Slow and steady... it's going to plateau soon. A first person account by Jed Kornbluh
Slow and steady... it's going to plateau soon. Slow and steady.
I heard this refrain from my riding partner, over and over and over as we slogged up the endless steep grade of gravel and soft sand. She wouldn't stop, just pressing on and on pushing me harder to continue up the climb without stopping to rest my legs, slow my raging heart beat, or pass out in the ditch to be picked over by the circling buzzards. She couldn't stop. We were on a tandem and she was the only mental motivation keeping me from dumping our bike into the woods and giving up for the day. If not for Maria, I would have likely quit at the base of this beastly climb and hailed the broomwagon to tow my shamed, sweaty carcass back to Mohawk Mountain to dwell in my self-doubting misery.
The idea seemed like a good one: Stephen Bilenky, of the bicycle brand that bears his name, contacted me at the last minute to see if I was interested in joining his crew of three tandem teams to compete in the upcoming Rapha Gentleman's Race, a 120-mile unsanctioned, unmarshaled race with nearly 11,000ft of climbing near Litchfield, CT. Though I had no idea where the race course would travel, what tandem I would be riding, or who my partner (known as a stoker) would be, I agreed almost immediately and made plans to head up to Connecticut the following weekend. We arranged to rally at his North Philadelphia shop the day before the race to meet my partner and dial in the tandem with a few test rides. When I arrived at the shop, the rest of "Team Bilenky" was there getting situated on their tandems, but my stoker, Maria Dziembowska, had failed to arrive. I spent some time swapping stems, installing pedals, and adjusting my position while I got to know my team mates Bob, Sarai, Carl, and Lauren, all of whom were busy dialing in their own long-bikes for the event. Unfortunately for me, Maria was tied up working a National Bike to Work Day event so I settled for a quick fit and test ride with Stephen (we rode a few blocks to the bank and back... seemed ok to me) and then headed home to pack up my family and head north.
As usual, I was the first guy in the parking lot. Piers North, a member of the Rapha Continental team and my old Rapha Racing NYC team mate, pulled in a few minutes later and we caught up while wondering where the rest of the teams were. The race was starting in less than 45 minutes and it seemed like we were in the wrong place and, perhaps, the wrong day. Thankfully, within a few minutes riders started to trickle in, first the Independant Fabrications team, then Geekhouse, followed by BH/Garneau, Seven, and within thirty minutes everyone had arrived.
Everyone, that is, except for Team Bilenky.
I waited patiently, walking from car to car finding friends from Philadelphia, NYC, and beyond, all of whom were gathering supplies, pumping tires, embrocating, and nervously waiting for their start time to arrive. Team Bilenky was supposed to roll out of the parking lot at 9:30 with the IF team with others to follow in 10-minute increments, but as the clock ticked on to 9:15 I started getting very nervous and considered spending the day with Rapha's Derrick Lewis in one of the support vehicles. Just when I started to accept my fate the Team Bilenky vans appeared. Stephen popped out of the cargo van and started to unload our bikes while I got acquainted with Maria. We took a quick roll around the parking lot and headed out the driveway about 2 minutes late, which meant we would have to start hard and fast to keep the IF team in sight.
Bob and Sarai headed out in front of us, with Carl and Lauren bringing up the rear. As we approached the first climb (only minutes from the start), Bob and Sarai started to increase the pace wherein Maria and I instinctively got out of the saddle and started pumping up the ascent. For those who have never ridden a tandem, this is not something that comes naturally to most tandem teams. In fact, my parents, who have been riding tandems together since 1973 and have traveled to several continents to ride some of the most beastly climbs known to cyclists, have never mastered this skill. We not only nailed it but discovered our preferences for cadence climbing and pedaling style were nearly identical. Having just met 10 minutes earlier, it was obvious that we clicked on the bike and would have a great day of riding as long as we remained focused and determined to battle the elevation and gravel roads with vigor.
