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Cycling: 7 Reasons “OMG WTF” is the Cruelest

OMG WTF v2.Still005I didn’t name it, but it’s spot on. The “OMG WTF” ride is the hardest ride I’ve ever done. It chewed me up and spit me out; put me between two pieces of white bread, and served me for school lunch. I went riding recently with a few cycling friends: Bill Berlin, Jay Stanley, and Bill Murray. We leave Arlington at 6am to miss Beltway traffic, and start pedaling around 7:30 from Frederick, MD.

It‘s my first time to tackle this route, which seems to have been designed for maximum elevation and suffering. It’s a figure-8 in and out of Gambrill State Park on Catoctin Mountain. With at least four categorized climbs (Cat-3), it’s a legit test. Lots of quality cyclists seem to come here: on Strava, 467 cyclists have ridden the first mountain climb, for example, over 1,400 times.

Jay’s Contour helmet cam captures some surprisingly good footage:


1. Reason #1. Hamburg Road

The first climb is up Hamburg Road, and it’s a doozy! It’s 3.3 miles long, with more than 1,000 ft of elevation gain (6.2% average grade). It takes me about 21 minutes and I average 9 mph. It’s incredibly painful, and I know I’m in for a long day, since I’m reduced to constantly checking my bike computer, doing fast math: “OK, I’ve gone 9.1 miles, 60 to go” . . . and an eternity later . . . “OK, I’ve gone 9.2 miles, 59.9 to go!”


2. Reason #2. Harp Hill

The second hill, Harp Hill, is “only” 1.8 miles. It’s also a cat-3 climb, but shorter — and as a result, not as painful. I cover the 630 ft elevation gain (average grade of 6.7 mph) at a slower 7.9 mph. Bad news: I’m slowing down.


3. Reason #3. The crosswinds

The next 15 miles or so are no picnic, to be sure, but they’re rollers and fun. It’s a beautiful Autumn day, with the sun streaking through the trees. Unfortunately, the crosswind is unpredictable and strong. It gusts upwards of 15-17 mph. Fortunately, most of the climbs are protected, narrow roads. But some of the open descents are too windy.


Part of the pain is that you’ve already done 57 miles and climbed more than 5,000 feet when Coxey smacks you in the face.


4. Reason #4. Middlepoint Road

Middlepoint Road starts to wind upwards at the 35 mile point. Having not ridden much the previous two months, I was dreading this. It’s 1.8 miles long, with 740 ft of elevation gain (with an even higher 7.3% average grade). I’m just trying to survive.


5. Reason #5. Coxey Brown

Jay is talking about how Coxey Brown is the hardest hill he’s ever done, and I just want to get it over with. Part of the pain is that you’ve already done 57 miles and climbed more than 5,000 feet when Coxey smacks you in the face. It’s insane: 1.9 miles long, with 1,024 ft of elevation gain, and 9.6% average grade. No rest for the weary!


6. Reason #6. 5.3 mph

Midway through Coxey, I feel like it’s my first day ever on a bike. It’s a old, narrow one-lane road, with odd off-camber turns and cracked asphalt. It’s not even 60 degrees this afternoon, but I’ve unzipped both my jacket and cycling shirt as far as they’ll go. It takes me 24 minutes to reach the top—at a paltry average speed of 5.3 mph!


7. Reason #7. The paperboy

When you suffer like this, you do things to survive. From the get-go on Coxey, I pull out a shameless maneuver: the paperboy. You know, riding far left and far right, just to manage the slope and stay on the machine. Far in front of me, Bill Berlin is pushing his Trek straight up Coxey. Respect!

Coxey has claimed another victim, but today it’s not me. Torquing up the extreme grades, Jay busts his hub. He ends up running up the hills next to his bike, then gliding down them—covering 6miles this way until we pick him up on the way back to Washington, D.C.

OMG WTF. If you’re ready to test yourself, do it. It’s a helluva ride.

Winning the Air Force Challenge Ride

steve-airForce-2013-thumbThe 2013 Air Force Cycling Classic Challenge Ride had 1,408 people this year—a fun mix of both avid and recreational cyclists. This was my fourth year. Previously, I’d always bonked at some point and fallen back. Sunday, my objective was to stay with the lead peloton, and then sprint off the front to win. I told a few people this goal, and I got some weird looks — I haven’t done any real categorized road races before. But . . . I’ve been training a lot more this year.

First, my stats: I averaged 23.1mph for 65.1 miles, for a 2:49.03 total time. Here are the results. (Edited: Seven riders completed 8 laps and are listed above the lead peloton in the results, but the fastest among them finished the 7 laps more than 5 minutes and 2 miles behind us . . .)

