Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Road trip!

Coach Bogie & I travelled to Dane County, Wisconsin, over the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend to ride the Ironman Wisconsin bike course.

I’d instigated this journey, and I’d had a couple of objectives. First, I wanted to see how tough the course actually was. Everyone (and you know who “everyone” is, right?) said it was tough, perhaps the toughest of any Ironman North America event—which says quite a lot.

It didn’t matter if it was so tough I couldn’t finish; or if, as I’d predicted, it was “just ”112 miles of the Oak Ridges Moraine, which I happily & even eagerly bike most weekends I can get out of town.

Second, I wanted to get a feel for the course. I sure didn’t want Sept. 9/07 to be my first look at it!

In the event, Coach Bogie & I started a little ways from the course’s start at the Monona Terrace. We parked his Blazer at Olin-Turville park, and we rode our bikes on the sidepath along John Nolen Drive, and turned south on Rimrock Road. Where we met Rusk Road we were now on the official IM route.

Bogie & I took different approaches to the weather. He was in his long-sleeved CSC jersey under a windvest, and wore tights over his bib shorts. I had arm warmers and light long-fingered gloves under my cycling mitts, and no tights. I was pretty comfortable when we began.

We turned briefly onto Oregon Road, then west on McCoy Road, and made the wrong turn, north, on Syene Road. Around Watson Avenue we realized our mistake, and headed south, taking Syene southward. We passed our last subdivision for a while; we were now in country. We turned west on Irish Lane, south on Caine Road, and west, for several miles, on Whalen Road. Here the hills began. Bogie’s observation was that it was like Guelph, by which I suspect he meant that it was like Ontario’s Wellington County. That is, the hills were rolling and steady.

I haven’t mentioned the wind. Most of this time we were subjected to a steady wind of about 20 km/h, with occasional gusts much harder. It made for hard going along Whalen, making the rolling hills seem worse.

At Old Highway PB (really, that’s its name!) the loop began. In the race itself, you do this loop twice; we managed to mess up the beginning a bit. Through a new subdivision, we were diverted from Whalen Road, taking a rocky hill up and around Harvest Lane. Around here I saw a house with a giant Packers banner; in the driveway was a van whose licence plate read QB4GB4, a reference to the Packers’ longtime starting quarterback, Brett Favre.

At County Road M we were supposed to turn right, but for some reason we turned left, crossed U.S. 18/151, and realized at Range Trail we were lost. We turned around, and just guessed to turn at Prairie Heights Road. At Locust Drive we turned the wrong way again, crossed 18/151 again, found ourselves on a very pretty road that was much too gravelly to be an Ironman course. We guessed that north was the right direction, rocketed down Locust Lane’s sharp hill, and turned west on Bruce Street. We were now back on course. We turned southwest on Paoli Street (Wisc. Route 69), crossed 18/151 yet again—but this time we were supposed to! At this point Paoli Street was a divided near-expressway, so I was happy turn west on Valley Road, which despite its name was a sharp ascent, before we fell into the ravine of the Sugar River.

Valley Road ended at Sugar River Road, where we turned north. Somewhere around here, I stopped to take a picture on my camera phone of some grazing horses. They were such odd colours, I rather thought Monado would like to see them. In the sunlight, even with my reading glasses on, I had to shoot blind; the picture isn’t bad.

While I was standing there, I saw a used 700C tubular in the swale, so I stuffed it in a jersey pocket, and headed off to find Bogie, who was waiting patiently for me at the top of a hill. (He later said he was riding about 2½ miles per hour slower than his usual easy pace; but then his target Ironman time is 4½ hours shorter than mine!)

We turned west on Marsh View Road, then southwest on the wonderfully named County Track G. More rolling hills, but sharing a road without a shoulder with a lot of fast-moving motor vehicles.

Track G ends at Washington Street (State Route 92), where we turned northwest. This was even worse—hilly, narrow, with a crumbling road edge, and a lot of motorized traffic. But the drivers were astoundingly courteous. I had several drivers wait behind me until the opposite lane was clear so they didn’t have to pass me too close.

Just as we’d turned north on Washington Street, we’d been passed by a faster cyclist, and Bogie, as is his wont, took off to “take” him. I was on my own for a long ride!

