The urban edge

October 21, 2021

Ready for Battle 

By 10 pm, the disorderly chaos of Lycra, tools, and groceries strewn about the living room of James’s apartment has been tamed. It is Wednesday October 13, 2021: the eve of our self-supported 24-hour ITT (individual time trial) attempt at Sauvie Island, and we are sharpening our axes and readying for battle. Our bicycles are tuned up, our gear is set aside in cardboard boxes and tote bags, the contents of the cooler (mostly hydration drinks like Monster Java, Red Bull, Orange Juice, and 2 gallons of carb powder that I’ve mixed up to refill my bottles with) chilling in the fridge. We have assorted layers, spare tires, tubes, and chains. For some reason, I even pack the spoke tension meter, “Just in case,” I say, even though I’ve never once used it, and my father is the one who takes care of my wheel maintenance. 

But it is important for me to feel ready for anything; I pack my fears. It’s not as if we’re going to be carrying our kit on our bikes, so why not bring the entire kitchen sink and have options? By now, I acknowledge the near limitless scope of things that could go wrong on a long ride, and I want zero excuses to bail on this one. I’ve waited too long to throw in the towel because of something as simple as not having a dry pair of socks, or the right kind of chain lube.

Me and Sarah (my Cervelo) on a training ride near Oliver, BC

Covid-19 Ruined Everything

If things had gone according to plan, James and I would have been competing in the 24 Hour World Time Trial Championships in Borrego Springs this October. But in a stroke of terrible timing, James tested positive for Covid-19 the day we were scheduled to drive down from Portland. Since I’d spent the past few days in close contact with him, we told our support crew to cancel their flights and passed the following week in self-isolation instead of travelling to California to race. We’re both fully vaccinated. James is fine now, thankfully, and I never contracted it.

I was heartbroken about not getting to compete in Borrego Springs: I had a course record to defend, and after the race was cancelled in 2020, I was itching to get back out there. I tried to console myself by remembering that I’d had a stellar cycling season, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to cap it all off and prove to myself that I really had improved since 2019. So, James and I hatched a plan to do a self-supported 24-hour ITT. After scoping out a few places in the Portland area, we decided on a 20 km (12 mile) loop of Sauvie Island: the route was flat and fast, with little traffic on the rural farm roads. My biggest concern was that the Subaru would get towed from where we left it at the park and ride between laps, so we stuck a note on the windshield saying what we were up to. When the forecast revealed a window of mild weather, we hit up Fred Meyer, packed up our self-support vehicle, and prepared to send it. My goal: set a new personal best by racking up 741+ km (460+ miles) in 24 hours, and do it without any outside support. 

Getting After It

We arrive on Sauvie Island on Thursday, October 14 around 1:40 pm. The forecast calls for light precipitation and temperatures between 6-15 degrees Celsius, so I layer up with arm and leg warmers, slip on some toe covers, but hope that my merino jersey sans jacket is enough to keep me comfortable for the time being. We take a few minutes to organize the back of the Subaru: with a long, overcast night ahead of us, I don’t want to pile the stress of rooting around a disorderly space on top of the fatigue of riding. After a quick hug, James and I roll out at 2:15 pm. I open up a gap on him pretty quickly and we don’t cross paths again for hours.

A few words on my set up: I’m riding the same 2016 Cervelo P2 that I used in the 2019 race and a pair of borrowed ancient Zipp 808’s. I have two water bottles: a litre between the aero bars, and a slim 500 ml bottle in the water bottle cage (in 2019, I had the bottle mounted behind the saddle, but discovered it was too much effort to reach around to grab them, so I swapped those bottles for the frame bottle). Had the weather been warm, self-supporting would be much more challenging, including frequent refill stops. 

As for James, he’s rocking an All-City Big Block with aerobars—a fixed gear. 

At first, the laps pass easily. There’s not much traffic, and the rain comes and goes. My goal is to go out at .65 IF (intensity factor) to avoid punching too hard and blowing up in the middle of the night like I did in 2019. I keep an eye on my power and my heartrate, but still, it’s hard not to get excited. I find myself kicking into the pedals a little too enthusiastically and switch up my high-energy playlist for a coffee shop mix to help pull it back, and keep some gas in the tank for when I’ll need it the following morning.

To my shock and horror, I hammer out the first two laps at 35 km/hour (21.7 mph). 

            “Way too fast, Meaghan! Dial it back!”

I speed past pumpkin patches and berry bushes; a row of floating houses along the Multnomah Channel and farther along, a school and a church. 

