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The Bumpster

My First Century

Our ride dedication ceremony, at about 6:15 a.m. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Fenolio Faye.)

A dog was barking, furiously, as we began our 100-mile bike ride on Saturday, March 10.  It was about 6:30 in the morning in Solvang, California, and my Team In Training (TNT) teammates and I were thrilled to finally be starting the Solvang Century after months of training.  The dog was in a house on what I’m sure is normally a sleepy street, and it clearly considered us to be potential intruders.  What it couldn’t have known was that we were only the first of thousands of riders who would be pedaling past the house that morning.  I wondered whether the dog would have the stamina to keep barking until the last possible helmeted intruder, smelling of sunblock and chain lubricant, had wheeled off into the distance.

Also, I wondered — and not casually — whether I would have the stamina to make it through all 100 miles.  I really, really didn’t want to fail.  In the week leading up to Solvang, I’d felt nervous and restless — a condition that wasn’t helped by our coach’s strict instructions that we not do any strenuous training during that week, so that we’d be fresh for the ride.  Over these months I’d gotten used to doing four days of workouts each week: core-strengthening, spinning, and stretching (including the continuation of my futile lifelong quest to touch my toes; I bet my toes feel like smooth pebbles on a balmy Mediterranean shore; I’ll never know).  Without that daily endorphin rush, my essential, sedentary self threatened to wrest back control from the wannabe athlete who’d been in charge lately.  Maybe, by the time we were ready to start at Solvang, I’d have completely reverted to a couch potato.

Alex Pezzuto. (Photo courtesy of Mary Pezzuto.)

But as we continued past the barking dog, through more residential streets, and then onto a freeway, those fears mostly evaporated.  Biking with my teammates had become a natural thing for me: My feet now belonged in biking shoes, clipped to the pedals, and my butt belonged on the saddle.  As always, we called out potential hazards to our teammates: “Car up!”  “Glass!”  “Slowing!”  And we thought about the people we loved — and people whom others loved, as well.  It occurred to me, as we went along, that after a lifetime of obsessively thinking about and talking about my family (particularly my late father), I now was focusing, in part, on people I’d never met.  For example, Alex Pezzuto.  Alex died 22 years ago of chronic leukemia.  I learned about him from his daughter, Mary, who is on my e-list.  He was a delightful guy — accordion player, delicatessen owner, terrific dancer, loving father of six children.  He had one wonky eye, and he was always joking and teasing.  This is my favorite thing that Mary wrote to me about her dad:

Alex had a signature comment whenever anyone was aggravated or impatient with him.  Usually it was in response to some horrifying or deeply embarrassing breach of etiquette to which he paid no attention.  His response was: Love Me, Love My Dog.  It always put us into stitches because it’s so ridiculous.  I don’t know, maybe you had to be there.  Anyhow.

“Love me, love my dog.”  I thought of that phrase over and over during our training, and it helped to sustain me through the Solvang event (including when that dog, which I’m sure is very much loved, was barking at us), making me smile even during long climbs.

Of which there were several.  The first ascent happened relatively early in the ride, between miles 20 and 30.  It began the way so many climbs do: You’re just cycling down a hill or along a flat stretch of road, minding your own business, and suddenly … you’re going up.  And up, and up.  Before I started my training, I was mostly preoccupied with whether I’d be able to deal with climbs — but now, after so many Saturday sessions with my team, I knew to just go down into my easiest gear, pin my ears back, and pedal my way to the top.  Inching up the incline with hundreds of other cyclists, all of us stretched out in single file along the side of the freeway, felt something like being a tiny part of a giant, wheeled millipede.  Though of course, here — as throughout the event — many cyclists would, traffic permitting, speed past me.  (A teammate would warn, “Biker left!” — which, for part of the ride, I daydreamed about titling a publication for progressive cyclists.)  One time, a biker zipped by me, really close, and it momentarily unbalanced me: suddenly I found myself veering out into the traffic lanes (albeit incredibly slowly).  (Something like this — a possible near-spill — happens to me on pretty much every ride.  So far — knock wood — I haven’t actually had an accident.)  I managed to unclip my left shoe in time to get my foot down on the road and prevent myself from falling — and fortunately, there were no cars coming up behind me at that moment.  Within a few seconds, I was back on track, in my single file of cyclists.  Voices called out: “Are you okay?”

