While I have been plagued with hamstring issues while running this year, I figured I would give the running a break to let the hamstring heal, but concentrate on the bike. Any running irritates the hamstring, yet it is completely unaffected by the bike (although, it has not actually healed and every time it starts feeling better I trip over something to aggravate it, I am certain this has nothing to do with the bike..dammit).
After successfully riding the Death Ride Tour in June, then the 200+mile ride to and from College Station, and the Double Shiner GASP (100 miles Friday, 100 miles Saturday), I determined that I would do the Tour Das Hugel as my “A-Race” this year. Keeping in mind, of course, that the Hugel is not a race at all, but
one of the most challenging ride in Austin. It is a vaguely organized, slightly supported ride for which no one will take credit. But they do have a Facebook page, so it must be legit (amirite?).
What is the Tour Das Hugel? As they explain in the FAQs on their website:
What the hell is Tour Das Hugel?
A ride to Hell and back. Does anyone have a roadmap to hell or a Garmin file? Das Hugel is at least 110 miles of Austin’s most brutal hills. (Some swear it’s up to 113 miles and climbing varies from 10k-13k, but who is counting?)
While the ride features some notable (and memorable) individual hills with steep gradients, there are also hills and more hills leading to those hills.
Should I ride Das Hugel?
So now that we are all on the same page….
A group of about, what, 200 of us(?) met at the pedestrian bridge under MoPac for the 7:00am start down Stratford Drive. I planned on going slow and steady, as a ride like this it would be really easy to blow one’s self up in the first 1/3, suffer through the second 1/3, then have to SAG the last 1/3 back to the truck… and there were no SAG vehicles on this ride. I saw my friend George who I quickly got away from as he is the person most likely to encourage me to do something stupid (Exhibit A – the 100 mile Livestrong Challenge at 20.6 mph), and met my friend Herb who was only going to do the first 40ish loop. I was to meet Rhonda for the second 60ish loop so I wouldn’t be alone out there. I did take the time to print out the turn-by-turn cue sheet, although my plan was to keep other riders within my sight so I would know where to turn because (a) I always get lost whether I have a map or a cue sheet, and (b) I did not have my reading glasses so I could not read the cue sheet anyhow.
We started out on the gentle rollers of Rollingwood Drive out to 360. I was trying to stay with the “big group” and not get separated by the traffic lights (because despite what you have heard, cyclists do stop at stop lights). These folks did not seem the type to wait for the rest of the group at a traffic light. Later, I determined the “big group” was actually the “lead group”- a group I certainly did not plan on staying with over the course of the day. We turned onto Westlake Drive, then Toro Canyon to a road named “The High Road.” No kidding. The High Road is about 1.5 miles long with an average grade of 12% (translation: long and steep). Good times!
Grades – There is a mathematical formula for determining the grade of a hill, but let’s be honest, most of my friends are not the type to pull out an abacus and figure this stuff out and those that are so incline have already figured this stuff out at some point in their lives. This article nicely describes the various degrees of grade of a hill in a friendly way we can all understand – A Handy Guide to Climbing Grades. As a point of reference, what I have found is that anything with more than about an 10% grade will cause me to pull my front wheel off the ground – which is pretty scary since all your steering is in your front wheel and you are moving really slowly climbing a grade that steep, so you really don’t want to be pulling a wheelie. I tried to err on the side of conservatism but if any of my friends want to correct the grade percentages I have indicated for any hill, please do!
