May 21, 2016
Those of us who have some attachment to Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, have become sadly familiar with the term liquifaction. It sounds like it should be a happy word, the word that someone would invent to describe the pleasant buzz you get from consuming just enough but not too much alcohol. Or the feeling you get from gratefully immersing yourself in a warm bath.
In fact the term describes neither of those states. Liquifaction is what happens to particular types of land formations when they are subjected to a strong earthquake. I will spare you the elaborate geological summary, and instead just say that one moment the ground is apparently solid and stable, the next it turns to water. The solid structures built atop that heretofore solid land crack, bend, and often collapse. As an added bonus, the process can concentrate heavy elements normally present in the soil but locked harmlessly away, depositing them as a toxic mess on the surface or releasing them into the air as a hazardous dust.
By now you are probably getting the sense that this particular brevet did not go well for me.
If I’d only known, I would have enjoyed the sin a lot more. Whatever it was.
There’s a set of practices some people engage in that are known collectively as “mortification of the flesh.” This usually involves whipping yourself with flails, driving spikes through parts of your body, and other similarly painful acts. It is a form of spiritual practice where a person atones for their own individual sins, or where a group atones for the sins of an entire community. It is bizarre and pointless but no more so than most things associated with organized religion.
It struck me during this ride that randonneuring has more than a little in common with mortification practices. But the most blindingly obvious difference is that we are not (consciously, at least) doing it to atone for anything. Except for being middle aged, perhaps (and the few randonneurs who are not middle aged? I have absolutely no idea what they are atoning for).
And that actually makes randonneuring even more bizarre.
For example, this particular 400K would have been a lot easier to deal with if I’d know the sin for which I was clearly punishing myself. To judge by the scale of the discomfort and mental disorientation it must have been something both epic and venal. At a couple of points during the ride I did entertain myself with the thoughts of the sins I could have been attempting to commit rather than doing this ride. Some of them involved sets of twins (in various gender combinations). Some involved burglary. Some involved running for political office. Some involved all three at once.
I couldn’t even think of more minor sins. Had I missed wishing someone happy birthday on Facebook? Mocked a Millennial for being a Millennial? Used a forced disconnect to avoid humiliation in an online deathmatch? Again, all were perfectly worthy indiscretions, none of which I could remember having engaged in recently.
Randonneuring, therefore, remains this rather singular activity where you put yourself through the kind of punishment that is typically associated only with “enhanced interrogation techniques” (this last ride, for example, involved sleep deprivation, isolation and waterboarding) for no obviously good reason. Unless you are doing the 1200k Paris-Brest-Paris event there are no cheering crowds (there are 1200ks in the US also. . .but no one in the communities you ride through really gives a rat’s ass). There may be the occasional loved one that accompanies you to an event, but most of them seem content to just let you go off and do your thing and hope you don’t die doing it.
This year I’ve been making a concerted effort to encourage more people to get into randonneuring. Now I’m wondering if that is actually a somewhat pointless exercise. It reminds me of the videogame EVE Online. Nowhere nearly as well-known as some of its Massively Multiplayer brethren like World of Warcraft and League of Legends the game has nevertheless experienced steady growth with a subscription base of over half a million at one point. And it did this despite being incredibly, awesomely, hair-pullingly difficult and frustrating. It was difficult to learn. Impossibly time-consuming. Soul-crushingly unfair. Largely non-policed (if you could imagine something in the real world, the developers were quite happy to let you experiment with it in the virtual world, including all manner of financial scams and corrupt political practices). If players complained, the developers were largely unsympathetic. While most other game developers are content to pedal the “you the players are our most valuable asset” line of bullshit, the response by EVE‘s developers was, in not so many words, “You don’t like our game? Fine, fuck off back to World of Warcraft.” Obviously this was not the game for everyone. For that reason, it was often said (and I found this to be true; hard as I wanted to like the game and gave it the old college try, it just wasn’t for me), “You don’t find EVE, EVE finds you.” I’m starting to wonder if the same is true in some sense of randonneuring.
What occasioned these reflections? Well, I had a rather singular experience on the 400k. Brevets of any distance can be tough for all kinds of reasons. But when, on a particular day, they are tough for multiple reasons, every randonneur winds up asking themselves a version of the “And why am I doing this again?” question. Being able to finish the ride usually means that you’ve come up with some kind of an answer to that question. It may be profound, but probably isn’t. It may in fact be something along the lines of: Because it is there. Because I had a free Saturday. Because I finally listened to every version of every Justin Bieber song and life no longer holds any other meaning for me.
