The Stagecoach Century is one of the most beautiful and enjoyable rides I have ever done! Seriously, I cannot recommend this ride enough to anyone looking for a great excuse to get on a bike in the depths of winter, and enjoy the rugged beauty of the Southern California desert. For those of you who aren’t from around here, the depths of winter in the desert this year meant clear skies, calm winds, and temps in the 70s! A more perfect day for a bike ride has never existed.
Start at the Beginning
My original plan was to hook back up with my brother Terry for a two-man effort. This wouldn’t be a relay like the 24 hour TT, but a two-man team time trial where we basically sucked one another’s wheel the whole time and fought about who was taking longer pulls. However, as things go, life got in the way for Terry and he wasn’t able to get in enough training…OK, he wasn’t able to get in much training…OK, the truth is he hadn’t been on his bike more than a couple times in the past 8 weeks or so. And so it was to be just me this time. I had read on the Shadow Tour website (http://www.shadowtour.com/Century_Rides/Stagecoach.htm) that there was a 150 mile option, which sounded intriguing. And so with no more planning than that I signed up and tried my best to prepare for my longest solo ride ever.
On Friday, the day before the race, I got a text from Terry saying he was able to make it after all, and despite no training at all, he was coming out to ride the Century. WooHoo! Even though we wouldn’t ride together, I would have my number one riding partner and friend with me for an epic adventure in the desert. Life gets no better than this!
I was able to roll early, because I was going after the 150 mile distance. Even though it meant getting up at a ridiculously early hour, this turned out to be one of the greatest things about the ride. Terry and I rolled out at 6:25AM. The sun was just rising, and once we got a few hundred yards from the start, there wasn’t a soul around. The desert is breathtaking at this hour. We rolled the first 10 or so miles together, warming up and chatting. At some point, I dropped into my aero bars and gradually picked up the pace. I heard Terry call from some distance behind me, “don’t try to keep up with Rich”. It’s not that my pace was blistering, but he intended to cover more miles in one day than he had ridden in the past two months total, so he wanted to watch his pace carefully early on. But this my brother we’re talking about…he’s just not like the rest of us.
The first 50 miles out to the turnaround were an absolute dream of a bike ride. The course is gradually uphill all the way out, with a couple of punchy little climbs that get your attention. I saw one other rider, who had started about 20 minutes ahead of us. I chatted briefly with him, but unfortunately didn’t get his name. He was also out in search of the 150 mile distance.
I had to make a couple of bathroom stops on the way out (by the way, when you start early…you enjoy clean port-a-johns), and spent a little more time off the bike than I had planned, but still managed to make the 50 mile mark at 3 hours even. My overall goal was to finish in less than 9 hours, and given that the trip out is considerably more challenging that the trip back due to the elevation gain, this put me right on schedule if not a little ahead.
Beware the Beasts of Bone and Flesh and METAL
One thing that surprised me quite a bit was that I hadn’t seen any sign of the monstrous four-man TTT team that I knew was somewhere behind me. This team consists of three out of seven of the guys who carried me across the country in 2012 when we set the 8-man RAAM record: Adam Bickett, Andrew ‘METAL’ Danly, and Jeremy Gustin, along with Philip Tinstman from Spy Optics. I knew these guys were out to smash the TTT record, and that they would be coming fast and furious. I was desperately looking forward to seeing them scream by, knowing they would be burying themselves for 100 miles straight just to set this record. I had been doing some math in my head, and figured them to catch me sometime between 8:00 and 9:00AM, which should have had them blowing by me well before the turnaround. When I reached that aid station without any sign of them, I hoped that everything was OK with them.
Just after I made the turn around, I saw my brother Terry heading toward me. I couldn’t have been more that 5 minutes ahead of him. The freakin stud was matching my performance with basically no training at all for the past two months. He had zero time off the bike up to that point, and so I had given back a bit of time…BUT STILL! I love that guy like a brother, so I flipped him off when I saw him just so he knew how I felt about him.
As for the four horsemen of the METALacolypse (Danly’s name, I couldn’t come up with that), turns out there was nothing to worry about. Just as I turned back off the 78 onto S2, I saw them coming. Even though they had started late, they had already passed the entire rest of the field and were the first riders I saw, and they were indeed flying! I gave them a wave and a shout, and heard my name shouted in return. and they were gone in a flash. My heart rate bounced up and I had to tell myself to relax…these guys are capable of going flat out for 100 miles…I’m not!
Aside from the gorgeous and quiet first 50 miles and the clean toilets, one of the other great things about starting early was the fact that I would now see the entire rest of the field coming toward me as I was riding back. What a treat! I waved and shouted at rider after rider as they climbed toward the 50 mile turnaround. I’m convinced that the energy of seeing all these other riders added at least 1MPH to my average speed for miles 50 to 75. That, however, may have been a mixed blessing.
So many rest stops, so little time
The Stagecoach is an out-and-back course. For the century, you ride out 50 miles, and back 50 miles. For the 150, you do that, and then head back out to repeat the first 25 miles of the course. What’s brilliant about this course design is that it allows the riders to take the most advantage possible of the four on-course aid stations by hitting them on the way out and on the way back. You are, in fact never more than about 6 miles from an aid station for the entire ride. The volunteers at the aid stations are true gems of the human race, and I cannot than them enough for spending the day out there just so I can ride my bike through the desert with complete peace of mind. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!
