5 Lessons Learnt From ‘Crush The Commonwealth’
Recently I attempted the Crush the Commonwealth (CTC), a 620 kilometer (385 mile) bike race from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia which was to serve as a dress rehearsal for the Trans Am. I say attempted as 470 kilometers in my rear derailleur pretty much exploded thus ending my race prematurely. A week later I still have disappointment coursing through my veins but I am now able to focus clearly on some valuable lessons learnt from the experience.
1. I Need to Slow Down / Pace Myself Better
My coach Lee in our last pre race chat suggested that as this was my first multi day race that I should take it easy early and ease into the race which I sort of did for the first 4 hours and then I absolutely didn’t for the next 3 hours after that.
About 4 hours in I started riding with a couple of young lads, twin brothers who had passed me earlier and who I had caught up to when they had stopped for water. We had a good old chat for a while and then they noticeably upped the pace. They had intentions of breaking the race record of 26.5 hours which conflicted with my intent of just finishing within 36 hours or so but I thought bugger it I’ll just hang off the back and match their pace for a while.
One brother would do a pull on the front and then the other would follow after about 10 minutes. I just hung off the back, not in full wheel sucking mode but definitely taking advantage of the slipstream.
But I couldn’t do it for long, my conscience wouldn’t allow me, I had to do my fare share of work on the front. Which I did and whilst doing so upped the pace even more for some inexplicable reason. Maybe pride, maybe competitiveness, maybe both or probably just blind stupidity.
Anyway long story short this went on for nearly 3 hours before I ended the silliness, took my leave of the lads and took a break for lunch. I had worked a lot harder than I should have this early in the race. I had burnt quite a few matches. You can see this in my heart rate data below where my heart rate averaged around 155bpm between 4 hours 10 minutes to 6 hours 56 minutes. This is very much upper Tempo pushing lactate threshold for me. Again, very silly this early in the race, even moreso as it was starting to get very hot.
I didn’t die in the arse and was still able to put in a rather big day covering a total of 348 kilometers before I called it in Chambersburg at 11pm that night but it did take me a while to recover. I had to take a couple of extra breaks and slow my pace a bit to rebuild my energy levels
I simply cannot afford to burn energy at too high a rate in the Trans Am. Slower and steadier will be key to consistently hitting my daily goal distance.
2. I Need to Carry More Water
In all my training leading up to and including the Crush the Commonwealth I had been carrying around 1.3 litres of water on the bike.
In the Fall, Winter and early spring this has been enough liquid to keep me going for a good few hours before needing to stop to refill but it is nowhere near enough when it starts to get hot. Which it did during this race and indeed I ran out of water.
The temperature had climbed to the mid 30’s Celcius and I was about half way between Somerset at the 185 kilometer mark and Bedford at 250 Kilometers with no shops in between just a couple of 1 horse towns and scattered farm houses. I had no idea about the terrain between me and Bedford but I figured I was at least an hour away from somewhere I could buy a drink. I was starting to feel uncomfortably thirsty and I admit a tad panicky.
At the next tiny little town I decided to ask someone if I could refill my water bottles at their spigot/tap.
My first attempt was met by a “Whadya want buddy?!” shouted by an angry woman who was mowing her lawn. Who knows what the source of her anger was, perhaps having a parched lycra clad cyclist approach her from the side of her property, waving nervously at her and interrupting her early afternoon chores was just not her cup of tea, or maybe her sunburnt neck was the genetic source source of her angst. Either way the answer was a distinct “No!”.
My second attempt at a roadside nursery was met by a lovely old boy who was getting his nursery ready for the forthcoming spring trade. He warned me of the Iron in the tap water but I couldn’t care less, just overjoyed to wet the whistle and satiate my thirst. He was up for a chat and indicated a seat for me to take which was on the other side of the room to him, about 4 meters and we shouted at each other for a while before his elderly mother arrived and joined the conversation. They both warned me about the forthcoming big hills/mountains to come.
Anyway, I learnt my lesson and absolutely recognise that I could get myself in a spot of bother in the Trans Am running out of water. There will be sections of hundreds of kilometers between services and indeed the opening hours will vary greatly too.
I have since bought two 1 litre water bladders that I can strap to my bike and water treatment tablets should I get desperate and need to refill from dubious water sources.
