I finally got it, a “real” bike. By “real”, I just mean something a little more high end than what I have on thus far in my riding “career”. Now, I’ll ride just about anything, on any course. Heck, I’ve done Six Gap, and attempted Ten Gap (failing miserably unfortunately) on a hybrid bike, one really meant for riding about town and on the cart paths that we have an abundance of here in Peachtree City, not so much for racing. It wasn’t that I didn’t want something a little lighter, more comfortable, and honestly “cooler looking”, it’s that I simply couldn’t justify the expense, especially with all the other things competing for time and money in my life. “It’s not about the bike”, I reminded myself. Yes, it’s also a book by Lance Armstrong, but it also reminds me of once when someone was looking at some pictures I had taken (I used to be into photography, would love to get back to it if I can find that 25th hour in the day). After ooh’ing and ahh’ing over some of the shots, they asked what camera I used, alluding to the fact that if they only had that particular camera, all of their shots would magically become postcards. I chuckled inside. It really had little to do with the equipment itself, and much more to do with simply having experience and a vision to create beautiful shots. And so it sometimes goes in the world of cycling, folks paying tithe to the elusive “gods of speed” with gobs of money (sometimes ridiculous amounts). And similar to photography, one must keep in mind that the engine, the cyclist himself, is the single most important factor, that you simply can’t buy your way out of poor technique and lackluster fitness. I wondered though, what would a higher end bike be like, and would it really make a difference.

My time finally came, an opportunity I couldn’t refuse, and I slid into the sculpted leather Italian saddle of a true thoroughbred racing machine (while the saddle was Italian, a Selle SMP, the bike was all American, a Trek proudly made of carbon fiber here in the great U.S. of A). It’s a TT (or Time Trial) bike, one with the sole purpose of going as fast as possible. Comfort is not the primary concern of this machine, cheating the wind is. Contorting the rider into as aerodynamic a shape as possible, hiding every possible component (cables, brakes, wheels, accessory bags, etc.) from the one thing that fights a rider’s ability to go fast, the air around us. I had dreamed of it for quite some time, mimicking the TT position by using aftermarket “clip-ons” on my ‘lil aluminum Trek roadie. That worked reasonably well. Heck, I even qualified for RAAM on it (granted with much P&S, pain & suffering). This “opportunity” that allowed me to ride this magnificent machine is just the tip of a much bigger story. One that I hope to unfold for you, and capture for myself here, along the way.

I was a bit nervous, just a day or two prior to surgery. This was a couple months ago. If you’ve been following along on my blog, you’ll know what I’m referring to. It’s the holy grail of pain (or at least one of them), the eyeball. I was about to get my cornea sliced off and have the “yolk” per se, of my eye ground down, back into the smooth round shape it was supposed to be in. You wouldn’t wish this fate upon anyone. Okay, I’ll concede, maybe on your worst enemy. It’s crazy, nausea inducing, kinda painful. This was the second time I was having the cornea removed. The first time was in the doctor’s office, not the controlled environment of an operating room, which is where I was heading in the next day or so. I was doodling around on the computer, killing time, trying to keep my mind from focusing on the inevitable four-day bender of teeth gnashing and ineffective-V&V treatments (Vicodin and vodka chasers) that lay ahead. The computer dinged, letting me know that a FaceBook message had arrived. It was “The Don”. We had chatted off and on over the last few months. Don was gonna crew for me on “Heart of the South 500”, a 500 mile, 48 hour cycling event at the end of March (just 2 weeks from now, yikes!). He was also advising me of racing strategy for the upcoming 24 Hours of Sebring I was desperately trying to get prepped for amidst all of the eye mayhem over the past few months. Don asked a simple question, “Do you want to do RAAM this year?”. I was taken aback. While Sebring and HOTS (Heart of the South) were both RAAM qualifiers which I hoped to successfully complete, I had no intentions of actually racing RAAM, at least not yet. RAAM is short for Race Across AMerica. It’s the pinnacle of ultra cycling, touted as the toughest endurance event on the planet. It pits riders against each other, and probably more so, against themselves, as they race nonstop from Oceanside, California, just North of San Diego, to Annapolis, Maryland, a journey of some 3000 or so miles (depending upon the exact routing each year). Many regard the Tour de France as the toughest cycling event. While it’s no piece of cake, even for the professionals, it’s intensity is somewhat controlled by the fact that the 2200 mile route is broken up into stages (or segments) and spread out over the course of 3 weeks (with a couple rest days thrown in). RAAM on the other hand, is one single, continuous, body devastating and soul crushing time trial which the rider must complete in 12 days (if racing solo, 9 days for the teams). Before even being allowed to attempt to race RAAM in solo fashion, a rider must demonstrate a certain level of ability, endurance, toughness, maybe even masochism. This is done in a “qualifying” event, one which the RAAM organization believes that if the rider can successfully complete, they stand some “fair” chance at surviving RAAM. Fewer than 200 people in the world have survived RAAM solo. The odds are simply stacked against you. For some reason, it calls to me, beckoning me to give it a go, see if I too can survive it, try to add my name to that roster. I know I’m not ready just yet. It will take quite a bit of preparation, and a helluva lot of suffering, before I’ll feel adequately prepared. I was going to solo-qualify this year, just to see if I could. The Don was posing a question to me right now though, but it had a twist, one I was ready to tackle. He wanted to know if I’d consider joining a team, one that now found itself shy of a rider. My name had come up, Don had thrown it out to the team. He was now throwing the bait at me, guessing that I might bite. I did.

