Matt Assenmacher always likes to quip, when people complain about getting left behind on the hills 2/3’s of the way through the Tuesday night group ride, that “there are no hills on the Lennon ride”.
I had absolutely no idea what the hell he was talking about, there are a few decent hills on that ride, until I rode Wayah and Junaluska roads in North Carolina, and then came back home and went out for an easy ride on Sunday with Mrs. BDJ and then a hard ride yesterday on my normal 16 mile route. There really aren’t any hills on the Lennon ride.
A very funny thing happened while I was away mountain climbing on vacation – the hills I used to complain about are nowhere near as difficult, as if 2,000 years of planetary evolution caused the hills in Michigan to shrink to mole hills in the week that I was down south. All I can say is it’s kind of funny how that works out. One minute you think you’re pretty much at your peak performance level – the next you run all up and down it.
I rode all but one of the hills on my ride yesterday in the big ring – previously unheard of. I was absolutely amazed at how much a difference a few days in the mountains made. Also, on a very sad note, I really miss the scenery when down there. It’s absolutely beautiful, open and green. A stark contrast to riding in my neighborhood where everything is homes and businesses, concrete and asphalt, parking lots and so forth…
Tonight I’ll be hitting my club ride so I’ll be able to test the theory out.
I am the physical fitness equivalent of a one percent’er. If I wanted to go out for a 100 mile ride tomorrow I could do it without worrying about whether or not I’d finish. If I decided I wanted to run a half marathon on Saturday, I could with no preparation other than eating right and hydrating the night before, putting on a pair of running shorts and lacing up my running shoes… and I’d be out for a recovery ride later that afternoon. This is not to brag, it’s just a simple statement of truth, and there’s a lot of space between me and the .5 percent’ers… This wasn’t always the case.
A very good friend of mine told me that he’d dusted off his bike and put in his first 3-1/2 mile ride in decades. He also let on that he was a little unsettled at his meager start.
Oh how I remember those days (they weren’t very long ago). My friend was under the mistaken impression that I’ve always been the paragon of fitness that he sees today, calling a 25 mile ride at 18 miles per hour a recovery ride, a stretching of the legs if you will. Oh how that isn’t the case. Even entering the sport as a runner my initial forray into cycling was very humble. Four miles at 15 mph was a tough workout when I started – and I needed a day off afterwards to recover. There were mitigating factors of course, my bike was too small by about four sizes, it was a Huffy, etc. but the biggest factor was the fact that I wasn’t in shape for cycling. It took every day of that year to get to a point where I could knock out a 90 mile ride and be good to go again the following day. It took months of going out for a ride when I could have just as easily stayed at home, content with the fact that I already put in more miles for that particular week than the average guy (by double).
It did take pain, and cycling through it. It did take discipline. It did take a little sacrifice… Until it didn’t.
That’s just the way of things. If I could pass on one thing – just ‘copy and paste’ the knowledge that I’ve gained, take it from my melon and drop it into someone else’s who is struggling with getting into shape, it would be that at first, it isn’t easy. It does hurt, and the discipline required does suck – but then you get to hit this magical place where it doesn’t anymore. If someone wants to go out for a hike through the mountains, you can be the one smiling and taking photos through the whole thing. You can be the one up front. You can be the one who’s looking for the tougher trail to get the better shot.
Because it won’t always hurt. The discipline, once we’ve grown accustomed to it, won’t suck – it will just be what it is, another awesome day making sure that it’s not a heart attack that takes us out, it’s the exhaustion at the end of a rich, fun life. That’s not a guarantee of course, but I’d rather go out knowing I did everything I could to enjoy every second I’ve got with my wife and kids rather than counting a bunch of damned calories and kicking the cat – or worse, wishing I’d have done it differently as they’re prepping me for a bypass, having to hear the doctor say that there’s a chance that I’ll die while they’re hacking away at me.
Not me folks.
Unfortunately, life is not always like a computer. There is no ‘copy and paste’. Either do it or don’t, just don’t bother with the excuses. I’ve used most of them. They don’t work, few people will listen and those who do won’t buy them anyway – even if they do nod in agreement.
So here’s the plan:
Ride a few miles, just as fast as your legs will take you. Take a day off. Rinse and repeat for two weeks. Add a mile or two. Rinse and repeat for two weeks. Start peeling out days off – go from 4 days off to 3, down to 2… Rinse and repeat every two weeks. Add more miles to your daily workout… You’ll be amazed before you’re half-way through. I promise, and if I’m a liar, I’ll let you have your misery back with a dozen mea culpas.