The Challenge Ride is not to be confused with the Crystal Cup, where world-class pro racers compete about a half hour after we clear the course (JJ Haedo won this year). The weekend series also includes categorized races, with seriously talented Cat 1 to Cat 4 racers competing for small prize money. In fact, watching the Clarendon Cup Saturday for maybe the 8th year in a row, I was blown away by their endurance, power, and bike-handling.

For the last few years, I’ve been riding most Sundays with neighbors. It’s a good group, and can get competitive—in a good way—since they are really strong riders. This year, we have a small contingent going to the Crystal Cup. I meet up at 6:30 with Eric Miller, Phil the Hill, Steve Cahill, Bill Mowery, and Mowery’s son Jack (age 11, a great athlete). Colin Brown will meet us at the starting line, but we never find him.

Post ride pic from last year, left to right: Phil the Hill, Bill "Orange" Berlin, Steve Cahill, and Ron Paletzki; bottom: Bill Mowery, Jay Stanley (who won), and me.
Post ride pic from last year, left to right: Phil the Hill, Bill “Orange” Berlin, Steve Cahill, and Ron Paletzki; bottom: Bill Mowery, Jay Stanley (who won), and me.

The start is messy and crowded. I wish I was closer to the front, but participants in various corporate and team challenges get to start up there. Almost as soon as the horn sounds, I lose track of Phil and Eric. Normally, Bill “Orange” Berlin is wearing his eponymous jersey, which serves as an effective beacon. This year, he’s outta town, and we have none.

I’m winding in and out of lots of riders. An early accident gets the adrenaline flowing. About three miles up Route 110, five guys in United Healthcare and DC Velo kits race past with a purpose. That’s our cue. Cahill and I glom on. By the Iwo Jima Memorial, our turnaround, we have a peloton of 15 riders. These guys are out to win it. The size of the group will ebb and flow between 10 and 20 riders until I make my move at the end of lap 6.

The Challenge Ride route is an advertised 16.5k, but really 15.0k (or 9.3 mile loop). In years past, it was a very tidy 12.5k, so when you did 8 laps, you did a metric century, or 100k. This year, I figured I’d do as many laps as the lead group, probably 6 and maybe 7.

While I ride, I review my plan: to sit in with the lead peloton, pull as little as possible, keep as much in the tank as I can, eat a gel every 45 minutes, match any breakaways in the final lap, and then try to separate at the end. I’d figure out exactly where to make my break as we loop around.

Lap 1 is hard. The peloton has not yet coalesced, and we’re jerky. I’m not feeling warm yet, so I stay at the back. The problem is, I keep yo-yoing. At the turnaround, Cahill yo-yos as the peloton accelerates and I lose him. I remember what my friend, ex-racer Ron (see photo) always says about staying in the first third of the peloton, so resolve to move up.

By lap 2, I’m warm. I move up gradually before the Air Force hill and am in the front five riders. The Air Force hill doesn’t seem as tough this year. I just put it in the small chain ring and do a higher cadence, staying around 17mph. The descent, however, is curvy and dangerous, because it’s hard to decide whether to keep it at 40mph when the circuit narrows and you pass a bunch of unpredictable riders going 20.

At this stage, along with three other guys, I somehow gap the peloton and gain some serious time (is there an accident behind us on the descent?). It’s just us for the three miles into Crystal City. The announcer calls us the “chase group” as we race through the start/finish line, but I don’t know what that means. One rider says there’s a single breakaway rider out front, by 20 seconds. So we resolve to pull him back. This is not especially in my strategy, but we start pushing the pace in a rotating pace line of three (this ends up being my fastest lap at 23.7mph). Apparently he doesn’t like my style, and yells “Man, don’t you know how to do a pace line?” Sorry, I meekly respond.

At the Air Force Memorial
At the Air Force Memorial. Check out Tony Estrada Photography to get photos from the ride:‎

Moments later, on the narrow northern stretch of 110, I almost hit a displaced orange cone, swerving left (into oncoming bike traffic) to miss it. The guy behind me hits it squarely, stays up, but the cone spikes up and smacks my nemesis in the face. (We chat about this amicably during a subsequent lap).

The cone incident puts me alone in 2nd place. But I don’t have a clear idea of how far back I am, so I sit up, soft pedal, and wait for a minute for the peloton to catch me. It’s about the 24 mile mark.

