June 14, 2010
Total mileage: 1370
The Sweetpea and I were blasting up a rise in the Nebraska Sand Hills last week when we passed a pack of slower riders. Over the rapid whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of tires on the pavement, I could hear a growl issuing from the lead man. “Passed by a girl,” he grumbled. Then another rider in the group chimed in with a clarification– “Passed by the girl with the bamboo fenders!” A few more pumps of the pedals and I was out of their hearing, cresting the hill and admiring the beautiful view.
It was a good day, a very good day, on the Bike Ride Across Nebraska (BRAN). This recreational ride began in the northwestern corner of the state, near the Wyoming border, and took its 675 riders on a 500-mile trek through wildly gorgeous western landscape. The first two days riders struggled with headwinds, but on the third day we were blessed with a tailwind. The legs were strong and the lungs were good, and I flew up and down the hills. Sweetpea and I put away 64 miles at an average of 18.6 mph. A very good day.
But as often occurs on week-long rides, good days are followed by challenging ones. The remaining four days of the ride all involved headwinds. In the mornings, lightning kept us in camp and put us on the road when heat, humidity and winds were at their strongest. Waves of storms woke us up at night. Our gear got wet and stayed that way. Our bodies developed peculiar rashes. On day five I summed up the experience in my notebook:
Sunburn + saddle sores + diarrhea + headwinds + sleep deprivation =
an exercise in endurance
One night towards the end of the week, another woman cyclist and I considered the experience. We confessed to having had thoughts of hitching a ride with a sweep vehicle, as had been done by other cyclists (both male and female). What had stopped us? Something we’d heard athletes mention before, but never experienced ourselves before we began riding–the mental game.
A cyclist’s ability to finish one of these week-long rides is equal parts fitness/training and mental attitude. Often the mental component surpasses the physical. Nearly all the time I beat the demons, but the outcome never seems certain.
Last week, on BRAN, I used a variety of techniques to finish the most difficult days (one 75 miles and the other two well over 80). On the afternoon we fought to keep our bikes vertical in 30+ mph crosswinds on hills, I observed that two hills made up about one mile. So I tackled that 20-mile stretch of road two hills at a time. I never did the math–40 hills–because that would have been too depressing. Nope, just two hills at a time.
Another hot and humid afternoon when my energy tanked and I was looking longingly at the sweep vehicles, I noticed a hand-lettered sign by the roadside: “Fruit smoothies, 10 miles.” Peach and blueberry, the sign read. I realized that I’d miss out on the smoothies if I rode the sweep vehicle into camp. Just ten miles from smoothie bliss. Yeah, I can ride that. Never mind that it was another 20 miles after the smoothies to the finish.
Yet another time, I pretended I was in competition with the people riding the sweep vehicles into town. They had given up, but I would not. My determination became stronger with each passing van loaded with bikes and riders. Gritting my teeth, I put one foot in front of the other in the endless circle that is cycling.
And so it was that I rode to the finish after seven days and 500 miles, grinning as total strangers clapped and shouted, “You did it!” Yes, I did it, by playing mind games with myself.