Here is a visual. I have no idea if that is even helpful. A 10% looks a lot worse on a bike:
I was concerned about what would happen when we hit the first steep hill being in such a pack of cyclists. If the guy in front of you is going significantly slower it is not easy to pass when we are packed 4 wide. I certainly did not want to ride up on someone’s wheel and crash, or slow too quickly and fall over, so I had to pace myself to the folks around me, giving a loud audible warning (also known as a “grunt” or “breathing really heavily”) when I was going to pass someone so they would not accidentally veer into me. While two bikes “crashing” at 4 miles an hour doesn’t sound like a dangerous collision, no matter how fast or slow one is moving forward gravity will pull you down and the pavement is just as hard, then you would roll back down the hill and no one wants that. I was pleased to find that it was surprisingly easy to navigate around the other riders and once we got into the hills as the group spread out pretty quickly. At this point I determined that (mostly because I am a horrible friend) I had lost my friend Herb never to see him again, (Not, like FOREVER, just on the Tour Das Hugel. I mean, we are riding together this weekend, so we’re still friends…I think)
Having warmed up our legs, our next hill was Terrace Mountain, at 1.2 mile and a 3-6% grade. Good steady climbing. This is the climbing I like best. At this point I hooked up with a riding buddy of mine, John and his companions Don, Tong, and David. I determined that this was a good group to stick with because (a) David actually knew the route and (b) they were in it for the long haul, slow, but steady.
I’m not going to list every hill because, well look at that elevation map. We’d be here all day. I will say that the entire ride was pretty much varying degrees of rollers punctuated with painfully steep hills.
Things I learned: Roads with names that include “Canyon,” “Mount,” or “Mountain” or whose crossroads all end in “Rim” or “Ridge” generally contain some sort of hill.
The next reputed hill we tackled was Cuernavaca/River Hills Rd. This is a loop with a long descent into a long ascent, but the road with the uphill depends on which direction you are heading. After years of hearing about “Cuernavaca” like it was some sort of boogeyman, I was very glad to find that it’s actually a pretty fun loop. We coasted down Cuernavaca and then rode up River Hills, most of the hills were in the 3-5% range, although there is a portion of 8 or 9% grades that will wake you up.
We headed over to Barton Creek Blvd, always a good hilly time, then the final “big hill” on the first loop of the ride, which was Lost Creek Blvd. Inexplicably, Lost Creek is delineated on the cue sheet with one small up arrow indicating that it is not a “bad” hill. Yeah, well, while Lost Creek may only have an average grade of 5%, that is because it is 3.7 miles of three steep hills with a dip between each one. The dip (which is a negative percent grade) gets added into the average. The first and second “bumps” are only about 1/4 mile each with grades of 12%, and the third bump is over a mile long. The the bottom of the hill starts with an average 12% grade then there is a brief flattening and the top averages 8-9%. So I’ll just say, “Five percent my ass!” But once we got to the top of Lost Creek were were done with the big hills on the first loop.
From Lost Creek we had a fairly flat ride back to the MoPac Bridge to refuel and for me to pick up Rhonda who had arranged to meet me at 10:00am. However, strangely Rhonda was not answering my calls or returning my texts…
After using the restroom and getting whatever we needed from our cars, we set out for loop #2…without Rhonda. Again turned on to Stratford, but this time in the other direction where Stratford is a bunch of steep by tiny hills. /\/\/\/\. Now that our legs were all warmed up we headed out to Mount Bonnell (8%) then Cat Mountain (a series of 4-14% hills). Feeling good. I could do this all day! At this point I have been riding for just under 4 hours and I’m not even half way done! Weee!
At about mile 50 we got to what I consider the worst hills on the ride. There are disagreements about which is the worst hill in town. Is it Courtyard or Beauford? Is it Smokey Valley? Is it Ladera Norte after riding Smokey Valley? Meh, doesn’t matter in, the next 15 miles we are going to do ALL of them!
IMO Smokey Valley is the worst. The average grade is a 15%+. Average! So there are actually portions that are 20%+ grades! And the great thing about Smokey Valley is immediately when you get to the top you get to ride up the top of Ladera Norte with it’s 15% average grade. Good [pant, pant, pant!] times!
That’s me in the front. You see how I am leaning way over the handlebars? That’s to keep my front wheel on the ground (and while I look like I am going pretty fast I was actually averaging 3.5 mph – that’s like walking, not power walking, just walking)…
From Smokey Valley we rolled up Bluegrass (12%), then Rain Creek (10%) We stopped at the top of Rain Creek with my buddy Richard,who I was sort of kinda riding with for a little while. He was generally ahead of me with his group but within sight. Rich is faster than me and I was really trying to not go too fast on this ride, so I was not technically riding with him. His wife Linda is the best freaking SAG support a person would ask for (she had driven SAG support for us during the 200+ mile ride out to College Station and back earlier this year). She had water and sport drink, then fig newtons (best cycling food ever!), bananas… you name it, and was willing to help out our little group.
