It was 6:50 a.m. when our wave finally left Fon du Lac. Race the Lake, an 88-mile bike ride around Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, had actually started at 5:45 a.m., when a cadre of tightly spandex-ed men and women took off in a pack, racing to complete the loop in three to four hours.
Since this was my first long-distance ride, I’d signed up for the last wave – Wave 12 – wanting merely to complete the distance before the cut off and without feeling the pressure of a time goal.
As the waves left the start gate, the clothing became looser and the bike frames contained less carbon. By the time my group lined up, the “racers” included dudes in cargo shorts, more than one pair of sandals, and a guy with a lunch pail attached to the front of his bike.
This didn’t bother me – it was comforting to be around my fellow Freds and Fredritas. What did bother me was that we’d lost an hour of time before the 2 p.m. course closure deadline.
Just keep turning the crank
We took off at a blistering pace of 10 mph and spent the first 5 miles of the course chatting with an older gentleman who was acting as a course volunteer. He told us to go slowly, avoid lingering at rest stops, and hold back so we had some gas in the tank for the end.
I chose to ignore his more complicated advice in favor of that of my bike racer friend: “Just keep turning the crank.”
Eventually, he rolled off to find another group and we sped up, cruising through the towns of Fon du Lac and Oshkosh at an average 17 mph pace. I felt good.
The first 22 miles flew by. It was a cool morning, and as we got closer to the lake, mist rose off the surface and wafted through the trees. We stopped at a rest area, and I ate a piece of bagel laden with peanut butter.
‘A real nut buster’
A man next to me in line for the porta-potty spoke at high volume about how the hill at High Cliff State Park was a real “nut buster” and how the real challenge came in the second half of the course.
Not wanting to hear anymore, and riding the high of the easy first quarter, we quickly hopped back on our bikes and pressed on.
We hit the town of Neenah next. I knew nothing about Neenah, except that it is a name that I like to say in an exaggerated Wisconsin accent.
Turns out, Neenah is quite pretty with its shaded streets lined with giant Victorian mansions. Its roads, however, made gazing at said mansions a life-threatening affair. So I watched the road, dodged potholes and made a plan to come back to Neenah some day.
At mile 38, I ate some ginger ale-flavored Clif shot blocks. This wouldn’t normally warrant mentioning, but it was the first time I’d eaten while cycling. I know that this is probably a skill I should have practiced before race day.
Regardless, I managed to eat the blocks without crashing into anyone or hitting a pothole, so it was a small victory. We stopped briefly at mile 46, where some lovely older ladies were preparing fresh sandwiches and slicing oranges. I ate both.
Next up was the “hill at High Cliff” of porta-potty line infamy. It was, to quote the bathroom man, “a real nut buster,” especially with my sandwich-laden stomach. We cranked up, slowly churning past thick forest tumbling down rocky cliffs – scenery rarely experienced in central Wisconsin. It was beautiful, as was the rest of the ride.
Descending from High Cliff, we entered quintessential Wisconsin – rolling hills blanketed in crops and dotted with bright red barns, the lake shimmering in the distance. The second half was hillier and tougher than the first, and one particularly long, steady climb at mile 67 felt a little soul sucking, but we took breaks, ate when we could, and prayed that the weather would hold.
It did. We had a few sprinkles and a brief period of wind, but then the weather cleared and the last few miles were downhill back to Fon du Lac. I finished the ride tired but not wiped and still had gas in the tank for a fun sprint to the finish line.
My biggest fear, crippling rump soreness, never materialized. I learned to eat on the bike, learned how to navigate around people and cars, and learned that I am capable of drinking water while riding next to someone without causing a two-bike pile up.
I also learned that distance cycling may be more enjoyable than distance running. My body didn’t feel as abused, and I can say with confidence that I’ll never enjoy a sandwich midway through a marathon.
Next year I’ll do some more rides and hopefully go faster. Even if I don’t, though, I know I can get through it as long as I keep turning the crank.
Katie Kelberlau Nadolny is a veterinarian, newbie road cyclist and lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three dogs, Maggie, Vegas and Lola.