Archive for the ‘HTFU (Rule #5)’ Category

GFNY Mont Ventoux: A Legendary Race

I’ve done the GFNY Championship in NYC four times. I’ve done a double century (200-miles) in one day. I’ve cycled up Stelvio in Italy. I’ve ridden GFNY Italia, Tour of the Battenkill and Tour of the Catskills with the infamous Devil’s Kitchen climb.

None of this could prepare me for GFNY Mont Ventoux.

Mont Ventoux is epic. And she’s a beast. With many nicknames including the Bald Mountain, she’s featured periodically in the Tour de France. GC hopes can be sealed or shattered at its summit. Weather is entirely unpredictable. (It was 36C at the base three days before the event – and four days before that there was snowfall on the summit.) Winds are notoriously strong and the climb is absolutely brutal. And she’ll throw everything at you in attempt to break you; to assure you don’t reach the summit.

The "beacon" at the top of Mont Ventoux

The “beacon” at the top of Mont Ventoux

There’s a weather tower on the top that serves as a beacon to those riding nearby (and seen from nearly the entire GFNY Mont Ventoux course.) But I didn’t think it was a beacon, I thought it was a middle finger saying, “There’s no f–king way you’ll get your @$$ up here! You can try, but you will fail.”

I wouldn’t listen. I succeeded.

Since she was giving me the middle finger for the entire eight hour ride, I figured I owed her some in return…

F–k you, Ventoux!

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because, of course, there is so much more to this story. Let’s go back to the beginning and first look at the course:

GFNY Mont Ventoux

On paper, this doesn’t look so bad; but a closer look shows that the total elevation and the climb up Mont Ventoux are two very real challenges. And the three climbs before Mont Ventoux don’t look too bad until you do the math and see that you’ll have virtually climbed Mont Ventoux before reaching the base of that climb! (The three preliminary climbs total almost the same elevation as the Bald Mountain herself.) And while this is true, it’s a really nice way to set up the course: do the first climb, recover; do the second, larger climb, recover; do the third even larger climb, recover; attack Mont Ventoux. If you aren’t ready when you get to the base of the mountain, you may as well abandon.

The Start

Our hotel was just a few blocks from the starting line and since the gun was at 7:30 AM we didn’t need to get up super early. An alarm at 6 AM allowed plenty of time for morning prep, a full breakfast and a short roll out to the starting line.

My "Wilson" shot...

My “Wilson” shot…

The mood as we staged was really friendly and relaxed. We knew there was a short “neutral” start to get out of the city center safely, so folks weren’t too amped up. However, even with the neutral start at GFNY Italia the peloton launched into a frenetic pace around 40kph and I was among a not so small group that was dropped before the neutralization was finished! This made me a little nervous, but GFNY Italia has nothing close to Mont Ventoux waiting on the course, so I was hoping the start in France would be more reasonable as folks paced themselves to the big climb. Thankfully, I was right.

Justin leading me out. I wouldn't see him again until I reached the hotel.

Justin leading me out. I wouldn’t see him again until the hotel.

The Preliminary Climbs

For about 10km the peloton rolled at a reasonable pace out of Vaison-la-Romaine and into the countryside. I was with a large pack of riders, probably right near the middle of the full race compliment. It was very comfortable, except that the first climb simply comes up way too soon.

Why do we start climbing so soon?!?

But before I get to that, here’s a short digression. Each bib had the rider’s name and flag of their home country in addition to other information like category and course distance. This is a really nice touch, especially for an international field. I could address riders by name and, for me, more importantly, I knew if I could communicate with them in English.

Bib #5

Bib #5

Now, I have to rant just a little. If you are sensitive to political incorrectness or stereotyping, please skip this next paragraph!

The French. Oh, boy, the French! As a country, they are so hospitable and welcoming. And they’ve got such great food and wine. But on this race, they were the most irritating riders on the course. Two things happened that I consider unacceptable in a road race. First, whenever I was in a paceline, the riders rotated. And every time I can remember a French rider getting to the front, they immediately pulled off. They never took their pull. Maybe some did, but none that I saw and it really started to bother me. Second, this was not a fully closed course, so there were recreational riders on the road with us. Ok, that’s fine. However, on many occassions I was isolated (riding alone) and after passing a recreational rider, they’d get on my wheel. I was like, “SERIOUSLY?!?” I’m not winning this race, but I’m in a bike race and you are going to draft me just to save yourself a little effort?!? Absolutely absurd!

