Headwinds and Crosswinds: Alexander Training

sunset gravel

Because I’m a little … overzealous, I decided to sign up for the Alexander 380 earlier this year.  It’s a 380 mile gravel ride — unsupported, and you finish it at your own pace.  Some do it as a non-stop venture, and others take their time and stay overnight at points along the route.  I haven’t quite decided how I’ll split mine up.  I’ve spent the last few months brainstorming all the various things that could go wrong and how I should prepare for them.  When I saw that the weather today would be a blustery, windy mess AND we got rain last night, I decided it would be a “great” evening to go ride in the name of Alexander training especially since I need to work on riding in the dark.

Earlier this year I made myself a schedule loosely based on some ultracycling training plans I found on the internet (I’m resourceful like that), and for this week my midweek long ride needed to be about 3 hours.  I drafted a route that would put me squarely into the crosswinds and headwinds and kept me mostly on gravel.  The total route was 40 miles – I wasn’t planning on pushing the pace too much and I was mostly interested in saddle time.   I HATE riding in high winds, so all the more reason to make myself do it!  I would start in broad daylight and then ride as the sky transitioned to dusk, twilight, and then palpable darkness.

To maximize my time on the gravel, I drove about 20 minutes south of my house and parked in a small church parking lot. It was 65F and mostly sunny, but the winds were picking up and the weather was changing rapidly.  I set off, and the initial roads were at high enough elevation that they had drained fairly well.  Once I headed south into the crosswind, the gusts were strong enough I would feel a “thwap” and get abruptly pushed off my line!  I had to pay attention and lean into the wind to stay where I wanted.

The sun lowered in the sky, the winds picked up, and the temperature continued to drop rapidly.  I pedaled on into the headwind, telling myself that I COULD bail on the ride, but that finishing it would be great mental encouragement for tough times at the Alexander.  The Alexander, being in May, will be an unpredictable bag for weather and gravel conditions.  As I dropped in elevation and rode near a lake, the gravel would occasionally resemble sticky peanut butter.  I’d be rolling along fine, and all of a sudden the bike would hesitate and I could feel my body lurch forward — it felt like I was suddenly velcroed to the ground.

After the sun went down it got DARK.  I tested different headlight combinations to see which worked best on the gravel.  I learned that no matter what light combo I used, I couldn’t REALLY see the road conditions well enough to reliably pick the best line.  It was more of a “point and shoot” experience.  I was on unfamiliar roads, which was another strategic part of the plan for my ride.  I wanted to only have a rough idea of where I was at any given point and I needed to rely on my Garmin to tell me where to go.

I was about 2 hours into the ride when I came upon a gas station.  I forgot I routed myself by this giant oasis for truckers, and I decided to go check out the food and drink selection in order to test my stomach.  I read a blog post / interview with an ultracyclist a few weeks ago where she said she practices eating readily available gas station foods on training rides to make sure she can eat them while she races.  I thought, what the heck, I’ll eat dinner at the gas station! I walked into the bustling truck stop and knew everyone was staring at the short woman in head to toe lycra, clip clopping around in my fancy carbon cycling shoes.  I made a beeline for the chocolate milk, and then decided I should test the waters with something resembling “real food” — a slice of dry, overcooked pepperoni pizza!  Mmmmm….not.  I went back outside to eat in the company of my bike, using a display to shield myself from the strong westerly winds.

For whatever reason, I was especially spooked for the last hour of my ride.  I was cold and tired and ready to be done.  By now the ambient temperature had dropped 20F from when I started — those winds were bringing some much cooler weather into town after our record breaking hot day.  The sounds I heard scared me a little — I could hear the wind whistling through the trees, and I was more bothered than before by the lack of humanity around me.  I have a light on my helmet, and I started panning around only to have my gaze be met by two glistening eyes in the ditch on the side of the road.  I thought “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” and pedaled faster.  No more looking around for me!

I arrived in one piece back at my car, hitting my 40 mile goal and checking off quite a few unfavorable ride conditions (headwinds, crosswinds, sticky gravel, darkness, cold, cumulative exhaustion after a long day at work, unknown roads, Garmin navigation) and now that I’m at home in my warm bed, I feel quite proud of my accomplishment!  I can’t predict what the Alexander will throw at me, but I CAN do my best to test out different scenarios between now and my day of reckoning in May.

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