This was my fourth year riding in the 100-mile Best Buddies Hyannisport Challenge. To fully appreciate the experience, you need to read about the previous rides:
Or, if you don't have that kind of time, feel free to jump right in with this year's ride report:
Believe it or not, after four years anything can start to feel normal, even riding 100 miles in a day. By now, the rituals are familiar:
- Pack the gear the night before, remembering to grab a few energy gel packets for later in the ride
- Repack the gear after changing your mind about half of your gear
- Try to go to bed early, then toss and turn all night long, checking the clock every hour or so to see if you've overslept yet
- Get up at 4:30 to eat a small breakfast and drink a large cup of coffee
- Go out in the dark and get ready to ride 100 miles in the rain
Last year we prayed for sun. This year we knew better, so we practiced for rain. Two weeks before the Best Buddies Challenge, I rode 52 miles in cold, pouring rain with two of my teammates. Everyone else sat that one out, but we knew we were the smart ones. We were preparing our bodies for the cold and the wet, breaking through the comfort barrier into that place where you're too wet to care, too cold to complain. We rode our Experiential Century (52 miles that felt like 100) because we knew that, on the day of the ride, when everyone else was moaning about the weather, we could smugly sit back and say, "This is nothing. You should have seen it a couple of weeks ago."
Last year I rode in tights. This year I had rain pants and a head bandanna that made me look like a modern-day pirate (or at least a sissy Hell's Angel). I had the shoe covers, the rain jacket, the helmet cover, and the gloves. The transformation was complete. I had gone from pretending that biking only happens on warm, sunny days to deciding that, if it was going to rain, then the least I could do was make sure that none of it touched me. If they sold giant plastic hamster balls that you could ride inside of, I would have seriously considered the investment (note to Best Buddies: consider a marketing tie-in for next year). Wrapped, layered, and oiled, I was ready for anything that Mother Nature could throw at me.
So it was with almost a perverse sense of satisfaction that I stuck my head out my bedroom window at 4:30 in the morning and felt rain drops slapping down on my skull. You can't fool me! I knew it would rain. I slipped into my many layers and headed out the door, a grimly determined mummy.
There was one change in the ride this year: the Best Buddies Challenge has finally grown up into a full-fledged century. In years past, the ride was 90 miles long (for marketing purposes, anyway: the actual mileage was somewhere around 92). Last year, after they moved the finish line from the Kennedy Compound to nearby Craig's Beach, the distance was officially changed to 95 miles. This year, they decided to add the extra miles to make it a round 100 miles, a true century. It now officially qualifies as a Long Ride. I think that this is a good thing, because I suspect that before this change the other charity rides used to make fun of its shorter length. I can imagine the MS 150 and the PanMass Challenge snickering and calling out to the Avon Breast Walk, "Hey baby, why don't you come and spend some time with a real ride? I got 192 miles over here. Why do you want to share a day with that wimpy Best Buddies ride? He's not even a century. He's a… fun ride!" (This, by the way, is the worst insult that you can offer to a Long Ride. Long Rides aren't supposed to be fun, they're supposed to be challenging. If they were, then they would call it the "Best Buddies Cruise.") So for the sake of the Challenge's pride, I'm glad that it has finally graduated to century status.
Everything went surprisingly smoothly as we met at Danny's house and took off for the starting line. To no one's surprise, we were all ready to leave at least fifteen minutes before Danny was (Danny Time was still in effect), but there were no stalled cars, no last-minute changes of plans, no riders arriving just as the convoy was ready to leave. We came, we loaded, we waited for Danny, we left. Experience has its advantages.
After fighting through the traffic for the Avon Breast Walk -- and boy, did all of those pink ponchos look cute in the rain -- we registered, and then we waited some more. In what seemed like an almost impossibly optimistic move, the ride organizers delayed the start of the ride for an extra 20 minutes in the hopes that the wet weather would break. So far, so good. We settled in to chat and enjoy being warm and dry for possibly the last time.
Our team grows every year, so we had some new faces this year. There was Casey, the super-energetic elementary school teacher; the two Toms, Big Tom and Little Tom (they're almost the same size, actually, but Big Tom seems bigger; plus, I met him first); Tyler, the cyclocross racer; and Mark who I saw at the beginning of the ride and at the end, but never in between. They joined our returning riders: Bob, Trent, Ori, Morris, Len, and David. All told, including our 20-mile riders, we had 23 people on the team. We were also joined by several boys -- Jonah, Ethan, and Kyle -- who would be doing the newly christened "20-and-20." Danny invented this, and although it was an unofficial distance I suspect that it will catch on in the future. The boys started with us, rode to the first rest stop, and then took a bus along with the support staff to the start of the 20-mile ride and completed the ride from there.
