Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Volunteers in the Hills

As most Seattle randonneurs know, I can be pretty relentless in seeking "volunteers" to help with brevets and our other club activities. Not a difficult task, really; the ready outpouring of offers of assistance is wonderful, humbling, and one of the great sources of the vigor of our club. Of course, randonneuring (in Seattle and elsewhere) also draws strength from the willingness of veteran riders to educate new riders about the sport. This past weekend, I learned that, as part of this education, Seattle veteran riders now teach newbies how to recognize that expectant, we-need-volunteers sound in my voice so they can run away.

As far as I can tell, they never do. Over memorial day weekend, I had the pleasure of riding the organizer's scouting pre-ride of the upcoming 600km. Max Maxon, Wayne Methner, and Peter McKay have been helping SIR for as long as I've been associated with the club. Newsletter editor Peter Beeson and treasurer and membershipmeister Eric Vigoren keep the club running every day. Bob Brudvik has been riding and helping since 2002. David Harper was a rookie randonneur last year and is always willing to help. New riders Greg Paley and Mike McHale filled out the 10-person pre-ride team, looking forward to their chance to help with the ride.

Organizers Peter B and Eric chose a challenging route from 2005 for our 600km, with some changes necessitated by a road washout near Morton. The course provides good training for PBP and is distinguished by some brutal climbs over the last 110 kilometers including the infamous Tahuya Hills.

We assembled Saturday morning at the Seattle waterfront, met by dedicated SIR volunteer Mark Jackson, who had offered to support the pre-riders with a bag drop at the overnight stop in Elma and with assistance at the Kay's Corner control before the Tahuya hills on the second day. This above-and-beyond assistance really helped.

For me, Saturday was great fun. We approached the ride as a team, with lots of riding together and frequent re-groups when we separated. Getting warmed up took me a while, as we hit every red light on the way from the start to the I-90 bike tunnel and as I worked out the muscular kinks still lingering from the previous weekend's hilly 400km brevet back east.

Familiar roads led us to the first control in Eatonville, where we had a nice lunch stop. When I ride by myself, I often keep stops very short and efficient; it can be very enjoyable to go the other way as well. After Eatonville, we climbed over the ridge to Alder Lake on the Nisqually River and rode through Elbe (past some nasty tracks that have taken me down in the past) and Ashford on the way to one of my favorite cycling roads. Skate Creek Road (FS 52) runs 23 miles from just past Ashford to Packwood. A long, mostly gentle climb is followed by a screaming descent along beautiful Skate Creek into Packwood on the Cowlitz River. Although some bad road conditions, including a small trench filled with gravel crossing the road, tapered our speed somewhat, the descent was still good clean fun!

Packwood teemed with visitors to the Memorial Day flea market. Waiting patiently for the port-a-johns, we were offered the opportunity for some quick body piercing. None of us were tempted; we had other pain planned. Heading west from Packwood we met our friend Mr. Head Wind, who would keep us company for the rest of the day. Lots of hills led to us to Centralia, followed by a relatively flat stretch into the overnight control and the warm welcome of Mr. Jackson and the friendly motel staff.

As an aside, we are often blessed with extraordinary hospitality from the stores, restaurants, and motels that dot our route and provide our controls. In general, randonneurs reciprocate this hospitality with gratitude and good citizenship. But not always. We need to be vigilant about the impression we leave. My friend Paul Johnson has an excellent piece on this topic here. Let's make sure to clean up after ourselves, and if necessary, after our fellow riders. Magic words like "Please" and "Thank you" can't be overused.

A luxurious (for me) five hour overnight stop was not enough to prevent Sunday from being a struggle. It took two coffee stops (and the Potlatch control) for me to cover the (relatively easy) 110km to the control at Kay's Corner. Mark's control, with sandwiches, sodas, and other goodies, got us off to a good start to the steep hills to come. The Seabeck Store (with Barbie's Cafe) in the back provided a welcome break after 50km of hills, especially with the weather turning nasty (rain and a drop in temperature). Behind the counter we saw the SIR coffee mugs sent to the proprietors after their great hospitality on our 300km brevet earlier in the year. They pointed out that they had put their names on them to keep them from wandering. One sour note - here David DNF'd, succumbing to the stomach problems that had plagued him off and on for a while on the ride.

The rest of the team headed off, agreeing, as we had for the previous stretch, to regroup at each turn. Starting to suffer in earnest, I was the laggard to most of these regroups. The triple whammy that is Anderson Hill road reduced me to a whimpering walk more than once. Struggling with sleepiness on the long slog on Clear Creek Road, I resorted to a caffeine pill and then a Coke at the store at the intersection with SR-3. That did the trick; the rest of the hills from Port Gamble to the finish were manageable if not necessarily enjoyable.