Whew! Now that I got that off my chest…

The first climb is not a bad climb – about 5km with a 5% average grade and very little variation.

It should have been a piece of cake, but it just comes up so soon (at least mentally) and at 5km in length, it’s quite long by local standards where I ride regularly. In fact, it’s more than half the distance of the longest local climb! I didn’t exactly struggle, but my goal was to really take it easy on the preliminary climbs. At the same time, it’s a balance – taking it too easy would lead to more of a push on Mont Ventoux, so perhaps getting over these faster wasn’t a bad idea. Either way, by the time I was really calculating my plan, I had found a natural rhythm.

Passing one on many, MANY, vineyards on the course.

Passing one of the many, MANY, vineyards on the course.

I was in the small ring, but only about the 17 in the rear, so I knew I had lots of gears left for the harder climbs. This was definitely something I thought about beforehand – don’t use any of my easiest gears until I’m on Ventoux! That part of the plan I did execute successfully. But when I later heard that Justin didn’t even go to the small ring until the big climb, I was a bit jealous. Then again, he’s about 20% faster than me in these events, so it’s crazy to compare us and our riding strategies.

Around a switchback through one of the old towns

Around a switchback through one of the old towns

Each climb took us through spectacular old towns with lots to look at and take our minds off either the current pain or the pain we expected to feel on that final ascent. The old buildings, the beautiful vistas and the winding roads were absolutely spectacular. And each town had at least a few locals cheering us on – it was terrific!


The Mont Ventoux summit always looming over the course.

The second climb was much like the first, but a little shorter. I realized that in my mind the preliminary three climbs were each longer than the one before, but that wasn’t true – they were just higher. So the second climb was really a nice ride – more great views and more old towns.

The best thing about these climbs was that they were “mountain pass” roads in that they went up, and then right back down. Each climb was rewarded with a beautiful winding descent on roads that weren’t perfectly smooth, but were virtually pothole free. This meant that I could really bomb the descents and I twice approached 70kph which is among the fastest I’ve ever descended.

One of the narrow, winding descents. And the terrific view.

One of the narrow, winding descents. And the terrific view.

The third climb had the same 4.5% average but was quite a bit longer at 12km and a couple of short kicks that were steeper including a few switchbacks. But then again, it’s called Col de L’Homme Mort, or “Dead Man’s Hill,” so there must be more to the story. Once again I found my rhythm and made my way up the mountain. Many riders would pass me on the climbs, but I would pass many of those same riders on the descents and I later found myself in much of the same company as I was in the first 10km. I was feeling good about my pace overall.

After the third preliminary climb is the road to Bédoin and the base of Mont Ventoux. The course in this section is mostly false flat (slightly uphill) along the valley floor. However, when I entered this section, I was greeted with a brutal headwind. I’m roughly 90km in and feeling great when suddenly I’m pushing hard just to move forward at a snail’s pace. I was hoping the wind would pass, but it did not and the next 10km or so really tore me up. I was pacing myself so well, leaving as much as possible for the mountain climb to the finish, but now a 1.5% incline was killing me because of the wind. It was very demoralizing.

My signature pose. While I was still feeling strong.

My signature pose. While I was still feeling strong.

Just when I was beginning to crack mentally, a group of eight riders pulled up to me. There were three Italians at the front and they immediately noted that I was an American riding an Italian bike:

“American? On De Rosa?” they asked.

“Oui, oui!” I replied (I was thinking in French, not Italian, but they got the point.)

“For you, we work!” And they signalled me to get into the paceline.

I got some similar attention at GFNY Italia and I’ve really come to respect riding the De Rosa in Europe. But this was different – just when I was hitting a wall, they pulled up and saved me. I dropped into the paceline and they pulled me for 5km+ and then we were passing through the valley vineyards of Bédoin and beginning the Mont Ventoux climb. I waved a hearty thank you to the Italian leads and international group I was with and pulled off to do my own thing on Mont Ventoux.

