Sunday, March 8, 2009

Riding with the Pros Part 6 – Sweet Relief

The easiest stage did not start out easy. Karen and I let the other riders pass us by before we got on the bike trail. They were going to pass us anyway. So might as well let pass before we get rolling.

Five seconds after we got on the trail Karen says, “Jill, I feel like I have a flat. Can you check my back wheel?”

“Karen, you had a flat yesterday. You can’t have a flat today. It’s against the odds.”

“Jill, I swear. I feel like I’m flat in the back.”

I looked.

“Karen, you’re flat.”

We had to pull over and we hadn’t even started yet! Karen is barely off her bike when our biking buddies appear out of nowhere. They must have been lingering behind us.

They were off their bikes and I swear it looked like an Indy 500 pit. One guy held up Karen’s bike and the second guy had the wheel off before the bike was fully off the ground. Then I just saw dust and tubes flying, Karen’s tire fall to the ground then almost immediately picked up again and then, voila! Her flat fixed and she was ready to go! The guy didn’t even use tire levers! He used his hands!!!

“You had a small piece of glass in your tire.” One of the biking buddies told Karen thrusting his hand toward her.

“What?” Karen looked at the small piece of glass the magic man found in the process of the two-second tire change. “That’s why I got flats two days in a row!”

With that we were off and this time Charles didn’t lie to us. It was flat all the way in to the wharf. It was heaven! Our two biking buddies rode ahead. They knew it would be hard for us to get into trouble on this stage but they did look back at us every other minute just to be sure.

We made it to the wharf and the group of 50 riders was assembling for a picture. We made it in time to be included. The next stage was the longest and we were hearing rumors that the main group wanted to race each other. So I told Karen of my plan to ride the mile to the hotel and get a head start on the shower. She decided to go with me. So the group headed off for the last stage and the route happened to take us right past the hotel.

So Karen and I are taking our sweet time knowing we not having to keep up with the group any more. We’re riding down Cannery Row toward the hotel and I see a guy pull out from the pack and head back our way.
“There’s our buddy,” Karen said.

When he got within hearing distance I said, “Don’t worry, were just riding to the hotel and we’re going to pack it in.”

“That’s all I needed to know,” he said. Then he peeled off and caught up with the rest of the group.

I am really happy he got to ride with the big boys finally. And I was really happy we were going to get showers soon.

The luncheon was held in a luxury hotel and they had suites reserved for the riders to shower in. Karen and I each had our own shower so we didn’t even have to take turns. The suite over looked the Monterey Bay and was just gorgeous! We had all the time in the world and we took it!

As we were about to leave the suite to go downstairs for lunch, we could see the riders coming back from our 2nd story window. They looked spent! But happy! We heard rumors in the buffet line that the 4th stage became an all out race and only the most hardy weren’t left behind. I knew I had made the right decision to step out.

Karen and I got spaces at a back table. Hennie and the two pro riders Robert and Grischa were going to give a talk about cycling and their riding strategy for the tour while we ate.

While the presentation was underway, I wondered how many of the people in the room knew I was the girl who had to be dragged through the course. I was feeling a little embarrassed. But then it dawned on me, practically everyone was in front of me on the ride the whole time. I’m sure they weren’t spending any time looking behind them. That was not where the fun was. I felt much better and started to feel very secure in my anonymity of weakness. That is until Hennie started talking.

While Hennie spoke he started to talk about the importance of drafting. Then he said, “Today, I taught some riders about that. I see them at the back table.” And he points to Karen and I. Remember he is in the very front of the room and we are in the very back. Everyone of the riders now turned to look at who Hennie was talking about. I was back to being embarrassed!!! Oh well. At least Hennie remembered me!

After the presentation all of us at our table were chatting and Karen looks at two gentlemen to her right.

“Wow you guys, thank you so much for your help today! We couldn’t have done it without you!”

My eyes flew wide and I looked at the two men. I had no idea what their faces looked like. I never got to see them because us cyclists wear helmets and sports shades. I had no idea of their hair or eye color. But now, I looked at their clothes and recognized the cycling jerseys they still had on under their post-ride jackets. Suddenly, I recognized the ‘sole patch’ under the lip of Karen’s biking buddy.

OMG! We were having lunch with them! I know you’re thinking I would have gotten their names now. But no. The presentation had wrapped up and the pro-riders were signing auto-graphs and taking pictures. People were getting up to leave or meet the riders. I jumped up fast to get a picture with my biking buddy and thank him one last time.

To this day, I’m not sure. But I think his name might have been Alex.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Riding with the Pros Part 5 – Hill Help

At the end of the first stage I was worried. I have three more to go and I’m not holding my own! I had the tail end of a cold and my lungs were burning and I was having a coughing fit standing there waiting for the next stage to start.

