Many Rivers and Fords 600K
May 17-18, 2014
39 hours and 20 minutes
I am writing this blog post in order to save humanity. Or at least those of my friends that I’ll be riding with this weekend as we tackle the Mountains of Misery ride down in Blacksburg. Because there is a real danger that I’ll be boring the arse off everyone with tales of my heroic (ha ha) randonneuring adventures. Therefore, it is best to get it all out of my system now.
Please Sir, I Want Some More.
My first full season of randonneuring has continually redefined for me what my body is capable of. This has been especially true when it comes to eating.
One of the things that I remember most vividly from my partner’s first Ironman, a phenomenon I myself got to experience the following year, is the post-Ironman Bottomless Stomach. Starting the day after the race, you eat your fill (well, actually several people’s fill) and you feel pleasantly full. Then two hours later you are starving again. This can continue for a couple of days. (Allow it to continue for much longer than that, however, and that is how you find yourself in December slumped on the couch watching a vintage Lawrence Welk Christmas Special over the mound of your Cheetoh-crumbed stomach). So I was fully expecting something like that after the 600k.
What I got instead was the Post-Brevet Absent Stomach. For example, the following day I had an entire pizza for lunch. But not only did it not fill me up, incredibly there was absolutely no sensation of having eaten anything at all. I ate all day, pretty much constantly. No sensation of food going into my body at all.
Fine Dining Options in Downtown Warrenton
The start point for the 600K was the same Hampton Inn the DC Randonneurs had used for the 300K. Damon (with whom I had ridden the 300k and 400k brevets) and I arrived about the same time and the first thing we did was hit the mandatory inspection.
Once we had each been certified as insane and therefore authorized to throw ourselves against a 375 mile wall of solid riding Damon and I headed off to the finest in local Warrenton cuisine.
While at the Chipotle, I watched Damon consume a horrifically large burrito stuffed with every comestible the franchise offered and, by the looks of it half the contents of the till. This burrito is the reason Al Qaeda hates America. We exited the establishment with Damon packing another large burrito (no, not a euphemism of any kind) which he was going to place in our room fridge for “later.” Oddly enough, after being gobsmacked at my own level of food consumption during the 400k this plan made total sense to me.
Once back in the room, and after we’d managed between the two of us to finally close the fridge door on the burrito, we set about getting ourselves ready to ride the next day. I filled my drink bottles and threw in some energy bars. In Damon’s case, however, this was quite an operation. Due to a fundamental lack of life coordination he had a wedding to go to on Sunday which meant that he would be trying to ride a 600k in a time that would require him finishing many hours before everyone else and with hopefully time enough unseal himself from his bike shorts in time to make witty wedding banter with people who don’t consider these kinds of activities normal. So he used a combination of duck tape, zip ties, hair scrunchies, and spit to attach all manner of gear and devices to a time trial bike not designed to accept any of these objects. Most striking was some kind of monstrous expanding saddle-bag that looked more like a colostomy bag for an elephant.
And with that disturbing image planted firmly in my mind, we turned out the lights at a hour that no one under 75 usually goes to bed, and tried to get some sleep.
Daaaaaaay. . .Glo. Da-ay-ay Glo.
Fortunately, I slept soundly with no images of descending piles of elephant poo to torture my dreams. I don’t remember dreaming anything at all actually. Damon, according to his account, had some strange dream about a prominent economist becoming a randonneur which made no sense to him at all. To me, however, it makes perfect sense; over the next nearly 40 hours I would be engaging in the kind of deficit spending (albeit of the caloric kind) usually associated with a South American dictatorship; I would also be engaging in increasingly unforgiving cost-benefit analyses as the ride went on.
We got dressed and out the door pretty quickly and got our control cards signed.
Then it was time to take a large group photo to send to Lynn, the woman who had laid out the route and had been going to run this event, but who had tragically been seriously injured by a fuckwit hit-and-run driver earlier in the year.
