Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Desert River 600

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Something's knocking.

Someone's knocking.

Our wake-up knock! I roll off the edge of the bed and open the door of the motel room where I and three other randonneurs are sleeping the kind of sleep that comes after riding 360 km. I expect to see Paul, the organizer, but instead see Cecil, apparently dressed, perky, and rearin' to go. We wave and nod at each other—my brain is not yet prepared for speech. I close the door and start to get ready for the day's ride.

Bathroom. Teeth. Sleeping clothes off; riding clothes on. At some point I grab my 'phone to check the time and am puzzled. My bleary eyes see what looks like 4:55. Paul was supposed to wake us at 4:00. Are we already an hour late? Maybe it says 4:05? Nothing to be done now, in any case, but get my stuff back on the bike, grab some breakfast, and get back on the road ASAP.

The volunteers are wonderful. What sort of cereal? Egg and sausage? What would you like on your bagel? What kind of tea? it would be all-too-easy to linger, but by 5:35 we — Cecil, myself, Sal and Bill Alsup — are heading out of Richland for the final 240 km of what has been, so far, a great Brevet.

We had stared the previous morning in The Dalles, after the usual 6 AM
parking-lot pep-talk from Paul Whitney, the organizer,
almost immediately crossing over the Columbia on The Dalles Bridge into Washington. Cecil and Sal had both left me behind on the climb up from the bridge to Route 14 — in fact, it looked as though the whole field had left me behind, and the last red taillight had turned the corner onto Rt 14 long before I did so. Strong and gusty winds from the north-west had made the gorge crossing less than pleasant. I was reminded of a favorite aphorism from my youth. When I first started cycle-touring, a much older and wiser rider by the name of Peter Knottley took me under his wing. This is what Peter said. In case of headwind: put watch in pocket, engage low gear, and twiddle.

This makes perfect theoretical sense. In case of a steep hill, if you go 20% faster, you get to the top 20% sooner, and your total energy outlay is more or less unchanged. But in case of headwind, if you ride 20% faster, the wind resistance goes up by something 45%, because it's roughly proportional to the square of your speed. So your total energy outlay is significantly increased; moreover, the harder you work, the worse it gets. However, being late for tea is not a theoretical issue: it's a very practical one. Hence the importance of the "put watch in pocket" part of Peter's advice: you have to quit worrying about how slow you are.

All this became irrelevant as soon as I turned the corner onto Rt 14 and started heading east up the Columbia Gorge. Now I had a tailwind. Speeds in the mid-20's were easy, the bike seemed to float over the rolling hills, and even the views across the river didn't tempt me to linger very long.

The first 58 miles to the contrôle in Roosevelt flew by — I even arrived in time to wave to Cecil as she left. This was a country store of the kind that I didn't think existed any more. A darling lady in a print dress behind the counter signed our cards and I was soon on my way. Ray Ogilvie caught up with me and we chatted for a while; then he flatted and I left him behind. Then he caught me again, taking more advantage of the tailwind that I had. In Plymouth, 100 miles down, we crossed the Columbia on a bike path on the Interstate-82 bridge and returned to Oregon. I had a very respectable average speed by now, something like 6.5 hours for the first 107 miles, but other riders had broken their PRs for those first 100 miles.

At the Subway in Umatilla I found Cecil and Sal, and we rode together through Hermiston, Starfield and the little town of Echo, and onto what for me was the most beautiful road of the ride: through the Echo canyon alongside the Umatilla River on County Road 1300/Reith Road/Old Pendleton River Road. Somewhere along here I was trying to read the cue sheet, didn't notice a pothole until I found it the hard way, and soon after had a flat, presumably a pinch-flat from the pothole. WIth Sal's help a replacement tube was quickly installed, and we were soon in Reith (about 6 houses) and then Pendleton. There the "Blue Mountain Fuel" contrôle was cleverly disguised as an ordinary Shell station, and required a couple of miles of backtracking.

144 miles down, but now we had to turn back north and west, into that blessed wind. A less independent (and more intelligent) group of riders would have formed a peloton and fought the wind collectively. But no, we were randonneurs, determined to make everything as difficult as possible. We poodled along side by side into the wind until, at an information contrôle 17 miles from nowhere we came upon Narayan, and then Bill Gobie on his Bacchetta Aero rolled up. We stopped long enough to chat, to install lights, to put on some more layers of clothing, and to wait for the rain, which had to this time been an on-and-off drizzle, to start in earnest. As we moved off into it, I realized that this was going to be one of those rains that hits you in the face in small hard lumps, and which makes up in velocity what it lacks in volume.

Naturally, this was the point at which I punctured a second time. The chances of finding the offending flint in the dark and wet were zero, so I elected to install not just a new tube but also a new tire. That's why we carry spares, isn't it?

Sal was doing most of the repair work, and I was happy to let him. But he couldn't get the new tire onto the rim. Neither could I. Eventually we ask Bill, who has shown up on the Bacchetta and stopped to join the tire-changing party; Bill has what look like very powerful hands. Eventually, with Bill's thumbs and Sal's hands and me wielding the tire levers we got the damn thing mounted. and I hope that we haven't damaged the tube in the process. I do have one more tube in my bag, but I have no confidence that we will ever get that tire off again. This is all a little strange, because I've been using Schwalbe Stelvios in this size for four years, and have always been able to mount them with my bare hands without any trouble. The folding version of the Stelvio, which this was, is usually even easier to mount.

We headed off towards Highways 730 and 207 and fumbled around in Hermiston for a while before we eventually found the Safeway, lurking on the wrong side of the street. The supermarket porch is well populated with randonneurs who had scoured the place for food and drink before settling on the benches chowing down. With our reflective gear and our tired looks, maybe the locals took us for a DoT road-mending crew. The rain had stopped, but the next leg to Umatilla was on trafficked roads, and it was good to regain the I-82 bike path and cross back into Washington.

Then we had turned north onto Plymouth Road. Starting at the river, this road climbed for almost 13 miles almost due north. According to the map it crests at about 1900 ft, but climbing in the dark, with a buffeting crosswind threatening to push me into the ditch, the climb was Zen experience. I stopped a couple of times to take off layers of clothing, but apart from that just kept pushing the pedals into the night. Never too steep, never too easy, no traffic whatsoever, and a strange red glow in the sky to the north-east; no sense of distance covered, or time passing; just turning the cranks and listening to the silence.

