By the Numbers

Paul’s Paradise 200K Brevet
October 5, 2013
Poolesville, MD

229.  238.  365.  567.
While these numbers look a bit like an IP address, they in fact represent an accomplishment of which I am particularly proud.

The numbers above represent my mileage totals for June, July, August and September.

Regular readers of this blog will remember that back in May I was hit by a car, resulting in a broken collarbone, concussion, assorted scrapes and bruises, but only a barely perceptible scuff to the bike.  In a good luck/bad luck kind of outcome, my collarbone was broken far out toward my shoulder, resulting in the doctor’s unhesitating decision to undertake surgery and plate it (a procedure that actually appears to be more the norm in places where there exists a high concentration of professional cyclists but which is definitely not standard around here).  The accident effectively put paid to most of my cycling plans for the year including two epic rides (Mountains of Misery and the Garrett County Gran Fondo) and a bike tour that my partner and I had planned.

Prior to the accident I had been averaging a pretty healthy accumulation of between 500 and 600 riding miles a month since the beginning of the year.  Now I was faced with not being able to ride outside, and the prospect of losing a lot of that fitness and stamina I had felt steadily increasing over the course of the year.  There was no choice but to set up the bike on the trainer inside and do the best I could.  Well, I guess there was a choice.  I could not have done anything.  But that wasn’t really an option.  So two weeks after the surgery I was back on the bike, inside, working my way through podcasts for Backstory and On the Media.

June (229) and July (238) don’t, from one point of view, look like much.  But those numbers represent the accumulation of sessions that were half and hour or 45 minutes at a time, every day, six days a week.  We were well into July before I was strong enough and sufficiently free of discomfort to bike on the trainer for an hour.  It was August before I was cleared to ride outside for short distances (I interpreted my surgeon’s instructions rather liberally, however; short being an entirely relative term, 40-50 miles seemed like a good starter “short” distance).

Then I gradually built the distance back up.  I was patient for the most part, but I was also pushing it.  There’s a general “10% rule” that advises increasing your weekly mileage by no more than 10% to avoid injury, and I was definitely pushing the outer boundaries of that.  I went from 70 to 100, for example, but thought I could get away with it because the 100 was on the Eastern Shore with the largest climb being when I ran over a squirrel corpse.  Then it was a jump from 100 to 128.  I’ve built up a good athletic base over the years, but base is just what it sounds like; it has to be activated, built on, and the construction needs to be solid if you want it to last.  So my body creaked and groaned from time to time, but it held up.

I’ve done a lot of things in my cycling life that have given me a strong sense of accomplishment.  But those four sets of numbers, the steady increase back to something like my previous level (collarbone has now technically healed, but I’m still working on getting full mobility back) showed me a discipline and patience and a refusal to get discouraged that I didn’t really know I had.

The Other Side of Paradise
One reason I had wanted to get my mileage back up is because I had set myself the goal of riding an October brevet as the start of my return to randonneuring.  I had done a couple of 200Ks prior to the accident and decided that I really enjoyed this kind of riding, and was looking forward to doing some more, until the ticking time bomb that is riding the city streets of the DC region finally caught up with me.  But I want to undertake some of the longer rides next year, so I need to gain more experience over the fall and winter.

But I didn’t really feel ready for this ride.  First of all, there was the fact that I had ridden a 200k the weekend before, joining my Team Z peeps who were getting their last long ride in before tapering for Ironman Florida.  I was still a little tired from that, partly because it had, as I mentioned, been a bit of a distance jump.  Moreover, I knew that there would be a reasonable quantity of climbing in this brevet, and with the exception of a couple of rides out at Marshall and on the Mont Tremblant Ironman bike course in August I hadn’t done a lot of climbing.  The 200K the weekend before had been relatively flat, with only about 3000 feet of climbing over the entire distance.  I had done everything I could do, so I was at peace with it all, but that didn’t mean that as I unloaded my bike in  Poolesville parking lot at the ass-crack of dawn that I wasn’t feeling a little nervous.

This brevet was hosted by the DC Randonneurs and it had the same characteristics of the other rides that I’ve done with them so far.  The ride organizers were, well, organized without being officious, and very friendly.  The route was thoughtfully chosen and beautiful, the cue sheets detailed and accurate.  And the riders themselves, adorned by all manner of cycling kit and riding as wide a variety of bikes as you will see outside of a bicycle trade show, were friendly and easygoing.

