Tag Archives: ring of fire

375 of the toughest miles I’ve ridden

Though I didn’t categorize the Hill Country 600K that way while I was riding, observing how I felt after wards and talking to other riders I began to understand that the two year old HC 600 is not just another long distance bicycle event, but a challenge that seems likely to put it among the most well-known races of the sport. I could barely stand when I first got off my bike and it took a few Aleve and a couple hours of rest before I could function well enough to help re-pack the car. Several other riders I talked to said they felt worse than they normally do after a long race, but maybe the most telling was a rider who was asked during the awards if he thought Hill Country or Race Across Oregon was harder, after a long pause he indicated that his knees felt a little worse after RAO …. but RAO is 120 miles longer!

I had an amazing crew; mom, sister and friend Jen. None had experience as a follow crew, though all had crewed me either biking or running in the past. I was frequently impressed by what a fantastic job they did. I didn’t know that they planned each task for every leap frog stop. I just knew everything happened incredibly smoothly. My mother had spent many hours studying the rules and ensured we followed them. She also made Perpetuem and kept my other food ready and my clothing organized and within quick reach. My sister drove from the hotel to the start and back and every mile between. Her athleticism made her particularly well suited for leap frog support. I felt both awed and beaten when she sprinted from about 20 yards behind my bike to hand me a fresh bottle. I also thought we performed the ultimate bottle exchange when she caught my old bottle in one hand while passing off the new one with the other. Jen was in charge of navigation and I was always confident that we were on course and was informed of the approach of every turn. She also has great skill in passing Endurolytes from a moving car to a gloved cyclist’s hand. Somehow we never dropped one.

The route follows mostly lightly traveled roads, taking riders and crew past some beautiful countryside. After a long, easy climb to the first time station in Medina the course ramps up. What looked to me in the route book like four steep, but short climbs, felt like 30 miles of hard climbing. I’d brought my climbing bike just to practice bike exchanges with my crew, and I was elated to be riding it up the first climb which George Thomas, the race director, had described as a “gray wall”. When my crew took me off my climbing bike after passing through TS2 at Leaky I no longer felt elation. I was exhausted and a little dumbstruck at the thought of how much more difficult that section would have been with two fewer gears and the extra weight of aero bars.

I passed the 100 mile mark at Camp Wood a little slower than I’d planned, hoping to pick up some time on the downhill sections of the route that would surely come after all that climbing. As we left Rock Springs TS3, my crew said, “You’ve got fifty miles of descent with a few rollers.” Based on a quick look at the profile that seems accurate; from Point A, TS3 at Rock Springs, to Point B, TS4 at Junction there’s a 500 foot drop in elevation The difficulty lies between Point A and Point B. From the cyclist’s perspective this section seems like endless short, steep climbs interspersed by short, less steep descents.

On the road between Rock Springs and Junction
On the road between Rock Springs & Junction

My crew stopped for gas at Junction TS4. A few miles later we put lights on my bike and I changed into warmer clothes, but not warm enough. I made a misjudgment and rode for a couple hours thankful for every climb that was long enough for me to warm up and stop shivering. This was probably the easiest section of the ride, but between the darkness, which for me seems to have the effect of flattening a course, and focusing on whether I should stop and change clothes again or could tough out the cold a little longer, I didn’t notice or take advantage of the easier terrain. I didn’t make it to TS5 at Llano before I gave up and changed to tights, and added a long undershirt and a fleece sweater.

I was a little confused by the pre-race description of the Llano TS5 to Fredricksburg TS6 section as compared to the profile in the route book. The route book shows it as a 30+ mile climb ending with a 10 mile descent. I think it was the descent George referred to when he said some riders were going 26-27mph on their way to Fredricksburg. I certainly wasn’t approaching that speed on the climb! I was hoping to get through the 2am-3am window without sleeping, but stopped for a 15 min nap around 2am when I felt like I was starting to nod off on the bike. The descent into Fredricksburg was nice! The road pavement was in terrible condition, but the shoulder was wide and smooth. I’d taken a trip with my mother and sister to Fredricksburg a few years ago and it was fun for all of us to recognize many of the places we’d visited that day. The main drag certainly seemed shorter at 4am, free of traffic.

Just after Fredricksburg we turned onto Old San Antonio Road. The first few miles were lots of fun, mostly downhill rollers, then it was back to the slog of steep climbs and short descents. The 4-person relay team from Colorado passed me here and were leap-frogging my crew and I for several miles as they swapped riders almost every climb. It wasn’t much of a problem for me, but my crew got a little frustrated with one of their vehicles passing so many times on the steep, narrow, windy road.

Sunrise outside Sisterdale
Sunrise outside Sisterdale

Just before Sisterdale the road became a pot-hole filled, gravel strewn, bump fest for two miles. It was the worst section of “pavement” I’ve ever ridden a bike on. Thankfully it was fairly flat, and Texas riders told me it wasn’t too bad for Texas. After the cute little town of Sisterdale we took a left towards Kendalia TS7. To look at the route book, the last 13 miles into Kendalia don’t seem to especially stand out, but for me this was one of the most difficult sections. I was ready to get the ride over with, and thinking 13 miles equals less than an hour, but instead the road turned into another string of tough little climbs.

I hardly remember Kendalia, except that I was confused about the turn and my crew was planning to put a little more gas in the tank and take a short break, but there was no gas station. I changed out of my tights and into shorts and leg warmers and turned on my iPod after Kendalia. The day was warming up fast and I soon stripped off my leg and arm warmers. This was another easier section, but less idyllic riding after we turned onto FM 3351, a busy four-lane road. I especially appreciated having my crew vehicle behind me in the increasingly heavy traffic as we headed to Leon Springs TS8.

Edge Falls Road, past Kendalia
Edge Falls Road, past Kendalia

We turned north at the final TS in Leon Springs. My crew pointed out the mixed tandem ahead and wanted me to catch it. I wasn’t sure I could, but they’d asked so I tried. I really can’t imagine riding a tandem on this route with so much climbing and I was very impressed. I passed them as the grade steepened again. I can’t be sure, because honestly it is hard to give an objective comparison of a climb at mile 50 and a climb at mile 365, but it seemed like the steepest grades on the course came within 10 miles of the finish. They were short climbs and soon behind me. I pushed as hard as I could on the last few miles of downhill where I thought the tandem would probably catch me.

I crossed the line at 10:14am. As happy as I was to be the first woman both for myself and my crew, I think I was most happy just to have finished!

George Thomas and Terri Gooch have added a wonderful event to their schedule. Like Ring of Fire Time Trial it has excellent organization, a super friendly atmosphere and great course.