Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Well, I did it.
That’s the best I can say for yesterday’s King’s Tour of the Quabbin, which I’m not ashamed to say was far and away the most difficult athletic endeavor I’ve ever undertaken. It was outrageously hard. The miles I could do. The hills, on the other hand… Anyway. I’ll try to keep this short, since blow-by-blow accounts of things you didn’t experience tend to be pretty boring.
The first 50 miles felt like they flew by—presumably because, with a couple of notable exceptions, the ride was almost all downhill to that point. We had some climbing into Barre along a road I’d ridden before, so I knew what to expect; plus that was the first climb, so I felt pretty fresh. Before that, less than 5 miles from the starting point, a guy came up and stayed behind me. We went through Barre, chatted a bit, and I learned that his name was Dave, he thinks of himself as a freelance web designer but works at Bike Alley to pay the bills, he lives in Worcester and bikes everywhere in that hilly city (including the 12-ish miles from Worcester to the start of the King’s Tour of the Quabbin!), and that he was crazy. I inferred the last bit from the fact that he’d chosen to ride a fixed-gear bicycle on what looked like an outrageously hilly ride.
We rode together for a long time, and I learned that he flew down the hills, but thanks to my lower gears, I usually passed him on the way back up the other side. Lots of other riders passed us, which was OK with us. I had already set my standard of success: Finishing. Dave didn’t mind going slow, and had already resigned himself to seeing the tail end of other riders vanish into the distance. So we took our sweet time. When we reached the Quabbin Reservoir, a couple of good thundershowers caught up with us right out in the open as we crossed a dam. After that the humidity soared, leaving us dripping sweat as the rainwater dried out.
We climbed up to the tower in the Quabbin Reservoir, the second major climb, and enjoyed the nice view. The low thunderclouds and haze in the air detracted from the sweeping panorama of water and rolling hills, but only a little. It was certainly pretty, and well worth the effort of getting to the top.
On the way down, we briefly joined a group of very speedy cyclists (one, oddly, I knew from Landry’s—he works there, and was wearing full a Landry’s team uniform). As we all rounded a rotary, I took it easy. The road was sandy from the winter and now freshly-wet; I’m naturally cautious, especially with 60 miles left to go on a long ride. So I stayed at the back as the speedy people zipped out, leaning hard into the turn. Suddenly one of them, in a University of New Hampshire uniform (his Cannondale had “Live free or die” on it) went down sliding. His bike flew in one direction and he in another; by the time I’d gotten my “Woah!” out, he had hopped back up. We slowed, but he said he was fine, so we went on to the food-and-bathroom stop at mile 46.
He showed up a little later, his entire lower leg completely bloody. It was gross. He was acting all tough and manly; suffice it to say that I wouldn’t have kept riding with the kind of gaping holes he had in his knee and ankle. OUCH.
After that the ride got much, much more difficult. We came out of the Quabbin on Route 9, then turned onto 202 in (yes, this is a real town name) Belchertown. Dave and I had heard Route 202 described as “a rollercoaster,” but we’d also heard that the climb to the Quabbin Reservoir tower was “steep.” I’d had no trouble with that climb, so I was interested to see how Route 202 turned out.
I’m not sure how to describe it, except to say that the hills never stopped for 25 or 30 miles. We just kept climbing and climbing, tootling down one slope only to confront another even longer, steeper one on the other side. I left Dave and his fixed-gear far behind as I slowly ground up the endless inclines. I would’ve traded my left arm for a triple* on those hills as people passed me spinning easily and I churned away slowly, agonizingly, in what felt like an outrageously high gear. I kept praying for the next rest stop, but it didn’t come until mile 76, a solid 30 miles after the last one. What an endless, grueling 30 miles it was. I’ve never ridden up so many hills in succession.
During that 30 miles, I also got my first flat tire in a long time; this illustrated the difference between puncture-resistant tires, which I have, and puncture-proof tires, which I don’t think exist. Dave came along a few minutes after I stopped, and he really did all the work fixing my flat. The Gatorskin tires I have are not only puncture-resistant, they’re also removal-resistant. It took both me and Ian yanking on the darn things to get them on in the first place, and I don’t think I could’ve gotten the tube out, let alone back in, without Dave to help. He did it no problem, and thank goodness my patch worked. As we did that, lots of cyclists passed us and asked if we were alright. This was nice, since it meant I wouldn’t have ever really been stranded, but it also got just slightly irritating. Finally we got the (rear! Of course!) wheel back on; Dave loaned me his CO2 cartridge** to bring the tire fully up to pressure, and we were off.