Laps 3-5 are routine. There are some strong guys taking long pulls, including a new friend Greg Butler. I eat and drink attentively. I’m focused on the wheel in front of me and not getting in trouble. The peloton is working well together: indicating road hazards, doing all the hand signals, slowing down when we get to accidents. These guys know what they’re doing.

At about the 8-mile mark of every loop, there’s a long gradual 1% downhill and then a sharp 3% uphill as you cross a bridge and drop into Crystal City. It’s typical for the speed to inch up to 30mph, and then slow down to 15mph in the span of les than 20 seconds. Here toward the end of lap 5, at about the 43-mile mark, a rider attempts a break. He gets maybe 10 seconds on us, but we gradually reel him back before the start/finish line.

But this is all the inspiration I need for when to attack!

It’s lap 6, and the gamesmanship begins. The pace slows considerably after the halfway point, and nobody wants to pull. Somewhere in the middle, we finally swallow up the sole breakaway, a super strong cyclist named Tim—he’s been out front by himself for 2 hours! By the Air Force Hill, I’m at the front and get some energy when I see my wife and daughter cheering! I wanted to take the descent first to stay out of trouble. That’s because last year, I got gapped by Jay Stanley here (who went on to win), trapped behind a super slow group. I didn’t want that to happen again.

On the approach to Crystal City, we’re averaging maybe 20 mph (where we’d done 26+ before). I see the bridge about a half-mile in the distance. That’s my cue. I take a swig of water, then use the rest of it to spray my head and try and cool down.

Bam! I make my move, pushing it to about 35 mph on the gradual downhill. I hit the uphill hard, try to maintain as much speed as possible, and enter Crystal City still ahead, yelling “on your left” like a banshee.

Now, the road here is so torn up that even the pros actually complained about the potholes! There are tons of riders, and I’m winding around them willy-nilly. As I make the right turn onto Crystal Drive, I catch a glimpse back over my shoulder—my move has broken up the peloton. There’s a string of 5-6 riders behind me. I don’t look again. I’m getting dog tired, but just push it as hard as I can the final quarter mile or so.

I cross the finish line first, which is kind of a new and amazing feeling. I sit up and try to catch my breath. A few seconds later, Greg rides up (I note he’s not breathing that hard!) and says, “we’re doing one more” . . . UGH!! I’m so dead after that sprint! Had I miscounted?

This is definitely my low point. I’m out of breath, out of water, and the peloton is down to only five guys, so it’s gonna be harder to hide. I just catch a wheel and determine not to drop off. At this point, I honestly am confused and still don’t know if I’ve done 5 laps or 6 (the discrepancy with the loop length, and the math involved doesn’t help!). When it’s my turn to pull, I demur, and go straight to the back.

The first half of this lap is a total blur. One guy falls off the pace. Then another. Then Greg signals me as if to say, “I’m dropping back.” Now it’s just Tim and me.

To be fair, Tim Kelley is a better cyclist than me. His name is all over Strava and he’s clearly a beast. His first lap was the single fastest lap of anybody in the Challenge Ride, averaging 24.7mph—a minute faster than my fastest lap. However, I know that he decided to test himself with a solo breakaway for more than two hours, which means he’s tired.

Tim’s not too troubled that I suck his wheel for the final 4 miles, nor that I jump him with about 300m to go. I round the final curve in full sprint mode, determined to give it my all. And then! I hit a pothole and drop my chain from big to small. While I’m struggling to put it back, he passes me. I get back in gear and struggle to catch him . . . finishing in a dead heat!

We congratulate each other, and I seek out my friends. When I see the results Monday, my time is about 5 seconds ahead of Tim’s. I know it’s not a legit categorized bike race, but it was loads of fun! 


Salt & Ice: A Cyclist’s Confession

It took a day to thaw to write this. On the eve of President’s Day, I’m tipping back single malts with Triathlete Jay, in close proximity to ex-Cat 3 racer Ron. And I get peer pressured. In a “good” way (photo credit, not of me).

“Going riding tomorrow, Steve?” asks Triathlete Jay, the hint of an evil grin apparent, to which I confidently respond, “Sure!”

This is the hard time of year to be a cyclist. Yes, I’ve cross-trainied on running trails, attended co-ed spin classes, and watched documentaries on Netflix from my Kurt Kinetic.

But it’s a chore. And it’s nowhere close to the fun of riding a bike outdoors.

Yesterday, I was excited to get outdoors for the first time in about a month. At 7am, the mercury’s quivering at 25 degrees. I meet up with Jay, Erik, and Dave—all motivated by fear since signing up for Lake Placid Ironman. Cycle Guru Phil somehow . . . feels . . . no . . . cold.

