This is always my favorite time of the cycling season. Road racing is done and riding can be done for the sake of just riding.
I just wrapped up my annual 500 mile bike trip (the “Windy 500“). It was by far the best yet. I thought a lot, about a lot of things and sometimes nothing at all. This is my attempt to get those things and that nothing out of my head.
Prior to starting the Windy 500 ride, I had only ever taken one overnight trip with friends as an adult. September 13, 1992. Madison, Wisconsin. That ramble was truly unforgettable, but for whatever reason I never made time to take a trip with friends again for almost 20 years.
Back in ’92 I was working as the Manager at Vic Tanny and a couple of my co-workers and I hatched a plan to go skydiving. None of us had ever done it, and I had a mild fear of heights so I figured this would be a surefire cure. Long story short, we arranged a trip to Seven Hills Skydiving in Madison. The day was to be capped off with a U2 and Public Enemy concert at Camp Randall Stadium.
The vast majority of people who “go skydiving” do a tandem jump. They are strapped to someone like a reverse backpack and the experienced jumper takes them along for the ride. Thrilling for some I’m sure, but we were after our own individual experience. We opted for an “IAD” jump – Instructor Aided Deployment. In order to perform an IAD, you are required to attend an all-day classroom and outdoor simulation training “boot camp”. This teaches you to actually skydive and allows you to do everything on your own, except pull the chute open.
The class began promptly at 8:00am and there were about 20 of us. We read, watched videos and took a short break here or there. In the afternoon, we began training outside. We learned how to do a ‘PLF’ in a big bed of pea gravel. PLFs or Parachute Landing Falls are designed to keep your toes from poking out of the top of your skull when you hit the ground, should your chute and reserve chute both fail to open properly. You turn your knees one way and your head and shoulders the opposite to create a spring-like effect with your body. I could show you one right now – haven’t even thought about it since my last jump about 17 years ago. There were plenty of other things to learn and remember that day, but the primary drill that we repeated about 8,956 times was this:
“Eyes on Red, Hands on Red
Pull Red, Pull Reserve”
It’s a lifesaving exercise that cuts your main chute away (should the primary chute malfunction) and deploys your back-up chute. I can show it to you right now. Ask me to do it while I’m sleeping tonight. I’ll show you.
When it was my turn to jump I stepped out the door on that little plane, X-thousand feet up in the sky, onto a tiny ledge only wide enough for one foot. I inched my hands up the wing strut and crossed my left foot behind the other, stepped off the ledge and I was flying next to the plane – Superman-style. I turned my head to the left and yelled “Check in!”. My jump-master yelled “Skydive!”. I let go of the plane, and as I did he tossed my pilot chute (the “rip cord”) out behind me. My stomach vaulted into my throat as I fell away from the plane. My chute opened, filled with air and I was suspended in the silent September afternoon. The only noises were the hum of the airplane getting farther away and an occasional command coming over the one-way radio strapped to my shoulder. There I was – flying. Just like every kid dreams about. A quick mental check-list confirmed that I was still alive and my mind was free to check-out completely.
The reason that I was able to jump successfully is that the actions I needed to take had been pounded in to my subconscious. I wasn’t thinking about what I had to do any more than I was thinking about breathing. The steps were automatic. My conscious mind had absolutely zero responsibility, so for the first time that I could remember I was able to dream while wide-awake. Which leads me back to the ride I just finished…
Part of the fun of doing a 500 mile ride in 4 days is answering people’s questions along the way. Most non-cyclists look at us like aliens when we’re in Escanaba, Michigan and they ask where we came from.
The vast majority of people just have no frame of reference to riding 125 miles on a bike, especially for 4 days in a row. But here’s the secret sauce they don’t know about: anyone can do it. After a few hundred miles your subconscious kicks in. Right pedal, left pedal, right pedal, left… Like some kind of hypnotic Dr. Seuss book. Suddenly you’re moving along at 20+ miles an hour, mesmerized by the guy’s socks or wheel in front of you. You trim power, you add power. Slight adjustments. You’re tucked in, your front wheel rolls along six inches from his rear wheel. Five inches apart, seven inches apart. Your brain’s on cruise control. Sun is shining – the trees all start to look the same. THAT’S when I experience absolute freedom.
