How to avoid those Bonks of Monumental Proportion
By Kennett Peterson
(Kennett Peterson is an Oregon-based road racer with the Hagens-Berman amateur elite squad that competes at national pro/am events around the country, winning the team GC competition at the 2010 Mt. Hood Cycling Classic).
It’s December, which means it’s time to train. At last, it’s no longer that period of time when everyone questions you in a judgmental tone, “Really? You’re already riding 25 hours a week? And you’re doing sprint intervals? It’s only Oct. 1, are you crazy?” No, those few months that separate the end of summer racing and the beginning of winter training are over with. The off season (which some mistakenly call ‘cross’ season) is long gone. Hell, it’s almost January.
For those of us who don’t remember how winter base miles work, let me first tell a story explaining how they DON’T work. Here we go:
A few weeks ago I set out on a long, hard ride with a training buddy, Michael, who was in charge of planning the route and directing us during the ride with our hand-written map. We had just arrived in Solvang, Calif., where we’re training for a couple months this winter, and neither of us had any idea what any of the roads were like or where we were heading, really. But we had done our homework the night before on ridewithgps.com, and our directions were freshly laminated in a thick sheet of clear packing tape (the best way to preserve a homemade map while it sits in a damp pocket for five or six hours).
We got a late start that morning, since the massive bowl of fruit I ate for breakfast required a massive amount of time spent in the bathroom, dispensing a massive amount of mostly digested fruit. Already, our plan for the day began deteriorating before we even got on the bikes: our route of 105 miles and 7,800 feet of climbing would now most likely end in the dark, because we didn’t start before noon.
Michael had a threshold test to do that day, so we rode for a half hour to warm up, then he took off by himself to slog out twenty minutes of grueling pain. It should be noted here that doing a 20-minute threshold test is not advisable when you plan on riding a century afterward, especially if you’ve been off the bike for a month or two.
I caught up to Michael a while later in a small town where he was waiting for me. I asked if we should fill up water bottles, and he said we didn’t need to because there were “tons of towns we’re gonna pass through later.”
I was feeling strong, so I took the lead while Michael drafted. When someone is drafting me, it makes me want to go harder. So I went harder. This caused Michael to comment on how fast I was going, which made me go even harder. This caused him to complain about the speed, which, again, made me go even harder. There’s no better satisfaction you can get on the bike than knowing the people behind you are suffering because of you. And I’m not just talking about the consequences of me eating that large bowl of fruit for breakfast, either.
On we went, passing through not “tons” of towns along the way, just one. Michael barely realized it since his head was down and his eyes were crossed.
At about mile 50, he informed me that the town we had just passed through, roughly 15 miles ago, had been the last town to get water and food.
Me: “Uhh, are you serious?”
Michael: “Yeah, whoops. Sorry.”
Me: “What the f—k?! I have half a bottle left. No, I have less than half a bottle left. There isn’t another town anywhere up the road?”
Michael: “Not until we’re about five miles from home.”
I swore at him some more at that point, clicked up a few gears and ramped up the pace in anger as we came up to a steep hill. I’d make sure he paid for his mistake. The ride “planner” (in this case Michael) is in charge of knowing the route and towns along the way where we can re-stock food and water. I just made up that rule right then, to help myself confirm that this was solely his fault, not mine.
Me: “Well, I’m probably good on food. I have two sandwiches left. You?”
Michael: “Uhh, not so good.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Michael: “I’m out of food.”
Me: “Really? How much did you bring?”
Michael: “Two cliff bars.”
Me: “That’s it!? For a 100-mile ride? All you brought was two cliff bars? How long have you been racing? Five years now?”
Michael: “Well I thought we’d stop for food.”
Me: “Well you f—-d that up now didn’t you?”
I ended up giving him a sandwich and we continued riding. Actually I lied earlier. He told me we’d passed the last town only three or four miles after we went through it, not 15. So in reality, we could have easily ridden back to the town and gotten plenty of food and water for the rest of the ride. But of course we didn’t do this. I mean, who would go to all that trouble?
No. We hammered on. I kept up the pace and Michael grew quieter and quieter. The bonk was coming for him. I was relentless. I didn’t care if he was in pain. I didn’t care if he would bonk 40 miles from home in a part of the country he had never been before. I was mad that I had to give up my sandwich and I was mad that I wouldn’t have any water for another two and a half hours. Two and a half hours…yeah right.
