Activity: road cycling
Location: McHenry, MD (Wisp Mountain Resort)
Distance: 125.38 miles (many steep and technical climbs and descents)
Duration: 8:25 (9:17 with stoppage time)
Weather: overcast and cool, occasional drizzle, 59-71 degrees
Climbing: 15,913′
Avg HR: 154 (max 183)
Type: aerobic

Last year, I rode the Diabolical Double – a.k.a. the Garrett County Gran Fondo – and called it “truly diabolical.”

And it still is – but this time, I was prepared.

Oh sure, in 2010 I believed I was ready, and I probably was, by and large. However, this year things simply were, well, better.

The ride organizers tweaked some of the checkpoints, adding an extra one between Westernport and Deer Park to prevent the mass dehydration spectacle that plagued the field last year.

I equipped my bike with lower gearing, taking my own advice from last year to heart.

I stayed at the base of Wisp the night before the ride, which was a big plus, as any extra sleep netted before the 7:00am start is “money” (i.e. energy) in the bank.

I ate a dinner that was balanced “comfort” food: Mexican, with plenty of protein and carbs and a little bit of fat, chased by a locally-brewed oatmeal stout and plenty of water.

And the next morning, it looked dank, misty and cloudy – possibly the best part of ride day.

In 2010, it was sunny and hot for the ride, especially after dropping down to Westernport and during the climbs back out of the river valley. It was at this point last year where I ran into a battle against dehydration.

But this year was different – very different.

Chris and I drove out to McHenry on Friday afternoon, shortly after he picked up his new bike (yes, he rode a 125 mile event on a brand new bicycle – he’s a brave man), and marveled at the undulating geography that would present itself to us first-hand the next day. After checking into the hotel and meeting up with Mark, we headed to dinner at the Santa Fe Grill to eat the aforementioned Mexican dinner, then headed to the local grocery to pick up breakfast rations (our hotel room had a fridge, so fresh juice and yogurt were nice breakfast perks). We settled down around 10:30pm.

The alarm went off at 5:00am – a painful hour, but I managed to get moving rather quickly. We wanted to be on the road to the summit of Wisp (only a 2 mile drive) by 6, as there could be a traffic jam as people arrive for the event. This year, the field was expanded to 600 riders in the various distances, with approximately 250-300 of them riding the 125 and 100-mile rides. We arrived at the summit by 6:15, prepared the bikes and decided how to approach the cool, misty morning. While Chris opted to go with short sleeves and shorts (he thrives in the cold), I opted to layer a long-sleeve tech shirt under my Connecticut College jersey, knowing that I could doff it at either of the first two checkpoints. Mark also opted for a warm layer that was a bit more substantial, made of wool.

After the usual pre-event running around (the queue for the men’s bathroom was long, though only for the toilet stalls – thank goodness I didn’t need them!), we moseyed over to the start area around 6:55, where we met up with Tim, Mike, Jeff, and John, waiting for the end of the pre-ride announcements (“this is not a race… be careful on the descents… you still need sunscreen, even on a cloudy day…”). Of this group of Potomac Pedalers riders, I was the only one who had previously ridden the course, so I knew that the initial descent might be a bit scrappy.

So when the starting call went out at 7:11am, I made sure to work my way toward the front. Tim did the same, while the others hung back a little ways. So the descent wasn’t bad for me at all, while others, according to Chris, experienced flat tires from…. well, who knows what. Within the first few miles, I had distanced myself from my crowd and settled into a nice pace through the first two checkpoints.

I spent very little time at the checkpoints: 5 minutes at the first one, maybe 10 at the second one. I saw Jeff again at the second stop, as he was arriving and I was departing. I dropped off my base layer at checkpoint two, and while it was a chilly start for the third leg of the ride, it was a good move as I wasn’t in any risk of overheating. I was eating and drinking well, too – things just seemed right.

The third leg of the ride is the hardest in terms of hills. While previous hills were steep, they weren’t particularly long, so it was possible to power up the slopes and recover quickly. The hills on leg three, however, were long, steep and relentless. Bowman Road and “Killer” Miller are epic climbs that, while separated by eight miles, seem to lie atop each other. Both feature sustained steep sections that, while scenic, wear on legs that have over 45 miles of other hills already under foot. I tapped into my power and made it up them without much difficulty, and wasn’t passed by many people as I climbed – in fact, I passed people on both the climbs and the descents, which served not only to build my confidence, but also put me in the position where I was riding with very few people close by.

