This past weekend, I rode in my second MS150. The MS150 is an annual charity cycling ride that originated in Minnesota and raises funds for Multiple Sclerosis research. It has since spread nationally and there are 3 in Texas, though the Houston-to-Austin two-day April ride is now the most popular in the country. Registration, soft-capped at 13 thousand, opened in October and closed inside of two weeks, despite an increased minimum pledge of $500 ($100 due upfront). My father wanted me to join him in the event two years ago, and I did so with only 3 months preparation and a newly purchased road bike. Crash course.
In the time since, I’ve moved and started to bike commute to work each day along the Houston Bayou (paved) Trail. Almost 18 miles a day, everyday barring significant rain in the morning. I have a second, more rugged, bike for the commute and slapped on literally thousands of miles of experience on it. I started licking my chops for a rematch with the MS150.
I missed last year’s MS150 when registration capped and closed 2 months earlier than I registered the year prior. Not to be caught off guard this year, I hit the online registration site the hour it opened, as if I were trying to score Police tickets on Ticketmaster. Similar to that experience, the site crashed immediately and I wasn’t able to actually get registered until several hours later. It speaks volumes of the ride’s popularity when you have to try this hard to make sure you will be one of the thousands to give them hundreds of dollars in exchange for dehydration and a sore rear end.
At the time, I was still in training for my alleged final marathon that took place this past January. The gameplan would be that I would do the 26.2, take a couple weeks off, and then break out the higher-end road bike for long rides on alternate weekends. The Houston Greater area has a surplus of them from February through April, and this would give me opportunities to reacquaint myself with that bike. Bikes are like horses, you need to take the time to build a rapport before going out for long stretches. Unfortunately, week after week, life got in the way. My sister was married in West Texas in early Feb., then the wife ensured I celebrated on my birthday weekend, the bike took a while getting tuned up, my buddy called us out for an Austin weekend, I was sidelined hours before a morning race with out-of-the-blue back spasms, another Friday late night birthday celebration, and the next thing I knew, it was the final hour.
This left me with a midnight hour 63-miler “warm up” ride 6 days before the real thing. It was great, because it let me get all of the ‘went wrong’ out of the way. Took forever prepping the night before, including tire inflation troubles, too over-anxious to sleep well, etc. The ride took place close to the Gulf, and the winds were tough to cut through on much of the loop course. By the end, my cockiness was completely replaced with humility and a tough of uncertainty about the looming 150. Jacked up backs have a way of doing that to your self-efficacy. This settled the debate of whether I would be getting a deep tissue massage. In fact, what I pushed for and got might qualify as illegal interrogation tactics on my back.
Game time, Saturday morning pre-dawn. We head out with little incident and meet up with my dad at a ‘bandit’ start location off I-10. Leaving from the official (there are 3) starting lines isn’t something I’d recommend, as you would start in the midst of literally thousands of cyclists, all slowly sifting apart into natural paces and lines. It’s like trying to get out of parking lot following a major concert. We arrive a few minutes late to the bandit starting spot, which means I have to go double-time getting the bike off the rack and into my pedal shoes – Dad’s not waiting and I can’t blame him. The upside is, starting with a jolt of adrenaline beats hanging around waiting 10 times out of 10.
The start is decently chilly, but not so much that I would regret going out in short sleeves. I’m not wearing a standard cycling jersey, but a F.C. Bayern personalized (#25, Teufel) soccer jersey. Individuality and standing out is as much the point to jerseys as functionality. One of the many ways cycling is a lot like NASCAR. I like the soccer jerseys since they’re just as functional, a guarantee for uniqueness, and oftentimes a conversation starter. Sure enough, a guy starts riding next to me in the morning wanting to talk about Munich. Helps the time go by. Not as much chatting happens during a marathon, shockingly. I’m also killing the time with a bike-specific iPod mono-boombox. Like my jersey, it is popular amongst the riders around me. Clamps into a water bottle cage and blasts out surprisingly quality audio (remote is affixed to the handlebars). Every old-school running and cyclist frowns upon the use of iPods, usually because they don’t think you should be so laid back that you’d actually listen to tunes. They’re like a cranky parent in that way. Big difference between runners and cyclists, though, is that seasoned cyclists are very likely to curse out and throw a fit over the issue. That’s because a cyclist zoned out with headphones on is the equivalent of a cell-phone driver, and there’s nothing more infuriating than someone oblivious to riders trying to pass from behind or more dangerous than a wreck caused by someone being oblivious to their surroundings. And with clip-in shoes, no protective equipment past the helmet, and speeds exceeding 20 mph, a crash can be extremely serious on rides. You don’t have to know many big riders before finding someone with a broken collarbone or elbow.
That 20 mph mention didn’t make you gasp, did it? Allow me to expound, sticking with the cycling-driving analogy. In my estimation, every 2 mph on a bike is the equivalent of 5 mph for a car. Cars drifting in idle travel somewhere around 10 mph, so that’s 4 mph on a bike. Slow riding on a bike is 8-12 mph, which would be 20-30 mph in car terms. A good easy pace for me is typically 14-17 mph, which would be a suburban traffic-like 35-43 mph. 20 bike miles per hour would convert to 50 mph (makes the wrecking speed seem a little more serious, now, huh?), and 30 on the bike would be 75. 30, not coincidentally, is where you have to start watching yourself on the bike, because a pothole seen too late at that speed is going to ruin your day in a flash. My current high speed (flat sprint) is 34 mph (85) and my top downhill, braking some to my chagrin, is 46 (115). That was a speed that induced a healthy bit of fear to go with my main dish of thrill.
