Everyone needs to do a solo century

Crossing the I-80 / Carquinez bridge.

The Century is often the benchmark for amateur and recreational cyclists. Often taking the form of fund-raising charity rides or hosted club-run rides, they often feature food, music and expo-like activities at the end. These full day events are, as they say, all about the bike. You are surrounded by fellow cyclists (or sympathetic family supporters of fellow cyclists) and the camaraderie is palpable.

However, there is a ton of benefit – both training and mental – in doing longer rides such as this on your own. For me personally riding with other cyclists definitely improves my performance. I find myself pushing myself just a tiny bit more when the guy in front of me starts to gap me, or when fellow riders are on my wheel. I have the opportunity to slip onto someone else’s wheel for a bit of respite while still maintaining pace.

When you’re out on the road on your own, however, those options don’t exist. It is you, your bike, and the thoughts in your head.

I recently did just such a ride as I prepare for this years Seattle to Portland next month. The only “support” I allowed myself in planning was a stop somewhere for lunch, and occasional water fill ups. My route was to take me from Oakland to Sacramento. While it was a bit under 100 miles, I think it is within the range of what can be talked about as a “century.”

Most of this trip was on roads and paths that I had never ridden in my life. I put my faith in Google Maps to plan a route for me. In the end the route it set for me was incredibly ridable. It favored bike paths in many places that I would have preferred to be on surface streets, including one short section near Martinez that was so overgrown and unmaintained I actually feared I was lost (cue Dueling Banjos here.) But that one line complaint aside I continue to be extremely please with Google’s bike route mappings.

Beginning of the descent from Vallejo towards Fairfield
Beginning of the descent from Vallejo towards Fairfield

The route was particularly interesting to me in that all of the climbing happened within the first 35 miles – leaving a nice long descent to recover on, followed by almost dead flat for final 50 miles or so of the ride

Solo century rides of course come with another challenge – no SAG. Any flats or other mechanical failures are just something to deal with. This really came to a head for me as I was doing a short yet fast descent in the town of Pinole.

There was a family loading into a car parked on the street and I wasn’t sure the kids were aware of me. As I moved to the left side of the lane and focused on the kids so I knew where they were heading, I temporarily took my focus off of the roadway in front of me. I suddenly hit a bump – hard – and immediately heard a crack. What first caught my attention was the fact that my left brake lever was significantly lower than it had been. I also heard items sliding across the road behind me, and a car that was following hitting the brakes.

I pulled over to the side of the road and glanced over my shoulder. There was a car stopped in the road, and the driver of the car had already gotten out and was picking stuff up off of the road. It took me a couple of minutes to wrap my head around what has happening.

The items that the driver was picking up were things that had bounced out of my jersey pockets from the impact. Turned out what I had struck was actually a 2 inch or so lip in the pavement where the asphalt had been built up around a manhole cover. After thanking the driver for stopping and collecting my phone (which now had a cracked screen) I began to assess what had happened to my bike. My initial hope was that the bars or the brake lever had simply slipped out of position and a quick adjustment would have me back on my way.

crackI had been in a tuck position, which my chest resting on my forearms while my hands were still on the hoods. As a result there was a significant amount of my body weight on the hoods when I impacted that bump in the road. All that weight was transferred to the break housing on impact, resulting in a new crack. That was the crack sound I had heard.

I was in a bit of a quandary here. I knew I could get by with minimal to no shifting of the chain rings. But I had some big descents coming up – the very descents that had been motivating me to push harder on the climbs leading up to them. I was not really confident putting any weight on that broken shifter housing, and bombing a descent with questionable access to my front brake was going to take a lot of fun out of the descent. Should I quit, or should I ride on?

Ride on!

My bike was ridable – at least in a somewhat limited capacity. If I was careful with my speed I could manage with only the back brake, and if really needed I could still manage to squeeze some braking power out of the front by settling into the drops.

On I went.

