*- for me, anyway.
Some numerical context: I'm a mid-pack randonneur. In 10 previous 400km brevets, my average finish time has been 20:16, consistent with my general average of 20kph on a one-day brevet (10:01 average 200km time, 15:08 average 300km time, 20:16 400km time). My personal best time for a 400km was 18:16 five years ago. On Saturday, I completed our SIR 400km brevet in a speedy 16:31. (Of course, "speedy" is a relative term; the fastest riders Saturday finished four hours ahead of me.)
Recipe for a fast day:
Friendly course. With challenging courses planned this year for the 300km and 600km brevets, we opted for an easier 400km course. Bob Magyar, this year's 400km organizer, planned to bring back a route last used in 1999. From an Arlington start, the route follows the Stillaguamish River out toward Darrington, then the Sauk River to near Rockport, then up the Skagit River to Marblemount, then back down the Skagit River to Sedro-Woolley. From there the route gently rolls north to Sumas on the Canadian border and then west to Birch Bay and south to Bellingham. After the scenic hills of Chuckanut Drive, the route returns to the finish through the "Skagit Flats." All told, the route has less than 7000 feet of climbing in 400km, far below the usual climbing to distance ratio on our brevets.
Geared bike. I took the single speed Bianchi San Jose to Davis for the 400km earlier in the year to complete its SR series (I had done a 200, 300, and 600 last year with it). In a strange calculus that makes sense only to me, this freed me up to take a geared bike on our 400km. Given my relatively low cadence, lots of gears would allow me to ride along with faster riders. With nice weather forecast, I took my fenderless, nine-year-old, 2xPBP veteran Litespeed out for the day.
Perfect weather. When we used this route in 1999, the weather brought misery. A nice early morning in Arlington suckered us in. Some inexperienced riders, including yours truly, left extra clothing in the car. A couple hours later we found ourselves soaked to the bone with heavy rain and temperatures in the mid-30s. Near-hypothermic riders were DNF'ing in clumps. Some of us were saved by an impromptu shopping trip to the feed & seed in Sedro-Woolley, where Wayne Methner bought a six-pack of heavy socks and cut the toes off to fashion supplemental arm-warmers. Ever since, SIR veterans have referred to this route as the "Hypothermia 400."
The forecast for this past weekend was completely different. Not a drop of rain and temperature reaching the 60s. I'm not a hot weather person, so this the best possible cycling forecast for me. The winds had been brisk on Friday but were fairly tame on Saturday, with only a few stretches of moderate headwind along the ride.
Other riders. Lots of them! A record turnout brought over 100 riders out for the brevet. The parking lot at the Denny's was a madhouse in the morning, but inside Bob, Amy Harmon, and Tom Brett did a great job of checking in all the riders. With all the riders, there were plenty of folks to ride with. In the first fifty miles from Arlington to the secret control on the Rockport-Cascade Road, I rode with a large group of riders. Although the pace was brisk, the attitude was casual and the opportunities for conversation plentiful.
Much of the group continued together along the back road to Marblemount and I enjoyed their company until my bag decided to detach from my rack and tumble into the road. I had forgotten that this particular rack and this particular trunk did not make a happy couple. Luckily, I hadn't forgotten how I was able to jury-rig a replacement attachment system the last time I had made this mistake.
Although I reached the Marblemount control later than most of my early morning companions, a nice group of 6-8 riders formed for the long stretch along Highway 20 back west to Sedro-Woolley. Again a healthy pace was tempered by social conversation and a chance to catch up with Jeff Tilden, Greg Cox, Jan Acuff and others.
After a quick stop in Sedro-Woolley, I headed out of town with a group of much faster riders (after their longer stops). After we turned onto SR-9, I waved one of those riders ahead, predicting (correctly) that he and the other riders would drop me on the first climb out of town. I have enjoyed the ride up SR-9 and back roads to Sumas on brevets and fleche rides numerous times. My recovery on the hypothermia 400 started along this stretch, where a lovely valley periodically shows off views of Mt Baker and Mt Shuksan.
This would prove to be my last solo stretch of the day. For the second time on this stretch, I passed Pete Rankin fixing a flat. Bob Brudvik was there offering moral support and peeled off to ride with me. Soon Pete caught up and we were joined also by James Sanders, an occasional randonneur. I met James on a challenging 600km brevet in 2005 that went over Washington, Rainy, and Loop Loop passes before turning around and climbing them again in reverse. I recall being stunned then at his choice of a first-ever brevet and at how incredibly at ease and capable he appeared on the ride.
An efficient stop in Sumas preceded the long trek west to Birch Bay. Along the way, others passed or dropped off (mostly passed) and Bob and I rode together to the gas station at Whitney where Ken Carter joined us. The three of us rode hard to the finish, with me hanging on for dear life and occasionally begging for some small mercy.
Motivation. Although my original goal for the ride had been a midnight finish (19:00 time), Somewhere along the first 100km to Marblemount, I realized that my pace put a personal best within reach. After the hills of last weekend's Fleche Ouragan, the gentle terrain of this 400km put an extra spring in my legs. On pace for a sub-8 hour 200km (unheard of, for me), pushed me to do the two things that have correlated best to faster times for me in the past.
First, I pushed myself hard to stay with other riders. Ordinarily, I'm quite content to relax my way off the back of a quick moving group of friends and ride along solo, but not this day.
Second, I generally kept my stops ruthlessly short and efficient - brevet card, water bottles, electolytes, V-8 or chocolate milk, move supplies from rack bag to frame bag, clothing adjustment, and then off. In Marblemount, I went inside briefly to thank the nice couple in the store for their present and past hospitality to randonneurs (and to buy a V-8). In Sedro-Woolley, I found water and SIR volunteer Mike Richeson on the sidewalk outside the store, downed an Ensure (yum-yum) and departed, probably less than 5 minutes after arrival. Greg Cox said "I'm going next door for a burger; let me know when you're leaving." I said "I'm leaving" and headed off. Control stops at the controls in Sumas and Whitney and an intermediate stop in Fairhaven for some pre-Chuckanut Drive supplies were also efficient. One exception - the SIR staffed stop at Birch Bay. Mike Richeson and Kent Peterson manned a wonderful food stop with relaxing chairs, view of the bay, drinks, fresh fruit, and hit-the-spot made to order sandwiches. (see Kent's pictures of the stop here). We saw some of the faster riders before they took off including Todd and Jason on a tandem with Robin Pieper in tow.
Although the 25kph+ average speed of much of the day (sub-8 hour 200km, sub-12 hour 300km) fell victim to the hills, headwind segments, and fatigue of the last 100km, I finished with Bob and Ken at 9:31, two and a half hours ahead of my goal and feeling great. All the more so because, the ride qualifies me for the 5000km RUSA distance award for the year.
Thank yous. Thanks to Bob Magyar, who did a great job of organizing and managing a larger-than-expected turnout. Capable and cheerful assistance from Amy Harman, Tom Brett, Dan Turner, Rick Haight, Mike Richeson, Steve Hameister, and Kent Peterson kept the day moving along. Thanks to Mr. Brudvik, whose steady pace and cheerful company made the kilometers fly by, and to the other riders who made the day so much fun.