Our team soldiered up the first few climbs with great enthusiasm, though our mates Carl and Lauren weren't on our wheel as we'd hoped but we continued on, soft-pedaling while they caught us on the next descent. Thankfully, I had remembered to bring my Garmin Edge 705 with the course programmed, with the intention of taking the descents as fast as possible and allowing the GPS to alert me of our next moves. We were rolling along the zippy slope at around 50 mph, carefully pushing the underpowered cantilever brakes to their limit as the road flattened out and our next turn appeared. The push was too hard - we successfully blew out our rear tire, thankfully at around 30 mph and not while carving a corner. If this had happened on the descent I would be dictating this story from inside of a body cast and Maria might still be stuck in a tree along the road. We pulled over, half-way up the next climb, to quickly repair the tube while watching the other teams blow past our position. First Geekhouse, then HUP United. As I made the tube swap the Rapha video crew pulled over to interview us, asking how we flatted. I muttered something about the rims heating up and blowing the tube, which was about as straight-forward an answer as I could come up with while under pressure.
Tube fixed quickly and professionally. Back on the bike.
We slogged up the climb while being filmed by the crew, cracking jokes with them all the way to the top through our soft panting. Carl and Lauren had reconnected and we were a whole team once again. We continued on to the next few hills, passing more and more riders as we swiftly descended and moved back into second position. Maria and I got to know each other a little better, conversing freely when we weren't panting up the climbs or carefully negotiating gravel and soft sand on the pre-Colonial roads of NW Connecticut. We continued to attack the climbs with renewed intensity and accepted that, though teams would likely pass us on the incline, we would make up ground bombing down hills with our brakes screaming like tweens at a Justin Bieber show.
And so we did, for many more miles, until we arrived at the first checkpoint. We rolled in with Bob and Sarai, with Carl and Lauren just a few minutes behind us. Once there, higher seeded teams started pouring in. First BH/Garneau, then Bicycle Therapy, 5th Street Cross, Adler, and Rapha Continental. We refreshed our bottles and joked around with other riders, all the while taking notice of who was starting to crack. Matt Richards, of BH/Garneau, looked like death warmed over. He admitted to having no legs and I had doubt that he would survive the day. Though I consider Matt a friend, I relished in the idea that BH/Garneau had a chink in their captain's armor. Most of the teams rolled out together and regrouped on the next set of climbs.
We were sufficiently passed by most on the next steep climb, including the freshly-scented Embrocation Cycling Journal squad and tightly organized Bicycle Therapy, while we reserved our energy for the fabled twisting gravel climb just before the next checkpoint. According to the race notes, the next checkpoint would be just after the gravel climb at around mile 55-60. We pushed the pace on the next flat section and reconnected with the IF crew, trading rumors and speculation about the severity of this so-called deadly climb. Assuming the stair-step ascent we had just completed was this mysterious stretch we sat up and scoffed the organizers for their folly. Surely, that was not a serious climb.
Then we saw it. The road banked into a gravel incline that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention. I shifted into our 39x32 and agreed with Maria to put our heads down and just work it out. This climb was not a gradual incline nor a steady, steep grade. No, it was far worse. The road would climb, then plateau into a false flat over and over again without any chance for recovery. We lost track of mileage and time and continued to focus on the next rise on the horizon, though we estimated the total ascent was around 4.5 miles. Just when we thought we had reached the tree line the road would twist off into another direction, taking us higher and higher along the grade. We pushed. Panted. Sweated. Suffered. The entire way up the climb Maria seemed to know when I needed more encouragement.
"Only one more rise."
"Slow and steady."
"Keep up the intensity!"
She would occasionally apply a strong burst of pedal strokes, propelling us faster for a moment and supplying a much-needed change in rhythm. We worked together seamlessly, like a seasoned team sharing one set of legs. The confluence of our energy and tempo was incredible and we both mindlessly pushed up the ascent as if being slowly motor-paced by a dump truck.
We made it.