Although I wouldn’t really start to feel the impact until much later in the ride, the biggest obstacle this break actually presented to me was the loss of my favorite riding position on the hoods. Feeling lucky that I didn’t end up over the front of the bars when it broke in the first place, I wasn’t going to press my luck putting any real weight on it. This left me struggling more and more to manage a comfortable riding position. In the end I spent a great deal of my ride off-balance. I rode with my right hand on the hood and brake lever, while my left hand on was off of the broken hoon and on top of the bars. This imbalance eventually lead to muscle cramping and discomfort across both my shoulders, upper back and lower neck.

As I settled into the rest of my ride I began to focus more and more on my surroundings. Once I got into Fairfield and beyond a lot of my route was on rural country roads. With a light tailwind for most of the middle of the ride I was spinning along quite casually with almost no perceived effort. I intentionally tried to pace myself during this portion. Two lane country roads between orchards and sunflower farms were my only company were the vultures circling over my head (Ummm…. why are the vultures following me???) and the occasional hawk hunting in the fields. Despite the handicap from the mechanical issue I was quite simply just enjoying the ride.

I did stop at one point in the shade of a road side tree to take a break. There had been very few cars sharing this particular stretch of country lane. The temperature was beginning to rise and I knew hydration could start to be an issue with only two water bottles with me. I was checking my GPS to try and gauge how far I had to go until I could find a place to refill my water when I heard “Are you OK?”

I hadn’t even consciously heard the van approaching, but they had slowed to almost a stop when they were near me.

“Yea. Just taking a break,” I respond.

“Right on.” As the van pulls away I notice through the back window 2 or 3 road bikes in the back. Here I am, in the middle of nowhere as far as I can tell, and a fellow cyclist stops to check up on me. Awesomeness…

dixonCountry roads eventually take me to the small town of Dixon – which got into areas I actually have ridden before. Mentally I’d already marked off the Dixon city line as the official “start of the end” of this ride, and I immediately felt a second wind when I saw the sign. From here I’d follow my GPS directions to Davis, then turn off the GPS and navigate the rest of the way by memory.

It was coming out of Davis when things got a little dicey. I started to feel some real discomfort in my upper back (again, presumably from my compromised riding position from the broken shifter.) My legs felt good, but I found myself constantly fidgeting and adjusting in the saddle. I only had 10 or so miles to go and tried to push on maintaining my speed. This turned out to be the only part of the trip that was an actual struggle for me. The mental battle raged. I had to push aside sneaky thoughts about how to cut my ride shorter than Sacramento. I quickly felt myself switching from “uncomfortable” to “in pain,” and would then start questioning how much of this was all in my head. As soon as I acknowledge pain in my back I started to be conscious of discomfort in my feet as well. Then pressure points form the saddle. Then I questioned if I was just just inventing excuse to justify stopping and getting off the bike, ending the trip.

I realized that unconsciously I’d started a really bad “pedal-coast-pedal” cadence where my speed was fluctuating between 18mph at pace, and dropping as low as 12 or 13 while coasting. This was no good.

Long story short, I kept urging myself on by counting down the miles. Had I been with a group this is where clearly I would have been on someone else’s wheel – or at least taking turns with pulls. But on a solo century you have only yourself to encourage you and keep you motivated. There was no cyclist up ahead for me to focus on chasing except for the one in my head. I reminded myself how disappointed I would be if I didn’t allow myself to finish when I’d come this far. I willed myself to keep pedaling.

My average speed reported on my Garmin 500 had been +/- 0.2 MPH for pretty much the whole ride. In those last, struggling 5 miles I watched with disappointment as that average dropped and dropped. There was a -0.4 average MPH difference over that last segment.

But I finished. As soon as I rolled into Old Sacramento even the discomfort was gone. Despite the mechanical issues. Despite the physical discomfort the mechanical had aggravated (if not caused.) I had ridden by myself – and all I remembered in that moment was the feeling of accomplishment, and the feelings of enjoyment I racked up out on the road, mile by mile.

In the end my Garmin had recorded 94.91 miles. At one point it reached 105°F out on the road (40° hotter then when I started.) I was neither particularly fast nor particularly slow. And sure, there was no food and music expo event at the end where I could share stories of my ride with the others that had ridden with me. But I will say this – the beer I had at the end of that ride was one of the best tasting I remember in a long time.

While it was not my first century at all, it was my first solo century. And I already can’t wait for the next one.