Caffeine Peter Colijn
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February 18, 2018 (link)
Ride Report: WOW Cyclothon

Dubious Beginnings

Another one of my rides motivated by an SF2G thread. When I initially heard about this ride, I really liked the idea of it: riding around an entire country in a loop, to end up back at the same spot. And all along the same road (well, pretty much). Such a simple but neat idea.

That was 2015, and I hadn't done anything nearly as long as this ride yet, though. My longest ride at that time was the Davis Quadruple, which was still relatively fresh in my mind as being pretty brutally hard.

But I found the Iceland ride inspiring, and it was in my mind over the next year as I managed to pull off the epic Seven Deadly Centuries ride and finally convinced myself that maybe, just maybe, I could actually do this Iceland thing.

Of course, this ride would be pretty different from my previous rides in a couple ways: first, it's an actual race, with rules and such. I really didn't want to go to all the effort to do this ride and then accidentally run foul of some rule and get disqualified. Second, support is mandatory. Who would be crazy enough to come to Iceland and drive a van very slowly around the island for 3 days without a proper place to sleep while helping me stuff calories and caffeine into my face? It turns out I have friends who suffer from a lack of sanity almost as severe as mine (plus a loving and devoted wife), and managed to assemble the best damn support crew EVAR (tm), consisting of Christine (previously-mentioned loving and devoted wife), Chris, Brooks and Marion.

Van of Plenty

When we landed in Iceland, one of the first tasks (after picking up the van) was to stock up on ride food and supplies. It's somewhat challenging to bring large quantities of food into Iceland due to customs, so we opted to buy most stuff there (though we did bring some bars, shot blocks, etc.) As it happened, Costco had just opened its first store in Iceland a few weeks before we got there! Iceland is notoriously expensive, so Icelanders were incredibly eager to get their hands on some sweet Costco deals. So eager, in fact, that the store was completely mobbed. Fortunately, it was well-stocked, and we did manage to get what we needed, albeit slowly.

Butterflies

After that we had a couple days to hang out before the race began. It was supposed to start from Reykjavik on Tuesday, June 20. The day before, I got a call from one of the organizers to say that due to an incoming storm, they were moving the start Borgarnes, as the wind would be too strong for larger vehicles to safely travel across one of the bridges leaving town. This would knock ~100km off the total route. I was a bit disappointed, because I really liked the idea of riding around the whole country, but based on my experience in Iceland, I now know that when an Icelander says the weather will be bad, they're not fucking around.

Unfortunately, they wanted us to drive to the start about 6 hours before we would actually roll out. We were then hanging out in a college cafeteria type thing with the youth group, who were starting at the same time as the solo riders. I had been quite nervous for days before the ride, and this almost endless waiting didn't help. I hadn't been able to sleep well the night before, and now the ride would be starting in the early evening, meaning I'd be awake for most of the day before even starting. Not ideal.

Before the start there was also a quick meeting to go over rules and stuff. There we would learn that hand-ups from the vehicle weren't allowed, which was a bit disappointing at the time, but turned out to not really matter in the end (it turns out that when you ride a bike for over two days straight, it's nice to actually get off the bike every once in a while). It also gave me an opportunity to meet my competition. There were three other solo riders: an Icelander (Jón Óli) who had attempted the ride twice before but not managed to finish, an American (Michael Glass) doing it for his first time, and a Czech dude (Jakub Dvořák) also doing it for the first time. Michael was taking things to a pretty crazy level: I think he had sponsors, he had 2 support vehicles, a crew of 5 and at least 4 bikes. Jakub, by contrast, was the minimalist: just a BMW crossover for a vehicle, 2 bikes and a crew of only 2! Team SF2G and Jón were somewhere in between these extremes, with a slightly larger vehicle and 4 support people, though I think Jón did have 3 bikes (we had 2).

To be honest, I was a bit intimidated by Michael Glass. He seemed to be taking this really seriously. I was also a bit worried about Jakub. He looked strong and had aerobars on his road bike. And though I loathe aerobars in general, I was concerned that in such a windy place they could present a serious advantage.

#sf2iceland and go!! Neutral start for 5k.

A post shared by Christine (@slatepelican) on

After what seemed like an eternity, it was finally time to line up for the start. I was still nervous. But, on the bright side, the wind was favourable at the start and while it was quite cloudy, it wasn't actually raining. The soloists and the youth group were starting at the same time, so it was actually a fairly large group of folks rolling out (50ish or so I think). A race car would lead us out of town for a neutral start, then honk its horn a few times and pull off, after which it would be game on.

