Like many a Colorado cycler, I’m a numbers guy.
Not the kind of numbers that rushed by me in school and college, motivating me to pursue a career in photojournalism. I’m talking about numbers that make comforting sense. There’s something satisfying about mulling over a 10K. Ten is soft and easy. There’s no comfort in 6.21371 miles of anything.
And being a numbers guy, more is better. If 10 is comforting, 100 is bliss. Kinda.
When you mix numbers with bicycling, you mix comforting fulfillment and straight out pain. Numbers are a way of dosing each quality. Rounds per minute. Elevation gain per mile. Average speed. Drag coefficients. Numbers that matter. And for me? The magic number is 100: The century ride.
Before there were happy numbers, there was just the first bike. My love affair with bicycles stretches back to when I was 6. A good number for taking the training wheels off my Schwinn BMX-er.
At 6, sans trainers, my Schwinn meant freedom. I could pedal past boredom and worries that keep little boys trying to find ways to escape chores and the weight of real life. Unlike the plodding pace of walking, biking rushed me toward adventures in the park or endless hours at the house of a pal also keen on avoiding the real world.
I competed with friends in races and performing tricks, getting faster, getting road rash, getting to understand the numbers behind my machine. Some 30 years later, I still like the numbers I can brag about. I like enough competition against myself and my friends to go faster, farther.
Then came marriage and my daughter, Callista. Born about 18 months ago, which is also an amazing number. Calista arrived. Biking left. Jobs, marriage, houses, daughters and deadlines make for bad biking numbers. The saddle grew cold, until this year.
I got my magic 100 back in the Denver Century Ride earlier this summer.
While pedaling 100 miles in one day isn’t for the novice or faint of heart, with practice, persistence and following some important rules, it’s a magic number just about anyone can claim.
I trained as much as I could before the big ride. Just about every expert recommends starting slow. Get to where you can ride 30 miles in a day without having to go home and crash for a week. When you’re doing 30 miles a day and still mowing the lawn, you move ahead. Then it’s 30 miles, two days in a row. Then 40 miles, two days in a row. Then the magic 50 plus 50 gets you to 100. Some say pushing that to two days of 60 miles makes for a better century experience. For your first time, don’t press that or anything.
The day starts early, earlier than 6 a.m. Eat. You’re going to have to eat a lot. You’re going to have to drink a lot.
For the Denver ride, we started at the Northfield Stapleton parking lot. The weather was perfect, a happy 70 degrees. Heat and long bike rides are for pros. For the rest of us, heat is a liability that slows the ride.
I ticked off the boxes on my pre-race checklist when we got on the road — sunblock, chamois cream, a special lube for parts that can and will chafe and make any number miserable if you don’t use it, sunglasses, fuel, lots of water — uh, oh, forgot to use the restroom. It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t forget something, I just wish it wasn’t something so important. I made my brother Paul and pal Hyoung take a break from dodging potholes in the streets of Denver to visit a port-o-potty in a local park. When it comes to long rides, think way ahead, because discomfort now is agony later on. Also, it’s entertaining to share the misery.
One of the great things about cycling is that even when you are riding with a huge group of people, it is still an individual sport. The feeling of the road contours, the temperature drops as you ride past a stream, the sounds of chirping birds and prairie dogs, and the song of changing gears are therapeutic.
A helpful man who set up a chair in front of his house to watch the pack of riders go by reminds us there are only “86 miles to go!” Thanks, man.
I made it to Golden, to the bottom of Lookout Mountain, feeling pretty good for the most strenuous part of the ride. Long-ride addicts never call the big hill the hardest part of the ride, because that’s often down the road on fairly easy terrain when you wonder why you ever thought riding this far could be anything but awful. You’ll ride past that, just as I did the big hill. Getting up Lookout Mountain is a 4.5-mile grunt-session to the top of what at times seems endlessly steep and winding. I always judge how good my condition is by how fast I can climb Lookout Mountain. This time, it was about pacing instead of speed. As the guy in the lawn chair reminded me, there is still a road day ahead. Lookout Mountain is where the suffering numbers begin. I felt good climbing and even better when I was fortunate enough to pass another cyclist. Little things make climbing easier, like a deer crossing the road in front of me or a Journey ear worm.
“Doooooon’t stop, belieeeeeeeeving….” Steve Perry, you inspiration.
And then you get the best part of cycling — the descent. I am much better at descending than climbing, probably because I am built like a running back, or so I was told on the same mountain stretch by a fellow rider.
The numbers improve on the way down. Average speed. Drag coefficient. Attitude and altitude were looking good.
Aid stations along the way remind you this is a ride, not a race. There is wisdom in the logic behind taking shorter, more-frequent breaks over pumping until you can’t take it and then resting until you think you can. The stations are about 15 miles apart, each an oasis as the temperature started to rise into the 90s. Even if you barely stop, drink. Dehydration is your body’s enemy on a ride. Cold water, snacks and a few minutes to rest my legs helped me get my second and third winds. Volunteers who work the stations are always friendly faces that make what you’re doing seem like it’s reasonable.
Around Mile 64, we left an aid station and started riding with a new group. These guys were cruising. We hopped on their wheels and let them help us take a load off. This is a technique called drafting, where a cyclist is shielded from the headwind by the rider ahead. It’s an integral part of racing and important for the rest of us when you get to the point where anything that makes that magic 100 just a little easier or faster is magic in itself.
This is the point that even experienced century riders get sketti legs or concrete claws. Noodle or sketti legs are a phenomenon that comes after pedaling for hours and suddenly realizing your legs are moving, but you don’t know where or how or if they’re actually someone else’s legs or maybe not legs any more at all. Stopping doesn’t really help a lot. Finishing does. The other downside of the long ride is actually more troublesome: Concrete claws. This is what your hands feel like from pushing on sensitive nerves and pressure points for hours. It’s why you don’t want to cheap out your glove purchase. It’s best prevented by shifting your hands a lot, or taking them off the grips one at a time frequently. If you get so numb you don’t think you can squeeze a brake, pull off and move ‘em around. Otherwise, the feeling comes back in a most unpleasant way after crashing your ride.
Drained as I left the last aid station with 15 miles remaining, I was buoyed by knowing all I had to do was keep pedaling a while longer. I kept watching the miles go down on my computer. I was getting closer to 100.
This is where the numbers get funny like the math. Be prepared to tick past the magic 100 number. When ride creators design courses they do two things: They round up the segments, and they don’t want anyone to come in at 97. That’s not the comforting roundness of 100, and doesn’t offer near the bragging rights. Somewhere beyond that, I made the full century and a few years beyond.
Victory. After pushing through the grueling numbers of feet, miles, hours and degrees, the best part is reliving them with friends and beers about how good each number was now that it’s behind you.