If you’re older, sickly or really out of shape, do check with your doctor first. Let me know if he or she tells you to live the rest of your days from the comfort of your Lazy-Boy. I won’t hold my breath.
In a post I wrote back in May about a personal dislike for the hybrid bicycle , or more aptly stated, a lack of understanding as to why someone would want one:
“But that’s the point, why get a skinny tire bike that makes you sit on it like a fat tire bike and rob you of efficiency?
I just can’t get there in my head. If any of you have an opinion on this, I’d love to hear it….”
“I have a hybrid bike, a Specialized Sirrus Elite, and it makes perfect sense really, I’ve never ridden a road bike and rarely do long distance rides, but I knew I never wanted a mountain bike for road riding so what did I do? I got the one I was most comfortable on and made the most sense, a hybrid. I didn’t need suspension, I didn’t need knobbly tires, but I also didn’t need the drop handlebars, super thin tires and ultra thin saddle.
I know I can’t beat a good road bike for out and out top speed, but downhill I have achieved a respectable 40mph mostly freewheeling. OK, on a good road bike with my engine downhill maybe I could do 5-10 mph more… But hey, all I know is my hybrid rarely lets me down…”
I learned a lot about climbing mountains on vacation, and now that I’m back and have had a minute (and a connection to the internet) to check how grade percentages are figured out, I know why I had such a hard time on our mountain road in Georgia on my first two attempts.
Endomondo shows that the rise, over 4 tenths of a mile was 420 feet. If I check my handy-dandy grade calculator, that’s a 20% grade average, and if I break that down even further, there are sections on that road greater than 25%. Suffice it to say, that’s a big freaking hill. The two climbs I did over in North Carolina were 8% over 3-1/2 miles and 12% over 1 mile respectively and they were no walk in the park – especially for a first-timer (and I don’t even know if I figured those correctly, they could have been worse) – but they were absolutely doable.
That said, climbing is a lot more challenging but it’s also a lot of fun – there’s a trick to it. I’m not talking about some sadistic “it’s all about loving the pain” thing either. There’s a happy balance to it. For my first attempt, I went entirely too fast. On my second, and after a short conversation with Matt back at the bike shop, I slowed it down quite a bit – a little too much on the really steep sections. In both instances I absolutely tried to bite off too much too soon. Once I got to more reasonable terrain and got into a rhythm, I had the time of my life. And that was just climbing, I haven’t even gotten to the descents yet.
The first thing I had to get over was my expectation to be fast. Every time I tried to speed a climb up, I’d blow up and wind up in first gear limping along (or walking). However, as it is with any other type of exercise, once I found my rhythm, my speed increased quickly. On the same 16 mile stretch, from Thursday to Friday, I knocked eight minutes off of my time on the climbs alone (I couldn’t descend any faster, believe me, I tried).
The second thing I had to get over was the fact that I was so new to climbing that I was bound to make a few mistakes – and I did. Fortunately the remedies for going too fast on a climb are pretty much the same as going too fast on the flats – you slow down until you can catch your breath.
The last thing I had to accept was that I just wasn’t strong enough to tackle the really big climbs right off the bat. It would take some time to work up to the bigger hills.
Once I got my brain in order with what my body could do, riding in the mountains far exceeded my expectations.
Now, for the descents… The fastest I’ve been in Michigan was 34 mph – downhill with a tailwind. There are a few “hills” around here, but with the best one we’ve got, you’ve gotta pedal like hell just to make 35 mph. I had three awesome descents on the 16 mile ride that I chose in North Carolina. They were awesome because they were fast, yes, but also because they were straight. No breaking for curves – in fact, I only used the brakes once going down a hill in four days of riding at Lake Nantahala… That’s the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it. I tried that new-fangled crouch position, where you sit on the top tube to get lower, too… It didn’t seem any faster than sitting on the saddle with my chin 1″ from my stem, but I really didn’t try it when I was going really fast either. I didn’t find it necessary to test the emergency response system of Lake Nantahala – even with the ambulance depot on my route.
I literally can’t wait to get back to the mountains to do it again. If you get a chance to load up a bike for a vacation in the mountains, give it a try. I absolutely loved it.
On just getting back from my first ever fit vacation I figured I’d give a wrap up and overview of how everything went… I started writing this on Wednesday morning to keep everything straight.
Unlike most vacations I’ve taken, in which fitness takes a back seat – or more correctly stated, rides on the roof rack or gets left at home altogether – I was active, in one way or another, every day.