We entered Mount Horeb, and Washington Street turned north, became 8th Street, still State Route 92 but now also County Road JG (they all had these funny lettered names; typical of Wisconsin I’ve since found out—but we never figured out the system).

Bogie was waiting for me at a gas station at the traffic circle. I was out of fluids, so took the rest of his Gatorade, and we headed off. (By this time I’d taken off my arm warmers and gloves. Bogie was still in his fall outfit.) Up to this point, we agreed, the route was tought but doable; but Bogie told me that the other cyclist had told him that it got much worse. Hm.

We headed through the traffic circle, still on 8th Street (now State Route 78), and turned east on County Road S. We were in the country, and headed back to Madison—but, as promised, we had a lot of punishment yet to take.

It was wonderful on a high highway, with a beautiful view, with that stiff wind to our back, and we rocketed past our turn, north on Witte Road. I noticed the steeeeep downhill followed by an equally steep up, and remarked to Bogie that I was glad it wasn’t on our route! But we checked our cue sheets, and realized it was! This was the best downhill of the course—I hit 40 m.p.h., but I was still in my bottom gear when I ascended the other side. We also got a stark reminder of why people don’t like living near pig farms!

East on County Road J—still heading home!—and then north on Garfood Road. We almost got turned around where Garfoot jogs at Mineral Point Road; the written directions make no mention of this jog, but fortunately the map suggested it. From here, came my favourite part of the course. A long, sinuous descent, at high speeds, until the road ended and we had to turn east—still homeward!—on County Road KP, and then east on Bourbon Road (sic) into Cross Plains. It was here that we had what I would characterize as an un-Wisconsin moment. A young guy with thumping hip-hop coming out of the windows of his Ford Escort pulled in front of a wind-aided Bogie so that Bogie had to jam on his brakes to avoid hitting the car. Bogie gave him a killing look, but I doubt it had any effect.

Where Bourbon Road ends, we turned south on County Road P, another busy highway, but we passed over something I’d never seen before: a tunnel under the road for cattle! Not tall enough for a man, I don’t think, but squarish for cattle. Kind of neat.

The triathletes that post on bulletin boards refere to Ironman Wisconsin as “IM Moo”, but I saw very few cattle. I would think “IM Corn” would be a better nickname!

In due course we turned east onto Stagecoach Road, which was uncharacteristically flat! We passed more farms and estate homes, and a lake marked with private-property signs. I noted that we were passing between two glacial-dome-type hills and thanked the route-designers for omitting them.

I thanked them too soon!

We turned south on Birch Trail, and the road started to climb. Then we turned east onto Old Sauk Pass Road. Note that word: Pass. This was the prettiest road, and definitely the worst hill, on the route. I was soon out of the saddle, pushing each pedal down, wondering if I was going to topple—or if I should save that indignity by walking up the hill!

Bogie must have read my mind, because he came back, and yelled, “No quitting, Nelson!” I made it, and then we had the joy of the twisting descent. We turned south on Timber Lane, more largeish exurban homes, but we were now straight into the wind, and even some modest hills left me hating life. But I was also out of fluids again.

At the crest of one of these hills we passed Serene Court, and I announced to no one in particular that I, for one, was not feeling serene.

We turned east on Midtown Road—which was not in the middle of any town—then south on Shady Oak Lane, east on County Road PD, south on Nine Mound Road—which, despite its name, was not particularly hilly; after Old Sauk Pass Road, I was suspicious of any road that actually mentioned hills!

We were now on the outskirts of Verona, and Cross Country Road took us right into town, descending another steep hill before we stayed relatively level in the city itself. South on Main Street, decorated with welcome banners for cyclists! We stopped at a gas station at Verona Avenue, and bought some fluids, which I badly needed. We continued east on Verona Avenue, south on Old County Road PB, and back to Whalen Road. We’d done the loop!

The last hills on Whalen Road didn’t seem so bad after the horrors we’d been through, and having the wind at our back meant that even though I was leading we were keeping a steady 20 m.p.h. or better.

All told, 68.8 miles in 5 h 7 min. That sounds horrid, but it’s the pace for an 8:20 bike split, which is “only” an hour off my best possible time—and I have 11 months left to train!