I eventually reached the crest and the right turn onto Clodfelter Road. There I reconnected with Sal and Cecil. It was 18 miles to the overnight contrôle in Richland, and, from the fact that we had been climbing for the past 12 miles, and that the lights of the town were not visible, I deduced that we had a good descent ahead of us.
Cecila and Sal disappeared into the dark in front of me when I stopped to put those layers of clothing back on. I did catch a glimpse of two of their red tail lights in the distance, but I took the 9-mile descent fairly easily, not knowing the road or the grade. Even so, I missed the turn onto Leslie Road at the bottom, and had to pull out the GPS to find an alternate route. The last 9 miles through suburban Richland were a maze of city streets and bike paths; the cues would have been hard to follow even in daylight. At one point I followed the bike path downhill, as instructed, only to find that it dead-ended just beyond a locked gate. Back at the top of the hill, I found Narayan waiting for me. "Not that way". We eventually found the Days Inn Hotel a little after 1 AM, if I recall correctly. Sal was in the motel room, eating happily. Cecil was already asleep in another room. Soup and stew were excellent. Showers were cold but clean, and bed was very welcome. Somehow, those two spare tubes had not made their way into my drop bag, so before I went to sleep, I patched the tube that has pinch-flatted on Reith Road.

But now it is Sunday morning. We are heading west towards "Benton City", which heralds itself as "a Tuscany sort of place", in a bowl above the Yakima River. True to form,
the sun does appear from behind the dense clouds.
We are passed by Narayan (what's that great yellow thing in the sky?), and Bll, and in turn re-pass them.
I'm a bit concerned about my front tire, which is definitely soft. There is nothing in the tire, and I suspect that we either damaged the tube when we installed it, or that the new tube came with a microscopic hole. Still, given how hard that tire was to get on, I don't want to try taking it off unless I really must. So I put some more air in the tire, and resolve to watch it and see how long it takes to go soft.

From Benton City we take the Old Inland Empire Highway and follow it to the first contrôle, on the edge of Prosser. The first contôle after the overnight stop is a sensitive spot on a long Randonnée. The closing times for contrôles don't require one to ride very fast — an average speed of 10 mph is entirely adequate. But if one wants to sleep, then one needs to ride significantly faster than that, and build up a "time cushion", which one can then dissipate in such activities as sleeping and eating. We had left the overnight contrôle in Richland about 25 minutes ahead of its closing time. At Prosser we had clawed back some of our time cushion, but not very much; we now had about 40 minutes in hand. Cecil tells me that, based on her wide experience of 600 km rides (she does have infinitely more experience than me, since she has finished 1, and I have failed to finish one), that we will now be OK.

And on a normal ride, she would be right. On a normal ride, it's pretty easy to average 14 or 15 mph on the road, and build that time cushion back up. But this is not a normal ride.

From Prosser we follow a road parallel to the interstate for 13 miles through Grandview and Sunnyside, which is another contrôle. On the way to Grandview Sal punctures, and I take the opportunity to carefully check my front tire, and to put some more air in it. In Sunnyside we find a Subway and entertain the lone counter clerk with our antics. Then it's back to looking for another road that is named differently on the ground than on the cue sheet; fortunately Ray's GPS clears up the confusion. From Sunnyside it is 70 miles to the next contrôle, and we know that we have to climb up to Goldendale, but not much more.

The Mabton-Sunnyside road takes us through Mabton after 8 miles; after that the next possibility of services is the Bluebird Inn, which comes in 25 miles. Cecil had heard that the climb comes in two stages; a couple of long switchbacks to a false summit, followed by a descent, and then another climb to the Goldendale plateau. We have all done long climbs before, and we each settle in at our own pace. Cecil and Sal are soon ahead of me; Narayan catches me and we play leapfrog for a while. I still have a cashew-butter and jam bagel brought from home, and occasionally take a bite of this or a shot block. The reduced food intake seemed to suit my body; I not going fast, but I'm not bonking and I'm not feeling nauseous. I have plenty of energy bars, nuts and raisins, and so on, but I'm a bit concerned about water. Paul had warned us that this was a "three water bottle ride", and I had brought a camelback in response. However, the cool temperatures of the first day mean that I had toted the thing for the first 350 km without needing the extra capacity, so this morning I had decided to leave it in my drop bag. Now the sun was out and I was climbing; I was definitely going to need to find water in Bickleton, even though the "Bluebird Inn" was apparently the only place open, and time would be tight for a sit-down meal. Still, there is nothing to be done about it now.

The second climb seems much longer than the first, and I'm really looking forward to cresting the plateau at 3000 feet, and starting to make time, instead of crawling up the side of the plateau at what seems like a snail's pace. Then I reach the top of the plateau, and the wind hits me full in the face. Far from diminishing since yesterday, it seems to have gathered force. Ahead of me lie what appear to be endless rollers reaching to the horizon. In reality it is only about 4 miles to Bickleton, but every furlong must be gained by a struggle into the wind. The only time that my speed reaches double digits is when I head down a roller, but that must be paid for by climbing back up the other side.

I have one stroke of good fortune, or good thinking, as I pass Bickleton High School. There is a Pepsi machine outside the front entrance of the school. I've never used on of these things before, but I ride over and — yes — it contains two channels of bottled water. Bottled water is not one of my favorite purchases, but on this ride, it's just what I need. I put a dollar into the note acceptor, and press the first "water" button. "Selection sold out". My heart sinks. I try the second "water" button. Ker-thump! A bottle drops into the dispensing bin! I use it to fill the water bottles on my bike, and then get a second bottle from the machine, which I stash in a jersey pocket. Allright! Now I'm set for the three water bottle ride! It's amazing how cheered I was by this small success.