The first part of the ride was a route out of Poolesville that I’ve ridden dozens of times, but never with barely a breath of wind and a bloated, hot pink sun peeking over the gently rolling hills to our right.  There were all the familiar “ride start” impressions: the satisfaction of feeling my legs in motion, the bike solid but cagey underneath me, the trepidation of watching the group begin to sort itself out into pace bunches, my inner voice telling me not to do anything stupid and take anyone else out.

Brevet Riders

In the beginning was the word, and the word was brevet.

I started off riding with my friend Damon and was introduced to his friend Max, whom I had heard a lot about over the last year, as the two of them had trained for the Big Wild Ride, a grande randonnee in Alaska, a 1200k ride to be completed in under 90 hours.  Damon’s account of that ride is one of the finest pieces of outdoor adventure writing that I’ve ever read, including some damn fine stuff in places like Outside Magazine.  Despite completing the ride in an astonishing time of 67 hours (ridiculously fast for a seasoned randonneur and simply astonishing for someone riding their first 1200) Damon paused to take photos of every piece of Moose scat and ambiguous roadkill and by pure dumb luck managed also to take some absolutely stunning images of the Alaskan terrain of the kind that the Alaska Tourism Board should probably consider using.  I’ve been talking up Damon’s blog and sending links to it to everyone I know (friends, members of Congress (hey, it isn’t like they are actually doing anything at the moment)) and so has my partner so it perhaps isn’t surprising that the account of that ride is achieving a bit of notoriety.

Near Wolfsville

Near Wolfsville. Maryland is a beautiful place to ride on a Saturday morning. Or any other morning.

It was equally unsurprising, therefore, that the day was punctuated by our occasional cycling companions saying things like “Wait, are you Damon?” and “I’ve read your blog, and. . . .”  As I gamely hung tried to stick with he and Max, I thought, “This must be what riding with Lance Armstrong is like.”  Well, was like.  Before the drugs.  And the lying.  And the defaming of others.  So, OK, maybe more like riding with a friend who is getting the recognition for a pretty phenomenal achievement phenomenally well described.

Approaching Harp

That moment when you realize that lumpy thing in the distance is something you are going to have to climb.

We tackled the first climb of the day up Malu ridge, which was enough to make sure you were awake but mercifully short.  After stopping for Damon to sign a few autographs at the first control point we headed off to one of the day’s major “attractions,” the assault on the murderously steep Harp Hill.  This is one of the tougher climbs in this immediate area; it averages about 8-9% but kicks up sharply into the 12-13% range, near the top, when you are running out of ooomph, and then stays that way for a good 500m.  But this was my first big surprise of the day.  Last time I tried this climb (back in March, I think?) I’d had to stop twice to get my breath back and stop my heart from leaping out of my chest and running back down the hill to saner elevations.  This time, however, I remembered that the climb had a couple of little stairsteps that allowed me to ease back from Near Infarction to Apoplexy on the Exertion Meter.  The top of the climb did take require some serious HTFU but I was elated to manage the entire climb in one go. . .and this time while hauling a rack and bag.

The “lunch” control came pretty early, at about mile 55.  Still, it was a welcome relief.  By this point we had crossed into southern Pennsylvania and while that border area is beautiful, one of the distinct downsides is that there is virtually no shade to be had.  One thing we all knew we would be contending with was the fact that the weather was unseasonably warm for October, and the temperature was already well into the 80s (and would in fact reach nearly 90 later that afternoon).

The control was at Paul’s Country Market, an Amish store/deli/nursery.  After waiting for Damon to kiss some babies and discuss a possible local Mayoral bid, we went inside and were greeted by the Paradise the ride had promised.  This place was the epitome of what every cyclist dreams of in a rest stop.  Lots of food of all descriptions including an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables.  Deli sandwiches made to order.  Really friendly people who seemed genuinely happy to have a bunch of spandex- clad beings clumping around in their store.  Adequate air conditioning.

The setting though, was more than a little strange.  In one direction, you looked out over a bucolic countryside with a few cyclists picturesquely enjoying a dejeuner sur l’herbe:

Lunch at Paul's Country Market

Finding the balance: enough of a break from your bike, but not too long that you hate getting back on.

But then if you turned 180 degrees you saw this:

Car Graveyard

RIP Detroit

This shot actually doesn’t do the car graveyard justice.  Riding toward the market, along the intriguingly named “Nunnery” road, the junkyard dominated the horizon,  draped over a series of hillsides as if all the unwanted cars in America had found their way there to die.