One of the concerned voices, inevitably, belonged to my coach, the Bumpster.  The Bumpster has a very distinctive voice: sweet and sharp and high.  Her laugh (and she laughs quite a lot) is amazing — you can hear it from a long distance away.  On this day I decided that the Bumpster’s laugh kind of resembles the call of a seagull: you know, that resonant, question-marky sound they make?  In my little group (nicknamed Team Margarita, for the drink that the Bumpster likes to serve during post-ride celebrations), we always responded powerfully to the Call of the Bumpster: no matter how far we may have strayed, that laugh drew us back to the safety and solidarity of our flock.  In the non-cycling part of her life, the Bumpster is an ER nurse; I would bet that her laugh has speeded many a patient back to good health.

With Sara at a SAG stop.

When we got to our second SAG (refreshments) stop, my wife, Sara, and son, Guthrie, were already there waiting for me.  I cannot tell you how much joy I got from having them down at Solvang to share this experience!  They met me at several SAG stops, and occasionally would pull up beside me in my wife’s car as I biked along.  These encounters made me feel glorious, like a participant in the Tour de France or something, only much slower and without any alleged performance-enhancers (unless you count the peanut-butter-honey-and-banana sandwiches that Sara had prepared for me).  Several other teammates had friends and family members with them as well — and so did many other riders at Solvang (most of whom were not with Team In Training).  As a result, especially towards the end of the ride, the vibe along the route was incredibly festive.

But before we could get to the end, we had to go up “the Wall.”  Or, as it was often referred to, “the notorious Wall.”  The Wall — a steady, relatively steep ascent — goes from about mile 70 to around mile 83.  In fact, one of the things we’d been warned about regarding the Solvang Century was that the bulk of the climbing happens late in the ride.  The thing is, a few miles before the Wall there was another ascent — one that, the Bumpster repeatedly told us, was actually harder than the Wall itself. Whether or not this was true (I have written before about the Bumpster’s propensity to lie in the service of motivation), it did make the Wall seem less daunting to me; after all, according the Bumpster, we’d already gotten through worse.  Moreover, our training rides had often packed in way more climbing per mile than Solvang could throw at us.  So we just downshifted, pinned our ears back, and kept going.

As often happens, the toughest ascent — psychologically, at least — came when many of us assumed we’d already gotten all the hard climbing out of the way.  In this case, it was a section (around the 90-mile mark) that the Bumpster had (from her previous experiences at Solvang) nicknamed “Little Bitch.”  Somehow, Little Bitch isn’t officially counted by the ride organizers as a hill — but believe me, it’s a hill!  And a twisty one, at that.  On previous ascents, I’d swallowed a packet of caffeinated energy goop to help propel me.  But by this point in the ride, I was over the whole eating thing — especially sweet stuff; I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.  Normally among the most avid eaters of peanut-butter-and-anything-sandwiches, I gazed upon the ubiquitous PB&J’s at our later SAG stops with utter disinterest.  Like a camel that had learned to depend on its hump, I felt a serene certainty that my body contained sufficient stores to power me the rest of the way.  Plus, I was the opposite of hungry: I felt like a nation that had suddenly gone from being a net importer of energy to an exporter.

Also, I felt hot.  Throughout our training sessions during the Bay Area winter, it had always been relatively cool — sometimes, downright frigid.  Down here in SoCal, the chilly morning had given way to a scorching afternoon.  Anticipating this, I had, the previous week, bought a kind of skullcap designed to go under my helmet and protect my bald head from the kind of airhole-pattern burn-striping that had inspired my team to nickname me “Manimal.”  I found it ironic that I was now biking while wearing a skullcap, as this reminded me of all the Saturday mornings that my cycling training had kept me from going to synagogue.  (I have kind of a passive-aggressive relationship with God — though, to be fair, God started it.)  What I hadn’t anticipated was that, for the very first time in my relatively short endurance-cycling experience, today it would become so hot that I’d be moved to take off the arm-warmers I’d worn on every training ride.  As a result of this (and of my lack of sunblock), my arms became so burnt that — even now as I write this, nine days after the event — they are peeling like the skin of a horror-movie creature.  Which, of course, makes me very proud.

With Guthrie at mile 98.5.

