EPIC - L’Etap Du California Experience by John Crook, Crook's Cycle Right

EPIC - L’Etap Du California Experience

This is my L’Etap du California experience.

I was thinking about how to start this story, I first thought about the end when my Dr. said to me “your life seems to be a series of stress tests, but we want you to take one watching your heart just to be sure…” but I decided to start at the inflection point of the race for me.

I took this picture at mile 65, looking ahead to the finish somewhere up on those mountain tops off in the distance.

You can see the road off to the right of the picture, as it was cut around the mountain; the problem was that I didn’t stop for the scenery and pictures. I rolled to a stop trying to breath – I had slowed to a relative crawl going up this jump because I felt like there was someone on my back had their right hand jammed up under my right rib cage and their left fist pushed into my stomach. I couldn’t take a deep breath and that was making it difficult to climb. As I stood there about 11 miles from the finish, pouring water on my head, thinking about what to do next… I heard those immortal words “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever”, but then I thought “dying if forever too!” I really did not want to stop, I have never considered stopping unless there were broken bones or blood involved. Balancing what to do, the positive was that there were only 11 miles left, fthe negative was the last 11 miles included 6 miles of extreme climbing. So, after a 10 minute break, watching riders stream by headed to the finish - I still could not breath normally but was recovered enough to get back on the bike and head off to the next rest stop hoping that I could regain the power I had up to just a few miles ago.

I had reached the top of KOM #1 at 4 hours :30 minutes, My avg speed after 56 miles and the majority of the climbing was 14.7 MPH for time on bike. I was close to my plan – and thought I would easily do the final 20 miles in an hour and 30 minutes. At the top of the KOM (mile 56), I had no doubt that I was going to finish strong. As I pushed off this time, I wasn’t sure I could even finish.

You might ask (my wife does) why would one put themselves on the side of this mountain in California at the beginning of May feeling this bad? First you have think that cycling 76 miles with 10,500 feet of climbing sounds like a fine way to end a vacation. Then you have to think that you can go from good winter fitness to race fitness in 10 weeks. Add dropping about 18 lbs to the plan, travel, Ohio weather, and it all starts to sound less and less like a great idea – but plans are made, the vacation is scheduled and the ball starts rolling to race day; May 7th Claremont California

Race day arrived the weather forecast was perfect, 55 at 7AM, high in mid 70’s. No rain, partly cloudy to sunny. I was feeling great. I had lost 13 pounds coming in at the lightest weight for any of my goal events. I was fueled up and well rested from the easy riding I had been doing in Santa Barbara. I lined up with the 15 MPH group which would match my goal speed. 76 miles, 15 MPH = 5 hours of riding. Since I had completed 108 miles and the same climbing in 6:35 at Cheat Mtn., I was felt ready to rock this course. During the usual start line chat, some folks suggested I move up into a higher group. My strategy was to start with a slower group would be better to conserve energy – since most folks start off with some “Group Enthusiasm” and go quicker for the first couple of miles than they will the rest of the course, I would ride with this group for the first several miles to keep me my pace low and then go if the pace was too slow.


1600 cyclist lining up for an epic ride, Dave Zabriskie an Chris Horner were at the front of the group – I never saw them…

To start the event, the VIP group went off at 7 AM, Group 1 went off at 7:05, Group 2 went off at 7:10 and my group is asked to move up to the start line. We are sent at 7:15 and we are off through the sleepy streets of Claremont with a full police traffic control. Quickly rolling through the city on a 1-2% grade, I found myself moving up through the group with a HR about 155, I was rolling at a nice pace. At mile 3 I hit the gap between Group 3 and Group 2, and bridged that over the next half mile. And so it continued up the first 12 miles. Riding around and through rows of cyclists, gutter one time, center line the next, between riders when necessary – got passed by 4-5 riders – but mostly doing the passing.

I was in the last 500 meters before the first rest stop,  near the top of the first climb thinking that I was really kicking it when this guy in a Mellow Johnny’s kit flew past – this was a pretty steep section, I am guessing 8% he is going 12-14 MPH to my 8-9. I yelled at his back asking if he was Lance, he looked back and grinned back at me as if he was saying “No silly boy, Lance would be going faster then this!” I rolled past the first rest stop at 1:10, I was going pretty good since the next 20 miles were mostly down hill and I could easily make up the time I needed to keep my 15 MPH avg. I thought this was going to be a great day. The only issue I had was a little trouble talking, more like squeaking when I tried to say something. This seemed to kick in about mile 8, but I wasn’t doing much talking. I just thought I had gotten some water down the wrong pipe when to took a drink.

A couple of miles of up and down and then the down hill really started. I pretty quickly realized this decent was too technical for high speed and I was too rusty at technical descents to put the bike on the edge. Or maybe it was the sheer cliff that was always a couple of feet away that kept me from really letting it hang out. So I was content to roll down the mountain, watching out for the dare devils, rocks falling from the cliffs and the riders that were even slower than I was. Although it looks like fun, hanging onto your brakes, moving around the bike, corner after corner is wearing. Better than going up hill, but not any where near relaxing.

I reached the turn at the reservoirs and was greeted with the predicted headwind. Pedaling uphill is expected, but when the grade dropped to 2-3% the wind was doing an effective job of slowing me down. So the trudge around the reservoirs began. A few uphill sections, mostly downhill, still having to make the choice of tuck and roll or in the drops and pedal. A couple of pace lines passed me, but I opted not to join because they looked like a caterpillar going up the road, constantly waving, crawling sideways, collapse, expand, and on. Making a calculation of shelter vs. safety. I opted to stay out ot the caterpillar.

I took a short break half way down the reservoir and there was no hydration problems – all systems go. You can see the weather is a little hazy, but it burnt off pretty quickly.

