April 12 2014
15 hours, 2 minutes.
I eased my tired body back into the plush molded plastic and pulled out my phone. From behind the counter came the cheerful shouts of the dedicated Hardees chefs de cuisine preparing a fine gourmet repast. In seemingly no time at all our food arrived. I took out my phone and quickly texted my partner that I had made it as far as 136 miles into the 190 mile ride and hadn’t died yet.
I looked up. In the time it had taken me to fire off the briefest of texts my riding companion had finished his entire hamburger.
That was lesson #37 in a day of lessons learned and re-learned.
Not a Morning Person? Too Bad
The weather forecast presented us with something that we hadn’t seen since last summer: the promise of nice weather. So the turnout for the first 300K of the season for DC Randonneurs was a respectable 50 plus riders. Clustered under the entryway of the Hampton Inn in Warrenton we listened to an inspiring speech from Kelly, our ride organizer–“Anyone know any jokes?”–and then promptly at 5am we were off. In a day-glo swarm, punctuated by piercing red tail lights, our path swept by white halogen, we surged off for a day of adventure. And were promptly halted by a traffic light which apparently the presence of 50 cyclists wasn’t enough to trigger. So, with a collective sigh, we pushed off into the empty main road and rode the rest of the day as fugitives from justice.
“OK, let’s kick the tires and light the fires!” . . . <chirp> <chirp>. . .“Um, so how about them Nationals?”
I’d ridden for a few hours of darkness during last December’s exceedingly painful and slow Woodbine Wallop. But I haven’t yet had the experience of riding with a large group in darkness and I found it utterly compelling. A key part of biking for me is experiencing new sights and sounds, and while an experienced cyclist will likely have participated in a large group event in the daylight hours, most people have never experienced a large number of cyclists at night. Especially in a group, the road ahead is well lit, but even the best quality lights leave the edge of the road a spectral blur, a kind of grey presence at the limits of your vision as if there is something wrong with your eyes. Occasionally details intrude into the lightspill: walls, bushes, trash, road sign beacons breaking the monotony of the dark. It should be nerve-wracking but so far I’ve found it thrilling. Of course, I haven’t had to ride all night. By myself. In the rain. Yet.
Riding north from Warrenton we soon joined some very familiar roads, hitting the 55 just outside The Plains. We had a secret control located here (my first experience with one of those), which was interesting, and then we were back on the road for the long climb into The Plains. Looking ahead, all I could see was a long line of tail lights stretching into the dark distance. From The Plains, it became a familiar ride, one that I’ve done 2 or 3 times for each of the last several years, through Marshall and out to Little Washington. But it was a very strange experience to be doing it in total darkness. . .but a darkness that was already visibly lightening.
It was about this time that Damon and I finally connected for real. We’d met, as men do, in the line for the bathroom, caught up with one another briefly as the group began to spread out, then Damon had to stop, the first of several times throughout the early part of the day where he demonstrated that he was, ahem, quite well hydrated for this particular ride. But then before long we were together and riding companionably as the sun came up over some beautiful, rolling country. With clear skies and almost no wind, it looked as if the weather forecast might actually become a reality.
Having the right ride companion can often make all the difference between a good ride and a great one (and, of course, having the wrong ride companion can start to make you feel that death by Ebola has a bad rap). Damon and I ended up riding the entire day together, which was only the second time I’ve done that on a brevet (the first being down in NC in a blisteringly cold 200K back in January where a tiny field (6 riders) spent the day basically cuddling for warmth). I’ve ridden with people for portions of these events, but as Damon described it, I have a kind of “awkward” pace that always seems to be either too fast or too slow for the groups I’m with. I’ve also been struggling a little to adapt pace-wise with the heavier bike (although starting to get the hang of that now, I think). Both Damon and I have known each other for a while, we are both experienced cyclists, but there’s no getting around the fact that in terms of pace Damon can wipe the floor with me and still have enough of me left over to wax and polish his car. He can easily knock out these brevets in about 2/3 the time that I can, so it was a real sacrifice on his part to stay together.