My friend Charles came by, “How you doing?”

“Ok, but you saw me get dropped on that first hill.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “The next stage is mostly on a bike path along the beach. There are no killer hills. Just some little rollers.”

‘Little rollers’ that sounded doable. Usually bike paths aren’t built with crazy hills because family types with children and strollers use them. I was thinking I could make it through Stage 2 with little problem.

Charles, my friend, I am stating this publicly: You are a big fat liar!

The ride through town to the bike path was a hell of a lot easier! The bike path was beautiful and it did run along the beach. BUT it was hilly! And there were some KILLER hills.

I noticed there was a guy who was riding near me the whole way through town and once we hit the bike path as well. He stayed with me at the back of the path and rode closer to me than most strangers do. I didn’t think about it too much because we had a lot of riders on that path so there wasn’t a whole lot of room and I’m used to riding in close quarters when I’m on my mountain bike. I vaguely registered that there was a guy hanging around my friend Karen too.

It wasn’t until we started hitting the hills that I started to get suspicious. Instead of riding hard up the hill with the rest of the group, he grabbed my back and started pushing me!!!! He did this up each hill. He didn’t even say anything to me. He just put his hand on my back and pushed until we got to the top.

Was he planted to help the cycling challenged? He had no visible designation like a sign that said “Hill Helper” or anything. Who was this guy? And why is he being so nice??

So the hills kept coming and he kept pushing me. I didn’t know how he was going to keep it up over the 10 miles we had to cover. It’s one thing to manage the hills yourself but to push my weight (and the weight of my bike also) is a whole different challenge.

The good thing was that I don’t get nervous riding real close to others. I have decent bike handling skills so that was good. I think he noticed that because at one point we were coming down a descent and I was trying to work the momentum to my (our) best advantage. So we actually started to catch a group of riders up ahead. Not only did I try to work the momentum but the group of riders may have slowed down for several different reasons. But I didn’t want to slow down. I wanted to gain as much distance as I could because I knew they would speed up again. And any distance I can gain now will help.

My riding buddy must have been thinking the same thing because I noticed as we are gaining on the group at the fastest pace I’d been able to go all day, he was searching for an opening. I saw one on the left.

He grabbed a fist full of the back of my jersey.

“We’re going to the left,” he said.

“I see it.” I nodded.

And began my favorite part of the ride. We had to close in tight together, him gripping my jersey and we broke into the group through the small opening. Immediately, we started looking for another hole to move further up in the group. I saw a spot just big enough for us toward the right. We’d have to both squeeze between some riders to get there. But I knew I could do it.

My buddy has never ridden with me before. All he knows is I’m very slow on hills. If I was him I would be nervous about finessing positions in this bunch with me. The whole group was riding very tight together and very fast. If I was nervous with the close quarters and panicked or just executed one move poorly we would crash and take a ton of other bikers down with us. Injuries, damaged bikes, causing an early end to the ride for some of the riders were all possibilities that, if I were him, I wouldn’t want to risk. But he must have had faith in me.

“There to the right,” he said.

“Got it,” I said and started leaning.

I had to lean out first and he followed with me as if we were physically connected. Actually, we were. He still had a death grip on my jersey.

We went right, smooth as glass and took that spot and so it continued. We weaved in between riders left and right to keep our pace. It was like a bike ballet. Smooth, choreographed, totally synchronized. I could do this forever!

Then loomed a hill. And it was steep, and longer than I wanted.

My buddy dropped his grip from my jersey.

“Get ready to climb,” he tells me.

‘Sh*t’, I think.

“I’ll tell you when to shift down. Not yet.”

I stayed in my big chain ring until he gave my orders.

“Down on your right.” He orders. I shift down on my front derailleur.

“One more.”

I shift into my smallest chain ring.

“Down on your left.”

I shift down in the back.

“One more. Don’t get in your granny because we’re going to stand.”

‘Sh*t again,’ I think. I rarely practice standing climbs……..because they are really hard.

“Get ready,” he says. We’re just past the half way point of the hill. I can do seated climbs forever. I just can’t climb fast. That’s why I should practice standing climbs. On these steep climbs they are much better to get you to the top faster.

“Ok. Stand!” and he stands up and climbs like a pro. I stand and I’m doing ok. For a few seconds. My legs are burning and I’m fatiguing. But he is looking over his shoulder at me every few seconds and I don’t want him to catch me not following orders when he is dragging my a** through this stage when he would probably rather be riding up front with Robert and Grischna (the Rabobank pro riders).

