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Ride report: Ride Across Indiana (7/17/2010)

See aerial photos of the ride, taken by Curt DeBaun, here.

The Ride Across Indiana (RAIN) is 160 miles west to east, from the Illinois state line near Terre Haute to just before the Ohio state line in Richmond. Because I'm sometimes impulsive (and because I was feeling somewhat emboldened by my strong showing in ALC9 last month), I decided on the last day of early registration in June to drive from California to Indiana in July to do this ride with more than 1,600 other cyclists. And I'm glad that I did.

As a longtime resident of the Midwest, I know that summertime weather in Indiana can be unpredictable, extreme, and quick to change. My confidence certainly wasn't boosted when I passed through downstate Illinois on Thursday afternoon on my way to Saturday's ride; a severe thunderstorm sent me scurrying off the freeway and onto random backroads to escape the weather and make it to Terre Haute in time for my favorite German restaurant.

In the days before the ride, the forecast had been changing wildly -- anything from sunny and 85 degrees to stormy and 95. So, the bottom line was that nobody really had any good idea what Saturday's weather would be.

That's one of the reasons why I had a nearly sleepless night Friday. My anxiety level was comparable to that of my first ALC ride five years ago: Could I do it? What if I couldn't? Why am I even trying? What will I say on the blog if I fail? I was wide awake at 2 a.m. (which was really 11 p.m. on my West Coast internal clock), and I wasn't going back to sleep. Since ride-out wasn't till 7 a.m., that posed a problem. I spent the next three hours with crossword puzzles, random reading, and just random shut-eye, all to no avail. I checked the weather radar, and my eyes popped when I saw a line of strong thunderstorms stretching across the southern part of the state. At 5 in the morning! I decided to bring my rain booties with me just in case.

After a long, hot shower, I walked across the parking lot to the official ride hotel next door at 5:30. My SAG driver had arrived. Let me explain. RAIN doesn't provide any SAG service; each rider is responsible for bringing their own support crew and vehicle. I, like many others, didn't have access to such people, so a company offers mass-SAG service for $59, which includes the all-important bus ride back to Terre Haute at the end of the one-way ride. I had left my end-of-ride clothes bag with the SAG driver the night before; this morning, I took him the sleeping bag that would cover and protect my bike on the ride back to Terre Haute in the rental van.

By 5:30, the ride hotel was buzzing with activity. That's another thing about this ride: Even though headquarters are in Terre Haute, the actual ride start is 7 miles to the west. That poses more logistical issues, doubly so for the bus SAG users, because the bus isn't allowed to drive to the starting point due to space limitations.

Some folks cycle all the way from the hotel to the starting line and then do the full 160 miles. That's not for me. The bus SAG recommends that cyclists merely ride into downtown Terre Haute and join the ride there. It's the same distance as from the state line, they claim. Wrong! It's only about 2.5 miles to downtown, compared to the 7 miles from the state line. Did I want to be known as a cheater?

I had a plan. I would ride to downtown, and then head toward the state line, but only far enough so that turning around would give me the full 160 miles. So at 6:15 a.m., 45 minutes before the official start of the ride, I began a solo trip up First Street. (Who in their right mind would cycle -- as the SAG instructions suggested -- up busy, six-lane, no-shoulder Third Street at any time of day?) I turned west and crossed the Wabash River into West Terre Haute.

As I neared my scheduled turnaround point, I started to see small groups of cyclists coming toward me from the state line. But it was only about 6:40, and the state line was about 4.5 miles away. What gives? I quickly made a command-level decision, turned around, and joined the eastbound earlybirds. This would mean that I started my 160-mile ride 45 minutes early, and because the ride has a strict 14-hour time limit (enforced by the SAG bus' prompt departure from Richmond at 9 p.m.), the extra 45 minutes might make the difference between finishing and not finishing. This also put me way ahead of the front peloton, which in this ride tends to move at about 25-30 mph across the entire state (lordy!), and it also spared me the confusion and wreck-inducing properties of the giant, 1,600-rider mass start.

So I guess that made me a "cheater." Would a ride official notice this? Pull me from the route? Scold me at the finish line? As our small group rode through downtown, more and more riders waiting by the side of the road joined us. Looked like nobody seemed to care too much about where -- or even when -- people started their ride. (And, as it turns out, I slightly misjudged my backtracking distance and rode an extra mile or so anyway.)

Finally, after all that, I was on the road and in the ride. Through Terre Haute, up the hill and past my alma mater, through Seelyville and into Brazil -- all very familiar territory that I'd seen hundreds of times, but not even once on a bicycle. The terrain was gently rolling almost all of the way (even the hill out of Terre Haute -- lampooned in the infamous Ski Terre Haute recruitment poster -- wasn't as bad as I expected).