A few hundred yards further on, I meet Sal Ortega and the local "cruise in" at the Bluebird Inn. Sal did in fact get water at the Inn, and we exchange notes. From here it is 36 miles to the Goldendale contrôle, and we have about 3.5 hours before it closes. 10 mph sounds like a very modest pace — but not into this wind. What we don't know is when the downhill starts. I don't know the elevation of Goldendale, although I do know that it's a stiff climb up from the Gorge. Maybe 1500 feet? (It's actually closer to 1800). That will give us another 1500 ft of descent from Bickleton to Goldendale — and maybe that will be enough to get our average speed up to where it needs to be to make the time cut.

As we leave town we come upon a great downhill, and my heart surges—but it's just the crossing of Pine Creek, and must be paid for by a stiff climb up the other side of the valley. Sal sprints away over the rollers, and I can't stay with him. I really am dragging today, no doubt about it. Each time I crest a hill, I hope to see a long descent on the other side, but each time all I see is a series of three or four more rollers to the next horizon. The landscape is open and more-or-less barren. I'm vaguely amused by a "No Trespassing" sign: what reason is there to trespass?

My altimeter tells me that I have dropped more than 1000 feet, but there is no screaming descent, just a few feet to be clawed out of the face of the relentless wind. Finally, about 18 miles out of Bickleton, I spot a "steep downgrade" sign, and my heart soars. On the downgrade, the whole cruise-in from Bickleton passes me; a stream of beautifully restored Model-As enjoying the descent as much as I am. Then I turn a corner, and see the road snaking up the other side. This is nothing but one more canyon crossing. I drop another 500 feet into Badger Gulch, and prepare to climb back out. The climb is actually quite easy: heading south up the west face of the gulch, I'm completely sheltered form the wind. Then I round a hairpin, and once again the wind is in my face, mocking me.

It's another 16 miles to Goldendale. A voice in my head says: you aren't going to make it. Quit now! Grab a ride! Indeed, every 15 minutes or so, a vehicle passes, and I almost stop to flag one down. Fortunately, there are so few vehicles that this is quite difficult. Finally, about 5 miles from Goldendale, with maybe 20 minutes left before closing time, I come across Bill Alsup fixing a flat. Bill is not the least despondent! A flat at this point would have cooked my goose, but Bill is yelling to me "we're going to make this Andrew". I exchange a few words — Bill says that Sal recently passed him — and push on, ashamed that I thought of quitting. I may make the cut, I may not, but I will at least give it my best shot. A few moments later, Bill shoots past me, riding as if he has stolen the bike that he's on. There is no way that I can keep with his pace, but I plug away, and soon other riders start to appear in my rear view mirror. Funny: I have seen no-one for the last three hours, and now all of these riders come out of nowhere. A big rider appears behind me, growing larger as he slowly reels me in. It's Jim "Iron Chef" Cox from Seattle; he sucks my wheel for a minute or so, and then concludes that he's not going to get much draft from me — I'm about half his size. Jim passes, and I get on his wheel. This is great: Jim is going flat out, and so long as I stay in his draft, I don't even have to pedal! We fly under Rt 97 and into town, Right on East Broadway, and pull in to the Dairy Queen cum Subway — about five minutes after the closing time of the contrôle.

I gave it my best shot. The time that the clerk writes on my card sure looks like 18:20, but I know that I arrived a few minutes later. Sal is eating a sandwich at a corner table; Bill Alsup, Narayan, Matt from Seattle, Jim and me all line up to order sandwiches. Time is a wastin', but randonneurs must eat!

Sal left while I was still eating; he made the contrôle before the close and is determined to complete the Brevet. By 7PM, with half of a foot-long vegi sandwich consumed, and half in my saddlebag for later (I'm sure that it will come in handy later) I'm way past ready to leave. Jim and I agree that it makes sense to ride as a group, both to fight the headwind, and because of the traffic on Route 14. Matt needs to be dragged out of the Subway. Narayan, saying that he is slow (who isn't slow after 340 punishing miles?), goes on ahead. Jim, Matt and I leave together, but within 2 minutes Jim is nothing more than a red tail light in the distance. I stick with Matt until route 97 starts to drop precipitously into the gorge, and then each of us is alone with the wind, the hill, the darkness and the road. At forty miles per hour I want the traffic lane, not the shoulder, and fortunately, traffic is light enough that I can take it, pulling onto the shoulder only when a vehicle comes up behind me.

I follow the signs for Rt 14 West, and Vancouver; I expect to come to a stop sign where the road meets Rt 14, but there is none, and after a while, I realize from the constant headwind and the roaring of 18-wheelers in my left ear that I'm on Rt 14. I see flashing red lights ahead, and figure that these must be Matt and Narayan, but when I reach them, I find that they are "road works" signs. At some point Matt comes up from behind me; this is a surprise, because I thought that he was long gone. He explains that he and Narayan had turned left off of Rt 97, following the cue sheet, and only later realized that this was wrong. This was an odd mistake to make, because we had all commented on the "L" onto WA Rt 14 in Goldendale, and agreed that it was a misprint, unless there were some sort of overpass at the intersection. Maybe we are not thinking clearly. I stay with Matt until the first hill, and then he drops me. Maybe I am tired?

I have 17 miles of WA Rt 14 to cover. The Dalles bridge, lit up like a christmas tree, is visible for about 10 miles before one reaches it. Each downhill brings a surge of speed; the steeper uphills bring some relief from the wind. There is no relief from the trucks, and there is precious little shoulder. My diNotte rear light is set on "stun", but for once it seems to have no effect. On my right hand is a gully filled with rocks from the cliff face looming above; on my left the traffic lane. Sometimes the minimal shoulder vanished entirely for a space, and I have to time a quick dash between convoys of trucks. I suspect that the original route did indeed turn left from Rt 97 and head down to cross the Biggs bridge, currently closed for repairs. No one would have routed cyclists along this road on a Sunday night if there had been any alternative.

At long last I see the signs for Columbia Hills State Park, and I know that I'm almost at the bridge. Finally there is a sign for Rt 197, pointing off into the blackness. Is there really a road there? I had expected to see the bridge; I had forgotten that at this point Rt 14 is almost two miles away from the river. Fortunately, that two miles is all downhill. Not only that: the wind is now a mere crosswind. The cue sheets says that there is about 7.5 miles to go to the final contrôle; even the parts headed West through town should be sheltered from the wind. I have about 20 minutes left before the contrôle closes. As I'm flying down the hill into the darkness that must hold Oregon, my 'phone rings. It shall wait!