Lunch was great–Max announced that he was probably going to drive back up here just for the sandwiches–but we didn’t want to hang around too long, so we mounted up and got ourselves to the Nunnery once again.  After briefly retracing our route we launched into the major climbing of the day, long steady grinds up the Pen Mar hill and over South Mountain.  The pitch was variable and the conditions ranged from brutally exposed to gorgeous tunnels of trees, many of which we just starting to turn.  It was pretty, but it was by this time decidedly warm and humid and the windless tunnels only seemed to concentrate the heat.  By this time we were biking as a loose group with Kelley, another DCer who had been on the BWR with Damon, and Scott and Jim, who I think had come down from Pennsylvania.

We came down from the mountain along Spruce Run road, a route that didn’t really seem to be designed for foot traffic let alone anything larger: steep, windy, broken, all in shade.  Life was certainly interesting for a few miles.  After being recognized at the next control and helping out with a local fertility ritual, Damon led us on through a stretch of rollers that had definitely been a lot more fun on the way out.  It wasn’t just that we were more fatigued, it was that as a cyclist you learn there are just some roads that “work” in a particular direction but not in the other (something about slight differences in grade on each side).  This one wasn’t really that long, but it had the virtue of seeming to go on forever; again, that had seemed like a much better thing several hours prior.

Pausing only for Damon to canonize a couple of gas station attendants at the next control, we pressed on with a little over 30 miles and a single information control to go.  But it was at the point that I lost contact with Damon and Max.  There were still a few smaller climbs left and I was trying to tackle each of them by climbing within myself.  But I was starting to feel the climbing.  We came back in using a portion of the brevet I had ridden earlier in the year, and I had just realized this fact, and remembered the nasty grind up Fingerboard road, when we hit that grind and my legs just kind of dropped away.

The last part of the ride gradually worked back toward Poolesville, riding down roads (Peach Tree) that I have only ever ridden up before.  Kelley had fallen back, and then Scott and Jim, so I was by myself for most of the last 20 miles.  I dialed everything way back and just concentrated on enjoying the low afternoon sun streaming through the ranks of corn at the side of the road, or illuminating the first golds and reds of fall.

A short, geeky digression
In the end, Strava gave me a total elevation gain of a shade under 8,000, not a bad day’s work.  It did however give me cause to reflect once again on the woeful inadequacy of our our cycling altitude measurements.  The cue sheet elevation profile had listed 8700.  Over pizza after the ride I heard numbers as high as 9,000.  Part of the problem here is that GPS-based altitude readings are notoriously inaccurate (my Garmin in fact gave me an ego-stroking 11,000 feet for the day) which is why sites likes Strava recommend that you let them apply topographic adjustment (comparing your route against the route on a topographic map).  It isn’t necessarily perfectly accurate (a lot can happen between the designated spacing of contour lines on a map) but it is a lot more accurate than GPS alone.  But what about all those wonderful new devices, the kind with barometric altimeters, you known, just like on aircraft?  Well, those are great. . .as long as you calibrate them first, which most people don’t seem to do; this is why you will still see totals from even high-end Garmin devices varying among riders by anything up to 1000 feet for the same ride. Unlike the high end altimeters found in aircraft, the cheap versions in our cyclometers also do not compensate for changes in temperature or the pressure associated with weather (e.g. the sudden drop as a storm cell hits you).  Moreover, when these devices are uploaded to sites like Strava, the default option is not to apply terrain correction if the device has a barometric altimeter.  I’m not one of those guys whose self-worth is wrapped up in the size of their elevation, but it would be nice if we could get a little more consistency on this front to make the sharing of data and routes with one another less of a crap shoot.


I was tired but perfectly content when I rolled into the parking lot at the end.  I know that as a good brevet rider I was supposed to drop my bike and charge into the final control point, card clutched in my sweaty hand, to get my official time recorded as soon as possible.  But I was a little punchy and too busy being, well, content.  So I stowed the bike, wiped the worst of the accumulated bug cemetery off my arms and face, and went inside.  Because of all this, it turned out that Scott and Jim signed in before me, Kelley signed in just after, and Damon and Max (who had done the same thing as I) signed in ahead of me but a lot less than the 15 or so minutes they had on me by the end.  But that was just fine, and actually quite appropriate since we had ridden most of the way together.

And I was pleasantly surprised.  This ride was about half an hour faster, all up, than the 200K back in March that had featured about 500 fewer feet of climbing (according to my device’s imperfect–see above–reckoning).  It had been hot, hard work for parts of the day and I was pretty tired.  But maybe I was also in better shape than I thought.


One response to “By the Numbers

  1. Well done Mark, that base really accounts for something.

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