Tuesday, March 29, 2011

It Felt Like Cheating

Pacific Coast Highway Randonneurs 300k, Jan. 29, 2011 and
Santa Cruz Randonneurs 300k, Feb. 5, 2011

It has happened before that my blogging was accused of a big backlog. No time and no point trying to excuse it ...

As my two 200k brevets in January demonstrated all too clearly, I was much less in shape than a year ago at the same time. Consequently, I went into my first 300k of 2011 with a very subdued optimism, although a joyful anticipation. I knew the route well from the previous years; I like riding there, and I was looking forward to seeing many good randonneuring friends from Southern California again.

It was quite chilly in the morning, but if anything, I was overdressed and well equipped. Given my lack of form and the awareness of it, I didn't hesitate to suck wheels in order to save my legs and to save some time. The Jack and Kathy T. tandem was a particularly welcome "victim:" we've known each other for several years of randonneuring by now, and even though they have become stronger and faster since last year, I could still hold their wheel while my legs were fresh. After a longer downhill where I had to keep more distance for safety and where I was spinning out my biggest gear, they were gone, however. I still found several other riders on the way out to the coast who gracefully pulled me along again much faster than I could have gone alone, until I had to let them go as well.

After about two hours I checked my average speed and estimated with big satisfaction the time I had gained by taking advantage of the slipstream of stronger riders. That's when it hit me: "This feels like cheating!" I needed to think more about what that meant to me. 

As anybody with little more than a minimum of bicycling experience knows, drafting other riders ("sucking wheels") makes a huge difference in the power required to maintain a given speed. That's why a group of bicyclists riding together often form a pace line, taking turns in front into the wind and recovering behind the other riders until their turn comes up again. The problem in my case is that I am not strong enough to share the workload in front (if I tried, I would be too slow for the common good), but I can manage to hang in there in the back of stronger riders, at least as long as there are no major uphills. It's not something to brag about, but I believe I am pretty good at instinctively detecting the best spot behind another rider and constantly adjusting my pedal power optimally to safely stay in that spot without any unnecessary expense of energy (probably a left-over from a couple of years of racing in my youth).

So why is that a problem? - It's twofold: For one, there is a justified disdain of "wheel suckers"  in bicycling and I don't like the idea of being disdained. And then, there is my own internal conflict when I try to finish a brevet in a (relatively) good time while having to admit that I don't deserve it because I took too much advantage of the slipstream of others.

In my defense, I am not alone in this predicament; most other bicyclists (including randonneurs) just don't think so much about it (although there was a nearly virulent thread about the subject on randon.googlegroups.com over the last weeks). And after a couple of hours (earlier in hilly terrain), I am mostly riding alone anyway, and my sad sore legs infuse me with feelings of deserved penitence and consequential redemption and allow me to get back to the basics of my enjoyment of long-distance bike riding.

That's how it was again this time. I enjoyed the Montecito climb into the hills above Santa Barbara - alone and slow. The better I know a route, the easier it appears, even when I don't get faster on it. So, although the busy stretch down the coast through Ventura towards Malibu felt shorter than in the past, it made me give up on my optimistic finishing time prediction. I felt that my endurance had come back, and that was more important to me than being speedy.

Lunch break in Santa Barbara

I still kept my stops fairly short; that's something I want to practice in order to prepare myself for more ambitious goals this summer. As a consequence, I was not too far behind some small groups of stronger riders who had spent more time at controls. At some point, about 25 miles from the finish, such a group had stopped collectively on the roadside to work on fixing a stubborn defect and I passed them. When they came back and passed me, soon afterwards, they recognized me and invited me to join them. - Now that was different - thank you, guys and gals (Tom, Kerin, Renée, Julie, ...)! They knew I would not be able to contribute and would only take advantage of the "senior discount" they accorded to me; yet they made me feel welcome and part of the team. While we were gliding along through the agricultural flats around Camarillo, they casually chatting, me hanging on by the skin of the teeth, I tried to think of ways of paying them back, to feel less guilty.

Much to my surprise, I succeeded in staying with them even on the lengthy uphill on Santa Rosa Road, and we finished together in the backyard of the RBA residence. The ever so overflowing hospitality of Greg and Lisa made me forget the feelings of "nearly cheating" earlier in the day and I enjoyed a guilt-free beer to celebrate my endurance comeback.

Checking in at the finish

Custom-made BBQ burger

Watching the PBP 2007 DVD in the backyard ...

... with friends!


One week later, I had another opportunity to take advantage of my wheel-sucking skills, at the Santa Cruz Buena Vista 300. Again, the route had no secrets for me, and I only had to find out again how fast and how far I could go before completing the rest of the brevet on my own terms.

Turn-around control in Half Moon Bay

Because of some climbs along Hwy 1 and because of the need to stop and remove layers when the morning chill got defeated by the rising sun, the "riding on my own terms" started well before the first turn-around point in Half Moon Bay; although I still gratefully took Phil's wheel when he passed me several miles before the control, in order to get there several minutes earlier than I would have riding alone into the wind. But the tailwind on the return trip and the tired legs encouraged me to let everybody else pass without accepting their invitation to join them; I said (as so often) that I was now on my "recovery ride."

Pigeon Point Lighthouse

I allowed myself a Subway lunch stop in the Soquel/Capitola area (which I still kept relatively short, repressing my urges to socialize with Willy and Sol in the process), before setting out alone into the second half of the ride, a southern out-and-back via Marina to Buena Vista. Because of my overall shorter and less frequent stops, many small groups of stronger riders passed me more than once. Sometimes, as with Jack H.'s group (which included Mark, Robin and Mireya), I did try to stay with them, but they were still too fast. At some point, Jack stopped to assist a rider who had made a mistake with some extremely sticky nutritional substance and needed a major clean-up. When he passed me again while pursuing his companions, he stayed a little while with me and started a conversation about his plans to create a club for those who want to ride PBP at the age of 80 or more. He felt that I was a good candidate. But I was in a mood of modesty and played the card of my reality checks. Completely unfazed, Jack scolded me that I should be happy to be riding the way I was riding - and I fully agreed. He then motioned me to his rear wheel and started accelerating into the wind. With everything he had just said, I had no choice but to follow him as long as my legs and lungs could carry me. After a couple of miles, I wished him a good continuation of his ride. He seemed to be satisfied with my effort and let me continue at my own pace, alone, while chasing his companions even more furiously. On my side, still out of breath and with trembling legs, I couldn't help but distort my face into a happy grin.

The rest of the ride was the usual exercise of detecting and following the fine line between riding too hard and riding not hard enough for the distance. I still got passed repeatedly by other riders who had stopped more often or longer, and I still was unable to stay with them beyond the next uphill. But in that darkness with some occasional sketchy road conditions, I preferred riding alone anyway; and this reinforced my "felt like cheating" innuendo and reassured me about my ability to complete the long distances alone if necessary.

Back to the finish!

(I borrowed the last two photos with permission from Roland B.)