He looks back and he says, “You’re too low. Click up a gear.”

Thank God! That means I can sit for two seconds. That’s how long it takes to shift gears and usually you don’t shift while standing. At least I don’t. I sit, shift, and stand right back up. My buddy looks back up the hill. I do my best to keep standing but it is so hard! I wait until my buddy looks back one more time. Then as soon as he looks back up hill I sit for a blissful three seconds then I jump back up into standing position. Just as he looks back at me. I hope he didn’t see me sitting.

We make it to the top and he barks: “Big chain ring.”

I shift back up into my big chain ring and we start on the down hill side. He puts his hand on my back again, but without the death grip on my jersey. We’re trying to work the momentum as best we can again. He starts guiding me with my shifting.

“Up on your left.”

“One more. That’s good.”

“Here comes a small hill. Get ready to shift when I tell you.”

We continued this way for the next several miles. I learned so much from him about shifting which is my biggest weakness with biking. And though we were going much faster than I did in the first stage thanks to him, we were still way behind the others. My friend Karen was behind us and she had an assistant too. At least we weren’t totally alone.

“Ok,” he says, “Looks like there a patch of gravel up ahead.”

Yep, I saw it. The asphalt stopped and there was gravely dirt. Nice and bumpy. I couldn’t see where it ended but surely they wouldn’t take us on a dirt road. The average road rider does not like dirt. Unfortunately, I like off road riding and sometimes I treat my road bike like a mountain bike. I really shouldn’t do that. It’s really bad for your bike. But hey, this girl just wants to have fun.

He says, “Pick your line, then pedal hard until you pick up the asphalt again.”

“Pick a line” is a mountain biking term. So I’m guessing my buddy mountain bikes too. I laughed to myself because he didn’t have to explain how to negotiate the dirt to me. I know how to ride that. But no way in h#ll am I going to say that. He doesn’t know me; he can only assume my abilities are at the lowest level. Besides, did I mention he is dragging my a** through here? I just smiled, picked my line and pedaled hard.

The asphalt never showed up. I’m looking for it but there is no trail. We went off trail. I hear my buddy yell, “Right! Right! Go right.”

I was just passing a turn off on my right side that would take me back to where we lost the trail. I almost missed it. But I cranked my handle bars hard right and pedaled as hard as I could so I could get a good lean into the turn. I was able to barely make the turn and I ended up back on the trail next to my buddy. (I still don’t know what his name was.)

“Sorry about that. I didn’t see the trail took off to the left.”

“No problem,” I said. “I didn’t see it either. I like to mountain bike too. So I don’t mind a little dirt.” Secretly I hoped I impressed him with my bike handling skills. 

We were back on the trail and the rest of the hills were about the same. There was a super fun downhill piece. It was very steep and had a few 180 switch backs! Just what I LOVE! Problem was there were lots of pedestrians including dogs and baby strollers. I would not be able to take this as fast as I wanted. I wanted to get down without incident or scaring any body. Dogs will sometimes startle if you come at them down hill at high speed which is not good. And parents with kids do not think it’s funny when you pass them at high speed merely inches from their toddlers. Even though you know you are totally in control of your momentum. For the most part anyway.

My buddy took off on his own. I think he knew by now I was good on the down hill and it’s much safer if we aren’t stacked on the way down. So off he went and I went after him. I did go as fast as I could, given the circumstances. I knew he’d look back for me once he reached the bottom and I wanted to be right on his back tire when he did. Wouldn’t that surprise him! Besides, I performed best on the downhill so it was my best chance to ‘redeem’ myself after such poor performance on the up hills.

When he got to the bottom he looked back and I was farther back than I hoped to be but I still think he was surprised at how close I was.  And I did have fun on the downhill even though I couldn’t go all out.

There was one more interesting happening on this stage. At one point another hill loomed before us. It was steep. Suddenly the guy who had been riding behind us with my friend Karen showed up on my right side. I thought he came up to talk to his friend who was riding on my left. Nope. He came to help his friend push me up the hill.

At the bottom of the hill the new guy put his hand on my back. My biking buddy already has his on my back. So the three of FLEW up that hill. It was incredible how fast you can go when you have that much help!

I had my gears set so I could work as hard as I could and then the two guys picked up the slack. I have never climbed so fast! My buddy was probably thrilled to see his buddy because he had to be getting tired by now.

So they got me to the top and I started thinking seriously about dropping out. I have been riding for years and I have never dropped out of a ride or had to be SAGged back in. But this is ridiculous. Even with all the help I couldn’t even see the main group any more. They’d be waiting at the end of this stage for us. I was going to tell my friend Karen I wasn’t going to finish the last two stages.

