16 July 2007
Seattle To Portland: Miles 0-50
On Saturday I road the Seattle To Portland double century bike ride. As I mentioned in previous posts, I didn’t get organized with a group of riders to go for a new PR, so I decided to challenge myself in a different way. A couple weeks ago I started toying with the idea of riding my fixed gear bike for the ride. I knew I wouldn’t be the only person to attempt a stunt like this, but I figured it was just the right kind of crazy for me.
Ok, some of you might be thinking, hmm… 200 miles on a bike, well, that’s pretty crazy… but since 9,000 people do it each year (about 4,000 in one day) it can’t be that hard. And then you’d probably think “what’s the big deal about riding fixie?” Or maybe you’re thinking “What does he mean he rode if fixie?” Seeing how my Father in Law’s reaction was similar (”What’s that mean?”) I figure it’s worth at least a little bit of an explanation.
What is a fixed gear bike?
To start with, it only has one gear. In my case, the gear is a 42 tooth crank (the gear connected to your pedals) and a 14 tooth gear on the wheel. This is about equivalent to a typical road bike with a “triple” crank’s middle chain ring and the smallest (or hardest) gear on the cassette (the set of gears connected to your back wheel). When you ride with a single speed (or fixed) then you have only one gear for all your riding. This means climbing, you have this one gear. Riding on the flat, this one gear. Going down a hill…. yep, one gear.
Sounds hard? Well, not really… I saw one guy on a unicycle… he too only had one gear, and he had to stay balanced on one wheel!
But going down hills is really where, in my opinion, fixed gear riding becomes challenging. Because, unlike with free wheel bikes (most bikes), a fixed gear bike’s pedals always turn in unison with the wheels. When my wife explained this to her father, she said “he has to keep pedaling”… that didn’t sound like that big of a deal to my father in law… but he misunderstood an important point. Not only do I have to keep pedalling, but I have to pedal at a constant ratio of the speed of my wheels. So for example, at 18mph I am pedaling at about 80 cadence, at 24mph I am forced to pedal at 100, 28mph I am up to 120, etc. The point is, that when other riders can happily roll down a steep hill coasting and recovering, picking up speeds of 40+mph, I have to pedal my guts out to maintain a speed of 30mph while simultaneously braking like crazy so as to not snap my legs in half.
Does riding a single speed over this distance require more muscle? Maybe, but I don’t think it’s that significant. There are only a few hills on the route, and frankly most of them are just about right for climbing at a 6 meter development (the distance my wheels turn with each pedal stroke). Does it require more stamina? Well, maybe… but again, not much… honestly, the amount of positive cheer and support I got from other riders far far out weighed any fatigue I felt.
I will admit that my butt took the brunt of the pain… as I was unable to stand and coast… And although I could and did stand on climbs, it’s not practical to stand for any significant amount of time while on the flats, since you always have to keep pedaling at the cadence required to maintain the speed you’re going.
Ok, enough about the process… how about the actual ride.
Well, my goal was simply to finish. Although I knew that bar was pretty low, because I knew for sure I could finish… I just didn’t know how long it would take me. My mom was riding support for me. Thanks Mom! And so she had water bottles, sports drink, extra gels, a sandwich I’d made for about the halfway point… and most importantly I knew that every 50 miles or so, she’d be waiting for me to cheer me on and if worst came to worse drive me down to Portland.
At the advice of friends, I decided to wait till about 5:30/6am to leave my house, which is about half a mile from the start line of the race. By leaving this “late” the theory is that there will be more chances to catch up to or be caught by “fast moving trains” of riders going about the pace I wanted to ride.
I actually left my house about 5:45, and joined the ride about .25 mile from my house… So technically I cut the official ride course a little short. There were already several riders already on the road, so I was hopeful that I’d find a good train before long.
The first 18 miles of the ride are very familiar to me, as they go from my neighborhood down along the western edge of Lake Washington toward Renton (which borders Seattle on the south). This section is pretty flat, with nice wide roads and bike lanes. There is one relatively steep climb about 14 miles in, that starts with a single city block of about 9% grade, then about a half a mile at about 5% grade. This is the first stretch of road, where it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to find any appropriately paced trains for a while. As I raced along the course, I found that I was riding past most other riders, even on the hills.
