Saturday, August 15, 2009

Super Brevet Scandinavia 2009

Riding a 1200km brevet after more than four weeks off the bike - not a single pedal stroke - appeared to be a bad idea, but I had a theory. Spending four weeks on a wonderful family vacation in South America would be restful and rejuvenating. Spending nearly a week of that vacation above 3000 meters elevation, including a four-day trek to Machu Picchu with climbs to over 4000 meters would build red blood cells. The combination of the rest and the natural blood doping would set me up perfectly for the event. Okay, so it was more a hope than a theory, but it's what I had, so I was going with it.


I nearly didn't get the chance to test the theory. Just as we started our South American vacation, I discovered that I had been watching the wrong Danish randonneur website. I probably should have wondered why no signup formalities had been posted, but sometimes I can be a bit casual about these things. Or perhaps, too willing to assume that others are being casual. I spoke to my Danish randonneur friend Stig Lundgaard four weeks before the brevet and discovered two things - the ride was full and anyway I had probably made air reservations for the wrong day. You are arriving in Copenhagen Thursday, he noted, and the ride starts 500 kilometers away on Friday morning with a pre-ride meeting on Thursday evening. Oops.

Stig is one of the great guys of randonneuring. He's incredibly accomplished, with more than 20 grand randonnees (1200km or more) completed at only about 40 years of age. These have included 4 Paris-Brest-Paris finishes, including at least one at right around 50 hours. Although it's possible that he and I met at PBP in 1999, our friendship started with a meeting in Australia for the 2001 Great Southern Randonnee. A stronger rider than I, he was nonetheless behind me when I turned around after Port Fairy to DNF the ride. He saw me riding the wrong way and endeavored to persuade me to continue. Of course, I persevered in my determination not to persevere on the ride. Our paths would cross at numerous events since 2001, and Stig would never fail to remind me that it was "stupid" to turn around. Never said in a mean way, that comment matched perfectly my view of that long-regretted decision.

At Boston-Montreal-Boston in 2002, I arrived late to the Bullard Farm control on the third night. I was cold, wet, and way behind my riding buddies as a result of a mechanical problem. Knowing that I wouldn't have time for a long sleep, I passed out on a chair instead of seeking a better place to sleep in the control. A photo captured this not very pretty sight. That photo has illustrated this blog since its inception (see right) because it reminds me of a lot of things that I have learned about this sport. One is about how one can feel pretty good on a brevet after feeling pretty bad - the next day I felt great and took, according to my friend Peter McKay, a fifty-mile, beer-at-the-finish-inspired pull of our little four person group most of the way home. It also reminds me, and this is the reason I bring this up here, of the great care that randonneurs take for each other. Shortly after the photo, I awake to the gentle crinkling of paper. Stig, Mr. 50-hour PBP, is stuffing newspapers into the wet shoes of Mr. 86-hour PBP (me), not just offering unsolicited but welcome help to dry the shoes, but also teaching me a little trick of the trade. In the years that I've been involved in the sport, I've witnessed (and been the beneficiary of) many instances of such kindness and instruction, but that one has always stuck with me.

As I said already, Stig is one of the great guys of the sport. So I suspect he may have had a role events leading to the e-mail that I received about 10 days after our call. From Per Rasmussen, the organizer of the 2009 SBS, in key part it read, "We have some participants who have canceled. So if you are quick, you can make a registration." Sweet. Stig also let me know that I could stay with him and Trine while in Denmark and that he would assist with all the pre-ride logistics. I delightedly informed my family that I was SBS-bound. On hearing how soon after our trip I'd have to leave (on a Tuesday morning after arriving home on a Sunday evening), my family gave me the "you're nuts, you know" look that I know so well. An e-mail to Jon at SVC ensured that my bike would already be in a travel box when I returned from South America.

After some frantic packing, several plane rides, great hospitality from Stig and Trine, and a long drive (I had no idea Denmark was that big), I arrived Thursday afternoon at the ride start location in Frederikshavn on the east coast of Jutland, facing Sweden across the Kattegat.

With not much happening at the start hostel, I headed out for a stroll by the harbor. Looking for inspiration, I spotted the Northern Vitality. Sounded good.

As I had been in Copenhagen, I was amazed by the number of bicycle riders everywhere. Riders came past of every description. I did a double take as one rider went past me on one of the zillions of bicycle lanes I would see in Scandinavia. "John?" I asked his back.

Sure enough, the rider brought his fixed gear bike to a stop and I had a chance to connect with John Evans, a Brit now living in Australia. I also met him for the first time at the GSR in Australia in 2001 and have seen him at several events since. Not content to rest on his laurels as a rock star and successful businessman, John is now one of the overachievers of the rando world. The SBS would be his 27th grand randonnee (I think). More astounding to me, however, was that it would be his third within five weeks; he had just completed the Gold Rush in California and London-Edinburgh-London in the UK.

The reunion quality of these grand randonnees was further evident later that evening, when I saw Jan-Erik, a Dane living in Sweden whom I had met at the 2008 GSR in Australia. He brought along Russ Hamilton from Australia. In 2008, Russ had hosted him for the GSR and now Jan-Erik was returning the favor. Along with one rider from Finland and one from Germany, John Evans, Russ Hamilton, and I constituted the non-Scandinavian contingent for the ride. Most riders were from Denmark. There was a decent sized group from Sweden and two riders from Norway. I think there were 46 starters in all.

