You know that feeling when you wake up on a Saturday (or Friday or Sunday) morning with plans to ride 100+ miles? The one where you are in a daze and your body has no idea what you’re about to put it through and you’re trying not to think about how long your butt is about to be glued to that saddle?
Well, my alarm went off on Friday at 6:30am (late by my standards, I KNOW) and, shockingly, I felt pretty relaxed about what I had coming to me for the next 6-8 hours. I’ve ridden four centuries already this year! I ride hills all the time! This can’t be that bad!
Katie and I ate a quick breakfast — I’m testing out switching to oatmeal from my usual toast/almond butter/banana standard — put air in our tires, packed up our nutrition and headed downstairs to join the group leaving at 7:30 for a full ride on the bike course. It was already warm and humid but not nearly as nasty as it’s been in D.C. for the past…uh…
There were a lot of people there with some very nice bikes/wheels/helmets, and I can’t say I wasn’t a little bit intimidated, even though pretty much everyone in D.C. owns the same level of gear or higher. In any case, we clipped in and rolled out, and since we were staying at mile 3-ish of the bike course, all we had to do was turn right out of the parking lot and hit the road.
So the IMWI bike course is a lollipop — a 14-ish mile stick out to Verona, a 42-mile loop done twice and then 14 miles back home to Madison. You start by riding down the helix at Monona Terrace, which we sadly didn’t get to do, and then there are only a couple of turns before you hit the loop.
So — the stick. On the way out, it’s relatively flat and uneventful. There are a few rollers — and one decent downhill you’ll have to climb on the way back — but none worth pointing out. Based on my Garmin elevation we climbed pretty much for the first seven miles, but it felt mainly like false flats and slight rollers. The toughest thing about this section is that the surface itself. You head straight on Whalen Rd for about 10 miles before hitting the loop, and the pavement is cracked and full of potholes and other butt-irritating roughness. I spent a fair amount of time slighly out of the saddle both on the way out and coming back in, and I got really frustrated by all the bumps and terrified of flatting. In my opinion, this is the worst stretch, but there’s plenty of crappy pavement throughout.
Then you hit Verona — where, outside Madison, some of the best crowds park themselves for the day — and take a couple of quick turns before heading out into vast expanses of Wisconsin farmland. The course rolls with relatively few turns for about 15-ish miles until you hit a long climb into Mt. Horeb past a school and through town to a traffic circle. This hill is the first one that actually burns, but it’s not one of the big three that nearly kill you later in the loop. You definitely shouldn’t start hammering here though, or round #2 will HURT.
After leaving Mt. Horeb, you’re back into farm country. This is where the course gets hillier and technical. There are some sick descents, a few rolling climbs and lots of quick turns and windy downhills. In other words, lots of opportunities to crash if you’re surrounded by other cyclists, don’t handle your bike well or generally act like an idiot. Garfoot Rd. is really fun — some very fast descents — but then you have to take a quick left and a quick right before descending again. There are a few stop signs and sharp turns after which you start climbing immediately. At this point, you’re about 25 miles into the loop when you hit a stretch of flat and the Uphill Grind coffee shop, also the location of one of the bike aid stations on race day.
A quick break to say thanks to the guys at this place — they refilled our bottles and let us use their bathroom and generally put up with our sweatiness. If you go ride the course for fun, they sell drink powder by the scoop and every kind of nutrition product in addition to coffee and pastries and bike gear.
At this point, I was thinking that I was almost done with the loop and I hadn’t hit any really challenging climbs. This could mean 1) the whole threat of hills was overblown or 2) I was in for some really ugly and painful miles all packed together at the end. If only I’d studied the course in a little more detail, I would have been prepared for the latter.
After leaving the coffee shop, you cross a few sets of railroad tracks (ouch, butt) and then roll on a semi-busy road and through farmland for a few miles. The course winds — again, technical — around a few farmhouses until you hit the bottom of Old Sauk Pass. This is a long — but mostly gradual — climb, maybe 1.5-2 miles, that’s also winding. It’s challenging, and the best thing I have to compare it to is the hill from McArthur to Great Falls. It mainly requires you to stay calm and spin rather than trying to pound your way up. Like McArthur, it flattens out a bit and then goes up again.