The Bald Mountain

With some help from the Italians, I reached the base of Mont Ventoux somewhat refreshed. Overall, the three preliminary climbs are a perfect setup for the mountain climb. At the base of Ventoux are farms and vineyards – and a perfect view of the weather tower at the top, looking very, very, far away. The climb begins very gradually and just 1km or so in there was a fountain, so I stopped to fill a bottle and take in some nutrition.

The Mont Ventoux forest is a mental game, and a hard one to win.

As the climb heads into the forest, everything changes. What was a casual, countryside ascent suddenly becomes a threatening challenge. There are trees everywhere, yet somehow there is practically no shade. For one of the first times all day, and for a mentally long stretch, there was no more view. And no visual indications of progress – just turn after turn in the trees with more and more climbing. Most of the forest, and a fair stretch beyond, hover between 9% and 11%. In fact, there’s a stretch of about 10km that never goes below 8.5%. The only savior? Very few kicks beyond 12%; as if that’s comforting.

Stone road markers along the climb

Stone road markers along the climb

The only indications of progress while in the forest, other than the feeling that I was ascending, were the stone road markers indicating elevation, grade and distance to the summit. I was mostly keeping my wits about me, and at least I was passing a few riders, so I knew I was making some progress. At one point an older woman (recreational rider) passed me with ease and I was quite startled – until I realized she was riding a bike with a motor.

Does the forest ever end?

Despite all the legend about the barren, lunar landscape at the top of Mont Ventoux, I found the forest the most difficult. Perhaps I’d have felt differently if it were snowing, raining, windy or if there were searing heat. But on this day, the mental game being played with the forest was the toughest for me. Worse, still, as the forest starts to thin, it still takes seemingly forever to finally clear it. The wind gets stronger, the trees fewer and further between, but still many blind turns before full exposure and a clear view to the summit.

I was also having an issue with my gears. With a compact crank and an 11/29 in the rear, I have good gearing for long climbs. But when I was in the 27 or the 25 (second and third easiest) gears, they were slipping. So I found myself shifting between the 29 and the 23 which is a pretty big gap. I did much of the climb in the 29 and felt that the 27 would have been a better choice. C’est la vie!

The beauty of the Beast

The beauty of the Beast

And once there’s a clear view to the summit, everything changes. Suddenly, progress is notable and there’s a real goal in sight. But at the same time, while the grade declines slightly, it’s rarely under 8%, there’s more wind, and the visual progress, while notable, is painfully slow. Still, while my time doesn’t reflect this, the top portion of Mont Ventoux was my favorite part of the ride. Every moment on that mountain felt sacred and suddenly the entire race felt like the Bucket List challenge I’d originally planned. At this point all the suffering to get here was all worth it.

My pilgrimage to the Tom Simpson memorial.

My pilgrimage to the Tom Simpson memorial.

With just over 3km left I stopped briefly at the final aid station – Chalet Reynard. I got my last boost of food and water, and began the last stretch to the summit. With 1km left is the Tom Simpson memorial where I had to stop to pay my respects. Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux at this location during the 1967 Tour de France. He was severely dehydrated, but his death was more a result of his doping attempts which caused his poor judgment leading to death. I walked up the ten steps to the memorial which seem painfully difficult to climb at this point, left a water bottle for him, snapped the photo above and continued my ascent.

The summit is finally within reach!

The summit is finally within reach!

I went no faster on the final 3km from Chalet Reynard, nor on the final 1km to the summit, yet this last stretch felt much easier. Perhaps just having the finish line approach was enough, but also the ride atop this sacred mountain was beginning to wash over me.

Crossing the finish line just minutes ahead of my eight hour goal.

Crossing the finish line just minutes ahead of my eight hour goal.

