In Which Your Humble Author Fails To Finish A Populaire*
Yesterday. I met with my faculty advisor for my research project, and in the process discovered that I pick up simple motor skills more quickly with my left hand than with my right. Huh.
Okay, now back to the bike stuff.
On Sunday, Denis dropped me off in New Albany for the start of Timothy Stephen‘s famous (or, perhaps, infamous) “I Scream” Populaire.
The “populaire,” if you’re not familiar with it, is a type of ride in the cycling sub-sport known as “randonneuring” — that is, roughly, “wandering” or “rambling.” The Innertubes are full of good information about randonneuring, so I’ll just review the basics.
In short, randonneuring is a cycling sport in which self-supporting riders travel a given distance within a set of time constraints — in short, you don’t want to ride too slowly, but you don’t want to ride too fast, either. Here’s the catch: whether you’r rolling along at a nice clip, cursing your way up a mighty climb, repairing a bent derailleur hanger, stuffing your face, or attempting to ride through a gale, the clock keeps ticking. Oh, and while you can help other riders and accept help from other riders, you’re not allowed to call in your team support vehicle to save your bacon when you pop a spoke or cramp (you can accept non-neutral help at controls, and on 600k and longer rides, many riders do). You’re expected to know how to fix what you can fix and how to gracefully take a DNF when you can’t fix what breaks (whether it’s the bike or you).
Women and men “compete” (technically, randonneuring is supposed to be non-competitive, but we all know better) together instead of being divided into gender divisions. Riders carry brevet cards (a randonneuring ride is called brevet) and check in at a series of “controls,” designated check points along the route. Brevets are usually held over distances of 200, 300, 400, 600, 1000, and 1200 kilometers, and a rider who completes a ride at each distance from 200k to 600k in the course of one year can qualify for a “Super Randonneur” title. Since randonneuring predates GPS and tracking chips, “secret controls” may be set up as well in order to ensure that the riders stay on course.
By randonneuring standards, meanwhile, the populaire is a pretty short ride — between 100 and 200 kilometers, though in practice most seem to clock in a little above 100 kilometers** (or about 62 miles). Some populaires involve secret controls; others don’t. They do, however, involve bike nerds riding from checkpoint to checkpoint, following cue sheets and, in my case, missing turns (we’ll get to that).
They also involve one other characteristic common to brevets the world over — hills.
Where you find randonneurs, you’re likely to find hills, and where you find hills (well, and roads; there are probably off-road brevet-y things, but randonneuring is really a road sport), you’re very likely to find randonneurs. Why? Because just riding from point to point neither to quickly nor too slowly without phoning a friend isn’t challenging enough for those of us who live to serve the Great Wheel. We can’t leave well enough alone. Where there are cyclists, there are idiots chasing hills.
I know this because I am one of those idiots that normally chases hills … and on Sunday, I caught them.
…Or maybe they caught me.
Sunday’s ride kicked off at the New Albany river front amphitheater. Within the first ten miles, we battled Blunk Knob, a category 4 climb — a real one, not like the Iroquois Hill climb, which apparently qualifies, but which isn’t very steep at all. I was, in short, not ready: neither in the immediate sense — I was definitely not warmed up — or in the longer-range sense.
On Friday, I had undertaken a ride to gauge my climbing form and returned home profoundly disappointed. I struggled up Iroquois Hill at speeds barely topping eight or ten miles per hour: when I’m “on form,” as it were, I tend to average around fourteen MPH on Iroquois. Needless to say, come Sunday, my performance on Blunk Knob was abysmal.
Over the course of the climb, I averaged 5.9 miles per hour, and I rode alone and in a kind of despondent misery I have rarely experienced on the bike. Twice, I thought about turning around and riding back to the start in abject humiliation; more than twice, I told myself that I would summit the climnb, then turn around and ride back to the start (in slightly less abject humiliation, I suppose).
By the time I reached the summit, I was just about halfway to the first control — a great little ice cream stand called Polly’s Freeze (everyone calls it “the Polly Freeze,” and being a Harry Potter nerd, I initially understood this to be something rather like Polyjuice potion, rather than an ice cream stand named after a parrot). I figured I might as well at least try to make it there and snag some ice cream.
At this point, I had my doubts about actually making the cutoff. The slowest one could ride (on average) and actually make the cutoff was ten miles per hour; I was averaging only ten MPH already, which meant — I assumed — that I would have exactly enough time at the controls to get my brevet card signed before I had to hit the road again, which didn’t sound like fun. Even on descents, I felt like I was dragging my bacon; on the climbs, I struggled along like an overloaded hermaphrodite brig in heavy seas.
Admittedly, I was also feeling demoralized because I thought I was already off the back, with absolutely no hope of catching up with anyone. There are days you want to ride your hundred kilometers alone; there are days you would trade just about anything not to. Sunday fell into the latter category.
However, as I plodded along towards Polly Freeze, another rider (I think his name was Steve? I’m horrible at names, so if you’re reading this, I offer my sincere apologies and thank you again for your excellent companionship) caught up to me and asked if I knew the fellow with the skateboard helmet. I said I didn’t, and we agreed that we had our doubts about whether or not he’d finish (no judgments against him; he just didn’t seem quite prepared for the hurt that Timothy’s ride had on tap).
It turned out that there were a few more riders behind us — a group of women who I would meet later, one of whom was struggling with some mechanical troubles, one of whom was among the most positive people I’ve ever met, and one of whom, it turns out, was the kind of rider I find really inspiring.
