Saturday, June 5, 2010

Top 10 Elite Tour Lessons and Memories

Here are the top 10 things I learned and will remember from the 2010 Elite Tour

1. Friends make the difference. Before the ride, I talked to several friends and others who encouraged me and gave me some good tips on preparing for a trip of the Elite Tour magnitude. I also knew a few people, Randy, Len and Lara, from previous rides that were signed up. During the ride, I made several new friends and rode with many different people as the ride progressed. Building friendships keeps you in touch with what is happening, how other people are doing and helps you stay motivated. Most of us have ridden long miles on our own to prepare for this event and a few did ride solo during the Elite Tour, but I think it is a lot easier and more fun with friends. Randy Mouri and I knew each other from Endless Mountains 1240 in 2009 and we worked together very well on many days of the Elite Tour and as roommates. Len Zawodniak and I rode together at a PACTour Desert Camp this spring. New friends John Newton, Tim Feldman, Jon Batek and others helped make the ride more fun and easier to get through.

2. Personal organization, focus and routine. On Elite Tour, you have to be well organized and efficiently manage your time, especially in the mornings. As each day went on, I always worked to maintain a focus on the most immediate goal, getting to the next rest stop. This kept me on track and mentally positive. At rest and lunch stops, everyone keeps moving, filling bottles, grabbing a snack, a banana and some other on-the-bike food, a bathroom break then back on the bike. Rest stops are 5-10 minutes. Lunch seldom takes more than 20. When we get to the hotel at the end of the day, we would spend time to clean and maintain your bike, and fix the little things before they break. Next it’s clean up time, get properly fed and rested for the next day (and keep the blog going).

3. Great support crew, Lon and Susan. It is a wonderful boost to have someone greet you at each rest stop, help you with minor issues as they come up and find a solution to keep you going when something major happens. Tracey, Bill, Wayne, Brad, George and Jon were great. The tone is set by Lon and Susan, who have been doing this for nearly 30 years and are the best at taking care of you and the group for these kinds of events.

4. Pacelines. About 80% of my miles were in a paceline. The miles go faster, you work less overall, especially when the wind is blowing, and you tend to stay better focused. On the other hand, it takes constant attention to maintain your position, be aware of the other riders and contribute to the success of the paceline. You also don’t see much of the scenery as it flies by, but there are only so many interesting wheat fields, desert landscapes and tree lined roads. Pacelines take on a life of their own sometimes, depending on the group mood and differential in skill level between strongest and weakest riders. If you are one of the slower guys, be prepared to make a decision at some point whether to hang on and suffer or let the animals go and enjoy the day more, albeit at a slower pace.

5. Tires, saddles and aero bars. Some riders made their tour much more difficult by using racing, or light weight tires. I had three flats for the whole trip, none after crossing the Mississippi. Some riders had 10-15. One rider spent the last two days fixing a flat, pushing hard to catch up only to get another flat, multiple times a day. Good, reliable, flat resistant tires were worth the investment, especially given the pounding they take on the roads we were on.
A good saddle and correct fit keeps your most valuable asset in good condition. A sore tush really takes a lot of the fun out of riding 160 miles a day. My Brooks saddle worked great the whole way and I had no problems. Many people used various creams, balms, OTC drugs and other concoctions to keep themselves comfortable. A cold ice bath can sometimes help to reduce inflammation.
Aero bars aren’t for everyone, but they sure help to rest your upper body, relax on long run outs and get low against the wind. There are different styles of bars, a wider pad based version is more stable and works better for long rides than pure tri bars.

6. Taking care of yourself, ice baths and massages. Your body is under severe stress with the long days, rough roads, heat, cold and sunlight. Be good to yourself with sun block lotion (don’t forget the lips), moisturizers in the evening and balms for certain parts of your body if necessary. An ice bath in the evening for the legs helps them feel fresher the next day. Massages are great for getting the lactic acid out of your legs and relaxing other sore muscles. Be nice to yourself and the days go much better.

7. Nutrition and maintaining an even keel. Nothing is worse than being out of gas with 15 miles to go to the next rest stop. You should plan what you need to eat at the start of the day and at each rest stop. Liquid whey protein (Perpetuem, Sustained Energy were provided by PACTour) gives you a good base and most riders use these regularly. Besides what you snarf down at a rest stop, take along a couple extra treats to eat along the way. For electrolyte replacement, Heed, Gatorade and Endurolytes keep you going, especially when it is hot. Too many electrolytes or salt can contribute to bloating so try to find the right balance. Gatorade can keep you thirsty on long rides. Some people will use whey protein with some Heed in the morning then switch the balance in the afternoon, after lunch, when it is warmer.

