If I’m doing this, then it must be. . .spring?

Coffee and Pastries 200k
March 14 2015

Today’s Lesson: When someone strongly suggests you should take a detour, take the goddamned detour.  Or not.

Well, it had to come sooner or later: the first brevet of the season.

I’d be lying if I said I was approaching this ride with unbridled enthusiasm.  On the one hand, I am more than ready to be riding outside.  There is nothing more depressing for a cyclist than looking at your yearly mileage total and realizing that most of it was racked up on a trainer, an unnatural device designed mainly to leach all the joy out of cycling.  A DC winter is typically mild enough that, appropriately bundled, you can still get a reasonable amount of riding in.  But this year has been unusually cold for the region, and while our snowfall hasn’t reached the levels of North Dakota (or Boston) it has arrived at inconvenient intervals (i.e. right before a weekend!), most of the bike trails are never plowed, and before you know it you are back on your trainer watching a Real Housewives of East Tennessee marathon.

Yet the same weather conditions meant that I was seriously under-trained for a ride of this distance: I haven’t done a brevet since last October due to traveling and looking at this ride all I could see was a lot of misery waiting for me.  This became less a gloomy prognostication and more of a certainty as the weather forecast solidified.  The DC Randonneurs first 200k of the season had already been postponed a week due to a late snowfall.  The roads had cleared (for the most part; more about that in a second) but now there was going to be rain.  Not just a few sprinkles, a lot, for most of the day.  Yay.

Now the thing about randonneuring is this: the possibility of this kind of weather is, in one sense, neither here nor there.  Unless the roads are totally impassable or downright dangerous (ice, etc.) randonneurs ride whatever the conditions. Howling wind, driving rain, searing heat, 300% humidity. . .all of that is simply another set of variables with which you need to figure out how to cope.  You don’t have to like it, but complaining about it is as pointless as complaining about, well, the weather

What this ride showed me, however, was that in retrospect what I was really concerned about had nothing to do with the weather or my ride fitness.  I had dipped my toe in the randonneuring waters a couple of years ago, but last year was my first real year where I tackled longer rides, including my first Super Randonneur series, and my first R-12 (one brevet every months for 12 consecutive months).  But two months in a different country, the mental disarrangements attendant on that, a shitty winter, a long, cold, demoralizing February, all made me feel like last year was a very, very long time away.  So much of randonneuring is a mental game: it is about forethought and planning, keeping your head in the game and staying positive, riding consistently.  I wasn’t sure that I still had the mental wherewithal to undertake a long ride under adverse conditions.  The last time I’d ridden for an extended time in the rain it had been for five hours at the end of a winter brevet, and while I’d finished, it had left me shivering uncontrollably and after a shower I had put on every single item of clothing I had brought, wrapped myself in two hotel blankets, and sat slumped in a chair for an hour.

With not a little trepidation I arrived at the ride start, the Big Bean coffee shop in Maryland’s Severna Park.  As expected it was dark, it was raining, riders grabbed a last minute coffee inside, or milled around outside, their bodies slashed into odd shaped by the cafe’s light highlighting reflective striping.  During the previous week I had alternately alleviated my anxiety and increased it by obsessing over what to wear.  The temperature was supposed to be reasonably warm, especially for this time of year, starting off in the mid-40s and working up to 60.  In my experience, however, there is nothing more difficult than figuring out what to wear when it is raining hard and “warmish.”  Hot and raining hard?  Wear as little as possible.  Cold and raining hard?  Bundle up.  But warmish?  You aren’t going to freeze straight away, but it is entirely possible for you to still chill when riding downhill or when you are stopped.  But wear too much protective gear and you are going to drown in your own sweat.  Dry.  Warm.  Comfortable.  Pick two.  Now, looking around at my fellow randonneurs I saw that the answers to the “what to wear” conundrum were as many and various as the bikes we all ride.  Myself, I had ditched the full rain paints in favor of my trusty Icebreaker tights, and only two layers on top: a wool underlay and a completely weatherproof jacket. Mid-weight gloves, smart wool balaclava, helmet cover.

Before I knew it, we were rolling out.  In fact it was so before I knew it that I forgot to hit start on my cyclometer.  Always great to start off a ride with a mental lapse, especially one that would have you having to do constant mental adjustments to check your cue sheet directions.  Grrrrr.

We worked our way out of the Severna Park area, making our way in and out of the sporadic pools cast by the street lights.  The occasional jovial comments from riders, all of us happy to be actually riding outside whatever the weather, punctuated an early morning riding symphony: the hiss of tires across the rain-drenched streets, the swish of cars passing, the occasional tinny rattle of grit hitting the fenders, the constant buckshot splatter of rain against my jacket.

Gradually, the darkness gave way to the dull gray light of dawn.

And then it stayed the same dull gray for the next five hours.

The rain eased slightly at times but never let up.  For good measure it occasionally cut loose with a lashing downpour that had water cascading off every part of me.  My glasses soon fogged up–I have a prescription insert and fog gradually accumulates between the two lens layers–so I eventually removed them; being partially blind proved preferable to being totally blind, although descending with eyes slitted against the wind and rain was less than fun.  But apart from that, I was actually quite comfortable.  The only time I stopped being comfortable was at the first control point in Rose Haven.  I kept my stop short but even so, the fact that I was damp with sweat underneath meant that I began to cool down rapidly.  Wool is a great insulator when it is wet, but one of the things that many people don’t realize is that for that to work you have to keep generating body heat.  Fortunately, there was a stiff climb out of Rose Haven which soon had me warmed up again.