David mentioned that he was not as on top of his nutrition as he should be, but we all seemed to be doing fairly well. I took out a chocolate covered honey peanut butter bar that I found in the bottom of my nutrition bag and packed for the ride. Ugh! It was awful! It tasted like chalk covered in…chalk. I commented to Tong that, while the bar was awful, I would save it for later just in case I really needed something to eat. I carefully re-wrapped the bar and noticed the “sell by” date. May 2011. (Spoiler Alert: I lived!). I took Linda up on those Fig Newtons.
As I reviewed my cue sheet to see where we were heading and what the next hill would be, Linda asked where I got it. I printed it off the website, but hadn’t needed to look at it. I gave it to her as she was ghosting Rich on the course and really needed to know where he would be, and besides, I was with people who knew where we were going ( there’s a little foreshadowing…).
We next headed over to Loop 360, where we would turn onto Lakewood in our quest for Beauford Dr. Beauford is a thing of beauty. Standing at the bottom and looking up is pretty intimidating. The road is harshly textured for vehicle traction (and by “vehicle” I am fairly certain they were not thinking bikes, because the road texture sucks!). I have never tried to drive up Beauford because I do not think my 4 cylinder 1995 Nissan truck would make it (no, I am not kidding). How bad is it? Well, looking down from the top….
Yeah, it’s that bad. While the average grade is allegedly 11% bottom to top (note: I don’t believe that), I have heard stories about parts of it being 24%+. I really have no idea. Beauford is only about 1/2 mile long, so while it is a challenge, I don’t think it is the hardest hill in town, but a lot of people would disagree with me.
After cresting Beauford we rode down Jester Blvd (Weeee!) then over to West Courtyard via 360. Courtyard used to be the hardest hill for me, but that was before I found Smokey Valley which gets points just for sheer steepness. Courtyard is long with three steep sections that get progressively steeper. But Courtyard is also the type of hill that sucks the life out of you, because there are curves in the road that give you the impression that you are just about done with the hill, until you turn the corner and see more steeper hill, but alas you are out of lower gears so you just have to grind it out! Courtyard still get a 10 for being the soul-sucking-est hill in town.
This is the view from the top of Courtyard. I always remind people to turn around and look, because you should get some type of reward for making it to the top – the Austin Skyline! Hey wait, where did the road go?
There was a construction port-o-john at the top of Courtyard (I actually felt sorry for what the construction guys were going to be walking into on Monday ). So we used the restroom as we waited for David. And waited… and waited. John then received a text from David: “Bonked. I’m done.”
Wait, David knew the route. He can’t leave us! OK, now no one in the group really knows were we are going. Don has a GPS computer with a map, but he is afflicted by the same condition I have, Can-see-shit-up-close-itis. He said that he could tell which way we needed to go so long as we were moving because the map would change, but if we stopped he was as clueless as I. Luckily, John still have a cue sheet, so we checked to see where we were heading next. City Park Road (13%). Unfortunately there was no way to check the cue sheet without also seeing that at mile 60 we still had over 40 miles left to ride. Good times!
City Park lead us on a one mile climb with a few turns to a road named Big View. I had never been on Big View before. Never even knew where it was, but apparently we were at the top of it. We turned right and coasted down, down, down, down. At some point we were supposed to turn right onto River Place, but no one really knew where we were going so we headed all the way down to the bottom of Big View about a mile and a half where we hit a dead end, then we got to climb back out. Big View is my favorite type of hill, a long steady climb. The average grade is between 3-4% with some grades as steep as 9% , but you are going up the whole way, so find a good gear and grind it out. At some point we realized we were supposed to have turned onto River Place, so we turned there now and, well lookit that, continued to climb…for another three miles at a 3% average grade (although there were a few down hill breaks on this portion). When we got to 2222 at the top of River Place we realized that at some point we had lost Tong never to see him again (and I may never see him again, really). At this point we had to pull out our maps again, but luckily a group of cyclists pulled up while we were waiting for the light and they knew where they were going (Yay!).
