Gravity is the enemy … momentum is your friend

My training plan called for a 3.5 h ride today, with 2 x 20’ at functional threshold power (FTP), with a 4’ break in between. When doing workouts like this the challenge is to find a road where you can maintain your FTP since there are often interruptions, such as pedestrians or other cyclists. I decided that the ideal route for doing this was to revisit the road I ran yesterday as it was a long uphill section, although I didn’t know exactly how long. As it transpired, it was long enough for it took me 1 h to reach the top, climbing just over 1000 m in 17 km. And that was just the start of a very nice 80 km ride.

Tbilisi Hill

Having learned from last weekend’s interrupted ride into the mountains when it rained, I was prepared today just in case the weather turned. However that seemed unlikely as it was a beautiful sunny day in the low 30’s when I headed out of the Tbilisi Mariott hotel. The security guards gave me some grief a week ago when they saw me with my bike in the lobby, but I spoke to the manager who relayed the message that it was fine for me to keep my bike in the room. Today they were helpful instead.

I cycled along Rustaveli Avenue, past the Parliament Building and the ‘Cells’ that blocked the road. Rustaveli is the main road in Tbilisi, their Champs Elyse, but the opposition had blocked it several months ago in protest against the President. They erected a number of booths with, in English, the words ‘Cell’ followed by a number on them to symbolize the oppression of the current government (in their opinion).  Since the Georgian Constitution allows such demonstrations, there has been nothing the government could do. So the road remains blocked. On Thursday there was a large demonstration of taxi drivers demanding the road be reopened, but to no avail. It was sad to see the businesses along the road that were thriving earlier and are now closed. Very irresponsible.

After a few minutes I turned off Rustaveli and started climbing. There was a fair bit of traffic, which had me somewhat intimidated, but I focused on cycling defensively and ignoring the Georgian drivers as best I could. One performed a typical Georgian manoeuvre:  he passed me and then immediately pulled over and stopped. I wish I knew the Georgian word for idiot. Anyway, that was the sort of thing I was prepared for, even though this was my first time cycling on the streets in Tbilisi: it has taken me a long time to get up the courage to do so!

Soon I was on the road out of town, passing this monstrous building done by a Georgian billionaire, and friend of the President.  It dominates the skyline of Tbilisi having been built near the Mother of Georgia statue. With its modern architecture, including helicopter pad and golf course, it is so out of context from much of Tbilisi’s lovely neo-classical architecture.  The traffic was moderately light, which meant reduced exposure to idiots, and soon I was out of town in the countryside.

For one hour I climbed continually, managing to hold it near my FTP, so I achieved my goal of a good workout – much harder than the 2 x 20’ with 4’ rest. After this hour my legs were somewhat trashed so I was glad to come to some slightly rolling terrain. Emphasis on the word slightly as there was still a lot of climbing. It was just gorgeous, with alpine meadows with flowers and the mountains heading off to eternity. Below are some pictures – taken with my camera phone so apologies for the poor quality. The hands were also a bit unsteady!

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The road was very lightly trafficked so it was a pleasure to ride, except for the surface which was in very poor condition.  I was pleased to come to a part of the road with a very nice and smooth pavement as that let me focus a bit more on my cycling technique rather than having to worry about dodging holes and patches.  I was thinking what a nice job they had done on this road when I realized that it had been rebuilt two years ago as part of the World Bank financed ‘Secondary and Local Roads Project’.  I had been here a year ago, by a different route, reviewing the road and I was very pleased to see that it was still in excellent condition, with only a very few localized problems. I made a note to complement the Chairman of the Roads Department on this.

My wife Lis loves the mountains and I wished she was here today, although sensibly she would not ride something like this but do it in a car. I was reminded of her by all the poppies growing near the road: one of our favourite memories is cycling in Denmark where she is from with fields of poppies.

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I had decided to do a 100 km out and back ride but after just over 40 km the sky ahead became dark which signalled an incoming storm. Discretion is the better part of valour so I turned around and headed back. I stopped at a small kiosk next to the road and bought a bottle of Nabeglavi water. This is the tastiest water I’ve had anywhere, I can see why it is a popular Georgian export. They have these small kiosks everywhere and I don’t know how they survive. When I told the women to keep the change for the water as I didn’t want the coins she refused, even though I’m sure she has a real struggle with a kiosk in the middle of nowhere.  At least it gave me an excuse to practice my non-existent Russian (to say keep the change you say ‘ the rest is for tea’).

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As I was enjoying my Nabeglavi I heard thunder from where I had just come. Good call to turn around. That inspired me back on the bike and I headed back towards Tbilisi.  With more descents now, I was able to travel at a good speed, helped by the good quality World Bank financed road. Unfortunately, there was debris on the road in forms of stones and at one point I hit a rock.  From the sound of the impact I knew there would be a problem and sure enough my front tyre was immediately flattened. Bother.

I pulled off the road and watched by an old woman moving her cattle with the help of two dogs I did a quick tyre change.  Some years ago I mountain biked the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. With up to five punctures a day—it is the world’s longest off road mountain biking route—I became an expert at changing tyres. It didn’t take too long before I was back on the road again.

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Unfortunately, even though it only took me some five minutes to change the tyre that was enough time for the storm to DSC00260catch up with me. The temperature dropped and the skies darkened. I put the hammer down and just kept on going, hoping to outrun it. I made great time, hitting 65 km/h on some of the downhill sections.  There was no coasting, just keep pedalling and dodge the potholes on the road.

The closer I got to Tbilisi the heavier the traffic got. I passed trucks and buses and even a few cars, thoroughly enjoying the downhill run, particularly the last 17 km. I remembered my friend Kat’s saying: gravity is the enemy; momentum is your friend.  How right she is. There is nothing more fun than flying downhill on a bike with a good road and little traffic.

About 10 km from Tbilisi, as I was duelling with a white BMW (passing him who would then pass me) my cell phone rang. It was Lis. I told her that I was out for a ride and we’d talk later. Then back to Mr. BMW.  All too soon it was over and I wound my way through Tbilisi’s back streets and onto Rustaveli. Crossing the municipal square with the statue of St. George was terrifying as not only was there a lot of traffic but there were several wedding cars honking like made. Anyway, made it back to the hotel with a very pleasant level of exhaustion.

As mentioned earlier, this was my first time riding my bike outside in Tbilisi. My concerns about traffic are valid as they really is a disproportional number of dangerous drivers here. However, the ability to soon be in the mountains offsets that so I’m sure I’ll do more rides like this in the future. The map below shows my final route.

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