September 9th, 2007


Riding a century

Today I successfully rode my first century (100 mile bicycle ride).

(Yes, you may congratulate me. Considering that prior to June, my longest bike ride on record had been something like 10 miles, and that 2 years ago I didn't even know how to ride a bike, I think it's a pretty decent accomplishment. My goal for the Century at the beginning of the summer was to finish the 35 mile course, but I guess I'm not very good at the whole goal thing.)

It was an amazing experience.

We started a little after 6 am, when the sun was just starting to rise. We had a gorgeous view of the sun blasting up over the horizon and through the clouds when we were coming over the Brooklyn Bridge in the early part of the day.

There were 5 rest stops, starting with Prospect Park at (approximately) mile 15. From there, we hit Canarsie Pier (mile 35), Alley Pond (mile 60), Astoria (mile 75), and finally in the Bronx's Van Cortland Park (mile 90).

The route was winding and circuitous - to put it in perspective, the Five Borough Bike Tour is only 55 miles, and also hits Staten Island. They really had to stretch it out to get the full 100 miles, but we saw some amazing sights. We hit greenways in places I had never been, including a few gorgeous ones in Queens (Forest Park, for instance) and a couple of short ones in the Bronx.

There were some arbitrary paths - like the way we rode out to circle the big globe in front of Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows/ Corona, and then rode back out over the exact same path - or the way we visited the velodrome in Queens (Kissena Park I believe) and did a lap around the velodrome before backtracking and resuming the trek.

Surprisingly, there was very little traffic control - for over half of the ride, we were on city streets with nothing shut down or blocked off, dodging traffic. That was a little lame - I do that every day for my commute, and frankly it made the going much, much slower and tougher. (Riding 10 miles is easy; riding 10 miles in traffic can be a challenge, and requires a lot more mental and physical effort to get through safely. The stopping and starting at each intersection, the need to be aware of the cars around you constantly, the tight quarters that you're trying to figure out how to share with the other 20 cyclists around you...)

Also lame: the markings. They spray painted arrows with a big "C" in green paint on the ground to mark the route, but they often marked intersections on the wrong side - i.e. on the side after you cross, which means that you were often left guessing until you crossed and saw the C on the ground. Since they didn't mark every intersection consistently, people were getting lost frequently. (We got lost 3 or 4 times, probably tacking on an additional mile worth of riding each time we went in the wrong direction. We weren't alone, either - several times large groups (30, 40 people) went off because they couldn't see the C, or because there just wasn't one. (We did get a turn sheet, but not until the morning of the event at the start line, meaning there was no time to study it before setting off. For those without a way to hold the ride sheet open while riding, it meant the occasional wrong turn and then group debate over the correct way - and how to get back on track.)

A few random observations:

- The food and drink provided were fairly generous, but oddly got worse as the day went on. The people riding 15 miles got to feast like kings, with water, juice, sport drink, fresh fruit, sandwiches, donuts, cookies, etc. The supplies got thinner with each new stop, which was ironic since it meant that the people that were working hardest had the fewest resources to pull from. The last 3 rest stops didn't have any sort of sports drink or juice, just water, and water is simply insufficient when you're exerting yourself and sweating. You need to replenish other things. Fortunately I brought around 3 liters of gatorade with me, plus those sports gels that are basically sugar and vitamins and nutrients in a goo form, that you suck down with water to help your body recover. Without them it would've been much harder going. Ironically, the finish line had nothing but water and cookies, and you had to give in your ride completion ticket just to get your quota of 2 cookies, after the entire day you had all-you-can-eat food at each rest stop. WTF?

- I had been told the ride was flat. Not even close. There were plenty of hills, some of which were steep, some of which were long, and some of which were both. This ride would've been half as hard if it had been truly flat (or even close to it). I got through it ok, but sheesh.

- There's something amusing and novel about the sound that 30 or 40 riders make when they click their shoes into their pedals all at the same time (and then out at the next stop).

- Each segment of the ride provoked different feelings, both physical and mental. The first one was easy, and with the glorious sunrise on our left as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, was a beautiful and easy way to start the ride (although taking the greenway instead of the streets of Manhattan would've been nice). The second segment was mostly greenway riding, and so went very quickly and was a lot of fun. My hands were aching. The third segment was arduous, and by the end of it I was feeling a little demoralized and my ass was aching like crazy. The fourth segment was even tougher and wilder, and my knee was killing me by the end of it. I thought I was going to die during the fifth segment - my head also started hurting, and all of the other pains were kicking in, it was real agony. During the sixth and final segment, I finally settled into the zone, focusing on riding to the end, and all of the pain and everything else faded away. The only thing I cared about was finishing the ride, and I sped down the street with more juice than I should've had left in me after having just done 90 miles. When I finally crossed the finish line, I was pumped up enough that I wanted to keep riding - and after securing the free t-shirt and water bottle you get when you finish, I did in fact ride around in circles and up and down the area a bit just to work off some of it.

- Riding with friends can really make the miles pass a lot faster and can be a great motivator when your mind is trying to distract you with aches and pains and uncertainty. However, riding with friends also means that each of you have to adapt to the other peoples' speed and energy level, which can be an ordeal when you're more tired than them - and can be really frustrating when you've got more energy than them. If I do this again next year, I think I'm going to fly solo, just so I can see what I can really accomplish on my own.

- People tend to ride in packs. During every phase of the ride, we'd fall in with a group of riders that usually was in the 10-20 range. It wasn't intentional or planned, but people seem to adjust their speed to match the other people around them. I guess we're social creatures. The end result is that most of the time, despite everyone theoretically free to go at their own pace, people gelled into natural pools. Like riding with friends above, it was sometimes nice, sometimes not.

- I'm probably the only person in history who has completed a full century and yet a.) has never changed a tire/tube or fixed a flat on a bike, b.) can't ride one-handed for more than 5 seconds at a time (and can't ride without hands at all), and c) can't ride standing over the saddle. In terms of skills, I'm a complete newbie. But now I'm a newbie with a century under his belt. I'll work on the skills. ;)

- Riding your first century, despite the pain and frustration and huge effort required, is worth every bit.
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