The bridge comes and goes; I'm on Rt 30 trying to find my way though town. The cue sheet doesn't help much, but fortunately I've been here before. There's the Safeway! There's the motel! A flashing red light is at the window; a group of tired and dazed riders and almost equally tired and dazed volunteers greets me. I've finished.

Mmm, that sandwich was good!

Cecil has been here for 40 minutes. She wants the car key so that she can get a change of clothes. I ask why she didn't get a key from Sal, assuming that he has beaten me in by at least half an hour. Cecil says that Sal is still on the course. We learn later that he took the left turn described on the cue sheet, and headed 12 miles in the wrong direction before turning around to battling the headwind for almost 30 miles back to the Dalles. I speak to him on the 'phone and offer to drive out to pick him up. Sal declines my offer, and eventually finishes at about 00:15, with a total of more than 400 miles on his odometer: an impressive achievement. Narayan finished on a rear wheel that was becoming less and less true with each revolution, shedding lumps of metal as the spoke heads pulled-through the rim. Even the fast guys took more than 35.5 hours for this brevet; the 20 men (and one woman) who attempted the ride all deserve a round of applause. Bill Alsup said that thus was the hardest thing that he had ever done, and I think that I agree with that assesement. It was epic.

... And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That rode with us into the desert winds.

Well, maybe not quite like Agincourt, but you get the idea.

The volunteers were exceptional. Putting on a 600 km ride is a lot of work, and there are a myriad of details that have to be worked out. We can't really blame them for the wind (although we can try!), but we can thank Paul and his crew for the food, the attention, and the moral support.

Bill Alsup's Blog

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A little Birthday Populaire

It's the weekend of 16th/17th August. Having thoroughly enjoyed the company, if not the weather, on the Boston Brevet Series 600 km ride last month, it seems like a good idea to join the same fine group for a little party to celebrate the 10th Birthday of Randonneurs USA.

The plan is to have a barbecue and birthday-cake-eating competition at Barre Falls Dam, a pretty park somewhere in mid-state Massachusetts. Of course, seeing as how this is a randonneuring event, we would have to ride to and from the party. A normal bike club would start the ride somewhere like Stow, and make the whole round trip a nice 100 km — a distance that the ranodnnering community calls a "Populaire", because it is a good way of introducing people to this crazy sport of ours. However, the only place that BBS riders can find without a GPS is Hanscom field, and that is about 70 km from Barre Falls. OK then, you say, make it a 150 km ride, or maybe even 160 km — equivalent to a 100 mile "century" ride.

However, doing that would be missing the opportunity to take in some of the best riding in the State. Once one is "out west" almost as far as Quabbin, why not continue into the Connecticut River Valley? So the destination for the day was to Westfield, where there is a Bike Shop run by the organizer of the Berkshire Brevets. That's 66 miles or 106 km from Barre Falls by a scenic route, and 178 km from Hanscom.

And then, of course, you have to ride back home. Hence: a 350 km Populaire.

Getting to Hanscom for a 4 am start means getting out of bed at 2:30 and leaving home at 3am. At least it had stopped raining: the forecast was a 50% chance of thunder showers, so this was welcome. I arrived with plenty of time to check-in and use the men's room in the terminal building, as well as remembering to turn off my diNotte rear light. Riding as a bunch through Concord, Acton, Maynard and Stow in the quiet hours of the morning was wonderful. The pace was a little more sane than on the 600k, maybe because I made sure to get up near the front, and hold the pack back! I rode for a while with Emily O'Brien, who rides all of her Brevets (including PBP) on a fixie. Not that I had any idea where I was going, so after a while we let Bruce Ingle, the designer of the route, take the lead.

At some point Emily peeled off to deal with a puncture. The pack stayed together until daylight, when it started to fragment as riders stopped for a nature break or to make some adjustment, or to eat. Once it was light, the route was easy to follow, because it stayed on State Route 62 all the way from Sterling to the park entrance road. Riding by myself now, I really enjoyed watching the mist rising off Asnacomet Pond in Hubbardston.

Shortly after I turned onto the park access road, I saw Emily Searles and Dave, and then a group of about six riders, and then a couple more, all riding out. After my stop, they would all be about 15 minutes in front of me. Tracey had thoughtfully provided a cloud of mosquitoes at the contrôle to make sure that we didn't linger too long. If there had been any onlookers (it was 7am), they would have been amused to see a cyclist holding a slice of bread in one hand, a jar of peanut butter in the other, and somehow trying to spread the peanut butter and swat mosquitoes at the same time.

A couple of other riders came in to the contrôle while I was thus occupied, and Dave, Lynda and I left more or less together. Route 62 West from the park is not so much a state highway as a series of potholes strung together with patches of gravel. Dave took it all in his stride: he was gone down the hill and out of view faster than I could say "pinch-flat". Lynda and I found him again when we merged onto Route 32 south of the town of Barre; Dave had taken a wrong turn and a slightly longer route. Just as Dave was off the front again, I punctured, and both Lynda and Dave stopped with me to help find the offending piece of glass and replace the tube. This was much appreciated, as Dave had a real pump!

We chat for a while as we make our way south towards Belchertown. This is Lynda's first randonnée: quite an ambitious undertaking. She says that she was looking for a double century as a challenge, and this looked close. We wonder how Belchertown got its name; it didn't sound very PC. Subsequent Wikipedia research tells me that the town was named in honor of Massachusetts governor John Belcher (1682–1757). Not that he ever came there: an inspection by the governor was required before a settlement could become an official town, and after years of waiting, the residents of what was then called Cold Spring decided that they would name the town for him as an inducement for him to visit. All this was to no avail; Jonathan Belcher died four years before the town was incorporated. Nevertheless, the burgers might be said to have had the last laugh, because Belcher is buried in the town's graveyard.