Just like words and pictures can never replace experiencing the mountains or the ocean for the first time, I won’t pretend to be able to describe the feeling of absolute freedom. There’s a freedom and purity that comes with absolute focus – where you bury yourself in the effort. I’ve been there many times. But that is a conscious decision to focus on nothing but one thing. Not your subconscious giving you a wink and a nod – “…go ahead, take the day off. Nobody’s watching…”
Back in 1980 a movie called Altered States came out. It was essentially about what happens when you truly eliminate all outside noise/stimuli and just let your mind go. If I’m lucky enough, THAT’S what happens to me every year on the Windy 500 trip. Sometimes it doesn’t at all. When it does it’s probably only for 10 or 15 minutes at the most. But that experience cannot be bought or sold, for any amount of money.
This year’s ride was the perfect storm; a great route, pancake flat sections with no traffic for miles and a great group of guys taking monster pulls. About 200 miles in I lost all sense of space and time. I thought of absolutely nothing for about 15 minutes. No idea where I was, what I was doing, the time or date… nothing. I was dreaming wide awake, rolling along the country-side 2nd wheel at about 21 or 22 mph. That is not to say I wasn’t paying attention and I was probably going to cause a crash or veer off the road into a tree. My subconscious had everything under control. If anything out of the norm were to happen, I would have instantly reacted. But for that brief moment in time I was absolutely free. Flying like I had just jumped out of a plane.
What turned out to the be the best Windy 500 ever fell short in only one category: mileage. This year’s route left us 4 miles short: 496 miles with an 18mph average speed. In all the years past we were always over, so at this point I’m using my rollover miles to call it an even 500. This ride really has taken on a life of its own. Year One was 4 guys and no support – chasing daylight 160 miles on Day 1. This year was 11 guys with a full size Suburban stocked with tools and cold PBR following 100 yards behind us all day.
From the start, this year was spot on. Blake lead us out of my driveway and proceeded to sprint into a mailbox 2 blocks down the road. That’s why we don’t include 7 year-olds in flip-flops…
Everyone stretched their legs a bit in the first section through Holy Hill before we settled into a comfortable pace for the rest of the ride. A quick stop in Allenton to fuel up and we were off. Lunch was a walk down memory lane from Year One in Oshkosh.
Typically, we end up with a lot of flats, which means we end up stopping a lot for PBRs. This year we had only 4 flats (plus one slow leak), all of which were caused by road hazards. It’s tough to go 500 miles in Wisconsin during August without hitting at least some road construction. We found our share of gravel roads and potholes, but there were times when we actually needed faux-flats in order to make sure we stayed hydrated.
The first day ended in Green Bay, and in the morning we took off for Escanaba. Everyone was feeling great, and the roads were spectacular and pancake flat. This trip is really all about the journey, and this year was by far the best ever. We tapped out about 120 miles on Day 2 at with a 19.1 average speed surrounded by lush country scenery.
The Windy 500 has become a testing ground for Mexican food, and this year we found the best South of the Border food North of the Border. Just over the Michigan state line we stopped for lunch at La Cabana. If you ever find yourself in Menominee, MI with an empty stomach, I highly recommend the special of the day.
From there it was an easy roll to Escanaba, where we enjoyed fine imported beer.
Back to La Cabana for another spectacular lunch and back to Green Bay for another spectacular moonlit night.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun. We did make sure to journal our food and use food scales to properly measure what we were taking in. The body is a temple after all.
We hit a little rain on Friday and a little more on Monday (tradition), but never enough to dampen spirits. Thankfully, we always seemed to find a PBR dispensary at just the right time.
We rolled into Brookfield around dinner time on Monday, always good to get home. Everyone was a little tired, but in one piece.
This route was so awesome, we’re considering doing it again next year.
We are nowhere near as cool or sexy as these long-maned Swedish man-whores, but we’re not opposed to letting a Glam Metal staple like Europe explain the Windy 500 v4.0:
“We’re leaving together,
But still it’s farewell
And maybe we’ll come back,
To earth, who can tell?”
I don’t even know if they speaks the English so good, so I doubt they knew what they were singing about. Or maybe they were actually trying to make the second worst song ever…
Side Note: In my former life as a local roadie, I actually set up for Europe (or was it Holland?) at Marty Zivko’s in Hartford.