While we waited for the official invitation out into the rain, we swapped strategies for keeping warm and tried to decide when was the best time to make that final bathroom run. Riders like to stay hydrated, which works well when you're actually riding, but tends to backfire (so to speak) when you're standing around waiting to ride. Everyone was eyeing the growing line outside the bathroom while we talked, trying to time it so that they made their last visit just before getting on the bike.
Tyler, whose racing experience apparently makes him immune to this particular issue, was unconcerned. He was more interested in showing everyone how everything he was wearing was disposable, so that he could simply throw it away when he got warm, and is trying to convince me and Bob to stuff newspaper down our pants. He claimed that this would protect you from road spray, but I think he just wanted to see how many people he could talk into starting the ride with the Boston Globe on their butts. I noticed that he kept the sport page for himself.
Finally, we heard the call to the starting line. After our last-minute pit stops, we clomped out into a soaking rain.
8:00-8:15 AM, Mile 0: There are all of the usual pre-ride speeches, none of which we can hear from the back of the pack. Danny is invited to say "a few words," which for Danny means that he only talks for five minutes or so. We can't understand a word of it, but if he asks, it was extremely inspiring. After this he is joined on stage by some dancers, who have to be wondering what they did to deserve this gig. Those little bikinis can't provide much insulation. After they shiver to a halt, it's time for us to leave. The music roars, the crowd creaks into motion, and we're off, like a disoriented millipede on roller skates.
8:15-9:30 AM, Miles 0-17: The slow, escorted cruise through the South Shore feels the same every year, and now we relax into it, knowing that soon enough we'll be able to push as fast as we can. Tyler, lumpy from the plastic bags that he has stuffed in strategic places around his body for insulation, has found a new friend. Bryan is a fellow racer who works at a local bike shop, and they chat about bike gear at a level that I can't even comprehend. When they start talking about not riding on their good wheels in wet weather, for fear that using the brakes will etch the rims, I give up on following the conversation. All I ask of my wheels is that they don't break and they stay attached to my bike. On the other hand, Tyler's fancy cycle computer tells us that the first climb is only two percent, so that's good. It also points out that we are riding SSE at 11.8 mph, that the humidity is 100%, that Tyler's heart rate is just 84 beats per minute, and that the Red Sox will beat the Brewers tonight 5-3. Now I think it's just showing off.
The first segment passes quickly, and Bob only has to stop once to pee and pull the damp newspaper out of his shorts. As we ride, the rain slows, then stops, and the sun makes its first dim appearance, a mere ghost peeping through the hazy clouds. The farther we go, the better the weather gets, and I start to play the "What will I take off next?" game. By the time the police escort peels off and we are free to travel at our own speed, my rain jacket is around my waist and I'm starting to consider whether I really need the tights after all. I pick up speed, eager to reach the first rest stop before the lines get too long at the Port-a-Potties. Some things never change.
9:30-9:50 AM, First Rest Stop: Rest stops are never a quick break for our team; they're more like a miniature event in themselves. This year, our first stop -- at the Norwell Audi dealership -- is even more eventful, since besides gathering to cheer on our fellow team members and look for celebrities, we also have to handle the logistics of getting our 20-and-20 riders together and onto the bus. Since they range in age from 9 to 12, this is no small feat, what with the teen beauty queens wandering around and the nervous parents trying to make sure that everyone is here. On top of that, the whole parking lot looks like the entrance to a semi-nudist colony, as everyone shucks off several layers of rain gear and tights in deference to the growing warmth. We eventually get everyone settled, and then we have to wait while Danny and the Toms go to the bathroom. By the time we leave, the support staff is starting to pack up the leftover food and the Audi salesmen are starting to prowl among the remaining crowd to see if any of us would rather buy a new car and drive the rest of the way.
Celebrity watch: Miss USA 2008 Crystle Stewart, Miss Teen Massachusetts and several of her Miss Teen friends from other states, Carl Lewis, and a guy with biceps the size of grapefruits who I don't recognize but who looks too clean to be a regular rider. Maureen McCormick, everyone's favorite "Brady," is actually doing the entire ride this year, so she's impossible to pick out from the crowd. I know she's around, though.