Team Shepherd was an 8 man team, started roughly a year ago, with a dream of competing in RAAM. Their vision wasn’t solely on racing, but also on supporting a charity, Shepherd Center, a world-renowned brain and spinal injury rehab hospital here in Atlanta. It’s a scary and unfortunate risk in cycling itself, that of a head, or more specifically, a brain injury. A couple of the original riders had been Shepherd patients. One of them was Saul Raisin, a former world professional cyclist who had an unfortunate accident in competition, and whose life had radically changed after narrowly escaping with his life. At one time he was the Team’s captain, but had since parted ways. Over the course of the past year, a couple of other riders had fallen away also, thus creating a void, one which I could fill. I thought about it for a total of maybe 2 minutes before I responded, “absolutely”. I knew the road would be long from this point forward. That’s part of the challenge of RAAM I think, not just the physical feat of riding across the country, but also the financial, logistical, and social enormity of trying to do it. I hoped I could not only be part of a successful race, but thought I could bring something to the team and Shepherd too.

The “business” of RAAM is rather complex. I call it “business”. It’s the unavoidable stuff that must be taken care of to race this thing. It’s naive to think that you’d just show up and ride, that RAAM was simply about the riding. If that’s your goal, I think there is something called “PAC tours”. That’s a company (run by former / current RAAM racers BTW) that offers transcontinental cycling adventures and takes care of all the details and support for you (at a price of course). In RAAM, it’s just you and your team. You have to figure out how you’re gonna fund this thing, how to pull together all the resources you are going to need, how to find the right crew to make it all happen. That’s probably the biggest difference between this race and other more traditional cycling races. You are required to have support, you cannot even start the race without a minimum of two chase cars and four support staff following you. It’s both logical, because you will simply need people to help keep the machine running (both bike and people), but more importantly for safety. At Sebring I only touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of riding while exhausted. I’ll take a bigger step into that space at HOTS over the 500 mile, very hilly course. But RAAM, that’s where you really can become “zombified”, just simply lose your awareness of where you are, what you are doing. You hope and pray that the chase car behind hasn’t also been bitten, because you will count on them to wake you up before veering over the center line or off the side of the road. Not only is the “business” the mechanics of doing these things, but it’s also in trying to keep all the people that make up your team tied together. That’s a tough aspect of this all. If you and your team can survive the crucible that is RAAM, you will likely have lifelong people you can count as your friends. I’m up for that challenge… I believe. By all means, if you are interested in helping in some way, please contact me. Our needs are great and no contribution, whether financial, physically or even simply a word of encouragement, is too small. We have a page out on FaceBook at “TeamShepherdAtlanta” if you want to follow along, just simply “like” it. We’re hosting some fundraising events and who knows what else, in order to ultimately raise both money and awareness for Shepherd Center. It’ll all be announced on the FaceBook page and whatever other medium we can utilize.

Part of racing RAAM is having the right equipment, which is where this new “love affair” of mine comes in. No doubt, ultra racing is about energy conservation, not expending or wasting any more energy than one needs to in order to achieve the pace you wish to hold. A big part of that is obviously the aerodynamic drag. After discussions with other RAAM teams, and my own experiences at Sebring, I quickly concluded that a time trial (TT) bike was the way to go. A good one (like the one I now own), has enough adjustment to be configured to allow one to be a little more comfortable for the many hours and hundreds of miles you will need to gut this thing out. Through the efforts of one of our team’s leaders, and the generosity of Trek, I was able to come to “terms” with getting myself into one. I pulled the trigger and within a week, I was in Mark G’s fitting room, getting rough fit on the new steed. We set it up initially for more endurance type efforts (i.e. less aggressive). I’m very fortunate to have a high degree of flexibility, so upon getting it home, I set it up on my trainer and immediately started getting it more aggressive. I simply had to go wring this thing out, see what it could do. The next day was Tour de Pike. I’d take it there, and put it to the test.

