On Thursday evening, I agreed to captain a tandem that I had never ridden on a 120 mile race course with 13,000 feet of climbing on mostly dirt roads. Of all of the crazy things that Pamela Blalock has ever suggested that I do (and there have been many), this was by far the craziest. Although I’d certainly captained a tandem before, and ridden dirt roads before, I’d never done both at the same time, and never with Pamela as my stoker. Nonetheless, team Epic Avengers was desperate for one more captain after some last minute cancellations, and I love a challenge.
On Friday afternoon, I headed over to Pamela’s for a quick test ride before departure. For better or worse, but mostly better, we couldn’t get the cockpit of Ride Studio Café’s ultra-light titanium Seven Cycles tandem to be small enough to fit me, so we ended up riding on John and Pamela’s Comotion Mocha, which is a much heavier machine but has the advantage of an extraordinarily low gear, which featured prominently in our experience of the race itself. We took the bike around the block twice and didn’t die, which we took that as evidence that all would be well on race day. Using the strength of three people we hoisted the bike onto the roof of Pamela’s car, and headed to New Hampshire.
On race-day morning at 5:30, the full complement of Epic Avengers assembled for the first time, for breakfast at a local diner. I had my stand-by cycling breakfast of eggs, toast, homefries, and hot sauce with plenty of salt. I had a feeling I would need every calorie and every gram of sodium, and I was not wrong. After fooling around with the bikes in the parking lot at the start and doing some last minute test riding, we rolled off the race start and through some paved roads towards the first dirt section.
It became clear immediately that Pamela and I were going to have to give it absolutely everything we had not to be completely left in the dust by our stronger teammates. We frequently experienced the optical illusion of Todd, Patria, John, and Rebecca getting smaller when the road turned up-hill. This illusion was enhanced by the fact that we were having some issues with chain suck, and had to stop a couple of times to sort out our drive train before moving on. We were working far too hard to talk, which was fine since Pamela and I ran out of things to talk about on bike rides about five years ago.
From the day I met him, I have been in awe of John Bayley’s cycling skills, but never more so than on this race course. Staying in control of a huge, heavy bike that has a tendency to shoot like a missile down hills, and is remarkably slow to respond to subtle obstacle-avoidance maneuvers, is incredibly hard. Add to that the fact that you have a helpless passenger whose safety you really care about clinging on for dear life behind you, and you find yourself in a state of constant hyper-vigilance, trying to see around every bend and to interpret every subtle change in color of the road surface for clues about what is going to happen next. John does this with such grace, skill, good humor, and seeming effortlessness, and at such an incredible rate of speed, it really boggles the mind. Todd appears to be cut from the same last. In other words, I was a hack in the company of professionals. Luckily, Pamela is an expert stoker—strong, smooth, patient, trusting, and calm—and that saved us on multiple occasions.
My nearest miss of the ride came relatively early on, when I carried a little too much speed into a left-hand bend at the bottom of a hill, and hit a patch of sandy gravel that was looser than it looked. I felt the rear wheel start to skid away, which is really not the best feeling in the world. Somehow, I managed to hold onto it, straighten out of the turn and bring the bike to a gentle stop in the upright position on some grass beyond the edge of the road. Pamela must have hit the emergency eject button because I swear she was off the bike before we’d even come to a complete stop. A fellow cyclist who was standing nearby yelled out, “Nice save!” Pamela and I breathed a sigh of relief, pointed the tandem back in the desired direction of travel, and headed on.
Those of you who have ridden with me know that I am generally a conservative cyclist, and like to take it slow out of the start to save energy for whatever might lie ahead. On this ride, I was burning matches from mile one. That combined with the rising temperatures and the difficulty of drinking enough water while captaining on rough roads (I wasn’t about to take my hands off the bars!) had me over-heating and a bit dehydrated pretty early on. The first rest stop at mile 33 didn’t provide much relief since they had sold out of chilled water before our arrival and in any case we only hung around for about 30 seconds, or so it seemed. From there the climbing seemed absolutely relentless and I was fantasizing about cold Sprite and smoothies constantly.
All the heat and climbing came to a head for me on a huge paved climb out in the sun around the midpoint of the ride. As we came to the crest of the climb, a little tent appeared, full of nice people from Strava with coolers of ice-cold orange soda. Having downed two cans in about 3 minutes, I felt quite a bit better. Since the clouds were gathering, we hopped back on the bikes quickly and made for lower ground. I should point out that “lower ground” was a relative and transitory concept in this ride, since we never actually stayed at any one elevation for longer than a moment or two anywhere on the course.
The skies opened up and unleashed with one of the most severe thunderstorms I’ve ever ridden through. Intense rain,
hail, wind, and lightening were all around us. The road turned into a rocky stream bed, just in time for one of the biggest descents of the ride. I hung onto the brakes and tried to keep us out of the biggest puddles and on the road, not always the easiest combination of goals. Somehow, miraculously, we made it to the bottom where there was a store and about 40 other wet, insane people on bicycles. Pamela and I got of the bike and both spontaneously shouted “We lived!” Moments later I was sipping hot chocolate and trying to remember why it was that I had been craving cold soda earlier in the day. I was so thrilled not to be hot anymore that I didn’t mind being wet. Unlike the rest of the Epic Avengers, I have what we refer to politely as “enhanced thermal mass,” so I wasn’t cold and shivering. In fact, I felt better than I had all day, except for an overall sense of unease about doing more dirt descents in that weather. Everyone else put on Rapha rain vests (ie, trash bag ponchos) and we moved on.
This whole portion of the ride was such blur of wetness, dirt, hills, rocks, and mechanicals that it’s hard for me to keep straight in my mind the order in which things happened. There was one section that was so muddy and rocky that, after sort of falling into a ditch that was where the middle of the road should have been, we decided to walk until conditions improved. I burned through so much of our front brake pads on the subsequent descents that we had to stop and have John help us tighten up the front brake. Then only minutes later I hit a hole that was much bigger than it looked, and the rear brake lever locked up completely. When we caught up with John he figured out that, since I had been riding with my hands on the brake hoods, the force of the impact had actually forced the entire brake lever assembly down the bars by over a centimeter, thereby jamming it. We got that adjusted and then headed on, searching for Todd and Patria who were somewhere far ahead of us, probably writing a novel or performing ancient weather-related ceremonies.
Finally, as we came up to a left turn, the race organizer popped out of a car and told us that he was closing the course and sending all the riders back to the start along a direct, paved route. Todd and Patria emerged from the garage of the house they had built while waiting for us, and we all made our way over to a gas station to fuel up for the final push for home. Riding up to the gas station, the bike started making yet another noise, a sort of soothing metal-on-metal screech. John, who was by then heartily sick of looking at our brakes, diagnosed the problem as a complete lack of any sort of brake pad material on the front disc brake. Fortunately, the brake-shoe-on-rotor combination proved sufficient for all our remaining stopping needs, since somehow we’d neglected to pack spare pads.
Just in time for the paved, relatively flat ride back to the start, the rain lifted off and it was like the whole nightmare in the woods never happened. I remembered that riding a tandem could be fast, fun, and easy—a set of concepts that I’d forgotten about entirely during the previous hours. Todd had some choice words for the state of Vermont as we sailed across a bridge and back into New Hampshire. We rolled back into the starting area at 100.7 miles and about 10,000 feet climbed/descended. We were indescribably filthy, relieved, exhausted, and happy. And that, in summary, was how I captained my first century.