Eventually with about 30 or 40 miles till home, I took a glance back and saw that Michael was no longer behind me. He was long gone.
I felt strong for another 20 minutes and then I started feeling the bonking quickly and inevitably approaching. You know it, that terrible light-headedness and empty pit of a stomach sensation that proceeds the true bonk. I began to sweat a bit extra, which seems to happen during bonks as well. Not a heavy sweat from being hot. A cold, chilly sweat that leaves you cold and clammy even if it’s hot outside, which it wasn’t. In fact, it was beginning to get cold as the sun was now perched low behind a mountain, just minutes away from retiring for the night.
During the day it had been warm and sunny. Not super hot or anything, but in the upper 50s, lower 60s, which felt pretty damn nice coming from Portland, where a few days earlier I’d been doing intervals in a snow storm.
I was wearing arm warmers, knee warmers, and a wind vest. Once the sun set, I realized it wasn’t going to be even close to enough. A heavy fog came from nowhere, and once the sun finally disappeared it dropped down to the upper 30s.
The bonk, now in full swing, made me continue to sweat. I started going slower and slower. I remembered I had an old Hammer bar in my bike seat bag for emergencies just like this. I stopped and ate it. It tasted amazing. Unfortunately, it did nothing for my energy stores. At this point, my glycogen was down so low I was pedaling at a grueling 125 watts. I had been easily cruising at 300 for the previous four and a half hours.
Now it was pitch black. I was shivering as I rode down the country road. No cars passed. I passed no homes or stores. I navigated my way by following the double yellow line down the center of the pavement. I coasted down every hill. Then I started coasting on the flats too. I started dreaming up a plan to stop and raid a beehive for honeycomb if I happened to pass by one. Yes, I was that cracked.
I’m pretty sure the only thing that kept me going was my beehive dream. I eagerly scanned the sides of the roads for the stacked white boxes that I’d seen earlier in the day as we passed by farmers’ fields. I salivated as I imagined eating thick slabs of honeycomb, honey and bees alike dribbling down my face as I gorged on pure sugar, the only thing that can revive one during a bonk of this proportion.
I began wondering if I was on the correct road. Michael had told me to take this Santa Rosa road and that there were no other turns until I got to Buelltin, which was just five miles from home and I knew how to get home from there. The problem was that Michael had told me this while he himself was bonking right before I dropped him. And also Michael is terrible with directions.
The road ahead seemed to never end. Occasionally I swerved from the left to right lane, not quite ble to hold a straight line without deep concentration. I stopped every five or 10 minutes to rest on the side of the road. I could have been mugged and beaten up by an infant with Polio. I was so weak I was having trouble holding my head up. I had never bonked this badly before. Or if I had, it had been years and years and I had put it out of memory. During my first year of riding I ended most rides with bonks, since I didn’t bring food and I rode as hard as possible for three or four hours no matter how tired I felt that morning as I headed out.
At last, I saw some light far away. This greatly improved my mental state, and I increased my speed from 7 mph to 7.2 mph. That ridiculous speed only lasted for a few minutes though, and I went back to the more reasonable 7 mph.
The lights stayed the same distance away for maybe about 12 hours of riding. I’m not sure actually. But they stayed a long ways away for a long, long time.
When I finally got close to the lights, I realized they were coming from someone’s mansion way up on top of a hill, not the city Buelltin. Before I reached Buelltin, I would repeat this process of seeing lights way up the road, getting my hopes up, then being crushed every time when I found out they were just from someone’s house, or in one case, a car.
After riding severely bonked for well over an hour, I arrived in Buelltin. My dreary eyes, half closed, spotted a gas station on the left. I rode straight though a red light at a busy intersection and went left without looking as I headed for the bright lights of the AM-PM or whatever it was. I almost hit a parked car in the parking lot before I got off my bike and nearly fell over. I swayed back and forth like a drunk. I leaned my bike up against the building and reached for the door handle. I missed it by a good foot and almost fell over backwards since I had been getting ready to pull the door open, and had anticipated the effort it would take would require putting my weight into it. I regained my balance and tried again. I made contact with the door handle, but it was labeled “Push” not “Pull” so I had a few moments of confusion and great frustration as I tried and failed to get to the great quantities of food, now in sight but still beyond reach.
