On November 25, my friend Danny and I participated in the 2012 Santos Great Bike Ride for Charity. We did the 53km, single-lap version of the ride.
I thought I’d give an account of my experiences of the day, looking at the many sensations, both physical and emotional, that accompany a long, semi-competitive bike ride.
It’s before 7am, and I’m in a drowsy haze. Despite my best efforts to get to bed early, the night before was sadly lacking in sleep. Restless energy and anticipation kept waking me up every 20 minutes from 4:30am onwards. But none of that matters now that I’m on the bike.
How do I feel? Riddled with nervous anticipation. Paranoid.
I’m not even at the bike race yet, I’m riding to the race. I’m running at half pace, just trying to ease myself into a warm-up, but my mind is going a mile a minute. Over and over again I run through my checklist for the day making sure nothing is forgotten. Tyres pumped and checked, water bottles full, phone and keys secure in my pocket. Once I’ve flogged that dead horse for a while there are only two things left to swirl constantly through my mind like a mantra:
1. Get to the race on time. Get to the race on time. Get to the race on time.
2. Don’t break anything on the way. Don’t run over anything. Don’t puncture a tyre. Can’t hit anything. Not today. Not now.
My eyes sweep relentlessly over the road ahead, back and forth like a search beacon.
As I ride I start noticing things I normally wouldn’t. I’m hyper-attuned to my body, and soon notice a slight difference in the placement of my left cleat compared to my right. I haven’t changed the positioning in months, but have never noticed this discrepancy until now.
The ball of my right foot is right on the pedal, but the left one is sitting forward just slightly, putting a tad more pressure toward the toes. It’s not painful or uncomfortable, but it’s not symmetrical. The mere thought of it pains me. I start obsessing over it. It becomes an itch I cannot scratch.
Nerves and the Calm Before the Storm
At the starting area, the nervous tension builds. Surrounded by hundreds of colourfully-clad cyclists, I start to feel mildly claustrophobic as I jostle for a place on the starting grid. I run through my mental checklist one last time, ensuring everything is comfortable and secure.
Quicker than expected, our group is up next to start. There is an electricity in the air as I walk my bike up the road. The nerves are suddenly gone.
“Good luck,” Danny says.
“Good luck,” I say.
And then our race begins.
The beginning of an event like this is always daunting. I’ve got to be careful to avoid catastrophe in the first few kilometres, as it’s a game of millimetres with everyone trying to find a way to escape the congestion. Eventually I free myself from the worst of the pack and start to pick up momentum.
I soon find my rhythm and push out ahead, overtaking anyone in my way. I feel like a well-oiled machine. The air feels good as I draw it deep into my lungs. The early morning sun warms my skin.
The pace is good, and I revel in having free reign of the roads. Free of cars and dangerous drivers. Free of traffic lights and stop signs. Nothing to hold me back. It’s a luxury to just go at my own pace, to not be encumbered by being part of a group or team. Danny is somewhere behind me, but I’m not going to look back.
I reach the first major hill on The Avenue in Dalkeith, a steep monstrosity that we’ve tackled a few times in training over the last month or so. Ahead of me I can already see whole clusters of riders slowing to a crawl, pedalling furiously to no avail. Taking a slight gamble, I move out to the far right of the right lane (that’s the wrong side of the road over here my international friends) and go to work. None of this tortoise business for me, I’m hare-ing this bastard.
I fly up the hill, barely losing any speed and hardly working up a sweat. I pass innumerable riders. Never before have I done that hill so smoothly and effortlessly. I am in the zone. I am invincible!
Numb and Number
The weather is ideal for a ride. Not too hot. No rain. No buffeting winds. I smile to myself. As I pedal through Nedlands and Claremont, I take in the beautiful views of the river, the boats and the houses of rich people. Rich people in excessively starched white clothes playing tennis in their court-yards. Rich people with careful and painstaking attention watching their servants wash their Lamborghini’s. Rich people gently running a comb through their horse’s mane. Yes it’s a beautiful time to be outdoors.
As I reach another smallish hill I feel an all-too-familiar tingling in my feet. Soon my toes start going numb. This isn’t good. It’s too early for this to happen. I remember Danny telling me a few weeks ago to adjust my damn cleats.
“Don’t you hate when your toes start going numb after a long ride?” I said.
“That is not normal. That has never happened. You – you need to get that fixed.” Danny said.
