Found Diary: First race, first mountains

Setting hard goals unleashes a little magic.

[dropcap style=”default”]Normally[/dropcap]

I start these blogs with a summary. This blog’s a little different, as it was an unexpected find.

While tidying up one of the folders on my writer’s hard drive, I came across this journal entry from a few years back. I was excited that my first-ever race, a time trial, was the kickoff to an extended weekend of other firsts, including ascending and descending real mountains.

If you’ve never raced before, or never climbed anything steeper than, say, the nearby highway overpass on your commute home, I hope you’ll enjoy the optimism in this piece.

Re-reading it just now, I can say I did. I ended up finishing 6th in my class for that first race, and felt inexplicably comfortable heading up and over the Continental Divide a couple days later. I’ve since re-ridden that first time trial course many times, having taken over 4 minutes off the time I first set that day. This year, I’ll ride it again, with a goal of removing at least another 30 seconds. I’ve also revisited the Blue Ridge, and summited Mt. Mitchell — the highest point east of the Rockies. 

Decide. Study. Gear up. Go.

What’s holding you back? 

Fridays are always wonderful,aren’t they? Even one of my perpetually dark musical obsessions, The Cure, once unwrapped themselves from their ever-present black to yodel, “It’s Friday! I’m in Love!”

This day is no different. But there is an added urgency; the urgency that an impending yo-yo of incredible contrast and newness brings.

I got the oil changed in my GTI, today; my beloved red zipster I’ve nicknamed “Freya.” She will be transporting me to some real adventures, beginning tomorrow; adventures in the realm of speed and self-perception.

[callout icon=”hb-moon-bike”]It’s the memory of all the combined “hard climbs” in my life prior to this coming week that leads to such anticipation. It’s enough to cause the parallel knowledge of lactic burn and starving lungs to be repositioned; misery is converted to maturation. Agony becomes ascendance. Penance becomes passion.[/callout]

First on the de-virginizing checklist is my first-ever sanctioned race. Despite having been classified as a “fast recreational” cyclist since before I purchased my first racing bike with my first paycheck from my first job, I’ve never, ever raced. That ends tomorrow with a 10.3 mile time trial along a road that is travelled primarily by huge chemical trucks on their way to a nearby DuPont plant. Outrunning them will be an interesting diversion — that and the fact that riders are released in 60-second increments. While I’m straining my sight around each corner for a glimpse of the rider ahead, I’ll also be playing the part of the rabbit to the fox behind me.

Please don’t pass me, please don’t pass me…

Time trials are, perhaps, the perfect first race, if for no other reason than their perceived safety. The perils of hurtling along with other cyclists located mere inches from you is nonexistent. The constant, looming danger of a cyclist felled by an unseen pothole, himself becoming the first in a string of dominoes laced with snapped elbows, knees, and ankles isn’t something you have to contend with.

The opponent in La Course du Vérité — the race of truth — is you. So far, my only direct experience of this is with my training. But, I know that in a time trial, it’s directly up to you, from before you wake on race day, to have driven yourself in training past redline, so that you can define what redline is. It’s up to you to go within, when you get into bed before race morning, with a spirit of inner calm; a calm that comes from having made peace with the suffering of setting your internal gauges to one notch under that redline, and then keeping it there, from start to finish. You wake, you have your morning routine, you know what edible fuels you can ingest that won’t disturb your system with it’s renewed nerves, and then you load up your previously laid-out kit, and strap the bike on the car and head out. Once there, the spirit of quiet-before-storm continues, as you mount your bike to the trainer, and begin the warm up.

It’s interesting that such a short event requires such a long warmup. I’ll be pedaling on that trainer for longer than I’ll expect to race, ramping up my core temperature and heart rate to race levels, so that the countdown from 3, 2, 1 in the start house is more of a gentle transition than an all-out explosion. The acceleration gear will have been pre-selected, I’ll already be thinking of my breathing pattern, and then — I’ll be released to accomplish what I’ve been training for for months — not to crush my competitors, but to fulfill my greatest personal performance.

