Once again, our contributing author Chris Hobbs writes a superb piece on what it means to suffer in the Rapha Gentlemen's Race.
While I was sleeping, somebody replaced my legs with two pieces of deadwood. This may be a consequence of my extreme fortune at participating in not one, but two of the hardest one day cycling events in the US in the last two weeks.
You may have read my Leadville report, and it is regarded by many as the hardest one day race around. Yesterday, along with my teammates, I did the Rapha Gentleman's Race near Portland. This outlaw ride (it is not officialy a race, but rather a strangely coincidental ride with a finish line and a stopwatch), is put on by the nice folks at Rapha. Rapha makes high quality apparel and ridiculously hard race courses. Pummeling your fans into submission makes for high brand loyalty (don't ask me why, but it seems to work).
This is the most expensive item in the Rapha catalog.
In fact, Scott and I agree that the RGR this year was every bit as hard as Leadville. It wasn't supposed to be, it just kind of turned out that way. It is a curious byproduct of a 130 mile course with approximately 40 miles of gravel roads, tons of climbing, and a race director's highly optimistic assumptions regarding average speed (hint for next year, Slate--the speed you can drive it in your car is not necessarily the speed I am going to ride it on my bike). In fact, the Leadville and RGR courses were remarkably similar--Leadville probably had a bit more dirt, but, of course, on a full suspension mtb it felt a lot nicer. I registered similar energy expenditures and total vertical (12k) for both.
This was the 3rd RGR NW (there is now an East Coast RGR as well), and Studio Velo has sent a team to each one. Scott, Tom and I were veterans from two years ago. Joining us were Dr. Eric, Justin and Josh.
L to R: Justin, Josh, Eric, Scott, Chris, Tom
It is worth mentioning that the team each year is not selected based on who will go the fastest, but rather on who will be fun to ride with, and is unlikely to die on the course (because that gets awkward). Each year's team has featured a range of abilities, but a uniform dedication to having a good time. Being a Rapha Whore never hurts either when it comes to selection.
So Pro. Josh makes sure the legs are silky smooth before the start.
Teams at the RGR run the gamut from Cat 1/2 elite squads to the fun loving degenerates of Team Beer (who have penchant for wine tasting en route). I think there were 6 women's teams this year. Cyclocross pro Ryan Trebon even made an appearance on a team composed of freakishly tall gentlemen (and brought his cyclocross bike, proving he had inside information).
This year, 26 teams lined up for the start in Banks, outside Portland. The start is handicapped using on a sophisticated formula based on the team's resume, previous results, and the whim of the race director. The format is basically a 6 man team time trial. Your time is based on the last member of your team to cross the line. This year we started 20th of the 28 teams. We got an early taste of how the day was going to go with single track right out of the start gate, followed by a couple miles of gravel roads.
When I looked at the parcours online, it did not look so hard. Lots of climbing, but nothing sustained over 8%. We were told to expect some dirt. Okay, no problem. I like dirt. 130 miles should take us close to 7 hours. A fun day out. Of course, Leadville took so much out of me that I only started to feel normal again on Friday.
No one is quite sure how much gravel we actually did, but we are confident that we spent more than half our ride time on gravel, so it was probably around 1/3 of the total distance. Almost all the climbs were gravel. More importantly, almost all the descents were gravel. The sheer amount of dirt totally changed the complexion of the course and made the RGR brutal. It just wears you out.
Flats, crashes, breakdowns both mechanical and mental. It was all on show over the 130 miles. I think only 7 teams finished the full course (others missed the cutoff and were spared the final 25 miles of dirt). Few teams finished intact. Many elite riders cracked.
I am immensely proud of our team and what we accomplished (which you will have to read further to find out). The RGR is not won by the strongest riders, but by those who work best together. In all three years, the Studio Velo team has been a model of cohesion and cooperation. The only times we were not together were when there was a strategic reason to split up--usually when there was a flat, and we sent riders up the road to the next store to be ready with water and supplies. When we could (which was not that often), we formed a tight paceline.
When someone was struggling, they were pushed. There is no point to finishing with any energy left--if you have extra, you give a few watts to a teammate. Interestingly, I never saw another team pushing their teammates. I guess I should not be surprised that the women's teams were the only other teams I saw that were really working well together.
The RGR is not Thunderdome. Six riders enter, and six must leave. Otherwise you are suffering for naught. Many teams finished with 4 or 5 riders because they failed to understand that.
We got off to a relatively slow but steady start. How do you pace yourself for 130 miles? Best to err on the side of conservatism. We rolled by the first victims of a flat within a mile of the start. Not long afterwards, the Rapha Continental team came charging by, as they would a number of times during the day.
We did a long dirt loop and then headed south on asphalt towards the first fueling stop in Cornelius. Along the way, a party train of 5 teams formed up, lead by the Rapha Continental, who seemed intent on hammering when they weren't fixing flats or getting lost. This was a great opportunity to tick off some miles at high speed, but was derailed when we suffered our first flat of the day. We sent 3 riders up the road with the Party Train to have food ready. The Plaid Pantry in Cornelius was apparently not warned that a horde of sweaty lycra-clad hooligans would be descending on them to buy water and snacks, so the first stop took a while.
