Wet and Wild

Lumbarton 200K, February 1, 2014

Here are some of the valuable lessons I learned before, during, and after a recent brevet in North Carolina:

  • There is apparently no infrastructure budget in North Carolina.  This would make sense, since this is one of the many “No taxation with representation” states.  But the result is that many rural roads are pretty bad.  There were some parts of the ride that were like riding over a cattle-stop (and remember, I’m riding on 35mm tires at about 55psi).  There were other places where there were miles and miles of perfectly regular cracks which produced a monotonous ka-thunk ka-thunk ka-thunk ka-thunk ka-thunk . . . I will never complain about Virginia roads again.
  • The back-country roads are filled with trucks the size of aircraft carriers, all of them beating the crap out of the roads for which there is no infrastructure budget.
  • North Carolina features some of the nicest truck drivers I have ever encountered anywhere.  All of them gave me a wide berth, and when the weather packed in, some of them actually slowed down as they passed me to avoid showering me with water.
  • Speaking of weather, apparently in North Carolina “chance of showers” in the weather forecast means “four hours of driving rain.”
  • North Carolina has some of the best behaved car drivers I’ve ever encountered.  Especially out in the rural areas, not only were the roads refreshingly free of people hurling abuse or actual objects or trying to assure themselves that their horn still worked, but like the truck drivers, almost everyone gave me a wide berth.  Moreover, people waited patiently to go around cyclists (well, I assumed it was patiently, there was no aforementioned horn play) whether we were in a large group or, incredibly, even when I was riding as a singleton.
  • Dunn, North Carolina is the “Dump Truck Cab Capital of the World.”  Proof positive that it is sometimes better to be nothing than something.  But it does make you think.  Somewhere out there in America there is a “Toilet Cistern Ballcock Capital of the World” just waiting to be discovered.
  • A large number of North Carolina vehicles are apparently sold without working headlights.  Driving rain, reduced visibility, none of those extremely well behaved drivers passing me (coming and going) seemed to feel the need to actually use their lights.  Maybe all North Carolinians are equipped with enhanced vision.  But it does sort of raise an interesting question.  If we cyclists are being good road citizens and doing all in our power to make ourselves visible with multiple pieces of reflective gear, none of that really does any good if there is no light to reflect.  It made me wonder what happened when it got dark: “Hey, the light has disappeared.  But that’s OK.  The Lord My Savior will keep me safe.”
  • I found myself becoming fascinated with the North Carolina rivers that we crossed.  They all appeared dark, tortuous, overgrown and mysterious.  Much like the state of my soul by the end of this ride.

This was the second brevet I’ve done with the North Carolina Randonneurs, and each has certainly been memorable.  The first, back in January, started off in temperatures of 14 degrees because, you know, I went south for a January brevet rather than north to Pennsylvania because I thought it would be warmer.  This time, I signed up for the ride, and the South got whacked with the heaviest snowfall in recent years.  Fortunately, it warmed up and the snow began to melt.  Mostly.

The NC Randonneurs once again extended a friendly welcome to us out-of-towners (I met a woman who had come all the way from Ohio for the ride, which put my five hour drive in perspective).  It was in the high 20s when we started out, with the weather forecast showing temps getting up into the 50s and a chance of afternoon showers.  This was a combination event (featuring a 200, 300, 400, and 600) and all riders rolled out together onto a flat course with virtually no wind.

The first part of the ride was glorious.  Most of the group stayed together, rolling along in a nice double line at a nice moderate pace (17-18mph) with people communicating well, taking turns at the front, chatting occasionally, concentrating mostly, enjoying the crisp temperatures and the rising sun.

Then I had to pee.  Really badly.  And that was the last of that action for me.  Not a problem; that is what randonneuring is all about.  Unless you are with friends, no one expects anyone to wait.  For the first part of the ride I saw a few others at the first control point, on the road starting the return leg (it was mostly a simple out-and-back route) and at the final turnaround at Delway.  A couple of guys in a group ahead of me that was just leaving asked if I wanted them to wait, but I had to do a complete water bottle refill at that point and didn’t want to slow them down.  After grabbing a couple of things inside a convenience store heavy with the smell of cigarette smoke and friendly conversation from the owners and some bemused onlookers, I hit the road for the return journey.

Which was where things started to go wrong.

As soon as I clipped in I felt the first flecks of rain.  Just a few spots, nothing to worry about.  By the time I made the first turn, a couple of hundred meters up the road it was drizzling.  After another couple of miles I stopped and pulled on my vest, which I’d removed because I’d begun overheating earlier.  Then the heavens opened.  And stayed open for business for the next 4 hours, with the rain moderating, naturally, only a couple of miles short of the finish.  The rain was always steady, and at times it was so heavy that there was water cascading off every part of me.  I got colder, parts of me started to go numb in spite of my attempts to kick the work rate up a notch to generate more body heat.  (Obviously the whole “highs in the 50s” thing is another part of North Carolinian weather-speak that doesn’t quite compute outside the Tarheel state; my Garmin showed an average temperature for the ride of 37).  I missed turns, added extra miles.  There was a moment where I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to finish.