He certainly must have found it annoying at times–I know I did–because early on in the ride I was starting to feel that it would be something of a mechanical miracle if I finished the ride at all. I’d been riding the bike all week and it had seemed fine, but it had, of course, picked the day of the event to start ghost-shifting all over the place. This made me worry that I’d bent the derailleur or something, but a quick inspection at the first rest stop seemed to indicate that everything was fine. I guessed it was a cable tension problem (it was) and debated whether to attempt to fix it on the road. The thing with triples, however, is that they can be persnickety at the best of times, and fixing it could eat up a lot of time. I decided that unless the shifting proved really disabling then I could at least trim it out most of the time. Still, I rattled and clattered my way through the ride like a drunk making his way down a trash-strewn alley. I’d also replaced my extremely worn cleats and hadn’t thought anything of that. But I was having a lot of trouble clipping in, which led to a lot of comic flailing of the kind that one usually associates with the noob cyclist. The only thing I didn’t do was the whole slip-and-emasculate-yourself-on-the-top-tube thing. Not for lack of trying. The end result of both these things was that I wasn’t able to shift when I needed to, especially on the climbs, or to get going and up to speed as quickly as I wanted. I just tried to ignore those things and not let them affect my enjoyment of the day.
If Damon was annoyed by my repeatedly performing impressions of a five-year old who has just had his training wheels removed he didn’t show it. In fact, he was a great riding companion. If you read his account of his participation in the epic Big Wild Ride you can see he is a guy that appreciates scenery, the look and feel, the sights awesome and strange of the country that you bike through, something that I do also. And there was a lot of really beautiful and striking country that we rolled through today, with the route centered on the Culpeper and Orange area, a part of Virginia that has often left me weeping in pain and exhaustion on the bike in the past but which I’ve grown to love. Even in mid-April there were precious few signs of spring. Winter this year has been a lot like Charleton Heston: if we want spring we’re going to have to prise it out of his cold, dead hands. Most of the trees are still bare, the bushes lining the roadways are still a scraggly mess. But here and there spring was beginning to peek through: we passed many a gun store offering bulk discounts on ammos, free magazine re-loading and a free grenade launcher with every purchase of 10 Bushmasters.
Another advantage of biking with Damon is that he also looks much better in cycling photos than I do. If you are a runner you know that some people are just gifted with a talent for looking like a complete dork in every race photo ever taken of them. They end up with the kind of expression on their face usually associated with processing a painful bowel movement, or are caught mid-stride in some kind of anatomically impossible pose. Well, I tend to have that luck with cycling photos taken of me. I always look grumpy and/or concerned, and while that is usually how I feel throughout most of my daily life that is not usually how I feel on the bike! Damon, however, always looks like he’s just happy to be nominated. Proof positive? The photo at the top of this page. So maybe we should always ride together so our photo karma can balance out. Or maybe we can just continue to be the Felix and Oscar of casual bicycling images.
It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. . .Well, OK, it Never Actually Seemed Like a Good Idea
Wash: “This landing could get interesting.”
Reynolds: “Define “interesting.””
Wash: “Oh God Oh God we’re all going to die?”
Not for the first time I’m forced to acknowledge that the universe has a strange sense of humor. In the blog entry I wrote the night before this ride I wrote about how randonneuring had returned me in some fundamental ways to when I was a kid on a ten-speed heedlessly throwing himself down gravel roads and looking back on it all later with a sense of wonder that no serious injury had resulted. What did I find myself doing on the 300k? Throwing myself heedlessly down gravel roads and looking back on it all later with a sense of wonder that no serious injury had resulted.
We had all known that there was going to be some riding on dirt and gravel on this route; the ride designers were trying something a little different to allow us to see some familiar scenes from a new perspective; for those with skinny tires detours had been provided. The report from the checkout riders during some truly horrendous weather conditions had established that the few stretches of off-road riding would be on well-maintained country roads that would, on the day of the ride, probably be mercifully free of the sheets of water that were sliding across them during the checkout. So I was actually looking forward to this part of the ride a lot; through bad judgment I’ve already ended up doing some off-roading on the Surly and found the steel frame and wide tires (35mm) have kept me planted to the some very dodgy road surfaces (and even a couple of roads that had no surface to speak of).