At the end of the stage my friend Charles came by, “Hey Jill, how you doing?”

“I’m having the best ride of my life. But I don’t think I’m going to finish the next two stages. I am needing way too much help and I still can’t keep up. I need to take myself out.”

Charles nodded but said, “You know, this stage is only three miles. It’s pretty flat and it’s bike path all the way to the wharf. The end of the stage is only a mile away from the hotel. Why don’t you do this one and then you’ll be right there by the hotel?”

That sounded good. But he had lied to me before about stage two. But I remembered stage three was only three miles and I could suffer through three miles of anything. Then I could ride myself to the hotel. There were showers and a lunch waiting for all the riders. I liked the idea of being the first one in the shower and being able to take my time.

“Ok, Charles. That sounds good.”

Riding With the Pros Part 4 – Hill Hell

So there I was pushing hard up the hill finding a little comfort in the knowledge that there were a few riders behind me. And trying not to think about the fact that they are probably going to be passing me soon leaving me in the very back, drifting further and further behind.

I see a guy break out of the front pack and head back down the hill. Is he coming to get me? He’s looking right at me. Oh hell, he’s coming to get me. I am pumping as hard as I can. I’m going to be embarrassed that I can’t pull more juice out of my legs right now. I’ll just do the best that I can.

I watched the guy sling down the hill toward me and as he got closer I realized, “OMG! That’s Hennie Kuiper! Hennie Kuiper is coming to get me.”

“Oh crap.”

For those of you who don’t know who Hennie Kuiper is I know you don’t cycle. He was racing in the Tour De France 12 times in the 70s. He is rated in the top 50 riders of all time and has coached many pro-cyclists including Lance Armstrong. And he’s coming after me.

I had met Hennie a couple years prior when I was working on the Tour of California for my bank. Super nice guy. I spent about four days with him and the rest of the Rabobank marketing team traveling with the tour. I really enjoyed him. However, he has a very serious face. If you didn’t know him, you may look at him and think “There’s a ball buster!” And I bet when he’s cycling he really is. He has an intimidating look and he was coming for me.

“You have to get up there with the others yeah?” He says to me as he pulled along side.

“Yeah, I’m trying.” I pushed out between gasps of air.

Hennie puts his hand on my back and starts pushing me up the hill! How does he do that? I am struggling to pull my own a** up this hill. He’s pulling himself up and push me too! Geez.

I’m pushing as hard as I can to catch up to the group and then I feel Hennie relax his grip and I start to “slide back” a little. But he keeps his hand on my back. Is his arm tired? Is that why he relaxed? No! He suddenly gives me a hard push and I catapult up the hill!!!! Then he rides ride up next to me again and does it again! And again! And again!

He is essentially ‘tossing’ me up the hill to catch up with the others!!! I felt like one of those people who pay a ton a money to have a professional Sherpa drag them up Everest. Talk about cheating! But I am so in over my head!

So finally he had catapulted me enough times to get me back to the group. He points to the back tire of the cyclist in front of me.

“Stay up with him. He’ll help you up the hill, yeah?”

“Yeah.” I understood he wanted me to draft the rider in front of me. But the problem was to draft a rider you have to be able to keep up with the rider. I could not keep up with the rider. I kept sliding back and getting out of drafting range.

Hennie kept pushing me back up in drafting range. I worked my hardest to stay drafting but I just couldn’t do it without help. Finally I see we are going to turn a corner. I was hoping the road would turn flat again.

No luck. We kept climbing.

When we turned the corner I saw my friend Karen right in front of us. Hennie tells me to follow her. I can keep up with Karen. Phew! So Hennie rode with Karen and I. He no longer had to push me. But he stayed with us to the end of the stage.

He was so kind, giving us tips and encouragement. I couldn’t believe I was being coached by Hennie Kuiper!

The road flattened and the pace settled into a speed I could manage. I started to feel better and my mind started to wander. I started thinking about what a nice perk this opportunity was for riding on the employee team! I was one of the core team members riding religiously every season. Riding with Hennie made the efforts of consistent practice rides several nights a week (after a hard day’s work when you feel like you’d rather go home and have a beer) worth it. During the season I rode loyally regardless of how tired I was. I’d train on hills, ride in good and bad weather push myself until I had nothing left. Maybe I can’t keep up with the pros. But I was stronger than the average couch potato and definitely not one of those ‘weekend riders’ who called themselves cyclists but only got out on a Saturday. No, “I’m a REAL rider”, I said to myself .

Hennie broke into my thoughts. He was asking a question about my riding habits: “So you ride on the weekends, yeah?”

Sptiiiissss…………… (That’s the sound of my ego deflating).