Taking it Slowly. Then, Taking it Very Slowly.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather for such a long event. The nights and mornings were cool but not freezing (40s) and the day-time temperatures never got much above 70. No rain or Old Testament squalls (a welcome change from the last ride) and a lot of overcast. In my last ride report I wrote about the magic of riding in the dark, but I think what I like even more is the feeling of riding through the transitions at dawn and dusk. If you think about it, nightfall when you are on a bike is usually a source of anxiety or inconvenience: you are late getting home from work, or you’ve been out longer on a ride than you intended to because of a mechanical. Maybe you don’t have lights, or you can’t remember if you charged them, or. . . But on a long brevet, it is what you do, so the fact that night comes on and you are still riding into it is all part of the deal. You have the equipment to deal with it, and you can sit back and watch the familiar daylit world slowly slide away from you to be replaced by another world.
But the transition from night to dawn is even more magical. This is a rare sight on a bike at any time. As soon as we started, the usual giant peleton took off. I had already decided that I was going to have to take this ride a little easier than the 400k where the first part had been perhaps ridden a little too fast. I hung with a small group for a few miles, but was soon on my own. But that was fine. Around me the bird song became gradually louder; biking through the trees at some points it was almost deafening. The sky gradually lightened. Roosters began crowing at the appropriate time. I began to make out the dim outlines of farm buildings and fences.
A little further up the road and we were riding intermittently through patches of mist lurking in the valleys and clinging to the lower slopes of the Blue Ridge.
You Hear me Baby, Hold Together
The first 75 miles of this ride were some of the most beautiful miles I’ve ever ridden. The road skirted the Blue Ridge for most of this section, and the mountains loomed over you at every point. Disappearing into a patch of forest you would emerge only to be stunned once again by how close the mountains were, how clear they appeared. In between mountain views were fields filled with wildflowers.
Unfortunately, it was in this early stretch that things began to go wrong. It wasn’t so much that the wheels began to fall off. Rather it seemed as if the pedals would do so.
I’d given my bike a detailed check-up pre-ride, as I usually do. Everything had checked out, including the pedals. But now there was a strange clicking coming periodically from my left pedal, accompanied by a slight jarring. At first I thought it was a cleat problem, because it felt as if my cleat wasn’t bedding in properly. When things like this happen there is a period of denial. You hope that it will magically go away and so I pedaled on into the early morning. . .until the clicking and clunking became too annoying to ignore and I stopped at the top of a climb to check things out. The left pedal had unmistakably developed quite a lot of play to the point where it was noticeably wobbly on the axle. Clearly, my beloved (and, sadly, long discontinued) Crank Brothers Quattros were announcing their attention to depart this life for a less stressful one.
That is the kind of moment you dread as a randonneur. I’m set up to repair quite a bit of stuff on my bike. And there are some other things that might go wrong that I could still cope with and ride on. One of the few things I’m not set up to deal with, however, is re-building a pedal. Plus, the fact that this was happening rather suddenly indicated likely damage which I couldn’t rebuild even had I wanted to.
I got back on the bike and pedaled glumly along trying–completely unsuccessfully–not to think about the fact that I still had over three hundred miles to go on this ride. What were the odds of the pedal lasting that long? I began doing a mental inventory of the towns along the way and wondering about the odds of finding a bike shop in one of them. Would the loss in time even be worth it? Suddenly the mountains looked more forbidding than inspiring, and the flower-draped fields had lost much of their glamour. I had no choice but to nurse the pedal along.
Which created another issue. This early part of the ride was tough. There was a lot of up and down, a few relatively steep climbs. In fact, according to my Garmin, we accumulated roughly half the total climbing for the entire 600k by a little over a third of the way into the ride. I don’t do a lot of standing up when I’m climbing, unless it is to stretch muscles (otherwise it is a completely unnecessary waste of energy). But now with a wonky pedal I was reluctant to do any at all. I found myself having to grind up some rollers that I would have noodled over. By the time we reached the first control point in Crozet my legs were already feeling it. I took a short break at a DQ, ate a disturbingly large number of chicken strips, and pressed on.
