Friday Group Ride #114

When I think of my hardest ever days on the bike, I can’t help but feeling I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, even now. I’ve bonked twenty miles from home. I’ve crashed in the rain, in the dark, and still had to haul my bloody corpse home. I’ve been dehydrated and injured, and I’ve just straight up ridden every last ounce of energy out of my body.

And yet, every time have one of these experiences, I look back on it after, and I think, “Well, that could have been much harder, much worse.” And I envision what could have made it that way (usually more distance), and I just wonder what another 20 miles would have felt like in the condition I was in. Could I have handled it? Where would I have quit?

I had one of those days recently, a 70 mile cross ride on one of Spring’s hotter days. I only brought one bottle, and an early crash left me dealing with some unwanted pain later in the ride. You wouldn’t have looked in from the outside and said it was going to be a super hard day, but the combination of hubris (seriously, one bottle?) and stiffening muscles (I’m not as resilient as I used to be) turned it into a suffer-fest.

Ted King, the American on Liquigas-Cannondale, had a similar day last week. Reading about it made me feel much better about my own travails.

It’s one thing to challenge yourself with a big ride. Ask anyone who raced Battenkill, or Paris-Roubaix for that matter. It’s another thing to inadvertently impose those challenges on yourself by failing to anticipate all the things that can go wrong.

Mostly, when I sign up for what will obviously be a hard effort, I do so with an idealized vision of the conditions and how I will perform. Seldom do I project reality with any accuracy, and, in return, reality usually treats me to a hearty dose of humility. Go figure.

This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What was your hardest day on the bike? And why? Weather? Road/trail conditions? Poor planning? Lack of fitness? Tell us your tale.

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  1. Brian

    Chicago. January. What was predicted to be a 40 degree, sunny day suddenly turned into a 20 degree, windy, snowy day when I was 40 miles from home. I had on only thin gloves, a long sleeve jersey, baselayer, bib shorts and leg warmers with wool socks. I have never suffered like I suffered that day. I was shivering so hard I had trouble controlling the bike, I slid out in the snow three times, and I had to shift my rear using my left hand because I had lost all feeling in my right. The wind kept my pace down to about 13-17 mph. I kept thinking I should just stop and get on a train or call someone to pick me up, but for some unknown reason I just kept turning some very ugly, lopsided circles. I got home nearly delirious and was so exhausted the next morning I had to call in sick at work.
    In retrospect I feel both stupid and proud for having stuck it out.

  2. andrew

    The hardest day I have had was my first road sportive, the Dragon Ride in South Wales. It wasn’t the distance or the climbs, it was because my left foot hurt.

    I had experienced a few times before the day, and had spent weeks trying to sort it out, new shoes, new pedals, new bg insoles and wedges. I thought I had it sorted.

    A few km into the 80km route I was doing, it started. On every pedal stroke the outside edge of my left foot felt as if the bones were breaking. I was close to tears on several occasions and felt like getting in the broom wagon, I don’t have much pride or machismo but I really didn’t want to quit.

    For the last 10km or so, I was pushing the pedals with just my right leg.

    Sorted the problem now though, bigger cogs on the back and keeping my cadence above 60 stops it happening.

  3. Casey

    My first attempt at a 50 mile ride. It was a cool yet windy early spring day in CO. I thought I had enough fuel to make a planned 3 hour ride.

    WRONG! The wind ended up getting so bad I could barely hold 15 mph into it. I ripped through my two bottles and two gels about 30 miles in. I made it about 3 miles from home when confronted with the final up hill I simply stopped. My legs could not turn the pedals over any more. So I sat on the side of the road for 10 minutes or so to rest and tried again, made it about 50 feet and then stopped again.

    I swallowed my pride and called my wife and began walking home. She picked me up about two miles form home. My legs were so dead I could barely swing them into the car. Once I got home I ate everything in sight and promptly fell alseep on the couch.

    Good times, good times.

  4. DJ

    Which was my hardest day on a bike?

    a)first day of bike touring: went east over the cascades in Washington over very high passes only to find we had not packed any food after we had set up tents, we packed it all up and headed back west over the passes to get back to the truck without anything more than a cliff bar between my wife and I
    b) suffered from an outbreak of giardia while on a bike tour going around the Adirondacks in NY, I had to stop every 20 minutes to rid myself of explosive diarrhea in the woods while swatting black flies.
    c)my first 200km brevet on our tandem where my neck locked up and I couldn’t look over my shoulder
    d)a 55 mile ride on our tandem that had few hills and perfectly clear blue skies.

