High Water Mark

High Water Mark

I’ve been asked about my proudest moment on the bike. It’s an interesting question for me. As I was never a PRO, I’ve measured my successes on the bike within their relative merit—which was always modest, at best. Indeed, my introspection has always been more powerful than my legs, which is a way to say I’ve given some consideration to the pride that a cyclist clutches in those moments that follow a great statement of the legs.

Definitions of pride note two forms of the emotion; one comes from the feeling we possess in the wake of praise. Anyone who has heard a crowd cheer to their exploits knows this feeling. With it comes a warmth that can fill the coldest spot in one’s soul, if only for an hour.

Some athletes, performers and politicians can run on that kind of pride for years at a time. I’ve been cheered for my performances as a musician, a few times for modest wins on the bike. My reaction was always mixed; I was far more comfortable in the moment, either performing or racing. To know that I won on the appointed day was all I needed; that riders I respected saw me raise my arm in victory was icing. That’s because I thrive on the second form of pride, the one that comes in subsequent self-appraisal.

I’d like to think this is the better, truer sense of pride one may cultivate. Based on one’s own understanding of events, this pride doesn’t cool after the crowds go home and can be called upon in reflection. For me, the moments I look back on with pride have become cornerstones in my definition of what’s possible in my life. It’s a building I have built and rebuilt through my life. When I look out over the broad plain of ambition, my perch is based on pure fact. It’s as solid a footing as I might achieve.

But the building of one’s pride is composed of thousands of stones, not just one single accolade. That first cornerstone is a reference point that positions the whole of the structure—the ego in its truest sense. So what is my proudest moment on the bike?

As I scan the hard drive I recall a solo effort in a collegiate crit in 1992. I was away for most of the race which was cold and rainy and held over a technical, six-turn course. I crossed the line with my arms outstretched and an expression of shock on my face. The next day I stormed away from the group and when I crossed the line my arms flew up in an emphatic “V.” Both those were good, but neither hit it.

I’ve ridden some outrageously hard events such as the Markleeville Death Ride, the Climb to Kaiser and the Mulholland Challenge. Clearly the one that finishing yielded the greatest satisfaction was one I rode last fall, then called the Son of the Death Ride. These days it’s known as the Ride of the Immortals, and is a 138-mile trek through the Sierra containing more than 17,000 feet of climbing over roads that are mostly crap. I DNF’ed on that course five years ago, so finishing on my second attempt was a chance to re-write history and bite the apple of redemption. That’s a good one, but not it, either.

There was a masters race in the hilly country east of Bakersfield over a course that required a bit of everything: the ability to select a great line in sharp turns, descend on off-camber roads, climb steep hills, battle wind. At the beginning of the 1999 season I set a goal of winning at Iron Mountain. After forcing the selection that reduced the peloton to a group of four—on the first lap—I was able to play my cards carefully and when another rider attacked at 1k, I waited until I was sure the other two had given up, attacked them, bridged to the first rider and with less than 50 meters to go came around him for the win. That was a very good day.

The one I hold dearest was perhaps my quietest achievement on the bike. It was a win in an uphill time trial. The course was here in Los Angeles, up to the top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Locals refer to the location as the radar domes due to the two geodesic domes that hold electronics of some variety I’ve never bothered to investigate. Their meaning to me is that my suffering is at an end.

I entered the senior men and was some variety of fortunate that no Category 1 or 2 riders showed up. Cat. 3s aren’t supposed to win time trials, right? The time trial was almost exactly six miles and was uphill save for a roughly one-mile dip just over half way up.

I was last to start; while I wasn’t sure what to expect, I knew I felt good and wanted the chance to pass as many riders as possible in order to gain all the motivation I could. My warmup was unremarkable; I only recall rolling to the line in my 53×19.

The opening 100 meters were false flat and my goal was to generate some momentum with my start, but I didn’t expect to ride for very long in my big ring; that was the province of PROs, like the ones who used to pass me in the three-mile uphill TT at the Killington Stage Race in Vermont.

When the starter yelled “go!” I could feel my bike’s saddle pop from the hands of the holder. I stood for more than 200 meters before sitting down and that’s when it happened: I realized I was strong enough to spin the 53×19 while seated. I didn’t need to shift. My speed varied as the grade changed, sometimes as low as 19, often more like 21.

After cresting the first part of the climb I began shifting, first the 17, then the 16, the 15, even the 14, 13. I wished the road was even steeper. Then, into the sudden uptick of the second part of the climb; around a right-hand bend the grade hits 9 percent and though I was downshifting, I stayed in my big ring.

I have no memory of my legs burning there.

Minutes later I reached the right turn that begins the final section of the climb. It opens with 30 meters at 12 percent and that was when I finally shifted out of the big ring. I spun up it and then shifted into what now seems a monstrous gear for that stretch of road. I crossed the line somewhere north of 20 minutes. The time I recorded isn’t particularly important to me; others have recorded much faster times. I hear Tinker Juarez did it in something like 18 minutes. So there’s that.

By the time awards were given, most of the small field had gone home. What glory there was came from fewer than a half-dozen people and even that isn’t why I look back on that day with pride. For me, it was a high water mark in my fitness. I climbed at speeds that were fast by any measure, in a gear that any normal cyclist considers inappropriate for climbing.

I felt like I could have ridden that gear all day long; without that 12 percent pitch I might have ridden in that gear to the crit I did that afternoon.

That day has my affection because climbing in a 53×19 isn’t something you can fake. It’s an irrefutable testament to a level of fitness—by orders of magnitude—greater than I had when I first dabbled in bike racing some 10 years before. It’s not a moment I pull out on the young whippersnappers who show up to our group rides and whip me with my own lactic acid. There’s no point in telling them, “I used to be so fast I could….” No, it’s a private relic, one that reminds me we all have unplumbed depths, that I’ve yet to understand all I may achieve.


This originally appeared on Fat Cyclist when Fatty was looking for guest posts on Fridays. It appeared in March 2011.


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  1. Dave

    Perfectly said Padraig as always. Those moments when you are doing things you can’t normally do are truly epic and memorable.

    I’ve won a few club races but the euphoria can’t compare to when I was living in Spain and logging 750 – 1000k weeks. The fitness that came with that kind of training was incredible. Not enough to get me any Ws against the hardcore Spanish racing field, but I could ride with older ex pros for long excursions. My high water mark was riding with two of them for 260k and having to escort each one home to make sure they got home ok. I rolled home and felt ready for more and indeed the next morning met up with the local chain gang for more kilometers in the Sierre and Alpujarras. I’ve never gotten close to that again.

    1. Author

      Those are huge weeks. That’s fitness of a magnitude most folks can’t even fathom. I bet you never needed anything smaller than a 42t inner ring.

    2. Dave Chirayath

      I wish! Even with all that mileage, I was still a big guy not made for hour-long plus climbing, at least not with guys weighing 140 or less. I ran a 50-36 in front and 11/27 in the back and that would be very tough on some of the sections of 20% plus climbing surrounding Granada.

  2. Pingback: A Ride Like No Other | RKP

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