It’s a horrible moment when you realise you might well be past it (if you ever really had ‘it’ in the first place). I know age catches up with us all eventually but I’d hoped to stave off cycling’s Grim Reaper for a bit longer.
My moment came about 50km in to Bikes & Beers Baltimore and I was flogging my legs, burying myself, to try to keep my broleur-in-law in sight. Tom suddenly took both hands off the handlebars and stretched off his back, then loosened his shoulders by doing arm windmills while freewheeling. What a little bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. True, my wife’s brother Tom is 10 years younger and had been training hard on Zwift but it’s one thing to smash it indoors; quite another IRL (see, I can’t be that old if I know what IRL means, I must be down with the kids). Plus, not only was this his first sportive - which is why I’d picked a friendly, easy-going Bikes & Beers event - but he was on a single-speed bike. Yes, you read that right, a freaking single speed. Unbelievable. I almost pitied him (beforehand) and had offered my gravel bike as an alternative but, in keeping with my wife’s side of the family (she’d say the opposite), he was too stubborn to accept. I almost chuckled to myself about his naïveté.
But the truth is I’d got complacent. Complacent pootling around the flatlands of Annapolis; complacent about my alcohol consumption and beer gut/water intake; complacent about stretching, and complacent about the Bikes & Beers sportives after doing Kent Island, Sterling and Delaware. I’d been banking on experience beating youthful exuberance, condescendingly expecting to have to constantly wait for him, coaxing him along… but the reverse was the sobering reality. I was getting my bib shorts pulled down and on the receiving end of a humiliating spanking.
Sixty kilometres ticked over on the Garmin and I had to fall on my sword, putting an end to my misery by sending him on ahead. I was cramping, knackered, miserable and cooking in the 30C heat. It would all catch up with me 20km later at the finish but we’ll get to that in due course.
Down to the wire
Just getting to the start line was a harrowing experience in itself. Tom and his wife Aimee had stayed at ours in Annapolis the night before (looking back now, I wish I’d have given him a touch of food poisoning in the pre-sportive pasta feast) and we had to pass through West Baltimore to get to the massive Union Craft Brewery.
Now, I’ve seen shanty towns, poverty, ghettos and sketchy areas from all parts of the globe in my time but nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the rough part of West Baltimore. Fans of The Wire would recognise it instantly. It’s horrendous. Row after row and block upon block of boarded-up, graffiti-covered buildings, smashed glass everywhere and the only shops that hadn’t closed down were dodgy-looking liquor stores. Luckily, it was too early for its more dubious residents to be out and about on street corners but I felt very uneasy driving through there at 7.30 in the morning, let alone at night.
Thankfully, we wouldn’t be going anywhere close to West Baltimore on the lumpy 80km parcours and I was really looking forward to riding alongside a familiar face for a change. It seemed a lifetime ago that I’d done The Essex Season Ender with Steve before we moved to the States and while I enjoy cycling solo, sportives are better shared. I couldn’t wait to have a couple of beers with Tom afterwards and talk over the ride (and to put a brotherly arm round his shoulder as he was suffering from shock and awe from my incredible strength on the bike).
Second wave, dive!
Straight from the off, we were climbing up a small hill and Tom was surprisingly crushing it, cruising past our fellow riders. ‘Impetuous boy!’ I thought to myself, tapping in to Brian Blessed’s Vultan in Flash Gordon. ‘He needs to take it easy, he doesn’t want to go too hard, too early’.
The first few kilometres featured numerous traffic lights - and, more bizarrely, a bagpiper - as we headed out of the city and, when they turned green, I’d be left eating his dust. I started to be grateful for each red as it allowed me to catch up. ‘He’ll pay for this later. Wait till we hit the hills. On a single speed, he can’t match me. For f-‘s sake, I’ve done the Mortirolo.’ Yet when we did, bypassing the US equivalent of a car boot sale, I closed the gap by just a few metres. ‘The force is strong with this one’.
As seems to be the case with Bikes & Beers sportives, it followed a figure-of-eight pattern, meaning you see most roads more than once if you do the long route. I remember bypassing the first feed station, a second draggy hill and a pretty area called Padonia - the name stuck with me as it sounded like a breakaway former Soviet state from a Marvel movie that is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Thinking about it, those stolen nukes could well have been used on that part of West Baltimore and it might have improved the place. But, other than that, I was head down and purely focused on holding Tom’s wheel. He was Thor, dropping the hammer; I was Steve Rogers, before his transformation into Captain America.
Pain and not a lot of gain
The second feed stop (at the same place) was a very welcome sight. After experiencing the first tweaks of cramp in my groin, I glugged down a full bottle of water and attempted to stretch off a bit. We were only halfway and 40km seemed an awfully long distance to cover. Setting off again, Tom rubbed a bucket of salt into my wounded ego.
“Are you OK? I know you’re probably holding back a bit to go easy on me.”