After this, you hit Timber Ln, which has some rollers and a tough climb, as well as some false flat uphill. The last climb — the steepest and the absolute worst — is on Midtown Rd., right at the end of the loop before you head back into Verona. I’ve been told there are great crowds on this climb — we’ll need it.
Everyone stopped at a gas station right in the middle of Verona before starting a second loop. It reminded me of that BP we always hit in Great Falls before/after doing River Rd. They must be so used to cyclists/triathletes coming in to buy gallons of water, Coke, candy and all other manner of sustenence. After a quick break to stretch and refill my bottles, I headed out for round #2.
Here is where I learned the value of pacing myself on race day. Everyone always says “stupid easy” for the first 2 hours at least, which sounds like a wonderful idea in theory but something you’re likely to ignore in practice. But really, stupid easy. The course is hard the first time around, but it’s even more challenging on tired legs. The climbs don’t get any flatter (funny how that happens) and the headwinds and false flats make you feel even more like you’re pedaling through mud. The stick back to Madison then serves up a killer hill (That awesome descent on the way out? Yeah. Right back up) and plenty of rough roads to play with your mind and your tired legs.
I rode back into the hotel parking lot with 104.4 miles and nearly 4,000 feet of climbing under my belt, tired but glad I’d conquered the whole thing.
My takeaways from the course?
–It’s very challenging but has some fun elements. Those descents, man, where you hit 40mph? If you have the confidence and skill to just let it go, it’s a blast.
–The hills are not the hard part. Yes, the hills hurt. They are nothing to sneeze at. But what makes this challenging is the combination of wind, false flats, rough roads, technical turns and the climbing.
–A smart rider will fare well. Someone who has the ability to stay in the game, make minute-to-minute decisions and not get discouraged will succeed. If you’re not in tune with your gearing or pacing or nutrition, it could get ugly.
–Pacing, pacing, pacing. I’ve already said this, but staying calm and avoiding hammering the hills or getting caught up in the people flying past you in the first half will really benefit you in the end. It’s like Boston — people who go out hard because the first half of the course is downhill and slightly easier will be the ones walking up the Newton hills.
–Go with a plan. Because the terrain is so varied and can’t be broken down into several long stretches, it’s easy to get caught up in the minute-by-minute action. Don’t forget that you have two loops and the hills are at the end of each. If you have a careful plan — and can even ride part of the course before the race — you’re more likely to make smart decisions.
–Anticipate. This is a lot easier if you know the course, sure, but anticipating hills and descents and gear changes and potholes will really help efficiency. Most of the turns actually require you to climb almost immediately, so if you’re slowing around one be sure you’ve geared down so you can pick speed up quickly without destroying your legs.
I tried EFS for the first time on this ride, and I really like the idea of doing mostly liquid calories if possible. It’s very tough for me to eat solids — both because of the logistics and the fact that my body dislikes being fed when I’m working at higher intensities — and using liquid fuel also knocks out my hydration problem. I was still doing solids on this ride (eating 150-200 calories an hour, about half of that every 30 minutes with sips of fluid every 15 and salt tabs every 30) because I didn’t bring my whole container of EFS and only had enough for two bottles over the course of the weekend. But now that I know I like it I’m going to test it out as I would use it on race day on my ride this weekend. More on that later.
After returning to the hotel, I did a 5-mile brick run along Lake Monona. Ouch. It was hot and unshaded and my legs were tired and angry. This was just one of the reasons I ended the weekend discouraged (again, more on that later), and by the time I finished all I wanted was a huge bottle of Powerade and to crash on our floor. Which is exactly what happened.
Follow that up with an epic ice cream adventure:
Another classroom session and burgers and fries at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry, a downtown pub, and our first tough training day was complete. Early to bed to rest for round #2 on the course. Triathletes are such fun on Friday nights, right?