8. Preparation - dieseling vs pushing the pace and bridging gaps. Getting in the training miles before the ride really helps, not only for physical conditioning but to toughen up your tush and other key contact points. You need to be able to maintain a good, steady, dieseling type of pace for the whole day regardless of the weather to be successful. If you want to stay with an aggressive paceline, be prepared to push hard to bridge gaps in the paceline and when you need to hang on when the person at the front decides to turn up the heat.

9. Safety. There were sections on the ride where you were in traffic on busy roads, sometimes during a busy time of day. You need to be very traffic savvy to know what the cars are doing, what the hazards are and keep yourself and your group safe. A mirror is a key tool to help you know what is happening behind you. The tour managers also have a responsibility to keep us safe too. Their decision to shorten the ride on the La Veta Pass day due to high winds was a prudent choice that made sense to everyone.

10. Keep a history. Whether you scratch out a few lines in a notebook, send emails, take a few pictures along the way or publish a blog for the world to read, do something to remember what happened during your extraordinary adventure. It all becomes a blur after a few days and it is fun to go back later to remember all the things that happened. If you do put a blog together, make it interesting for the people who may read it, and try to keep it up to date each day.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Day 19 - Orange to Williamsburg, VA - Done!

We made it! Today was the perfect capstone to an incredible experience. Lon told us at the start to take it easy and enjoy the day. For the most part that’s what we did, but a few times the paceline picked speed up to the low 20s as we all felt the eagerness to get done, plus we have gotten used to this kind of pace. The terrain was rolling, losing about 600’ for the day, but we climbed 2,500’ worth of little hills.

I think we are all struggling with what completing this trip means. We have a dinner and awards/presentations this evening which will be fun, but it will probably take a few days/weeks to really appreciate the impact of what we accomplished.

Congratulations to all the riders, now friends. I’ll post more pictures and some more info later.
The map of our route is now complete!
Rob and Randy - roomies and friends

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Day 18 - Elkins, West Virginia to Orange, Virginia

Getting ready in the fog

Brad the Bagel Man at his post for morning breakfast
Today was a great day on the bike. Starting in the fog, we crossed the rest of West Virginia, rode through the Shenandoah Valley and into Virginia; 10 climbs of at 500’+, two of them over 1,800’, one other at 1,300’, for a total of 12,800’ of hills. This is the most elevation we have climbed on the whole tour. The climbing started right away with four 500’ hills in the first 18 miles. The bigger climbs were next and really took a lot of patience to get up. The good news was everyone made it through, although there were some unusual challenges and successes.

John Downham, our 23 year old Brit had his best day, charging up the hills and leading everyone to the hotel. John was sick for three days in the middle of the tour so it was great to see him get back in form and riding so strongly.
Pat Seeley had a tougher day. His rear derailleur cable broke in the STI shifter so the only solution that would work was to add a bar end shifter so Pat could get back on the road. It took a while to get it hooked up but it worked. Pat had to push hard for the rest of the day to catch up but made it in.
Lara has now ridden with four tandem captains on this Elite Tour. Jim was feeling tired after several of the tough early climbs and wanted a break so Wayne Rosenthal, one of the support crew and an experienced tandem captain, set up Lon’s tandem and Lara hopped on at lunch to continue her quest to be the first person to complete an Elite Tour on a tandem. Her record will be tough to beat.
Lara’s significant other, Ron, met her at the hotel tonight, joining us a day early. It was great to see him and Lara was delighted when she came in.
I had a great day, feeling strong right from the beginning and kept a good pace up and down all the hills. I was one of the first riders to get to the hotel, even after adding a few extra miles, after forgetting to get off US route 33, which we had been riding on all day. I caught up with Harold Trease a couple of times on the uphills and held him off on the downhills, but he relentlessly passed me back on the flats between the hills.
The roads were generally very good. In particular, Old Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia was a delight to ride.
Randy’s brother Richard and his wife Ellen met us at the hotel and we went out to dinner with them – it was nice to talk to someone who is not associated with biking or Elite Tour for a change.
Tomorrow is the last day of our odyssey. We have 143 miles to go to get to the Atlantic beach. The terrain is rolling to flat. We have a banquet at the hotel in the evening. A nice finish but what do we do next with our lives? According to several people who have done these kinds of events, it takes several weeks of months to truly assimilate what the trip meant. I’ll see if I can come up with some thoughts from some of the other riders as well as my own.