The third checkpoint was another shorter stop, where I considered leaving my car keys for Chris – he originally stated his intent to ride only the century on his new bike, which would have put him back at Wisp at least an hour ahead of me. In hindsight, I’m glad I kept them with me. The next section included a lovely dirt road segment, where I bombed past a team of triathletes on time trial bikes. Let me state for the record: I have no idea why anybody would ride a TT bike on this course! The terrain is ill-suited for the extreme geometry of a TT bike, and even if it is equipped with better climbing gears, it’s still best suited for, well, a TT or flatter triathlon stage.

Ahem.

After descending into Westernport (where I did not climb “The Wall” this time, and where the temperature was in the low-70s), I pulled into the Luke P.O. checkpoint to the cheers of excited volunteers (as a side note: all of the volunteers at this event are so positive and supportive, and they make a huge difference to the riders). I spent a few minutes chatting with the women at this stop, all the while drinking (water, HEED and Coke) and eating (mixed nuts and PB&J sandwiches), knowing that the upcoming segment was my undoing in 2010.

I got back on the road (again, to much cheering from the volunteers), and started up the Route 46 climb into West Virginia. This is a longer, more “western style” climb that isn’t very steep, but is very tough after 86 miles of riding. One of the few people I saw during the ride – Tom, from Baltimore – joined me on the climb and we chatted the whole way up, all the while keeping up a brisk pace. This continued to the top, where I distanced myself on the descent (broke 50 mph on the bike for the third of five times on the ride), and he spun back up for the climb. We pulled into the new rest stop at mile 100 (Kitzmiller, MD), and I made it a very quick stop to top off the (still mostly full) bottles and drink a quick cup of Coke. Tom also made it a quick stop, and we both scaled North Hill at a nice pace: not too hard, but not slow, either.

As I passed the Deer Park water spigot at mile 103, I remembered spending a lot of time there last year, trying to cool down and re-hydrate. But not this year.

Pulling into checkpoint six in the town of Deer Park, Tom got a spot of cramp (he’d never ridden more than 87-or-so miles in one day before the DD), and after a quick stop, I left him behind and forged on toward Wisp.

13 of the final 15 miles are mostly mild rollers, with one steep climb up to US 219. The road passes farms and hugs the shore of Deep Creek Lake, passing vacation houses large and small, new and old, most available for rental (something to consider next ski season or, indeed, at next year’s DD). This is ideal time to enjoy the scenery and spin any lactic acid out of the legs (if possible), because….

….the final two miles up to the top of Wisp are a killer climb. Actually, only the first 3/4 mile is tough: a 13-15% grind to the ridgeline that is the summit of Wisp. Fortunately, Tri Team Z had established a wonderful cheering station for riders. I passed many riders who were cramping terribly on this pitch, and I cheered them on as I spun past, legs feeling remarkably fresh. As I rounded the final turn toward the finish, I upped my speed, and I finished the ride in a standing sprint, with many cheering me on.

I heard the finish timer say “4:28….” as I passed.

Wait a minute: nine hours and seventeen minutes?!?!?

Hot damn! I had eclipsed the previous year’s time by over two hours!

Needless to say, I was elated! I let out a cheer, pumped my fist, then proceeded to the scorer’s table to get my finisher’s shirt. I was 23rd over the line for the day amongst the long-haul riders (125 and 100-mile riders), which made me even more amazed.

It was a perfect ride: perfect preparation and execution.

I cheered on many others who finished after me. Mike, John, Chris and Mark all made it across a while after I did. Tim crossed at some point, as I never saw him again after the morning. Jon and Elizabeth arrived back, as well. And we all celebrated a great day of riding with beer and pizza at a local brewery that evening.

Another diabolical day, somehow made anything but. I’ll take it!

(Note: the ride is also a fundraiser for the Joanna M. Nicolay Melanoma Foundation, and I’m still raising money for this worthy cause. Click here to donate – thank you!)