Just Keep Pedaling

This report was written by Patria Lanfranchi, aka The Cafe Stoker 

It wasn't that long ago that I was freaked out by riding on dirt. Saturday, I was bombing down dirt roads at 45+ mph with my eyes closed.

What happened to the good ol' days of riding for hours upon hours on smooth pavement? It's been months in the making, as I've been very fortunate to have been introduced to great off-road trails not far from home and not too technical in nature. Being in the woods, lit by a headlight and surrounded by plants, trees and grasses growing over the trail wildly, is indescribably cool. Saving it for a blog another day.

The Rapha Gentlemen's Race this year was Epic with a capital E. It was all things packed into one innocent-enough looking day. I know Pamela will be blogging the full story and she'll do the story justice. I want to see what she had to say as the race was different for everyone out there.

I got invited on a tandem team, the Epic Avengers: this is a team of 6 people, with three tandems among us. I had a total of one day of prep time and considering my work schedule, that meant I didn't even have time to get to the grocery store to buy food for the race. Somehow a single load of laundry got done, but that was it.

For the first time in years, I wished I'd been training all winter & felt a bit of regret at that. I don't love being this out of shape and away from the race scene (it's by choice), but when I got an email telling me I could do this race, I almost leaped out of my bike shoes (I was on a casual bike ride at the time). 

The course was 60% dirt roads for 120 miles (for those who finished). I hadn't met the pilot or tandem I'd be riding with until the night before the race. Piloting a tandem is no small job and for a course like this, experience is key.

Trust is as well. Trusting the guy who's picking the line and handling the brakes is just about the most important thing. Second most: pedal. The stoker has to help the bike go and let the pilot do his job. I promised the pilot, Todd, that I would do just that. I was told that Todd was an experienced pilot, he came with an impressive resume, but is nicknamed The Jokester. So at what point does he take things seriously? I'd have to find out.

Pamela & John, tandem partners in life (though they rode different tandems for the sake of the team this weekend) are rider extraordinaires in countless ways. I know them pretty well as we've spent hours chatting at the Ride Studio Cafe, first having met at Mt. Washington for the hillclimb last August (I was there to man the Ciclismo Classico tent but definitely not to race.) We've been able to ride some together, but nothing like what we did Saturday. Pamela has logged 9,000 miles for the year so far and takes 2 days off the bike each month or something like that. John rides like he was born on a bike. He was part of the men's winning Green Mountain Double Century team last weekend.

Dena, a friend of Pamela's and co-winner w/Pamela of the Green Mountain double century last weekend (yes, just last weekend), knows no distance barriers. She's an engine, a terrific pilot and fun to suffer with...actually, she doesn't suffer while the rest of us do. Superhuman.

Then there's Rebecca who is a relatively new cyclist compared with everyone else and was so eager to be there. I was wondering if she could comprehend the distance or dirt as I didn't know what her background were with either. She hadn't ridden a tandem until the afternoon before this race. It was impressive watching her on the back of the tandem as she and John flew down hills during the day. On command, she stood smoothly, as if she'd been a stoker her whole life. She looked fresh and happy all day long. What's even more shocking is that she was both of those things right through to the finish.

Not knowing all that much about this race as I'm new to the area and to the world of long-distance racing & this particular race, I had to get schooled on it quickly. According to Rapha: 
The point of Rapha’s Gentlemen's Races is to inspire a different type of racing. Being unmarshalled, unsupported and unsanctioned, there's no better way to find out if you're a true team, pulling together through the difficulties and attrition to get each other to the finish, or just six individuals racing the clock.
The day started off cool, an absolutely perfect temperature with clear skies in a gorgeous part of the country (2 hrs by car north of here on the NH/VT border). We were thrilled that it didn't look like overheating would be an issue. Nor would rain. Hahahahahaha. We stayed hydrated and none of us got too hot, except for Dena who was happy when the temps dropped much lower later in the day at which time she was smiling and told us of her overheating earlier. We were shaking from the cold. I'm jumping ahead.

We started on smooth pavement at 8:09am. Breakfast was at 5:30 and I'm happy to report I was wide awake and ready to go early. Adrenaline is powerful, though I felt most of my pre-race jitters the day before. No coffee for me until a minute before the start when the Rapha espresso machine was serving up very tasty shots. 

The whole ride up until mile 60 or so was fun, beautiful, the dirt sections were great and time flew by with the miles. Todd and I had a couple of early mechanical problems with the chain jumping into the spokes. We got that fixed on a nice uphill section. An extra section we threw in as we'd gone off course, taking us down a screaming descent just to learn that we had to return up that hill. Teammates Dena and Pamela had some mechanicals on their bike, at a point where we were all at separate parts of the road. Fortunately, the ladies are quite the mechanics and were able to get going again to roll into the "lunch" stop. Other than that, we didn't have a flat all day. The new Seven titanium tandem steed that John & Pamela just bought for their anniversary worked flawlessly all day long.