    The answer is “d”. The other times were hard and uncomfortable but there was a sense of… laughing in the face of hardship. Many of those others are my most fond cycling moments. That 55 mile ride where we both bonked on the tandem and ended riding on a flat bike path home at 9 mph was hell.

  5. James

    Ok, like it was stated earlier, there are plenty of hard rides in my past. The most recent one is last summer’s 162 mile solo ride to my In-Laws. SW Indy to NW Indiana (Demote, IN). My Garmin registered outside temp of 112. My route was great and I took my time. Was suffering from the heat and was on the longest stretch between water stops. Crossed the Wabash River and climbed up to a small town of Independence, IN. My map showed a small store to replenish my water. The town was the size of a small Wal-Mart. No store! I road around the streets for an hour. Saw two people and asked to fill my bottles off their hoses. Both said no. One suggested I fill them of the local stream. So off I road another 10 miles to Pine Village, IN. Stopped at a Gas Station/ Pizza Shop. Drank two water bottles and two Cokes while sitting in the air conditioning. By the looks I was getting, folks where not very familiar with cyclist. Was able to finish, made to In-Laws front yard and laid down in the grass. I was cooked!

  6. Dave

    Couple of years ago, I joined a group I hadn’t ridden with before to do an out-and-back century with a start in the Alberta foothills and the turnaround at the top of Highwood pass. The wind was blowing steady in our faces all the way, both ways, so it was nice to have four other people to share the work with.

    Well, until about 20 miles from the end, when the flats started… I hadn’t noticed my back tire was worn out and I started getting these little punctures from tiny sharp rocks on the road. I told the group to leave me, I’d be fine, I had a pump and a couple of spare tubes, plus a patch kit. After using my spare tubes, and all of my patches, and a couple of tubes kindly provided by strangers, I finally made it home but I can’t remember being so exhausted after a ride.

  7. Jay Fromkin

    Back in 1997, I went to the Carpenter-Phinney bike camp in Frisco, Colorado. The day after our ride up Loveland Pass, we rode Vail Pass in both directions. On the return ride, I caught a cramp in my right hamstring. Felt like I’d been shot. Davis Phinney and Pete Penseyres took turns pushing me up the road until I met the sag wagon. A tough, tough day.

  8. Christopher

    These are the best stories. Mine invovled snow, ice, 50kph headwind, temps of -10C (before wind chill), mean traffic for part of it, 2 crashes and a lack of water. This ride was not long but the second half was hills to get home and in absolutely demoralising conditions. I tried to think of Jens and Merckx and all the hardmen of cycling for motivation knowing my wife would offer no sympathy when I returned home… after all, I chose to ride and I knew the conditions. Beautiful (only in retrospect) suffering.

  9. The Tashkent Error

    James: The fact that there are people out there who would deny a bottle of water to someone asking for it just blew my mind. That’s a crime against humanity.

    I had to resort to this scenario numerous times and never met anybody who would even hesitate for a second to think they would not give water to somebody in need.

    I’m completely shocked.

  10. Fearless Kevin

    Day I rode 120 miles. Didn’t feel well from start to finish. Couldn’t eat, didn’t enjoy drinking much, took 15 hours and three naps to finish the ride. Slept on bathroom floor which was as far as I could make it from the shower. Thankful for floor mats. Two days later went to the doctor as I still wasn’t feeling well, eating or drinking much. Got rushed to the Emergency Room for surgery on a ruptured appendix. Did I mention the reason for going to the doctor was increasing abdominal pain ? Duh ! Don’t try this. Doctors helpfully pointed out I could have died. Duh x 2 !
    Fearless (Stoopid ???) Kevin

  11. Mo'Nilla

    The hardest thing I’ve ever done was the Spy-Optic Belgian Waffle Ride last Sunday. We felt particulary strong and rode down to Carlsbad from LA on Saturday (112m) for the ride the next day. Fashioned after a spring classic, it was a 124m tour of N. San Diego county with 9200ft. of gain. The last 1000 climb was at mile 110. Several off-road portions with dirt, gravel and water crossings. I was scared but prepared, and my conservation strategy got me to the end, albeit two hours after the leaders:^O
    Working on the speed next…

  12. Rhys

    On a recent ride i went out by myself extra early to beat the peak hour traffic. Trying to find reasons for it i found a dog lying in the middle of the road from being hit by a car. Of course i stopped and got him the help he needed. But later in the ride the conditions turned monsoonal and i had to dig deep to avoid the same fate as my little friend. I had never been as scared on the bike as i was that day!