Off again, without the train now. The Rapha Continental came storming by again, and proceeded to make 2 wrong turns in 5 miles. Well, they are all about exploring. My second Garmin was given to us by the organizers and had the race route programmed into it, and we slavishly obeyed the machine. As a bonus, having 2 computers in the cockpit was intimidating to the other teams.
The next part of the race gets a bit hazy in my memory. Lots and lots of gravel. Bouncing bouncing bouncing. Try to eat and drink whenever possible. Through the first checkpoint and around a long loop with a big dirt climb that was so steep that many walked it. Justin and I were really struggling up that climb--Justin because it was nasty and steep, and I because I was pushing him. An Audi rider came storming up from behind and without a word put his hand out and helped push us to the top--classy. I would repay the favor later in the day when one of their riders cracked.
At the next checkpoint, we saw our first carnage of the day--one of the women had gone done in a gravel corner and separated her shoulder. While she was laughing about it, the shoulder slipped back into place--apparently what they say about laughter being the best medicine is true.
We went down the next steep gravel descent, and passed another scene of carnage. Incredibly, one of the Embrocation ladies, who had been on the ground, came flying past a few minutes later. Ballsy. A few minutes after that, we passed her again, sitting on the ground after her second crash in 10 minutes. A little too ballsy.
Typical "road" surface
We were very conservative on the descents. The risks of crashing or flatting rise exponentially with speed. We had no crashes (but a whole lot of "whoaaaaahh"), and only suffered 4 flats. I can only assume that Rapha has secretly cornered the market on innertubes and brake pads in Portland, because the course consumed many of both.
One of the smooth bits
Hours passed, and the miles ticked off very slowly. By about 80 miles in, all the handicaps had been made up and we were racing mano a mano. We hit the final checkpoint at 105 miles in good position, within sight of the strongest teams. At this point I was not feeling so hot. Legs were toast. Ass was beaten to a pulp. It was hot and I was dehydrated and had a migraine. But my personal hell was relatively mild. Josh, our sprinter, had been cramping for over an hour. Dr. Eric suffered through the middle of the race but really seemed to enjoy himself on the climbs. Tom and Scott did not seem to notice that this was really hard.
Justin was hands down the man of the match. He came into the race with the least amount of fitness of our crew. Some garbage about having a job and a family. He was clearly suffering by mile 60. By mile 80, he vomited, and I was pretty sure he was going to pop, but he kept digging. At the 105 mile checkpoint, a sensible person would have just stopped, but he would not. We went to Defcon 1 and stuffed him full of caffeinated gels. This was followed by strange retching noises and he threw up in his mouth a couple of times. But still, the pedals turned. He was going to get to the line no matter what it took. We all suffered, but Justin spent a lot of time in his own special hell.
Over the last 2 interminable gravel climbs...agony. And then, in the last 2 miles, we came upon a women's team and had to push hard to finish ahead of them on the final steep pitch to the finish line. He was so shot that he could not ride the last hill, but he ran it as fast as he could.
Back on to the singletrack--among the smoothest surfaces of the day, and across the line.
Wow, there are a lot of people already here.
As it turns out, the 105 mile checkpoint was only 3 miles from the finish, and most of the teams had been diverted straight to the party except for the lucky 7 or so that were allowed to complete the whole course--another 25 miles of gravel with two big climbs. So, even though we were second across the line, after Rex Cycles (who had started over an hour before us), we still had to wait in line for beer and hot dogs. I was too tired to protest the horrible inequity of this situation. And, the Team Beer guys in line for the Cobra Dogs trailer graciously let us cut in--also classy.
All smiles at the finish. Justin is sitting down because that is all he can do.
We spent 9 hours and 59 minutes out on course--10 f*ing hours of racing. That was the third fastest time of the day, less than 5 minutes behind the elite Audi and River City Bicycles teams. There were many teams with stronger riders, but they were not stronger teams. My Garmin missed 10 miles of the day somehow, and still recorded 6,000 calories of effort and 12,000 feet of climbing.
Chapeau, boys. F*ing chapeau.
Ultragen or Bourbon for recovery? Yes.
Eating is critical in long events like this. I ended up eating peanuts for much of the race, because I was saving my gels and bonk breakers for the inevitable rough patches we would suffer. Real food is important. My definition of real food does not include the nasty convenience store prepackaged hamburgers that some of the guys ate along the way. As well as shortening their lifespan, I am pretty sure those burgers cost us 5 minutes.
The RGR is an unsupported event, meaning you have to carry everything you need or buy it along the way. My pockets were stuffed to breaking point--5 bonk breaker bars, 4 gels, sunscreen, chain oil, multitool, iPhone, water bottle, Sportlegs pills, FastAir can.
For next year, Slate has promised something special. I can only assume that this means we will have to run miniature golf-like gauntlet of swinging machetes, flame walls, and 60 foot gap jumps in addition to a ridiculously long and hard course. Count me in.