Friday, April 18, 2008

2008 BP MS 150, Houston to Austin

Originally uploaded by ffacker
It’s rare that my alarm is set for 4 a.m. There might have been a few times back when I was a rookie reporter, but it still isn’t a part of the day I normally see. However, Saturday morning my alarm even surprised the dog when it began chirping away at what could debatably be considered a “wee hour” of the morning.

The reason for the early alarm? It was Saturday, April 12, 2008 – Day 1 of the 2008 BP MS 150. And while last year I did show up in La Grange, Texas around noon to take photos of the Technip riders as they trickled across the day 1 finish line, this year I was one of those riders.

Being an Eagle Scout and accomplished outdoorsman I hadn’t bothered to pack yet. Packing is almost an automatic routine that takes approximately 15 minutes. It was even easier to pack due to the fact that we weren’t carrying our gear on our bikes – it was being conveniently trucked to La Grange ahead of us, so that our clean clothes, toiletries and sleeping bags would be ready and waiting whenever we rolled in. However, in my haste, I didn’t check the weather report. Well, actually, I did check the weather – in Houston. I didn’t check it for La Grange or Austin. If I had, I would have thrown in my -15 sleeping bag, not my 50+ bag – but I’ll get to that later.

The first challenge of the morning was getting to the office, which stemmed from the fact that I sold my SUV and bought Porsche Carrera Cabriolet last year as I was going through a premature mid-life crisis. Porsches and cycling are both fantastic hobbies, however, they don’t mesh together very well. The only way to transport the bicycle in the Porsche was with the top down and the bike wedged upside down into the small back seat with the handle bars hanging over the side of the car. This is not the ideal setup for bike transport down the freeway at 70 mph. I was a bit paranoid I was going to lose the bike before I made it to my office. However, I did indeed arrive to the Technip parking garage at I-10 and Kirkwood at exactly 5:30 a.m. to meet with my team.

My procrastinatory nature became evident when I realized I still hadn’t bothered to open my MS 150 rider packet, which included all of my numbers that had to be plastered all over my bicycle and my uniform. I sat there eyeing everyone else’s bikes trying to figure out which number went where. Luckily the twist ties for the bike numbers and the safety pins for the uniform numbers were in the packet. Otherwise I would have been SOL. Between the bracelet, the helmet sticker, the jersey number, the front bike number, the side bike number and the various other stickers that were for who knows what, it took me almost a full 15 minutes to get numbered up. Of course, it turns out those numbers really aren’t too important unless you’re riding the public buses home. Then they help identify your bike and bags. Otherwise they’re just for your identification by the professional photographers along the route who are trying to sell you photos of yourself looking haggard and sunburned while wearing spandex. I have my doubts as to the validity of that business model.

After loading the gear and snapping a team photo we rolled out of the Technip parking garage at 6:30 a.m. and pulled onto the I-10 Freeway feeder road – and into the wind. Oh, that wind. It was really just a bit of a breeze early Saturday morning. It was just enough to give you a bit of a chill as you rode and keep your nose running. I’m not good at balancing unless I have both hands on the handlebars. It has something to do with the narrowness of a street bikes handlebar setup because on motorcycles and mountain bikes, I have no problem balancing with only one hand while performing various tasks with the other. However, on my street bike, I cannot grab my water bottle and take a drink while riding, and I can’t blow my nose. I’m pretty sure I had snot all over my face from the time we left the garage Saturday morning until lunch in Bellville.

Despite the wind and the snot, I was fresh Saturday morning and had been resting all week for the ride, so I made good time and only stopped at Break Point 2 all morning, getting to Bellville around 10:30. There was a great band called Sleeping Rubys at Break Point 2 jamming some Johnny Cash as well as some great originals. It was nice to have some entertainment as I spent 30 minutes standing in line for the porta-potties.

The porta-potties were much cleaner than the ones you’d find at a county fair or whatnot because the cyclists were very respectful of them, but for the first day, there just weren’t enough of them. To avoid marking your territory along the side of the road you had to spend anywhere from 15-45 minutes standing in line at a Break Point. However, it was evident how many riders had already dropped out of the ride on Sunday because there was practically no wait for the toilets. By Sunday afternoon, there was no line at all. I don’t know if that was because I was just slow and behind the crowd or because that many people had quit. However, I did hear that if you were planning to squat on Sunday it was a crap-shoot (pun intended) as to whether or not you were going to find paper.

So after my brief recharge and discharge at Break Point 2, I rode on to Bellville for lunch. Lunches were well organized, especially considering how many riders had to get through the lines. It was your choice of a turkey sandwich or peanut butter and jelly in Bellville. I had caught up with my teammate Alex just before we arrived, so we ate our sandwiches together, and he mentioned that it would be a good time to put on sunscreen. It would have been a good time for me to have listened to him. Instead of stopping what I was doing and applying the 30spf Banana Boat I had brought along, I agreed that it was a good idea and decided I’d do it after I visited the porta-potties. Forty-five minutes later when I got back to my bike, I had forgotten all about the sunscreen. I’d be regretting that later.

