We Americans are raised on The Little Engine That Could. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. We believe we can, we believe we can. It doesn’t matter what, we believe we can do it. I’ll be the first to admit that much of my success in life has come from my gritty-gutty approach to obstacles. I’m often too stubborn to fail, and sometimes, you are stubborn because you don’t have any options. My wife, Teresa, is as stubborn as I and I’m convinced we are beating her cancer because the two of us are too stubborn to give in. We’ve built my financial planning firm because, like Mayo in an Officer and a Gentleman, we have no where else to go, we didn’t like our options. We had to make this business work.
We know about being tough.
So, I’m here to tell you, La Vuelta Puerto Rico humbled Grandpa here. I totally underestimated the speed of the ride, the steepness of the climbs and my own ability to gut my way through the 345 miles around the island. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not whining. I’m delighted I went and glad that I experienced La Vuelta, and: I didn’t fail. I rode most of the ride. I am already committed to going back next year. So when I say I got an ass whooping I am not coming from a place of feeling sorry for myself. No, I’m educated and determined now. Next year I will give Puerto Rico a better battle.
In the interest of science, then, what happened this year?
I made two critical strategic errors: I believed 2 statements on the event’s website, “If you can finish a Century ride in under 6 1/2 hours then you can finish La Vuelta.” (I swear I read this, it motivated me for almost a year and a half, but it has been removed from the website). And: “The Peloton Is What Makes Us Different.” So, here was my thought process: I can ride a hundred miles, not real well, but maybe the draft from the peloton will help me keep up with the average 16-18 miles an hour. Hell, 2 weeks before La Vuelta I went out and rode a hundred miles alone (with no draft) at those kind of speeds. I thought I could gritty and gutty my way through this one. It was the speed that would be my undoing.
“At La Vuelta Puerto Rico, riders divide themselves into three pelotons based on the pace they prefer to ride. Peloton A is for the hammerheads, and travels at sustained speeds in excess or 28 mph all day (a pace very similar to professional stage racers). Peloton B rides between 17 to 25 mph averaging 18 mph. Peloton C rides at 15 to 22 mph and averages 16 mph. Riders are expected to be able to maintain these speeds (Pelotons B & C) for the entirety of the event in order to keep up with the averages of 18 mph and 16 mph respectively.” La Vuelta Puerto Rico website.
So, here’s the thing: the draft off a peloton does you no good if you fall off the back of it. And, when the C group goes 25-27 miles an hour in the flats to make up for the time it will lose in the climbs, old fluffy guys like me are pretty well spent by the time we get to the hills. It has nothing to do with determination or being gritty or even gutty. It’s a math problem, world class cycling events require a world class level of training. If you don’t have the strength to keep up with the group you are out. It’s that simple.
The Vuelta is not a casual ride. You can’t fall off the back of the group and ride at your own pace unless you are unafraid of being left to find your way, with no police or SAG support, through traffic, in a foreign land. You are better off to keep pace with the group or accept the help of the support vans. La Vuelta is advertised as “not a race”, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t crazy.
It’s crazy. 90 miles into Day One you hit a seaside mountain, a category 5 climb, El Camino Nuevo (Translated: The Camino Nuevo). This New Road is an 800 foot climb with 12% to 16% Inclines. I live in Florida where a highway overpass is considered a hill and I was not prepared for the 11,000 feet of climbing you do over the three days of the Vuelta. This is my fault, being new at something means you have lessons to learn and I learned you had better go find some hills to master before you ride around Puerto Rico. That is; unless you want to get swept up by the support vans.And; when faced with the choice I got in the van. The prospect of walking up a mountain in cycling shoes while weeping did not appeal to me. I got in the air conditioned van (I had an alternative, not always a good thing).
I was not alone. El Camino Nuevo defeated more than a few riders, all men, by the way. The women seemed to be better climbers than the collection of older gentlemen in the van, all of us listening to Justin Bieber on the van radio and calling ourselves Team D. No whining, no frustration, just a resignation that we were not up to the task this time and a gratefulness for the wonderful support van staff. And, when we got to the top of the hill, we got out of the van and rode the rest of the ride, we weren’t disqualified. Just a little humbled, but exhilarated to be able to carry on: hey I still rode 132 mile on this day!
I’ll tell you more about the ride and about my experiences in future posts, but I wanted to get this confession/ warning out of the way: unless you are one of the better riders in your area, unless you can keep a good pace from sun up to sundown, you might as well be prepared to spend some time in La Vuelta support vans. Being a cycling enthusiast, like me, is not enough, you have to get strong if you aren’t, learn to climb if you can’t, and be prepared to keep up with the group, no matter how fast they go.
And, you know what? It wasn’t so bad, all things considered; I felt pretty good about giving it a shot, even if I wasn’t completely up to the task. Do I want to go back and spend some time in the van again? Absolutely not, if I want to drive around Puerto Rico, I’ll rent my own van next time. No, I’m riding up that damn Camino Nuevo next year, I think about it during every plank, every squat, every lat pulldown and every single hill I go find in Florida.
After all, I got some place to go.