My Climb to the Clouds: Stubbornness, Pain, and Gatorade

I did the Charles River Wheelmen's Climb to the Clouds yesterday, and I never want to look at my bike again. I rode 105 miles in 8 1/2 hours, with a climb to the summit of Mt. Wachussett (elevation 2000') in the middle. Turns out that this is, if not the hardest, then the second hardest ride in New England, and I chose that for my first (and possibly last) century. I will attempt to recreate the feeling for you.

Arrival (7:45 AM) - I expected that there would be a good group of people, but I pictured maybe 50 riders getting together and taking off around 8:00. So I was completely unprepared for the sight of a parking lot full of cars, with over 250 riders getting their bikes ready, hobbling around in their bike shoes eating bananas, or riding in circles around the lot to warm up. And since bikers have the fashion sense of color-blind punk rockers, it looked like a flock of large tropical birds had landed. I was at once excited and intimidated, with a touch of envy over some of the fine machines I saw wheeling around. The bikes were nice, too.

I registered, was handed my cue sheet for the 105-mile ride, and got on my bike. The ride leader told everyone which markers to watch for on the road (nice of them to mark the entire route) and made a joke about all the pain and suffering the new people were about to experience. We laughed. It was 70 degrees and sunny, with low humidity. Oh, what a glorious day for a ride!

And now, my thoughts as the miles passed by.

Miles 1-20 - Riding in a large group of people is an incredible rush. I’ve never done this before and the sounds surround me and suck me in: wheels humming over the pavement, gears clicking, riders talking and relaying signals.

“Right turn!”
“Car back!”
“Car up!”
“Stopping!”
“Hole!”
“Hole!”
“This road is crap!”

One group, wearing yellow “Team Fred” jerseys, takes off in a paceline and leaves everyone else behind. They clearly have a different agenda than everyone else on this ride.

I feel like I could ride like this forever. How fast am I going? 18 mph! That’s great! We’ll be done by 2:00!

Miles 21-26 - First stop, at a convenience store. I buy some Gatorade to fill the one bottle I have emptied so far, then get back on the road. Nothing to eat yet, I’m not hungry. The pack is spreading out a little bit now, but I still find people to ride behind. I want to draft the entire way if I can.

I'm not hungry yet, but I have to keep eating and drinking. Hmm, which color Gatorade? I think I'll go with the purple this time. It will mix well with the yellow stuff already in there. Still some room? Might as well pour in this free Red Bull those girls gave me at the start. What a lovely shade of brown! That ought to set some of the other riders wondering.

Miles 26-38 - We hit our first real hills, and now I see the difference between the hammerers and the casual riders. The hammerers take off up the hill in high gears, standing up when they must to keep moving. The casual riders drop down to the lowest gear possible and just try to keep moving. The joking begins:

“Is this the mountain? That wasn’t so bad!”
“Wait until you see the real hills.”

Another 250 riders join us from Bolton, riding routes that vary between 35 and 60 miles. They are fresh, but they quickly blend into the rest of the pack, which is now spread out over several miles.

I climb better than that old guy, anyway, and this still feels pretty good! I’m leaving everyone behind on the downhills without even pedaling. There’s no way I’m hitting the brakes now, so maybe I’ll pick it up a little and see if I can catch the lead group…. OK, the lead group’s too fast and I lost the main pack. Well, a little time to myself isn’t so bad. Whew, I can feel the breeze for the first time today! Was it this windy before? Why did all those guys stop there? Oh, I see. Man, is this a hill or a cliff? I hope this is the beginning of the real climb.

Miles 38-43 - Second stop, at another convenience store. They’re ready for us, and nearly everyone stops. I grab a Propel vitamin water and some Sun Chips, then stand outside, refill my bottle, and eat about half the bag before moving on. I leave at the same time as “Phat Tuesday,” another team training for the Pan-Mass Challenge, and end up riding with Andrea after her teammates leave us in their dust. She tells me that the Climb is the biggest training ride for the PMC, since, compared to this, riding 192 miles in two days feels easy. I am not encouraged by this. We are now following signs to Mt. Wachussett State Park, past Wachussett Reservoir. The scenery is beautiful; the crosswind is not.

Is this the real climb yet? I can’t let Andrea get too far ahead of me. Is this the real climb yet? What does a 9% grade look like, anyway? Oh. That’s what it looks like. See you at the top, Andrea.