Some observations: I’m really, really glad I made the trip. I think I’d’ve been thoroughly demoralized by the hills past Mount Horeb if I didn’t know what to expect. Also it gives me the glimmering of a strategy for the course: steady all the way to Mount Horeb; make up lots and lots of time into Cross Plains; then grind it out to Verona. Bogie did suggest that I get a couple more teeth on my sprocket; that would allow we to spin 80 r.p.m. up even the terrible hills, and thus save my legs. Bogie also feels that it’s a great course for a tri bike, despite all the hills. I’m still not sure about that.

I do plan to come back, probably late in the spring. As of Tuesday morning, that trip may include Bogie and Our Hero Rob as well.

The trip itself

Bogie picked me up at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, and we drove pretty much without stopping the 13 hours and 1100 km to Madison. The route was an unaccustomed one for Bogie, who does have relations in Chicago: Ontario Highways 401 and 402 to Point Edward; across the Blue Water Bridge to Port Huron; and Interstate Highways 96, 69, 94, and 90 all the way to Madison.

The westward crossing seemed laborious, with a 20-minute wait. The CBP agent was bored and obviously tired. He asked us the purpose of our visit, and Bogie said we were driving to Wisconsin to go cycling. At this point the agent asked an acute question: “You’re driving all the way to Wisconsin to go cycling?” Bogie answered with the truth, that we were doing an Ironman.

Then, perhaps as punishment for our pretensions, we missed the exit to I-69, and got lost in Port Huron. We stopped at a Krogers for fuel, and, according to Bogie, I lost my manliness by asking for directions. It turned out the directions were accurate, though, and we were on I-69 again in no time.

On I-90/94 across Chicago we lost a ton of time with the “Open Tollway” construction.

Anyway, after 13 hours of driving, all done by Bogie, we arrived at the Quinta Inn & Suites in the American Center business park north of Madison. It amuses me how a Quinta tries to be up market. The clerk offered me an upgrade to a 2-room suite for $20. Of course, two straight guys travelling together would prefer separate rooms, so I went for it, but I asked the obvious (to me) question: wasn’t I already in a suite? Oh, yes, I was told; but it was a one-room suite. I didn’t get an answer to my question about how one room could be a suite. So because the hotel wasn’t busy I ended up with a “Jacuzzi suite”, probably not something we want to share with Bogie’s manly friends!

One curious fact: on the entire 1100-km trip I saw only three working police cars: two OPP cruisers forming a speed trap near the Blue Water Bridge, and a Wisconsin State Patrol car not long before Madison. I never saw a police car in Madison.

Another interesting thing (to me): except for Port Huron, it was hard to believe we were passing through large cities in Michigan (Flint, Lansing, and Battle Creek). All we ever saw was trees. Well, not exactly true: one very large GM plant as we entered Flint.

Sunday night, after our big ride, we headed to downtown Madison for something to eat. We walked the entire length of State Street, from Capitol to University, and around some of the local streets, before we settled on Frida Mexican Grill, which had large murals (of course) of a beetle-browed Frida Kahlo facing me. As Bogie noted, it would be tough to spend more than $20 on State Street; our extravagant, high-calorie, post-epic-ride meal cost me $48 for both of us.

Monday—our Thanksgiving—we headed home. Once again, Coach Bogie never wanted to stop, but refuelled the car at the Belvidere Oasis (great name), where I got us some Starbucks and Krispy Kremes.

The only interesting thing about this 13-hour drive was our 1½-hour(!) crossing of the Blue Water Bridge. I have a word of advice for anyone Canada-bound on this bridge: stay to the left!

Anyway, as we edged our way across, we joked about peeing off the bridge. “What a great story that would be!” Bogie remarked more than once—but we kept ourselves in the car.

The guy in front of us—a later-middle-aged fellow in a Mazda Millenia—couldn’t wait. Only six cars from the Customs booth, he opened his car door, and stood up facing to the booth. It was Bogie who identified what he was doing, and when we saw the puddle he left, Bogie’s hypothesis was confirmed. “But his wife was in the car!” I noted. “Ah, she’s seen it before,” Bogie said.


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