Harold passing Rob on the flats

George entering Shenandoah National Park

Jon, Lon and Tracey at Seneca Rock

Randy near the top of one of the climbs

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Day 17 - Athens, Ohio to Elkins, West Virginia

Dessert on the Elite Tour - Randy made this one with all the trimmings.

Crossing the Ohio River into West Virginia, at Parkersburg.

Every day when we get in we check the bulletin board for instuctions, changes and where to get our massage!

Harold Trease is one of the nicest guys to talk to, but one of the toughest to catch on the road. Harold has done RAAM twice.

Here I am at the buffet in Elkins, West Virginia. I'm eating as much as I can, but still losing weight.
Len with Franz. Franz rode the 2007 Elite Tour as well as several other PACTour events. At several points during our ride, past PACTour veterans have joined us to say hi to old friends and wish us well.
Boris is a German cycle tourist, riding the RAAM route on his own. We first met him on the Katy Trail, back in Missouri. He arrived in Athens, Ohio, last night, taking a different route, but averaging 140 miles a day.

We’re getting closer. Today was a nice ride from Athens, Ohio to Elkins, West Virginia, a distance of 157 miles. Once again we dodged the thunderstorms and had a pleasantly warm day with a mild TAILWIND! This was good because we did a lot of climbing up long gradual grades on 4 lane highways.

The advertised climbing was 12,000’ which we were a little nervous about, but the actual climbing, based on my Garmin was 7,033’, which felt about right. This was still a lot of uphill, but not as tough as we feared.

The route was challenging partly due to going through Parkersburg and Weston , two old West Virginia towns where we snaked our way through many turns and confusing intersections. This caused a few people to get off course for a little bit, including our Aussie and Brit, Andrew and Jon. A little later on, near the lunch stop, a key road was closed due to a 35’ sinkhole. The road was marked by PACTour support crew to follow the posted detour. Everyone did the detour except Randy, who carried his bike through the sinkhole and continued on. This caused him to miss the new lunch stop. Fortunately the support crew caught up with him and passed on some snacks to keep him going. Susan Notorangelo recalled that PACTour has been stopping for lunch on the original road since 1993.
Randy, Tim, Brad and George were leading the pack most of the way. George and Brad stopped before the end to resume their support crew duties, but as a group they kept up a torrid pace. I rode with Len most of the day, with occasional appearances from Max, in between his five flats.

We got in after Randy and Tim and a little while before a larger group. Some other riders also experienced flat problems as the long miles on the 4 lane shoulders and a few rougher sections took their toll. This section is also done by the regular PACTour Northern Transcontinental ride, but according to Lon, the Elite Tour group was solidly an hour faster than the fastest Northern guys. This makes sense, but it is interesting to hear about how the groups compare.

We had a close call during one of the descents on a side road. A small dog ran across the road, just behind Max and myself and just in front of Len and the tandem – we were doing about 25 at the time. It was a little unnerving as the dog could easily have taken down any one of us. Dogs have not been a big problem on the ride, only occasionally are they loose and many people seem to have installed the electronic fences to keep their dogs from running on the road. A week ago, John Newton had a dog chase him for nearly two miles, but the dog was just looking for someone to run with and didn’t try to take a chunk out of John’s leg.

We ran into a short delay on another side road when a mobile home was being wedged across a private bridge and didn’t have quite enough room. The crew struggled with getting the big mobile home lined up to cross the bridge, holding up traffic for quite a while. We were able to sneak through after a few minutes.

Tomorrow is our last ‘tough’ day, with 15,000’ of hills on the agenda. We cross several ridges and pass through Shenandoah National Park.

What to do when we are done?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Day 16 - Greenville to Athens, Ohio

Today was a long day, 176 miles, with the threat of thunderstorms with us all day. This kept the temperature reasonably cool (low 80s), but we had a persistent quartering/cross wind for most of the time. Luckily for us we ended up being about ½ hour behind three storm cells that went through just ahead of us as we crossed Ohio. We had some wet roads, but didn’t get rained on ourselves. 40 minutes after we got to the hotel it poured, drenching the last finishers.