Slowly. Again I left Dave behind on an uphill, and was in turn left behind by numerous groups of riders. I spent most of that horrible hilly section completely alone, guzzling water and pausing occasionally to eat Luna bars I had brought. By mile 72 I was exhausted, expecting the next rest stop any time (I thought it was around mile 72 for some reason—very disappointing), thirsty, tired of hills, and feeling utterly miserable. Finally in Petersham the rest stop hove into view, and I felt so incredibly relieved I could almost have cried. Instead I ate lots of food, having finished off my last Luna bar several miles before, and drank more water. My left knee had really started hurting, so I also took some Ibuprofen, which I carry. When Dave rolled in, I shared my Ibuprofen with him. His knees hurt too. We rested, stretched, and psyched ourselves for the last 25 miles. Knowing he had to still get back to Worcester, I offered Dave a ride back home. We have a nominally two-bike rack, and I have to go through Worcester anyway. He said he’d consider it, and we rolled out again.
The last 25 miles were, not surprisingly HILLY. I didn’t see Dave for long after we left, but I kept seeing several of the same guys. They all passed me on the downhills, but I crawled by them on the uphills. Hmm. Possibly they all thought what one guy told me: “I have a granny gear, but I feel like it’s cheating to use it.” Ha! Why kill yourself when you don’t have to? Dumb guys and their macho-ism. Another guy who worked to stay ahead of me for quite a while finally said, as I passed him going uphill, “I don’t even care anymore,” which I took to mean that he did care to stay ahead of me before. “It’s not a race,” I told him. “No, it’s a war of attrition,” he replied. “Last man standing, right?” I asked; “Or last woman,” he pointed out. ?! Clearly guys have a very different view of this bike riding thing than I do.
I climbed the last 10 miles almost completely by myself, just forcing myself to keep turning the pedals. The finish point is at the top of this huge long hill, and lots of people passed me then, too. I focused on creeping forward at all, no matter how slowly (and trust me, it was slow), until eons after I started the climb, the end came into view. They had watermelon there, and I inhaled lots of that, plus water
and some salty cracker things and a Luna bar I had left in the car. The whole ride, not counting stops, took me 6 hours and 45 minutes.
Dave was there. He’d taken a short cut that neatly avoided a big long hill and cut out some miles. After I recovered somewhat, he agreed to let me drive him back home—a smart decision, in my opinion. Only a crazy person would voluntarily ride back into Worcester after completing the hardest ride either of us had ever done. So I dropped Dave off in a rather sketchy part of Worcester (he lives on the middle of a huge hill, in a refurbished fire station; I’d pass on the cool accommodations to avoid the risk of being mugged, but I think the price was right for Dave), and went home.
I got home at 4:40, exhausted and utterly filthy. A long shower helped, as did absorbing various foods. I’m still recovering today, and my left knee still hurts. Maybe my thoughts about lower gearing aren’t such bad ones after all. I’m going to baby it today with a solid ice-and-Ibuprofen regimen, and see how I feel tomorrow. I just hope this darn knee pain doesn’t come back to haunt me. How silly to have ridden all these miles and be less than a month from the STP, only to have weird knee pain kick up. Anyway, next stop: Cape Cod Getaway, which should be a breeze compared to this.
*Three front chainrings; cyclists call the smallest gear the “granny gear,” and let me tell you, I would’ve KILLED for a granny gear on this ride. My bike has a “compact double,” two gears that are supposed to be as good as three. Let me also say this: Two gears can NEVER be as good as three.
**I’ve resisted switching to these because they’re not very environmentally friendly. They’re tiny disposable canisters of compressed gas that you can use instead of a hand pump. The problem with a hand pump is that I can only get my tire up to about 30 or 40 PSI before it starts leaking air back out, and I need to get up to at least 80 PSI to avoid pinch flats. Ideally I ride with my tires filled to 100 or 105 PSI, and a CO2 canister can fill a tire up that much. A hand pump simply can’t. This experience convinced me that I need to switch to the CO2 canisters.
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