9:50-11:00 AM, Miles 17-37: Once we finally get everyone out of the Port-a-Potties and on the road, eight of us roll out together: Bob, the Toms, me, Danny, Casey, Len, and Morris. We form a paceline and start pushing to catch up to the rest of the pack. We can still see black-and-grey Best Buddies jerseys around us, but it's clear that the main body of the ride has moved on. The road is still wet from the rain, making it impossible to ride directly behind anyone unless you like the taste of oily sand. Myself, I'd rather try to take the road spray on the shoulder if I can.
For the first couple of miles, we all work to struggle our riding rhythm. Morris is doing his best paddle ball impression again, charging ahead of the entire line for a few minutes, only to get tired and slip back behind us again. After he does this a few times, I can't help but offer a little advice. "Morris, it's easier if you accelerate on the downhill sections and go slower on the uphills, not the other way around!" On the bright side, he's figured out how to shift gears this year, which makes the climbs a lot less painful to watch.
The rest of us try to settle into an easy rhythm and regular spacing and try to start drafting. Even though I'm eager to move after the slow start, I'm surprised to see the line pulling away from me on the first big hill. I know that I'm not in the same shape that I was last year, but this is ridiculous! I push to catch up, while Casey zips around me and slips into line between me and Danny. Well, at least the view improved.
After a few miles, I start to warm up, which is a good thing because Bob and the Toms have taken over and we're now traveling at an average speed of 25 mph. This section of the ride is always fast, but I've never taken it this quickly before. We are roaring downhill, attacking every climb, and zipping through intersections held open for us by traffic cops. We pass group after group of riders until we're back in the middle of the pack and then keep right on going. Our line is starting to spread out as the pace takes its toll, with Morris the first to drop off the back. Considering that his longest training ride was about seven miles this spring, it's a miracle that he's held on this long. On a downhill, I stop using the brakes and let my momentum carry me to the front of the line for my turn to lead, just in time to hit another intersection. We tear past the stop sign and the smiling cop and make a hard right followed by a sharp left, both turns much sharper than I expected. "Sorry!" I yell, as the line disintegrates and everyone struggles to stay in control. Great: 30 seconds of my leadership and we're all over the road.
Undeterred, I pedal on and eventually the group reforms. I try to set a pace that everyone can manage, and we stay together for a few miles. Soon, though, we hit another climb and the group starts to fan out. We're breaking into two distinct groups: the fast group, made up of me, Bob, and Big and Little Tom; and the other group, with Casey, Danny, Len, and sometimes Morris. Bob takes over at the front of our group, and soon we've left the others behind. Bob leads for much of the leg, with Big Tom serenading him from the back of the line with an altered version of "Shelter from the Storm." Being way too young to appreciate Dylan, I merely grunt in what I hope is an appreciative fashion and take my turn at the front.
Sooner than I expected, we pull into Duxbury and the second rest stop.
11:00-11:15 AM, Rest Stop #2: I'm ready to keep riding, but prudence dictates that we rest and eat for a few minutes first. My stomach has felt tender since about 7:30, so I take it easy on the food: a banana to provide energy and calm the inner sea, plus a cookie because they look good. I drink some Gatorade and refill my water bottles. I haven't been drinking much yet, but the sun is starting to burn off the clouds now and it's getting warmer. Hydration will be an issue soon. Bob goes to the bathroom again. I don't know where it's all coming from, since I haven't seen him drink more than two swallows of liquid all morning. After about five minutes, the other group comes in and we wave to them. Danny assures us that he'll be ready to go in a few minutes, so we give him a full three minutes before we start harassing him to get back on his bike. Morris gets tired of waiting and leaves, but that's OK: we'll catch him soon. After about fifteen minutes, we ride out, together again.
11:15 AM -12:45 PM, Miles 37-61.5: So maybe eating wasn't such a good idea after all. I felt great before the stop, but now I'm suffering from what we cyclists euphemistically call "gastrointestinal distress." My stomach is in knots and that banana is sitting like a lead weight in my stomach. I try to take it easy as we ride, hoping that my body will settle back in and shut down any of the processes that are making me so uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that Bob and Little Tom are both feeling their oats now and trying to push on with the same speed that we made in the last leg. I let them do the work and just try to hang on. I am not going to be dropped.
After about twenty minutes, we catch up to Morris. I give him a friendly pat on the rump on the way by, and the rest of the team follows suit. He's going to have to find his own pace now, but even though he's slower than last year he still looks like he'll be OK. We ride on. Soon, the rolling hills of the upper Cape start to take their toll on our line and we start to break into two groups again. I push to stay in the fast group, finding an uncertain balance between my legs and my stomach. The pain has eased, but the discomfort remains. Casey stays with us as well, though she lags on the longer hills. Eventually, we reach my favorite part of the ride: The Park.
