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Just about every cyclist has woken up unreasonably early on occasion to head out for a ride. But for Nico Toutenhoofd, rolling out the door at 5am isn’t the exception; it’s the norm. And as he’s strayed further away from the beaten path, his choice in bikes has adapted to suit …
Toutenhoofd was like many avid amateur racers 12 years ago, cramming in as many hours in the saddle as he could in between running his own web development business and spending time with his wife. By his estimates, he logged 15-20 hours of training per week, mostly in the evenings after work and on weekends.
“I’d get on the bike at 5:00pm or 5:30pm, or sometimes get out of work early and do 4 or 4:30,” he recounted. “So I would ride until maybe 7pm or 8pm.”
But then he and his wife decided to have kids.
As any cycling parent can attest, raising small children and bike riding doesn’t exactly make for an ideal pairing. Toutenhoofd was nevertheless determined to maintain some semblance of his previous cycling life, but he also wasn’t willing to sacrifice his family time to do it. And then one day, in the early-morning hours as he was soothing his daughter back to sleep, the idea dawned on him.
“My wife and I had this routine where we would alternate who would get up with the crying baby,” he said. “If the baby woke up at 4am, I would just walk around the house and sing to her until she fell asleep, and then I was just awake. I couldn’t fall back asleep so I would often just work. At a certain point, I was like, ‘Well, I might as well ride now.’ I sort of just fell into the routine.”
Once Toutenhoofd could reliably count on his one, then two, young children sleeping for the rest of the night (there’d be no point in heading out for a ride at 4am if it just meant his wife still wouldn’t get any rest, after all), he started dabbling with that early-morning schedule — once a week, then twice, then three times.
“I remember it being much colder than I thought it’d be, and I remember that my light was fine for going uphill — but nearly bright enough for going downhill — and I remember having this little worry the whole time that the babies were going to wake up while I was gone.”
Those solo pre-dawn rides quickly grew to a consistent group of three — all with similar situations at home — and what once felt ludicrously early quickly began to feel normal. When most people are just waking up in the morning, Toutenhoofd has already logged 1,000 meters of climbing.
It also didn’t take long before he realized that riding at that time of day was also much safer. Not only is there far less vehicular traffic on the road to contend with, but with lights blazing, it’s easier for drivers to see him — and for him to see approaching vehicles.
“A lot of people think it’s dangerous to ride in the dark, but I think it’s far safer. Cars see you better, and I can see a car coming from a long way away. People aren’t grumpy yet [at that time of day] — it’s the after-work or morning rush hour where people have road rage, and I miss both of them.”
As he increasingly relished that peaceful serenity, Toutenhoofd eventually replaced his faithful titanium-and-carbon fiber Ritchey Breakaway road bike with a Santa Cruz Stigmata CC gravel setup.
“It was two years ago that I got that bike, and it just removes all stress,” he recalled. “My goal is to have as little traffic as possible. I actually feel like I descend faster on it — the big tires at low pressure just feel so grippy — and I don’t worry about little cracks in the road when it’s dark. When I know a car is coming, I’ll often just go right off the shoulder whereas on my skinny-tired road bike, I wouldn’t tend to do that. I probably ride that bike five out of six rides.”
That switch to a gravel bike has also expanded Toutenhoofd’s repertoire of routes. While there are countless canyon roads that fan out westward from Boulder, many can only be linked by using non-paved connectors that were previously off-limits.
“A lot of these things I maybe knew were there on my mountain bike, but I’ve learned many more. It’s a fun thing for me to go and use Google Maps to plot out a new ride and try to find dirt.”
It’s now been 12 years since Toutenhoofd embarked on his unconventional training schedule, and with his kids now demanding far less attention, it’s safe to say that he doesn’t have to continue on this path. But yet he does – to the tune of 10-15 hours per week – although for reasons that even cyclists without children can easily understand.
“My goal was to take as little time out of our family life as possible, and I don’t have to do this anymore, but I actually prefer it. I find that the later in the day I say I’m going to ride, the less likely I am to do it. When I wake up at 4:15am, I’m tired; coffee is my carrot to get me out of bed and then I’m like, ‘What else am I going to do?’.
“That’s the whole reason I got up, so I always go ride. If it’s one of those things where I have a flexible Saturday, those days I might only be 50/50 as to whether I ride. When I have a really short window, then I always get it done.”
And Toutenhoofd certainly is getting it done. He won the prestigious Mount Washington Auto Road Hillclimb in 2010 (other winners include Ned Overend, Phil Gaimon, Tyler Hamilton, and Tom Danielson), is a perennial favorite at local masters events, and is the current US masters national team time trial champion. Perhaps not by coincidence, two of those teammates are regular partners on those early-morning training rides.
There’s even one additional bonus that perhaps transcends all the other benefits of Toutenhoofd’s regimen.
“I get to see pretty much every sunrise, every day.”