Somewhere around here I missed the turn onto O'Belchertown Road. Lynda did warn me that her GPS said that we were off-route, but I had seen the street name, so I was confident that we were OK. However, when the next cue did not show up, reason prevailed and we backtracked a couple of miles to he missed turn — which proved to be a short steep hill followed by a steep long hill.

Lynda's bike, equipped with a racing double and a close-ratio cassette, is not one that I would have chosen for a long randonnée. She said that she was considering upgrading to a compact double. My latest upgraded had been to an 11-34 wide-ratio cassette — and I was riding a bike with 20 inch wheels! Thus, in spite of Lynda being a much stronger rider than me, I was able to easily leave her behind on the hills.

For some time now I have been looking for a shop or some other suitable place to answer the call of nature. I eventually leave my bike leaning against the guard rail on Route 118 and head into the woods. Just as I am about to disappear, Emily rides by and calls out "are you stopping for a leak?" Yes indeed: at least, that's all you need to know. However, the mosquitoes know better: I still have the welts to prove it.

I thought that I would catch up with Emily or Lynda in short order, but never did. Further along the road I stop at a farm-stand in someone's front garden, buy a tomato and a small cucumber, and ask their permission to sit under a tree and eat them, along with the last sandwich I'd brought from home. The homeowner is happy to refill my water bottle too; little stops like this are one of the things that I find very attractive about randonneuring. While thus pleasantly engaged, Jake rides by, stops, and asks if I have seen Emily. I tell him that I believe that she and Lynda must be way ahead, and he rides of to track them down.

It is a long 46 miles to Northampton, where the route goes straight down the main street. This is the first town that the route actually takes us through, rather than around. It's a bustling little place, but totally overrun by motor cars. However, I did spot the Bakery Normand hiding behind a row of parked F-350s. That's right, not the Boulangerie Normandie, but close enough for this Randonneur to stop and buy a quark slice and a day-old pâtisserie danoise. Quite an international spot, what?

With only a couple more stops to eat my goodies, 20 miles later I negotiate the potholes of Westfield, Massachusetts and pull into the parking lot of New Horizons Sports, where Eric greets me with a smile. Jake is sitting on a lawn chair, and Dave is pacing the sidewalk waiting for his rear wheel, now minus two spokes, to be trued by the shop owner and Berkshire RBA.

I am surprised to see Jake, since I had imagined that he was now far ahead of me. He says that he is waiting for Emily; neither she nor Lynda have yet checked in. Another wrong turn, we assumed, and so it proved: Jake and I left Westfield about a half-hour later, at about 13:30, just in time to wave to Emily and Lynda as they rode in.

Jake and I stay together all the way back to Barre. The weather started hot and sunny; we both had a lot of miles in our legs, and were not riding fast. We also managed to miss a number of turns, and while never actually lost, had to backtrack a few times. As the afternoon progressed clouds built up, and when we stopped to backtrack to the missed "Right at the gazebo" at mile 40, the first drops of rain started to fall. We just had time to put on our jackets before the heavens opened. Pretty soon we were climbing up Babcock Tavern Road with hailstones the size of large ball-bearings pinging off or our helmets, (I knew that they were good for something!) and rainbows all around as the sun shone in the West. We turned right at end on onto River 9 East, or so the cue sheet might have said: the water was a couple of inches deep on the road as we climbed the hill, and ran right over the drain grates without visibly diminishing. We rode right to the center of Ware before I found a doorway to shelter in. (The center of where? Ware. That's a town in Massachusetts, named after a town in Hartfordshire, England. Where? Ware. My brother lives there, in Ware. OK? You know where we are now. Who's on first?)

The rain is soon over and the road dries out. In fact, by the time we have ridden another 10 miles, everything is dry. We head into Hubbardstown and the start of what is euphemistically known as State Route 62. We can smell the hay in the barn now, and by 19:20 we are at Barre Falls park enjoying, in my case, a clean pair of shorts and the remnants of the RUSA anniversary pasta salad, in that order. There is also corn, and potato salad, and burgers and chicken breasts for the meat eaters. Tracey apologizes: apparently, there are no veggie burgers to be had within 50 miles of Barre, but there is food aplenty, including an excellent rhubarb pie that had been carried to the park by one of the randonneurs in his Camelback, and which had been only partially eaten by a most determined chipmunk before the hungry hoards beat him back.

Dave, and eventually Emily and Lynda came in while we were partying. Lynda is hurting, and Emily has slowed down to stay with her. There was no real rush: it was only 8pm, which gave us over 7 hours to complete the last 45 miles within the Brevet time window. Still, we knew that Tracey wanted to go home, and I was starting to feel the effects of 17 hours of riding after 4 hours of sleep the previous night. After getting some food down her, Lynda decided that she wanted to finish, and Emily decided that she would stay with her, so Jake, Dave and I left together at about 8:30pm.

Riding with Jake had showed up a curiosity that i can't really explain. Jake was much faster than me going up hills. This by itself wasn't surprising, since apart from being half my age, Jake has ridden fixed for a number of years, which builds strong climbing legs (if it doesn't kill you first). What was curious was that I was easily able to catch Jake again on the flats, and even pull ahead — knowing that he would pass me again on the next climb. Dave, in contrast, was able to pull ahead on the hills and stay there: I lost sight of him within a mile of the Barre Falls Dam turnoff, and didn't see him again until Hanscom field.

Jake and I play tortoise and hare in this fashion all the way back along Route 62, through the excursion onto Route 117 in Sterling and back onto Route 62 in Stow. We stop a few times briefly to grab a bite to eat or replace a battery pack, and are buzzed by an occasional (motorized) late-night reveler in Maynard and Acton. Turning the cranks is no problem, but keeping my eyes open is more difficult, and I curse myself for forgetting the chocolate. Then I remember the chocolate-covered blueberries: mmmm, that helps some. We make it back to Hanscom just three minutes too late to be able to claim that we had finished before midnight, and there we are finally able to enjoy the RUSA birthday cake.

I learned later that Lynda and Emily made it in a little after we had left. This was a valiant effort from Lynda, on a bike not ideally set up for the event. You can ride almost any bike for 100 miles, but once you are talking about 200+ miles, issues of fit become all important. Still, I think that she is now "hooked", and there will be some equipment upgrades in her future.