Miles Standish park is the litmus test of the Best Buddies Challenge, the section of road that separates the weak from the strong, the riders from the pretenders. Here, on this bumpy, hilly, exposed stretch of road, is where you find out whether you're going to enjoy your ride or just survive it. Here, every rider reaches that point where he looks at his odometer realizes that he has now ridden farther than any of his training rides, and has one of two thoughts, either:
I can do this!
Can I do this?
I have already faced my soggy demons in this park, so this year I have no question. I will do this. I actually enjoy this park, with its scrub pine and pocket ponds, so I make sure to look around and appreciate the scenery as it flashes by in the sunlight. I pedal past 50 miles, past 55, and into that unexplored mileage that is the exclusive territory of the Long Ride. I am so excited that I feel like pulling over and throwing up in celebration. Unfortunately (or fortunately), Little Tom is still in the lead and he seems to enjoy hills. There's no time for expulsive celebration; I must soldier on or be left behind.
12:45-1:05 PM, Rest Stop #3: The rest stop in the park is at one a recreation area, so it has a real bathroom, a fact for which I am almost inappropriately grateful. After some "alone time," the stomach pains have eased and I am ready to be sociable again. Big Tom's wife has driven down to meet us at this stop, so several of us strip off any additional layers that are left and give them to her. It's sunny and quite warm now, so anything more than shorts and short sleeves is uncomfortable. Casey, Danny, and Len catch up to us while we rest, but only Casey is ready to go when it's time for us to roll out. Danny's experiment to see if he can ride 100 miles on just one hour of sleep seems to be a failure, and Len is more than willing to keep him company.
1:05-2:25 PM, Miles 61.5-80: As we leave the parking lot, there's a surprise waiting for us. In previous years, we had left from here and climbed a long hill directly out of the park. This year, though, there's a sign just before the hill telling us to turn left. We had wondered where they were going to get the extra five miles, so I guess now we know. Unfortunately, what probably looked like a pleasantly scenic route on the map turns out to be a teeth-rattling, wheel-warping trip along a road that even the Mass Turnpike Authority would be ashamed to call their own. The asphalt is so degraded that it would almost be better if it weren't paved at all. At least then you could look for some nice smooth dirt to ride on. As we clatter along, we find ourselves looking longingly at the power-line mountain bike trails slicing off through the trees beside us, and several of us wonder aloud if this is some kind of practical joke.
"I… thought… that Danny… looked a little… smug when he told us… to go ahead… without him…" Little Tom chatters.
"I… wouldn't… be surprised… to find a den… of bears… waiting up ahead… surrounded… by bones,… bikes,… and a pile of empty helmets…" I reply.
The adventure ends after several miles as we rejoin the main road out of the park, our hands and butts numb from the abuse. We're into the hills again, and my superior coasting ability has me up in front. I cheer for gravity while it is on my side and then start pedaling. I'm feeling much better now, so I find a swift, comfortable pace that eats up the miles and carries us over the rolling hills.
The approach to the Sagamore Bridge is marked by several steep hills that leave all of us gasping. On our first Best Buddies ride three years ago, this is where Len watched someone fall over at the side of the road, collapsing from hypothermia and exhaustion. That cautionary image leads me to pedal easily after each climb, giving everyone time to catch up before we ride on. We're supposed to be having fun, after all.
Soon enough, we come to the bridge. This year, I've decided to turn off my speedometer while we walk the 3/4 of a mile to the other side. I want to know what our real average speed is, without throwing it off with 15 minutes of walking. The view is postcard-perfect, with the late spring painting the hills the vibrant green of new leaves freshly unfurled. Once we reach the other side, it's a short hop to the final rest stop and the final 20 miles.
2:25-2:35 PM, Rest Stop #3: Everyone is grateful for the rest, but no one wants to wait long before getting back on our bikes. We know that we're close now, and my description of the barbecued hamburgers waiting at the finish line has the Toms raring to go. I grab some food and drop by the bike tech tent to get my chain relubed before we leave. I'm feeling well enough now that I even decide to try my luck with a small ham rollup. The protein will serve me well, as long as my stomach can handle it. Without waiting for the rest of the team to catch up, we mount up and ride out, past the sign reading, "20 miles to go!"
