Livestrong Austin Ride Report

Livestrong Austin Challenge 2011The day started early, in no small part because I’d slept poorly. I was out of bed and kitted up by 6 a.m., just in time to wake Chris, Simon, and Mike. A slow start coupled with unexpected detours meant arriving in Dripping Springs later than intended. Once parked, we threw our things together and booked it for Robert Hanks Park where thousands were already waiting in a sea of yellow for the ride to start.

As a faceless announcer encouraged and congratulated all the riders, we dodged through crowds to collect our registration packets, drop off bags and generally prepare to go. As Lance Armstrong addressed the crowd, I was running across a field to get a “In Memory Of” sign to wear on the ride. I had my priorities.

After everybody got our numbers pinned, we rolled out in the Nth wave of 90-milers, stretching all the way across the closed chipseal road. As I exited the chute that marked the start/finish line, a row of girls with yellow pompoms stuck their hands out and I rode by, giving everyone a high five while the spectators cheered. It’s probably the closest feeling I’ll ever have to being a rock star.

Mike and Simon at our first stopBy the time we reached the end of the traffic closures, we were a mess of cyclists stretching as far as one could see. Shouts of “Car up!” and “Cattle guard!” and “Slowing!” punctured good-hearted conversations between strangers. At an event like this, everyone has a story to tell, and every rider is just a friend you haven’t met yet. Locals lined the roads outside their ranches, waving and shouting encouragement. Even in Austin, my Aggie jersey earned me Whoops and Gig’ems.

When we hit the first short, steep climb, the already slow pace dropped further as some riders dismounted. I hit a lower gear and stood to power up it, my only difficulty in keeping a reasonable pace due to the riders around me. Our group of three 90-milers–Chris, Simon, and myself–had some trouble sticking together in the crowds, but we managed not to get completely separated. At the second rest stop (“Power Station” in LS lingo), the crowd had thinned some and we paused to fill water bottles (which I’d failed to do before the start).

Our pace remained casual and conversational as we continued, though I would occasionally pick things up some if I looked at the clock and felt we might be short on time to make the 36-mile cut-off before 11 am. After Mile 23 or so, I noticed a nagging pain in my left knee. For awhile it came and went, but, in the end, it became my constant companion.

Although the entire ride was hilly, it was between Miles 24 and 50 that we climbed from our lowest point to the highest elevation on the route. I knew I was to keep my pace easy on the climbs (I’m something of a speed demon on hills apparently), so every time I came to one, I’d drop into a gear that felt easy enough to manage for the entire climb and then I dropped a cog or two below that for good measure. I’m afraid I still aggravated everyone else by passing rider after rider. No doubt it did not help that my knee hurt less when climbing than when riding on the flats. (Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me either.)

We made the cut-off at Mile 36 with half an hour to spare and I wolfed down the best tasting peanut butter and banana sandwich I’ve ever had, which is saying something considering how many I had during mountain bike season! According to the map we’d been given, our ride consisted of about 2,800 feet of climbing total, and Simon’s GPS was claiming by the cut-off that we’d done about 2,000 feet of climbing already. By that point, I was convinced that the actual amount of climbing would be far closer to the 5,900 feet originally claimed on the website months before. I was enjoying the climbing, though, so I wasn’t worried.

Posing with a photo of Grandma and Granddaddy I carried on the rideWe carried on and on and on, the day growing warmer and the roads growing emptier (of bikes, at least). Each rest stop we paused at grew quieter. I was struggling now–not with exhaustion but with the pain in my knee, with frustration at our pace, and with grief. This ride was the culmination of months of training, something I’d poured myself into to try and deal with my grief over Granddaddy’s loss. I knew I’d achieved something in all that work. I knew that Granddaddy would be proud of me. I had a piece of him with me in my jersey pocket in the form of a momento and three photographs. But none of it was helping.

On some level, his death still isn’t real to me, even though I saw him buried. Somehow I still find myself expecting to call and talk with him about everything I’ve done, tell him about my engagement to Joe, see him at my graduation and my wedding. On the road, on the ride I’d spent so many miles preparing for, I couldn’t ignore that, in achieving what I’d set out to do, I’d failed to achieve something I’d wanted. During a long stretch between rest stops, I left Chris and Simon to themselves and rode alone with my thoughts, now punctuated every pedal stroke with sharp pain in my left knee. I hardly saw anyone and probably wouldn’t have noticed them anyway. Mostly I was trying not to cry.

Despite my need for solitude, I felt–and feel–guilty for leaving the others behind. At the last rest stop, I pulled over in the shade to wait for them. We should finish together, at least. I must have ridden harder than I’d thought in that section because I waited nearly fifteen minutes before I saw them. In the meantime, the volunteers had started packing up the rest stop and the SAG wagons were circling, reporting there were fewer than a dozen riders left on the course. I wondered how everyone could have passed us. Did the rest take the shorter course or get swept away by the SAG crew? I was nervous that we’d be ushered off the course, even though it was more than an hour until the designated cut-off.

With the encouragement that we were only six miles from the finish and it was mostly downhill, we set off once more. Chris led, Simon followed, and I stuck behind Simon’s wheel–partly to make sure he was doing okay and mostly to prevent me from going faster than I ought to! The three of us once again reached the closed section of road leading into the park and we rode in a line past a course photographer, me flashing him a Gig’em as I went. As we approached the finish, we heard the announcer’s voice over the PA. We veered left as we approached the chute (the right side is reserved for cancer survivors, each of whom receives a yellow rose as they finish). And suddenly Simon took off! Surprised (and ever terrible in a sprint), I took off after him, noting as I did that the announcer was introducing us as the BCS Barnstormers team from College Station and calling me out by name as team captain. With a huge grin and one arm in the air, I finished, turning left to ride through a mister and take a cool towel.

Team BCS Barnstormers after the rideMike, having taken the 65-mile route, waited at the finish and greeted us when we finished. The BCS Barnstormers were a huge success, raising over $4,000 and well exceeding our fundraising goals even though we hadn’t managed half the things we’d planned to do. Just imagine what we could do next time!

As the group explored the post-ride party, I took a few minutes to call loved ones and let them know that I’d finished. My first call went to Martha, Granddaddy’s widow. “What are you going to do now that you’ve finished?” she asked after I’d told her about the ride and the fundraising. I’d need a break, of course, I told her, to let my knee heal (and, in fact, I limped for more than a day after finishing the ride), but then I’d be back to training. After all, the collegiate road racing season starts in January! Final stats: 86 miles at an average speed of 15.9 mph (138.4 km at 25.6 kph). More of my photos and the professionals’ photos.

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