Anyway, back to bike riding. The 4th Annual Ride of Stupidity is nearly here and we have a dozen or so slightly shorter haired dudes ready to Ride Angry.
This year’s ride will be one veteran short, and therefore for the first time ever, the coveted Grey Jersey (“Gris Jaune”) will be up for grabs. Our esteemed colleague, Jeremy Johnson, suffered a nasty fall and is on the Injured Reserve for this go-round:
All the best my man!
Look for the full ride report mid-August, and mark your calendars for next year’s adventure.
Here we go…
The kinder, gentler version of the Windy rolled out on July 25th and ended up also being the easiest, shortest, best attended and record # of flat tires (20ish?) so far. No 160+ mile days at 20mph this year.
Riding through the urban jungle (Racine is beautiful in July…) means riding through lots of crap on the road, so daily flats became a part of the experience. 500.4 miles and just 8,208 feet of elevation gain.
This ride has grown a bit since its inception 3 years ago. Back then it was just 4 guys on bikes who shipped a small box of stuff to a couple of hotels. No support. This year we had a full-sized Suburban full of crap, a skilled driver who always made sure the PBR was stocked and cold when we rolled in, and 9 riders.
Speaking of PBR, this year we combined the Windy 500 with another ride: “the PBR”. If you know the ride, consider yourself down. It’s a slower paced 150 miles over 2 days punctuated with awesome food, lots of wine and other beverages.
Because we would be behind on mileage for the first 2 days, we rode out to Palmyra (the “P” in the PBR ride) on Thursday night. Mileage looked like this for the long weekend:
- Day .5 42.2 miles
- Day 1.0 50.1 miles
- Day 1.1 52.1 miles
- Day 2.0 46.3 miles
- Day 2.1 55.6 miles
- Day 3.0 110.7 miles
- Day 4.0 143.4 miles
We’ve gone North & West and since you can’t go East of Milwaukee without a seaworthy vessel, we headed South this year.
Chicago and Northern Indiana don’t really offer much in the way of beautiful scenery, so the vibe was markedly different from years past.
The route did offer lots of places to stop (although some were in areas that you couldn’t have paid us to stop in) and lots of “local color” as Chris McArdle pointed out.
All in all – another successful long weekend of nothing but riding, eating, drinking and smack talk.
As the rookies said, count me in for next year! Already planning for 2014, when we may head back to ‘da UP again…
You might even be invited this time.
Potential 2014 dates:
July 25 – 28
August 1 – 4
August 8 – 11
Day 1: (Day 2 of ToAD actually, but for all of us who don’t get paid to play – it’s Day 1)
East Troy. Nerves on edge, been training and looking forward to this since the end of ToAD last year (like hundreds of other riders). Storm blows in and dampens the course and bodies, but not spirits. We’re still all jacked to race… too jacked. Corners are sketchy and riders pile up like bodies in a war zone. A friend from velocause flats his rear wheel and neutral support gives him a rock hard slick replacement to ride for the last laps in the rain. That’s not a good combination in any playbook, and he eats it hard right in front of me and 2 teammates in turn 1 with 4 laps to go. My teammates and I all slide into someone’s front yard, but somehow manage to stay upright. By the time we veer back on course, the main pack has mostly passed us and any attempt to get to the front is a suicide mission. I decide to play it safe and finish mid-pack ~ 38th of 74.
Grafton. A fun course, nerves are settled down quite a bit. Was able to follow Dave Eckel’s wheel around at the end of the course and sprint for 10th (of 116). I’m still learning how to ride aggressively at the end of races, having been a support guy at last year’s ToAD, but I was happy with tenth. I knew I wasn’t close enough to the front on the last lap, so I was hoping to improve the next day.
