April 18, 2015
The Good Stuff
At the end of the ride, begrimed, sucking down delicious high fructose corn syrup products and waiting for the Pizza to arrived I was talking with Mike, the DCR club president. “You know,” he said, “I always read your blog and enjoy it, even if I have to skip some to get to the good stuff.” I wasn’t at all offended. I assumed that he was thinking about posts like my last one, where my rando report was seemingly tacked on to a philosophical disquisition about the influence of middle-of-the road Greek pop singers. But I had to laugh; that is one of the things I like most about writing (and reading): what counts as the “good bits” is different for everyone. For my rando comrades these posts probably can’t contain enough bike geekery: they will delight in arcane discussions about the TPI of tires, the actual versus claimed lumens of lighting systems, and the dark magic arcana of wheel specs. For more normal people, the philosophical disquisitions probably represent the good (or at least the OK) bits and then it all goes rapidly downhill.
The short version of today’s ride: lots of going rapidly downhill, lots of good bits, lots of extra bits, and a bit of actual and metaphorical darkness. Pretty much a typical brevet. And after the last two rides, “typical” was more than welcome.
A city that Never Sleeps? That isn’t Frederick, MD.
As a triathlete you get used to getting up at the ass crack of dawn to train or race. But randonneuring often requires you to get up at oh-dark-might-as-well-not-have-gone-to-bed. So it was up at 3am, out the door at 3:30 and drive to Frederick in time for the ride start at 5am. The ride start was comfortingly familiar: light and safety gear checks, picking up the control card, riders silhouetted against the sickly wash of franchise neon.
After a few inspirational words from our leader (“It’s going to be warmer than we’re used to. Carry plenty of water.”) we clipped in, left the faint greasy aroma of Le Maison de la Guaffre behind and were soon making our way through the deserted streets of Frederick.
This is one of my favorite things about an early morning start in an urban area, the realization that you are up and at `em while most people are still deep in REM. Not everyone, however, as a sudden encounter with a garbage truck parked across main street demonstrated.
We made our way along familiar roads toward Thurmont, the sky gradually lightening off to our right. Sunrise and sunset have turned out to be two of my favorite riding times. Sunrise usually coincides with the early portion of a ride (or, on the 600, with the start of my second day) and unless the weather is crappy it is really hard not to feel your spirits rising along with the sun. Sunset on the other hand, always feels strangely relaxing, even if it means the promise of hours of night riding ahead. Unfortunately, the road was also rising with the sun as we began the long haul up the side of Catoctin via the scenic MD 77, surrounded by the deep woods of the state park, our steady breathing accompanied by the rush of nearby streams.
Soon enough we were emerging from the forest into the beginning of a beautiful day.
I’ve done bits of this route before and this first part through southern Pennsylvania is one of my very favorite pieces of riding. It is lumpy, but that means you are constantly cresting a small rise and then swooping down into an impossibly green valley. In places, residual ground mist added to the atmosphere.
My other favorite part of the day was that I got to ride with some people from outside our region. This was an interesting reminder that for all that we bitch and moan about our winters, even when we have a bad one we still have it pretty good when it comes to randonneuring. In many parts of the country the randonneuring season is only just getting started; in other places (the frozen tundra) it won’t get started for a while yet. Given that it is a Paris-Brest-Paris year (a 1200k event that is the equivalent of Kona for triathletes, except that unlike Kona it is only run every 4 years), and people need to get their qualifying rides in, this makes our local rides a good option for people from states where the snow is still on the ground. We had riders from New York, Connecticutt, and Jim and Dana from Ohio, with whom I was fortunate to share the early part of the day.
The three of us only encountered one road (the inaptly named Winding Road) that was in truly wretched condition, but it was on a climb so we were moving slowly. While short, this is one of the more striking parts of the ride, because it features ranks of apple trees marching off on either side of the road, their gnarled branches just beginning to leaf out.
This climb was a nice little warm up for the day’s main event: the climb up Big Flat.
This is a grind-it-out kind of climb: long and relatively steep, gaining about 1400 feet in a little under 7 miles. A manageable lower section yields to some nasty spiky sections with the bonus of a false summit. Not surprisingly, even though it was still only mid-morning, we began to feel the heat. Often cycling can be brutally unfair, and epic climbs don’t always pay you back in terms of a glorious downhill, but this one does. Gleefully I plunged into a 4.5 mile descent, cruising at between 30 and 40 mph all the way into Shippensburg.