When I crossed the finish, I could not throw up my hands and I could not celebrate for the camera. I simply pushed with my last effort over the line and coasted to the spot where they were presenting the medals. I cried for a moment realizing the magnitude of this accomplishment and the history of this place. I was exhausted, but so incredibly pleased to be on this summit. And to have gotten here by bike

Maggie and me at the summit - 1912m

Maggie and me at the summit – 1911m

The Great Descent

The summit was chilly and windy, but tolerable. There was a bag waiting for me with a vest and full finger gloves; I donned them both and began the ride down to the valley.

The race is over, but the fun has just begun!

The race is over, but the fun has just begun!

The first few turns were awesome – the wind was moderate, the road was clear and the switchbacks had lots of room. I was able to let loose and really fly downhill. It’s not often I want to see the profile of a descent, but this one is worth a look:

However, the fun ended about a third of the way down the mountain when the wind really kicked up and I was getting tossed around the road noticeably. I tried to refrain from braking too much, trying to trust the bike to remain true; but this was hard at 60kph+ with turns and traffic coming the other way. It was definitely a hairy ride down, but still pretty fun.

Once at the base, there’s anoth 10km+ to Vaison-la-Romaine where the race started and where my hotel was located. That was a tough stretch – windy, flat, busy roads and I was clearly quite tired. When I finally got to town I was less than 100m from my hotel when a car left me too little room and I went over the curb and crashed. I was fine, but the bike was a little messed up, so I carried it to the hotel figuring I’d pack it in the bag and deal with it back at home.


GFNY Mont Ventoux is a legendary ride. Anyone who watches the Tour de France and does these sportives should put this on their bucket list. The riding in Provence is lovely and the towns welcome cyclists with open arms.

A huge shout out to Nicolas and Lucie, the organizers of this event. There is a standard set by Uli and Lidia at the GFNY Championship in NYC that must be upheld by each of the GFNY World organizers. But Nicolas and Lucie really go beyond! The expo, the “parade of nations” and the concert leading up to the race are really well done and lots of fun. And the race itself? Well, maybe Nicolas and Lucie are blessed to have one of the best routes in the world. But the work they need to put in to get all the permits and pull off race day so perfectly – well, that’s monumental. And you need to experience it for yourself.

The Un-best-able Best

I set a Personal Best this morning that can never be bested. And you’ll never see it on Strava. It’s a mental Best…

From the entrance to the Palisades Interstate Park in Fort Lee, to the exit at Alpine, back on 9W to Strictly Bicycles I saw ZERO cyclists.

That’s about 16-miles of some highly popular riding without another rider! Why? Well, it was cold (about 49F) and wet (light rain to steady rain) this morning and I guess folks haven’t hardened up to the cold winter ahead.

A (Cold) Road Alone

2013-11-14 07.52.38Last Thursday I took a particularly lonely ride. And it was awesome. (Strava Ride Record)

Many riders love the fall season because of the beauty of the leaves and relief from the summer heat. I do as well. But when it starts to hint at winter cold, everything changes. This particular morning wasn’t all that cold, about 35F when I started, but it was quite windy and felt a lot colder. So I bundled up, but continued to resist that winter jacket, hoping to hold off on that for as long as possible and build a little cold tolerance in my body instead.

As I rode over the George Washington Bridge I was really feeling the cold – it’s extra windy up there! But as I came off the bridge and headed into Palisades Park, things got pleasantly surreal. On the roughly six miles through the park I saw a total of two cyclists and three joggers. I usually see that number at any given moment, but the cold has scared away the masses. (Ironically, the masses will find 35F and windy to be “quite warm” come spring time!)

And that is why I love this time of year. While I am a big fan of social rides, there is a time and a place. And right now, it’s time to spend a few rides in isolation. I like to use this time to acclimate to the dropping temperatures and get comfortable with a relaxed riding pace. I also like the focus that comes with fewer distractions on the ride: no more colorful leaves to gawk at, no riders and joggers to smile at as we pass, and even fewer cars to avoid (for no obvious reason).

Trying to stay in Zone Two, I continued from the park back down 9W at a brisk speed, but easy gearing. I continued easily through Hudson Terrace back onto the bridge. And as I came off the bridge with only 10-blocks remaining, reality hit me hard: car and pedestrian traffic everywhere! Any attempts to remain in Zone Two dripped away as drivers cursed and my heart began to race, wondering how I’d survive the short distance remaining.