After a few hours the rain trickles out, though the road remains wet throughout the night. I stop to lube my chain and replenish my gels: my goal is to eat a gel a lap and stock up every 5-6 laps at the Subaru. I have carb/electrolyte mix in one bottle, water in the other, and Twizzlers stuffed down my sports bar. Every time I stop at the Subaru I pound some juice, maple syrup, or energy drink, and chomp a banana or some baby food. Night arrives, and I am still pedalling. I haven’t seen James, but I assume he’s on course somewhere. I amp up the brightness on my front light but see little, tuning into the island’s smells instead: an underlying scent of autumn decay overlaid with specific agricultural products. Sweet pumpkin rot or pungent cabbage. One corner brings the scent of eucalyptus; another the skunk of cannabis. I switch from mellow tunes to pump up tracks and then to podcasts as the night wears on. 

By 10 pm, my average has dropped to 34.2 km/hour. For me, this is still an absurdly high number. My refuel stops are slower than I’d like them to be, but because they’re so infrequent, they’re not impacting my overall pace much. 9 hours 40 min in, I’ve knocked down 325 kilometres—averaging 33.64 km/hr WITH BREAKS.

James and his All-City fixie just before roll out

And Then…

I hit the one devastating pothole on course. James and I had discussed flagging it earlier, but out of laziness, we didn’t follow through. And I suppose we figured we could avoid one measly pothole, right? RIGHT?

The air whizzes out of my front tire as I slow to a stop. I yank my earbuds out and just stare at the flat, willing it to re-inflate as I recall a conversation I’d had with a bike mechanic after the Cervelo’s recent tuneup:

            “Just so you know, we had a really, really difficult time getting these tires on the rims. You might need help if you have to change a flat or something.”

            “Oh, I’ll just call my crew or race support to come pick me up,” I said. I’d tried to put tires on these wheels once and failed: I knew I didn’t have a chance to wrestling them into place with the added pressure of race anxiety to deal with.

Yet here I am, halfway out on a 20 km loop with no one to call for help. In my head, I estimate how long it would take to walk back to the Subaru if I call it quits. More than an hour, I decide—if my shoes hold up (the carbon soles are on their last legs)—and then resign myself to at least trying to fix the flat. Thankfully, I at least packed a tube and mini-pump in my jersey pocket. I gouge my finger on a spoke trying to get the tire off, and by the time I have the spare tube in, I’m filthy with blood and dirt. I throw all my effort into forcing that tire back on the rim and after a few minutes of grunting, I get it seated. I’m fiddling with the pump by the time James comes into sight, and, overcome with concern in seeing me on the side of the road, rolls right into that same lousy pothole.

Fog Brain

Thankfully, James’s tube doesn’t suffer the same fate as mine. We regroup back at the car where I use the floor pump to top up the tire, refill my pockets and sports bra with snacks, and layer on a vest. It’s around midnight. The parking lot has emptied, aside from two people and a black SUV. I spotted the vehicle earlier, but this is first time I notice the people, their faces shadowed by the passenger side door, watching us.

I reach over to James to pull him in for another hug. His grin is as big as mine. Despite losing more than 30 minutes this lap due to the flat and a longer-than-scheduled refuel stop, I’m ecstatic—on Cloud 9—because I’m still on target to overshoot my goal of 741+ km. I know I have a long way to go, but I figure that even if my pace continues to drop—and even if my luck dishes out another mechanical—I can get there. James is well on his way of meeting his goal of 400 miles (644 km) as well. 

My heart is singing when I pedal off into the night: this is it! We are here, doing the slightly crazy, the seemingly impossible. No race officials, support crew, or friends. Just the two of us hard at work on our own personal bests. My arms and neck tingle not from the cold, but with warm fuzzies from being out on the road and doing exactly what I love, with the person I love.

A fog settles in as the night wears on. Misty patches shift and lift over the farmlands, blurring the edge of the road. Though I haven’t seen a vehicle for hours, I spy plenty of wildlife, including a rabbit who spins a 180-degree turn to narrowly avoid entanglement in my spokes, and a pair of possums who I nearly run the tails off. Deep breath. My eyes remain glued to the road and ride near the centerline, wary of critters.

Then I get a call from James. 

            “You remember how the Subaru used to have windows?” he says.

            My throat constricts.

            “Well, it doesn’t anymore. All our stuff is gone.”

I always smile for selfies (taken at 5 am, back at James’s place)

The Aftermath

James is on the phone filing the police report when I finish my lap and return to the Subaru. I lean my Cervelo against the side door, front tire resting in a pool of broken glass. But I don’t care because the realization that my ride is over is finally sinking in, and I’m too torn up inside to care about glass shards mingling with rubber tires. The vehicle is empty: all of our gear from rain jackets to sleeping bags to my three sets of gloves (winter, full finger, and a spare set of fingerless), plus the entire cooler—gone. Grinched. But what I’m more upset about in this moment is that I won’t get to finish what was on track to be a truly epic ride.

