AIDS/LifeCycle: Advice From a Veteran

It’s the time of year when mad cyclists turn their eyes to San Francisco, where they will begin the week-long challenge known as AIDS/LifeCycle.  For personal reasons, I opted to take this year off from the ride, though I am giving very serious consideration to returning to it next year.  My friend, Erin “Blast” Coplan, will be stepping into the saddle soon, though, and while I know she’ll be a total champ out on the ride, I wanted to pass along some things that I learned from my ALC ride last year…stuff I wish I’d known on day one because it would have meant a more comfortable trip.  With that in mind, Blast, here’s some little things to keep in mind as you make your final preparations, and please remember some of this for the road!

  • If you read nothing else, please read this– Have a recovery plan and execute it the moment you rack your bike. This was, ultimately, my biggest mistake.  I would get off my bike, drink some hydration formula, and then promise myself to have a snack after my tent was pitched.  That’s not a recovery plan.  You’ve got an hour, once you’re off your bike, to pump protein back into your body and start repairing your fatigued muscles.  You must do this.  Failure to do this will make progressive fatigue set in, and come the latter half of the ride, you’ll be digging yourself out of a hole.  Keep a packet of recovery drink mix on you.  Don’t wait for gear check.  Don’t wait to pitch your tent.  Don’t wait for a shower first.  Start recovery immediately after racking your bike.
  • Chamois cream is your friend.  Use it religiously.  Put some on when you start each day and add a little more at each rest area.  Yes, it’s goopy and slick and it can make your chamois feel goopy and slick, but it beats the alternative, which is getting a sore.  This happened to me.  I thought I didn’t need chamois cream because, in all the century rides I’d done, I’d never had a problem.  Even well-fitting shorts and a good chamois aren’t always enough.  All it took was one seam pinching some damp skin and I earned a sore I had to treat all week.  If I’d simply used chamois cream from the beginning, I wouldn’t have had this problem to manage.
  • Riders put a lot of effort into being ready to go up hills.  Please be really mindful of how you go down hills.  You don’t hear very much about people having serious injury crashes on an uphill.  ALC has some fairly steep descents in it, and while they’re fun, don’t be afraid to feather your brakes and stay within a safe operating speed for you.  It takes only one bad crack in the pavement or one swerve to avoid something and now you’re falling down a hill at 30 mph.  Going fast is fun, but if you’re going faster than you know how to handle, you’re taking a risk.
  • You’ll start Day 1 riding through San Francisco.  San Francisco is often very foggy in the morning, and you’ll also be doing a bit of climbing in the city, putting you up in what can be potentially thick fog.  At this point in the day, the pack of riders will not have had a chance to thin out.  Keep a little extra distance between you and other riders, because hazards can come popping out of the fog.  If it’s foggy, watch out for water beading up on your eyeglasses, because it will mess with your vision.  Take it easy…day 1 is a pretty long one.  Save yourself for the climbs on the way to Santa Cruz.
  • The Clif Shot Blocks in the blue pouches have caffeine in them.  This is important to know because the coffee at camp is famously weak.  Caffeine is an utterly magic thing to have on long rides, especially early in the day.  Not only does it give you alertness, but it’s mood-elevating and helps hide those casual aches and pains.  Get yourself a good little hoard of those caffeinated Shot Blocks, because they’re powerful medicine and will disappear later in the week when other people start hoarding them.  Also, unless you want to blow a night’s sleep, don’t eat them in the afternoon.
  • Figure out a good daily rhythm with your tent-mate.  I, personally, wanted to hit the trail very early every morning, so my tent-mate and I had a rule.  I would pitch the tent and he’d strike the tent.  This was a great arrangement for both of us because it meant that, at the point in the day when we’d need it the most, the other one would be taking care of the tent.
  • Take it easy on yourself for an hour after lunch.  You don’t have to sit around at the lunch break for a full hour, but do remember that digesting solid food redirects your bloodflow to your stomach and you’ll have less energy for pedaling.
  • For the love of all that is holy, sunscreen your lips!  Put fresh sunblock on at every rest area, even if it’s not all that sunny.  You do not want to be one of those people at the end of the week…your swollen and zinc oxide covered lips making you look like some incredibly sad, spandex-clad clown.
  • The easiest way I know to insure you ride just below your comfort zone– keep riding until you find someone that you’re just barely overtaking.  Ride behind that person.  You’ll make a new friend and you’ll ride just a bit slower than you naturally would, so you’ll have energy left over for climbs and wind gusts.
  • Day Two is not only a long ride.  It’s also a hot ride and it can be windy enough to require you to set a slower pace.  You’ll be between rest areas for longer and doing a fair amount of work.  Make sure you keep your water bottles topped up and make sure to use them heavily, even if that means stopping.  If you go to the medical tent suffering from heat exposure, you may end up losing a day on the ride while they rehydrate you.  Keep liquids in your body and pay close attention to this on days where you’re inland.
  • Two things about hills.  Thing one… Quadbuster and the Evil Twins are the “legendary hills,” but pretty much every day will have a climb that will make you question your choice in hobbies.  Personally, I thought the worst climbs of the ride were actually on Day Five.  They’re not long, but they become suddenly steep and you’ll already be shagged out from the Evil Twins the day before.  Thing two… When you look up at these hills, and you see the road turning up ahead, don’t get all excited and tell yourself that the top of the hill must be up ahead.  You’re on the hill until you’re through with it.  Dial in your climbing gear (I’m not too proud to say that I climb on a “granny gear”), get in a pace you could hold indefinitely, and go with it.  You’ll still finish the day, and you still get to feel like a badass when you finish the hill.
  • While I’m mentioning Day Five, it was the most challenging day for me.  The trail map makes it look like everything’s pretty easy-peasy after lunch, but that’s when the winds started.  Relax, don’t let yourself get down, take it easy, use your rest areas, and just focus on putting miles behind you.  You’ll get to camp.  Just don’t get caught up in the wind and the terrain.
  • I never understood the value of a good massage until I was on ALC.  One of my knees had its ACL replaced some years ago, and I discovered that many days of riding can make that knee feel a little “tweaky,” most likely because the the small muscles around the knee get sore.  Getting a massage on that leg was like erasing a day’s fatigue.  Camp will give you a free massage; use it.  You can probably buy one when you pass through Bradley, so bring money.  You can probably get another one in Santa Barbara.  They’re all worth taking time off the ride to get.  Something will be in danger of becoming chronically sore, and the trick to ALC is prevention.
  • There are a lot of opportunities to socialize at night, but remember that your first job is getting a full night’s sleep.  Day over day, you can’t ride tired.  I’m probably a fairly extreme case, but I was in bed at roughly 7:00 PM every night.  Waking up before dawn, having had a full night’s sleep, is an amazingly refreshing thing.
  • Start the day with a dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and then keep using it through the day.  Don’t wait until you’re sore.  They’re anti-inflammatory drugs.  Stay ahead of the inflammation and you stay ahead of both pain and damage.
  • Keep supplies on you to replace both of your tubes at any point.  Otherwise, you may end up getting sagged.
  • If you do get sagged, remember that it happens to everyone.  We all pull something, break something, or overdo it.  Discretion really is the better part of valor, and it’s always better to ride another day than to not.
  • Remember that, no matter what happens on the ride, you’re out there because you’re a hero.  This ride is your celebration, not your burden, so go out there and enjoy it.