Statistics for my ride: 350 km Brevet, elapsed time 20h03. Overall: 251 miles (404 km); 17h41 saddle time; 22h20 minutes elapsed time; elevation gain 12320 ft.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Brevet from Hanscom, or How I Did Not Finish my first 600 k

Moving to Boston in the middle of the Brevet season seemed to put a crimp in my hopes for my first SR award. But then I found out about the Boston Brevet Series, and got in touch with some Boston Randonneurs through the New England Randonneurs google group. Maybe I could move (temporary) house and job on Tuesday, go hiking with friends on Saturday and Sunday, and still be ready for a 600 k the following weekend?

Two dry runs convinced me that I would be able to find my way to the start of the Brevet at Hanscom field, about 12 miles from my temporary home, in the dark for the 4am start — my confidence only slightly dimmed by getting lost on the way back home. Then there was the local bike shop that seemed to think that "Please make my rear derailleur work" meant "please sell me as many new components as possible but make sure that the bike is unridable when you give it back to me".

However, there were friendly words on the email group, a half-dozen brevets at shorter distances successfully completed … surely I can do this.

Everything is packed by 9pm the night before. I have food supplies — brie sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, clementines — probably far too much. Two two drop bags are assembled: one for the Brattleboro control and another, with overnight gear, for the Sandgate control. I roll into Hanscom at about 3:45, having met Mark, another NER, along the road a couple of miles from the start. One nice thing about riding to the start is that it's hard to forget some vital piece of equipment, like helmet, shoes, or a left pedal! I sign in, unhook one pannier from my rack to become the overnight drop bug, and pull a stuff sack out of the other to be the Brattleboro bag. I'm ready to go.

The tradition on the Boston rides is that everyone rides together in a bunch until it gets light, which is most of the way to the first control in Gardener. Everyone, that is, who can stand the pace. These guys are fast. I had put my rear light into a pluse mode for the ride to the start, and had omitted to turn it to steady. Someone asked me if it was easy to switch it out of pulse: it is really annoying to be riding behind a flashing rear light, let alone a flashing DiNotte. I say yes, but I'd have to stop. The guy says thanks, and I'll help you get back on. I futz with the switch for a few moments, and then start to get going. My friend is up the road from me, but way off the back. I sprint to him, but now my burst of speed is shot, and I suck his wheel for a way, and finally we are back on. This is hard: hells bells, this is worse than a Velo ride! This kind of thing is fun on a 50 mile club ride, but this is a 600 k Brevet, folks.

Still, the group is friendly, I introduce myself to many other riders, some of whom know me from the google group. Of course, although we exchange names, none of us knows what the other looks like. I meet Jake, who rode the Cascade 1000. Emily O'Brien, now famous from the write-up in American Randonneur, was not there, but another Emily was, and she, like me, is attempting her first 600. I talked to Chip, to Paul, and a few others.

The bunch drops me on a particularly abominable piece of asphalt by a gravel pit in Shirley. Partly this was deliberate, because I felt that I was going out much too fast for a long Brevet, and partly it was to give myself more room to maneuver as I tried to avoid the largest craters and sections of ground-down blacktop, not to mention the stream of oncoming gravel trucks.

The cue sheet is interesting, and very detailed. It is 10 pages long, and contains something like 450 cues. Here is a sample:

0.6 39.8 Cross over Rt. 2, joining Rt. 140 South
0.0 39.8 Right to stay on Rt. 2A just before lights, leaving Rt. 140
0.8 40.6 Straight at lights
0.5 41.1 Bear left, staying on Rt. 2A
2.2 43.3 Gardner town line
1.1 44.4 Bear right onto S. Main St., following sign to Rt. 140, leaving Rt. 2A
0.2 44.6 Bear right onto Pearson Blvd. (unmarked)
0.3 44.9 At roundabout, cross under Rt. 2 and take second exit onto Pearson Blvd.
0.3 45.2 Checkpoint at Gardner Plaza on the right

Notice that most of the legs are less than a mile. None of the "go 34.6 miles, turn left on to US 97. Go 10.6 miles, turn left onto Route 142" beloved of Oregon Randonneurs. The truly enormous number of roads in New England is rivaled only by the absolutely terrible state of the pavement, and the route makes the most of both of these features. It also included four stretches of dirt, three of which were really smooth and much better than most of the blacktop. As for the fourth, well, more of that later.

"Town line", by the way, is New-England-speak for township or parish boundary. When I first heard this expression from the lips of a real estate agent twenty-plus years ago, I though that she was talking about a gas line, or a power line. Now I know better!

I leave the Gardner checkpoint in company with two other riders (notice that on this ride there is none of that foreign "contrôle" stuff, and none of those kilometers, either). They soon drop me, but after a while, on a pretty stretch of road alongside the Millers river, I see Jake and another rider coming up behind me and I pause for a couple of pictures.

By the time I had put the camera away they were at the top of the next rise, and I had to work hard to catch them. We chatted for a while, but they left me behind on the next significant hill. This was a pattern: riders on lighter bikes with less gear dropped me on the hills. Maybe they know something?

After a while Glen catches up with me, and we ride together all the way to the next checkpoint, which is in Brattleboro, Vermont, having traversed the SW corner of New Hampshire. Glen is a very experienced randonneur with something like 15 grande randonnées to his credit. His advice was not to ride any of them more than once!

Brattleboro is at mile 91 of the course, which means that I have just over a century on my legs. The checkpoint is in the parking lot of a motel just out of town, which seems a little strange since this is not an overnight stop. However, I realized that the motel room gives the volunteers, who will have to staff the checkpoint all night, a place to hang out and catch some sleep, as well as providing toilets and showers for riders who need them.

Life is good in Brattleboro. I am feeling strong; the weather is perfect: sunny and warm, without being hot. I am more than an hour ahead of my "12 mph" pace going into the contrôle, and even after a relatively generous pause to eat and refuel, I'm still 40 minutes ahead when I pull out. I had asked about the advisability of taking extra water for the next leg, and filled a 1.5 liter bottle which I put in my pannier, in addition to the two 0.6 liter bottles on the bike.