Randy and I got up extra early to hit the hotel breakfast buffet at 5am instead of the usual 5:30. This change to the morning schedule somehow resulted in us not being ready at 6am when the ride started. Normally we can get this all done in ½ hour, but today we were the last bikes out of the lot. Clearly we need a consistent structure to keep us on track. I don’t know how we are going to settle back into normal life in four days.

Our route today took us from Greenville on the western border of Ohio, through several small valleys and rollers, onto some flatter plains then down through the heart of the Hocking Hills, south and east of Columbus, and on to Athens, close to the Ohio River and West Virginia. As more than one rider said, the Hocking Hills section would be a fun ride with fresh legs. It was very pretty, with small streams and numerous little valleys, but getting into and out of the valleys required some tough climbs, in the 10-15% range. My legs were pretty toasted by the time we got to the last rest stop, nearly through the hills. After a nice break, Randy and I sailed through the last 24 miles pretty quickly.

The composition of the groups for each day’s ride is always a little flexible depending on who has more energy and when people start, but most riders are settled in to riding with the same people most days, or on their own. Randy and I are usually riding together often with other riders. Today we were on our own most of the day, which worked out very well. Randy is riding very strong. He is focused on testing himself for a solo RAAM (Race Across America) attempt next year. I hang in there with him for most of the time, but today wore out for a bit through the Hocking Hills before coming alive for the last leg.

The stage is now set for the last big challenges of the Elite Tour – 2 days of mountains through West Virginia. Our climbing will exceed the toughest days in the west, with 12,000’ and 15,000’ days coming up. I am thankful to have my triple crank and plan to be patient on the hills, working at a dieseling pace.

As we are entering the final stretch of the Elite Tour, we are starting to think about how we are going to return to ‘normal’ life and what impact this experience will have. As I look at each of the riders that I have gotten to know, everyone has had to deal with some tough issues along the way, whether they be mechanical, physical or mental. Nearly everyone has gotten through the mechanical and physical stuff and continued on. Mentally this is a very tough group of riders. Some are faster, some are slower. Most ride in a group; some choose to ride on their own. Each of us has our own reasons for signing up for this challenge. For some, completing Elite Tour may be a culmination of bicycling experiences that Elite Tour will be a capstone, primarily personal, to emphasize a pinnacle in their bicycling biography.

I think for most of us, bicycling is such an integrated part of our lives that the Elite Tour will likely represent a high point, for now at least, that stretched us and forced us to work harder than we thought we could to complete each day’s challenge. After this, there will be more rides and more challenges. Some of us may choose less demanding cycling tours or riding experiences in the future. Some of us may go even further down the road of ultra marathon riding. RAAM (Race Across America) would be the next step, but it is a big one.

Whether Elite Tour is a watershed event for a rider or not, it will be an experience we will not forget. Knowing you have completed this very demanding event does give you an insight into your own fortitude and persistence. When I was 28 I rode the 1979 PBP event. I had no idea how hard it would be (it was really hard!) but it did change my outlook and confidence on what was possible if you just went ahead and did it. Now that I am more than twice as old, I don’t think Elite Tour will have the same personal impact, but it will be a part of my experience that will be treasured.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Day 15 - Crawfordsville, Indiana to Greenville, Ohio

The early morning paceline, heading for Greenville, Ohio.

A fast day today. Five of us, Randy, Tim Feldman, Max Hogan, Brad Reid and myself got out in front and kept a good steady pace going all day. We averaged 19.1 over mostly flat, with some rollers and a slight upward trend as we moved into Ohio. Indiana is now the seventh state we have gone through. We got in just after 3p, our earliest time all tour. The mileage was a short 142 miles. We are all planning on an early bedtime tonight.
The wind was not in our face today, mostly a very mild cross wind and, on a couple of legs, actually a bit of a tailwind – something we have not had for a while.

There was a Dairy Queen less than 100 yards from the hotel in Greenville, Ohio, so everyone made a beeline over as soon as they finished.

Lara is on her third tandem partner. Jim wanted another day of rest before the big hills of West Virginia and Lon was eager to get his tandem back on the road. They took their time and finished nicely. Lara will be the first person to complete an Elite Tour on a tandem. This is an amazing accomplishment given the amount of climbing we have done and just the day to day stress of bouncing around on the back of a big bicycle.

Jon, from Liverpool, is back on the road again after being on and off the bike for a few days due to GI issues. Nearly everyone else is chugging along, weariness is taking hold, but persistence and overcoming our aches and sores is still driving all of us. Sore tushs are the number one issue.