Miles 43-46: The Real Climb - We were warned at the beginning that the approach to the Mt. Wachussett includes a one-mile stretch at a 9% grade, but I thought nothing of it. I had climbed steep hills before, so this was just one more, right? Riiiiight. We turn onto the access road and suddenly the road stands on its head in front of me. I drop down to my lowest gear immediately: no stupid pride about “granny gears” here. I want to be able to keep moving my pedals.

Keep pedaling, and don’t think about how far you have to go. You’ll get there when you get there. How fast am I going? Don’t look! 4.5 mph? Aaargh! It doesn’t matter, as long as I don’t fall over. I could walk faster! Keep pedaling. Gravity is a harsh mistress. I will not stop moving or get off and walk this bike! I am going to ride to the top of this mountain even if I have to be carried off of it!

Halfway to the visitor center, there’s a lovely scenic lookout. A couple of riders are there, enjoying the view. On my way by, I ask, “Are we there yet?” Their response: “I think it’s a little further on.” Liars. It is a lot further on.

I stop at the visitor center for water and a trip to the bathroom, glad that I’m hydrated enough to pee. Eric would be so proud! You take what you can get on these rides, and any sign of normal bodily functions is positive. I eat a Power Bar then hop back on the bike to finish the ride to the top. Andrea slipped her chain halfway up the access road, but she catches up and leaves me behind again on the way to the top. The visitor center is about 3/4 of the way up the mountain, and the road dips and weaves all the way to the top. A couple on a tandem passes me several times as we work our way upward, with me passing them again on the downslopes. On the last one, I save them the trouble and pull aside before we start climbing again.

OK, this is hard, but I’m still going. My legs aren’t burning, which is good, I think. Of course, I can’t really feel them either. At least they’re still moving, so I’ll assume they’re still receiving signals from my brain. Is this it? There’s the parking lot! Ugh, why do they always make the last 30 yards the steepest? Do the cars stop on the road instead of in the lot? I mean, seriously, this is like a 45-degree angle!

Mile 46: The Summit - The view from the top of the mountain is nice, but not worth the trip. The best part is the sign that said, “Summit – 2000 feet.” That doesn’t qualify as a mountain on the West Coast, but then, you rarely start at sea level when you ride there, either. I’ll take it. I get my picture taken by the sign with my bike, though I’m not sure she deserves to be in the picture. I’m doing all the work.

Yes, my bike’s a “she,” and she’s a high-maintenance, cranky wench, always wanting me to spend money on her. Thank God my wife’s the exact opposite. I’m no dummy. Shh, they can hear you! Oh, sorry.

Now, for the trip back down the mountain. Brakes on, balls out.

Whee!!! Oof! Whee!!! Oof! Oof! Oof! Man, those frost heaves will shake your fillings loose! Whee!!!

Miles 46-59 - One rider lost it at the bottom of the road and there is a crowd gathered around him waiting for the ambulance. I stop for a moment to see if I can help. He is smiling and joking, so I guess it’s nothing worse than some skin left on the road. Andrea stops there to wait with the group, but I continue on after seeing that I have nothing to add to the 10-15 people already gathered there. I stop again at the visitor’s center for a couple of minutes to stretch, top off my water bottles, and finish the Sun Chips. Still not really hungry, but I know I need to eat something. On to the second half!

It is mostly downhill on the way back out of the park, so the next 10 miles go by quickly. I am on my own again, though I catch up with one guy on the downhills and ride with him for a little way. He isn’t very talkative.

The next stop is an official CRW water stop that apparently had food at one point, though now all it has is water. All I see are empty cookie and banana boxes and bags that once might have held bagels. Between getting 100 more riders than they anticipated and having to send the support truck out to three accidents, they ran out of food. I eat the other food bar I brought, fill up my water, and continue on.

I’m getting a little hungry. Wish someone had left some cookies behind. Oh good, more hills.

Miles 59-65 - The hills just keep coming, and I’m starting to get tired. The route goes all the way around Wachussett reservoir, and the wind whips across the open water to try to push you off your bike. I can’t enjoy the scenery because I just want to get back in the trees. I’m all alone now. Mr. Talkative dropped me as soon as we both left the water stop.

I’m not sure this is fun anymore. Do I have enough water? Look, more hills!