  13. PeterLeach

    My hardest day on a bike.
    January 2011, Tour Down Under Challenge Stage [Norwood to Strathalbyn].
    Just before half-distance I watched complacently as several riders mis-judged gearing on a short pinch coming out of a left hander. Dropped my chain as I up-shifted coming over the crest and twisted it between the chain ring and chainstay.
    Ride over.
    New bike for the ride.
    Drove Canberra to Adelaide [1200km] to be there.
    Drove home feeling miserable.
    ps. No drama this year 🙂

  14. armybikerider

    My very first century in 1981. I had no idea what I was getting into, was extremely unprepared with little water or food and tried to ride with guys that were far faster and better prepared than I. After suffering through what seemed like an eternity (no computer to guage the distance traveled and a lost map), riding from shade tree to shade tree, stopping under each one to regroup, I finally couldn’t take it any more at the top of a roller and got off the bike under yet another tree. Sitting there, completely shattered, wondering how I’d finish the ride (riding, walking or in the sag wagon) I got back on the bike and wobbled over the crest of the hill and looked down the hill to the finishing parking lot.

    Since then, I tend to measure my hard efforts against that standard and give it just a little more to eventually get to the finish. Which just as before, always gives me a sense of satisfaction that I stuck it out to the end.

  15. Nick

    One of the hardest days on the bike was my first battle with the Mt. Hamilton Road Race. I was undertrained and then under-ate, under-drank, and bonked early in the race. First 20 miles are climbing, last 40 miles are rolling to downhill (thankfully). At the finish line I could barely talk. Of course our local race ran out of water on that hot day, so it was an hour before I could muster the focus to get myself home. The next day I was so achy and exhausted I could barely walk. My girlfriend forced me to go on a walk that afternoon and I hobbled around like an old man. Gave me a nice boost of fitness for the next race though!

    These are great stories everybody. Thanks to all the commenters.

  16. Rollthreefour

    When I was in college our petit cycling team was very engaged with the local clubs and racers. As our first collegiate races didn’t start for a few weeks we opted to race with our buddies at Cherry Pie. It was the first race myself and my sole teammate would race. We completed our warmups – very generous as the race was delayed – and hopped into the race. Being young, foolish, and absorbing every piece of misinformation I chose not to eat before or during the race, nor bring any bidons. Figured I had all my glycogen from the previous nights pasta-fest and the water, whatever.

    An hour later, after impatiently moving to the front to shake it up with a nice long pull, I was out the back and pedaling triangles with my left leg. Okay, no problem, unclip, right leg: pedal. Five minutes later, a reversal of fortune. Okay, unclip right leg, insert left, etc. Meanwhile folks off the back caught up with my rear wheel and figured I was just having fun, hung out, then sprinted away after my one-legged pace was seen as unfit. Finish the race so late my teammate was there at the line to cheer my on, very pleased to be done. The organizers scold me for turning around after the finish line – what’s the yellow line rule for? – and point me in the direction of an appropriate place to, I don’t know, I was tired. Turns out I took a wrong turn and ended up riding around for three more hours, like a fluorescent reaper haunting the Oregon hills.

    Got back to the team bus, found out my teammate won emphatically. I was thanked for my work at the front, scolded for being stubborn, and given perhaps my bodyweight in food and beverage. Those were the days!

  17. cyclehard57

    Hardest day on a bike.

    About 25 years ago I did a 214 mile organized ride that went roughly from Huntington Beach CA to San Diego CA and back. Not so bad on the surface. But for some reason, I started out hard, and kept it hard. I did the first hundred miles in a few minutes shy of 5 hours.

    Shortly after, reality set in and I started to really suffer. I got to the 150 mile mark and didn’t think I was going to be able to finish. Then the headwinds began in the late afternoon and things got really bad. I became a pedaling zombie, head down, and just barely turning over the pedals.

    I made it though and I remember that my wife had to help me into and out of the car. I swore to never do a double century again, and I have not broken that pledge yet.

  18. RayG

    Patagonia, January 2003. The ‘road’ to El Chalten. Get on the bike, pedal, get blown off the road. Repeat until you just decide to walk for a day and a half.

  19. Wsquared

    My worst days by far have been mountain biking. Running out of water or food in the middle of nowhere with lots of climbing left etc. My wife calls them “death rides.” Probably the most concentrated pain was getting caught in a wind/rain/sleet/snow storm that blew in unexpectedly over the mountains into the foothills. The temp dropped about 20 degrees to arround freezing. I was in lycra without a vest or jacket. The trail quickly turned into an unrideable sea of mud. It was hard to even push my bike because it immediately clogged with clay, so I ended up carrying or dragging it for most of the 5 miles to the trailhead. Painful hypothermia.