Into a small town in Indiana, decked out with Memorial Day flags

Photo opportunities were limited today – not too many sightseeing highlights. Here are some of the riders on the tour.

Jon Batek's attitude has not changed since yesterday

Brad Reid, Illinois rider and one of our support crew

John Newton - Pennsylvania

Lynn Lashley, North Carolina

Len Zawodniak, New Jersey - rejoined us two days ago and is getting his legs reacclimatized

Tracey Becken, Vermont - rider and support crew member

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Day 14 - Effingham, Illinois to Crawfordsville, Indiana

Lon giving the morning send off speech, with latest changes and advice.

Today was a great day! Last night I had an ice bath to reduce the swelling in my legs. It really helped. I felt fresh and strong all day. I’m also paying more attention to keeping the right nutrition flowing as it gets hotter. Temperatures reached the low 90s today, with some humidity. Typically I fill my insulated bottle with ice water and the second bottle with Perpetuem/Heed (powdered whey/carbs/protein and electrolytes). This works ok, but when it is warm, I tend to drink the cold water first and avoid the nutrition bottle as it gets warmer. I have switched so now the insulated bottle has the nutrition and is more appealing to drink because it stays cold longer. The regular water gets warm but is still ok, and I am much better off energy wise. An even better plan would be to have two insulated bottles – I’m working on that.

We started in Effingham, Illinois today with 159 miles to cover. Since we were on back roads most of the day, a fairly large group of 11 riders formed up early and rode together for the first 72 miles. We averaged nearly 19 mph, mostly into an annoying 5-10 mph east wind. Len, Randy and I dropped from the group after the second stop to ride together to the lunch stop. Len is still getting his legs back in shape so he stopped after the lunch break. Randy and I rode together the last two legs and had a good rhythm going.

This bicycle wall is one part of what includes several hundred bicycles all around a local bike repair shop in Illinois.

Jon has his own perspective on how the day's ride is going.

Elite Tour is not a race, but sometimes during the day there are encounters where a little competition that emerges. Harold Trease has ridden two RAAM (Race Across America) events. He typically rides alone each day by choice, hammering along at his own pace. Harold is a fun guy to talk to, but he is difficult to catch and even harder to pass. Today we caught up to him on an uphill a few miles before the last rest stop. We passed him but he roared by us on the following downhill run-out. On the next uphill we caught him again and, with both of us working together, were able to get some distance on him before we reached the rest stop. RAAM guys don’t waste a lot of time though and before we had really settled into enjoying a nice break, Harold came into the rest stop, refilled his bottles, grabbed some snacks and was off again. We saluted him as he headed for the hotel.

We finished Illinois before lunch and are now half way across Indiana. The terrain is relatively flat, but with some rollers and the odd steeper pitch in and out of a small valley. The crops are just in and starting to show.

As we are starting to get towards the end of the ride, I have been thinking about what I have learned from this experience. From a survival perspective, the two big things are maintenance and consistency. You need to continually look after yourself and your equipment, addressing issues before they become problems and you need to take a consistent approach to each day’s ride. You need to follow a routine to get ready in the morning, focus on what you need to get to the next rest stop (nutrition, snack, fluids, sun screen, tushie care, etc.) and keep yourself in a steady state as much as possible. When I have had an off day, it usually has been the result of not preparing properly, riding too fast or not eating/drinking right. Once you get out of your consistent state, bad things happen. Sometimes you can't prevent this, with a flat or other mechanical for example, but the key is to find a way to resolve the issue and get back on track.

The other important aspect of Elite Tour is how important working together in pacelines is to help get you down the road efficiently day after day, especially when the wind blows or you have a lot of flat ground to cover. There are a few solo riders, but, other than Harold (and the departedRAAM riders), they have long days on the road. None of the solo riders have been able to ride every mile, as they are sagged up when they get tired or fall too far behind. I would estimate that we have been in a pace line of at least two riders for 80% of the Elite Tour. Some riders are in a group all the time.

Randy and I have matched up well. He is riding very strong for the past several days. I am gaining in strength over the past couple of days and will need it. After two more relatively flat days through Indiana and Ohio, we have two days of 12,000’ and 15,000’ of climbing through West Virginia before finishing in Virginia next Thursday.

Tomorrow is more of the same – hot, humid, flat with some rollers as we head to Greenville, Ohio. This is a shorter day of 142 miles. There is a chance of thunderstorms, which would be a welcome break.