Out of the Way Places
Eventually I hooked up with Tim who was also riding his first 600 and pedaling along steadily and confidently. He also showed exceptional taste in sporting an Arkel trunk bag (like yours truly); later in the ride we came across yet another rider with one of these and as the three of us rolled along it looked like we could have been filming an Arkel commercial. (Open for sponsorship! Will prostitute oneself for gear!)
The Howardsonville Store marked roughly the 200k point and we received a warm welcome. This got me thinking a lot about one of my favorite parts of randonneuring: how nice most of the people are at the various stopping points. We’re often passing through places where there is a 7-11 and. . .well, only a 7-11. Spandex clad oddities wearing day-glo colors like some kind of My Little Pony nightmare clomp through their establishment in a steady trickle. If this is later on in the ride they are often salt and road grimed and smell none too good. Yet the welcome is often cheery.
But it is as the small stand-alone places, the non-franchise options, where the welcome seems friendliest. Where people want to kick back and talk with you, ask you how the ride is going, talk about other cyclists they know, or anything else. Part of this is obviously because 40 plus people going through their store are dropping money, and while to us it may not seem like a lot, most of these stand-alone establishments are struggling to make ends meet. So a little can seem like a lot. But it also just seems to be the kind of friendliness you get where people aren’t in a tearing hurry to create their next FB status update.
Tim was intending on riding all night (not my plan!) so he stopped on the outskirts of Louisa, the next food pit stop. I continued into town because I knew there was a McDonald’s there. This illustrates one of the strange facets of randonneuring. You get ideas fixed in your head while riding for long periods and they just won’t leave. Later that night, for example, I spent a good hour unable to shake the thought of how much I wanted to cuddle my dogs. But during the late afternoon somehow the idea of eating at McDonald’s had lodged in my head and wouldn’t leave. There were other options that were probably better, some of them already being patronized by my fellow riders. But McDonald’s was what I’d been obsessing about so McDonald’s was what I had to have. I ordered a quantity of food that must have had the cashier convinced I was taking it back to a table where three other people were waiting, ate it all, texted Mary to let her know I’d survived as far as 176 at least, and then got ready for night riding (new chamois creme, warm underlay, attaching my helmet light, filling bottles).
Completely fortuitously, as I was making the turn out of Louisa I ran into a large group turning out of the Shell station. Club president Mike, our RBA Nick, George, and Barry and I then rode slowly but steadily through the night together, back toward the overnight control. This was my first time riding at night with a group and it was approximately 1000% better than riding alone. Together we were putting out a lot of illumination so that helped, but especially when you are tired, riding with other people just helps the miles tick away. For me in particular, my fellow riders were all much more experienced than I, and I got lots of great advice and tips for night riding, so it was a lot like a valuable info seminar.
My new helmet light, an Exposure Joystick, which I’d picked up after a bit of unscheduled night-time off-roading on the 400 worked brilliantly. On the selected setting it provides a full 12 hours of light with more than enough illumination to fill in the dark spots at the edge of my headlight while turning, read my cue-sheet or check out road signs.
We managed to make one of the stores on the route just before it closed, to top up water bottles and take on food for the final push. I made the mistake of drinking a Cherry Coke which went right through me and I spent the next half hour having to pee like a race horse at regular intervals and then chasing the retreating tail lights of my fellow riders.
The night dragged on. Slowly we began to talk less and less. People became monosyllabic. One of us was literally almost falling asleep on his bike. The steady grind was punctuated by a stretch of sheer terror biking along the shoulder of the busy 522 at night before we could turn off, with audible sighs of relief onto the Algonquin trail.
