|Very cool event t-shirt design!|
I managed to entice another fellow runner/novice cyclist (Jay Naves) to take on this challenge with me and at 7:15 AM on Saturday morning, we met up in the Madison County High School parking lot, the start and finish location for the 2011 AYCE Century Bike Ride, an event that takes riders on a beautiful 109 mile loop in North Alabama (and Tennessee) that touches the foothills of the Appalachian Mountain range and provides one seriously challenging 3.5 mile climb up Skyline. Fortunately, that also results in an awesome 2 mile downhill section allowing riders to reach speeds upwards of 40 mph.
When I walked over to the check-in area at the back of the school, I got in line with a steady stream of about 200-300 other riders waiting to sign their waivers, pick up turn-by-turn maps as well as a really cool t-shirt (see pic above). The event offered multiple distances from 35 miles all the way up to 109 miles and the event was scheduled to start in waves with the 109 miler starting at 8AM followed by the other distances a few minutes later. While the wait in line was slightly longer than one would have expected, it surely was a sign of the popularity of these types of events. It also gave me the opportunity to meet some fellow riders and try to get some information about the course itself.
I completed the check-in process with 10 minutes to go. When I finally pulled my bike of the bike rack on my car, I finally noticed that the left pedal on my bike had separated from its toe clips. Both bolts were gone and it would be impossible for me to ride this bike without resolving this issue. Thankfully, one of the friendly SAG volunteers was able to find a bolt that allowed us to attached the cage to the pedal for a temporary fix. The bike ride had almost been over before it had even started. Instead, at 8:02 AM I took off with a bunch of other cyclists to cover 109 miles before the day was over.
While my primary goal was obviously to complete the distance, I wanted to try to be done before they stopped serving the free food at the finish line. Nothing But Noodles was sponsoring buffet style food at the finish from 11AM until 4PM, which meant that I had 8 hours to cover the distance and after the initial equipment malfunction, it quickly started to look like I would have a really good day on my bike. Jay and I soon connected with another group of riders who were going our pace and we decided to join them and try to ride with them, at least for a while. I am a cycling newbie and still wanted and needed to learn about drafting, etc. And while I certainly wasn't familiar with rider's etiquette, I figured as long as I'd repay the favor of drafting within the group, I should be ok. Wow, what a difference drafting makes. We maintained an average pace of over 20 mph and it was fun. I checked my watch to see how long each rider was leading on average and I noticed a 5 minute pattern. Great, I thought I could do that. I didn't know what to expect but figured as long as I tried my best, nobody would care. Before I knew it, it was my turn to lead and let the other draft off of me. I checked my watch and tried to maintain a consistent pace and cadence. My goal was to lead for at least 5 minutes. Everything went extremely well and I only had about a minute left to lead, when it happened.
I crashed. A couple of things had happened. First, I noticed significant gravel in a right turn just ahead of us. I immediately signaled the hazard by shouting "Gravel!" to the riders behind me. Unfortunately, turning my head to signal the gravel caused me to miss the fact that this was also a very sharp right run. When I turned my head forward again, I realized that I had just about run out of road and I tried to correct my line by slightly applying more braking pressure without causing my wheels to slip on the gravel. At the same time, I attempted to turn my handle bar harder to the right to still make the turn and stay on the road. Unfortunately, those two actions combined were still too much and both of my wheels started to slide to the left, flipping me and my bike on my right side while continuing to slide into the ditch. When I stopped sliding, I realized that I was still in once piece without any major injuries aside from some road burn. Unfortunately, the temporary pedal fix had come undone and I had to wait until the SAG vehicle arrived. Jay was kind enough to stick around and to fix my pedal once we got a couple of bolts from the SAG team, so I could lick my wounds.
About 20 minutes later, we were back on the road. Obviously, by this time, most riders had passed us and we were now bringing up the rear without being part of a larger group and without the benefits of drafting. Oh well, it was going to be a long day anyway and now I had plenty of opportunity to lift up my head and enjoy the spectacular scenery around us. I never knew these parts had such amazing vistas. There were only a handful of serious climbs to speak of. Otherwise, there were just enough rolling hills to keep it interesting.
Jay and I rolled into the first SAG stop after 25 miles and I refueled with a couple of cups of Gatorade, some grapes and some peanuts. I hadn't brought any fuel myself other than a bottle of Gatorade I kept on my bike and I hadn't used that yet, either. After about 5 minutes, we continued on. The next SAG station with fluids and food would be at mile 50 at the top of Skyline, after climbing close to 1100 feet in 3.5 miles. Jay's arthritis in his knees started to flare up and he started to slow. I stayed with him for a while, until I realized that I was going to have to push to get back by 4PM, which was a full stop for me due to plans I had made previously with my family. I was going to get into hot water at home, if I didn't get back in time for our plans. After checking with Jay, I decided to push ahead. Sorry Jay, but I didn't want to sleep on the couch;-) I do owe you big time for helping me after the crash and I am glad you finished strong.
The climb started at mile 44 and continued for 3.5 miles. I was able to ride the entire section without stopping or walking, which was pretty cool. I even managed to pass a few folks on the way up. I realized it wasn't a race, but it still felt good to be able to pass folks during a climb. That's just the way I am. Once I got to the top, the SAG station was only a couple of miles ahead. There were quite a few people milling around when I finally arrive at mile 50. I sent a text and voice message to Jay and after 10 minutes continued on my way.
The next section included a miles 64 and 65 with an average speed between 30 and 35 mph going down the backside of Skyline. I reached a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour, but would go any faster since I was riding my brakes as a result of my early crash. I decided to rather be safe than sorry. Unfortunately, another rider was not quite so lucky as I was in my earlier crash. Apparently, he had missed a sharp left turn on the downhill and landed in the ditch, breaking his collar bone in the process. Hope you get well soon, buddy!
The next stop was at mile 67 and I took this opportunity to refuel. I was actually starting to get thirsty now, so I wanted to make sure to get as much fluids as possible during the stops. I pushed on and continued to enjoy the countryside. I was pretty much riding on my own, catching up to other riders occasionally and riding alongside for a quick chat. Before I knew it, I had completed 83 miles with the famous 90 mile SAG stop being next on the course. This SAG station was famous for its fare of food and drink. When I finally arrived, I was not disappointed. As a matter of fact, this stop reminded me of one of the late aid stations at an ultra marathon, where you're almost afraid to stop, because you realize that it will be nearly impossible to leave the comfort of this place and continue on. Regardless, I decided to stop for some hot dogs and some homemade freshly churned vanilla ice cream. It was amazing.
Because I took a reasonably long break at this stop, I decided to skip the last stop and continue on straight to the finish. After 7 hours and 40 minutes, I rolled into the Madison County High School parking lot, exhausted, with sore feet and a sore back, but elated that I managed to log almost 110 miles on a bicycle. I'd like to thank all of the volunteers and the event organizers for doing an amazing job in putting on this event. If at all possible, I will be back for more next year.