Waukesha. I ate it hard with 3 to go on this course last year. Over-shot turn 1 and flipped into the barriers. I was able to get back on my bike and work my way to the front with 1 to go, but I burned every match I had to do so and fell back quickly. No crashes for me this year, but apparently everyone I rode behind didn’t get the memo. Every time I tried working my way to the front, I’d end up behind a wreck and get relegated to the back again. One guy piled his bike into the barriers, went to neutral support and got another bike, then piled THAT one into the same corner. I was lucky enough to be right behind him both times. I spent the entire race avoiding crashes, then trying to sprint back to the front of the pack. With 3 laps to go, Dave Eckel and I found ourselves out in front, me on his wheel. He hit some soft tar in the gutter and thought he flatted, so I’m all alone off the front with 3 to go. With all the yo-yoing I had been doing combined with the extremely humid heat that day, I knew I didn’t have enough in the tank to gut it out alone for 3 laps. I sat up and waited for a wheel. The group passed me like a freight train and I was pushed to the back. Tried my best to make it back to the front but once again I had burned all my Waukesha matches before the final sprint. Finished a disappointing 41st (of 110). After the race, my body temp was so high I could not cool down, or catch my breath. An hour and a half later I jumped into my neighbors pool and sat with ice on my neck for 15 minutes before I could slow my breathing. I love riding in the heat, but I’ve never experienced anything like that. Waukesha was by far the toughest race of the series for me.
Sheboygan. This course was made for guys like me. Fast and flat with just 4 corners. I moved to the front right away and just stayed on the gas with the race leaders the entire race. With no traffic in my way, I was able to roll through just about every corner at will. The effort felt like 50% of the previous day. I was having a great race, until 2 to go. Rather than take the riskier, but faster, inside line, I found myself taking corners on the outside and giving up 2-3 spots on each corner. By the time I worked my way back inside I was probably 30 spots from the leader. Clawed my way back a bit in the sprint to finish 17th of 69. It was just lack of experience, and I told myself not to make the same mistake at Fon du Lac (a carbon copy course) four days later. Overall, I was really happy though. It was fun to race at the front, and I knew what I had done wrong at the end. I was making some progress.
Schlitz Park. The great big lie detector test. I’ve raced it twice before, both times pulling myself from the race after about 20 minutes. There’s no faking it at Schlitz. If you can’t hang, you either blow up and slither away to lick your wounds somewhere, or the race officials step in front of you and pull the plug for you. This year, since I planned to race every day, my goal was just to finish it. I’ll never be confused with a little fella who skips meals, so this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Even with a long warm-up, it takes me about 15-20 minutes to settle in at races and not feel like my heart’s going to explode. I fought hard for the first 15 minutes and managed to find a rythym. With 1 lap to go I rounded turn 1 and started the final climb. Everyone got out of the saddle and hammered. I knew that if I tried that, I’d make it to the top with everyone else, then I’d fall over dead. So, I stayed in the saddle and ground my way up. Crossed the line 21st of 60. Since my only goal was finishing, I was satisfied with that. Cross it off the list and move on.
Fon du Lac Road Race. When I started racing road bikes a couple of years ago, I did so with not a lot of group riding experience. Well, not 25mph-corners-6-wide group riding. I was a mountain bike guy, used to riding alone. My very first Crit was a 9 corner, .8 mile Superweek race. I started dead last on purpose, so I could see things unfold in front of me. I assumed that this would be the best way to do it, and like in a mountain bike race I could just pass people one at a time. I think I might have lasted about 8 minutes before I was so far off the back I had to take a bus back to the start line. After that I assumed that road racing would be my forte. But live and learn, and now I prefer crits to road races. I stayed upfront for the whole race and sprinted for 12th of 81. Had I been more patient, I would have done better. I started my sprint too early as we climbed the final hill. I don’t think there’s enough Meth in the world to get me to sprint all out for a quarter-mile.
Road America Road Race. Schlitz Park and then back to back road races. Hope you’ve been eating your Wheaties. This was a really fun course to ride. Again stayed at the front whenever I could, though I did find myself on the outside wheel in the wind a lot. On the final lap I heard Eck yell “Patience!” which is great advice if you follow it. Instead I decided to try a Groundhog Day version of the previous day’s race. Giant finishing hill, I get out of the saddle and mash the pedals like I’m driving a rented Pinto. As I crest the top I look into the (very distant) horizon and see what looks like a finish banner somewhere in the next county. Several months later I cross the line 23rd of 109.