The Saturday afternoon ride was hard. The wind had picked up, and my butt was getting tired. We had also started to move into hill country, and while it was nothing compared to the hills to come on Sunday, I hadn’t trained on hills at all, so I was not enjoying it.

Fayetteville was a real pick-me-up as people were lining the streets cheering us through town. There were quite a few MS patients in wheelchairs thanking us as we rode by. They had music playing and bubble machines going. If it hadn’t been for Fayetteville, I don’t know if I would have made it through the ride on Saturday. As it was, by the time I stopped at Break Point 5, I was asking myself how in the world I was supposed to do this again on Sunday. I didn’t think there was any way my body could make it through two days of this torture. However, I just kept my head down and kept pedaling for La Grange.

It felt so good to cross the finish line Saturday evening, and as I rolled to a stop I was greeted by volunteers with bottles of cold water. Of course, I had no idea where the Technip tent was, so I wandered the fairgrounds for half an hour before stopping at an info booth and discovering that it was at the other end of the field. Once I actually made it to the tent, I was greeted by our great support team and treated to a massage, some great food, and a cold beer. It took me almost two hours to recover enough to get my things together and to go take a shower. After I got back from showering, my boss and I wandered the fairgrounds a bit just to see what all was going on, but apparently by 6 p.m. they were pretty much shutting everything down for the evening. By 9 p.m. our team was asleep on cots in our tent. I made note that if I want to party more next year I need to have a faster pace.

About 2:30 a.m. is when I woke up and realized I was absolutely freezing. The temperature in La Grange had dropped to 38F, and the entire team was unprepared. We spent the remaining hours of the night shivering in our sleeping bags until music came on the fairground loudspeakers at 5 a.m. I had brought a pullover, a rain jacket and a fleece jacket, so I at least had a few layers to throw over my spandex, but I wished I had bought track pants or leggings for the trip. However, I was better off than most of our team who didn’t have jackets of any sort. It was a rough morning. I didn’t feel my fingers or my toes until around 10 a.m.

We were under the impression that we could start the ride to Austin at 5:30 a.m. I have no idea who put this idea in our heads, but TxDoT wouldn’t let anyone leave until 7 a.m., so we went up to the pavilion and had the pancake breakfast and some coffee. I’m so glad we did because thanks to the dozen or so gas griddles in that building, it was the only warm spot on the fairgrounds.

I was surprised that despite the cold, I was feeling quite energetic and recharged Sunday morning. All my thoughts of not being able to ride had vanished. In fact, when we finally began the ride at 7 a.m., I decided to head left out to the Park Route instead of turning right and taking the shorter Express Route straight down the freeway to Austin.
The ride out to Buescher State Park was cold yet beautiful. There was steam rising off all the farm ponds, which was just an amazing sight. I heard the sound of bagpipes in the air as I climbed a hill and was surprised to find a piper in full Scottish regalia playing his heart out at the top. I stopped and shot some video. Then I was mad at myself that I didn’t stop and get some footage of the steaming ponds to cut in with the piper footage, but it wasn’t like I was going to ride back the other way to get that. I had originally planned to mount my camcorder on my handlebars and just periodically turn the camera on and off when I came across interesting thing. Unfortunately, I never came up with a good mounting system, I was scared to expose my camera to the dangers of the elements and crashes, and I found that even if I had mounted it, I was not coordinated enough to control it while riding – maybe next year.

When you finally make it to Buescher State Park, you have the option of actually continuing into the park or chickening out and bypassing the park. I watched quite a few riders decide to skip the actual park as I made my way to the entrance. Let me say, I definitely like that park. I’m going to go back and camp there this summer. While the hills were draining, the park was definitely my favorite part of the ride. When it comes to public roads, there’s certain grades and guidelines that the government tends to adhere to – not in parks. They just throw some pavement straight up the hill as cheaply as possible. There were actually two hills that I had to stop and walk my bike up. The first one was due to riders stopping in front of me, which in turn, caused me to stop, and there was no restarting on that incline. The second hill was just too massive. But on the upside, there’s a downside … to all those hills, and it was a blast speeding down them.

I guess it was somewhere in the park where my sunburn must have started looking really bad because strangers were approaching me to ask if I needed sunscreen. I had sunscreen and was applying it every stop, but the damage had already been done. The park was nice and shady with thick trees and vegetation surrounding the road and blocking out the sun and wind. I wish the entire ride could have been that way because once I exited the park and got back to the freeway, I could feel the sun bearing down on me.