  20. michael

    charity ride over two days. day one. 75 miles. a little over 3000m of climbing on long, easy grades. first 45 miles basically flat roads. hopped on a ripping pace line from mile 7 or so. averaging 43-45 kph for a good 25 miles. we zipped past two feed stations. i emptied both my bottles on a hot day. forgot to eat.

    stopped for lunch. no appetite (uh-oh). pound a banana and a couple of gels. start back up, immediately the same group starts hammering again. barely hanging on. my pull comes up, but the wind has started. my pull lasted all of 20 seconds, and the man with the hammer came to visit. the parachute opened up and the 30-odd strong line of riders zipped past me like i was going backwards.

    last 20 miles are all uphill at 5% or so to get to the campground. I guzzled two bottles of electrolytes, pounded 3 gels, and pulled into the last rest stop. i was so broken that i was opening up peanut butter individual portions and scooping out the contents with my fingers.

    start the climb. speedometer stuck at 9 kph. on a 5% grade? fuck. i should be easily riding this at 20. broken. battered. finally run into my teammates, who took it easy all day and are charging the climb. somehow i latched on and got a good babysitting from my bro Ian. after 8 miles of climbing, the peanut butter, gels, and two bottles finally light up the fire and he is able to pace me back up to about 13 kph.

    we make it to the false flat leading to the campground, we cross the line….and i start crying. uncontrollably. we get to the team rv. i collapse in a heap on the grass as soon as i get off the bike. immediately puke my guts up, then fall asleep. hard. wake up 1.5 hours later in a daze, go take a shower, slap on some compression tights and socks, go get a massage and then eat everything in site.

    day two – miraculously strong. recovered. flying. for about 5 miles, until i get dropped like a bad habit. teammates provide me with a protected ride for 90 miles of flats and downhills all the way back home.

    god i love those guys.

  21. Ken Ashton

    Yesterday we did Hogpen in Ga. It was hard, but I had a real bad descent. I did not crash but it was the worst decent I’ve ever had. It was steep, the fog was thick. I was on the brakes for three miles, everyone passed me. It almost ruined my ride. That’s the only time I got upset about going down like that. The day ended up ok. I like going down, but I was too much for once.

  22. Jesus from Cancun

    I raced for 14 years and I can think of too many miserable days on the bike.
    But there was only one that made pain be my guest for the next 4 days:

    I was just back from medaling in the pursuit at the cycling Pan Ams in Quito, and my sponsor was hosting a race from the Mexican Mountain Bike National series.

    Somehow I got an invitation to do the race as a guest. Here a license was good for any kind of bike racing. I thought “why not?”.
    I used to do some mountain biking in the off season and I knew the circuit, it was a 4km loop with a series of short, steep climbs and false flat, and a very long fairly technical descent.

    I was trained to race 4 kms and I had never raced MTB before, but I thought it would be a good experience and I would try just to finish the race. My sponsor had lent me a really nice bike, much nicer than anything I had ridden before.
    When I signed in I found out I was given race #2, and I was starting in first row. Adrenaline started pumping like crazy.

    The race started with a climb, and somehow I made it to the beginning of the descent among the first 5 guys. By the time we reached the bottom I had been passed by the whole group. I lost count of how many times I heard “Off my way!!”. That only helped the adrenaline flow!

    Each lap I was passing a lot of guys on the climb, and I was passed by a lot on the descent. I lost track of my position until the last lap, when someone at the beginning of the climb to the finish yelled that I had the leaders within sight.
    I had tunnel vision by then and I was chasing the wheel in front of me, then the next, then the next… The last guy I tried to pass sprinted to the line and finished half a bike ahead of me.
    After the finish I was in shock and cramping from head to toes. I was helped off the bike and it took me a few minutes just to be able to stand up.

    The worst came later: The next day I could not get off my bed. My whole body was still in pain and cramping with any movement I made. I was totally useless; I couldn’t even get on my bike for 4 days after the race. That was the worst way to spend my days off after the Pan Ams.

    And well, the result on paper wasn’t bad at all. I got 4th place and a few nice local newspaper and magazine clippings. But I swore I would never do it again. I learned to respect MTB racers a whole lot more than I did before.
    Now I see one of them and I think “this is a badass bike racer”.

  23. DavidA

    I think one of my worst days was when this stupid Belgian kid decided to slam the brakes on in front of me with about 3 laps to go in a Kermis race in Sinaai, Belgium. We were about 1/2 way across this 1km cobblestone section on the back stretch and he slammed the brakes on (it was about 63 degrees and drizzling all day) and I hit him and did a complete cartwheel in the air and came down on my back and butt on the stones at about 27mph. I tore my bladder or kidneys from the impact and pissed blood for 4 days. Not Nice!!!