We arrived in the mountains of Northern Georgia on Thursday morning. I went for two rides that day. The first ride was just to see what the ride down our mountain pass would be like and, more importantly, to see if I could climb back up. I don’t know how they figure grade percentage, so I’ll go by degrees… There was no rest on that 1-1/2 mile climb and it was all better than 25 degrees with the vast majority of it north of 33. There were three tough sections at or over 40 degrees and one of them stretched for more than ¼ mile – it was so tough that I literally wasn’t strong enough, even with my granny gear, to keep my legs turning to keep moving forward. I ended up walking both times. The second ride was down an awesome stretch of road that wound about the shoreline of Lake Burton – and there was plenty of good climbing there, but at a more reasonable grade for a flatlander…and for Mrs. BDJ. I didn’t have to get into my granny gear (which the misses doesn’t have on her bike) and it was a perfect stretch of 12 miles out and back with plenty of switchbacks and technical riding that we could do together.
After that first day, I loaded the bikes on the back of the van and drove down to a small parking area at the beginning of the road. I considered riding down with Mrs. BDJ, but she’s only been riding a road bike for about a month, so I presented her with the suggestion that we skip the descent from the house. The road was only 9’ wide (only enough for one car at a time) at the upper section by the house and 12’ wide on the bottom mile. At 30 to 45 degree drops, it was way too easy to lose concentration, especially for someone (like my wife) who likes to take in the surroundings while they’re riding. To give you an idea of the elevation difference between our normal ride and the descent from the top of the mountains, I can offer this from Endomondo:
Here’s a profile of Murray Cove, recorded on a ride with my wife (the gray is elevation on the graph below:
Here’s the profile of Murray Cove road plus the mountain road to the house we stayed in:
We rode that normal route together Friday and Saturday and then Sunday morning before packing and heading to North Carolina and Lake Nantahala. The riding in North Carolina was a lot easier, as far as turns went, but much harder in terms of climbing. Of course, because the climbing was tougher, the descents were awesome! The roads are pretty narrow around where we stayed – no shoulders, but the speed limit was a reasonable 35 and there were a few “Share the Road” signs and there were a few café’s that offered free water refills to cyclists – so it was quite obvious on the drive in that cycling is quite big in the area.On Monday, our first full day there, I went out for my first reconnoiter ride down to the Rustic Café where they had wi-fi so I could pick up my email. From there I headed down Junaluska road that leads into Andrews, NC, a quaint little mountain town. Being my first ride in the area, I took it pretty easy because the last thing I wanted to do was take a corner too hot and crash, winding up in the hospital – oh how funny foreshadowing is…
The first hill leading to Andrews was a big one – I hit 36 miles per hour, sitting up to break the wind. Also, I only went 15 miles because it was later in the afternoon and I wanted to get back so we could eat at a reasonable time. The climb back up was awesome to say the least, and I finally started to understand why Aaron likes climbing so much. It was sprinkling out just a bit, and I was quite thankful for that, as it was some seriously hot work getting up that mile long hill, and my little flatlander legs were really having a tough go of it. All in all, it was 1,355 feet of serious climbing – and oh how thankful I was for my much bemoaned triple crankset. With that first ride out of the way I was comfortable with going all out…
Monday night, after a full
evening night and most of the wee morning hours of cards (Spades) with my brother and sister-in-law, I got ready to retire while my wife and her sister went out to the second floor porch to check out the stars. They turned off all of the lights in the house for a better view and then called to me to check it out. With all of the lights out, I completely forgot that we had a stairwell just outside of our bedroom door – it was a long, quick trip down. I landed on my kidney first, then my left shoulder, then I slid down three stairs on my back before my legs caught up and went over top – I landed on my head last (I think), so hard that everything went white and then I was laid out face down on the carpet. I can remember, on the way down, several distinct thoughts rushing through my head: “Wow, this is going to hurt” was the first. Second was, “go loose” followed by, “roll with it, roll with it”. Finally was, “holy shit, I’m alive – and I can wiggle my fingers and toes… YES!!!”
The next bit was a bit emotional for me and it’s going to stay in the basement of that house between my family and I, just suffice it to say that I’ve got a stellar, wife, mother-in-law and brother and sister-in-law.
I hurt a little bit, but was surprisingly not in as much pain as I figured I should be…though I was not looking forward to the dreaded day after. I had my mother-in-law check me for concussion (then I did it myself) before crashing (forgive the pun). My wife still made sure to wake me up every time I moved or twitched to make sure I was ok – she is a good woman, even if it did get a little old after the sixth, “are you ok?!” I woke up on Tuesday with distinct red lines on my skin where I’d hit the stairs but was happily surprised that I really wasn’t in too much pain, with the exception of my lower back at my kidney… That had started to swell pretty good and developed a nice bruise to it. I performed the only test I know to make sure everything was functioning properly and went about my day – we hiked to a waterfall and the scenic lookout in Nantahala (a couple of few miles after it was all said and done) and I took the day off the bike.
