We appear to live in a linear world. Roads go from here to there. Tomorrow comes after today and 1 + 1 = 2. And while you can add 1 + 1 a thousand times and wind up with 1000 apples, oranges—or miles—it doesn’t work that way in nature. We were shown the evidence the first time we went hard on a bicycle. At a certain point you just can’t go faster. And most of us thought the reason why was that we just weren’t strong enough. We thought that with a little more muscle we’d go an extra two or three miles per hour faster.
It took me years to understand that the burn I felt in my legs, and occasionally even in my arms, was the result of my muscles producing lactic acid faster than my bloodstream could flush it out of my muscles. To conjure an image that could help me connect the dots I thought of beer drinking games in college when guys would pour as much beer down their shirts as they were drinking. Who wants beer all over their shirt?
More and more we are being confronted by the notion that there come tipping points where just one more or one less isn’t a tiny difference, but a watershed event. We’ve had the language for it for decades: the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I’m beginning to see how there’s a similar break point in distance where all the things I can get away with for three, four or five hours don’t work when I’m out longer than seven hours.
Ride for an hour and a bottle of water is a good idea, but truly, pretty optional. Ride for two hours and it becomes a very good idea. At three hours, hydration becomes a real necessity, and from there, hydration only becomes more imperative. At a two percent loss of body mass through perspiration athletic performance will noticeably degrade. The muscles simply don’t want to fire. What’s hard to see until seven or eight hours have passed is that a tiny mistake made in the first hour, and perhaps repeated each hour after—such as needing to drink two bottles of water per hour on a hot day, rather than one—will magnify until the muscles thicken like butter.
Two percent. It isn’t much. At my weight, it’s about 48 ounces, a number small enough to hit by just being six ounces off on my hydration per hour. And that’s why seven isn’t such a lucky number.
Apparently, seven hours is also the point beyond which my stomach my stomach refuses to operate without real food. A threshold of a different sort. Nausea, the universal signal that something is rotten in Denmark, and probably elsewhere, is to diet what a contract is to clear communication.
I’m fond of saying that I don’t have anything left to prove as a cyclist. It’s why I don’t race crits, haven’t in more than 15 years. I’ve wrestled with the attraction of doing a truly long event, something that takes me beyond 12 hours. I’ve done something that long only once before. I can’t say I came away with any great epiphanies. And now I face what will arguably be the toughest undertaking of my cycling career.
Is there a proof to be had? Perhaps. Because this involves me pushing past thresholds I’d begun to take as givens, I must concede that there’s a kind of proof. But that’s not what is driving me. Why, the question I ask so often, doesn’t seem to apply here. I actually know the why. I want to find out. I want to find out what’s out there, beyond the beyond. I’m often at my happiest when I’m most vulnerable. So the question is what. What will I learn? What is there to discover—about me, about the world—at the end of an undertaking in which the central challenge isn’t how well I can ride a bike, but how well I can fuel while on it. It’s a challenge unlike any I’ve encountered before. And if life has taught me anything, it is that taking on a new challenge is a chance to learn something new.