Another source of anxiety for me had been the rules around drafting. They're (understandably) quite strict: no drafting is allowed. But I was concerned about what would happen if folks were riding at roughly the same speed, jostling for position. I wasn't sure whether it would be a good idea to try to get a gap right away to avoid that problem, or take it easy and save my energy. I honestly didn't know what I would do even as we were sitting at the start line.

Over(?) Enthusiasm

When we finally rolled out, I was amazed at how quickly my anxieties and nervousness melted away. The best way to describe the feeling is showing up to an exam and realizing that you really do know how to answer everything. I can't say that feeling was a frequent one for me during my academic career, but I did experience it a few times. As we were rolling out of town on the neutral start, I thought back to all I had done to get ready for this ride. I had already done 3 ~1000km rides in the past few months, and several other long rides as well. I had completely tuned my bike, leaving nothing to chance: new brake pads, cables, housing, chain, and tires. I had built new wheels and broken them in over a couple weeks of commuting. I had even limited my caffeine intake in the weeks leading up to the race, in an attempt to increase my sensitivity to it. And I was comforted by the knowledge that my support van was full of dedicated and loving people, not to mention a ridiculous stash of food and caffeine (plenty of Coke and enough supplies to make over 300 espressos with our in-car espresso maker).

So when the race car finally honked its horn and pulled off, I went for it. I took off pretty dang fast, but was careful to use my power meter to avoid going too hard. I did want to gap the other folks, but I also couldn't afford to destroy myself right away. As such, I was kind of expecting one of the other folks to catch up and pass me.

The first ~150km to Blönduós were almost all tailwind, and went incredibly quickly. There were several stretches where I was able to maintain 80kph for minutes at a time without pushing the power too much. I rarely get to that speed even on long descents in the bay area, and it was really quite amazing.

Party Pooped

And then, just as quickly as the party had started, it was over. At Blönduós the ring road makes an abrupt turn and I was headed straight into the wind. It was brutal. The first stretch out of that "town" (a fairly generous description for what looked like a gas station and some warehouses) was downhill, and I distinctly remember struggling hard to maintain 20kph. Again, I was expecting one of the other folks to come along and cruise past me, exploiting their aero bars to make (relatively) light work of the headwind.

At this point, it was "night", but one of the great things about this ride was that it happens over the summer solstice, when there really isn't any darkness in Iceland. It gets a bit dusk-like, but never gets completely dark. As a result, I wasn't having too much trouble staying awake (the espresso was definitely helping, too).

Eventually, as the road got further inland and turned a bit, the wind died down and the last 50km or so into Akureyri in the early morning were quite pleasant. Just before hitting the outskirts of town, I saw a few puffins perched on some rocks overlooking a valley! I tried to point them out, but apparently nobody in the van noticed.

Compared to the other "towns" we had been through so far, Akureyri was quite large. On the way into town I remember seeing a person walking on the side of the street and being quite surprised; it was the first person we'd seen in hours. We stopped at a gas station with a bathroom so I could execute the first of several kit changes and refuelled the vehicle as well. I also got a race update from Brooks, who figured we had a ~40km lead on Jakub, who was in second place. The problem was that the GPS trackers were in the vehicles, not on the riders themselves. I was worried that Jakub may have left his drivers behind to sleep (since there were only 2 of them) and might himself actually be closer than the race map indicated.

Another human!! Outside. At 5:45! Yay! #sf2iceland #wowcyclothon2017

A post shared by Christine (@slatepelican) on

With that on my mind, and feeling relatively "fresh" in a clean kit and with more espresso and food on board, I left Akureyri feeling pretty good. The weather was nice and sunny, the wind wasn't too bad, and the scenery on the way out of town was quite nice: a pretty, long climb followed by some rolling hills.

After a few hours of that, we found a cafe in Laugar that was just about to open, and would sell us some fries. Hot, salty food really hit the spot at that point. After that was one of the few sections on the whole ride with rough pavement (in general, the road surface quality in Iceland is excellent), though the rough road didn't last too long.