We finished tired and happy at 7:40 (37:40 total time). For the new riders, it was their longest brevet ever; for several of the others it was the last qualifier before PBP. For all of us, the completion of a tough 600km was cause enough for happiness.

Once again, my fellow riders impressed me. The strongest - Bob on his single speed and newbies Greg and Mike - dispensed encouragement and displayed great attitudes for two days. Steady Eric showed the form that let him ride 12000 RUSA kilometers last year. Peter and Max propelled the big red tandem around a tough course with good cheer. Wayne showed that his torn hamstring injury early this year wasn't enough to slow him down. David showed remarkable perseverance to get as far as he did. And, once again, thanks to Peter McKay for his company and his reminders that it was a beautiful day (or two)!

I look forward to working with these folks and the other volunteers this coming weekend as the rest of the club riders (and some out of town visitors) attack the scenic challenge of this course.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

On the road again - DC 400k

At the beginning of 2007, an idea took hold in my head that I should travel around and try brevets in other regions and meet other riders before many of us headed to France for Paris-Brest-Paris. Along with the usual SIR brevets and permanents, these trips have yielded a rich and varied harvest of randonneuring over the last four months.

In February, I traveled to San Diego. The Jacumba 300km brevet offered some 13,000 feet of climbing and the chance to climb up over 4000 ft much earlier that would be possible at home. I rode with two other Seattle riders (Rick Blacker and Peter McKay). In addition to the local riders encountered en route, we met PBP aspirants at an information seminar the night before.

March brought two trips to Arizona. Early in the month, I rode a 300km with with some Pac Tour folks out of Tucson (short write-up here). Later I joined seven other wet & cold weather refugee riders from SIR for the Casa Grande 600km brevet in Arizona. Here's a description sent to a friend afterwards.

The rainy Davis 400km in April and the lovely Oregon fleche ride at the beginning of May were the subject of earlier posts after Bill Dussler browbeat me into starting this blog.

DC Randonneurs Frederick 400k

I hoped to include an East Coast event in my travels this spring. The DC Randonneurs Frederick 400km brevet fit nicely into my schedule and looked appealing, with a hilly, rural route through four states. The chance for a brief visit with my little brother in DC was a bonus.

After my personal best 400km time the previous weekend, I was expecting a return to normal pace on this 400km. Hills were foretold. The website let us know that "[t]he Maryland 400K has been revised slightly from last year's award-winning route to provide a better training opportunity (read: more hills)." This would start right away. Ed Felker, veteran DC randonneur and OR fleche teammate, picked me up in DC and shared his motel room in Frederick. His description of the start promised a fast pack ride downhill to the Potomac River crossing. But not this year - some bonus hills were added at the start, so sixteen miles in, I'm riding by myself and wondering why several riders are going straight when the cue sheet says to turn right. I yell at the two guys closest ahead. A discussion follows and one rider chooses to continue on after the riders he saw going straight (maybe they knew a flatter route!). Another rider and I choose to make the turn. In less than a mile another cue confirmed that we had made the right decision.

About the cue sheet: As a member of the DC Randonneurs and lurker on their e-mail list, I knew that Crista Borras and Chuck Wood led epic rides nearly every weekend. In addition to great roads, rich scenery, and well chosen food stops, the rides were known for outstanding cue sheets. For this 400km, Crista had done the cue sheet from ride organizer Lynn Kristianson's pre-ride notes. A new vocabulary was quickly learned (TRO - "to remain on"; ORF - "outdoor restroom facility"; ETM - "easy to miss") and despite the four dense pages of cues, navigation on this brevet was a snap.

Shortly after the uncertain turn, the other rider and I crossed the Potomac into Virginia for some lovely pre-dawn riding. My companion, whose name I promptly forgot (but have learned since was Stanton Miller), was new to randonneuring and on his second brevet. This came out in conversation; otherwise I wouldn't have guessed - he was equipped with a great attitude and a built-for-distance bike (a Surly Long Haul Trucker). I learned about his touring adventures in Costa Rica and we discussed the bicycle retail business. My wife and I own a shop in Redmond; he had been a long-time mechanic and shop manager. A highlight of this stretch was heralded by a house ahead bathed in an alpenglow-like orange and pink light. We turned around to see a spectacular sunrise, with the sun rising perfectly in the "V" between two hills. Wow.

