Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Joys and Sorrows of Club Riding

Know how to do a 21 mph 100K?

Head out with the local club at 23 mph to the 31-mile turnaround, then claw on the back as long as you can when the pace ramps up on the way home. When you crawl home at 12 mph, whipped and exhausted, for the last 10 miles, you've got your big average in the bag.

I love riding with the North Raleigh Gyros, a congenial bunch of guys and gals that focus on two-wheeled camaraderie at 19-20 mph. That's about my limit. Much faster and the wheels are likely to come off two-thirds of the way through a 60-80 mile ride.

Because of other rides and other commitments, I've only ridden with the Gyros twice this summer. So I was looking forward to joining them this Saturday.

I checked the schedule online and saw the note from Tony, one of the Gyro leaders:

G-Men & Women,

We'll be riding "The 2008 Road Dog Rally" this Saturday. It will start from Pleasant Union Elementary at 8:30am and will do the Oxford route.

Distance was advertised at 63 miles, a 100K. And the speed? "Usually FAST going out and FASTER coming back."

Hmmm. This sounded a bit above my instrument rating. The Road Dogs are a club with a reputation for a high pace. Their slogan: "We only drop our friends," and apparently they make friends easily. But what the hey. I decided to stick it out for as long as I could, then drift off the back and do a leisurely pedal in from the "drop zone." I had one other advantage. The route was on the stick portion of my Lake Loop. I'd know every dip in the road, I'd know where the pace was likely to get amped up. And I'd know the way home when I inevitably lost contact with Planet Bike.

The ride started at 8:30 a.m. from one of the Gyros' typical locations, Pleasant Union School in North Raleigh. I put the bike in the car, made a latte, a nutella sandwich. I rolled into the parking lot a few minutes past 8. I didn't see any of my Gyro pals. Instead I saw some of the Simple Green riders, a local racing team. Then I saw David LeDuc in his work van. David is a legend in local and national racing circles. Uh oh. This was going to be a fast day.

Eventually, some of the Gyros showed. Among them: Ed, Bert, Mario, Tony, Derrick. I took comfort in familiar faces, and I took a good look. I wasn't sure how long I'd be seeing them. We clustered, swapped small talk. Riders from other clubs, elbows on handlebars, gathered in separate clumps in the parking lot. Like the Ramones said, we're a happy family....

Lo and behold, somebody actually shooed us out of the parking lot with an official LET'S GET GOING. And we were off. There must have been 50 of us. Lots of club jerseys, lots of banter, and lots of hard pedaling. The first 10 miles has a couple good uphill stretches. They didn't put much of a dent in the overall average of 21. Every time I looked down we were doing 24,25,26, with surges of 30,31. This was going to be tough.

I sat on the back. There was no need for me to do any pretending about a pull. Also, this big pack of mixed clubs made me nervous. I'd seen a crash just two weeks earlier on another Gyro-Road Dog combo ride. Too many riders who don't know each other, too many riders riding at or above their limits. In my experience that was a recipe for touched wheels -- a recipe that never comes out well.

Riding in the back may be safer, but it's a helluva work-out. You get the worst of the accordion effect, with the pace slowing to 22, 23, and immediately pogoing up to 27, 28 as the pack feels the chain at the top of hills and through intersections. The constant seesawing was working my lungs and my legs.

My bike computer showed 31 miles and a 22.8 pace when we hit the turnaround point, the Exxon in Oxford that serves as a Lake Loop control. I told one of the Simple Green riders I'd had a rough ride on the way here. He leveled with me: "That was the easy part. They're getting ready to crank things up."

The line inside the convenience snaked around to the very back, near the drink coolers. It would be at least 10 minutes before folks were ready for the return. And so I made the easy call: I'd get a head start and let the group pick me up. Hopefully, I'd be able to jump in and hang on for the wild trip home.

I wasn't alone in this decision. I'd seen two or three riders head back down the course, and I eventually caught up with one, a rider from Cary named Michael. He was good company. We rode together for about 10 miles, swapping our cycling histories. He was a former racer who had been out of the sport for years and was getting his legs back again -- at least as much as family and work allowed. Like me, he was going to grab a wheel as the peloton came by. He said we'd probably be fine if we made it up the big hill at the Tar River crossing before the catch. He too was worried about the twitchiness of the pack, and he said crashes were more likely as red line riding began to affect peripheral vision and reaction time.

Michael and I got swept up about two-thirds of the way up the Tar River hill. The pack came out of nowhere. One second my mirror was clear, the next it was wall of cyclists pushing a wall of wind. We latched on. The chatter was gone. Riders were now leaning into their handlebars and furiously working the pedals to stay in contact. Any gap now and all hope of reconnecting would be gone.

I stayed on for the next 10 miles or so, but the accelerations had taken their toll, and it only took a very small rise to spit me out the back. I saw another rider come off as the pack crested the rise and got serious with a stretch of straight flat pavement.

I'd hung on for 50 miles and my average was still over 22. I was content. I could come in easy now, 18-19, with lots of downhill.

The route features a 3-mile downhill run to Falls Lake. I imagined the group descending at 35 or 40. They'd be 3 or 4 miles ahead of me by that point, maybe even dumping the water bottles and loading bikes into their cars at the finish.

As I neared the bottom of the Falls Lake Hill an approaching car blinked its beams several times. And I knew what that meant. Around the next corner, there it was. The crash. A rider was down in the far lane. Traffic was stopped and a rescue vehicle was already on hand from the fire station at the top of the hill. A dozen riders and a few motorists were gathered around.

I'm not sure who the cyclist was. He did not look good and appeared to have hit heavily on the left side of his face. He was awake and talking. He knew his name and he knew where he was. One of my Gyro buddies said he'd been knocked out for a minute or more. An ambulance pulled up. Three or four of us left together, did a sober pace line up the next hill. The ambulance caught us and roared through the red light where New Light crosses Highway 98.

I saw Mario in the parking lot at the end. "That could have been any one of us," he said. We could only hope things turned out well for our fellow rider. I finished off my water bottle, loaded the bike and headed home.

Sunday Update: the downed rider was a Gyro, Don, who posted that he's fine, although his injuries required 40 stitches.


bullcitybiker said...

Geez- "slowing down to 22 or 23.." I give you props.

Glad to hear the downed rider will be okay.


Anonymous said...

Hey Bro'

Glad he is OK.
Was in a charity ride this weekend and was thinking the same thing.
Too many people riding above their ability is a scarey thing.
You are a lot more eloquent.

Rico Boy