Prior to Cozumel, I had never ridden 112 miles at one time. Not 100 or even 90. My longest ride prior to the Ironman was 82 miles way back in April during the annual Cycle North Carolina spring ride. Much like the 2.4 mile swim, I and everyone else in the group, was taking a huge leap of faith that our training plan had prepared us for the challenge. After grabbing my T1 bag and taking a seat in the changing tent, I methodically went through every item in the bag – bike shoes, socks, heart rate monitor, bike shorts (with the all-important chamois cream already liberally applied), tri jersey, sunglasses, helmet, etc. Everything seemed to be there (I had obsessively inventoried everything at least a half dozen times prior to bike drop-off the day before). While pulling on my bike shorts I noticed the guy next to me, caught up, no doubt, in the urgency of a timed race, get up and walk off with my bike shoes. My initial reaction was to smite him, Old-Testament style, with the nearest folding chair, though after a split second’s thought I simply grabbed his arm and pointed out the oversight. He placed my shoes back on the ground, grabbed his own and with a sincere “sorry… good luck buddy!” he was off. Crisis averted, I too made my way out of the tent and toward the bike.
Of the three disciplines in the sport of Triathlon, cycling is, by far, the most complex, the most expensive, the most vexing. There is a minimalistic beauty to the run. A pair of running shoes and will to amble at a brisk pace is all you need. And swimming, though probably the weak link for a vast majority of triathletes, is admirably uncomplicated as well. Anyone can go to the local pool and swim without any equipment whatsoever, save a pair of swim trunks of course. Cycling is different. Cycling requires a bike (duh… obviously, right?). What is not obvious, until you have purchased the bike in those embryonic, gleeful first days following the decision to take up triathlon, is the myriad equipment you must purchase to support, maintain and actually ride the bike. For starters, road and tri bikes generally don’t come with pedals. That’s right. The general concept seems to be that you fork over hundreds (in some cases, thousands) of dollars for a bike and it comes to you entirely lacking the most basic accoutrements for forward motion. Rather, you must purchase special clip-in pedals separately. And then, in order to use the pedals you must purchase special shoes. Following that, assuming one might work up a thirst while pedaling off the retail guilt and buyer’s remorse, you must further purchase water bottle cages (both frame mounted and behind the seat versions) and water bottles (preferably the insulated kind, because ice lasts approximately five minutes longer in these than in the cheapo versions). Further purchases include spare tire tubes, tire levers, CO2 cartridges, multi-tool and fancy under-seat tool bag, red flashing light (so that motorists might realize slightly before impact that they are about to run over a cyclist), helmet, gloves, sunglasses, bike shorts, jerseys, aforementioned chamois cream (the nether regions will thank you), and, for good measure, a cycling jacket (well, because it gets cold sometimes). Finally, because the stock saddle on your expensive new bike makes diamonds seem positively supple and spongy by comparison, you have to spring for a marginally more comfortable version. And then the fun really begins.
As a novice cyclist, you have to learn to ride properly. This is not the care-free, baseball card-in-the-spokes bike riding of your youth. Rather learning to ride properly entails – if you are lucky enough to find a group that will allow you to ride with them – many humbling exploits – group rides where you have to, among other things, learn to unclip your foot from the clip-in pedals prior to stopping. Failing to do so results in the humiliating scenario wherein you realize, with muted horror, that you have forgotten to unclip your foot and you are about to stop, followed by desperate, jerky hip convulsions as you leave form aside and attempt to rip your foot out of the clip, which seems to cling with a stubborn intensity matching that of your rising panic. As you roll to a final stop, gravity takes dominion over your world as you begin a slow-motion sideways plummet toward the pavement below. This generally happens only at busy intersections and while riding with the most skilled and smug cyclists, who stand over you disapprovingly as if examining a discarded catheter. Once on the ground, you begin the process of extricating yourself from your bike, standing up and, with a manly sniff, shrugging and acting inexplicably as if you meant for this to happen. It’s entirely humiliating and it has happened to anyone who has ever ridden a bike.
Other challenges include learning to ride in a pace line, which entails riding with your front wheel mere inches away from the rear wheel of the bike in front of you, while the cyclist behind you does the same with their front wheel behind your bike. It’s nerve-wracking for a new cyclist and you find yourself, sweaty-palmed and white-knuckled, just holding on for dear life most of the time while simultaneously envisioning the smoldering pile of broken spokes, compound fractures and torn Lycra that surely lies somewhere in your not-too-distant future.
It takes years of cycling and hundreds of miles in the saddle to develop into even a moderately serviceable cyclist and you begin to appreciate before too long just how patient those who rode with you early on really were, risking life and limb while tolerating your wild, erratic riding and gently correcting you when needed. And I won’t even get into the risks to cyclists posed by a ton of hurtling sheet metal piloted by cigarette puffing, cell-phone dialing, beer guzzling motorists. It’s scary out there, folks! Suffice it to say that cycling is a challenge, both because of its inherent difficulties and by the virtue of the inordinately large portion of the Ironman it makes up – 80% of the total mileage of the race.
Back on the bike in Cozumel, the early miles go by almost effortlessly. The bike course consists of three loops around the island, starting at Chakanaab Park and following the Cozumel Highway for 12 miles toward the south side of the island, at which point the course travels approximately nine miles along the coastline, affording breathtaking, blue water views of the Caribbean Sea. This portion of the bike course is exceptionally windy – so much so that race officials have banned disc wheels for the event (the vertical surface of the disc wheels act like a sail in high winds, making it nearly impossible to ride fully upright). After turning left away from the coast at a low-slung bar and souvenir junction called Mezcalitos, you rocket toward town – for once, with the considerable wind at your back. On this road you begin to see locals lined up in front of their properties, a few here and a few there at first, but upon entering down town the crowds grow both in number and volume, shouting “Si, se puede!” (“Yes, you can!”). It is entirely amazing and such an uplifting feeling to be cheered on by these folks – people who have taken time from their day to come encourage you, and not just casually, but with great passion, and when riding through those downtown streets, you feel like Lance Armstrong (without the angst and heavy-handed governnment inquiries). Once through town, you head back out for the second loop and then the third. Each time through town you are lifted, recharged and at times, nearly brought to tears by the passion and sincerity of the crowd, which according to one estimate, was 50,000 people strong. It made me think of – to risk cliché’ and ridicule – the power of the human spirit. Here were 50,000 people lining the streets – people who, by and large, didn’t have much, but who felt a connection to me because I was suffering on their island and they were my hosts and, because they had pride in Cozumel and because they felt a basic human connection to a white boy from South Carolina who they would never see again, they came to cheer and to encourage. And I will never forget those kind souls who lined the bike course that day.
“Si, se puede!, Si, se puede!, Si, se puede!”
Si, se puede…