I love that my new apartment is so close to the bridge, but maybe I can build a teleporter to get me to Fort Lee and start there from now on. Then I may complete a full ride in Zone Two.

Challenge Yourself to Reach New Heights

2013-11-03 10.30.45

Near the top of Clausland Mountain with the Tappan Zee Bridge looking quite small.

Sunday was the ING NYC Marathon and a lot of talented runners as well as struggling amateurs challenged themselves to run 26.2 miles. This is a challenge I will not likely ever take on – not only don’t I enjoy running much, but I have bad knees, so cycling is a little better for me. I also find the idea of remaining upright and in forward motion for many hours to be terribly daunting. Which is a bit odd since I can get on a bike for 3-6 hours and not think too much of it. And that’s the point – we all see challenges in our own perspective; a daunting challenge to me is a “walk (or run) in the park” to others.

I decided that I’d use the day of the marathon as a day to challenge myself as well, but I chose something other than a marathon run as my challenge. Instead I took on a cycling route that another rider suggested to me about two months earlier. Why hadn’t I done this route sooner? I contains a lot of climbing including three of the steepest segments I’ve ever ridden. But it was a beautiful fall day and it was time to take on this challenge. And it was time to take on new heights.

Strava results of this ride.

River Road (Palisades Park) with leaves looking like a tunnel of fire.

River Road (Palisades Park) with leaves looking like a tunnel of fire.

The ride began like many others – cross the George Washington Bridge and head over to Strictly Bicycles in Fort Lee to meet other riders. But as I arrived I found that none of my usual partners were riding today, so I turned back south on Hudson Terrace and headed into The Park. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the fall foliage – and then quickly reminded that the roadway was more treacherous than usual with the falling leaves and morning dew. Today was a day to take a slow and deliberate ride. And save my effort for the climbs.

While in the park I stopped to take some photos and was overtaken by one of my other riding partners. We chatted for a bit and continued on before I existed the park and he turned back having time for only a short ride. Then along 9W I twice saw other familiar riders on their way back south, too. I got into Piermont and took a short coffee and donut break before heading for Ash Street, a short but challenging climb averaging 12% but peaking well above that. Getting out of the saddle and pushing hard for that little stretch felt really great. At the top of Ash I proceeded onto a short stretch of 9W before turning right and seeing what really looked like a wall – the entrance to Clausland Mountain. This “wall” is a very short 18% climb that mercifully levels off to about 12% for a distance. Again, out of the saddle, long deliberate leg movements and suddenly the 12% portion felt quite relaxing.

2013-11-03 11.15.25

Nike Overlook Park and one of the remnants of this former missile site – a relic of the cold war.

The rest of this area contains rolling hills with long stretches of gradual ups and downs – the kind of terrain I’m more familiar with in the area. It’s a beautiful area just a stone’s throw from the cycle-crowded 9W, but unknown to all be the most committed cyclists. With world class cycling down below, why should you head up these “walls”? My answer, “because they are there.”

As I came back around this section I reached the midpoint of my ride and began the journey back to NYC. But before I left the “highlands” if you will, I took a short detour into Nike Overlook Park. This place is a surprising relic from the cold war – a former Nike Missile site complete with rusting missile control remnants. It’s a bit creepy, but fascinating all the same. And the pavement is full of the graffiti of teens leaving their mark on the high point of the area.

On the return ride I came upon another familiar rider – ironically, the riding mentor who suggested this route to me in the first place. He and I shared a relatively leisurely return from Piermont to Strictly Bicycles sharing many different stories and training suggestions. And the next day, the pain and soreness in my body was a welcome reminder of why I ride.

This is why I ride. And challenging myself to new heights, literally and figuratively, is what keeps me riding.