But on this ride, for the first time in my three plus years of randonneuring, I found myself without an answer to that question.
The rain it raineth every day.
This was always going to be a tough ride. Most randonneurs I’ve talked to seem to feel that the 400k is the toughest of the core distances that make up the Super Randonneur series (200, 300, 400, and 600 kilometer distances). It is long enough that even the very fastest are going to be spending some time riding in darkness, and most people will spend a significant time riding in the dark. For most people the time involved is also starting to butt up against the need for sleep. Some randonneurs do certifiably crazy things like ride a 600k straight through without sleeping but that doesn’t describe the way in which the vast majority of randonneurs approach things.
But for this ride the weather was an added factor, with a major storm system rolling through the mid-Atlantic. And while there was some optimistic parsing of the weather forecast we all knew, I think, in our hearts, that it would be bad. Because it has been bad all year. There’s only one brevet I’ve done so far this year that hasn’t involved significant rain, and that was one that was postponed due to snow the previous weekend and instead offered extreme blustery winds. Upon waking at 3am for the 4am start (!) a quick glance at the weather radar on my phone showed an area of dense showers moving in and tracking north with us for the first part of the day.
By the time we set off it was raining heavily and proceeded to do so for the next four hours or so (and if biking in the dark is always challenging, biking in the rainy dark definitely requires you to pucker up). Then it moderated some and we road through steady rain, gradually lightening, for the next 5 hours. One of the things that makes you realize that what you are doing is decidedly not normal is when you find yourself describing events afterward with phrases like “After the first 9 hours things got a lot better!” If something is sucking for 9 hours, most rational people do not continue to do it. Part of this was due to the route which throughout the latter part of the afternoon headed generally southeast, skirting the flank of much of the rain, the skies remaining sullen and grey but moisture free. Until about midnight when the rain started up again. At that point I would have liked to not be on the road. At that point I still was.
Ups and Downs
However the nine hours of rain weren’t the major difficulty (another crazy statement). I just didn’t like this route much at all.
No disrespect to the route designer. You can’t please everyone with a route and with brevets you have a lot of moving parts involving control points, access to services, etc. This route was also originally designed for an evening start, to give riders tackling Paris-Brest-Paris the experience of starting off late and then riding a 400k stretch. Therefore some of the control points where riders could re-stock with food and drink had to be open 24 hours, which limits the routing options somewhat.
For me personally, however, this one ticked a lot of boxes concerning things I don’t like on a ride. There were out and backs. We rode several roads that are some of my favorite roads to ride in the region. . .when ridden in one direction (e.g. Zulla, Leeds Manor). Naturally, we rode them in the other direction, and they ended up being a lot less fun (the only road that benefited from this treatment was Halfway Road between the Plains and Middleburg; even in heavy rain and total darkness, downward trending rollers are still more fun than upward trending rollers).
We also got to do a couple of truly crap roads (Sam Fred and Snickersville Pike, Watermill Road), roads that are so destroyed that they require a decent amount of concentration when conditions are perfect. And conditions were far from perfect. So I ended up riding them in the dull light of not-quite-dawn (marginally better than in total darkness). But then, to add to the enjoyment, we got to ride them again the other way!
Then there were the information controls. (For those of you who aren’t randonneurs, info controls are different from the usual ones located at re-supply points; they are designed to check that you aren’t cutting the course and involve you simply having to answer a question about some aspect of the scenery around you). Info controls are a fact of life on most brevets, and can be a refreshing micro-pause in your riding. The two for this ride were simply annoying. One was right at the bottom of a lovely fast descent that immediately transitioned into a climb; having to stop and answer a question rather than carry some momentum up the other side? Bleh. Then there was another info control a mere 17 miles from the end of a 250 ride which seemed like pointless sadism.
But it was really the entire course that I didn’t love. There was a reasonable quantity of climbing. How much? At this point my standard answer to the elevation gain question is: who the fuck really knows? Given the inability of any of the major providers of GPS cycling services to agree on a standard mapping methodology, trying to make an absolute claim about climbing numbers is a fools game. Our club’s official Ride with GPS route listed 11,500 feet. My Garmin Touring device said 14,500. Garmin Connect corrected that to something like 10,200. Strava corrected it to just over 13,000 (based on other courses with a more agreed upon elevation gain, 13k felt about right to me, but who knows?).
