French Creek Iron Tour

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My First Century

At the finish line

For my first century ride, I chose the French Creek Iron Tour. Of the local events I know about, this was actually the hardest (over 6,000 feet of climb). I picked it for two reasons: one is that it was fairly close to home so I didn’t have to get up too early on a Sunday morning, and the other is that the ride is difficult enough that if I were to actually finish, I wouldn’t be left with the feeling that it wasn’t a “legit” century. There are more difficult centuries out there, I’m sure, but anything with over a mile of climb is the real deal As far as I’m concerned.

Well, how did I get here?

The road to this first century ride began in July of 2017, when I visited San Francisco and was amazed to see so many cyclists tackling the many steep hills of that city. I myself probably wasn’t logging more than a couple hundred miles a year on my bike, feeling like the rolling hills of Southeastern Pennsylvania weren’t conducive to cycling. Of course, San Francisco makes the county I live in look pool table flat. So, with my attitude suitably adjusted, I resolved to get back into cycling more when I returned home.

Part two of the equation was my purchase of a Peloton bike in August of the same year. My brother (#CrunchyFrog) and brother-in-law (#SaucyDawg) had them, and were singing the praises of the bike (and, in particular, an instructor they called “JJ”) at our family reunion. Back home, my wife (#ExcellentBird) and I checked out the bike, but it took us more than a week, two visits to the showroom and a sample class before we talked ourselves into buying one (and we each probably did it for the other!). It was not an easy sale, but I rationalized that I was buying it for her, and she did the opposite.

The Peloton bike quickly became part of my routine. In fact, a day doesn’t feel complete without a ride. I’ll even come back inside after a road ride and get on the Peloton bike! By October I tried my first organized bike ride, the Main Line Animal Rescue Gran Fondo. Joining it was a bit of a spur-of-the-moment thing. I really had no idea what my abilities were, so signed up for the 30-mile course (and managed to raise $500 in a week) and completed it on my hybrid bike, which was the only one I owned).

I had a great time on that ride, and decided that it would be fun to ride with my friends from work. To do that, I figured I needed a road bike, so I bought myself a 2017 Fuji Gran Fondo in November, taking advantage of the end-of-season sales.

5,000 miles on a bike that doesn’t move

It was pretty much all-Peloton, all-the-time that winter, but when the warm weather rolled around I tried a few events. One was the 50 mile course of the French Creek Iron Tour, which was hilly but do-able. Near the end of the summer I was invited to join a team organized by my company to do a three-day, 160 mile ride in Cape Cod. Modesty prevents me from telling you how I fared, but let’s just say I didn’t have to wait in line at the buffet at the end of the ride.

It’s hard for me to express how much the Peloton bike did to prepare me for that ride. Each day I got up in Cape Cod I felt like I hadn’t just rode for hours the day before. I actually felt stronger each day. And although I try to take care of myself, I was never what anyone would call an athlete… it’s just not in my genes. Nevertheless, thanks to the daily Peloton rides, I felt unstoppable on the road that weekend.

The last ride of 2018 was the MLAR Gran Fondo again. This time I had recruited my brother and brother-in-law and we did the 100K (64 mile course). Well, we did 40 miles of it. Unfortunately at mile 41 I got tangled up with another rider and crashed out of the ride. I had surgery a week later to put some things back in place, but once the stitches were out I was back on the Peloton bike. It was slow going for a while due to some broken ribs, but each week was better than the one before and I was putting up decent numbers again by January.

In mid-winter I started the “Game of Zones” PZ challenge (Pelotoner’s will get that). After that, I signed up for “Zone Wars”. Completing these really made me feel like I was back in the game. In early spring, I did a ~30 mile gravel ride which I did not enjoy with a mountain-biking friend who also did not enjoy it. Somebody enjoys gravel riding, but I’m not entirely sure who that is. Anyway, like a lot of challenges in life, I’m glad I did it, and glad I never have to do it again.