The last few miles of the Solvang Century were all downhill or flat, and my teammates and I enjoyed them immensely.  Guthrie and Sara were cheering by the side of the road as we neared the finish line — one of the peak moments of my day, and of my life.  A bunch of us actually cycled past the finish line — causing the Bumpster to yell out to us, penetratingly, to circle back.  But even though we’d covered that extra bit of distance, at the end of the ride my bike’s little computer thingie told me that we’d gone only 98.5 miles.

This wouldn’t do!  After picking up my way-cool Solvang Century completer’s medallion and pin at the TNT booth, I continued biking to a nearby parking lot.  And there, with my son jogging along beside me, I cycled an additional 1.5 miles — until I had officially made it through 100 miles.  At which point, I finally got off my bike, and Guthrie, Sara, and I wandered around Solvang in search of some celebratory aebleskivers.  Aebleskivers are said to be the supreme delicacy in Solvang, which is kind of a Disneyfied replica of a Danish town.  Well, we finally found a place where we could buy aebleskivers.  Let me tell you two things about the aebleskivers we ate:

  1. They tasted like blobs of deep-fried dough immersed in cherry cough syrup.
  2. I thought they were delicious.

Mmmmm!!!

(From some Googling, I’ve learned that apparently the correct plural is not “aebleskivers” but “aebleskiver.”  I will not, however, allow the Danes to exercise their usual linguistic hegemony in this important matter.)

After the ride, there was a celebration dinner at a nearby hotel for TNT riders and their entourages.  The food was terrible; I had three helpings.  My hunger, briefly dormant for those last few miles of the century, had returned — with a vengeance.  The Bumpster came by my table to serve me one of her homemade margaritas; it was the very stuff that dreams are made of.

The next morning, we hooked my bike onto the back of Sara’s car and headed back up to Berkeley.  It was poignant to say goodbye to my teammates, and it felt weird to have already completed the event, after all those months of training and worrying and wondering.  I don’t deal well with finishing things; it took me over a week to bring myself to do this little blog entry about Solvang, as if writing about it would seal the whole experience into an inaccessible past.  I worked really hard to prepare for my first century ride, and then I actually did it — which, me being me, I find somewhat depressing.  I’m a lot more comfortable with incompletion, even more so with failure.  I realize that this is creepy and wrong, but really, there’s nothing to be done about it.  You know: Love me, love my dog.

Again, let me offer my infinite thanks to everyone who contributed the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in support of my ride!  You have helped to fight blood cancer, and to make life better for cancer patients and their loved ones.  People who want to donate still can, through April 9, by clicking here.

Below is a map of my Solvang Century ride; you can click on it to get details regarding speed, heart rate, elevation, and more (though strangely, it contains no sunburn-related data).

Lollipop of Pain

Stafford Lake, just before we began our "fun" ride.

Over the course of my cycling training so far, I have learned that seasoned cyclists use certain words in different ways from what most of us are used to.  For example, when one of them refers to a course as being “fun,” or “great,” this probably means that biking it will hurt like hell.  Another example: My coach, the Bumpster, spoke of a section of last Saturday’s training ride out of Novato — a ridiculously steep ascent known as the “Marshall Wall” — as “enticing.”  Now, to me coconut gelato on a hot day is “enticing”; what climbing the Marshall Wall felt like was something more akin to “grueling.”  Actually, I suspect that for the Bumpster and other super-cyclists “enticing” and “grueling” go together quite naturally, whereas “easy” would be a turnoff.  And amazingly, I’m starting to feel the same way.  Starting to.  I still really, really like “easy,” but there’s definitely something gratifying about pushing through challenging terrain.  And even though the gratification is mostly in retrospect, often from the vantage point of a bathtub filled with hot water and Epsom salts, some of it is there even at the time of the struggle.  Or maybe it isn’t, and I’m just thinking that because it already happened and I’ve mostly recovered.  Perhaps cycling history would come out differently if it were written at mile 31, and were dictated by your quads.