We made our way over to a gas station on 620 to replenish our nutrition (Doritos and Nutter Butters!) and hydration (Gatorade, though I could use a beer), then headed down 620 to the Mansfield Dam which is about 4 miles of downhill.
I have ridden “the Dam loop” many times. Its a very popular route in town, but there is what could best be described as “used to be a paved trail but now looks like the road to The Hills Have Eyes” that goes under the Dam Bridge and will bring you out on the other side of 620 if you are not killed in a bike accident or by lurking psychos. I tried to find a picture of this trail to no avail. So then I did a Google search for “dangerous overgrown trail” and still couldn’t find anything in as bad a shape. So lets just say it was worse then this, but also with a steep downhill grade and giant clumps of grass growing out the middle and we were on our bicycles with the skinny wheels.
Someone had thoughtfully written “SLOW” in red spray pain, then about 50 yards later “SLOWER” just before where the trail was washed out and we would have gone careening to our deaths, and we were able to get off our bikes and climb down. So mad props to whoever the spray paint guys is!
From here we got back on 620 and climbed back up the 4 miles to where we came from. At the top of 620 it was back to just John, Don and I as we had dropped all of our new friends. We headed down River Place and back to Big View, but since we had already climbed it once, we felt like were good for Big View and just turned left and made our way back to the top and through the neighborhoods back to City Park Road. We only had one more big hill: Jester, a 1/2 mile 12% hill, then we were “done”.
While riding down City Park it started to rain. It had been threatening all day with overcast skies and temperatures in the 50’s (up to this point we had good cycling weather, but rain is not good cycling weather). We wanted to climb up Jester and get down Lakewood (the last 10% down hill grade) before the roads got slippery and dangerous.
Jester is by no means the toughest hill in town. However, Jester at mile 93 of a 100+mile ride just might be the toughest hill in town. Normally, I climb seated until I start to gank my front wheel off the ground, then I stand. It is generally easier to climb steep grades while standing because you can use your body weight, but it also uses more energy so it is not particularly efficient. In this case, however, it didn’t matter. This was the “last hill.” It was the last graded hill and the last hill most folks in Austin consider a crazy hill. Mentally and physically, I was beat. The only way I could get up Jester was on a 16/16 count in and out of the saddle. 16 pedal strokes sitting, 16 standing, 16 down, 16 up… Another positive note was that counting to 16 over and over gave me something to concentrate on while I climbed the hill.
Luckily the rain never really got harder and the road up was not dangerous. And can I get a “Woot-woot!” I made it. I completed the Tour das Hugel!! Now all I had to do was get back to my truck at Austin High. By the time we were riding down Lakewood (it has a pretty steep section, but we had to get back down from our big climb up Jester), the rain had all but stopped. Somehow we had manage to avoid the rain over the course of the day. Pretty amazing if you ask me, since I have been told that it rained in Austin throughout the day.
And, yeah. The thing about thinking you are done when you crest the last “big” hill is that it does not necessarily mean you are done climbing hills when you still have over 10 miles to get back to your car.
There actually were a few other hills between the “last hill” and my truck. I will just say that riding on 360 from the Pennybacker Bridge up to Westlake Dr (the long hill at mile 97ish in the diagram above) sucked a lot more than it should have. And the hill from Wild Basin to Bee Caves (that last good bump at mile 101) sucked just like it always does, but perhaps a bit more so on this day. Then we’re gonna call those last 10 miles a cool down: nice and easy back to the car mostly down hill.
So, yeah, I did the Tour Das Hugel! I got my T-shirt and a beer and some potato chips. It was brutal, but it was great! Probably the toughest day of riding I have done. I highly recommend it if you relate at all to this guy: (click link) I am a Cyclist!