"The Plain"

As the pavement improved, the road made its way past some lakes, first a small one and then a much larger one. After the second lake, I continued on for a bit while the van left to visit a "hipster coffee" place we had identified on the intarwebs before the trip (Vogafjós). Unfortunately, just as we separated the route turned on to a huge, open plain where the wind picked up again and was brutally fierce and unrelenting. I slogged through it solo for at least an hour before the van caught up with me to offer the fruits of their diversion. The coffee was good, but sadly it didn't make the wind go away. The next 4 or 5 hours were, to be honest, excruciating. I have never ridden in such strong wind, and if I never ride in such conditions again, I would be perfectly happy with that. At one point I stopped for some food and drink and Brooks took a look at my bike. He offered some commiseration, seeing that I had it in the little ring on a long, flat, straight stretch of road. That was really all I could do; try to keep the cadence relatively high, keep my body low, and slog slog slog through the wind.

Of course, it wouldn't be Iceland without some precipitation, and as evening came, the rain picked up. At first it wasn't too bad, but after a little while it turned into "prickly" freezing rain/hail, and that, coupled with the wind and a short but steep climb were enough to make me go from feeling OK to feeling like total shit in a matter of minutes. Even though I hadn't been planning to stop for another 45 minutes to an hour, I pulled over for a break at the top of the climb.

I was shivering pretty badly, but blasting the heat in the van helped deal with that fairly quickly. Chris was in the driver's seat, and I remember looking at her and joking "these people have quite the summer". At least we could still have a chuckle about it. After taking the first of several quick cat naps (this one was about 15-20 minutes, I think) and throwing on a few more layers, I managed to pull myself together enough to get back on the bike. It was still raining, but the wind was actually somewhat better, so I was happy about that. After a little while we also found a parking lot with some port-a-potties, which was great because that need had been catching up with me.

"The Egg Place"

The next few hours, the road made its way through a pretty valley and eventually on to Egilsstaðir (which we had taken to calling "the egg place"). This was a huge milestone for me, because it was almost half way, and was where the route would change from being mostly eastward to being mostly westward. Also, even though it was the middle of the night, we managed to find an open gas station in Egilsstaðir with hot pizza! I've described this pizza in person to several people as being, simultaneously, some of the best and worst pizza I've ever had. Objectively, it really wasn't very good pizza. But in that moment, after having been blasted by wind and rain and hail for hundreds of kilometers, it was delicious.

The rain had pretty much stopped as we left town, and I even had a bit of a tailwind! Nothing like the epic one at the start of the ride, but it was a luxury nonetheless. This was also one of the few parts of the ride that wasn't on highway 1. We took the smaller route 95 and then an even smaller dirt road 939 (also known as Öxi). There was a beautiful climb on 95 and the first part of 939, followed by a stunning and super steep descent where we met back up with highway 1.

And there, at the junction with highway 1, was the southern coast! Actually, not really. It was the "southern coast" in my mind, but it was really more like the east coast. But it still felt like another big milestone, because most of the climbing of the ride was done, and "all" I had to do was cruise along the coast to get back to Reykjavik.

I was enjoying a bit of food and espresso while pondering this, when we saw two folks riding down the dirt descent. I started to get worried. Maybe Jakub and one of other riders had managed to catch us? According to the race map they were at least 100km behind, not even at Egilsstaðir yet. But maybe Jakub had ditched his drivers and forged ahead? When the riders passed our van, we didn't recognize them. But this "scare" was enough to make me stop dilly-dallying and get back on my bike. As we rolled out, I saw the mystery riders entering a parking lot where the youth group bus was stopped. It turns out they were two of the adult chaperones. I guess they decided not to make the kids tackle the steep dirt climb and descent, but those 2 dudes rode it while the rest of the group took the bus. Phew.

Fjordfest

Based on some ride reports I had read from the previous year, I was hopeful that the wind would be more favourable from now on. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The route for the next few hours took me in and out of a series of fjords. It was quite scenic, but it involved being blasted by wind either on the way in or out of the fjord (usually on the way out). This section also had a series of one-lane bridges, which were kind of stressful. As you approach the bridge, you're supposed to see if anyone is coming from the other side, and yield if necessary. The problem is some of the bridges are so long that it's pretty hard to see all the way to the other side. And sometimes a car would approach the other side, not see me on the bridge (a cyclist being a bit less obvious than a car), and start coming across the bridge toward me.

As we passed Höfn, the van again left in search of fancy coffee, and I again entered an epic headwind sufferfest. When the van rejoined me, I was disappointed to learn that hipster coffee had not been acquired (either the place was closed or non-existent, I can't remember) but I was glad to have company again.