At one of our “SAG” stops (where blessed volunteers dole out food and drink to all the training cyclists), a guy who seemed to be in tip-top shape pulled his bike over for a few minutes to chat with us.  When told of the route we were biking, he expressed approval: “Ah, yes — the lollipop.  It’s a great route!”  And indeed, when I later uploaded the ride from my bike-computer thingie, it mapped out as something like a lollipop.  (See below.)  At that moment, my legs were screaming obscenities at me — but yeah, even then there was something “great” about the experience.  It was a beautiful day in Marin (is that a redundancy?), and I was pretty much keeping up with my remarkable teammates, even though there had been times when I’d kept going by focusing only on the next pedal stroke, over and over — because to look farther ahead was an enticement to think, I can’t do it.  (Maybe that’s why the Bumpster called it “enticing”?)  And you know something?  I couldn’t do it: that course was too hard for me to complete — and yet I did complete it.  And when you do something you couldn’t do, even once, it makes you think that maybe you could do something else you couldn’t do.  And then (maybe) you’re hooked.

In any case, I plan to keep going — through all the “fun,” “great” courses that they throw at us on the way to the enticing Solvang Century on March 10.  Just don’t ask me how I’m feeling when I’m in the middle of a really difficult climb, or I might reply with some less positive-sounding adjectives.

You can join the fight against blood cancers by making a contribution on my TNT fundraising page.

Below is a map of Saturday’s lollipop-shaped ride; you can click on it for more info.

Riding with the Bumpster

Did it — I’ve biked my age in miles, and a bit more!  Last Saturday’s training ride, starting and ending in Half Moon Bay and hugging the coast on Route 1 and swinging inland through farms and some rather gnarly ascents, went for 53.1 miles.  And no, I didn’t bike around the parking lot at the end for that last 0.1 mile!  (Though I probably would’ve if I’d entered the lot at 52.9 mi.)

There seemed to be a headwind for the entire ride, which I know doesn’t really make sense — given that our course was pretty much circular — unless you think of the wind as pursuing a personal vendetta against our cycle team, which I do.  The scenery — especially along the ocean — was beautiful, though in my case the experience of beauty while cycling comes through a filter of lactic-acid pain: let’s say it was beauctical.

The coach of my sub-group (we are the slowest cyclists) is a legendary rider whose name is Susie — but, perhaps because half of the coaches and mentors happen to be named Sue, she goes by “the Bumpster.”  The Bumpster is relentlessly, charmingly, impossibly cheerful.  I think this is because the Bumpster is an incredibly sweet person, but her unfailing high spirits can seem, well, bizarre in the context of the extreme discomfort most of us are experiencing.  “You’re doin’ great, sweetie!” the Bumpster will call out as you strain to inch up a ridiculous incline.  The truth is, she is doing great: the Bumpster, who is older than me and exudes a grandmotherly vibe, is renowned for all the tough courses (with names like “Death Ride”) that she has repeatedly conquered.  The Bumpster never stops; the Bumpster never falters.  However, I must say: the Bumpster lies.  Yes!  I’ve noted a sneaky tendency on her part to make a claim that, say, the toughest hills of a course are behind us when, in fact, much tougher hills are ahead of us — as she well knows, having cheerfully ridden over all these hills many times before.  And I’m not the only one who’s noticed this.  After the 53.1-mile ride on Saturday, I heard the Bumpster talking to some coaches about a ride they were going to take the next day.  “It’ll be easy,” she was assuring them — “just a nice, little 40-mile ride.”  The other coaches rolled their eyes as she walked away; one of them explained to me that the Bumpster habitually understates the length and difficulty of the rides she leads: “little,” “easy” jaunts turn out to be quite challenging.

After we’d gone 40 miles or so, the Bumpster informed us that we’d already ascended about as much as we were going to climb over the entire Solvang Century in March.  And just as I was allowing myself to relax into a small sense of accomplishment, she told me that I should join the quicker group ahead of us for the remainder of the ride, which was going to be taking a longer, and hillier, route back than our own group.  “Really?” I said.  I was shocked.  Smiling (as always), the Bumpster said, “You have it in you.”  And instinctively I realized: when the Bumpster tells you to do something, you do it.  Because when it comes to endurance cycling, the Bumpster knows.  Ask anyone who’s ridden with her, and they’ll tell you.

If you’d like to make a donation to Team In Training in support of my upcoming “century” ride in March — and thus support the fight against blood cancers — you can go to my TNT fundraising page.

Below is a map of last Saturday’s training ride; you can click on it for details.