On a Chilly Morning

222221175602_10202276582343131_404015694_nYesterday was the first chilly morning for a scheduled ride; when I awoke, the temperature was 50° Fahrenheit. The forecast was sunny with temps pushing well into the 60’s and close to 70°, so it made selecting a kit quite difficult. Generally, my rule of thumb is that I wear a summer kit anytime the starting temp is 55° and forecast is over 65° but I always have to remind myself of two conflicting facts about rides as the weather is shifting this time of year:

  1. My body isn’t yet used to cold starts
  2. The warming trend in the AM this time of year is more significant that late fall

So, that first point told me to dress warmly and the second said, don’t worry, it’ll warm up. Well, I went with Rule 5 (HTFU) and wore nothing but a summer kit. Did I make the right choice? Mostly.

1291864_10153275333600232_723813058_oMy ride begins with 30-minutes through Manhattan, over the GW Bridge, and out to Strictly Bicycles. I was pretty darn cold at this point, but with the sun blazing in the parking lot, I didn’t need to go inside to warm up. I did consider buying thin but full finger gloves since I don’t have any of those, but passed. When the ride began about 20-minutes later, I felt great!

But I should have noticed that everyone else in the group was wearing warmer gear. See the group photo on the right – I’m in the red jersey and pretty much the only one in a summer kit. This photo is about an hour into the ride and at this point I felt good. But the first 30-minutes were fast (read: wind) and shady (read: cold). I was pretty chilly – especially toes and fingers. The image on the left shows me with my game face fighting the chill earlier in the ride.

So what did I learn and what advise can I give based on this and winter rides last year?

  1. It’s not yet Fall, so don’t worry too much – the days do warm up rather quickly.
  2. Cover your digits! The only thing I wished I had early on were full finger gloves and, perhaps, lightweight shoe covers.
  3. Don’t add long sleeve base layers – yet. I wore a short sleeve base layer only and my core felt great the whole time.
  4. If you need arm or leg covers, wear something you can easily remove mid-ride. The guys with bulkier jackets were stuck being either too warm or too cold.
  5. HTFU! If you are cold, ride harder. Always!

Bottom line-  be comfortable and enjoy your ride. There’s nothing worse that going numb.


Labor Day Metric Century Ride

Riders on 9WYesterday I joined a group of eight for a 100km ride that was practically the GFNY Medio Fondo route (link to Strava record of full ride).  However, since the GFNY doesn’t have enough hills <SARCASM> we added one big one at the midpoint of the ride. And, in true GFNY13 fashion, rain with a drenching thunderstorm was included. While not nearly the epic ride that was the GFNY13, yesterday’s ride was pretty epic in its own right.

The most interesting and impressive part of the ride was the hill at High Tor (link to Strava segment). Our ride leader was the only one in the group to have done this hill before, and while he (sort of) warned us, we weren’t really prepared for the ascent ahead. It’s the better part of a mile in length with an average grade of 9.9%, so I’m calling it 10% for good measure. I don’t think I’d done anything previously over 1/4-mile that was double digit grade. The hill starts hard, with a straight slope that was around 14% up to the first bend. And while not obvious on the map, each bend was effectively a blind turn, so we never really knew where the top was going to be. I also don’t think the first half of the climb dropped below 12% grade.

This hill alone was sort of epic. Even more so was the fact that we all made it up the hill (some with a few short rests). And at least one of the riders had trouble completing a much smaller hill only a few months earlier. My own personal completion of this climb was an accomplishment since I was able to do it without a rest and it was clearly a greater challenge than most other hills I’ve faced. Perhaps any other hill I have faced. All of this is testimony to riding with groups and continually challenging yourself based on the stronger riders in the group. There’s no doubt that road cycling is ultimately a team sport. (Even if we only get scored on individual accomplishments.)

On the return trip the rain came and it was just as drenching as the GFNY13; but the warmer weather made it almost tolerable. Several of us got into a paceline for a stretch along 9W and we were driving that train pretty hard. We averaged 21.6mph for almost 5-miles and this was my second best time ever on that stretch (link to Strava segment). We regrouped briefly at the bike shop in Fort Lee before heading our separate ways to return home.

Once I dragged my waterlogged self over the GW Bridge and back home, I had my second best hot shower of my life. Understandably, the best one ever was also this year – right after the much colder conditions of the Gran Fondo NY in May.