After a small climb and another fjord or two, we ended up at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, where there was a visitor centre with hot soup! While I was slurping it down, Marion was looking at the weather and figured out that the wind would get better in another half hour ish, so she recommended resting and warming up for a bit before heading out. According to the race map, we now had a lead of over 150km, but I was still a bit worried about the Jakub-ditching-drivers possibility. Despite that, the thought of a longer break followed by less wind was appealing, so I took Dr. Marion's advice :) While we were chilling in the van, a friendly American from Hawaii came by and chatted for a bit. She agreed with our assessment of Iceland as "cold Hawaii".

Marion's advice turned out be very good advice, indeed. Rolling out from the lagoon, the wind was a lot more manageable. The next few hours on the way to Vik were much more pleasant than the previous few had been. It was coastal for a bit before going inland, where one of the official ride photographers was on the road and took pictures of me! Then there was a totally surreal and beautiful stretch through "fields" (for lack of a better term) of yellow mossy rocks. We were getting into the third night at this point, so it's possible I was starting to hallucinate a bit, but the mossy rocks looked almost cartoonish, like something out of a video game.

One Million Meters

We rolled in to Vik, more than 1000km from the start, in the early morning. I had sort of been hoping there might be a gas station or something open, since it's a "big" town (for Iceland). But no such luck. So I just had a quick bio break and some food, and then it was back on the road. Leaving Vik involved a pretty substantial climb, but it was quite scenic and I remember feeling pretty decent, all things considered.

I remember the next few hours over to Selfoss being not too bad, gently rolling terrain. The hallucinations were picking up a bit, nothing too severe though (just thinking that a tree or a sign on the side of the road was something totally different until getting close to it, that kind of thing). An incredibly surreal experience that was not hallucinated, though, was an interesting side-effect of having paired my Garmin with my phone (normally I don't use that feature, but we set it up so people in the van could text me). Apparently when you turn this on, it doesn't just do text messages; it also does Google Hangouts (and maybe other "chat" apps as well). Some folks at work started having a chat discussion about how some of our email lists were set up, and I was getting every message of this discussion on my Garmin, half a world away. So bizarre.

The other thing that happened during this stretch was that the fast teams (who started 18 hours after me) started to catch up and pass me. They were all super friendly and cheered me on, but it was a bit demoralizing because they were going so much faster than I could muster. However, before the first team caught up to me, one of the media cars came up and filmed me for a bit, and that was pretty cool.

I was starting to get a bit frustrated and hangry on the last ~20km into Selfoss, so when we found an open gas station there it was a welcome sight. I changed kits for the last time, and Chris improvised some "grilled" cheese sandwiches for me using their microwave. The hot, melty cheese really hit the spot, and I opted for both a Coke and an espresso to round it out. Brooks would later tell me that he knew I would be OK and finish the race when a cheese croissant I had been given turned out to be ham and cheese, and I refused to eat it (I still had enough sense to remember that I don't eat meat :P)

Final Slog

From Selfoss, it was less than 100km to the finish. I was really excited about that, but the "lovely" Icelandic weather wasn't going to make it easy. As we neared the coast, the headwind was again a deafening wall. At least it was sunny. Finally, after a brutally long slog through the wind, the road turned north on to a steep climb. I wasn't going any faster, but at least it was a change. Near the top of the climb, I stopped for a final Coke, and was very ready to be done. Fortunately there really wasn't much more at this point; just a short dirt climb and then a gentle downhill all the way to the finish.

Unbelievable

I kinda messed up the the last turn into the finish area (it wasn't totally obvious, and I was pretty damn tired), but figured it out quickly. It wasn't until I actually crossed the line that the full magnitude of it dawned on me. We had actually done this thing! This crazy, terrible idea that seemed impossible 2 years ago was something I had actually done, with the help of 4 other people who I had also somehow convinced to join me. Completely nuts. At the finish, once they realized I was there, they gave us a pretty good welcome. Photos were taken, interviews were given, and then we retired to the van to enjoy some Pliny, which had been carefully packed and transported all the way from San Francisco in anticipation of this moment.

While we were drinking and chatting in the van, some folks from one of the women's teams came and asked if they could warm up in the van with us, so we got to chat with them for a bit. One of them was from California and instantly recognized the Pliny :)

When we got back to the AirBnB, it was time for showerbeer, food and sleep. My legs were incredibly sore. Climbing and (to a greater extent) descending the stairs in the place was hard. I slept for a solid 6-7 hours before waking up to have more food, upload to Strava and go back to bed again, still not quite believing it was real.

Back: December 2017

email: caffeine@colijn.ca