My First Century Ride – The 2013 Santa Fe Century
This past Sunday I finally attempted and completed my first 100 mile bike ride, the Santa Fe Century.
(Photos taken during the ride can be found here.)
I awoke at 4:30 am, a half hour before the alarm was set to go off, too excited to sleep. It’s a wonder I slept at all. Ride prep started the evening before with Sonya making a pesto sauce from freshly plucked basil leaves and served with some plain old pasta and garlic bread. Lots of pasta for all the extra carbohydrates I could squeeze into my body. After the early meal I made sure my bike was ready, gear was packed away in the car and ready for the morning. Then it was off to bed at 9 pm on a Saturday night. The good life.
Not that I slept much. My confidence level going into the ride was high so I did not have any explanation for why I was so wound up. I wanted it to begin. I wanted it to be over. Mostly I wanted the forecast for the winds to be wrong.
Before bed I flipped through Bicycle magazine articles looking for any last minute advice or tips that I had somehow missed. (My iPad Kindle app has a year’s worth of these stored. and growing; such a great archive to have on hand for sleepless nights and long plane rides.) Thoughts that I could have been more prepared raced through my mind. I spent the hours trying to sleep going over the route in my head, most of which I had already ridden on various training rides. At some point I did actually fall asleep.
That morning, as I lay there thinking about all this, the alarm eventually went off. I got up, brushed my teeth, slathered myself with SPF 50 sunscreen from head to toe, rubbed the butt paste into my shorts and backside, put on my bike clothes, shoes, grabbed my water bottles from the fridge, spread some peanut butter on a bagel, and headed out the door with Sonya, who so graciously drove me to the starting line by 6 am.
The forecast the night before called for morning winds out of the west at 8 mph, increasing by 1 to 2 mph per hour. They nailed it. This was the topic of conversation among everyone riding that day, from email chatter the night before to talk among the crowd at the starting line. At 6 am it was a chilly 45 F (glad I brought the windbreaker along) and I was juiced and ready to go. I had agreed to meet up with the Santa Fe Road Riders and ride out with them at 7 am so I spent an hour riding around the parking lot looking for various people I might know and for some sign that the Road Riders hadn’t decided to leave earlier than planned. I got to see a lot of really nice bikes, too, some of which I dream of owning one day. At around 6:50 am the Road Riders finally grouped together and after quick introductions we left promptly at 7, as did a few hundred other cyclists. Large groups had already departed when I arrived at 6am and continued to depart during the hour I was tooling around the lot. (In all, there were more than 2,500 riders signed up for the ride.)
Not only was this my first century ride but this was the very first time I had ever ridden in such a large gathering. On all of my training rides I had only ridden along with one other person. A large group of cyclists moves like a Slinky suddenly set free. I became worried that at any moment I was going to turn into someone else’s path or that someone else was going to turn into me. Experienced riders were zipping in an out of spaces mere inches apart from one another, causing momentum waves to surge up and down the group. It was unnerving for the first few minutes as we headed down Zia Road and onto Rodeo Road, along the streets of Santa Fe that were otherwise quiet and calm so early on a Sunday morning. The pace was decidedly slow, much slower than I was accustomed to riding. With the unnerving crowdedness of it all I ended up pulling ahead of the group as we turned onto Cerrillos Road. No, this wasn’t a race and I wasn’t planning to leave the group but I did need to get far enough head of the other riders to quiet things down. After a few miles of heading down Cerrillos Road the strongest riders in that pack had already pulled out and passed me while the slower riders were settled far behind. I didn’t see any middle-of-the-road riders like myself and I kept going at my own pace until I was no longer surrounded by any of the people I had started out with. I looked down at my cycle computer – 10 miles already.
Holy crap, I just might do this!
The field narrows considerably at that point. You tend to see at most groups of three, maybe four riders sticking together. Lots of paired riders and the occasional single rider. I fell into that latter class.
The first 35 miles of the route follows the southern route of the Turquoise Trail Scenic Byway (NM14). From Santa Fe it is a gradual descent with rolling hills and a few steep climbs until you reach the historic turquoise mining town of Los Cerrillos. From there it was three more miles and a moderate climb to the base of the Ortiz Mountains and into the coal mining town (now turned hippie artist community) of Madrid, 25 miles from the starting line. Madrid was also the first food stop and a good place to rest the legs for a short while. After refilling one of my water bottles, shedding my windbreaker, and grabbing a half banana I was back on the bike.