On Wednesday, Mrs. BDJ decided she’d like to ride too (sweet), though this presented us with a problem. The hills around Lake Nantahala are not as plentiful as they were in Georgia, but they are a lot bigger and steeper. Unlike my triple, Mrs. BDJ’s Cannondale has a racing double (52/42) and a 13/23 7-speed cassette… Great for flatland riding – not so much for mountain climbing… We literally had a stretch of only about 2 miles that she could reasonably ride from the bottom of our mountain (gravel) road to the Rustic Café. We did an out and back twice for eight mile before I went back out on my own. I put in another 17 miles for a total of 25 and 2,600 feet of climbing – this time I didn’t stop until I got to the top of the mountain leading into Andrews. It wasn’t incredibly difficult, but it was long – 3-1/2 miles at an average of about 9 mph. I turned around at the Macon/Cherokee County line and headed back down – a perfect stretch of downhill… Long and straight, so there’s no worrying about overshooting a turn or coming around a corner at speed to find something in the middle of the road. I topped 40 mph on the way down, for the second time that day, and wore a semi-permanent grin for the next three or four miles, until the final climb up to the Rustic Café that had proved quite difficult for me on Monday. I was a little nervous about it after a decent ride – it’s a lot steeper, though shorter, than the climb towards Andrews. It was a push for sure, but I made it just fine so I stopped by the Café for a couple of small bottles of Coke (good God, did they taste good!) before heading home triumphant. That was the most fun I’d had on my bike on this trip – possibly since I started riding. I did the same thing on Thursday, and on Friday morning, I just did the out and back as we were renting a pontoon boat for the day and I had to get back.
Though I was busted up a bit, I didn’t let it bother me – technically I didn’t care, I wasn’t about to let a sore side wreck some of the most enjoyable riding I’ve ever experienced. I had more fun than a fella should be allowed to have with his clothes on. The people of North Carolina were absolutely amazing toward cyclists – most waiting behind for an opportune time to pass. I’ve never seen anything like it, and the Rustic Market staff at Wayah and Junaluska Roads were incredibly nice. I was under the impression that I had it pretty good in Michigan, but North Carolina is absolutely where it’s at as far as cycling friendly people go – they were remarkable. I didn’t really get in any long rides on vacation (24 and some change was the longest), but that’s not why I went in the first place – I was on a family vacation and managed to get a ride in on most days in the process vacationing with them… I also learned that I’ve got a long way to go to getting into mountain climbing shape – unfortunately there’s nothing within 250 miles that compares. We’ve already made plans to vacation at the house in northern Georgia again – Lake Burton was absolutely as good as it gets for mountain vacations, the riding isn’t quite as good (nor are the people as friendly), but when we vacation together I’m on vacation first, riding second… The coolest stretch of road I saw, and perhaps a target for a future cycling specific vacation was the Dragon’s Tail – Route 129 in Tennessee. Now that looked like fun (We headed back to 75 that way).
We’re on the way home after a gloriously long vacation. I started on a wrap up post on Wednesday and I’ll finish writing that tomorrow morning and post it before a nice Sunday morning ride with Mrs. BDJ.
In the meantime, I thought I’d take a moment to comment on how my ’99 Trek 5200T handled the mountains of Northern Georgia and North Carolina… And how I handled them – the air being quite a bit thinner half a mile up.
First, I’ll never (EVAH!!!) complain about having a triple crankset again – especially as an introductory means of getting a bike up a mountain. While my daily ride was only 12 miles in Georgia, I doubled that when we got to North Carolina. The hills in NC were fewer, but much longer (3-1/2 miles as opposed to 1/4 mile in GA) and therefore a lot tougher to climb. I absolutely needed the granny gear, though as the week went by my legs responded quickly and given a couple of more weeks in the mountains, I could definitely see myself not needing it except in the harshest of conditions. That said, I’m infinitely glad I’ve got it.