I staggered in, teeth chattering from the cold and stomach groaning in emptiness. I grabbed the first thing in sight, which was a Twix bar. I tore it open with my teeth since my hands were too numb to function, and spat the wrapper out on the floor as the gas station attendant watched in confusion. I ate the two chocolate cookies, caramelly, gooey, crunchy wonders. It was pure bliss. It was, hands down, the most satisfying thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. I immediately grabbed another bar and tore the wrapper open in the same manner, spitting more wrapper onto the floor. I devoured it, standing and swaying in the middle of the brightly lit fluorescent store. Next up was a king-sized package of red cinnamon gummy bears. Pure high fructose corn syrup. I paid, not saying a word since speech was still well beyond my capabilities, and I sat down on a bundle of firewood on sale. I made love to the gummy bears.
While I plowed my way through the cinnamon bears, an old Asian man approached me from behind and jabbed me in the back with his cane, practically yelling at me in Chinese. I was confused, but not deterred from my gummy bears. I ignored him as he continued to complain in Chinese and jab me in the side with his cane. The gas station attendant came over and apologized, but said his father (the store owner) was saying I couldn’t sit there on the firewood. I looked up at the gas station attendant with a blank stare, and crammed another handful of cinnamon bears in my mouth. Red bear juice flowed from my mouth and down my chin.
I wasn’t going to move. And I didn’t. I stayed there, eating gummy bears as I sat hunched over, hugging myself in an attempt to warm up. I had been hoping for a hot chocolate/mocha machine, but this gas station didn’t have one, and I wasn’t yet prepared to head back outside in the cold for the five miles home.
Partially recovered after 15 or 20 minutes of zoning out, I made it back on my bike and headed down the street. In sheer luck, I saw Michael riding on the sidewalk up ahead of me. He’d just gotten into town and was dazed and confused as he rode along at a couple miles an hour. He was in bad shape.
We stopped at another gas station, and someone I had met at a Christmas party a few nights before recognized us and stopped to talk. He blocked my way as he stood in the doorway. I had no clue who he was as he grasped my hand in a firm handshake. My hand was completely limp. I made no effort, nor could have, to shake his hand in return. I interrupted him as he started asking us about our ride, and shouldered my way past him. I mumbled, “Sorry, but I’ve got to get around you. I need food.”
Again I entered the gas station and got the first thing I saw. This time it was a hot dog. I pumped about a cup of ketchup on it from the ketchup pump and took a huge, sloppy bite. Luckily, I had chosen a hot dog with fake melted cheese inside. The cheese oozed out, mixed with the ketchup, and splattered all over the floor and on my shoes. I couldn’t have cared less, except for the fact that it meant less ketchup and cheese for me.
Michael was off roaming the aisles, eating an apple pie in one hand and a Snickers bar in the other. I found a hot chocolate machine and drank three, 16 ounce-cups, each filled a third of the way with half-and-half creamer. We stood in the store, leaning heavily on the hot dog counter until the sugar hit us. And damn, when it hit, it HIT!!!
We paid, walked out, and nailed those last five miles so hard I’m not sure if cars were passing us or we were passing the cars. I almost ran some pedestrians over while they were crossing the street, them not realizing I was crushing it at 32 mph in a 25mph speed zone. They yelled at me as I swerved around them, Michael in tow hanging on for dear life. And before I knew it, we were home. Just like that, the agony was over. I got in the shower and stayed there for half an hour as my whole body vibrated out of control from consuming 4,000 calories of sugar in 20 minutes.
So there you go. Now that you’re starting to do some long rides again, remember to bring food, have an idea of the route you’re going to take, dress for cold weather, make sure you aren’t ending the ride in two hours of darkness, and start out with something under 100 miles. Basically, don’t ride like a pre-Cat 5 who just bought a Trek 2200 a week ago and has never been on a road bike before.
• Off-Season can’t Slow Disciples of the Harden Up Church, Oregon Cycling Action, Nov. 3, 2010
• “Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Innocent,” Oregon Cycling Action, Oct. 21, 2010
• “How I Got That Job,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 17, 2010