Things didn't stay good for very long. The "next leg" is 66 miles to Sandgate, Vermont, and crosses the Green Mountains at 2040 ft. This doesn't seem like a very high pass, but the 1750 feet of elevation between Brattleboro and the Appalachian Trail involves something like 6000 ft of climbing. Every 500 ft climb is followed by a 400 ft descent; every 900 ft climb is followed by a 700 ft descent. Maybe I should have put the altimeter in my pocket; as it is, the sun grows hotter, the humidity is off the charts, and I find myself engaged in a truly Sisyphean task. My average speed drops to 8 mph, and I break the golden rule of randonneuring: I start thinking beyond the next contrôle. I'm in no immediate trouble: Sandgate doesn't close until almost 9pm, but I know that I need to build up a time cushion now if I'm to get the sleep that I need. I'm also not feeling so good. There is a metallic taste in my mouth, which I know means dehydration; I stop and get some fruit at a farm stand, and then at the Newfane store — less than 12 miserable miles from Brattleboro — for some Fritos. That helps, but takes more time, as I have to wait behind a man who is improving his day by buying a liter of Vodka and three bottles of bloody mary mix. This being Vermont, the Vodka and the mix can be sold in the same store, but they have to be rung up on separate tills in separate credit card transactions. I also buy a slab of what looks like rice crispies glued together with butterscotch, which turns out to be very chewy and very good — I'm glad that I go back to retrieve it when it jumps out of my handlbar bag on a descent.

I can't get my mind off of the situation, the slowness of my pace, the misery of the humidity, and the consequences for the rest of the ride. I know that this is a disastrous mindset, and so I try something new: I connect up my iPod and start listening to a recorded book. I do this sometimes while commuting, but I've never done it before on a Brevet. It works! I grind away on the hills, and loose myself in the Napoleonic Wars and the Treaty of Amiens. In the town of Jamaica, still only 25 miles from Brattleboro, there is a fair; I spy some damp looking kids with inner tubes and find the swimming hole. A quick dip is most refreshing, and I'm soon back on the road, somewhat cooler, and re-immersed in Patrick O'Brien's conception of the early 19th century.

The summit comes at mile 39, followed by a smooth descent into Manchester, Vermont. It's still more than 20 miles to the Sandgate contrôle, but now the miles fly by at a more respectable pace. The air is noticeably dryer, and even though the temperature is actually higher, the air is now refreshing and the sweat evaporates instead of running down my face. At Chiselville covered bridge there is a $1 for proceeding faster than a walking pace, but the local gendarmerie doesn't catch me. There is a gorgeous 3 mile stretch along a good dirt road by the Batten Kill River, and then it's on to Route 313 and briefly into New York State.

Less than 2 miles of good dirt road takes me back into Vermont and … to a puncture. Less than a mile from the contrôle, I'm brought to a wavering stop and find a sliver of flint like needle in my rear tire. Several riders pass me as I extract the flint and put in a new tube. I finally make the contrôle at about 17:45, but I wash the road crud from my hands before I get my card signed, and the official time is 17:55.

There is a lot to be done here. Apart from some eating and drinking, I need to retrieve batteries and a spare inner tube from my drop bag, and get set up for night riding. Despite my earlier dejection, I'm still very much in the game. An 11 mph pace would have me leave this contrôle at 18:20, and still allow a four hour pause here when I return. Moreover, the nest 100 km, to Bennington and back, while not exactly flat, is nothing compared to the crossing of the Appalachians that I've just completed. I should be able to make up some time on this stretch.

The last rider still on the course, Paul, pulls into Sandgate while I'm there, and we leave together, both glad of some company. Despite some light showers, we have a brisk, pleasant and companionable ride for the first 18 miles, where we stop at a small store to use the restroom and set up for night riding. Somewhere about mile 25 it starts raining, and almost before we can get on our jackets, the rain is like standing under a waterspout. What light remained in the sky is extinguished by the storm, and we are riding by the light of my front DiNotte, my Ixon, and Paul's Edelux — the latter puts out 80 lux by itself. All the lights do is illuminate the deluge.

The cue sheet says "Left on Country Road 102, leaving Rt 7: not well marked; don't miss this turn." We miss the turn. We go back down Rt 7, looking for breaks in the fog line. We find one, but we can't figure out if it's a road or a driveway. We turn on to it, figuring that if it's a driveway, we can ask at the house for Country Road 102. There is so much mud and water coming down that it may as well be a river; we are unable to decide if the "road" is dirt or asphalt. Bright lightening shows us a house, and we decide to ask for directions: yes, that's two men asking for directions, so you will appreciate the situation. Before we can get more than half way up the driveway, a woman flits out of the house, along a breezeway, and into the garage. The garage door opens, and she beckons us inside.

It turns out that Country Road 102 is a hundred feet back down the road, but now the lightning is flashing all around us in earnest, and we decide that the only prudent course is to accept the homeowner's offer and stay in the garage. She helpfully tells us that there is a shorter way to the Price Chopper in Brattleboro than the one that we have on our cue sheets. She sets up lawn chairs for us and leaves us to contemplate the storm. We are fretting about the lost time when an enormous bolt of lightning and simultaneous clap of thunder shakes the ground, seemingly right under our feet: thoughts of leaving any time soon are instantly banished. I take advantage of the lawn chair and put on wool socks with Goretex socks over them; nothing is going to keep my feet dry, but they may as well be warm. We are only 6 miles from the next contrôle, but it may as well be on the moon considering our ability to reach it.

After an indeterminate amount of time, the lightening storm moves away, although the rain seems as heavy as ever. We turn onto Road 102, but route finding is difficult. Our three headlights do nothing more than light up the sheets of rain. Fortunately every few seconds lightning strikes on the horizon brightly illuminate the whole panorama. We have trouble bearing right onto Murphy road, and waste more time with Paul's GPS before finally getting directions from a passing motorist. When we finally ford the Price Chopper parking lot and find our way into the store, it is 21:30. A store clerk invites us to bring our bikes into the lobby, but the deli counter and pizza station are closed. The store is over-air-conditioned to the point of being freezing; two other randonneurs are sitting zombie-like on the floor with their backs against the wall. One more is sitting at a table, and tells us that the contrôle workers are in a van in the parking lot. We wade around the parking lot for a while — it's much warmer outside than in the store, so this isn't so bad — and get our cards signed. I grab a banana and a Payday bar from the van, which look better than what I can find in the store. I sit in the deli area, go through my pannier, put on every last article of clothing, and munch. Paul buys a blanket and decides to abandon; he will stay here for a while, and then ride home, whithout returning to Sandgate.