It was an easy ride from the last Break Point in the park to lunch because the freeway seemed so flat and smooth. However, lunch didn’t come a minute too soon because I was starving. They were serving turkey sandwiches from Subway. I think they could have served me just about anything at that point, and I would have eaten it and been glad to have it. I lingered at lunch a little longer than I probably should have as I was hoping my legs would come back after all those hills in the park, but the afternoon ride was still brutal. From the lunch break point on we were riding straight into the wind with the sun blaring down on us. I had to stop at every Break Point the rest of the ride because I could feel myself succumbing to dehydration and heat exhaustion. By this point, the crowds at the break points and the lines at the porta-potties were non-existent. There were still quite a few people, but nothing like the crush of riders on Saturday.

The cruelest part of the day came as I was nearing one of the last break points, and where the break point should have been there was a sign that said, “This break point has moved – just 4 more miles!” Talk about a disheartening moment. I could deal with 1 more mile signs. One more mile was 10 minutes at the most, but in that wind, four more miles could have been close to an hour. I was really down as I willed myself through the next few miles. Then as we were passing along a deserted stretch of highway there was one old car parked to the side. An old man was sitting on the trunk holding a piece of plywood painted with the word “Heroes.” I’m not going to say whether or not I cried, but there was a lot of wind in my eyes during that particular stretch. If that man hadn’t been sitting out there in the middle of nowhere, I might have given up and taken the SAG van to Austin, but after seeing him, quitting wasn’t an option.

Somewhere towards the end of the park ride one of my gears had started acting up. It was slipping in and out. I thought that sooner or later things would click back into place, but it just got worse and worse the longer I rode, and unfortunately, it was my favorite gear. At the last Break Point I finally broke down and took my bike to the service tent to get it checked. The mechanic adjusted a few things and tightened the derailer, but as I continued into Austin the problem lingered. It was a bit annoying, but I’m so thankful I never had to deal with a flat tire or something more time-consuming and serious.

The ride into Austin is both exhilarating and frustrating because aside from the park, it’s got the most hills of the entire ride. However, I found that either through all the stops I’d made or through pure adrenaline, my legs were back, so I was pumping by long strings of riders wearily trying to make it up the hills.

Having never ridden the course before I wasn’t sure of where the finish actually was. I kept pedaling harder and harder hoping to catch sight of it as I turned each corner. Once we were diverted onto the freeway and started descending into town, I knew we were close. The crowd was amazing. People were lined up 6 deep on all sides. As I finally approached the finish line, I heard someone shout, “TECHNIP!” I don’t know who it was, but it felt great knowing somebody was there rooting for our team.

The elation of crossing that finish line was indescribable. I did all I could to soak in the cheers and the crowd. Once again we were greeted by volunteers offering cold water as soon as we dismounted. And once again, I could not find the Technip tent, so I wandered through several different areas before giving up and looking for the information booth.

If you ever ride and make it Austin, make sure and find the Rider Reward booth. They give you a certificate and button for riding. I saw the booth, but didn’t bother to stop, so I missed out on getting mine – otherwise it would be hanging on my wall right now.

When I finally found my team, our captain greeted me with a wet towel, which felt excellent on my extremely burned face. Then I sat down and had a sandwich and a Diet Coke. It was already 5 p.m., so we shot a few pictures in front of the capital building, and then started packing the bus for the drive back to Houston. It was about that time I got a call from my boss who had left on the first bus at 3:30. The brakes on the bus had apparently locked up, and they were broken down about 30 minutes outside of Austin. We finished packing our bus and went to their rescue.

We found them blocking the right lane of 290 with one police officer on the scene trying to keep motorists from smashing into the back of the bus. All of our teammates had unloaded their bikes and gear and were sitting a few yards back from the road in the shade of some trees. We pulled in behind them and had their gear loaded in 10 minutes, but our driver decided that he couldn’t just leave the other bus sitting on 290. His first thought was just to push it off the road with our bus. That would have been great if our buses’ front bumper had lined up with the other buses’ back bumper – but it didn’t. That’s when our drive decided to make a giant three point turn all the way across 290, stopping all traffic, to line up the buses rear bumper to rear bumper. He then back our bus into the other bus repeatedly until finally shoving it off the road. That was really just a small success considering we then had to sit through another harrowing 3-point turn across all four lanes of 290 to turn back around towards Houston. However, we survived it and were soon on the road again, but now with bikes stacked on top of bikes on top of the seats.

We made it back to the office about 9 p.m., said a few quick goodbyes to our teammates and some thank yous to the volunteers, but everyone was packed up and out of there fast. I stopped by Burger King on my way to the house for a gigantic triple cheeseburger. I got home and devoured it. Then Ben, Jace, Jessica and I played some celebratory rounds of Rock Band. It was too cold, and I was far too exhausted to deal with cramming my bicycle upside down into my topless car again, so it’s actually been living in my office for the past week because I still haven’t taken it home.
I made it until 11 p.m. before just absolutely passing out in an exhausted, sunburned heap.

It’s funny because during the ride I distinctly remember promising to myself that I’d never do it again, but there’s no way I’m going to miss it next year.