Anyway, the reason I bring up the aid stations is because at mile 75 I made my second stop at station #2 to refill my bottles and take on some calories. I had been surviving on a combination of Ensure shakes that I carried with me, and PB&Js and bananas at the aid stations. At the 75 mile mark I downed one more Ensure and ate a few banana pieces and headed back out on my way. Shortly thereafter, something started to wrong. It started as a mile discomfort in my stomach that eventually got bad enough that it forced me to sit up out of aero position. Aside from the discomfort, I was really not happy about giving up the free speed that being in my aerobars would give me on the long gentle downhills on this part of the course. My stomach got a bit worse, to the point where I was getting really concerned about being able to finish the 100, much less the 150. I was fairly certain that this was just a combination of me riding a bit too hard for the past 25 miles, and taking in too many calories too quickly. My gut didn’t want to process calories any more because I was taking away all of its resources to keep my legs moving. Luckily I had some idea that it was possible to recover from this kind of thing while continuing to ride, because I’ve had the great fortune of hanging out with Adam Bickett for the past few years (yeah, one of the guys in the four-man team I was talking about earlier). I’ve crewed for Adam in the Hoodoo 500 and in last year’s Race Across the West, and I’ve seen him recover from much worse than my silly little sour stomach. So I told myself to relax, back off a bit, and just keep moving.
While I was having this little internal dialog and starting to feel rather sorry for myself, the SPY Media van pulled up next to me and rolled down the windows to shout out words of encouragement and snap a bunch of photos. I suddenly felt like a rockstar. OK, like a really awkward rockstar with a sour stomach, but still it was a perfectly timed boost for me! As luck would have it, in the media van was one more powerhouse member of that 2012 RAAM team, Ryan Denner, who snapped the picture of me in aero position near the top of this rambling post, and Connie Hatfield of Pink Shorts Photography (http://pinkshortsphotography.smugmug.com/) , who took the rest of the pictures seen here. Thanks to both of you for capturing these shots, as this blog post would be terribly boring without them!
And of course, if media van is here, then Team SPY isn’t far behind. Having those four guys rocket past me at well over 30MPH was truly one of the highlights of the entire ride!
I soldiered on, drinking as much water as I could manage, but not feeling confident about taking on any more calories. Luckily, it seemed that I had enough food in me and I was able to carry a good enough pace to carry me back to the start-finish line (for the first time) in just under 6 hours. And now I was at the point in the ride that I was most worried about in the days leading up to it. The moment of decision…do I head back out for another 50, or do I just call it quits? As it turned out, the SPY Team and media were there, cheering me on and giving me so much crap about “enjoying the next 50 miles”, that I never even considered stopping. I was so pumped up by my former team mates that I quickly filled my bottles, dumped my arm warmers and gloves, and cranked it back up for the last lap.
In a repeat performance from the 50 mile turnaround…I saw Terry heading for the finish line within 2 miles of my turning around. I NEVER DROPPED THE GUY! Later that evening, over a few beers at the charming Lazy Lizard bar in Ocotillo, he told me about how he threw up while riding, but even that didn’t stop him…he just sprayed himself with water from one of his bottles and carried on. Like I’ve said before, my brother doesn’t handle adversity the same way as most people…which makes him a handy guy to have around when you’re trying to do something difficult.
Anyway, as I tried to get over the fact that Terry had more-or-less done the same thing as me but with no training, I regrouped and settled into the long slog back out to aid station 2. This second lap heading out was the toughest part of the journey. It’s mentally disturbing to be heading away from the finish line when you’re already 100 miles in. And yet, once again just as I was starting to feel sorry for myself, somebody showed up to cheer me up. It was my brother. After Terry finished his century, he changed out of his puke-stained Roadies Hideaway kit, and came out in his car to give me some “morale support”, which mostly consisted of shouting disparaging things at me as I went by. But that’s what we call support in my family, and I could not have been happier than to see him! He also had the brilliant idea to go get me a Mountain Dew and handed it to me as I rolled by (hope that doesn’t get me DQ’d, as there’s no roadside support allowed). That Mountain Dew may just have saved my life!
And so it went, back out to Aid Station 2, where I stopped for the third time that day to say hi to my favorite volunteers, before finally turning back for home a second time. The last 25 miles are a blur. My stomach finally fully recovered, and I was able to lock down into the aerobars and really crank it up. One last climb over Sweeny Pass, and then a 6 mile sprint to the finish!
I finished the 150 miles in 8 hours and 40 minutes (give or take), and was the only rider to complete the 150 mile offering that day. When I hunted Jim Knight down to thank him for putting on such a great event, and let him know that I had finished the 150, he grabbed me and gave me a huge heart-felt hug. He’s a great guy, doing great things for this sport, and I hope anyone reading this will be inspired to get out there next year and take advantage of one of the finest organized rides in the country! You can bet I’ll be there, trying to figure out how to slow my brother down.