The old Trek handled the climbs excellently (though I can’t say the same for the Cannondale SR400 – the 52/42 double and largest cassette gear of 23T was too much and really limited the extent to which Mrs. BDJ could explore with me in NC). The Trek second generation carbon frame was plenty stiff enough to get the leg power to the crank. Where the bike, even with aluminum rims, really excelled though, was on the descents. Where it was stiff enough for the ride up, it was superb on the way down the mountain. With top speeds over 45 mph, I was amazed at how smooth the bike was. At our place in Georgia, the descents were sharp but staccato – I didn’t have enough space to get above 35 before hitting a switchback – not so on Wayah And Junaluska roads in North Carolina. I only felt uncomfortable with the speed once – the day after I put 2 and 2 together to realize that I was going fast enough to turn me into a poster boy for road rash cream and neck braces should I go down – on the plus side I was breaking the speed limit, so I didn’t have to worry about getting rear ended for at least six or seven miles of my daily ride. Also, the traffic on those two roads was very mild by the standards I’m used to.
In the end, I my affinity for my Trek was doubly reinforced on this vacation – I absolutely love that bike. The Cannondale, on the other hand, was a bit of a disappointment… Until we upgrade my wife’s bike I’m going to work out a cheat to switch her stock flatland cassette with a mountain bike cassette for our mountain trips… If they can do that for Wiggins’ bike, I should be able to do it for my wife.
We’ve moved on to Lake Nantahala in North Carolina and after several hiccups are finally settled, with one problem… No cell service and no Internet. Historically, I’ve only been on two other vacations in 15 years in which I didn’t have cell service… Our first two were first and second honeymoons. For my first i had a factory job so when I was off, I was gone and it didn’t matter. For my second, I worked for a large construction company and had a support staff behind me to take care of small issues that popped up. Those two were excellent. For my third, just a few years ago, I had left the shelter of a corporation and had no support staff to take care of issues – that vacation was more stressful than having to take care of things while on vacation – I got through it, but I was a nervous wreck and was actually relieved to leave. So it’s with that memory (and fear of a repeat) that I enter this week completely cut off, with the exception of a land line. I’ve got a couple of guys to take care of issues this time so I’m hoping for the best…
That said, the house we’re staying in this week is AWESOME and the cycling is going to be incredible – I scoped out a fantastic 28 mile out and back with plenty of reasonable climbs and excellent descents. I’m giddy with anticipation. There’s a diner about two miles from our log cabin that has a sign offering free water refills to cyclists (a good sign indeed – that will mean that the roads are well travelled by cyclists).
Actually, I just found one bar – it’s a quarter mile hike to the top of the mountain, I’ll get back when I can…
Not being someone who can take the fact that I couldn’t climb the mountain we’re vacationing on lightly, I went back out again for another try yesterday afternoon. This time, I rode along the main road that loops around Burton Lake after my descent. Unlike our mountain road, the drive has plenty of uphills and downhills, but they’re much more manageable… 10-15% grades with a 20 or two thrown in for good measure. I went out and back six miles each way before trying to tackle my mountain again – hey, maybe if I got the legs warmed up first, eh?
Uh, no. I was walking again… But there’s a reason behind it. Because I never paid attention to grades before and because I immediately think of myself as soft as a default position, I made a mistake in writing simply that a couple of sections were greater than 20%. They’re also greater than 30% and even 35%… I made it up the first one, but I just can’t get my legs to turn over so I can maintain forward progress. It’s just too steep.
The other 14 miles were awesome though, so the misses and I will be heading out some time this morning to have another go.
Here are a couple of photos of a switchback just below our house – I’ll get a couple of photos of the steep sections when we’re out later on.
Folks, I am a fit freakin’ individual, it’s a well established truth. I am, on the other hand, fit for a Flatlander. I just had my first mountain climbing experience. Oh my God it was hilarious. I suppose I’ve been watching too much of the Tour because I went way too fast.
Keep in mind, we’re talking about grades in excess of 20%, we’re staying on the steepest peak (by far) in Tiger, Georgia – and the only experience I have is on expressway overpasses, so that pretty much means I have no climbing experience whatsoever…
I started off down the mountain more nervous than a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs. I rode the brakes for the first half while I got comfortable. To say the road is narrow is an understatement. There’s barely enough room for two cars. As I grew more comfortable, I picked up the pace until I reached the bottom and turned around to climb back up. The goal was to climb the worst of it before I started venturing out…and our little mountain is by far the worst. We’ve got Mrs. BDJ’s road bike and that’s only got a double on it so I wanted to try the climb in my middle ring: 42t with a 12/25 cassette. Ain’t no way, and I knew it before I hit the first switchback. My heart was already racing when I dropped down into the granny ring. I pushed on from there and started on the serious climb at just shy of one mile in… And then it got tough. My legs were fine but my heart wouldn’t slow down, no matter how much I tried to slow down. I blew up shortly after that, cooked. I called Matt and explained what happened (because I had no clue) and he explained that I just went too fast.
I’ll be trying again this afternoon.