Fon du Lac. This is the one I was waiting for. A big, flat rectangle. Wide streets. I’m ready. My plan is to just sit on the race leaders’ wheels at the front, maybe take an early pull or 2 and finally line myself up for a real sprint. Plan works just as scripted, though I still give up a few spots on the final lap. Coming around turn 4 I’m in good position and I stand up and hammer. I can see the banner coming up fast as I’m passing guys… this is working! Probably a good time to mention that my Mom and Stepdad came to see this race and positioned themselves right at the line to watch the final sprint. 50 yards from the line, a guy comes across 3 lines and clips a wheel sending a rider to the pavement directly in front of me. Zero options at that point – I hit him full force and flip onto the pavement. As soon as I do I curl up and wait to get hit by the rush of riders directly behind me. 1, 2, 3 hits, then I’m up and running my bike across the line. Turns out someone had ridden over my back and into my head with their chainring. Blood is cleaned, stitches are waived off and I wash down my frustration with 2 pints of Guinness. When results are posted There are 2 “unknown number” slots, so I go to the podium and watch the video of me running my bike across in what appears to be slot #1, 29th. Once results are finalized I realized that I’ve been bumped to slot #2, which is 51st. Either way, it’s not part of the plan, and it’s just salt in the many wounds.
Downer Avenue. The biggest and baddest of all the ToAD races. This is the giant party that everyone comes out to see, and therefor every rider wants to do well at. Really an uneventful race for me. I was really stiff and sore, so I did a nice, long easy warm-up. Worked my plan, but didn’t get to the front with 1-2 to go, sprinted for 15th of 94. Starting to become a bit predictable when things go well for me. I have 95% of the race handled, and I’m getting good at it, but I can’t seem to finish it off. Tired of using the “lack of experience” excuse in my own mind. I know what I need to do now, and I have 1 race left to prove it.
Wauwatosa. I ride in Tosa practically every week. Half of my friends live there. This is it! The night before, I send an email to the entire M 3/4 squad: here’s the plan, we stay at the front the whole day, push the pace but don’t take unnecessary chances. With 5 to go we start making our way to the front. With 2 to go we ARE the front. Last lap, anyone with anything goes and they go as hard as they can… Break! I’m kind of impressed with my sudden and complete understanding of the entire game. It took 10 days, but I have absolutely nailed this one! Race Day… there’s a hill in this course? Did they just put that there? It’s always been there? Are you sure? 2 free laps and I line up mid-pack. That was not part of the plan. Whistle blows and we start into a nice hard tempo ride, right? No? We go balls out from the start? Did anyone read my awesome email last night? Apparently I was not the only person who wanted to win this thing. I was not aware of that. The guys in the front are just laying it down, lap after lap. The guys in the middle are gasping like goldfish that just jumped out of their fish bowls and have no idea what the Hell to do next. Hard on the brakes into every corner, hard on the gas out of every corner. Hey, this reminds me of that first Superweek Crit I did! Just when I start making up a little ground, they announce a prime. The field surges. Then another. And another. And another. 4 back-to-back primes and in my mind I’m just trying to figure out how to recall my email message. With about 5 to go I pop. Nowhere to go but backward. I find a friendly velocause rider and we pull each other around a little and limp across the line. I’m 41st of 92 and my 2013 ToAD is officially over.
- Despite not being able to use all the knowledge I was picking up as I went along, I definitely learned a lot. I have more confidence than I did 2 weeks ago. I’m OK with riding at the front now. 2 weeks ago I didn’t feel worthy, and I’m still struggling with the mental part of racing as much as the physical. I ended the series in 10th overall in the Masters 3/4 35+ category. Next year I’ll be racing in the 45+ category, and it’s a whole different ball game.
- I had fun. Like everyone else, I put a lot of effort into training and make some sacrifices. If I didn’t enjoy it as much as I do, there’s no way I would put that much of myself into it. At the same time, I’ve enjoyed getting better over the past couple of years. I used to be an excuse maker, for every aspect of my life. Cycling has helped me prove to myself that if you put the work in, you get results. There are no excuses that can take the place of that work, and quite honestly no one cares about your lame-ass excuses. Score your touchdown, set the ball down and go back to the bench.
- I have some really great friends. Not only the guys I ride with, but the people who lined the courses. There was always someone yelling for me – at every course. It makes you want to do better, for them, and it’s a great feeling knowing you have people around you hoping that you succeed.
I’ll be back next year, I’m already planning it out in my head. But first, there are kids to play with, burgers to grill and beers to drink.