You can see the road off to the right winding down the valley. Nice road, down hill, head wind, beautiful scenery: almost perfect, I was thinking how great it was going to be to climb up the left hand side of the valley with the wind at my back.

Plus more down hill until the Glendora turn. Skipped the next stop heading towards the 43 mile stop at Glendora.

Short break, made longer by the lines at the porta-john’s, pretty strange that there were no lines up to this point. But an extra couple of minutes wasn’t going to make or break the ride. Plus, the first King of the Mountain was coming up.

A short stop in Glendora and I was back on the road. Fueled up, 1 water bottle (why carry an extra one up the hill), bio break and I am on the way to the KOM #1 from Mile 46 to 54. I ready to rock when I crossed the timing strip and I pegged my HR at 168. Good cadence, lot’s of power for any jump, I was collecting riders. One or 2 collected me, but I couldn’t go any harder for the entire hill so I was relaxing into the effort. My HR was moving between 168 and 171, my speed was moving between 9.8 & 10 MPH. Nice and steady, full power. The signs counted down to the KOM end 5 KM – 3 KM that is 2 miles and I am still rocking it steady. 1 KM, 500 M, it is over and I was still rolling at the strip. I immediately started recovery as the road leveled.

My thighs started stinging from the effort of the KOM as I rolled towards the next rest stop, a little on the bike massage and some standing worked through that pain. The rest area at mile 56 came quick and I kicked out and filled up another bottle, ate a Honey gel and a banana and I was off for some more on the bike recovery.

A couple of rolling hills and the road is going up again. The difference is that I am staring to feel like I a dishrag. I take a deep breath and I feel like I just cannot expand my chest and fill my lungs. I stand up to stretch out and it is some relief, but the effort of standing is draining any extra air I am getting. All I can see ahead is the road is going up, it seems like I am starting to bake on the sun. After a couple of miles of this with each mile becoming more difficult, I saw a shady spot along the road and decide it is time to rest.
This is where I found myself at Mile 65, in the middle of a climb, struggling to breath and contemplating if I am able to finish this event. Trying to relax and make lemonade out of the stop I scooted across the road to take a picture of the challenge ahead.  I get asked if I am OK – well sure I am. Not very convincingly, but I say “Yeh, I am OK” More of a rasp, but still got it out.

So, back on the bike, legs would be good if I could get some air, so keep stretching, pushing, just keep going. My goal is not to get to the finish, all I am thinking about is the next rest stop, mile 70 can’t be far away and this road has got to smooth out. Then a down hill section appeared and then a couple of rollers and a short uphill and I was at the last rest stop before the finish.
 I filled up again since I had dumped my water on my head to cool off. And off again, 6 miles to go, another down hill and then the final climb.

I really didn’t need to decide right then if I was going to continue, but I did need to keep the finish this race mind set. I remember thinking – “They said it was steep, but 8% doesn’t sound steep compared to the 10-15% roads in S. Ohio. I am sure I can muscle up the hill.” After the short down hill to the bottom of Mt. Baldy turn off the climb started well, for about a mile. It was a relentless steep road that doesn’t have much bend to it, just up. That same feeling from Mile 65 was back, only this time that damn elf was on my back giving me the Heimlich. More baking, more gasping and a few feet with every pedal stroke. I was now resigned to grinding up the hill with a low cadence that didn’t require as much air in my lungs. Even with this strategy I was struggling, I saw another rider pulled over into a drive way and it looked like an oasis, I had to stop.. Short recovery, climb back on 5 miles to go. Then it seemed to get even steeper with switch backs. When you are struggling as I was on this climb switchback present tortured decision, taking the long way was extended pain, taking the short steeper path was a quick way to pain. Another mile and I had to stop, then another mile and another stop, and another, and another until I could literally look straight up and see the finish line. One more steep section and I would get to the 4 parking lot tiers to the finish. I pushed my bike up the last 50 feet and climbed back on and made my way across the finish line 7:0X:XX.

I don’t remember the exact numbers because I knew it was from the first rider, not my group. All I was thinking is how disappointed I was that it was just over 7 hours. That means that it took me about 2:30 from mile 56 to mile 76. That is incredibly long to crawl the final few miles.

Now all I had to do is recover enough to roll back to Claremont. This wouldn’t be difficult; there was only one up hill section in the 15 miles between Mt. Baldy and Claremont. As I rolled down the hill, the stream of human wreckage was continuous heading to the finish was continuous from the top to the bottom. Slow, slower and stopped was all I could see. But, I was that picture to the riders that were descending as I was making my tortured climb.

The results:
1600 riders started
1,000 riders made it to the finish line on Mt. Baldy
I finished in just under 7 hours from the start timing chip to the timing chip at Mt Baldy.
KOM #1 I was #245 overall and #12 in the 55-60 age group
Overall I was #402 overall and #23 in the 55-60 age group

The aftermath.
The Dr. said he is certain that I had Exercise Asthma given the early ride symptoms of hoarseness/squeaky speech. As I continued to ride and then went hard on the KOM #1, I had asphyxiated myself during the ride to the point where I was unable to function effectively.
He asked when I was going to do something like this again so that we could test his theory. – I haven’t made those plans, but I now have some Singulair to suppress the Asthma and I am looking forward to trying that stuff out. The Dr. does want to do a stress test to rule out anything serious, but given that I haven’t died in any of the other fun rides like this one he doesn’t think it is likely.

A request:
I was planning to do this ride as a fund raising event to a group that I strongly believe in.
If you were inspired, pained, enjoyed my pain, or you have some extra cash you need to get rid of – please check out my fund raising page.

Thanks for reading,
John C.

 [Crook's Cycle Right]