There was one ominous sign, however -- the time/temperature sign at the bank. At 8 a.m., the temperature was already 81 degrees. And that's a humid 81 degrees. But my pace was, by my standards, nothing short of amazing -- hovering around the 18 mph mark, thanks to gently rolling hills that I usually could ride straight through.

And finally in Brazil, the peloton caught up with me. I heard the telltale sound approaching, and then whoosh, dozens of cyclists flew by me in a matter of seconds. This was another recurring theme of the day -- large pacelines. In fact, at the end of the ride, I overheard another rider discussing his amazement that anyone would not do a paceline. Well, that anyone would be me, I guess. Sort of, but more on that later.

East of Brazil on U.S. 40, things became a little more remote, although the highway continued to be a mostly smooth four-lane divided road, allowing us to take the entire right lane heading eastbound. This also seemed to be what everyone expected; even when there was a rideable shoulder, most folks didn't seem to use it, and they assumed that cars and trucks would stay in the left lane. Amazingly, that's what happened almost 100% of the time all day long.

And then I was suddenly 41 miles into the ride -- one-fourth of the way there, and at the first rest stop. (Yes, that's a long time before the rest stop.) AIDS/LifeCycle riders would recognize the crowded scene, but with a few notable differences: far fewer portapotties, no organized bike parking, and no rest stop themes. But they did have Pop-Tarts in abundance, as well as the other typical rest stop fare. Still mindful of the time limit, I stopped only long enough to refill my Gatorade, grab a Rice Krispies bar, and get moving again -- maybe three minutes at most. You'll note that, even after 41 miles, I didn't need to use the portapotty. This will be another recurring theme.

Back onto U.S. 40, the next rest stop was only 24 miles away, and those miles mostly went by quickly and without note. The terrain continued its rolling ways, and I was maintaing a pace in excess of 17 mph. And when things started heading gently downhill, I was able to really boost my speed -- at one point, to a day's maximum of 29.97 mph, which curiously is the exact same maximum that my bike computer recorded for all of ALC9.

At one point, however, I was cruising at about 18 mph when I noticed two riders close behind me. Then three, then four, then five. Apparently I was leading a paceline. I held the line for them until the next uphill, where my speed dropped enough to send them on their merry way. But a few miles later, in a similar situation, I found another rider hanging behind me. And this time, instead of heading uphill, the road began to go gently downhill. My speed went up to 22, 23, 24 mph and stayed there -- just like cruising into Santa Maria during ALC. I finally got tired, mindful of my need to conserve energy, and I called out, "Sorry, I'm gonna have to give this up; go on ahead."

"OK, I'll try to pull you along for a while," he replied.

"No need," I said. "I'm not even going to try."

"I wondered what the hell you were doing! You were at 18, then all of a sudden 24." I had apparently violated unspoken drafting etiquette, but the exchange was cordial, not strained.

At mile 64, just before Rest Stop 2, we left U.S. 40 to begin our lengthy, 51-mile detour around Indianapolis. (RAIN is too big a group to deal with the big city, and the speedy riders wouldn't appreciate the traffic or the traffic signals.) This took us onto narrow two-lane roads of varying quality, which made for some jarring bumps and ruts. The ride organizers had taken the time to mark the biggest holes with pavement paint and arrows, which was very helpful.

But by now, it was getting downright hot. Back at Rest Stop 2, the restrooms were inside a school building, and while I was in there, the sweat was dripping from my head and face in copious amounts. But I was in there mainly to reapply my butt butter; the toilet still wasn't getting much usage, and that wasn't good. I drank an entire bottle of Gatorade at the stop, and I ate a salty peanut snack bar, but the weather was beginning to be a factor.

And then my bicycle acted up. Immediately after leaving Rest Stop 2, my front brakes began to make a truly obnoxious squeak, so loud as to be embarrassing if I actually tried to use them. I stopped in the shade of a church, removed the wheel, and tried to find a problem, but nothing jumped out at me. I tried washing the rim and the brake pads, but still no good. Fortunately, with nearly flat terrain around Indianapolis, I didn't need to brake hard, the rear brake still worked fine, and the front brake was OK if I didn't press it too hard. I decided to carry on to the next rest stop because part of our bus SAG deal was that we'd have a mechanic available.

As we crossed the major highways radiating out from the center of Indianapolis -- Highway 67, Highway 37, U.S. 31, I-65, and I-74, two weather events happened. First, the wind picked up a bit from the south and southwest, giving us a slight tailwind to help things out. And second, some cumulus clouds started to puff up in the sky, cooling things ever so slightly but also raising the possibility of wet or stormy weather ahead.