‘Normally’ I’d start to get that pins-and-needles sensation only after an hour and a half or two hours of riding, but it’s started now, only a half hour into the race. This does not look good.
The Ultimate in Futility
In our many practice rides over the last few weekends, those of my friends who rode the Santos Ride in a previous year spoke of the horror of a particularly monstrous hill in the middle of the race. Unfortunately nobody could remember where it was. Despite many attempts to find it, we never got a chance to practice on it, so I entered the ride with only their tales to go by:
“Picture the steepest hill you’ve ever done. Now imagine steeper. Think you can power through and get it over-with fast? Think again. This hill is damn long. It has turns. It zigzags. You feel that? That’s all your momentum gone. That’s your doom.”
Everything I had heard built it up in my mind. Our constant failed efforts to find it exacerbated things to the point that it became my white whale.
My legs are already burning from a plethora of small hills, and as I round the corner there it is: The Johnson Parade Hill in Mosman Park. I can’t believe my eyes. It seems insurmountable. There are tens of riders walking there bikes up the hill already, right from the bottom! I have next to no time to build any momentum, and I’m on one of the highest gears, so I stand on the pedals and give it my all. At first I’m worried about which ‘lane’ to stick to. The cyclists to my left are moving so slow they’re almost going backwards, but I’m concerned about taking the right, lest my legs give way and I obstruct any supermen behind me.
I start out to the right but it’s not long until I’m crawling on the left. My legs pump furiously, and my fingers flick the gears ever lower. Each time I downshift I feel a small burst of hope, that I may be able to make it, but microseconds later I am in danger of collapse. Before I know it I am on the lowest gear my bike has, a gear I’m not sure I’ve ever used before. There I am, working as hard as I am physically capable, with my bike making it as easy for me as it possibly can, and I’m getting nowhere. Never have I worked so hard for so little reward.
But I will not give up. I will not get off my bike.
I’ve made it. I’ve conquered the beast. I take a long drag on my water bottle and start slowly shifting back up to a normal gear. I notice everyone around me is half-dead from the hill, and for whatever crazy reason, I decide to push on and accelerate past everyone. Get a jump on them while I can. As I’m shifting, my bike makes some unusual sounds. Something feels a bit dodgy with the chain and the gears. That’s a concern. Better take it easy.
Danny is still MIA and that’s perplexing. He told me earlier that he felt tired from a late night and 2 hours of indoor soccer the day before. He said to go ahead if I felt like it, and not to worry about him. But tired or no, he is a tough competitor. It’s hard to imagine him being that far behind me. I take a look over my shoulder but can’t see him. He hasn’t passed the hill yet. Most unusual.
My legs are still aching from the hill, but I’m starting to get back into a rhythm, and so is everyone else seemingly. I am overtaken by a lot of riders. So much for getting a jump on them. I turn a corner and there’s another hill. Only a slight incline, but a long one, and a lot of the time that’s worse. I find myself in the thick of a pack of riders, and up ahead at a crossroad is a white 4WD of some kind, trying to turn right into an ocean of bikes.
The driver side window is down, and as I approach the driver exclaims angrily: “Somebody’s gonna have to let me in guys, I’ve been waiting here 20 minutes!”
The pack rides on with a collective smirk. Can’t break stride for a wanker.
The Horror of Self-Delusion
The pain in my legs is starting to cause real discomfort. My pace is still okay, but I’m definitely thankful for the small recoveries granted on the minor downhill sections. This is the first challenge, the first moment where I wonder whether I’m gonna make it. I take a look at my computer to check the time. I’ve been riding for about 50 minutes.
My goal for the day was to come in faster than my friends did last year, somewhere around 1hr 55mins. I look from the computer to my surroundings, trying to gauge how far along I’ve gone based on my vague knowledge of the course. Hey I’m doing alright! I think to myself. I must be making great time. The city isn’t so far off. I bet there’s really not that much further to go. Everything’s looking fine…
I hit another long, low-incline hill, and get low in the saddle, trying to conserve as much energy as possible as my legs continue to burn. In my head I urge myself on. I look up, and in the distance, I see a giant inflatable sign: ‘Half Way Point’.
Only halfway! My mind and body recoils in horror. How could I be so foolish? Exhaustion and dehydration is affecting my brain. I take a sip of water. I grit my teeth and keep on pedalling. As I pass the inflatable sign, a volunteer is cheering us on: “Yeah! Halfway!”