I met up with the usual suspects in Concord on Saturday morning, the regulars from Peachtree City whom I routinely run into on these type rides. We chatted and killed time until the bagpiper started, signifying that the ride was soon to begin. I looked around for Big Rick. He was supped to be coming, said he wanted to ride a fast one. Big Rick, if you’ll remember from last year’s Cheaha Challenge report, is a very impressive cyclist, placing top 10 in that event before. When Rick wants to hammer down, you can  bet it’s gonna be fast. I teased with him coming into the event, whether he wanted to go sub-5 or try sub-4, cycling lingo for the number of hours you can complete the 100 mile race in. A 5 hour pace is pretty fast, a 4 is near pro speed. We didn’t have a peloton to work with today, so it’d be just Rick, myself, and initially Diesel. Diesel had done Six Gap two days prior, a particularly brutal and mountainous course in North Georgia, so I was doubtful he’d be able to hang on for long at the pace we were intending to go. That’s not saying Diesel isn’t fast, it’s just that Six Gap is a very strenuous ride and there’s very little chance to be recovered from that sufficiently in order to go as hard as we would be going. I caught a glimpse of Rick working his way from the back of the pack, just as the bagpiper was about to finish and the race would start. Rick is easy to pick out, he’s a virtual giant amongst dwarves, towering over all around him at about 6-8 or something like that. We shook hands and the ride started.

Initially, I sat within the first 50 or so riders, just spinning it out. My bike computer had a total of about 2 miles on it. I seriously had never ridden it until this moment. That’s one heck of a way to break in a new ride, a 100 miler. If the setup was off by much, it would be painfully evident today. Luckily, I’ve made nearly every setup mistake there is and knew what to watch out for. We rolled on a nice newly paved road for a couple miles. Rick signaled that he was ready to pick it up. I got down on the bars (aerobars that is, putting the rider down into a tucked and aerodynamic position) and started warming up the engine. Folks flew backwards fairly quickly and within maybe 2 or 3 minutes, I was directly behind the county sheriff car who was leading the race, off the front of the group, with Rick and Diesel in tow. It was fairly effortless, but then again, the heavy hitters were’t here today, most likely at the Union City omnium which was this same weekend. We hammered pretty hard for maybe 15 or 20 miles. I sat up a bit as we reached some heavy rollers. While I was comfortably fast on the flats, once the road pitched up more than 4 or 6 percent grade or so, I could tell that I was struggling a bit. The forward position was using some surprisingly different muscles than any of my other bikes, a little more hip, some inner thigh, and some serious burning at the butt-to-hamstring junction. I’m sure that has a scientific name, but butt-to-leg intersection fairly well describes it. Once we’d roll over the top of the hills, Rick and Diesel would step aside, letting me plow through the air in front. I didn’t mind in the least, heck, I was having fun, watching the computer roll readily up into the upper-20s or low-30s on the flats. With a downhill, I wasn’t even pedaling and I’d pass Rick and Diesel. That’s not atypical for me, given that I’m a fairly heavy rider. But on this thing, I was on the brakes if I wanted to stay with the group. We all were having fun, at least until Diesel popped off. I figured it would probably happen sooner or later, with the fatigue he’d have in his legs from Six Gap. On an uphill, Diesel pulled off the front as I rolled in to start a pull. I let up a little, figuring he’d need a bit to recover, trying to catch the back of our 3 person pace line. He blew up, having gone in too deep on that last pull. I didn’t realize it until we were about 200-300 yards away. Just before the ride, Diesel had debated whether to go out with us, knowing we’d go pretty hard. I figured he would be okay, he had plenty of miles in as he, like I, was preparing for HOTS. We’d be racing it together as a two man team. I looked over at Rick and we agreed to motor on.