Mile 92 was the lunch stop, and as I rolled into the parking lot, I saw our SAG bus off to the side. I rolled right over and said, "I hear we're going to have a mechanic here?"

"That would be me," the mechanic said. I described my brake problem, he fiddled with it for about two minutes ... and fixed it! No more squeak. That alone was worth the $59 cost of the day's service.

Next, it was over to the lunch spread. Disappointing in a way: It was make your own sandwich with the usual assortment of deli meats and condiments. But one thing stood out to me, at least in the line I was in: There was no cutlery to grab the sandwich items! Everyone just stuck their dirty hands into the stack of meat, cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce ... and grabbed. Ew! ALC would not be amused. But my need for calories by this point was getting up there, so I made myself a salty ham sandwich with mustard. That came nowhere near the 5,000-plus calories I probably had expended by that point in the ride, but it was all I could stomach. In fact, my stomach was beginning to feel unsettled enough that I popped a couple of the pink bismuth (store brand Pepto-Bismol) tablets that I brought with me.

And then back on the road. Now it was downright hot. And really, really humid, especially from a California perspective. And we were on mostly quiet rural county roads of the type so common in Indiana -- straight as an arrow, through fields dotted with occasional houses, farms, and the very small town. I started to think of the time. I had reached lunch much earlier than planned, so I had about seven and a half hours to cover the remaining 68 miles until the 9 p.m. route closure. This seemed to be plenty sufficient, and I started to remind myself that there was no need for me to overexert myself, particularly in what was now the extreme heat. (I learned later that the heat index was over 100 degrees by this point.)

Indeed, frequent breaks became the rule for the rest of the day -- and not just breaks, but indoor, air-conditioned breaks whenever possible. When I passed through the tiny town of New Palestine (where, incidentally, everyone under the age of 30 looks like they're auditioning for a part on "Jersey Shore"), I took advantage of a sandwich shop for a few minutes and downed several cups of fruit punch. A few miles later, I stopped under a tree in front of a random farmhouse.

And then, finally, we were back on U.S. 40, where we would stay for the rest of the day. This meant that the riding was no longer technically challenging, but it also meant that the riding would be utterly boring all the way to Richmond, with a road that was almost perfectly straight, the monotony broken only by the occasional small town. I stopped at another mini-mart in one such town (I don't recall which one it was), and dozens of bikes were parked out front, with riders in various stages of dehydration. I went inside and stood in the air conditioning for a few minutes, and I tried to use the bathroom to no avail. I got a 44-ounce cup of ice, which the sign said would cost 25 cents but for which the attendant decided not to charge. (Thank you!)

Since we were back on the four-lane highway, all of the personal support vehicles had reappeared on the route and almost continuously lined the shoulder. The tailwind also picked up a bit, which was very helpful for my speed; when I was actually in motion, I was easily maintaining a 16 mph pace, sometimes much faster, and slowing only when a "hill" approached. (And by that point of the ride, a "hill" was anything with a 2% or greater grade.)

Speaking of those support vehicles, I saw a lot of bicycles hanging from the tops and backs of those vehicles -- presumably belonging to cyclists who had stopped riding. I saw a lot more of these than I expected. Indeed, the official results suggest that roughly one-quarter of the riders did not complete the route this year -- an unusually high percentage.

The final rest stop of the day was in the tiny village of Dunreith at mile 132, and the host site was the local fire department. The staff had opened the garage and had set up a giant, wind tunnel-like fan in front of a circle of folding chairs ... and they were handing out Otter Pops! I spent a very long time (by my standards, at least) at this stop, and yet another attempt at the restroom was again unsuccessful, despite my intake of huge amounts of Gatorade and water.

But I noticed the time: It was only about 4:30 p.m., and I had only 28 miles to go. When I mentioned the SAG bus service at 9 p.m., I failed to mention that another bus was heading back to Terre Haute at 7 p.m. I hadn't thought much about this because I had considered a 7 p.m. finish to be outside the realm of possibility. But now it seemed possibly doable, even in the still-oppressive heat.

I'll spare you the details, but by now you know the drill for the afternoon: Pedal 5 or 6 miles at a good clip, take a quick break, and repeat. Soon enough, there were pavement markings telling us that the ride was almost over! After a couple of surprisingly steep little climbs in the last few miles, I rolled across the finish line on the Earlham College campus at exactly 6:52 p.m., according to the official results. My elapsed time was 12 hours and 37 minutes, and my average pace was an impressive 16.1 mph. And what about my early departure from Terre Haute? Nobody said anything, although my official time was recorded as 11 hours and 52 minutes, based on the 7 a.m. start. Then again, considering the many riders who I saw getting motorized transportation over part of the route, I'm not too worried about my own cheating.