Climbing was fun on the tandem. Much more so than when I'm climbing alone. I think much of that had to do with my knowing that I'd get up the hill because if I couldn't do it, someone else would be able to provide the power. The riding itself never made me nervous since I knew I had someone to work with. I don't like being in on scary rides by myself. Anytime I've ever shared a stupid riding experience with someone, I feel much more at ease & fortunately, that doesn't happen often. (Sentence inserted for benefit of family members.)

Around mile 65, the weather changed. Dark clouds hovered overhead and we were climbing. It started raining. Rain isn't a big deal, though I was wondering if it'd cause mud and what that would do to the slipperiness of the roads. I'd love to say I can remember every mile of the whole ride, but I don't. Thunder and lightning freak me out like nothing else. I descended like a mad woman down Mt Evans after seeing a single bolt of lightning setting a personal best descending time...aborting the whole ride w/o a second thought. So I am not afraid to bail when safety is at stake.

To shorten the story, we were poured on and pictures weren't possible. We crested the hill as the storm reached us at the same time. The descent was very fast, wet roads didn't seem to slow us down. Later I found out how much breaking hurt Todd's hands and how miserable he was up front (not that he said it in those words as he was still in what appeared to be a good mood. I got quiet, Todd wasn't freaked out like I was as we were under trees. He said that as long as we weren't in a clearing, he wouldn't be worried. Moments later we arrived in a tree-less part of the road. Didn't take much to pedal faster than we had all day long at that point. Luckily, it didn't last long, but the rain did. Temps dropped and he was shaking badly. The stoker is protected from the elements so much more than the pilot. Finally, we arrived at a general store where they served hot chocolate. Dena treated all of us. She was the only one who really didn't need the hot chocolate as she was smiling and happy at the coolness that the rest of us would classify as cold.

Plastic garbage bags were supplied by Pamela, she made each of us a jacket. Warm, comfy, happier. At one point, John started laughing and couldn't stop, the rest of us followed suit. It was funny, but who knew why. Maybe because we looked funny! The normal people in street clothes at the store were great. I'd love to know what they thought about the freezing, wet, silly cyclists.

The rain subsided and stopped, it looked like we'd gotten out of the storm. Still milling about at the store and recuperating, we didn't treat any of the last rest stops like race ones. The first ones we'd tried to make good time in getting in & getting out. Being fast was futile toward the end. Then the thunder started up again, my heart sank when I heard it roll up. It had caught us. We got going and the rain came down again, it was significantly harder for me to keep going at that point. Again, rain isn't a problem, it's the lightning that I don't like.

Mile 85 was soon after the hot chocolate stop. Muddy, rocky, rooty, the most technically challenging off-road portion of the course was here & we'd awaited this point all day. Thanks to the garbage bag on Todd, I couldn't see anything. I just kept pedaling on cue and he got us through. There were a couple of spots where the tandem was stopped by the mud or other obstructions. I put a foot down and sank into the mud. I hadn't realized before that that we were even riding in mud. Keeping the stoker clueless is a key to success.

On we rode until the course took a turn into the heart of the storm. At that point, we stopped and took shelter under someone's garage & waited for our teammates to show up. The race director gave us an alternate route so we could avoid the storm and ride to the finish cutting some miles out. Finally, we were all back together again and we rolled to the finish easily. The sky cleared as if nothing had ever transpired in those wild, remote hills of Vermont. Upon crossing the border back into NH, Todd let Vermont know what he thought about it. We all needed him to say the things he did to shake off what we'd just been through. We were bold enough to take off the bags and relax. Pedaling on... suddenly we had 1 mile left to go (I thought we still had 10+ remaining). What a pleasant surprise!

We pulled into the parking lot 10 hours after we'd started the Epic Avenging and we were smiling almost as much as we had at the beginning of the day. It was fun. I would do it again. I hope to do it again.

According to Todd, I was "well behaved." But he assured me that since I had taken on that course and the challenge, that I wasn't one of the well-behaved women who doesn't make history.

And what did I learn about Todd? That he doesn't take anything where it comes to riding seriously except an open field with lightning overhead and the sharp turns at the bottom of steep descents. Oh, and pre-race nutrition. He was quite concerning about eating popcorn and drinking beer the night before the race. Maybe he knows something the rest of us (me) don't. He knows how to handle a bike (with my weight on it), pedal (again, with my weight on it) and keep a good disposition even when he's shivering enough and has cold enough hands that most people wouldn't be able to keep a bike going straight and fast.

There's one for history: the Rapha Gentlemen's Race 2012 is in the books. The Epic Avengers didn't officially finish, but we officially lived and had a great time on the road together. I got back in the saddle to do the hardest ride of my life after not much riding at all for the past year.

Huge thanks to all of my teammates who worked so hard for each other throughout the long day. Thank you to everyone who brought bikes & equipment (which will never be the same again after all of that mud & grit), those (Pamela!) who organized us all at the very last minute and who had faith that we could accomplish this race together though odds said there was no way we could pull it off at the last minute.

1 comment:

  1. Very impressive that you had the confidence and pluck and ability to accept this invitation on no notice or preparation and acquit yourself so well! Thank you for sharing your experience here. Jim Duncan