3. The Trans Am is a Race but it is also an Adventure
The Trans Am for me represents many things and my motivations for for giving it a go vary widely. I want to see if I have what it takes to take on and finish a massive challenge, I want adventure and I want a story to tell.
If I get too engrossed with the race part then I’ll miss out on really soaking up this once in a lifetime experience and the adventure and story will suffer. This happened during that reckless early period that I mention above when I started racing the 2 brothers. The scenery we were riding through on the Great Allegheny Passage which cuts through the Appalachian Mountains was simply superb but I literally missed 3 hours of it whilst I was smashing the pedals, head down. In fact I only snapped 1 photo of this section, I would have liked to have got a few more:
Later that same day however I had definitely calmed down and was becoming more aware of the adventure part. Pretty hard not to as I had just come across a legendary segment of the Crush the Commonwealth route; “The Abandoned Turnpike”…..dun dun daaaaah. A post apocalyptic 15 kilometer stretch of an abandoned freeway just the other side of Breezewood. It is a legitimate part of the course that avoids 5,000 feet of climbing so a no brainer during daylight hours but I would seriously consider doing the 5,000 feet of climbing if it was dark and I was by myself. I say this as it was very much dusk when I rode it solo and it definitely upped the heart rate in a freaked out kind of way, particularly in the tunnels.
4. I Need to Minimise Stopping Time
A no brainer obviously but it does represent a change in mindset for me with the penny not dropping until after the Crush the Commonwealth.
Let me explain.
On day 1 of the Crush the Commonwealth I covered 347.6km which took me 14 hours 22 minutes (ref image below); a standard pace for me when fully laden and when covering a relatively hilly course, of around 25 kilometers per hour.
BUT I did not ride for 14 hours 22 minutes straight – which would have been quite an effort. The total elapsed time to cover the 347 kilometers was actually 18 hours and 11 minutes, including just under 4 hours for stops. Stops were for such things as:
- Water bottle refills,
- Food and Drink breaks,
- Toilet breaks,
- Photo opportunities,
- Traffic lights, stop signs etc.
In all my training up until the Crush the Commonwealth I hadn’t even thought about stoppage time. Primarily due to the fact that I hadn’t done any multi day events. The clock never stops and so a fast moving time means bugger all if you keep stopping.
This could not be more relevant than for the Trans Am and I am now a shedload more focused on ensuring I reduce stoppage time. Some initial ideas come to mind:
- Carry more food and drink and eat/drink on the bike,
- Set time limits for meal/comfort breaks,
- Keep a relatively easy pace so I can just keep on pedalling,
- Prioritise sleep / get a “decent” night’s sleep to maintain energy levels and the ability to “just keep on pedalling”.
5. Shit Happens……….Get Over And On With It!
Day 2 of my Crush the Commonwealth didn’t go according to plan. I got 2 flats throughout the morning which were very much fixable but then mid afternoon my rear derailleur pretty much exploded which was very much terminal, putting me out of the race 150 kilometers from the finish.
At the time I was tired, hot, bothered, flustered and quite frankly devastated. However I was not greatly inconvenienced as 2 hours later I was relaxing with a beer in hand regaling my family with my adventures having aarranged for a rather budget unfriendly Uber XL home.
Over the next few days I got to ruminating about what ifs. What if the derailleur had given out late the previous night when it was pitch black coming across the mountain before Chambersburg? What if a similar thing happens in the Trans Am in the middle of freaking nowhere with no phone reception, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest bike shop?
Short answer = Panic!
Long Answer given some rational thinking = Just fucking deal with it. Flag down a car and charm someone into driving you to the nearest town.
The Trans Am is likely to throw all sorts of challenges my way. Infact adversity of all shapes and sizes is an inevitability but that is part of the reason why I am doing the race in the first place. Because it is fucking hard and I want to find out if I have what it takes to get it done!
I am not saying that I will cooly deal with every adverse circumstance in the Trans Am. I am just saying that given the cock up of my Crush the Commonwealth experience I am now more aware of doing everything possible to prevent a mechanical problem. But hey, if it does happen then I have no option but to simply deal with it at the time and accept that it might take days to get back on the road again.
So there you go, my Crush the Commonwealth experience did not go according to plan but I am definitely a lot wiser for it.