Just Hang On & Don’t Slow Down

155 kilometers didn’t seem so far. 96 miles is less than 110, which is what I rode five weeks ago, up Massachusett’s scenic north shore to the Maine border on a crisp fall day. So when my colleague Balázs invited me to join Rapha’s “transfer ride to the heart of the GDR,” and after three weeks of no road rides, I signed up.

(Let’s skim over the fact that the ride sold out last week, and I spontaneously nabbed the spot of the single cancellation when I coincidentally opened the invitation link again on Friday night. “Oh, you’re Stephen. You just signed up the other day,” they acknowledged at the check in table this morning.)

I knew what I was in for, distance-wise. The weather was more of a gamble: somewhere between 1 and 5°C, chance of rain, clouds… ideal for cycling, and I pieced together an early winter kit from assorted cycling, ski, and outdoor apparel. Distance. Weather. Speed? I could probably manage almost 100 miles in six hours. Curious where we went? Keep reading, and see our route on Strava.

 Rapha's Dirk Kaufmann delivers the morning pre-ride briefing. Rapha’s Dirk Kaufmann delivers the morning pre-ride briefing.

Six hours in the saddle requires significant readiness: carbohydrate intake, hydration, strength, flexibility… I should have eaten a bigger dinner and a bigger breakfast. I should have conditioned my energy levels a bit more, and maybe stretched with some yoga on Saturday. Instead, I learned a few lessons.

Lesson #1: No pictures doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

[Update – 15 Nov: Steffen – introduced below – is not only a master cyclist. He also captured the day on camera, so thanks to him for the photos that I’ve added.]

If we’d moved more slowly, I’d have spent all day photographing the picturesque fields and small towns that comprise the former German Democratic Republic, now known as Brandenburg, Instead, we’re stuck reliving the photographs from my memory. Potsdam’s stunningly symmetric castles rise from gardens and forests, and a late fall visit far supersedes the July heat wave that I suffered two years ago. Green and yellow fields have begun saying goodbye to summer, now illuminated by a burst of sunlight hanging low on the grey horizon, as the days grow shorter. Summer-style homes rest like polka dots on the edges of towns connected by well-paved one lane roads, while perfectly-laid cobblestones coat the streets and sidewalks. The same sunlight sheds contrast of the horizon against the forest, as stiff, tall tree trunks rise to the sky, only broken by the needled-branches that pierce the grey clouds and the road that carries us onward.

Lesson #2: Germans have hospitality within their hardiness.

Heroes and angels in Germany will teach you to ride fast(er). Steffen Weigold, the ride coordinator who just quit his gig with the Tour de France, called me a machine at the end of the ride. Let’s be clear: he’s the real engine, because he rode alongside and physically pushed me several times when I fell behind the pack. Altogether, the guys (and also the gals!) that joined today’s group ride epitomized German sport. They brought steady energy, humor, quality equipment, and timeliness to the road. I guess I expected a bunch of hard-asses, but they had a soft spot that highlighted team camaraderie in a pack of strangers.

So about the pack: it’s important. Like, don’t let go of the pack. I’ve drafted friends on rides throughout Boston, but more for fun than out of necessity. I’d never ridden in a group numbering 40-plus, and maybe Steffen’s superhuman sixth sense detected this when he told us to stay close in the morning briefing. I forgot. Maybe I never knew? Now I know. Even before I hungrily dragged behind mid-morning, when Steffen saw me riding a few meters behind the others, he pointed out that the gaps between riders accumulate and make the group very spread. Before long, you’re riding on your own, and at that point, you might as well be in the front, taking the wind for everyone. You want to stay in the slip stream.

Lesson #3: Choose a strategy.

I did want to stay in the slip stream, but I couldn’t … at first. I especially struggled with miles 30-50. We escaped the stop-and-go of the city perimeter and then zipped along open fields that stretched between the various lakes (sees) west of Berlin. The dikes that separate the farm fields catch wind easily, and I couldn’t find the energy to hug the wheel of the riders in front of me. That’s when Steffen found me first. I knew I was struggling, he knew I was struggling, and I knew I could make it. Steffen was my first saviour, and the second sacrament came in the form of the CLIF bar and energy gel that I downed on our quick stop after traversing open fields of the Brandenburger Osthavelniedrung.

When we stopped to fix a flat shortly after, I took the liberty to remove my gloves, untie both pair of shorts (two for warmth), and listen to nature’s calling at the edge of the road. Of course, I had time… Wrong! The support van had the tire replaced within two minutes. Suddenly, after catching up, I was gloveless and not ready to move with everyone else. Steffen found me, and pointed out: “you had three minutes and now you lost it.”

 Pictured from left to right: everyone else, me Pictured from left to right: everyone else, me

“You have to be smart, or you have to be strong.” As he rode beside me, instructing me in the ways of the group ride, he gave my lower back a big push, and I pedaled my way into the group.

Lesson #4: It’s true, the slip stream is faster.

Dodging between the pack and my own wind and winded-breath at the back, I met the third saviour, Jan. You know Jan Schur, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist? Yea, Jan was a special guest on this ride, and he was hanging around at the back of the pack, with another struggling rider riding his slip stream. He waved me in, too, and shouted something at me in German. As I’m becoming comfortable with blatant I-don’t-know-what-you-said-to-me statements and expressions, I came clean:

“I don’t speak German.”

“Just hang on.”

Ah, yes, just hang on behind the Olympian, and you’ll make it to lunch. And I did.

I downed two sandwiches, a bunch of snacks, and the first Coca-Cola I’ve had in years. Our van driver, Dirk, mentioned that if I needed to rest, even for 10 minutes, I could snag a ride with him, then rejoin the group. After learning my lessons this morning, I trusted myself. Be smart. Be strong. Ride the slip stream.

For the second half of the ride, I held on to the pack, only falling behind once, due to the resistance of a very poorly graded gravel road. As my speed slipped and the others zipped past, I concluded that Germans choose one of three options for roads and paths: pave asphalt and cement to be as smooth as butter, level every paver to be as-good-as pavement, or power through bumps and cobblestones as if they were no different than roads. Take note of the infrastructure and endurance, America.

Otherwise, I kept up, chatting with Balázs and hugging the wheels of my fellow riders. We pedaled into Bad Belzig just before 4 pm, precisely 6 hours and 53 seconds of ride time after we started. The coordinators’ planned estimate? From their email: “We are aiming to ride the 155km and 1000m of elevation in 6 hours.” Sigh… German punctuality.

As we waited for the warm soup and cold beer to flow from the hotel restaurant bar that would host our dinner, Steffen delivered one final lesson.

Lesson #5: Attitude makes a difference.

Earlier in the morning, he’d already told me that believing I could do it would give me energy; I’m not sure what prompted the remark, because I did believe I could do it, and I thought I looked happy, despite my struggle. I was happy, just tired.

I reduced the morning struggle to my lack of fuel, and eventually realized that I also had a tendency to lose the pack when ascending hills or coming out of curves. Hills are just harder, especially when you are barely keeping up. Corners make me nervous, probably due to scraping every facet of my knee while racing around the cul-de-sac as a kid. Steffen saw it, too.

“I can see you improved. Now you have to have more confidence, and don’t slow down on the curves,” he said, as we settled in for a well-deserved pint of beer in a dimly lit castle hotel somewhere in a forest west of Germany.

Other than being a bike apparel company, I’m not sure what Rapha means, where it comes from, or how I ended up riding through the German countryside with a group of very in-shape cyclists. Despite this, I am surely glad that I hung on, and I know what Rapha means to me, thanks to Steffen and Jan.

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