This year’s blazing hot Tour d’Essex County (TdEC) century was tremendously difficult, and Noah and I were the only two people out of 75 starters who completed the ride.
Last year, I had to rely on the Commuter Rail to get to the start in Manchester, and since the first train didn’t arrive until an hour after the ride departed, I had to ride the entire route solo. This year I convinced my car-owning buddy Noah to come, which ensured that I’d at least be able to start with the rest of the group.
However, as Memorial Day weekend approached, we both had second thoughts. The weather was going to feature a cold, wind-driven rain and temperatures that barely reached 50 degrees. Thankfully, the organizers chose to postpone the ride by a week.
Aside: we hoped to ride a make-up solo century on Memorial Day itself, but I had to cancel that when I discovered my water heater had started leaking that morning.
While the original date had been cold and rainy, the make-up date (the following Saturday) had the opposite problem: blazing sun and temperatures well into the 90s. Nontheless, Noah drove up at 6am and we loaded my bike into his car. In the process, we got black chain grease all over my new bike’s (almost) pristine white bar tape (sigh). Then we headed up to Manchester for the start.
After arriving early, we set off with the rest of the riders, but the group thinned out very quickly. In fact, after riding 18 miles, we never saw another rider on the course. The first half of the ride is really scenic, and we set our own pace. Despite the fact that the roads weren’t marked, we only got off-course once in Middleton, which we realized very quickly when the road surface turned to gravel. As the temperature climbed through the 80s, we stopped at the West Village Provisions in Boxford before continuing on.
Fifty miles in, we reached the first rest stop: a bike shop in Newburyport. At this point, the route diverged from the one I’d ridden in 2012. From the bike shop, this year’s ride would do a 25-mile loop up one side of the Merrimack River and down the other, returning to the shop for another rest at mile 75 before returning to Manchester.
At this point, the temperature had exeeded 90 degrees, and we had emerged from the woods and begun traversing roads which were more exposed to direct sunlight. All the other riders, most of which were from the Essex County Velo cycling team, decided that the heat was too much, and they were going to skip the river loop and go straight home. Pussies, all of them. Noah and I were the only people who wanted to do a complete century, so I downed a package of crackers and some berries and we (perhaps stupidly) headed off toward the river.
The Merrimack loop was pretty scenic, but brutally challenging for me due to the heat and a surprise bout of exhaustion. While we’d averaged 17.5 mph over the first 50 miles, my speed dropped to 14.5 on this segment, and my average heart rate climbed up to 86 percent of my max. I’d lost all power, and that was reflected by the fact that I needed to stop and rest three times over that 25 mile stretch. Fortunately, one of those stops was right next to a stream emptying into the river, so I walked in and at least cooled my feet off!
When we finally got back to the shop, I was seriously overheating and just sat in the shop for about 15 minutes. Having assumed that all the riders had gone straight home, the shop had put away all the supplies for the ride, so the only thing they could offer us was room-temperature water. We took it gladly and reluctantly climbed back on our bikes for the final 25 mile trek home.
Half of that leg follows Route 1A, which is a busy main road with absolutely no cover. It was another brutal segment, and I found myself having to stop every couple miles just to bring my heart rate down. It was an epic struggle to make any meaningful progress. At this point, Noah decided to go on ahead of me, subsequently getting lost and finding his own route back to the shop. He did break 100 miles, but that left me as the only rider who was going to finish the ride according to the published route. Hopefully…
Several miles later, having drank the lukewarm water and poured an equal amount of it over my head, I needed to refill my bottle. As I crossed the Ipswitch town line, I spied a restaurant—The American Barbecue— and figured they might not turn away a dying cyclist. I went in and spied Nirvana: one of those soda machines where customers walk up and dispense their own drinks… and ice! SCORE!
I jammed my bottle full of ice and filled it with lemonade, then pulled up a bar stool and drained it. I also sucked down a disgusting apple-cinnamon energy gel. It was the first time I’d ever had an energy gel, so this was either a really great thing or an absolutely stupid idea, but things couldn’t really get any worse, could they? Knowing that whatever liquid was in my bottle would wind up being poured over my head, I refilled with ice water and headed back out onto the road.
Just one-point-seven miles later I rode past an ice cream stand. Well, when I say “rode past”, I actually mean “rode straight into”. There really was no conscious contemplation about whether I was going to stop or not; it just happened all by itself. It didn’t matter that I’d just rested, or that I’d just downed a quart of lemonade, or that I’d just swallowed that pukey gel; ice cream was cold, and if my delirium allowed me any thought it was that cold equalled good. So on top of all that crap already in my stomach, I threw in a big pile of chocolate chip.
This was either going to save me, or I would be leaving a huge smear of technicolor barf in the breakdown lane of Route 1A.
Much to my surprise, once I got back on the road I managed. I can’t say I felt much better, but instead of having to stop and rest every 2 miles, I managed to go 5 or 6 miles between stops. It remained a slog, but I managed to maintain a 13.4 mph average speed and eventually crawled into the finish in Manchester. Again, because they didn’t think anyone would actually do the whole century, they had already shut down the post-ride cookout. But it didn’t matter; I was happy to just grab a Coke and some ice.
Even though every other rider DNF’ed, and despite how ridiculously difficult it had been, I alone had kicked it! I was damned proud of my accomplishment, even though I averaged only 15.5 mph and took 8 hours 14 to do it. It was my second century of the year, and probably good hot-weather training, which I will need to get me through this year’s upcoming Mt. Washington century and Pan-Mass Challenge.
But even sooner than that, I will need that reservoir of strength to complete the grueling 130-mile Outriders ride—always the longest ride of the year—which is now a mere week away.
The TdEC ride was last Saturday, and on Tuesday I had my first full postride massage appointment. He did a lot of therapeutic work, which left me pretty sore the next morning, but I tested his work with a hilly 50-mile ride. I have to say, scenic Glezen Lane in Sudbury has to be one of my absolute favorite roads in Massachusetts.
Then I came home in time for my annual expedition to the Scooper Bowl, where I demolished 34 cups of ice cream, in the interest of charity, of course!
This weekend’s a family visit, so no riding, which should give my legs a little time to recover and prep for next weekend’s big ride to Provincetown. Here’s hoping the weather cooperates!