Down the ramp, out of the saddle, into an all-out sprint that is nonetheless a controlled one. Up to speed, then shift down a few cogs and land lightly on the saddle in my aero position. Hands in the drops, elbows bent and relaxed despite the torque I’m applying from the waist down. I’ll be mindful not to bob my head, increasing turbulence. My computer is my guide. I don’t have a power meter, but I have learned that my highest sustained output occurs between 94 and 100 rpm’s, and a heartbeat that hovers between 148 and 153 beats per minute.

Those cold numbers define so many things: my best sustained effort, my most consistent speed, and…the self-imposed pain that I’ve learned is my razor’s edge. Any more, and I’m pretty sure I’d crack, but I know that it’s the first race of the season; I have to push into that edge. I have to redefine what I can handle. There must be a new redline as March turns into April. 

Then, after the time trial, the speed dial gets pulled back. Way back.

More contrast.

There will be a recovery shake. There will be an infusion of tasty protein. There will be clean, dry clothes. And there will be a long drive from Cincinnati to Asheville, North Carolina, and another first for me: the slow effort of climbing. But not just any hills. Mountains.

A core group of cyclists from our local, home shop have rented a large house in Asheville, and will be spending Sunday through Wednesday loping up — and careening down — the Blue Ridge.

I’m much, much more nervous about those ascents than I am about tomorrow’s rolling 10.3 miles.

I suspect the time trial will be amazingly hard.

But miles of steady, unrelenting climbs followed by 50mph+ descents navigated with muscles shaky from the up-n-over? That has all the ear marks of soul crushing. All the investments in diet, equipment, clothing, schedules, scientific tests, and planned workouts bring you face to face with how puny you are while you’re climbing one of the wrinkles on the ancient face of the earth. And while you’re doing so, you’re expending the same effort at 8mph going up that on Saturday brought you to 26mph on the flats.

In an accordion of agony and ecstasy, I’ll be riding through some of the most beautiful country in America. I’ve had the pleasure of driving the Blue Ridge before, and all along, I was telling myself, “Oh, I’d love to bike this.” A panorama that unfolds in varying hues of silvery blues and greens on all sides. Serpentine roads that undulate like a Chinese serpent. Cue The Who: “I can see for miles and miles…”


The road back to the rental house in Black Mountain reached a grade of 15%. That’s how every ride ended. #characterbuilding

On Sunday, for 80 of those miles and the first of three back-to-back days, I will be one of those rolling little specks. Trying to find that same sense of inner peace in the midst of suffering; the right hand position on the top of the bar, the perfect angle between hip and thigh, and the perfect rhythm where “pump and push” gets converted to “float and glide.”

Experience tells me that there will be moments of transcendence: the rhythm will be found, albeit in fits and starts. There will be moments of effortless floating, both during ascent and descent; the bike will respond as if by telepathy and the chorus of enmeshed gears, reverberating tires and pavement, and wind in the helmet will be like angel-song.

It’s the memory of all the combined “hard climbs” in my life prior to this coming week that leads to such anticipation. It’s enough to cause the parallel knowledge of lactic burn and starving lungs to be repositioned; misery is converted to maturation. Agony becomes ascendance. Penance becomes passion.

I’ve never climbed real mountains, before. But I suspect that all the stories and video I’ve read and seen will play out in tactile overload.

And I’ll be traversing those same roads Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Wow. 

Sure hope the house we’re renting has a hot tub.

Author’s Note: The scenery was stunning. Some of the grades were knee-popping. My threshold heart rate is now 160. And yes, there was a hot tub.

[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: ‘Fess up: If you’ve never raced, or never ‘done mountains, why not? Talk about it here. Perhaps you’ll find tips, advice, or just sheer inspiration to help you plan and accomplish a life-enriching event.[/icon_box]

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Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.

  • legestrom

    I’ve done Haleakala twice. Now THAT’S a mountain!

    • 10k feet in paradise… I’d like to climb that one. 🙂

  • There are no mountains in Ontario. The most you can climb is about 600 feet. I really want to take a trip to the Carolinas to do some real mountains in the spring but budget.

    • I used to live in Kansas. The only “climbing” to be had there was either up and over the nearby highway overpass, or — what we usually did for training — riding into a headwind. #budgetDitto

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