The route from Madrid is 5 miles of climbing up and through the Ortiz Pass followed by 9 miles of rolling hills to the town of Golden, NM, home to a short-lived gold rush in the 1880s but mostly a ranching community today. We departed NM14 at Golden and turned onto NM344, pulling up to food stop number two – a definite required stop for a first time Century rider. Just under a mile from the rest area is the notorious Heartbreak Hill, a half-mile long 350 foot climb at a 16% grade. In my training ride through this area I only made it up half way before my legs gave out and I walked most of the way to the top. Several climbing rides later I felt I could beat this hill but the sight of it again gave me pause. I left the rest area and settled into my regular cadence at a fairly high gear. At the base of the hill I clicked it down a few rings and settled in for a long, slow climb.
With a third of the hill left to climb my thighs were burning. I shifted to the lowest gear and hammered down on the pedals. It was an entirely different feeling. For the previous 40 miles I had more or less found a comfortable cadence for the ride. It was a good groove with a nice, nearly perfect circular motion of feet and pedals. It was a melding of body and bike that emphasized just how natural the two-wheeled machine works with the human form. That all gets tossed aside during a long climb up a steep hill. Your heart pounds, your lungs explode, and your legs scream as you feel yourself slowing down. Your mind plays tricks on you.
Those people walking up the hill are certainly moving faster than I am. And look how good they feel!
You mistreat the machine you’ve grown to love, kicking down the pedals while zig-zagging back and forth across the road to lessen the steepness. Then it was over. I’m making much ado of this because it was a hard climb after 40 miles of riding. I’ve climbed steeper and longer hills on other rides but never as part of a 100 mile ride. Reaching the top of Heartbreak Hill was the jolt my psyche needed. It meant that there were another 60 miles ahead that were not going to be nearly as challenging as this one hill. I sounded the best barbaric, Whitmanesque,”YAWP!” that I could muster.
Rounding the top of the hill I kicked it back into high gear and sprinted the next few miles of downhill.
It felt amazing to spin the legs up to speed again and keep them from cramping up or tiring out. Eventually the land flattened out and turned to the west, into a strong headwind of around 10 mph with larger, frequent gusts. Forward speed slowed considerably but just ahead was the third food stop in Cedar Grove, and the 50 mile half-way point.
I had planned to finish the ride as quick as possible and did not intend to take photos, or to otherwise turn it into a leisure ride but having just climbed The Hill and made it to the half way point, some celebration was in order. I realized that my motivation up to this point had been focused on beating the hill. From the half way point onward the intent was to have fun, to stop a bit longer at the food stops and enjoy the ride. This was new country to me, at least on a bike, and seeing it at such a pace was a joy.
With water bottles topped off I headed out of Cedar Grove, turning onto Kings Highway, NM472. This was a blissful straight section of road to the east that took us all the way to Stanley, NM, with that strong wind at our backs. I covered the 12 miles in under 27 minutes with a recorded average speed of 26.9 mph. For a while I wondered if I shouldn’t have been more conservative but I was too pumped and too far in The Zone. I wasn’t all-out sprinting but I was definitely pedaling at a faster cadence than at any other point during the ride. It was truly exhilarating.
In Stanley the route turns north onto NM41. I love this stretch of highway for its many old and abandoned structures. I took one of my favorite photos, an old gas station – El Super Servicio de Santo Niño, just a few miles north. There was another collection of old buildings just behind the food stop in Stanley and I spent some time grabbing a few shots with my phone cam. It came out pretty nice considering I was shaking, my eyes were blurry and I couldn’t quite see the display to frame the image.
Stanley was also the 62 mile marker. The next planned stop was 18 miles to the north which was further out than the last three stops had been. The mountainous terrain of the first 50 miles was behind us and we were riding in open country. The wind was from the west, north-west so there were strong sideways gusts and a constant headwind. There is a climb upon leaving Stanley and then a series of rollers before descending into the valley where the next stop was located, Galisteo, NM. I managed to cover this distance faster than I expected, 15 mph and taking 1:12 to do so. I did not expect to be riding this strong so far into the ride. It was a definite ego boost.
80 miles down.
Galisteo, New Mexico is a tiny town like so many others. It’s located in southeast Santa Fe County where the foothills lead to the west into the Ortiz mountains and the plains open up to the east. It looks like the typical wild west town. In fact, several popular movies have used it as a backdrop (The Cowboys, Silverado, Young Guns and recently Crazy Heart, Legion and Thor).
The rest stop here was set up just like the others: A long series of tents with tables serving slices of bananas, pb&j sandwiches, granola, trail mix, Fig Newtons, water and Gatorade stations. Whereas the other stops where hosted by corporate sponsors the one in Galisteo was set up and run by the Ulrich family in their own front yard. It was a wonderful gesture and I thank them for their generosity.