I set my Garmin to auto-lap every ten miles. My expectation was that I would be seeing lap times around 34min per 10 miles. But as my first couple laps clicked by I was actually averaging around 19.2 mph. I was pretty happy with this time, but since I had told my Mom to meet me at mile 50 between 2.5 hours and 3 hours from when I left, I was almost a little worried that I might beat her to the rest stop. I should have known that my Mom wasn’t the type to cut things close, so she was there with time to spare.
Around 30 miles into the ride I ran into what looked like the first serious group of riders I’d seen so far. I first noticed them, because as we were stopped at a light, one of the riders said to me “Hey I know you, you’re from Winachee”. And I responded, “No, but since you think you know me, you should let me ride in your pace line.”
They were all wearing team jerseys, one of the riders, actually the one who thought he knew me, had a number “0″ on his race bib. Most of the other riders had race bibs with numbers like “S101″ and “S102″, another rider in the group looked like he was carrying a medical kit, although he wasn’t specifically identified as being a medic.
We were all bunched up at a stop light together and some of the other “normal riders” and I were chatting about “who are these guys”, when one of the riders over heard us and responded “He’s the ride director and we’re his support team.” Ahh… well now, it seems he has to let us ride with him. But as the light turned green it seemed as if his team did everything they could to drop the crowd.
They didn’t drop me though, and I ended up about 5th wheel in a line. Next thing I know one of these “S” riders comes in hard on my left and actually shoulders me out of the line. I don’t mean he asked to catch the wheel, or said “hey, that’s my wheel” or even looked at me. No, he leaned his right shoulder into my left shoulder and pushed me out of the line. Thanks to my superior bike handling skills, and the good graces that the shoulder of the road wasn’t too narrow at that point, was didn’t crash… but I was stunned. Wow! That was uncalled for.
I tried a couple more times to politely ask if I could join the train, I volunteered to do my share of the work, etc. I’m no free loader. “Rider Zero” said something about ’sure you can ride along’, but apparently he hadn’t gotten the word out to his team that they were supposed to let mere civilians join the pace line.
Finally after a couple more miles of their glares and grumbles, I decided the only appropriate course of action was more smack talk back to them! A woman rider who was witnessing all this hostility asked me “Who are those guys?” I made a point of loudly announcing to the group waiting at the light with them that “He was the race director and these were all his domestiques!” Then, I spun up beside the ring leader, looking as casual as possible and a suggested that he’d probably be a lot faster if he wasn’t being weighted down by all those frivolous gears.
“Ha! You’ll be spun out by Centralia!”
WTF? He doesn’t know me from Adam…
“Pshaw!” I respond, “I can ride a hundred miles in my sleep!”
Eventually, after working hard to drop riders at every light, but not being able to lose me despite maintaining about a 27mph pace for the next 8 miles, the crew chief finally lightens up, and chats with me a little. “What gear ratio are you running?” “42/14″ “Wow. You’re not fixed are you?” “Yep” “You’re and Animal! Ok man, if you get to Portland by the time I do, I’ll buy you a beer!”
Although I think it sounds like a genuine offer, I don’t think there’s much chance of him having to pay up. I am sure that even if I hang with them on the flats, and climbs, there’s no way I will be able to keep up with them bombing down the hills.
About this time we get to mile 40, “The Hill”, and I drop Rider Zero and his crew, and set my sights on getting to the first rest stop. Even with the big climb (6.5% grade for 1 mile) I finish the first 50 miles in 2:20 minutes of ride time! 21.43 mph! Now I know I was only able to do this, thanks to 8 very fast miles in a very fast pace line. And I wasn’t sure if I could keep it up if I found them again.
As I rolled into my first break, way ahead of schedule, I was really happy to see my Mom. Since I only had one bottle cage on my bike (and no crew of other riders to give me water) I had run out of fluids about 20 miles earlier. For the second leg, I’d make sure to take some extra bottles in my Jersey pockets.
I unloaded my sleeves, and rain jacket, that I was pretty sure wouldn’t be needed for the rest of the ride, grabbed a full water bottle and a second bottle of sports drink, quickly told my Mom about Rider Zero and then headed off again. I figured that if I got back on the road, there’d be a chance I’d be able to hook up with the Rider Zero paceline again sometime later in the day.
More to come…