I didn’t think I’d make it to this one. New jobs. Big stresses. Etc. Etc. There just wasn’t time.
Long story short, I decided I wanted to do it, so I got up insanely early and drove to Napa Sunday morning, arriving at 6:15 to prep for the 100-mile ride. Having been out on the route, I now see why people like this ride. It’s absolutely flat (to me) and fast. Of course, there are some issues, as I quickly discovered.
My timing was spot on. I had just enough time to ready my bike, fill my bottle, stuff my jersey with food and fuel, and check in at registration. After pinning on my bib number, I headed to the start line 2 minutes prior to the roll out, where I saw a friend from my team. We chatted briefly, then headed out in the middle of the pack. After a couple of laughs, I shifted into my big ring and stood up to hammer to the front of the group… only to drop my chain and have to dismount and stop.
It was a sign of things to come.
Thirty seconds later, I had the chain back on and was heading back out to the group. The first few miles are slow and easy over a very nicely paved bike path. I don’t really care for riding on bike paths for this reason: they’re crowded and challenging to navigate with more than a single rider or two. I picked my way up a few riders at a time, until we turned out onto some city back streets and I was able to leapfrog large groups. After a few minutes, I was back up toward the front and in a forming paceline with one other rider who seemed equally interested in going faster, and a big guy with lots of leg strength and plenty of wind break for me to draft behind.
By the time we got to the first major road and the right turn, a few people stopped. I kept rolling, and a couple others (we lost the big guy, but not Scott, a very strong rider) quickly caught up and we started working together. Within five miles or so, between the railroad crossing and the first rest stop (about 17 miles in), we saw three other riders up ahead, and we overtook them at speed.
“We just blew past Chris Carmichael,” I said. “That might be bad form.” (Carmichael markets himself as Lance Armstrong’s coach, and he’s authored a couple books on cycling, and is no slouch in the saddle. He was the lead out for the 100-mile ride, and I don’t think he was expecting a short paceline of three riders to hit a pace that fast, let alone reel him in while he was off the front.)
Scott looked over his shoulder and jokingly asked if we should go back, and I told him I didn’t think that would be necessary. “Besides,” I said, “I plan on blogging this!”
A few minutes later, and as we all suspected, Carmichael and his two riding companions were back up with our group, and the fun was in full gear. With a breakaway of six riders, including myself, we hammered. I have never worked that hard or fast over the first 30 miles of a ride. It was… well… FAST!
The first rest stop was on us before we knew it. None of us had even touched our bottles, so the stop was entirely unnecessary. We blew past the turn off and headed north toward the outer loop. We all took even pulls at the front, and the highlights of my day were drafting off an Olympic cyclist, then taking my turn at the front when it was my turn. We all were solid bike handlers, so the gaps between wheels were super tight. It’s an adrenaline rush to ride a bicycle at 30 mph with just 3 inches of space between my front wheel and the rear wheel of the cyclist in front of me.
In terms of distance cycling, this course is flat. We went over a couple small rollers, and Scott joked that we had just completed the second-hardest climb of the day. We still were over 20 mph during the incline, so I started doing the math. We were going to finish the 100 miles in under 5 hours, which would be a first for me. As a distance cyclist, the pace was way too high for me, and I knew I couldn’t hang with them for the entire ride (my heart rate was steady in the 150s, which is not sustainable for the duration). But I was determined to hold on as long as I could. We were just a handful of miles from our first rest stop, which we’d also go past, opting to stop after the outer loop. The road had just tilted up a bit, on the only actual climb on the course, and were all still on our big rings, when the group split violently. We had just come on some rough pavement, and it happened too fast for the lead riders to point out the potholes. Instead, they just dodged, which left me, who was second to last in line at the time, to hit it hard.
I’ve hit potholes before. It happens. But this one was violent. Both my bottles flew out of their cages, and I had to peel off to pick them up from the middle of the road. I did it quickly, because I didn’t want to lose contact with my group. But when I went to pedal, my chain had dropped once more. This time, though, I wasn’t able to fix it quickly. A couple minutes went by, and I when I finally got the chain back on, it was clear I had a big problem with my drive train. I’d pedal, then the entire bike would “pop,” and I’d lose power. Pedal, then that hard, violent shake that rattled the frame. Pedal. Pop. Pedal. Pop.
I dismounted. I tinkered. Pedal. Pop. Pedal. Pop.
Ten minutes later, and the next paceline passed me on the climb.
I tinkered some more. Pedal. Pop. Pedal. Pop.
Fifteen minutes off the bike, and the second paceline was through. After 20 minutes, the riders started coming by in small, fragmented groups. And when, after 30 minutes, I started getting passed by a steady stream of individual riders, I knew the bulk of the 100-milers overtake me soon. I was able to limp slowly up the hill at the county line, then descend off the back, but I couldn’t pedal to keep up with them. It was incredible to see how far ahead of the main group we had gotten. And it was disappointing to know I wouldn’t be able to finish the ride.
I limped into the rest stop at the start of the outer loop an hour and 28 minutes after starting. I let them know I was a “mechanical DNF,” and I waited for the SAG to pick me up. My friend Matt made it safely to the rest stop, and we were able to joke a little bit. We talked bike stuff before he rolled out to finish his ride, and I was jealous. It had been cold at the start, but it was up to 80 degrees, and all I wanted was to push around the outer loop and finish.
I did see the group of guys I had been riding with when they rolled into the rest stop after the outer loop. I told them what had happened, and they were all wondering what had happened to me. We talked about who was fast, who was strong, who was climbing well. Then I got in the SAG wagon and headed back toward the start. A few miles from the finish, a mother and son on the 10-mile course had a mechanical breakdown, so I volunteered to get myself back under my own power. I coasted the rest of the way in, then spent a couple hours catching up with other Citadel Riders at the finish line.
After completing half the course, all I can say is I want to go back and do it again next year, hopefully without the mechanical difficulties. It’s ironic to successfully ride 500 miles through harsh terrain, but then break down for the first time on a “leisure ride” in wine country. That’s cycling. But I walked away with still a great experience on the bike, and the confidence that I can keep pace with some very strong cyclists. That part was an absolute blast, and I look forward to getting back out there again.
As soon as the drive train on my bike is fixed.