The first control was at the closed Airmont store. Crista and Chuck were signing cards and offering water. I found the store by heading away from the "weight limit" sign which I took personally. (Photo by Ed Felker).

In general, I ride with quick control stops, so I headed off alone to test the weight limits. The route climbed through the town of Bluemont, preparing for that weekend's "Art in the Foothills" festival. After the town, the route crossed the Blue Ridge mountains at Snickers Gap. I rode for a while with Curtis Miller, another new randonneur, and Larry Brenize, who had been out to WA for the 2005 Cascade 1200. Somewhere around the 80km mark, we crossed into West Virginia for our third state of the day. I dropped off the back a while later (and would ride most of the next 250km alone), but saw lots of riders again at the next control, where many were captivated by the siren song of the Shepherdstown Sweet Shop. A chocolate croissant and strong coffee (double espresso) seemed like the perfect food for a pre-PBP ride.

The route meandered along in West Virginia seeking a bridge to cross the Potomac, which we did into the next Hancock, MD. I rode along with local rider Mike Martin for some of this stretch. In Hancock, the friendly staff of the C&O Bike shop and general store took care of our cards. Reeling from a steep climb up from the river and warned by the cue sheet that it was a long stretch to the next control, I stopped for a sandwich at the Crossroad Deli. There I encountered a group of about six riders from State College, PA (with one interloper from Albany, NY). I spoke with one of them (a Seattle native) about randonneuring in Seattle. Although they were stronger riders, I had seen this group before and would see them off and on throughout the day. Shortly after the sandwich stop, I crossed the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania. (The route took us across the narrowest part of Maryland).

A slow climb led to a great descent into the town of Cove Gap, PA - apparently the home of the indistinguished 19th century President Buchanan. Despite this wealth of important history, I didn't stop. The upcoming (in 75km) rest stop at a 18th century log cabin near Newville promised more of interest to this hungry rider. Sure enough, volunteer Ray Skinner and family had put out an impressive spread. I stuffed myself with lasagna, pasta salad, and other goodies. Resisting the temptations of comfortable chairs, beds upstairs, and swimming pool outside, I headed off again.

Ray warned of some pretty good climbing through the Michaux state forest on the way to Gettysburg. At one point Ed Felker came by as I walked off a leg cramp. After dodging the history buff traffic in the battlefield, I stopped to fuel at the 7-11 in town, the last control before the finish. Curtis (by then Larry had DNF'd) and I decided to ride together to the finish, despite my warnings that my late-ride pokiness would only hinder his progress. Just out of town we encountered Ed again and the three of us would ride together in the windy dark back to Frederick. Riding with a local veteran, Curtis and I were liberated from any need to navigate over the last 60km.

We finished (around 11:30, for a 19.5 hour finish time and a return to ~20kph average) to a nice welcome at the motel. Lynn, Christa, and Chuck were there along with Roger Hillas, Jeff Magnuson, and Bob Sheldon. Also pizza! My bike computer claimed we had done 17,800 feet of climbing; my legs were in no mood to argue.

A really great day on the bike. I thought the course was terrific - scenic, varied, quiet roads, good road surfaces. A big thanks to all the volunteers (and riders) - from bike check on Friday night to the finish control, there was lots of good cheer and support in evidence. Worth the trip!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Fast* Day

*- 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 r
iders. 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 M
ike 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.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

New roads, new friends

Some trepidation accompanied my decision to ride the Fleche Ouragan last weekend. Several factors contributed to the anxiety.

New, strong teammates. I rode the Fleche NW two weeks ago with a team of old friends and familiar riders. This would be different - I had joined a team comprising two local riders (Michael Wolfe and Sam Huffman) and another visitor (Ed Felker from DC). Our team name - "The Spirit is Willing" - has an unstated flesh/fleche pun, but I was worried plenty that I was "the flesh is weak" part of the team. I knew but a little of these riders, and what I knew scared me. Michael and Ed were participants in last summer's SIR 600km brevet. Ed rode with me for a little while on the second day (and had stopped to offer advice and keep me company while I wrestled with a mechanical problem on the ride). The memory that had stuck with me, however, was the sight of Ed spinning up a hill southwest of Morton as I jumped off my bike to give my single speed a long push up the hill. Michael was a blur at the start of the same brevet as he sprinted off on his recumbent. Later that year, Michael put in an impressive rookie performance at the Furnace Creek 508 with a sub-36 hour finish time. Sam had been one of the riders on the Cascade 1200 who finished each day with plenty of time for sleep and a fresh start the next day. Eric Vigoren, who was helping with the Fleche Ouragan organization, helpfully pointed out that Sam and Michael were "fast, very fast." I have ridden enough with Eric that he knows perfectly well that I am "not fast, very not fast," so I took his comments as warning.