There are plenty of other biking/driving parallels. Staying to the right is a big deal and needs to be ingrained as habit. It’s more than annoying when abreast riders or a random slower-paced rider is eating up passing lines/lanes like a granny that figures going the limit in the far left lane is more than fast enough and you can just live with it, or worse, truckers eating the left lane. Your biggest issues tend not to be catching your breath or keeping your legs fresh as much as getting bored, getting stiff and sore, and having to pull over for quick pit stops, just like on a regular road trip. Just like on the highway, there are those that constantly play leapfrog (passing you only to slow below your speed) instead of maintaining an even pace, and those that get hypercompetitive if anyone passes them. There’s general etiquette for passing (stay right, call up to rider you’re about to pass, pass swiftly and bike decently ahead before going back to pace) that is ignored by far too many on the road. Lastly, cops will pull you over if they catch you pulling stunts (sneaking into a actual car lane to pass a crowd) and tear you a new one.
Back to the ride itself. The MS150 treks from Houston to Austin mainly so that the gulf winds are on the riders’ back. More than hills, heat, and gear, winds will define a ride. More than in running, wind drag can turn you into the Flash or turn your day into a nightmare. <8 mph are light to moderate, depending how they line up (direct, angled, or side), 9-15 mph winds are moderate to strong, 16-24 mph are strong, and above that – well, stay home if it’s a headwind. In a cruel twist, a front moved in days before the MS and reversed the winds, providing 11-15 mph direct headwinds over both days. BAD NEWS. Heading to Houston is on an incline with hills, and adding moderate to strong headwinds to them is a bad cocktail to drink. SAG (Support & Gear) vans are on the course, mainly to transport a rider and damaged bike to the next stop for repairs. This year, the conditions wiped out so many people that the SAG vans were overwhelmed with those bowing out to the extent that buses had to be called in to transport riders to the Day 1 finish area. I surprised myself, maintaining a good speed (17+) until I detoured to the ranch that Lori and I were staying with her cousins. I was hammered by a ruthless combination of strong winds and endless climbs, knocking my speed down to 8 mph and my effort through the roof. For comedy, ask Lori to recite the phone call I put in to her halfway through. If her cousins her it, let me say I no longer wish any of those things on your lives or home.
That evening was very relaxing and nice – nothing soothes like being done for the day and off the bike. Joyriding a golfcart across a ranch helps, too. The next trick? Recovering in time for day 2. As my friend once pointed out to me in regards to the Tour de France – it’s just not natural to kill yourself biking through hills all day and be able to just get up and do it again the next day (the point? They’re all doping. Had I learned the lesson, I would be using some EPO myself).
Alarms again at 5, stuff some bananas and aspirin down and off we go to the Day 2 bandit start. It’s a full 40 mins to get there, and of course I’m in need of a port-a-john before I can go. More than anything, you don’t need to ride with a swollen bladder. Of course, bandit starting points are short on port-a-johns, so off to the other side of the street I head for the shrubbery. Morning Two was much colder than Morning One (about 45 degrees). It’s tricky to be discreet taking care of your business when you’re producing smoke signals of steam. I’m braving it again without warm gear – with no place to stash layers, it’s the right choice. I do steal a pair of Lori’s socks and cut thumbholes to manufacture myself some makeshift mittens. At the first rest stop an hour later, my feet and hands are a touch numb, but it’s warming and won’t be a problem anymore.
Day Two is slightly shorter than Day One, but that’s because Day Two throws hills and climbs at you at several stretches. The course briefly splits, giving the choice of riding on a highway shoulder with cars buzzing you (not as fun as it sounds, and pretty loud) or going through a scenic park. Only that park is known as the Challenge Course – the toughest climbs on the ride make you pay for the wooded scenery. I’ve done the Challenge Course before and had to walk up a couple of the climbs off my bike; so, after yesterday’s murderous finish I conclude that I’ve fulfilled my “challenge” quota for the ride and opt for the highway. That path is far from flat, and with this wind, I am more than okay with my choice. The only real downside aside from the traffic noise is the high “New to This” vs “Experienced Rider” ratio – forget about people knowing how to keep lanes up for passing. Still, it’s a small price to pay and I find myself at the lunch stop at 10 am.
Like with driving and working, I’m very much a “head down, power through” type. I just want to be done and finished. I take most of the rest stops since it’s such a big help to get off the bike each hour, but I’m only there for 3-5 minutes before resuming. Ditto for lunch. Why hang around and let the heat and wind pick up even more? Sooner done, sooner a beer will be in hand. I take a few bites of my Subway sandwich and I’m gone. There’s 30-some more miles for me to get through, and a good number of stretches of direct head winds. Eventually, I cross under the first outer-Austin bypass and reach my final pit stop before the finish.
The finish takes you under I-35 and through the University of Texas, and smelling the end gives me all I need for the home stretch. Still, I grab a couple watermelon slices before getting on the bike one last time – you have to love a sport that lets you pull over and eat some fruit. I cross under highway 183 and get my first glimpse of the UT Tower. This, unfortunately, is followed up by a series of insult hills: steep drops and climbs that can break the spirit of anyone worn out from the day. You also have to be practiced with your gear shifting – gear up as your speed increases down the hill to maximize your momentum for the climb, and be able to gear down rapidly enough to “stay under” the climb. Gear down too slowly, and you won’t be able to maintain a minimum speed and the bike will stop. Gear down too quickly, and you run the risk of the chain slipping off the gears.
Finally, I across under I-35, and enter UT or, as I call it, Victory Lane. I burn through the campus at over 20 mph and hotdog a little bit to the finish line. There’s a very full crowd, and nothing in the world beats being finished. I dismount, find my wife, sister, and brother in law, and grab a complimentary celebratory beer courtesy of St. Arnold’s. Mission Accomplished. Next time though, I won’t mind having the gulf winds on my side.