Last Sunday I took part in my first organized mass bike ride, The San Diego Gran Fondo. Months ago, when I signed up with a few friends, it seemed like a good idea. Choosing hilly rides over flat, purposefully riding with cyclist more advanced than myself and slowly increasing my weekly mileage–I figured I had prepared well. Unfortunately, no amount of training could have prepared me for what was to come. With the weather forecast predicting heavy rain and winds, I was shocked when I woke up hours before the start and saw still trees and dry roads. I ate a quick breakfast, drank some coffee, finished prepping my bike and headed out to meet my friends Luke, Juan and Sander.
For a few moments it seemed as though we were gonna have perfect riding conditions. About 45 minutes before the start of the ride, reality set in. A small drop dampened my face. Luke’s dad commented he felt a couple, and prodded Luke to put on his booties. Luke headed to start with the faster group and I went to meet Juan, Sander and a few of Juan’s friends (Beth, who is pictured above, road the entire ride with us). As I wandered among the multitudes, it was a surreal site. While scattered showers stared down the 3,000 preparing for a ride of epic proportions, most layered on more clothing as if putting on more armor for battle. I began to shiver. I found them, and though I mocked the practice, joined in placing latex gloves under the ones I was already wearing (and am thankful I did).
Minutes after riding away from Juan’s car it began to pour. We sat under a canape and stayed somewhat dry, but one can only do so much to stay warm when wearing little more than spandex and latex. Ten minutes before the seven o’clock start time, we joined the thousands waiting for the start. It felt like hours. It rained harder. The wind blew angrily. I continued to shiver. The master of ceremonies let us know that we would be starting shortly. One would think that a crowd this large and this cold would get unruly. And though it would be wrong to suggest that we were not all a bit testy, for the most part, everyone waited (and froze) patiently. Finally, after a train crossing delay and what seemed like endless introductions the first wave of eager cyclists was released.
As we approached the start line the rain ceased a bit and for a small second, because of deliriousness or false hope, it looked as though the worst of the weather may have already come. We rode through downtown San Diego, on streets I frequent almost daily. It was nice to (for once) have the support of the police and not have to dodge dodgy drivers, but noticing that the feeling in my fingers and toes had completely abandoned me forced me to loathe, rather than enjoy, the beginning of this beast.
After a top light or two we approached the first highlight of the course, the Coronado bridge. Usually closed to cyclists and pedestrians, some viewed it as a treat to be able to view the Hotel Del and Silver Strand while not sitting in a car. I, on the other hand, am terrified of heights. This was actually the part of the ride for which I was most nervous. Fortunately I was freezing, and the warmth that came with the blood rushing through my legs as I climbed up the first part of the bridge blotted out the fears I may have had otherwise.
As we rode through Coronado, on our way down the strand, the rain eased up a little but the feeling in my extremities was still not there. Because the weather caused glass and shrapnel to get stuck to tires, we saw countless flats. We continued on at a fairly slow pace and eventually got out toward the country side. Sander pointed to glass and said he heard air coming from my front tire, but I blew it off and kept riding. Minutes later I was on the side of the road, changing a tube. Did I mention it was cold? With Juan’s help, after eventually taking my tire off (it was brand new and a stiff one to boot!), the rest of the change went as normal as one could–until we went to fill the new tube. It was so cold that the Co2 cartridge froze to Juan’s glove when he filled my tire. At this point, all we could do was laugh. We put my bike back together and then sprinted off to catch the others (which was a welcomed treat to our frozen legs).
About 3 miles later we reached Honey Springs road, the beginning of the hilly portion of the ride and the location for the King of the Mountain race. I was actually excited to ride up this hill. When I first started training for the Gran Fondo I loathed this climb, but after several rides I realized I was climbing it faster. I gained some sick sort of admiration for it and got enjoyment knowing I wouldn’t be the last up it…which would have been true had I not gotten my second flat less than 2 miles into it! Riding Honey Springs is difficult, but doing it with a tire and a half is near impossible. I pulled over, called Juan (who rode back down the hill to help me), and after changing it AGAIN, feeling like an idiot for getting a flat in the same tire twice, I headed up the hill.
As I reached the rest stop where my friends awaited, it was as if I was driving up to a scene from a movie. Mud was everywhere, people were wrapped in trash bags and blue lips were hiding ever-chattering teeth. It was straight frigid. I got off my bike, ate some food, drank some coffee and then looked back at my bike. MY TIRE WAS FLAT AGAIN! When getting a flat, it is common to run one’s finger inside the tire looking for the piece of glass that popped the tube or to look along the wheel for a protruding spoke. I had done it, my buddy Juan had done it, and we found nothing. Then the bike tech at the support station did it AND? Nothing. He thought that I maybe had a bad side wall on my tire (just meaning I was out of luck and had a defective tire). He suggested I wait five minutes to see if it would deflate again. Waiting. Shivering. Waiting. Shivering. Waiting–realizing I have used all my spares. Shivering. I felt bad that the crew I was riding with was waiting for me. Sander was wrapped in a trash bag and Beth looked miserable. We wanted to get out of the altitude in the worst way. But what if I got a flat 5 miles down the road? No Help there. And, it would be just as cold. So I decided I’d be smart , thought about continuing on and said, “alright it looks fine, lets go.”
And I am so glad I did! The rest of the ride was still cold (usually fast descents were limited because of slippery conditions) but I didn’t get another flat (and am still riding on the tube that the tech put in). We thought about taking a couple short cuts but in the end stuck with the entire course. Finishing the ride, albeit a lot slower than I wanted to, came with a great sigh of relief and sense of accomplishment. It was miserable and wonderful all at the same time. I had completed my first century. And I knew that my next one would be easier…