Unfamiliar territory.
Although I live less than 3 hours away, my only experience cycling south of the Columbia in Oregon had been on the tedious stretch of highway from the Longview Bridge to Portland on a few Seattle to Portland rides. I knew nothing of the roads that would be on our route. Michael and Sam were fairly casual about creating a route sheet - more of a list of towns and some description of the roads between. It further appeared that some of the roads would be new to them as well.

Challenging route. The first iteration of the fleche route was over 425km. Although this would be my 12th fleche, I couldn't recall ever attempting more than 400km. With some nudging from the fleche organizers, Michael and Sam trimmed out some scenic miles that we would only reach in the dark. But the ride would still be long. (As it turns out, our team took the "overacheivers" plaque for longest distance covered - not a concept with which I would ever expect to be associated!). The aforementioned Eric took pains to point out that if two towns on our route were connected by a relatively flat road or a hilly one, our course headed over the hilly one. One Eric e-mail included the elevation profile for a section with a 2000' summit (vs. 600' on the alternate route). My good friend Greg Cox took pains to let me on a PBP a while back that I "climb like his grandmother"; I am relatively certain that he was not advertising the cycling skills of his ancestors, but rather commenting on mine. I do enjoy climbing, but it doesn't exactly play to my strengths (whatever those might be).

Fussy ankle/aggressive schedule. This year finds me thoroughly infected by the randonneuring bug and I have been doing a lot of riding this spring. Since the last week in January, I think I've put in at least a 200km randonneur ride every weekend. For May, my plans had 4 400km+ weekends - the Oregon fleche, the SIR 400km brevet, the DC 400km brevet, and the volunteers pre-ride of the SIR 600km brevet. The joy of riding has banished all reason from my scheduling. My ankle, never previously a troublemaker, started to bother me on our Fleche NW two weeks ago. Unwilling to accept logical explanations about rest and recover, I chose to attribute the issue to a new pair of shoes. Last weekend on the Carbon River Permanent with my old shoes, my ankle didn't get worse. It still felt a little punk, so I had that on my mind as well.

Why worry? I should have known. The fleche was wonderful. I had a great time on a challenging ride filled with the best of randonneuring.

The team? Yes, these guys are strong, but they are also some of the nicest folks with whom I've had the pleasure of riding. Unfailing cheerful and encouraging, they would wait when catching up was needed, ride ahead when incentive was needed, and drop back to accompany when company was needed. Although I was the only team member with prior fleche experience, all quickly adopted the rhythm of a 24-hour, common finish time.

The route? Unfamiliar roads are no match for the "human cue sheet" that Ed and I discovered in Oregon. We would ride along a nice stretch of road and not worry about missing a turn. Why? Because at every intersection, we'd see Michael and Sam talking and smiling and telling us to "turn left", "go straight", or whatever. Somewhere along the next stretch of road, they would head off to assume their duties at the next intersection.

The distance? Not an issue. Our route of 402km was within my comfort zone (and all the more so for my teammates). I looked back at my average finish time for 400km brevets - 20h16m. On a fleche, this permitted great stops - Black Bear coffee in Vernonia (with delicious apple turnover and chocolate chip oatmeal cookies), sit down lunch at Humps Restaurant in Clatskanie, and late night dinner with the cops and sheriff's deputies (and another fleche team) at the Subway in Tillamook. Michael timed the Subway stop perfectly to get us to our 22hour control right on time, with no waiting around and shivering required. In keeping with fleche tradition, however, we took a short rest in the next available warm, unlocked post office lobby.

The hills? No question that the route was challenging. I'm not sure if any of us had an altimeter on it, but it seemed like 10k-12k feet of climbing on the course, with the hills moderated by some relatively flat stretches along rivers or along the Tillamook Bay. But the roads were wonderful - generally scenic and remarkably low in traffic. Although we could not see the Nestucca River Road scenery overnight, the visual deprivation was countered by the constant companionship of rushing water sounds as we climbed. The gravel section was shorter than advertised and in reasonably good condition, although it did account for our only flat tire of the ride, fixed quickly by Michael in the pre-dawn hours.

Many thanks to Sam, Michael, and Ed for the great route and companionship. Also to the organizers and volunteers who put on the event - Susan France, the local RBA, Michael Rasmussen, Eric Vigoren, and I'm sure many others.

"The Spirit is Willing" team photo courtesy of Ed Felker. (From left: me, Ed, Sam, Michael). More of Ed's fleche pictures are available here.