The next chunk of time was a blur of refueling, hydrating, and quietly congratulating each other as we anxiously pushed on to the next checkpoint, which didn't arrive until somewhere around mile 70. After attempting to repair a nearly-trashed chain and derailleur (saved by Bob!), we pulled in to find the bulk of the teams resting and impatiently waiting for sandwiches from the tiny general store nestled in Taconic State Park (yes, we were now in New York) that served as our second checkpoint. As our team was incomplete without Carl and Lauren, we decided to hang out and eat some lunch while we waited. Somewhere along the way we had picked up Tony Slokar, of Jonathan Adler Racing, who was suffering from severe leg cramping and had dispatched his team long ago to continue the battle without him. Tony and I ordered sandwiches while considering buying a few Bud tall boys and calling it a day. We stepped outside to find Maria cracking open an aforementioned Bud and splitting sips with Sarai. I watched in awe, and a bit of worry, as we still had 60 miles to finish, including a few steep climbs. We grabbed seats on the rocking chairs in front of the store and relaxed while we waited for our sandwiches, sucking down cold bottles of Coke, and patiently wondered what had become of Carl and Lauren whom we had dropped on that nasty dirt climb.
Time passed. No sandwiches. Beth Strickland and the rest of her 5th St Cross posse has arrived long before we did and had quickly run out of patience for the little old lady slowly making more sandwiches in one hour than she had admitted to making all month. We eventually got ours just as Carl and Lauren rolled in 45 minutes after we had arrived. Rumors of their two-hour time gap had been greatly exaggerated and we celebrated their arrival, rushing to get them fed so that we could continue on. With my gut full of Coke and half-digested Clif Shot Bloks, I was barely able to finish half of my sandwich, wrapping up the rest in case we got lost and had to forage for food for the next few days. Once sufficiently refueled we soldiered on to the next section.
Rolling along we discussed the course profile at length. Where would the next climb be? Are these directions accurate? Will our brakes hold out? We had no idea that the next nasty climb would arrive so soon after gorging on turkey sandwiches. With most of our blood volume at work in our digestive tracks, we were totally unprepared for the next climb, a soft, sloppy, gravelly ascent with no room for error. Unfortunately, my arms stopped receiving the proper impulses from my brain and steered us directly into the ditch, so we hoofed it all the way up this climb until we were able to remount. Thankfully, filmmaker Brian Vernor was there to capture the episode on camera. We continued on, making the best of the ride, and with 90% of the climbing behind us we were able to enjoy the scenery and focus on steady intensity.
Maria and I were starting to feel the effects of long hours in the saddle, though our spirits remained high. Soreness, exhaustion, etc. had set in. We flatted once again, but this time along a lovely bucolic country road flanked by a soft moss bed. I changed the flat while Bob, Sarai, Maria, and Tony stretched out in the grass for a moment. A few mechanical issues later (make that 4 flats total and a nearly destroyed rear derailleur thanks to some shoddy shifting by yours truly) we were in the home stretch, only 15 miles from the finish and traveling at high speed along the hard pack of River Road. Stopping only to nurse a slow leak in our rear tire every few miles we pressed on, bombing along Housatonic River Road until we were within an arms length of the final climb, Everest Hill Road. Knowing that we were only about a mile from our finish and with the sun beginning to set in the western sky, Maria and I launched out of the saddle in our 39x34, giving this climb everything we had. We dropped Tony. We passed Bob and Sarai. Maria was pushing so hard I could feel the point of her helmet in my back, which pushed me even more. We reached the top and rejoiced.
With a mile to go along Great Hollow Road, we could feel that rear tire bottoming out with every square pedal stroke. Pushing to toward the entrance of the park, we heard the remaining RGR riders cheer us on as we came into view, carefully negotiating that final turn into the parking lot and down to the start area, all the while hoping to not dump the tandem with our rear flat tire only inches from the finish. We were greeted with more cheering and, of course, some cold beer. Carl and Lauren arrived a bit later, guided in by the headlights of our support vehicle with Stephen in the passenger seat. As they pulled in fireworks exploded down the road. Yes, really. We hung around for a while, swapping stories about the worst of the ride and all agreeing that we would do it again, but not for a while. Team Bilenky parted ways and made plans to continue entering impossible events like this. Why not, we survived this one.
The Rapha support team did a phenomenal job. This ride was well executed and meticulously organized, though I expected nothing less from such a firm. The course was nasty, even unrideable by most conventional standards, but we not only finished we finished on a tandem that we had never ridden and with partners who had never met. Maria and I agreed to do this again and likely will, hopefully out west in next edition of the RGR in August.