Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | April 22, 2011

Biking Camp Day Two: The Highest Highs and The Lowest Lows

When I was little, about seven years old, a submarine came to visit our small seaside town in Massachusetts. It docked at the town wharf and was available for public tours. I remember standing in line with my brothers waiting to board, melting in the summer sun while seagulls soared overhead. Finally, it was our turn. As we got on the ship, however, we had to crawl down a hatch into the submarine itself. I started by going down the hatch the way I’d walk down stairs, facing forward. However, I soon realized it was too steep to navigate that way. I paused in the dim light, frozen. I heard grumblings above me. Apparently I was holding up the line. I yelled to one of my brothers for help. He told me to turn around and climb down it like a ladder. After several confused contortions of my body, I swung myself around. By then, however, people above were clamoring to find out what the hold up was. I felt rushed and afraid. I wanted to see the submarine, but I panicked. I squeezed myself past the grown ups above me and crawled back onto the surface of the ship. To this day, I’m disappointed that I didn’t stick with it. My brothers later reported that there were only a few more steps to the bottom from where I’d bailed out. I was mad at them for not talking me through it, for not convincing me to continue on. Most of all, I was mad at myself. I still am. I tell my kids that story all the time. They roll their eyes.

I pedaled out of the parking lot on Day Two of biking camp, pushing away the feeling of dread that pressed down on me. The day’s ride was considered the toughest of the week, with a massive climb at about the 35 mile point. What’s more, I’d been lumped (God only knows why) with the “A” group – the fastest riders – while the “B” group was taking a van shuttle out to a spot near the base of the climb. I had to fight the urge to ditch my group and hop in the van. I did not belong with this group, and I was afraid the ride to the climb would take all my energy, leaving me spent on the side of the road long before the first elevation gain. What’s more, we had a century ride scheduled for the next day. Certainly, I was not capable of doing two major rides back to back. I was in over my head.

I reluctantly clung to the back of our little peloton as we made our way through the streets of Santa Rosa. These women were all stronger cyclists than I was, and the vast majority of them had ridden together the day before. To me, however, they were strangers. Hyperfit strangers. I timidly trailed behind.

Then Robbie Ventura, the founder of VQ and coach extraordinaire, rolled up beside me for a pep talk. He totally had me pegged. He noted that I was probably feeling unsure of myself (yup!) and I might be intimidated by riding with such a strong group (got that right!). However, he convinced me that I would be fine, provided I got closer to the front instead of allowing myself to get repeatedly flung off the back. Robbie had been with me the day before – I had spent virtually all day riding with him – so I figured he knew me well enough to accurately assess my abilities. I discussed with him my penchant for being a tad wimpy, for not wanting to appear too aggressive. He assured me that I would be able to get further up in the group without being brash. Sure enough, at a traffic light, the group fractured and I found myself closer to the front. Turns out, that Ventura guy really knows what he’s talking about. The pace was more even, my effort level dropped, and although I was still stressed, I wasn’t working quite as hard. Alas, a stiff headwind picked up. Just when I was starting to doubt myself again, we arrived at our pre-climb rest stop to have some snacks and refill our bottles.

At the stop, Robbie gave us an update on the road ahead. It turns out the route had some cow grates and gravel patches, although it was mostly paved. The steepest grades, he assured us, were paved. However for those who didn’t feel comfortable navigating the road conditions, a group would be heading back the way we came – paved road all the way, and no steep climbs. Either option, he assured us, was fine.

What to do, what to do. The group was split – some people going ahead, some people turning around. I looked at the unpaved washboard road ahead. I channeled my inner Montanan, reasonably well versed in both cow grates and gravel. I’d come all the way to California to ride hills right? I wasn’t going to let a 15 percent grade intimidate me. Ahead I went.

Of course, I’d forgotten about the fact that I’d likely be the weakest rider in the group. Within moments, I was by myself. The scenery was stunning: untouched wilderness and bucolic views. I was alone with my thoughts and the birds. But every now and then Robbie would sneak up on me. “Gelber!” I’d hear his voice ring. As the hill got steeper, he came by several times to chat, trying to take my mind off the climb. Then he’d zip ahead or double back to check on someone else and I’d settle back into my slow but steady pace.

