When my local cycling friend Roy and I set out from Milford, N.J. on the PA Blue Mountain 200k yesterday morning at 7 a.m., I had a lot of hopes and a lot of questions. I hoped that riding only 324 miles in three months in 2012 would not cause my legs to desert me over 125 miles in one day. I hoped that having ridden no more than 53 miles in a single day since early October would not leave me unable to handle the inevitable pain the first long ride of the season brings. Most of all, I questioned my own commitment to the sport of randonneuring. Was this really worth suffering for?
For the first 55 miles or so, through the first two controles, I was smart enough not to push the pace. My threshold power is 250 watts. To avoid blowing up, I scrupulously stayed below it, even on steep grades like the one near Phillipsburg in the early stages of the ride. But the climb of Blue Mountain at mile 57, and resulting pain, convinced me to pick up the pace to get the climb over with. I averaged 265 watts for the last five minutes of that climb, the hardest I pushed myself all day.
Once that climb was over, the pain in my legs really intensified and I mentally was ready for the ride to be over. But I had more than 70 miles left. Luckily, Roy stayed with me the whole ride and I drafted off of him a good bit, which helped a lot. But even Roy couldn’t bring me back all on his own. I would have to drag myself back to the starting point on my own steam, in my own pain.
Then a small miracle happened, somewhere around mile 70 or so. Somehow, I managed to reach a sort of equilibrium that long-distance riding can sometimes produce. You’re in pain, your legs are stiff and you are far from your strongest, but you keep going, controle to controle, mile to mile. You keep the cranks turning, as organizer Tom R. likes to say.
The last time I rode anything longer than a metric was last August 13, probably my strongest day of 2011 on a bike. I finished a ride of about the same difficulty, the PA Water Gap 200k, in 8:45, one of my fastest times, at a power average of 161 watts, third best ever for me on a 200k. If I had not done that ride, if I had never done a 200k, or if I didn’t know the hills in this area, I’m not sure I would have finished yesterday.
But memory can aid an out of shape rider. I had no real endurance built up and I found myself in constant pain for the last half, but somehow I knew how to keep going. I wasn’t sure I’d find that place, but I did. Roy and I rolled in to the finish with a time of 9 hours and 55 minutes, which was a remarkable accomplishment for me. It was only, in fact, about an hour and 1o minutes later than that strong August ride.
The power numbers were nothing compared to that ride, course. One loses a lot in seven months. I averaged 125 watts this time, a dropoff of more than 15 percent. But my split wasn’t so bad. I averaged 132 watts for the first half and 119 for the second. Yes, my last climb of Staats Road at mile 117 was a masterpiece of positive thinking and fear of embarrassment. I won’t get off and walk, I said. I won’t get off and walk. I had ridden that climb many times and I don’t remember ever walking it before. I didn’t walk it yesterday, either.
As I sometimes do on such climbs, I refused to look too far down the road, for fear of being demoralized by the grade and the distance. Somehow, I struggled to the top. Even if I had to get off, which I have done on other rides on other days, it would not have spoiled this day. My body feels the familiar fatigue today. But I can feel it getting stronger. I even felt it getting stronger during the ride, in the middle of the pain, if you can believe it. Most importantly, in my head, I answered the biggest question: I still want to finish these rides. And that means I’ll probably be back for more.