La Vuelta Puerto Rico
3 Days. 375 Miles. 1 Island. Oh yeah - in January.
Honestly, I was not sure I could do it. My goal was to try to hang with the fast group - the ‘A’ group, but the first day was around 150 miles . . . the farthest I had ever gone in one stretch was 116 miles at Ironman Chattanooga. My friend, Justin Lowe, had started trying to convince me to do the ride back in September. It sounded like a good challenge - but I was still racing and was more focused on finishing up the season. Then came December. And cold. And gray. I had taken some time off the bike and when I started back I immediately was reminded of just how much I really, really, love to ride my bike. But the cold and gray - not so much. About that time Justin sends me this beautiful beach pic - you know the kind, blue skies, sunshine, palm trees - and the caption read “But this in January!”.
And - I was sold. Within 24 hrs I had registered and booked flights. Jeff and the kids were going to come, and two of my brothers (for the destination not the ride). Justin and his wife (my teammate Martha) have gone the past 3 years, (this was their 4th time) and another cycling friend of ours (Tom Gee) has been eight times. Our friend Mark Green was making his first trip there too - so we would have a good group.
Nothing like signing up to ride that much mileage in that short of time to inspire you to ride your bike - let me tell you. Cold and gray paled in comparison to not being able to complete the distance. Granted, I had a late start, and still felt I had nowhere near the miles I really needed to have a solid ride there - but I was going to give it my best shot.
Friday morning’s ride started in the dark. The ride was divided into ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ riders based on ability. We all rode together as a group for the first 16 miles at an easy pace, and then the groups divided. There was another girl in the ‘A’ group - my friend Jennifer Assali whom I have raced with as a teammate, and we have competed against each other. Let me tell you, I was SO excited to see her there! Her husband, Said, also rode with the ‘A’ group. When the group divided, the pace went from super easy social, to fast and furious. My goals were - to stay safe (ie avoid potholes and sketchy riders), stay out of everyone’s way, to hang with the ‘A’ group as long as I could, and - to have fun. I managed to stay with the group to the next stop - breakfast. And, so it went - stopping every 20-30 miles or so for a break, and then off we would go again. There were some ‘easy’ pace moments - and some ‘race’ pace moments. There were times I wondered if I could hang, and there were times I wondered if I should - ie. by going so hard was I going to be able to make it the entire distance? And - how would tomorrow go? My decision was just that I wanted to see how long I could stay with the group - worse case scenario I would have to drop back . . . but I would face that when it happened.
We had such a fantastic group of riders. There were a group of Puerto Ricans that rode for a local bike shop - “The Bike Shack”. Included in the group was Xavi - a world champion triathlete. Then there was my buddy, Angel. He told me, “My name is Angel, but I am called ‘Velcro’ - ‘cause when a gap opens up, I’m the one who pulls it back together”. And - he could. He took care of me throughout the weekend - often looking back to make sure I was on his wheel, and giving a nod of approval when he saw I was.
Justin was one of the team captains, as was Bobby Lea (a 3 time Olympian in track cycling, and multi-time national champion) and one of the nicest and most humble champions I have ever met.
Everyone in the group was safe, supportive, and all were excellent riders. I got dropped on a few of the climbs, but was able to find someone riding my pace and we would chase until we all regrouped. One - Miguel - I found was my climbing buddy - he was a little stronger than me so I always tried to just hang with him as long as I could.
The scenary was beautiful. We went past sandy beaches, winding roads through small towns, farmlands, and roads lined with trees like tunnels. There were hills to climb, and some fun descents, a lunch at a lighthouse overlooking the ocean, and a night in the surfer town of Rincon.
The last morning our ‘A’ group was down from around 40 riders to about 18. We took a pic with the ocean background, and as everyone was heading down to start Bobby Lea tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Look, there is a whale out there”. As we paused and watched, there it was - surfacing for a brief moment . . . what an amazing sight.
As Justin, Martha and I rode back in towards Old San Juan together, we glanced up and realized there was a perfect rainbow stretched across the sky in front of us. A pretty appropriate finish to an amazing cycling adventure.
So - once again, I have been reminded that our limits are there to be tested. That if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained. That I am so thankful to have friends to encourage and push me to have experiences like this. I would never have ventured to Puerto Rico had it not been for Justin’s . . . ‘encouragement’. But, because I did, I have new friends, a new confidence in my cycling abilities, great motivation to continue to work on my cycling, and some wonderful, amazing memories of an incredible adventure in Puerto Rico. Anyone want to join me next year?!?!?
And, for the record, I will not give a play-by-play account of the rest of my family's trip, but I'll let the pictures tell the tale. I think they had a good time, but you can be the judge . . .