After stopping to have my rider number recorded -- and to get my picture taken -- I quickly found the SAG bus location. Sure enough, there were two buses there! I rolled up, and the woman with a clipboard congratulated me ... and then informed me that the 7 p.m. bus was already full and that I'd have to take the 9 p.m. bus anyway. Drat!

But that gave me time to take a shower in the campus gymnasium -- excuse me, "wellness center." Checking the scale and the blood pressure meter after my shower revealed two interesting statistics: I appeared to have lost 9 pounds during the day (despite hardly urinating at all), and my blood pressure was an astoundingly low 108/64. I was still hungry and thirsty, and I quickly disposed of the last of my food and water.

At about 8:30 p.m., as sunlight was beginning to fade but with riders still arriving, the 9 p.m. bus opened for air-conditioned occupancy. After a while, we all got one small bottle of Gatorade, but that was it for the rest of the day. (Had I thought about such things, I would have brought more food and drink for the ride home. One couple had found a pizza place within walking distance of campus, but they had only enough for themselves.) Once we began heading back to Terre Haute, the skies turned ominously dark -- and not just because of sunset. Within an hour, we were in the midst of a strong thunderstorm with hail -- strong enough that cars were pulling over on the side of I-70 to wait it out. We finally arrived in Terre Haute in the rain just before midnight, and our bicycle van arrived a few minutes later.

So, in summary, here are a few takeaways from the whole experience:
  • Riding in high humidity is an entirely humbling experience. It's every bit as challenging as dealing with the hills we have around here.
  • Indiana drivers seemed much more polite and respectful toward cyclists. Even on the narrow, two-lane roads around Indianapolis, I was almost always given plenty of room. On the other hand, bike lanes and other cyclist-specific facilities were almost nonexistent. I would never ride solo on most of U.S. 40!
  • While the riders were uniformly polite and collegial, the ride lacked the vibe that I've come to expect on ALC events. Other than some random polite conversation (most of which didn't happen until on the bus back to Terre Haute), I had almost no interaction with any of the other riders. I wore my ALC9 jersey, which got a total of zero comments the entire day.
  • I'm glad I did the ride. I don't think I'd want to do it again.
  • The next step in randonneuring is the 300-kilometer level, which is only about 25 miles longer than RAIN. But that's enough to cross the threshold into nighttime riding. Also, most 300km rides are far more hilly than RAIN. I'm not sure I'm ready for that.
That would normally be the end of our story. But wait, there's more.

Although I was pleased that I had finished the ride without suffering any significant pain, I would contend with issues of the body and the mind over the next several days.

Remember that I was still two-thirds of the way across the country from home, and I needed to drive all the way back. Sunday morning, only about seven hours after getting off the bus, I was strangely awake, packed, and back on the road, heading west into Illinois. The next three days were mostly a blur; I drove incessantly but often lacking direction, taking a very suboptimal route to Las Vegas because I had no idea where I'd be going from day to day, except generally westbound. (I hadn't even planned on going anywhere near Las Vegas, in fact.) I was on the road at least 12 hours a day, making almost no stops to see attractions, do tourist-type things, or go for a ride. Even though I had eight days available for a leisurely return trip, I didn't want to really do anything at all except drive -- and drink sodas. A lot of them. Even then, I still wasn't giving much of it back. And although I was eating something resembling normal meals (as much as can be done along the highway), parts of my body felt like they had gone into shutdown.

And I wasn't having very much fun at all, even after giving myself a no-travel day in Las Vegas. I went riding for the first time since the weekend, but the conditions were absolutely horrible. At my 6:15 a.m. ride-out, the temperature was already 93 degrees (Las Vegas is apparently in the middle of a record-breaking string of days where the temperature hasn't dropped below 90), so my trip to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and back was mercifully short at 30 miles, but it felt like much more.

Then on Thursday, five days after RAIN, everything snapped.

It was another travel day for me, and my itinerary took me from Las Vegas to Reno. Even though my frame of mind had improved somewhat, I could feel something happening to my body as the day progressed. My digestive system began to have, shall we say, problems, and by the time I checked into my hotel in late afternoon, I was feeling decidedly hot. My fourth day of being outside in 100-degree-plus temperatures hadn't helped, either, especially when coupled with returning into my chilly, air-conditioned car. Because I hadn't brought an oral thermometer with me, I spent $6 for another one ... and found that my temperature was 101.5 degrees! No wonder I wasn't feeling well.

But by the next morning, the fever was gone. I felt like eating again, so I packed up the car and made the four-hour trip back home to California. As I write this on Friday afternoon, I'm not sure that my body is 100% back to normal from the ride, but things seem much improved from yesterday, and I actually feel like going for some short rides this weekend.