With another rider along, I was able to get my head back in the game and pick up the pace. By the time we made the first control, I was averaging 11.7 MPH — comfortably within the constraints of the ride. At Polly Freeze, I decided to forego ice cream in favor of French fries and an enormous Diet Coke (hurrah for caffeine!). I had already, without really noticing it, decided to continue. It turned out that the toughest stretch lay behind us already. Besides, I was looking forward to my first visit to Huber’s, which is something of an icon around here.
Pulling out of the Polly-Freeze, I chased Timothy for a bit, then lost his wheel, then lost sight of him. I thought I’d just lost him around a bend in the road, and somehow missed a turn. Fortunately, the fellow I’d been riding with before caught up with me. Since he lives in the area, he was able to get us back on course. We proceeded through an area suffuse with the kind of short, sharp climbs I love (though I was still rather slower than usual on most of them) and some beautiful, scenic ridgetop roads. We soon missed another turn, but since we were in familiar territory for Steve(?), I got to meet his friend Julie, who seems like a really cool person. She gave us great directions back to the route.
Soon after we got back on the right track, we ran into the ladies who had been behind us before. Missy, Kathy (Steve[?]‘s wife), and Susan were rather surprised to see us. As a group, we spun along a beautiful stretch of road, some of it freshly paved, that followed a creek through small rollers.
Missy was still struggling with her bike — stuck in the big ring and walking the longer climbs — so we eventually broke into two units, with Steve and Missy riding off the back and Kathy, Susan, and I rolling along at a nice clip.
Susan is a really strong rider — the kind of person who eats centuries for breakfast. She’s also a very effective group leader, great at reading cue sheets, and a fine conversationalist. In short, she’s the kind of rider I’d like to be in a year or two, and I made a point of trying to stick to her wheel like a burr.
The three of us rode into Huber’s together. There, I just got a Coke (the kind with sugar and everything!), because I intended to get back under way as quickly as possible — but instead I lollygagged until everyone else headed out. I was knocking out a pretty nice pace on my way out of Huber’s, with the promise of a visit to New Albanian Brewing Company’s Bank Street Brewhouse only twenty miles or so up the road and a set of fresh-feeling legs, when I noticed that my cue sheet was folded to the wrong page and had to pull over (everyone who passed asked if I was okay).
I find wrangling paper rather difficult sometimes, and in the few minutes it took to get my cue sheet rearranged, the group I’d been riding with disappeared up the road at a swift clip. Given the headwind and the knowledge that there were a few more decent climbs up the way, I decided that there was only one thing for it: to chase, and to chase hard.
It’s a fact that I rather like chasing, bridging, and all that stuff — and on Sunday I chased like my life depended on it, often in a significant headwind, for quite a long way. I finally caught the group as we began to climb again.
For a while, the four of us — Timothy, Susan, a young guy on a Kestrel who I want to say was named Jason, and I — stayed together. Then, halfway up a bit of a climb, Jason cramped badly enough that he had to dismount (to his credit, he’d been flogging that Kestrel the whole way; had he taken in sufficient food and water, he might’ve finished with a very respectable time). As the ride organizer, Timothy felt he should stay with Jason; Susan and I continued on.
For a good while, I was able to at least hold Susan’s wheel. We were both a bit tired and not climbing super-fast. We enjoyed some really nice ridgetop runs and a few swift descents … but as we approached the last significant climb of the day, I finally lost sight of Susan.
In short, I had overcooked myself chasing the group. For the second time in my life, I had leg cramps on the bike — not terrible cramps, but they slowed me down. I knew that if I stopped and dismounted, I was done for; I also knew that if I applied too much force to the pedals, my ride was over … so I crawled up Old Hill Road at a snail’s pace. To its credit, the Tricross crawls like a champ.
By this time, I had also been fighting my front brake for a while. It had started rubbing while Susan and I were whipping along, and no amount of fiddling with the levers seemed to be getting the brake unstuck (yup, it’s time for a tune-up).
The rub was significant enough to really sap speed and power, and my legs were cooked. In short, it was time to just grit the ol’ teeth and tough it out.
A good piece of the way up Old Hill, I became convinced that I’d somehow missed a turn again. I pulled off at the first road I found and was fiddling with my phone, attempting to get the GPS fired up, when Timothy rocketed by, shouting, “Asher, it’s just up ahead!” or something like that.
I waddled my bike around, griped the rest of the way up Old Hill, and turned onto Old Vincennes.
There, I was rewarded with a brief rolling run followed by an awesome descent — one on which the Tricross broke 44 MPH even with the brake rubbing.
Soon I was back in town, limping along Cherry Street, watching the miles tick away.
In the end, I made it to the finish just four minutes over the allotted time. My moving time was 5 hours, 30 minutes, with a moving average of 12.5 MPH. Had I taken just a little less time at the controls, I would have made it on time even with the leg cramps, rubbing brake, and missed turns.
That’s part of the sport: you have to learn how to pace yourself both on the roads and at the controls. If you linger too long, it can cost you, and this time, I lingered too long.
Still, I was pleased with myself for making it to the end, given that I’ve missed about four solid weeks of riding this year and hadn’t ridden more than fourteen in one day since Death March.
Denis observed, and I agree, that the leg cramps are probably a reflection of a not-so-great diet: I’m hoping to ameliorate that effect by eating better.
The next populaire on the calendar will roll out in June. It’ll be after Almanzo, and it won’t be as tough as this one. Since the season of respiratory distress seems to be mostly behind us, I think I’ll be in better shape, too.
In short, when the next populaire rolls around, I’ll be ready. I plan to finish on time.
**When you ride the same distance without getting your card stamped at various checkpoints, it’s called a “metric century” (or, in countries that rely entirely on the metric system, just “a century”).