But finish I did.  I squelched my way into the motel lobby and handed in both my card, and the cellphone of another rider that I’d been carrying after it had been left behind at the first control point.  I got back on the bike for the short ride across the street to my hotel. . .and my teeth immediately began to chatter, and I started shivering spasmodically, the first time that has happened to me since the epic Frozenman ride.  I chattered, squished, and clattered my way up to my room. . .only to find that my room key didn’t work.  I was all the way at the other end of the building from the lobby, so I made the Long March, mumbled something like “Card.  Not work.  Help” and then trudged back.  I cranked the room heat on high, spent about half an hour in a hot shower, and then piled on all my clothes including a wool jacket while sitting in a chair wrapped in a blanket and sipping a coffee.  Plenty of time to think about what had happened.

Things that worked well

I’ve been riding a consistent series of 200s for the last few months, and using each of them to try out one or two new pieces of kit, as I try to get a handle on all the moving parts of a typical brevet, before working up to the longer distances later this year.  This ride yielded some definite positives:

  • Fenders FTW.  I’ve only done a couple of short commutes in light rain, and the at-times torrential downpour allowed me to see why a good set of full coverage fenders really are the bomb.  They didn’t keep me any drier since there was so much water coming down from above.  But they did keep me much cleaner.  Because of the heavy rain and a lot of roadside construction, there was a great deal of mud sheeting across the road in several places.  None of it got on me, and almost nothing on the bike.  Looking down, I often saw what looked like Niagara Falls coming off my front mud-flap, water and muck that would otherwise have been shooting back into my drive-train.
  • Wool Tights.  I’ve been wearing a pair of Gore Windstop tights for a couple of seasons and been pretty happy with them. . .when it is really, really cold.  But they are almost too efficient, being a little too hot on many chilly rides.  I’ve also been finding them a little restrictive.  So I switched to a pair of quality wool tights.  I was going to go with Ibex, since they are very well reviewed and popular with cyclists.  But they aren’t stocked locally and when I went to order a pair online they only had them in XL.  I am not XL.  I am not even L.  So they lost my business and took it instead to Icebreaker.  I already own a couple of Icebreaker underlays which are easily the best pieces of kit I own.  The tights were as good and kept me warm for most of the ride even when utterly soaked.
  • A new RUSA reflective vest.  I’ve had a reflective vest for a while but honestly, when I looked around and saw what my fellow Randonneurs were wearing, I realized it was pretty pathetic.  So I got a proper one; well sized (a good fit but with room to layer underneath it), huge wide reflective strips, and a nice vented back.  The bonus was that it was surprisingly water-resistant and really wind-proof.
  • Helmet covers.  Why did I wait so long to get one of these?

Problems

The ride was, on the whole, a little discouraging.  I was mildly miffed that because of my navigational incompetence I missed out on my fastest 200K time on the new bike.  But the more serious issue was that I had vaguely thought about doing the 300, before dismissing the idea (an unusually cold (for DC) Winter meant that I had less riding time than I would have liked).  But my mind state on this ride was that I wasn’t even sure I was going to finish the 200 let alone the 300.  It turns out, however, that it might have been the better call.  The 300 ride turned to the south and while they got wet I don’t think it was anything like the torrential rain I experienced.  Just after I got back to my hotel room I pulled up the weather map on my phone and saw that the biggest, reddest heart of the storm had passed right along the 200K route.

In randonneuring you always have to make choices about what items to carry and how much to carry overall.  This ride I took a little less gear than some other rides and it did not pay off.  I definitely could have used my full rain jacket, bulky as it is.  I also didn’t take my waterproof gloves.   Now I could blame the different language apparently spoken by North Carolina weather forecasters, but that is part of the rando game: be prepared for what might happen.  Admittedly, the really wide temperate range today made it tough to figure out what to wear and take and that’s not something I face with too many rides.

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve biked in heavy rain.  And while it was heavy, it didn’t approach the biblical proportions of the 2012 Muscleman bike leg.  But I’ve never biked for so long in the rain.  I was wearing a lot of wool, so that held me together for a surprisingly long time.  But even wool gives up the ghost after a while.  The worst was the winter weight gloves.  Every five miles or so I was make a fist with each hand to squeeze out a ton of water. . .until my hands got too cold to ball up properly.

So, still a lot to learn, obviously.  In particular, a lot to learn about keeping my head in the game.  I’m still learning a few of the finer points of the Edge Touring, so a couple of my bad decisions were based on not knowing how to read it properly.  But I also need to be smarter about decisions overall (I waited too long to put on my glove liners, for example, so my hands were already a little colder than they would have been.  But I guess if this were easy everyone would be doing it!

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