But I like climbing. And it wasn’t the quantity of climbing in this case. It was the kind of climbing. This course rolled relentlessly, but not with the kind of middle-sized ups and downs that many cyclists think of as rollers. This route instead was made up of instance after instance of short, sharp climbs, and descents that immediately transitioned into momentum killing uphills. This was the kind of course that is typically called “chippy” as in “it chips away at your will to live.”
The following diagrams give some indication of what I mean. The first is of last year’s Northern Exposure 400k which had about 12,900 feet and the second is the Firefly which had, as I said, about 13,200 feet of climbing (both sets of data are from Strava, to keep them consistent).
See the difference? Both have almost exactly the same amount of climbing and the climbing in each is substantially front-loaded; the climbing in the Northern Exposure 400k , however, happens mainly in a series of big chunks, many of them long, and a few of them quite steep. By contrast, notice all the porcupine spines on the Firefly? All the way through the course? Uh. . .yeah. And I rode the Northern Exposure course over an hour faster than the Firefly, including a stop to fix a flat.
This what I mean when I say that this really wasn’t the course for me. I’m fine with long grueling climbs. I can get into a rhythm, keep a steady effort level, maintain focus. But the Firefly course has you shifting constantly, and unless you are riding a feather-light bike (and all things considered, even after the horrible end to the ride which I’ll mention in a moment, I was glad given how atrocious conditions were for the first half, that I was riding a heavier bike), this course is going to tear you up.
Making Friends with the Darkness
I can’t blame everything that went wrong today on the course, however, much as I wanted to do so at various times. In a 400k especially a lot of little things will start to add up over the length of a ride, things that you might not notice on a 200k or even a 300k. And for me I guess it was a combination of little things that caused the wheels to fall off.
Much of randonneuring is about managing the mental overhead, and as I’ve said above, a course where you are constantly having to make mental decisions about what gear to be in etc., is going to wear you down over the long haul. Riding in the rain is already inherently more mentally taxing, and while I’ve ridden in rain for that length of time before it was on both occasions on a 200k and by that point the end was in sight.
I was also carrying more gear this time, and the benefits of more weight are always difficult to gauge. I was certainly glad of the extra clothing I carried; at about mile 140 I changed my sodden socks and put on an extra layer on top. And then for the night riding I was glad to shed the rain paints and put on my wool tights. Even when it is relatively warm I find that I cool down pretty quickly after the sun drops and have to work hard and dress well to keep my body temperature up after a long day of riding. But for wet weather you are already wearing more and heavier gear than you usually are. And even the best rain gear starts to retain moisture: a little more weight. On reflection a big problem for me was my North Wave boots. I got them out for this ride (the second time I thought I had packed them away for good) because they are warm and have worked well in the rain in the past. But not in this much rain. And not for this long. Eventually water started dribbling down through the top of the boot, working its way up under the pant legs; some of it was also probably sweat running down the inside. Regardless, the boots eventually ended up wet inside; they already weigh a little more than your standard bike shoe, and now they weighed even more, and I’m guessing that (little things again, remember) that the extra weight there (any extra rotational weight on a bike is a killer) added up over 400k.
I fueled pretty well throughout the day, eating consistently, not feeling the hunger I’ve felt on past rides and stopping at mile 190 to load up with some serious burger for the final assault.
One of the beneficial side-effects of the weather in the morning was that it was so bad that it effectively killed the plans for a lot of people. Looking at signs as we went through the small towns there were various spring festivals that were supposed to be taking place this weekend. There are also the usual graduation celebrations this time of year. Many of those celebrations were hampered by the weather, which meant that a lot of people seemed to have decided to just stay home. This meant that there was very little traffic on the roads, even on some of the busier stretches. The same was true even on one of the main roads out of Orange; twilight when I left, very soon I was biking in complete darkness, with only the occasional car for company. When I turned off the main road, I was reminded again how much I love riding at night.