“Not at all. I’m going full gas just to keep up. Thank bleep you don’t have any bleeping gears otherwise I’d be in real bleeping trouble. Can we ease off a bit?”
“Sure, no problem.”
But there was a problem, a major one for me, in that Tom couldn’t ease off on the hills on a single speed otherwise he’d come to a halt, so I had to just dig in and try to ignore the cramps that had gone from Defcon 5 to Defcon 3. I’d got used to going at my own pootling pace rather than someone else’s. I was completely out of my comfort zone.
At 50km, when I eventually caught up to him, I said: “Tom, there’s going to come a time - and it’s coming very soon - when I’ll tell you to go on ahead.” Ten kilometres later, I made the call. Despite his protestations, it wasn’t fair to either of us to stick together.
“Just remember to take the green arrow after the third feed stop to get to the finish,” I called out as he disappeared into the distance. I wish I’d followed my own advice. I followed the Garmin instead of the road signs, which added another couple of distinctly unpleasant and unnecessary kilometres to my ride before I realised my mistake.
The last 20km can be easily summed up in a numbers guide: Thirty degrees centigrade, sub-150W, four extremely painful stops for Defcon 1 cramp, one very steep hill (at least it felt that way) and zero drops of water left in my bidon. I was completely spent by the time I saw Tom at the finish.
“There aren’t enough beers in the world to quench my thirst,” I said to Tom as I gave him a congratulatory hug. I was gutted not to have put on a better show but I wasn’t going to spoil Tom’s triumphal moment.
Except I didn’t realise quite how dehydrated I’d become. If the thought of vomit makes you sick (no pun intended), then skip the next few paragraphs and head straight to The other brother(-in-law) as it’s going to get very ugly.
I’d hardly made a dent in my first free beer when I had to excuse myself to go to the toilet to throw up a bit of Gatorade bile. Feeling marginally better, I got back in the drinking saddle, finished the beer, then proceeded to head straight back to the toilet bowl to bring it back up.
But you get two free beers at these events and no amount of Tom saying: “Maybe you shouldn’t have another” was going to stop me. If he’d beaten me at cycling, I could at least out-drink him.
I didn’t make it through a half before yet another chunder and I eventually saw sense and moved on to that unfamiliar H2O liquid that everyone keeps banging on about. Tom called Aimee to come pick us up but, as we were getting ready to leave, a chap came over to say we could have his two beers. Refusing his generous offer was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.
One quick car-park barf later, we were on our way back to Annapolis - and back through the dodgy area of West Baltimore. I tried my best to mentally quell the nausea but to no avail. Tom glanced in his rear-view mirror: “Do you need me to pull over?”
“No… yes… no… maybe… yes… NOW!”
I bolted from the back seat and started splattering the sidewalk. A woman in a shower cap walking her dog cried out: “Oh my Gawd!” I could only put up my hand and weakly say sorry before continuing the famous scene from Team America: World Police. To be fair, I’d imagine it would have been one of the more tamer things she’d witnessed on those streets.
That was the final instalment of the spewing saga, thank goodness, and while my battered body took a couple of days to recover, my bruised ego will take a lot longer.
The other brother(-in-law)
When my sister and Andy moved to the States a year and a half ago, I knew I’d start to get some invites for bike races - and I was looking forward to riding with him. I’ve been commuting by bike for nearly a decade but until recently have not been one to go on long rides just for exercise.
That changed when, as many do, leading up to my wedding I decided I needed to lose some weight since I was paying thousands of dollars for photos I’d have to look at for the rest of my life. So I splurged on a Wahoo Kickr Bike and began Zwifting, as cycling is one of the few exercises that I can tolerate with my battered hips and knees from my days as a baseball catcher.
A few months later, I finally told him I was ready to do a beginner-level race as I was still doubting my fitness, and so we settled on Bikes & Beers Baltimore. The plan was to ride my gravel bike as I only own that and my single speed (crazy I know to splurge on a fancy indoor trainer before a proper road bike, but a road bike is next on the list). Fast-forward to three weeks out from the race and my gravel bike had a dent that turned into a cracked frame - I was lucky to not have had a catastrophic accident as I had tape over the dent and didn’t notice the crack until it was fully formed.
I bought a new frame to do a swap of parts, but there simply wasn’t enough time to get that done before the race. I contemplated using Andy’s gravel bike but figured it’d be a fun test to do the race on my single speed (47 x 17 setup for those that care). Spent the next few weeks commuting on my single speed and tackling the few hills I have in the Arlington, VA area so I could get ready for the race.
Then came race day and I was feeling good, I had just done the Uber Pretzel in Watopia (80mi/7,800ft climbing) the week before to go above and beyond what the race would require. It sounds so simple but the one thing that struck me as it was my first sportive was just how nice it was to be around a bunch of people that love to bike - and with it being a low-key race, everyone was very friendly and unpretentious. I’m already looking forward to the next one where I can continue to prove my cycling chops to the broleur-in-law.