Just as I was thinking “This isn’t so bad,” the climb got steeper. Relentlessly steeper. The motorcycle escort came back to check on me.

“Eight-tenths of a mile to the top from here.”

Huh. OK, that’s not bad. Less than a mile. Then I looked down at my pace. 2.7 miles per hour. It was a miracle I wasn’t rolling backwards. I did the math and realized at that pace, eight-tenths of a mile would take me all day. At least I knew I wasn’t last on the road, there were two other riders behind me. Until, that is, I saw the support van pull up next to me with two riders sitting in it.

“You ok?”


“Wanna stop?”


“Okay! See you at the top!” And up they went.

Soon enough, Coach Tobias, who apparently had been behind me escorting the last of the riders, rolled up. Tobias is a German, now living in Switzerland, who came all the way to CA just to coach us. He’s a meticulous, considerate and cheerful man. I was in no condition to talk, but Tobias chattered away in his delightful German accent.

“You are almost there! Just keep pedaling! And keep smiling! Smiling and pedaling! Pedaling and smiling!”

We came around the corner and Tobias declared “It’s right there!” I looked up. I saw the van, a vision of white metal glinting in the sun just a few hundred feet ahead. Unfortunately, it looked like the van was parked on top of a ten story building. A ten story building that I had to ride up. Straight up.

But miraculously, I made it. A 2700 foot climb over less than 7 miles, with a huge chunk of that elevation in the last mile. According to my PowerTap, the grade had been 18 percent at one point, although another rider reported hers said 20 percent. I stood at the top, dripping with sweat, amazed that I had done the whole thing.

Unfortunately, the day went downhill from there. And I don’t mean the road.

I wanted to do the descent down the other side. However, thanks to the headwind and a detour on the way to the climb, we were behind schedule. Add the fact that I was slow as molasses and we were way behind schedule. It was already well after 2PM when I got to the top. Heck, lunch was only scheduled at the hotel until 3:30 and at this rate we might not make it back in time. Plus, although we had conquered the toughest part of the climb there was another smaller hill on the other side. So, when Coach Dan gave us the option to take the van to the bottom, thereby skipping both the perilous descent and the second climb, everyone readily agreed. All except me. “Are you doing the descent?” I kept asking people.

“No, no,” they all replied as they climbed in the van.

I wanted to do it. But it was late, everyone was tired, and I didn’t want to make anyone wait for me – these poor women had already waited for me long enough. And most of all, the fact that no one else was doing it made it seem like a supremely bad idea. Maybe I shouldn’t do it either, I thought. And so it happened: I opened the door and let that momentary hesitation in. It sprouted roots and took hold. I had a snap decision to make, and I chickened out. I climbed into the van.

About halfway down the hill the van caught up with the riders ahead of us who had dared the descent. The wind was blowing fiercely. The grades were treacherously steep. I was both relieved and angry that I wasn’t attempting it myself. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, I was cold and crabby and disappointed and did not want to get back on my bike. I stayed in the van the whole way back to the hotel, which I can now say was a huge mistake. I should have done the descent and I should have done the last, flat portion of the ride. I allowed myself to talk myself out of it, and it’s the great regret that I brought back in my luggage from California. It’s like fleeing that submarine all those years ago. Stop rolling your eyes.

So, when I look back on that ride, I’ll remember that I made it to the top, but I’ll also remember that I didn’t make it to the bottom. Next year, however, I vow I’ll do every mile of every ride, even if that means inconveniencing others or missing lunch. Of course, I’ve already vowed that next year I’ll be at Club Med, knitting.


  1. just caught up on the travel log and it sounds fabulous….and at least you didn’t do a pre-ride ride to get prepared for the ride…y’know like the manicure prep….

    pat yourself on the back and shout “well done!”

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