I had ridden the route from Galisteo back to Santa Fe once before. There were only twenty miles left to go and I was anxious to get going. I snapped a few photos and was off again. NM41 continues for another 5.5 miles before ending at US285. It was a gentle climb with an average grade of around 4%. The wind was slightly at our back and I covered this distance pretty quick. The turn to the north on US285 brought back the strong north-westerly headwinds and the second biggest climb of the day, the Lamy hill climb. This is a 2 mile climb that steepens to a 16% grade for a brief point before you head on to the lesser climb into Eldorado. And just as you finish this climb, when you’re covered in sweat and grime and your legs are noodles, they take your picture. I suppose it was easier for the photographer to get riders when they were at their slowest but certainly not looking their finest. It will be a few days before the photos are released so we’ll see. For the climb I once again dropped down into the smaller chain ring and proceeded to hammer my way up the hill. However, my legs had no hammer left in them. I was able to climb while keeping a steady cadence and remained sitting in the saddle, much to my surprise. I then had a strong self-debate about whether to stop in Eldorado or keep slugging along with only 10 miles left to go. I had already told Sonya that I would be calling her in Eldorado so she’d know when to expect me back at the finish line, so that settled the matter. The food stop was in the lot of a gas station which allowed me to wash up in their restroom and get rid of some of that sweat and grime.
A nerve-racking final 10 miles awaited me after leaving the Eldorado food stop. For reasons I am not aware of the route planners had us merge onto I-25 south to get back to Santa Fe, rather than take the slower paced, lesser traveled frontage road known as the Old Las Vegas Highway. I-25 is a 75 mph Interstate with a shoulder that was not quite wide enough to allow me to pass other riders without leaving the shoulder. At some point I fell in behind two other riders that caused me to slow my pace. The headwind and slower cadence made it feel as if this ride was not going to end. After 28 minutes on the freeway we left the exit for Old Pecos Trail. This was the final stretch, a quick 2 mile gradual downhill back to the finish line at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
To my wonderful surprise, Sonya had been tracking my progress during the ride via my phone’s GPS and was already waiting for me at the end. Not that I saw her, however, at least not at first. I turned onto Hospital Drive aware of the group of people ringing bells and cheering on the riders but I couldn’t focus on a single one. She met me just as I got off my bike and parked it along a section of fence. She had been there at the corner and recorded me at the finish. I looked down at my trip odometer: 101.97 miles.
There are no words to describe finishing the ride. I’ve been seeking them out for two days now and they just haven’t made themselves known to me. The feelings were an amalgamation of euphoria, utter exhaustion, and a heart-melting moment of seeing the person you love the most in the world suddenly being by your side.
Two days later my thoughts are thus: I got lucky.
Experienced cyclists learn of L’uomo col martello (The Man With the Hammer). He lurks around twists and turns and along steep hills and he will bonk you on the head when you push yourself too hard. Your cadence will go bizerk, you will go from nice, smooth circular pedaling to erratic stomping. Forward motion stops. L’uomo strikes when your desire demands more from legs than your body can provide, such as standing out of the saddle and giving your all too soon into a major climb.
I am not an experienced enough cyclist, though. My level of self-torture – for all cyclists are essentially torturing themselves on long rides – is such that I never saw L’uomo that day. Perhaps this means that I did not push myself hard enough. I finished the ride with 6.5 hours of total pedaling time, 8.5 hours from the time I left the starting line. There were much, much faster riders that finished within the 5-6 hour timeframe. My mindset was elsewhere. The plan to turn this into a simple endurance ride and not into a race kept me within my own abilities. The previous training rides of gradually increasing distances had me prepared for how things would go. I enjoyed the extra lingering time at the food stops and the time to snap a few photos. It let the experience of the previous segment soak in before starting off on the next round and the photos will provide me with memories until the next time I ride this Century.
Within a few hours of the end of the race I was already researching upcoming century rides. This says a lot, I think. The ride was overall so enjoyable that I cannot wait to do one again. There is one in Albuquerque that I’m on the fence about the weekend after next, so we’ll see. I have already registered for the Durango 100 towards the end of July. Thus I intend to keep up with my training rides on the weekends and see how much further I can push myself in this sport. I’ll keep you posted.
Thank you to everyone who donated and who otherwise supported me on this ride. You, too, were in my thoughts during those difficult portions of the ride. I owe you all so much. We raised enough money to send two bicycles to rural commuters in Africa. I will let you all know when those have been delivered.
P.S. I know this was long-winded but I still left out a lot of details, things like how I trained, what did I eat during the ride, what sort of bike to I ride, etc. Please feel free to ask me anything you want to know.