Be careful what you wish for.
It turned out that, perhaps because of the aforementioned sheets of water on these dirt roads, the local county had in the period between the checkout and the actual ride dumped enough new gravel on some of these surfaces to form a runaway truck ramp.
Things probably would have been a little less terrifying if we’d had some warning of this. But on the very first off-road section a short section of friendly dirt gave way to a precipitous downhill with gravel several inches thick. There were no good lines, it was hard to slow down without locking up and crashing and the hill seemed to go on forever. People who have ridden with me know that I’m not a nervous rider; I’m a pretty fearless descender, for example. But this stretch of gravel had me calling for my brown corduroys. I wish I had video of this stretch but I was too terrified to take my hands off the handlebars and activate the camera. I did film this short section which shows how this section quickly threw unexpected huge patches of gravel at you; you can see Damon coming to a virtual standstill and plowing through the gravel that was so thick it was like trying to ride through sand.
Damon was already cursing under his breath at this point; I’m sure I heard my own name being taken in vain. He was definitely lamenting not having wide tires (even though he was riding turbular 28s, wide and forgiving by the standards of “normal” road riding). But things in 35mm land weren’t much better. Then things got decidedly worse when we rounded a treacherous gravel-strewn hairpin and were confronted with a wall. I mean, this thing was a monster. Because of the turn and the gravel you couldn’t carry any speed into it; before we’d even fully transitioned into the hill my rear-wheel was slipping in my lowest gear. It was at that point that I decided “You know, I probably could climb this if there were willing virgins and substantial prize money waiting at the top, but given that we are barely 50 miles into a 190 mile day. . .I think not.” As I hopped off the bike (not at all sure I could do so without arsing over) I looked up and saw that Damon had done the same. Then, as I began the long trudge up the hill, I fixed my gaze on the ground in front of me, and discovered that we were hardly the first. The dirt was marked by the unmistakable signs of cyclists having dug their shoes forcefully into the slope for purchase. The depth of those footprints in fact seemed more indicative of someone having used crampons and I made a mental note to pack those in my handlebar bag if ever we rode this way again. Ropes and pulleys would also have been useful.
Once we were past the section that seemed designed to kill us by either crash or coronary, you could see why the ride designers had been attracted to this route. As you can see below, there was a kind of stark beauty there; spring was nowhere in evidence and the low morning light (it was strange to think that it was not even 9am (a time I often start many of my rides) and we’d already been riding for hours)) was casting strong parallel shadows across the road as Damon and I duelled back and forth, me on a bike that I still haven’t had the courage to weigh, and him on a bike that would be 7 pounds only with a gentle rime of frost upon it.
And this was only the first of three major off-road sections for the day.
But I’m glad that we didn’t let the initial near-death experiences put us off. Because the second section was just gorgeous. It swung us out to the west of the heavily trafficked Ft. Valley road, putting us amid spectacular valleys and so close to mountains sharp against the blue sky that they looked like elaborate cut-out sets erected suddenly and just for us. When we rejoined the paved world it took me a while to realize that we were riding backward a ride out of Culpeper that I’ve ridden so many times before. Even the hard climb up Etlan road from the other side barely seemed to register compared with the earlier encounter with fields of gravel.