Finally, we began the climb into Warrenton (it doesn’t matter which direction from which you approach Warrenton, you always end up climbing to get to it). I’d been hoping to get back to this point a little earlier than my 400k time from a couple of weeks back but I was already feeling physically and mentally fatigued. We rolled into the overnight control, finally, at a little after 2am, over 22 hours after starting.
I really can’t say enough about the organization of this ride and nowhere was that more evident than in the overnight control. Volunteers checked everyone in and oversaw an array of pretty much every conceivable foodstuff short of caviar (next time, guys!). Unfortunately, I felt like none of it. I’d been feeling nauseous for the last couple of hours, and even though I knew I should be eating a lot, I couldn’t bring myself to touch most of it. But there were also two constantly replenished crockpots with chilli in one and chicken and rice soup in the other. After a couple of bowls of soup I headed wearily to my room.
And So to Bed. . .And then out of Bed Again
No sign of Damon. I’d half expected him to beat me back, since I heard he’d finished the first loop and was back at the hotel about the time that I was sitting down to the entire food output of a small African nation at the Louisa McDonald’s.
Oddly enough, this was one of the moments in the ride of which I was most proud. I’d anticipated being so tired physically and mentally that I wouldn’t be thinking straight. So before the ride began I’d packed my change of clothes into one small plastic bag, replacement nutrition into another. Then I’d carefully distributed multiple chargers around every available outlet in the room. So there wasn’t a lot of mental overhead at this point: take things out of bag, plug things in. Take clothes off. Get into bed. Fall asleep.
And snap awake again two hours later, even before my alarm went off. I lay there fore a while, gathering my thoughts. Most of which seemed to consist of: oh god oh god please don’t make me get up please please I’ll do anything you ask just don’t make me pedal any more.
I got up, dressed. Still no sign of Damon, which was now a little concerning since his own estimate had put him in before this. Made my way back to the overnight control room where I was a little surprised to see other human beings (well, other brevet riders) who were emerging after sleep. By the look of them, however, most had got much more sleep than I. Bastards. I set about breakfast.
I signed out and then before I knew it I was outside and, unbelievably, seemingly intent on doing some more biking.
Good Morning Sunshi. . .<slap>. . .ooof!
Part of me was thinking that with this little sleep I might as well have just tried to ride all the way through. But even that tiny amount of sleep made a huge difference. For starters, I was able to warm back up; the night had not been as cold as during the 400k but I was still chilled by the time we finish, an inevitable byproduct of diminishing energy levels. More importantly, even that small time away from the bike made a world of difference (and certainly so did the change of clothes).
I’d left just a little bit after 5:30am. At the first turn I was relieved to see Damon coming home, and he shouted some encouraging words. In return I had nothing. The two guys I’d left behind promptly left me, and I pedaled along, watching my second dawn color the sky.
My pedal problem was still there off and on but didn’t seem to have got any worse. Maybe my tired leg had simply got into synch with its wavering.
I caught up with Nick and Mike at the first control point, a 7-11. Never has a sausage biscuit sandwich and a cup of coffee tasted so good. We rode companionably through the rest of the day at a pace that was about all I could comfortably maintain. The day turned into a blur of half-formed impressions.
After navigating successfully through a maze of backcountry roads for the better part of two days we made several wrong turns in Fredericksburg. It was almost comical. Almost.
We rode through a part of the Fredericksburg battlefield (the Confederate right flank) that I’d never visited before. My mind noticed all the rifle pits lining the road and mentally stripped away the tree cover, seeing the thin line of the Rappahannock (today a raging, muddy mess) in the distance and the clustered buildings of the small village (today an annoyingly overbuilt chaos).
We had an information control at the Stonewall Jackson shrine; I’ve always seen the signs for this while driving the 95 and meant to stop. But even now we were pressed for time so we didn’t linger.