  24. Dave J

    Not that this is a contest, but I think the guy with the ruptured appendix takes the hardman award here, hands down.

  25. Steve

    Hardest ride ever was a 12 mile descent during a surprise snowstorm in Colorado. I would’ve been okay if I had proper gloves, but instead I was brought to tears during a 20 minute thaw session in my Honda Accord. Lucky to have all ten fingers!

  26. andrew

    boy, this is a tough one. i remember having to sit besides my bike for a while before i could keep going again, but i can’t remember the details.

    one i can remember- i was riding from sebastapol ca to mill valley to meet a friend. we were going to bike across the country, taking the train from san fran to seattle. this day was my first day fully loaded, front and rear panniers, lots of weight on the bike. it’s hillier than i thought from sebastabol down to mill valley, and it was really hot. at the point when i was climbing up from route 1 up to the top of the coastal mountains, before i would head down to mill valley, i was really suffering, barely hanging on. and then these f%^king vultures appeared, circling overhead. i remember yelling at them that i wasn’t dead yet.

    needless to say i was pleased to get to beer and food in mill valley.


  27. Erich

    Battenkill was hard (I’m a Cat 4 alum of 2010 and 2011) but the hardest day I’ve had was on a cookie ride in NC called the Tour de Gaps. Always held in late summer when temps and humidity are peaking it contains four nasty ‘gap’ climbs from the valley floor to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The long loop is 84 miles and contains around 12,000 ft of climbing.

    In 2009 I signed up on a whim and arrived under-hydrated (I made the decision to sign up while sipping a rum and coke the night before) but bright-eyed and in OK form. After following the lead group out of Mt. Airy, I quickly realized what was going down. The adrenaline rush of the first 10 miles wore off followed shortly by twinges in the legs. The cramps came on in earnest after the second gap climb and by mile 35 at the base of the third gap I was off of my bike, lying in the grass and trying to stretch out the sequential cramping and releasing of my hamstrings and quadriceps. I really couldn’ve used an IV. Standing was out of the question. A passing rider tossed me his bottle of Gatorade. After 10 minutes of writhing, the cramps settled, and I walked the last hill before remounting. I limped in via a few shortcuts at just over 5 hours for 57 miles.

    Of course, I signed up again in 2010 and finished 5th. Most of the time the hardest days come down to poor prep and that was certainly what happened to me. But there’s no way I could’ve finished 5th the following year without those jagged-edged reminders from 2009 spurring me on.

  28. Arnie

    1 – Last day of the 1997 Bike Tour of Colorado, from Buena Vista to Breckinridge, via Hoosier Pass. Had nothing for most of the ride. Not used to altitude. Climbed Hoosier in the rain and 50s, couldn’t stand for getting dizzy. Get to the top, put a plastic bag down my jersey, and rode the terrifying 10 miles down to Breckinridge with a death-grip on the brakes. Went hypothermic – couldn’t remember where I was supposed to be staying. Finally found the hotel, and my buddies (who dropped me 1 block out of the motel in Buena Vista) threw me in the hot tub fully dressed. Took me half an hour to be able to talk.
    2 – Early in my cycling life – 4th of July and hot, went for a 50 miler. One water bottle. Got to the halfway point – no more water, no place to get any. Stopped sweating and got cold on the way home.

  29. Keith D

    Set out with my cycling buddy on July 3rd of last year. Probably the only 4th of July weekend in memory that had real 4th of July summer weather in my time in the bay area….heat pushing low 80’s. So off across the GG Bridge, Highway 1 to Stinson Beach, was gonna hook the Bolinas Fairfax road to Farifax and back to SF. First mistake, missed the turn and rode to Olema, doubled back, caught the turn and started to climb. Second mistake, water is no substitute for electrolytes and started to cramp, had to stop three times to get to Fairfax. Third mistake, make it to Fairfax and said gotta stop for something although food didn’t sound good, but soda did…..oops Diet Coke. I bonked, called the team car (wife), sent my riding buddy on after assuring him she was coming. I totally loose my cookies in the Fairfax town center bushes and am laying on a bench waiting for my wife. Waiting, waiting….finally call my wife where are you?? “Oh I’m driving and gosh I love my new wedding ring….and should I be seeing signs for Novato? Oops, about 20m too far. I finally scrapped myself off the bench, stumped over to a taco restaurant and got a real can of coke. By the time the wife showed the “lights” and come back on and we walked down and got a burger. Don’t let your team soigneur (wife)drive with a new wedding ring on…….it’s too distracting!

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