Miles 65-77: BONK!!! - At mile 65, I hit the wall and I want to go home. My legs suddenly seem to weigh 100 pounds each, with my bike adding another 100. My helmet feels like it’s too tight and my head is throbbing. I am in a deserted stretch of the ride, with no stores in sight. Even though I can always see other riders ahead of me, there’s no hope of catching them unless they all get flats. Then, maybe. I have finished one bottle of water and, even though I have another full one, I somehow become convinced that it’s almost empty, too, so I stop drinking. I’m not hungry anymore. In fact, I’m faintly nauseous.

At one point, after not seeing the marker arrows for several intersections, I decide I’ve missed a turn and stop to check the cue sheet. A couple of other riders stop, too, and even though it turns out we were going the right way, I am just glad for the excuse to stop for a few minutes.

Hey, hills!!! There’s a change of pace! Maybe I could just lie down on that lawn there. Think those people would mind? I’m getting thirsty, that’s not good. Hey, look, I have another bottle of water! I thought I was out. Downhill, thank God! Lord, let it keep going down-- Gaa! Another hill! I wish I could find somewhere to fill up: I’m almost out of water. Wait, no I’m not! Man, I’m thirsty. Why did I want to do this, again? I am not going to give up, no matter how much my butt hurts. Where are all the stores? I just want to lie down, but there’s no way I’m going to just collapse here on the side of the road. I am not going to let anyone see that!

Miles 77-85 - The last stop is another CRW water stop, this one with food. I eat 1 1/2 raisin bagels, drink a bottle of water, and lie down in the shade to rest for about 15-20 minutes. After my little catnap, I feel better, though it only lasts until the next hill. Only the desire to get this over with keeps me going.

I am going to kill the son-of-a-#@$% who designed this route! What did he do, take a topographical map and draw a line across every fold in the land? Come on, another hill? What, there were no flat roads in the entire county? Just keep pedaling and you’ll get there eventually. Don’t look at the speedometer. It doesn’t matter. 14 mph?!? Aaaaahhh!!! The only way I will even consider speeding up is if I find a group that’s going a little faster than I am, and I can draft. Hmm, no one in sight. Maybe if I sing it will take my mind off of things.

Songs from Chess, the musical, get me through exactly two miles before I give that up, too.

Miles 85-104 - In a direct answer to prayer, I catch up with a group that was going my speed. Actually, I catch up with their laggard, and the others are, fortunately, waiting for him. Nathan, Steve, and Eva pick up a couple of us along the next mile or so, and we form a ragged pace line. Without them, I don’t know when or if I would have finished. Eva, who leads much of the time, sets a wicked pace once she gets going: 21.5 mph consistently. We all churn like mad to keep up with her, and the miles start flying by. We drop several of the orphans we just picked up after a couple of miles; they just can’t keep up with Eva, who is, as far as I can tell, a machine disguised as a 5’ 2” woman. I fall behind on every hill, but they wait for me and gravity – for once -- is on my side on the downhills. I stay with them.

Thank God for this line! We are flying! I can’t feel my legs again, but I can live with that. Oh good, another hill. How can they not be as tired as I am? I will not be dropped, I will not be dropped, I’m going to be dropped. I wish they didn’t have to wait for me. It’s embarrassing. Better that than going it alone, though. What is that woman on? She’s inhuman! I can’t do this much longer. Is this ride really 105 miles, or 100? Oh, I hope it’s 100. Nope, we’re still not there. Keep pedaling.

Mile 105: The Last Mile - My trio of angels drop off one mile before the end to go back to their friend’s house, where they parked their car. I ride the last mile alone, just pushing one pedal down at a time. Finally, Concord Carlisle High School swings into view, along with my family, waiting for me in the parking lot. The van is decorated with signs and balloons, and my wife has the video camera out. I try not to puke on camera as I pull into the lot.

I made it! Have I ever been this sore or tired before in my life? What about during daily doubles, when they had us hitting each other all morning and running all afternoon, then ended with 240s around the goalposts and back? Nah, that wasn’t as bad as this. At least I got to hit people then.

The End (4:30 PM) - After I kiss my wife and kids and smile tiredly for the camera, I roll over to put my bike back on the car and drive home. The urge to hurl slowly subsides now that I have stopped moving, and someone tells me to keep eating so I don’t get sick. I don’t want to even look at food, but a quart of Gatorade would be a good start. The guy parked next to me is just packing up, too. He did the Ironman triathlon, and he says that ride was nothing compared to this. Then he says, “Congratulations, you’re a Century Man!”

Yeah, I guess I am.
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