rain had slackened, but the mud coating the road surface had increased and multiplied, so that each of us was pushing the envelop on the amount of gunk that could be plastered into the gaps between brake calipers and across faces.  Animated I suppose by the thought of a weekend filled with more of the same, we barreled down the roadway, a glistening, shivering, mud-covered troop of amateur bike racers, gaudy plummage disguised beneath road spray.  By the time we returned to our cabins, I was drained by the elements, my bike was a disaster, and I was damned excited about the idea of putting an end to the battle against hypothermia through the welcome ministrations of a hot shower.

The hard numbers do the experience no justice, but for the analytical types, here is the ride:  32.8 mi, +1800 feet, 1180 kj.

And so ended the work of the first day of training camp.

A compatriot's rig after mudding it through the first ride
May I Have Another?

Day two dawned misty and cool, but markedly better for outdoor althetic activities than the day that preceded it.  With a huge ribeye dinner at the Lost River Grill and 8 hours in the sack behind me, all vital signs were thrumming and I felt ready for work.  The team assembled at 9am for another 32 miler with moderate climbing and a short gravel-enhanced section.  The working concept was to take it easy and to maintain group cohesion throughout, as the afternoon ride would follow soon after and promised plenty of opportunty for exploding hearts and breaking legs and chainrings.  The ascending began soon enough, turning skyward almost immediately out of the park with a nice and steady ~8% ascent rising about 800 feet over 2 miles (ok, you do the math, but my Garmin was convinced we were at 8 percent most of the time) that we completed in a leasurely 15 minutes.  It was here that we hit the promised off-road portion of the festivities.  Only it turned out that there was a bit of a miscalculation.  What our intrepid expeditionary leader thought would be about 2 to 4 miles of gravel was in fact about 17 miles of dirt and mud and stones, and a weird downhill section with pointy-edged slaty looking things in seriatim rows that worked on the same principle as highway dots on the wrists when hit at speed.

Ascending on dirt in fog.  Remarkable image: Grayson.
When finally we hit real roads, 17 miles later (oh, did I already mention that?), the pace revved up right away.  Turns out we had actually done a fair amount of climbing during the off-road excursion, although I had not noticed given the constant focus on picking lines and washing out around a tangled trail of root wells, mud, rocks, and broken tree limbs.  And I didn't really feel it afterwards either, as it felt so good to let the mental fog lift and open the legs at a pace intended for roadbikes again.  I wasn't alone in submitting to this interesting sense of euphoria --  for a few miles a whole line of us shot down the slim ashpalt track leading out of the dirt pass at well over 24mph.  Then a flat or two brought the pace down, until eventually the whole group of twenty-six reformed into a nice, tight pack three abreast for a nice tour through some gently rolling WV country roads back to the park.   Then it was a quick stop for hosing down the muddy bikes at the guard shack, and the unpleasant little slap-in-the-face climb back home to the cabins for a quick lunch (interesting fact, rates the mile of asphalt stretching from the park entrance to the door of my cabin itself as a Cat 4 climb), the passing out of new team kits, the taking of the annual team photo, and back again on the bikes for our next ride, including the much anticipated assualt of the mother of all the worst climbs I've ever dreamt of ascending by bike.

Totals for Day 2, Ride 1: 32.3 miles, +2800 feet, 1285 kj.


Cycling, the recreational sport, amazes me for many reasons, but high on the list is the strange proposition that avid cyclists seek solace in suffering, rather than from suffering.  And that perversion of the natural order is perhaps most vividly demonstrated in the desire of otherwise rational minds, once strapped within a vented polysterene foam lid, to look for more horrible, more horrific climbs with which to punish the frail human flesh that houses the soul.  Enter the Saturday afternoon training ride.

Following the team photo extravaganza which was conducted in the freezing, still slightly misty early afternoon air, 25 of us (one kind member agreed to stay behind and trace the route in the unofficial SAG wagon about an hour behind our departure time) set forth on our third ride, this one into the ugly maw of the WV hill country.  Two groups quickly formed, an A and a B essentially.  I rode the A train for about 3 miles, until I hit the identical pothole that bit me on day one and I ejected another freshly filled bottle from my now soon-to-be-replaced carbon fiber cage.  I was not about to attempt this ride bottleless -- I was pushing my luck with just bringing one -- so I dropped back, allowing both groups to whir past me as I retrieved it from a gully beside the road.  No worse for wear, I cranked it up and caught the 5 or so teammates who made up the back group, and jumped in with them.  Along the way we picked up a couple more.  Word was that the front group was setting a terrific pace toward the first climb.  I thanked the minor roadside diety to whom I had sacrificed my first bottle for knocking out the second and saving me from trying to hang with that crew.  What lay ahead would require the freshest set of legs I could manage.