It’s Century Time

So, after healing up I find spring around the corner and I need a goal. One of the things I love about the Peloton bike is it allows me to set goals and to measure my progress. Of course I have the goal of completing the unfinished Gran Fondo this fall, but after my experience in Cape Cod I was already pretty sure I could do a 64-mile ride. So I decided I would do a century. I really had no idea whether I was ready for a century, but it seemed like a good goal. I selected the Iron Tour partly because of its bad-ass name, and partly because I had done the shorter courses before and knew it to be a well-organized event with good markings and well-stocked rest stops (complete with cookies).

If you’re not into cycling, understand that the “century” is sort of a benchmark of legitimacy. Road riders can be grouped by those who have ridden a century and those who haven’t. It’s a bit like what marathons are to runners: either you’ve done it or you haven’t. (I don’t know how other people feel about it, but it seems to me that a marathon is a lot harder than a century, but whatever…)

I downloaded a chart from Bicycling.com that showed how much riding I should do each week leading up to the century. Oops! It’s an eight-week plan, but I only had four weeks. Still, at week 5 the long ride of the week was 40 miles, easily do-able, so I figure I was on track … it’s not like I was getting off the sofa at week 5.

A little help from my friends

At this point I got some valuable help from the West Chester Cycling Club. I joined their Saturday group rides and thankfully not only are the people really nice, and not only are they good cyclists, but they have a number of rides each weekend (and some during the week if your schedule is flexible enough) so you can pick your distance and speed. On successive weekends I built up from 44 miles to 49 miles to 64 miles and then, on the weekend before the Iron Tour, an 86 mile trip to Chesapeake Bay. The last two were somewhat tiring but still very do-able, so I still didn’t have a good sense of how much I could really do. Plus, even the 86 mile ride had only 4,000 feet of climb, so the Iron Tour would be not only longer but hillier (if that’s a word).

I took it easy the last week, resting up for the Iron Tour. I did short (20 minute) low-impact Peloton rides and even didn’t ride at all on two of the days (very unusual for me).

Tackling the Iron Tour

I suppose it was the right move to rest so much, but I really felt out of sorts on the actual Iron Tour. I figured I would sail pretty easily through the first two-thirds and then venture into unknown territory, but I was actually already feeling somewhat tired by mile 40. At mile 70 I really started to get unhappy — at that point the hills are long and rolling, but you’re out in the farmland where there is no shade and the wind was blowing very strongly (the volunteers at the rest stop at mile 80 were literally holding onto the tent so it didn’t blow over). And of course the wind was a headwind, did you even need to ask?

Come mile 80 I was actually happy to get back into the wooded hills, even though it meant more climbing. I knew I was getting pretty sunburned (I was about six hours into the ride at that point) and the trees cut down on the wind somewhat. Around mile 75 I started to question how much I really cared about finishing this ride, but after mile 90 I knew I was going to finish.

One of the things you learn on a seven-plus hour bike ride is how long all of the batteries in your various devices last. My Lumos helmet (with built-in lights, a gift from my wife after my crash) ran down after about 3 and a half hours. My rear tail light / radar died after about six hours. And, worst of all, my Garmin itself started giving me low batter warnings at mile 100 (of 101!). This was a serious crisis. If the Garmin doesn’t record your ride, does it count? Would I get Strava credit? Would I be able to “Relive” my ride?

So, although I had planned to basically declare victory at mile 100 and coast to the finish, in the end I feel the need to empty the tank in order to finish the ride before my Garmin crapped out completely. Fortunately for me, the last mile or so of the ride was relatively flat, and I crossed the finish line just about 7 ½ hours after I started.

It was deeply satisfying to have completed a century ride (and this one in particular), but I was ready to be done. I wrote in my Strava notes, “anyone who draws up a ride with 6,000 feet of climb is a dick”, and I’ll stand by that assessment. Still, as I write this a few days later, I have to admit that I really enjoyed the challenge and it probably won’t be too long before I try another century.

In fact, I hear there’s one out in Hershey, PA where they give out chocolate at the rest stops.

See you there.

Relive ‘French Creek Iron Tour’

Iron Tour recap

(Don’t forget to check out www.TeamK9Buddy.org and learn how you can help feed and care for homeless animals. Thanks!)

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