It was getting on for 10 at night by this point, and there was very little wind. A thin mist hung in the air, visible only as tiny specks in my helmet light. On a nearby hill a radio tower pulsed red, a beacon as the road twisted and turned. This route shared a portion of the end of the Warrenton 300 brevet and offers the option of a gravel detour to avoid the highly trafficked 522 which can be a bit of a white knuckle experience even in daylight. But I’d ridden the gravel a few weeks back (and loved it) so opted to take the regular route, climbing over Clark Mountain. In retrospect that might not have been the wisest move; I was feeling pretty good after dinner, but there is a bit of climbing there, and it is coming late in the day. Mind you, except for the sound of my labored breathing, it was peaceful. And then right near the top, I passed a meadow with dozens of fireflies! I thought we would be too early in the year, and I never saw any others elsewhere on the ride. But for that one short stretch they were a magical sight. Well back from the road you could occasionally catch a glimpse of the lighted windows of farmhouses. The air was filled with more kinds of frog noises than I would have believed possible, each type succeeding the other as you moved from territory to territory. Occasionally the sound of rushing water would approach and then recede.
Biking down a deserted country road at night with nothing but your headlight to illuminate your path may be one of the most magical biking experiences I know, and it is nothing I would have experienced if I hadn’t got into randonneuring.
But the Darkness Doesn’t Want to Be Friends
But the road went on. And on. And then an unmistakably splattering sound indicated in no uncertain terms. . .bet you are wondering where this sentence is going. . .that it had begun to rain again. Now I was feeling resentful of the warm, lighted windows of the houses we passed.
It was about this time that while I didn’t lose my will to live, I certainly lost my will to bike. All of a sudden, the degree to which I gave a flying fuck about even finishing the damn ride just up and left me. My arse was sore, my legs were tired and it was like pedaling in molasses, my hands and arms were tired from the constant shifting which had become harder over the course of the day as the cables stiffened up with debris from the water (meaning that by the end of the night I was having to haul on my front derailleur to get it to shift).
There were still some fun moments. A dog abruptly jumped out of the brush up the road a short way; with no energy at all, I was resigned to being eaten and hoping that there would be enough left for the next randonneur to be able to recognize the corpse and report my fate. Instead, apparently freaked out by this glowing apparition, the dog’s tell whipped between its legs quicker than a Trump denial, and he hurtled back into the brush.
The final, annoying control, at the Elk Run store, was actually an amazing experience. I have been at this store dozens of times over the years–it is a regular stopping point on several Team Z rides–but never at night. At night, the store is surmounted by a gigantic illuminated sign that burns so brightly it can be seen from miles away. I’m surprised the thing hasn’t been outlawed as a potential hazard to navigation into and out of the nearby Fauquier airport. It was like a beacon calling all for a revival meeting. When I pulled up in front of the building there was another rider already there, and it was almost as bright as day. But there was no religious revelation to be had. Only the realization of another 17 miles to go.
I didn’t want to be on my bike any more. I really didn’t want to be on my bike any more. At one point, I just stopped the bike and got off. It was cool enough now that I could see my breath, and the clouds mingling with the falling rain in the beam of my helmet light were just beautiful. I stood there, breathing at different intensities and rates, watching the patterns shift, all of them beautiful, all of them so much more interesting than pedaling a bike. I don’t know how long I stood there.
The low point came when I was a mere three miles from the end. Usually, no matter how tired you are, when you hit the last 10 miles of the ride you get a little kick of energy; the anticipation of being done provides just enough adrenaline and motivation to get you home. I came to a slight hill. It was no more than 100m long, and while it was a little steep I could easily have pedaled it in a low gear. But I didn’t want to. I couldn’t make myself do it. I got off, and walked the bike up the hill.
Given how much I didn’t want to be on the bike and keep pedaling, I’m not really sure why I was able to do so.
In the End. . .
Objectively there isn’t much to complain about here. I did finish after all. Some people were out a lot longer than I was, and faced more difficult situations (including a broken derailleur cable only 60 miles into the ride). Out of the 20 riders who set out in the morning five abandoned, many of them quite early on (the few, the sane).
But however much brevets are an organized event, randonneuring is ultimately a solo activity, and you experience what you experience.
I did take away a lot of useful lessons from this. Some of them were small but useful. If you know it is going to be a wet ride carry extra chain lube. Grease the entry and exit points of your cable housings to stop water getting in there and gradually calcifying. But above all I think I learned a really valuable lesson about the cumulative toll of small things. Wet clothing, wet shoes, carrying a little extra weight, the fact that your seat cover (an unfortunate foul weather necessity with a leather seat) is not as comfortable as your actual seat and will cause chafing. I can use all this knowledge.
If I ever decide to get back on a bike again.