By the time we hit the third major stretch of gravel late in the day, a long straight run through a beautiful, isolated valley stretching out on either side of us, Damon and I had figured out how to ride the gravel with a degree of authority. There were more patches of deep loose stuff here but we were able to ride through them at speed. There was almost a sense of a distant memory returning, my body gently nudging my mind out of the way and saying, “Look, let me take over for a while. Here’s how you do this. . .” As I followed the tiny dust cloud made by Damon ahead of me, dodging the occasional boulder spat out by his rear-wheel I found myself thinking of the ways in which the gravel riding was a metaphor for the larger world of randonneuring. Because the only way to ride gravel is to gear down and keep pedaling while recognizing that there will be moments, sometimes alarming, where the bike will do its own thing. You just have to avoid overreacting and go with it (a bit of a metaphor for life there as well, I suppose!). There will be shimmying, the occasional crazy fish-tail, a loss of traction; you just need to adapt and keep moving, and avoid panicky over-thinking.
While the first stretch of gravel remains one of the most terrifying pieces of riding I’ve done in recent memory, there was a larger point to taking on these kinds of challenges. When riding you have to be prepared for anything. Unexpected route closures on brevets are not unknown; mechanicals and/or fatigue may mean that you need to find the shortest way home on your own and that may not be on a paved surface. In a larger sense, however, this is also part of one of my major goals in tackling randonneuring: to become a more complete rider, to become more self-sufficient.
Drink me a River
But self-sufficiency has its limits and today held more than a few tough lessons for me, many of which were simply that I needed to re-learn some old lessons. I’d felt for the last couple of weeks that this ride might be a little tough, and not really because of the distance. Last week was one of my toughest teaching weeks of the year, involving reading a lot of student work and then meeting with them to talk about it. The latter is pretty mentally draining and doing the former meant that I hadn’t got anywhere near the sleep I would want to have banked prior to a ride like this. I hadn’t been paying attention to my hydration, mainly because I hadn’t really registered what the temperature would be like. When the sun was fully up it made for some absolutely gorgeous riding through the Virginia piedmont.
But the temperature kept climbing. We’d been expecting temps in the low 70s, but at one point Damon announced his Garmin was showing something in the mid-80s. That seemed like a technical glitch until we stopped at the next control and the country store’s thermometer was showing 80 in the shade.
[Sidenote: it was at this control point that Mike Wali, a veteran rider with probably more rides under his belt than I have spokes in my wheel rolled up and announced that he'd just figured out that the reason he was dissolving in a puddle of sweat might have something to do with the fact that he was still wearing a wool underlay. He announced his attention to strip, but (un)fortunately I'd just spent my last singles inside so Damon and I pressed on before the show commenced.]
As a result I drank, and drank, and drank all day. Way more than I had expected to. By the time we stopped at the Hardees for “lunch” I was completely caked in salt in a way I’ve seldom been on even the hottest rides. I cleaned most of it off, but when I finished the ride I was caked with salt anew.
Looking back, I can see the things I did wrong. Apart from my pre-ride prep being less than adequate, I should have put more thought into what riding in those temps when I wasn’t acclimated would mean. I should have drunk more early on, started popping salt sticks, etc. I did re-learn some old lessons (V8 is God’s gift to the endurance cyclist) and learned some new ones (the spicy version of V8 in your water bottle? Not so much). But the end result was that I was flagging by about mile 160. I’m pleased that I at least knew enough to recognize some of the danger signs. I made Damon stop at one point, mumbled something about needing food, and ate more of a Lara bar, took an emergency gel and some salt sticks and that revived me enough to get me to the next food stop where I took in more liquid, V8 (leading to the ill-advised spicy water bottle, because that was the only kind of V8 the place had) and more salty snacks.
This was also where Damon was a great ride companion. He was outwardly very patient (even if probably inside there were a couple of times he wanted to smack me) and he was gently and occasionally encouraging without going overboard. Neither I nor my partner react very well to attempts to jolly us along with extensive motivational speeches and “you got this!” kind of pep talks. Damon seemed to know this, and gave me just enough encouragement to get me through to the finish, and we finished together.
This being the world of randonneuring, of course, there is always an unexpected wrinkle. Finishing the ride would have gone a lot more smoothly if Damon hadn’t tried to take a shortcut through a nearby parking lot which resulted in us having to carry our bikes down a grassy bank into the hotel parking lot!
But we made it. Which is really the only goal.