From that point I settled in to the usual pattern of a ride, taking it one control point at a time.  The rain eased after about five hours, about the time that I reached the Waugh Chapel area, a wasteland of strip malls and massive roads.  Nevertheless, I dodged into one of those strip malls and found a coffee shop where in addition to the restorative powers of hot caffeine, I was delighted to find that–in honor of Pi(e) day–they were selling home-made apple pies.  I bought one even though it looked too big and then experienced the all-too-common randonneuring sensation of staring at the few crumbs remaining on my plate 30 seconds later and wondering where all the food had gone.

Things got quite a bit more lumpy as we made our way North to Ellicott City; the rain had stopped but the rollers were relentless.  I’ve biked in and around Ellicott City a couple of times but that was many years ago; my memories of a sleepy, vaguely alty town were betrayed by the teeming traffic-clogged mess that was the main street.  I opted to head on up the road a ways; I soon find the Mill Cafe (located, naturally, right across from the Mill) and out front there were a bunch of rando-type bikes which seemed like a good sign.

The cafe was great; my compatriots were enjoying smoothies while I opted for an enormous cinnamon roll that disappeared in the same hasty fashion as the apple pie earlier.

I rolled out with the rest of the riders, a small, friendly group consisting mostly of riders from the Severna Park area.  And here is where things got interesting.

One thing I have found reliably over the years is that when cyclists get together, the chance that they will talk one another into a crazy exploit increases dramatically.  The likelihood that common sense will prevail plummets to near zero.  Thus it was today.  We had been advised at the start of the ride that we should take a detour for the next leg because snow and ice had made part of it impassable.  When we came to the point where the detour split, however, “the group” however opted to ride the scheduled route.  I say “the group” because I still have no recollection of how this decision actually came to be made.  But I went along with it.  Because, you know, we are Borg.

In retrospect, I’m delighted that we did. . .in spite of what was to happen.  This part of the ride took us along the Grist Mill trail, a paved path paralleling the Patapsco river.  The river falls steeply here anyway, and the rain had turned it into an outraged, foaming and splutting brown torrent, emitting the kind of outraged roaring you typically only hear on C-SPAN.  Patches of mist made the surrounding leafless forests seem even more ghostly; a decently decorative quantity of snow still covered the ground.  If you aren’t a cyclist this next sentence probably won’t make any sense.  But this 4 miles alone was worth the entire 130 mile ride; it was that atmospheric.

If you aren’t a cyclist, this next part will make sense: the awesome things in life are all too often followed by life kicking you in the teeth.  We reached the end of the trail and found this:

The Icy Crossing

Now why didn’t someone suggest a detou. . .oh, wait. . . (Photo by Drew InBalto)

Glimpsed faintly in the distance was the road we had to get to:

The Road

Guys, just hold up a minute while I get out my sled and dog team. . . (Photo by Drew InBalto)

Now the funny thing was that none of this was actually a surprise.  The photos I am sharing with you here had been posted the day before by one of the club members who lived in the area.  I had seen them.  I am betting at least some of my riding buddies had also seen them.  Yet we were astonished.

The thing about randonneuring, however, is that taking responsibility for your own cock ups kind of comes with the territory.  You get yourself into these situations, you have to get yourself out.  A few of us at least we wearing mountain bike shoes.  Yes, walking across ice and snow sucks but how bad could it be?

Not bad at all if in fact it had been ice and snow.  What it turned out to be was a thin layer of ice floating on top of calf-deep icy water.  There may have been an easier way around this, but we were spread out right across the road and no one found a place where there wasn’t deep water; it would have helped also, I think, if I had ever seen the place when it wasn’t completely covered.  I, however, was lucky enough to find a place where I stepped on something that felt remarkably like you would imagine stepping on a decaying body would feel.  The fun continued as we clambered up the icy road on the other side.  We were fortunate that the next part of the ride involved a couple of stiff climbs, because that helped circulation return to our frozen feet.  All except for one of us who had encased his feet in plastic bags and was now riding with two bags full of ice water.  The exercise warmth was welcome because despite a forecast which had said that the rain would be gone by mid-afternoon, it began to rain again, and rained off and on for the final three hours of the ride.

But I got it done, in a little over 10 hours.  Surprisingly, although I was tired, I didn’t feel too bad physically.  I was also delighted with the bike, which had braved the conditions admirably.  Riding with fenders makes the bike heavier, no question.  But at least I could still use all my gears by the end of the ride, which was not true for everyone.  You also don’t realize just how much a courtesy to riders behind you a rear mud-flap is until you have ridden in those kinds of conditions behind someone who doesn’t have one.

This was also one of those “Well. . .huh” moments for me.  If you had told me even a couple of years ago that I would be able to spend 10 hours soaked, much less be able to function in that condition, I would have said you were nuts.  Not that this was ever an item on my bucket list.  But it is another example of the strange and wonderful places cycling can take you.


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