At some point the rain eases off, and the other three Randonneurs make to leave. I would like to go with them, but still need to use the restroom and put my equipment back on my bike. I leave a little after 10pm, which is about 45 minutes later than my 11 mph schedule allows, but still not impossible. Route finding is tricky: visibility is poor, there are 12 cues for the first four miles, and I'm quite surprised when I eventually find Rt 9 and the van from the checkpoint stops next to me to tell me that I am on course. Shortly afterwards, I pass the house where we had taken refuge not so long before, but now the rain has stopped, and I'm moving along quite briskly, warming up and beginning to enjoy the night, even though I'm now riding solo as the last man on the course.

Five miles later I'm surprised to see lights coming up behind me. It's Dave and Emily, who I expected to be far ahead of me. I ask them how I had managed to pass them, and they explain that when they were forced to take refuge from the lightning, they both fell asleep. We ride in company for a while, which is very pleasant; then I drop back and suck Emily's wheel for a while. I look apprehensively at the lightning on the horizon, which has never stopped, and Emily points out that there is no wind, so it can't be coming out way.

About five minutes later we are buffeted by a wind gust that threatens to blow us off the road, and the first spots of rain hit us. We pass some sort of picnic area, but it seems to offer little promise of shelter. Then we come to what looks like a fire station, and Dave and I look around the back for shelter, but find none. Across the street there is a closed store with a covered front porch, which I point out to Dave, but now we have lost Emily. We call out, but the crash of thunder and the pounding rain drown out any response. Then we see a light through the trees — that must be Emily, I sprint across the road for the porch, calling to Dave and Emily to follow; Dave gets half way there, but Emily is not coming with us; she is calling for Dave to go back, which he does.

Ensconced in the front of the store, I sit up against the wall and survey the situation. Across the road, I can see some kind of lit glass structure; I think that it might be a bus shelter. Then another lightning strike kills the power in the store porch, the bus shelter, and indeed in the whole neighborhood. I'm dry, out of the wind and relatively warm; I don't see much point in wandering about in the lightning looking for Dave and Emily, who after all know where I am.

There are three things one has to do on a Brevet: ride, eat and sleep. I can't ride — I may be stupid, but I'm not that stupid — so I eat, and then I lay down on the rubber pad that operates the automatic doors to the store, and sleep.

When I wake up it's about 00:45, and the rain has stopped. I ride back across the street, and check out the glass structure. It turns out to be a car wash with folding glass doors. A perfect shelter! Presumably Emily thought so too, but there was now no sign of either her or Dave. I set off towards Sandgate; there are only about 12 miles to go.

The rain doesn't resume in earnest until I am about to turn off of Route 313 onto the dirt road, but the dirt is good and it's still rideable despite the water pouring down. My digestive system isn't working too well; if I make any sustained effort, I quickly feel sick. So I ride easily, glad that I have been here only a few hours before, although in the darkness the crash of rocks coming down Chunks Brook, which must be in full flood, makes this normally peaceful lane sound like the underworld. I push on up the lane; I pass a house that I don't recall, and think that maybe I have gone too far. I consider 'phoning the contrôle, but I remember that to get a cell 'phone signal I would have to retreat to the paved road. Eventually I find John's driveway; water is now coursing down it like stream in flood and I wade up it, pushing my bike the last steep half mile.

John signs me in at 02:04. What would I like? Food? Sleep? I say "shower"; I grab my drop bag and he shows me to a bathroom. Half an hour later I've forced a bowl of pasta down and drunk a pint of water, and John finds me a bed. When do I want to be woken? Apparently, he doesn't think that I'm out of the game yet. But I tell him that I plan to sleep in: I'm not going to try for the next contrôle before the cutoff, which is at 10:56. I think that I would have to be back on the road by 04:00, maybe 04:30. That doesn't seem feasible; I need sleep, and perhaps more importantly, I need time to eat and digest my food. To my surprise, John says that he can arrange to have me sagged out in the rental van that Tracey used to bring in the drop bags and other gear. This is too easy.

I wake in the night; my bladder is calling. It's still dark; I have no way of knowing the time. I feel surprisingly good. I go downstairs; the kitchen clock read 04:35. I tell John, who is in the kitchen, that I'm thinking of continuing. Maybe I can leave by 05:00 — almost 6 hours to retrace those 62 miles over the Appalachians. On legs that have already ridden more than 230 miles. Maybe. Possibly.

John goes out and confers with Tracey, and comes back with two pieces of information. One is that my bike is already in the van; from here I can get a ride back, but if I fail to make the cut at Brattleboro, I'm on my own: there is no guarantee of a ride back, and even if the contrôle workers do have room for me, it won't be until very late in the day. The second is that more thunderstorms are forecast later in the day, chasing the route back to Boston. I make the fateful decision to go back to bed and abandon the ride.

Three hours later, stomach full of french toast, sitting the back of the van with Harry, who is also sagging out, and feeling quite comfortable, I'm still turning over the decision to abandon. Nothing is really wrong with me or my bike, beyond a little nausea after forcing down food, and I'm certainly not the first randonneur to have that problem. Emily and Dave, at breakfast, were planning to ride back to Hanscom even though there were not expecting to make the time cut at Brattleboro. Yes, I could just take some more time. If more lightening came up, I could if necessary take refuge in a motel somewhere along Route 2 in Massachusetts and finish the ride on Monday morning. But instead I took the easy way out, because it was offered.

Still, it was a good ride. 238 miles completed, 18:11 hours saddle time, and about 23 hours elapsed time, counting from when I left home. 12875 feet of climbing, according to my altimeter. Not a bad day on a bike. Certainly a lot more than I had though possible two years ago.