By mile 15, we pass Great Falls Park on the shores of the Potomac. And the temperature drops. My fingertips, encased in bulky ski gloves, are itchy and bulbous. I am unthirsty, but remind myself to drink. Yet my “insulated” water bottles are frozen shut. Shaking vigorously, I manage to coax out a semi-liquid the consistency of a 7-11 Slurpee. Meanwhile, the ice blocks that were my feet (despite the foot warmers) are taking over my ankle like gangrene.

Stinger Waffles are concrete discs. Slurpee water is in solitary confinement. I make the unwise decision to not eat or drink, and just ride.

My face is crinkly for the dried sweat-salt. I become obsessed with avoiding the patches of black ice on the shoulder of the road. As I bonk, I withdraw, focusing on the pedaling; I flex my cheeks and feel the salt. Salt and ice. Ice and salt.

About 8 hours later, some friends are over for dinner. It’s President’s Day, and what better way to celebrate? Yes, I’m still exhausted from the ride, but I feel myself rebounding after an afternoon of sluggishness . . . Their middle-school son, ostensibly good-natured, opens the stopwatch on his phone. “Are you ready for a challenge?” he smiles. Maybe the hint of an evil grin apparent.

The boy shakes salt into my palm. Then places an ice cube in it. “Close your hand,” he instructs, “squeeze hard, and see how long you can go.”

I’m 20 years removed from science instruction of any kind, so I don’t see this one coming. When the zapping begins, it’s mild at first . . . until its not. After 1 minute and 9 seconds, the stopwatch clicks, and I’m bent over the sink, glorious water flowing, punked by a middle-school science geek.

My blisters are nowhere near what you’ll see if you Google “salt and ice challenge.” That’s good. But today I have to ask myself: Am I too old for such craziness? Am I too old for 50-mile bike rides in 25-degree weather?  . . . Not sure. Ask me next weekend.

Photo from Huffpo article:

Chincoteague: Crab Pots, Nature Loop

 In Chincoteague this week, it’s a perfect time to do some crabbing. These bunker baited our large crab pots, three of which we dropped off the end of our pier. The next day, we had 20 large crabs for a super feast. Old Bay, beer, and fries from Capt Zachs round it out.

The Chincoteague Nature Loop is 3 miles exactly, flat, and closed to cars before noon. Perfect bike riding material. I define a segment on Strava and do my best:

A Desert Ride

With Victor and Nate

The first time I rode with the Desert Cycling Club, the elites dropped me like a bad habit.
But today, I was hoping to keep up on the money stretch – a gradual 5-mile incline from the floor of the Coachella Valley into the foothills of the Little San Bernadinos. I had a secret weapon: fueled by turkey and stuffing.

We meet at 7:30 at Palm Desert Civic Park. It’s a big crowd of about 100. It’s mixed: young and old; men and women. The female leader announces an A-ride and three variations on the B-ride.

Against all good judgment, I go A . . .

Palm Desert, California is an insanely beautiful place to ride a bike. The roads are wide and well maintained—with bike lanes galore, some wide enough for golf carts.

I did today’s route last Saturday, which takes you through Palm Desert, Thousand Palms, Bermuda Dunes, Coachella, Indio, La Quinta, Indian Wells, and back to Palm Desert.

It’s dry and sunny, with basically perfect weather this time of year. There are snow-topped mountains to the west and south, and a sprawling range to the north that stretches to Joshua Tree National Park—which is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Desert Cycling Club A-Ride (65)

Find more Cycling Routes / Bike Rides in Palm Desert, CA

We head north, spinning reasonably. It’s nearing 8:00, and the B riders have peeled off. It’s in the mid-60s. About 40 riders turn north off of 38th Ave onto Washington. A double peloton stretches out to single as we start to push the pace.

I work my way toward the front and nestle in behind a big guy. I notice I’m about the only guy with hair on my legs. On a bike, that can only mean one thing . . . speed!

Three riders stand up on their pedals in quick succession and break away from us. By the time we make a hard right turn onto Thousand Palms Canyon Road, they’re 20 lengths ahead and the race up the incline is on.

I’m feeling strong. But the pace is only going to get faster. Suddenly I hear a wooooosh, and I’m skidding on a flat tire. I veer to the shoulder, and the peloton is gone like that!

I sit on a rock. This road is a thin scar in a hardscrabble desert. No traffic. Mountains and a clear sky.

I fix my flat, turn my bike back downhill, and spin the 14 miles to Palm Desert. I’m catching a flight back home in two hours . . . but I can’t wait until I can test myself on this route again.

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