We spend the next couple days on the phone with our insurance providers (note: in the end, insurance covers precisely zero of our expenses), getting the windows replaced, and picking up second-hand gear at the bargain basement of Next Adventure. I am awash in malaise. The hangover from the break-in lingers longer than I expect it to: my emotions range from hurt to sadness. Mostly, I feel stupid, naive, and disheartened. Sauvie Island poses as the countryside, but in reality, it’s on the edge of an urban centre. And large populations come with opportunistic people. In hindsight, we should have asked someone to stay with the Subaru.

            “You have to tally your loses for the police report,” James tells me.

The total surpasses $2,000 USD. When did I accumulate so many expensive things (over the past four years) and why did I bring so many of them with me that night? (Because I wanted to be prepared, and in so doing, perhaps overprepared.) And why didn’t either of us even consider the possibility of a break-in, especially after spotting two sketchy people eyeing us down in the parking lot? (Because our brains were clouded by our single-mindedness of purpose: instead of remaining vigilant, our focus had narrowed to the task at hand.) No, I don’t want anyone to start a GoFundMe for me—but please, please be careful with your shit so that you don’t lose your valuables in the blink of an eye.

The Numbers:

My ride on Strava 

  • 415.37 km in 12:12:12 (12:57:09 elapsed time) 
  • Speed: 34 km/hr moving time (approx. 32 km/hr with breaks)
  • Avg HR: 143 bpm  Avg watts: 175    
  • Total stop time: 45 min (breaks: 18 min / flat fixing: 27 min) 
  • I would need to pedal 326 km in 11:02:51 to reach my goal of 741+ km (460+ miles) in 24 hours

James on Strava (On a fixie! What a machine!)

  • 376.31 km in 11:59:46 moving time (12:44:04 elapsed time)
  • Speed: 31.4 km/hr moving time (29.5 km/hr with breaks)
  • Avg HR: 144 bpm
  • James would need to pedal 267.69 km in 11 hours 16 min to reach his goal of 664 km (400 miles) in 24 hours
My poor Sarah Cervelo has never, ever been this filthy.

Takeaways

Despite the lousy ending, I had a great ride: and I am fully aware that our kit being stolen is small beans in the scheme of disaster bike scenarios. So I’ll end with a few takeaways from the ride that might prove insightful:

  • Maple Syrup: high in carbs, goes down smooth. We each brought a litre bottle, which James mixed into his water bottles, and I glugged back straight every time I was back at the vehicle. Neither experienced GI issues, and we both loved the taste. 
  • Snot rockets! Call me an amateur, but I’ve never actually utilized the snot rocket technique before. I always thought snot rockets were a nasty, unnecessary habit to be avoided at all costs. But after hours of steady exertion in misty, precipitous air, my sinuses were filled with watery mucus, and I had no choice but to expel it—and wow, what fun! And so effective. 
  • Pacing: I used a power meter and paced at .65 IF—65% of my FTP. Over the course of the night my pace dropped, as I expected it to, but not as much as it did during my 2019 24-hour attempt, or on some of my other long rides. I was never overtaken by panic about falling way short of my numbers. Thirteen hours in, I still didn’t find myself struggling, or really pushing my limits (but with 11 hours to go, there certainly was still time for things to nosedive). Next time, however, I would still pace slightly slower, and aim for .65 IF off my aero-tested FTP—not my road-bike tested FTP that I based this attempt on.
  • Rockstar Crew: I’m absolutely stoked on how efficiently we managed our stops and took care of our own separate needs. We came prepared, and self-crewing was a straight-forward task because of this. I believe that we could continue to keep break time to a minimum (fingers crossed no more flats!) for the remainder of the ride.
  • Mindset: having the right mindset is critical in ultra-endurance endeavours. I know firsthand that if I’m not in a good place, it’s super challenging to achieve my best—especially when doing your best requires something as monotonous as pedalling circles in the dark for hours on end. Alone and without distractions, it can be difficult to keep those negative thoughts at bay. One of my hang ups is performance anxiety: while I thrive in competitive environments, I also practice certain self-sabotaging behaviours, like overanalyzing who I’m up against until I demoralize myself completely. Perhaps that’s why I felt so amazing out on Sauvie Island: just me and the clock. Right from the beginning, I remained calm, collected, and confident in my training. I let my love of the bike takeover my thoughts, and turned the naysaying, less confident, and overly critical part of my brain off. Let’s hope I can bring this mental strength into my next crack at 24 hours in the saddle.