We hit the first climb, the Climb up to THE CLIMB as it were.  The Climb measured a little more than 3 miles in length with an average grade of 6% and 813 feet elevation gain.  It really is a two-part affair, however, as there is a short flat section in the middle.  Whatever, Strava's calculus deteremined that it is Cat 3 worthy, but who knows.  Anywho, we climbed for a little while and opened the legs a bit.  Then followed a grand descent on wide, clean asphalt where I managed to hit 48mph before deciding to pull the ripcord.  About 30 miles in, the general store, our mid-ride rest stop, hove into view.  I dove into a snickers and coke refuel in preparation for the murderous stretch of winding road that I could glimps in the distance when I dared look over my shoulder. 

So let's get to it then.  The agony ultimately would last about 50 minutes, long stretches of which passed at a blistering 4mph turning my 39-28 at a startlingly painful 45-50 revolutions a minute.  For unknown reasons, we collectively decided to push toward this thing of beauty in a singlefile paceline.  I did my part, taking a hard pull and not really saving enough to latch back on without some pain.  Unfortunately, as I was dropping back one of my teammates opened a spot for me in the middle of the line, but I realized it only after I had fallen behind the optimal point for jumping into the hole.  I had to sprint to make it in, and as soon as I did I knew it was over.  The line was moving fast, and I popped just trying to maintain the pace even with the shelter of a wheel in front of me.  I waived him past with a feeble "I'm done" and then swung out into free air to run my own pace into the maw of the mountain.  By the time I reached the foot, I could see only flashes of a white and blue host rising between the trees in the distance.  I followed at my pace, and began to recover and pick up stragglers along the way.  The climb was about 5 miles long.  By about two miles in, I had passed 3 or 4 others, and was riding at the same pace as a group of 3 guys.  One was the stolid Nathan.  After a couple miles he began to give up his lunch, his own form of sacrificial offering.  By this time, I was deep in extremis, inhabiting that part of my mental space that is reserved for only most harrowing encounters with physiological distress.  The best I could do was weakly inquire if he would live as I wobbled past.  Interstingly, he soon thereafter past me, seemingly refreshed, and I and the others never saw him again.  The other two with whom I found myself sharing the throws of aerobic and neuromuscular agony -- Tom and John -- were the perfect company for this ordeal.  We three hit the same stride, suffered and weaved through the same stretches, and remained a unit the whole way up.  During my darkest moments, when I actually dared suggest that I might be close enough to death that the sag wagon may be in my near future, Tom gave me a mini-lesson in ascending tactics that put me back on track.  John fought on through a leg cramp and back breaking switchbacks indomitably.  The psychology of mutual affection that brands those who undergo shared suffering -- well explored by United States Marine Corps drill sergeants, remarked upon regularly in the literary treatments of the victims of unkind prison wardens -- was fully in effect, and those two soldiers will forever enjoy a most favored nation status in my mind.

The broken, the unbowed, and the beguiling call of the escape pod
Ultimately, after 50 minutes of climbing, we three arrived as a group at the peak and slid into an ice-flecked cloud that had settled upon the crest of the mountain -- nearly 4.5 miles, 10% average grade, 2000 feet ascended, with innumerable switchbacks hitting 17-18%.  Without a doubt, the most difficult climb I have ridden to date, and all the harder with 90 miles and about 5000 feet in my legs in the thirty hours prior to arriving at its base.  The rest of the day was spent in frigid descent, then a 10 mile stretch back to the park that passed in a blur.  The only real recollection of that segment comes from a photo shot nearing the border of our campground, John perched boldly on his seat, me hunched and clearly undone by the work of the day.  Of course, in the strange way of cyclists, I look back upon this pain-filled afternoon with regret that I am not riding that hill again tomorrow.  To suffer is to live.

Totals for Day 2, Ride 2: 48.0 miles, +5600 feet, 1900kj.

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