Somewhere between the shrine and Spotsylvania Courthouse we encountered a roller, not even a regular climb, that was so unbelievably steep that I was in my 24×32 gear and was still out of the saddle and pedaling so slowly I thought I was going to fall over.
Speaking of Spotsylvania Courthouse. . .a classic case of a place where development has been allowed to run unchecked without any upgrade to the infrastructure. We were on Massaponax road (a road that I would be happy never, ever to see again) and it was constant traffic. I came to the conclusion that while you don’t have to be an arsehole to own a pickup truck it sure helps. Well, that and an exceptionally small penis. Because the way in which pickup drivers in particular seem to delight not just in passing you but flooring the thing to roar past at lightspeed indicates people compensating for something. After the umpteenth truck had gone past and deliberately farted smoke in our face, Nick observed “The price of gas is way too low.” Unfortunately, I don’t think it has much to do with gas, and more to do with what makes people, people. I’m sure that when the oil finally runs out and we’re all riding bikes, someone in the not-too-distant future will be writing a ride report and will say something like, “While you don’t have to be an arsehole to ride a Surly it sure helps.”
We stopped in Spotsylvania Courthouse because we had to. There was lots of fried chicken and mashed potatoes and some greens that were incredibly salty and were therefore wonderful.
At some point we found ourselves on Eley’s Ford Road, otherwise known as The Most Soul-Crushing Road in the World. It rolls up and down for nearly 15 miles, with many of the rollers being more in the nature of legitimate climbs, and the occasional exhilarating downhill ending in an abrupt uphill. I felt like cheering when we finally–finally!–got to turn off the thing.
I was in a strange state of mind. I was really enjoying Nick and Mike’s company. But I was also miserable. Hating every moment of the actual riding. Moreover, I was pretty sure, looking at the time and at our progress, that we weren’t going to make it. Especially since I knew that the route was all essentially uphill at the end (and in fact the last 60 or so miles trends uphill) and we would slow even further.
My one ray of hope was Nick’s calculation. Now Nick has a huge history of rides to draw upon, rides done in every imaginable set of conditions across every imaginable type of terrain. Plus he’s a stats geek. So he crunches all the available data for the ride (he tried to explain it to me but once he began using terms like “multiple regression analyses” I just started to nod in what I hoped was a reasonably intelligent fashion) and then figures out what pace he needs to go at, annotating his cue sheet with time checks along the way. We’d been holding relatively steady, but a stiff wind from the front quarter had been taking its toll (at lunch, Mike I think had looked at his phone and seen that the weather was reporting a wind of 3mph. . .while we looked out the window at the flag flying straight out from its staff). So we hadn’t been picking up any time.
Mike and Nick had also been warning me about this evil road lying in wait at the end. They had both done this route once before and when they had come to this road they had been cursing the ride designer, it had sucked out their souls and left them mere shells of men, etc.
Both clearly needed to work on their motivational speaking skills.
But when we reached this demon strip of asphalt it proved to be none other than Rogues Road, one of my favorite roads out that way. Yep, it has got some really steep pitches. But there are also a lot of wonderful downhills, it is all in shade, and it has some absolutely stunning views of the open fields of the Piedmont, fields which by this time of day were bathed in a golden afternoon light. I felt my spirits suddenly lift, and I jumped off the front for no other reason than to play. And sure doing it on a bike weighing as much as a pregnant walrus at the end of a 600k ride wasn’t quite the same experience as swooping from crest to crest with fresh legs on a carbon fiber road bike, but as I waited for the others at an information control just up the road (where we argued hilariously about what date format to use for the answer–“Do we put in English notation? Two of us are really New Zealanders?” “Just use US notation.” “Or, we could even take the radical step and write what is on the fucking sign!”) I was smiling. I felt we would make it. It would be close, but we would make it.
And make it we did. And you know what? Nick’s predicted finishing time had been 39 hours and 19 minutes. We rolled into the final control at 39 hours and 20 minutes.
I’m a believer in the power of statistics.