When I rode a similar route last year I remember not liking this next stretch much, but today it was glorious. Part of the reason may have been that I took it a little easier on the climbs so I was feeling sprightly, aided by a net downhill to the next control at Plainfield. I left at roughly the same time as another rider, a woman who soon passed me and then, as the road began to trend upward, continued to dangle just out of reach.
There’s a strange kind of rhythm to randonneuring. You are, ultimately, riding your own ride. If you’ve pre-arranged with a friend or friends to ride with them, then that’s what you do. If you are riding solo, then you will sometimes ride the whole day by yourself, but if it is a well-attended event, such as this one, you may find others with whom you can form a serious commitment. Or, in my case, you end up with a series of casual encounters. That only happens, however, if you can actually catch people! The woman-I-did-not-yet-know-as-Karen stayed in front of me for mile after mile.
As a much heavier rider I would get closer on the descents, and on some of the shorter climbs, only to see her drift away again on the flats.
Finally, however, I managed to catch up with enough breath remaining to strike up a conversation.
Turns out Karen was another visitor, from Boston, attempting her first full randonneuring series this year in order to try and get into PBP. I had the pleasure of her company up until the Whisky Springs Road climb, a nasty little bump on the elevation chart that has completely undone me twice before. This time, however, I rode it more moderately and also felt like I had more in the tank (and then subsequently came to find out via Strava that I had actually PRed the climb) but at the price of watching Karen drifting into the distance. But my complete failure to get rid of last Thanksgiving’s turkey once again came to my aid and I caught her on the downhill; together, with the aid of a glorious tailwind, we descended the ridge into East Berlin and the next control at Rocco’s Pizza.
This is a place that we use as a regular control but to be honest I have mixed feelings about it. The people who work there are great, have always treated us well, and are extremely accommodating, even offering to fill our water bottles for us. But the food is not exactly speedy, so the place can turn into a bit of a time sink; I spent at least double the time for which I had planned. A large group of locusts. . .er. . .my fellow randonneurs was just getting ready to leave when I arrived and they had cleaned out all the ready-to-eat pizza slices. I ended up getting some chicken strips and fries, eating a couple and stashing the rest in my bag. In retrospect, I should have gone with the subs, because they came out pretty quickly. But I made the best of my time, making sure that all my bottles were filled, energy bars were sorted, the next part of the route was loaded into my Garmin, so that I was right ready to leave when the food arrived.
In retrospect, I should have eaten more at Roccos, particularly knowing what was coming up. The next part of the ride to Thurmont is one that has always worn me down; uphill trending rollers for most of the way, no services; it is also a rather “fussy” section with a lot of “quick left” and “quick right” cues. Plus, some wind. Not a lot, nothing like the last 300 certainly, but at this stage I was feeling like any wind was too much. Given that this was also my third time riding this section you’d think I’d have also learned that it always takes longer than you think, and you need to carry extra water. The only thing that kept me going during this section was suddenly arriving at a long stretch of open road and catching sight of another rider on the horizon.
Gradually I inched by way closer and discovered that it was fellow DCR rider Chris Mento.
I trailed pathetically after Chris like a lost puppy all the way into Thurmont, as the sun slowly sank over the Catoctin ridge. What added to the discomfort at this point was the insect activity. Bugs had, like the riders, been celebrating the warmer weather all day and I already had a pretty impressive coating of tiny carcasses. But along this stretch the bugs became bigger. And their aim was better. In my ear (both sides). Up my nose (both nostrils). Every time I opened my mouth to draw extra breath or say something to Chris. Gah. Cough. Swallow. The rest of the time they were simply smacking into my face and torso like tiny pinpricks, bouncing of my glasses with an audible thunk. Unfortunately, all the extra protein I ingested didn’t seem to do me much good.
Both of us were completely out of water by the time we hit Thurmont and I was really dragging. But we hit the first gas station we saw; I filled my bottles, downed an entire bottle of Coke and took a couple of salt sticks to forestall cramping. . .and suddenly, I felt like a completely new rider.
Chris and I rode companionably the last 18 miles back to Frederick, pausing only to put on our reflective gear as the light faded, but we rode this section so quickly that we finished about half an hour before sunset, the first time I’ve ever finished a 300 in daylight, in a 300 PR of 14:31.
All told it was a great day, even if it left me so exhausted that for the first event ever, including two Ironmans and a 600, I got home, sat down on the couch, and then the next thing I knew it was three hours later.