Rick and I worked well together, each taking turns at the front when we were each most effective. Me on the flats and downhills, and Rick generally in the rollers and uphills. Unfortunately for me, the climbs really don’t afford much opportunity to rest when you’re not up front pulling. I needed a hard day anyway, as I wanted to test the bike, and I’m deep into my last two heavy weeks of training before HOTS. I was okay with it. I kinda wanted to see if I could make Big Rick suffer a little. This isn’t meant in a bad way or anything, it’s actually quite the opposite. Rick is a great rider. I can’t keep up with him on the likes of Six Gap, nor Cheaha, although I came close in 2011. But close don’t count. Anyway, on a long pull, I started letting it out a little, getting into the pain. We held near 30, maybe into the low 30s, for what seemed like a couple miles (seemed, it probably was). I checked the mirror. Rick was in tow. I could make out his face. Blank. Rick wasn’t gonna let me see if he was suffering. I’d do the same, internalizing the pain. We call it “turning yourself inside out”. If someone cracks and it shows, then you know you’ve got them. I wasn’t trying to break Rick, heck, he could have probably ridden me off his wheel if he really wanted. Just wanted to test the waters a little. By the end of the day, the roles would be reversed.

We got out to the 70 mile aid station. I needed to stop. I had just taken the last sip off the two bottles I was carrying. I rolled in, immediately refilling with plain water and taking a handful of orange slices. I chugged down an Ensure, my second of the day. They were working very well for me, even at race pace. All my experimentation so far had been at endurance level efforts for the most part. I saw a jersey I recognized. It was from another 8 man RAAM team here in Atlanta, the Georgia Chain Gang. We would be competing against each other in RAAM this year. I had been talking off and on with one of their riders whom I knew from the velodrome. We had toyed with the idea of possibly creating a little competition between the teams, both in the race, as well as in our charity fundraising efforts. I introduce myself. Four of their members were there to ride. We all exchanged words in passing but I honestly couldn’t tell you a single person’s name. I think my brain is simply too full of stuff, mostly useless facts, and I am absolutely horrible at remembering names. Anyway, everyone was nice enough. I’m hoping we can all connect prior to Oceanside in some sort of combined fundraising effort. Rick and I left the rest stop, heading towards some more intense rollers. Nothing crazy, but tough enough on this new bike which I wasn’t that comfortable climbing on. I hadn’t cut my aerobars down just yet, since I may need to make some adjustments. I kicked the living crap out of the ends of them upon standing. I had to really rock the bike and kick my knees out to the side to avoid it, highly inefficient for climbing. I yelled to Rick that I’d have to meet him at the top of the longer climbs, that I was dumping gear in order to stay seated as I muscled my way up. That’s something I’m gonna have to work on for sure. Most of it is just a fit issue, so I’m confident I’ll get it dialed in soon. The rest is simply getting used to being so far forward of the pedals and over the front wheel.

The sun started warming things up. I was watching my water. I was getting really thirsty. I was… simply getting dehydrated. I had counted on another aid station between the 70 mile station and the end. The cue sheet even indicated that there’d be two more stops. Since I had gone fairly deep by mile 70, I thought I would catch back up on my hydration by hitting another stop (or even two) in rapid succession and chug the water in-between. There were no more stops. I guess the course workers just went home for the day or something. Rick and I were at the front of the 100 milers. All those behind were gonna be suffering I thought, especially some of the first timers that I knew were out there. I held on as long as I could, starting the long and painful fade as my body started sputtering despite my demands for more power. I finally yelled up to Rick, whom I was now counting on to pull me around. “You have enough water in your CamelBak?” Rick was riding with two bottles and a CamelBack, a sort of backpack full of fluids which you drink from with a tube. Rick nodded that he did so I asked if I could have what was left in one of his bottles. I was simply out of water and going down fast. We were only maybe 5 miles from the end, but I wasn’t gonna make it with any reasonable dignity otherwise. I sucked it down, trying to ignore any thoughts of another dude’s backwash into that bottle. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do sometimes. After a couple minutes, I was able to turn it back up and finally start pulling us again, right back into Concord. We made it in 4 hours, 35 minutes, a very respectable time for a two man effort.

I had a blast with Rick. Not sure how close he was to “the edge”. I was giving it nearly all I had. Given some more time tweaking my fit, and developing those new muscles, this thing is gonna fly. Is it about the bike? Maybe just a little. I’m definitely faster overall on this monster. Just gotta keep working with it and we’ll find our happy place, even on the climbs. I’m planning on running her hard at HOTS, in addition to a true climbing bike, which I’ll switch onto when all heck breaks loose in Elijay and Cheaha. Can’t wait to take her down to Sebring next year. We’re gonna see what we can do with a full 24 hours. 500 maybe?