I guess that’s about it.  If this is Blast reading this, then good luck and may the wind be at your back.  If you’re not Blast, why not consider contributing to her ride?

4 thoughts on AIDS/LifeCycle: Advice From a Veteran

  1. Thanks for the info Rhett. I’m doing the ride for the first time this year and have been browsing around looking for veteran advise. I’m still not sure who my tent mate is but I sure am going to take your advise and establish a few things right away. One thing that I’ve been debating is if I should take a inflatable mattress for camping. I know I’ll rest better with it but it can turn out to be a pain to pack away every morning. Did you take one?

    • Hey there! Congratulations on doing the ride. I have dreams of returning to it some year, but I’ll have to pick a year when it can be my centerpiece item. It’s not even the training so much as the fund raising, to be honest. Long tour days were not a huge challenge for me even when I was starting out.

      Don’t worry too much about your tent mate. I had one randomly assigned on registration day, and it worked out just fine. In fact, we made a great team even though we almost never spoke to one another. I would get up very early every morning so that I could be packed and ready to ride when the trail opened. He preferred to sleep in. I also finished the day’s ride hours before he did. So, we had an easy pact– I pitched the tent every day, and he struck the tent every day. We called each other “tent genie.”

      As for an inflatable mattress, I did take one, but not the typical air mattress. While I was buying a sleeping bag at REI, they had on display a sort of air mattress for backpackers. Inflated, it’s not very thick…maybe an half an inch to an inch thick. But, it contains a special foam core in it. You don’t even really blow them up to inflate them. You just open the air valve and they suck in most of the air on their own. It made a great pad and, between that and my sleeping bag, I slept like a rock every night. Oh…I also brought a small pillow (one of those travel neck pillows) and an eye mask.

      Hope that helps. Congrats on doing the ride. It’s an amazing experience. To this day, when I drive around California, I’ll pass landmarks I remember seeing from my bicycle, and I still have to remind myself that I did, indeed, ride from SF to LA on a bike.

  2. I’m also a Ride veteran and Training Ride Leader. We’re starting to talk about packing for the Ride (change of outfits for each day; fleece or something warm to wear in camp; sleeping bags & pads; and yes, sunscreen and lip stuff and chamois creme, etc.), and we’re certainly going to share your excellent suggestions about many real issues not often discussed. Thanks very much, Rhett. I hope we’ll see you next year.

    • Hi, Steve! Thank you very much for the comments and I’m glad to know that my advice can continue to be helpful years later. I do intend to return to the ALC ride one day. I got involved in the startup scene for a couple of years and it took away a lot of training time, but it’s something that’s always on my mind to return to. I threatened to drag some coworkers into it this last year, but we just got side-tracked. But, perhaps next year I will.

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