2:35-3:45 PM, Miles 80-100: All five of us are starting to feel the miles, but we still have enough energy to set a reasonable pace, at least on the flat portions. Hills are another matter, and the first few miles after the rest stop are marked by long, slow climbs, the worst kind for a tired biker. In years past, this is where my team dropped me, and I almost feel as though I'm in danger of that again. I take my turn leading, but my legs soon tire on the steady incline and Casey takes over. She, too, drops back after a little while and Little Tom steps up. Remarkably, he still seems unfazed by the incline, and when he starts to leave the rest of us behind, I call him back. We're approaching the dreaded Service Road, our own version of Heartbreak Hill, so I advise him to take it easy and keep us together, at least until then. After that, it's up to every rider to find a pace they can sustain for the last 16 miles.
There are two kinds of energy in cycling: the Snap and the Hum. The Snap is that elastic tension that drives your muscles at the beginning of a ride. It's that crackling energy that pushes you to stand up and attack every climb, to challenge your friends to race to the next intersection, to choose to go over the top of the hill instead of going around. The Snap is power and excitement at the freedom of the open road. The Snap is also short-lived. It is the bright flame that burns out too quickly, leaving ash and ache in its wake.
The Hum is the steady pull of a paceline on a long, flat road. It is the whir of tires over smooth pavement, the steady rhythm of legs pumping and lungs breathing, the quiet burn of muscles pushed just to the limits of endurance, but not beyond. It is the relentless blur of miles passing beneath your wheels. The Hum is the essence of the Long Ride.
There is a third element of cycling, which you feel when the Snap is gone and Hum is broken. I call it the Burn. When we hit the entrance to the Service Road, the Burn is waiting for us, crouched and ready to pounce. I watch as Little Tom pull away up the hill, followed by Bob. Big Tom edges up beside me, panting, "Nice hill, eh?" I haven't the energy to reply, so I just stand up and keep pushing: right leg, left leg, repeat. I have learned on the big hills that I do better when I don't keep my eyes fixed on the ever-receding summit. Instead, I let my eyes focus about ten feet in front of me, watching for obstacles and reassuring myself that I am, in fact, still moving. Past experience with this particular hill has also taught me not to believe my eyes. Just when you think that you've reached the top, you turn the corner to find more hill waiting for you. As we reach the crest, I finally grunt to Tom, "It's not over. Don't get your hopes up yet."
Tom looks around in surprise, deferring to my greater experience despite the evidence before him. "Oh, OK," he says, and speeds up to rejoin the line.
I look around. Where did the rest of my hill go? There's another corner up ahead. Maybe that's where it's hiding. I accelerate cautiously, marshaling my resources for the next assault that memory tells me is coming. I round the corner to find… nothing. That was it. Somehow, the hill has grown so large in my experience that the one hill wasn't enough. I needed two. Feeling foolish, I push to catch up with my group.
We spin easily for a mile or two, climbing each rolling hill at a moderate speed and giving our legs a chance to recover from the steep climb before we try to push. Soon though, the sea air and the scent of the finish line get to us and we form a real paceline again. Big Tom leads for a while, but I soon take the lead on a long downhill and carry us for another five miles or so before deferring to Bob. We're out of the rolling hills now and entering the residential area of Hyannisport. The well-kept lawns flash by as the Hum carries us through the final miles.
As we approach the Kennedy Compound, we see riders coming toward us from the other direction. "Hey, you're going the wrong way!" we call, half-jokingly. Assuming that we are seeing the end of a criterium or some people cooling off, we continue towards the finish line. We follow the markers and take a right, then another right, then a left and a right….
"Hey, weren't we just on this road?" Big Tom asks.
"We just did a loop," I say in disbelief, watching several slower bikers who we recently passed coming toward us on the other side of the road. "Now we know where that other extra mile came from."
"Well, at least the scenery is nice."
"I don't know about you, but I'm about done with scenery at this point."
"Yeah, me too. I want a hamburger."
Five minutes later, the finish line is in sight. I give a yell to the others and sprint the last half-mile, crossing first at almost exactly 3:45, after 5:58:30 in the saddle and an average speed of 16.5 mph (not including the walk across the bridge). My family is waiting, and my kids run up and nearly knock me off of my bike in their excitement.
"Where were you?" they ask. "We've been waiting for ever!"
I know they say not to encourage the crazy people, but just this once it's probably OK: Support me and Best Buddies at my 2008 Challenge rider page: http://www.kintera.org/faf/r.asp?t=4&i=234482&u=234482-109444274