My bike was ready to go.

DAY ONE - The Theory Springs Holes

The stories I had heard of the ride told tales of riding like crazy to make ferries, resting on the ferries, and repeating. Most of these ferries, as I would learn, are on the first day of the ride. Even now, the route only makes sense to me with a map.
We would ride generally south along the east side of Jutland, including two short ferry crossings, to Ebeltoft where we would take a longer ferry ride to Zealand (the main island of Denmark). We would ride generally east along the north edge of Zealand, with another shortish ferry crossing, until we reached the Helsinger-Helsingborg ferry that would take us into Sweden, where we would ride another 65 kilometers to the first overnight stop in Laholm. There would be five ferries in the first 275 kilometers. Of course we would get no credit for the distance covered by the boats, but we would also get no allowance for the time spent waiting for or riding on the ferries.

None of this seemed especially concerning at the start, however. A group of Danish riders invited me to head out with them and we started at a ripping pace ahead of most, if not all, of the other riders.

As we approached the first ferry near Aalborg at 58km, they told me that their plan was to make the 2PM long ferry at Ebeltoft (190km). At the pace we were going (well over 30kph average), that would be no problem at all. No other riders joined us on the ferry, so we were still at or near the front of the pack.

In the sixty kilometers or so before the next ferry, the rest-and-altitude-training-will-be-enough theory sprung a hole big enough to let the North Sea flow through. Not only did I let my riding companions know that I would have to drop off, before long I also watched as dozens of riders passed by me as if were on a kid's trike. I boarded the second ferry alone.

After the second ferry, I found myself alone in the wind and busy calculating that not only would I not make that 2PM ferry at Ebeltoft, I wasn't likely to make the 3PM one either.

As a rule, I don't mind riding by myself on long brevets, but I was struggling to maintain a positive mental attitude as my pace dropped further and further and the field moved away from me. As I neared Ebeltoft, I rode along a bay with a number of nice beaches. Lots of folks were out enjoying the beautiful day and I started to think that hanging out on the beach would be more fun than struggling through the ride against my lost fitness. Not where I wanted my thoughts to go wandering.

In the last 15 km or so to the Ebeltoft ferry, another group of seven Danish riders (three women and four men) swept me up. I had some hope of a group to join. They dropped me in the last 3-4 km to the ferry. I could see that we'd be on the same 4PM ferry (it was just past 3PM and we could see the 3PM ferry heading off), but my inability to hold their pace suggested that I'd be riding alone once we reached the other side.

Watching five of the seven riders light up cigarettes while waiting for the ferry did nothing good for my attitude. Waiting for the ferry, we were joined by Lasse and Annie, father and daughter from Sweden. (I did not know it at the time, but a small handful of riders, who had spent part of the day lost, would not cross until the 5PM ferry).

Happily for me, I could ride with some or all of these riders for the last 150km of the day, including two more ferry crossings. Here's the first.

Waiting for the 22:10 ferry (#5 for the day) to cross from Helsinger, Denmark to Helsingborg, Sweden at 275km into the ride, I realized a couple of things. First, the sky was dark. The advertised possibility that the ride, which was all north of the 55th parallel) could be completed mostly without light would be reserved for other riders, not for me. Second, my pace including stops had barely topped 18kph for the day so far, considerably short of the 20kph minimum that I hope to maintain in the early part of a long ride to build cushion for sleeping, eating, and slowing down.

In a positive sign that my ride would improve, I found neither of these realizations discouraging. I don't think that I've ever done a brevet of 400km or longer without some night riding. Not only would this be nothing new, I have good lights and I like riding at night. And although I would prefer to go faster, 18kph pace for a 1200 leaves nearly 24 hours for sleeping and slowing down. Being at or near the back of the ride need not be discouraging, either. Via Facebook, my friends provided a good reminder. I had been posting updates on my (slowing) progress throughout the day. Jason Dul had commented on one such posting that I should follow his motto: "DFL is better than DNF." Words to live by. I resolved to keep posting updates throughout the ride - not wanting to post a DNF update might prove to be just the right motivation at some future low point.

In the ashes of my rest-and-altitude theory, I developed another one: My overall fitness was fine, I would just need time to get my long-sidelined legs back into riding. As another randonneur once told me, the advantage of a 1200km brevet is that you can use the first days to train for the last ones! I decided that my operating assumption was going to be that each day, I would feel stronger than I did on the one before. I was far from sure that this theory would hold any more water than the original one, but it would have to do. We found the overnight hostel at Lanholm around 1:45AM. I updated my Facebook status: "can get 3 hours sleep before breakfast. Woo-hoo."

DAY TWO - Finding the Way

The organizers' conception for the Super Brevet Scandinavia contemplates a common start each morning. We could expect a breakfast each day around 6AM and those who wanted to start together could head out around 7AM. For a brain-dead rider arriving late at night, this provides the further advantage of pre-determining all of the usual how-much-sleep / what-time-should-I-rise calculations. Our 1:45AM arrival had given me time for a warm shower, a pasta dinner, three hours of sleep, and a good breakfast before starting again. Over breakfast, I was the recipient of numerous sympathetic comments about my late arrival, but honestly, I felt pretty good to be back on the bike again.

I started out with the six remaining riders from the group of seven riders that had picked me up on the way to the Ebeltoft ferry. One, who had been sick but attempted the ride anyway, had headed home from Helsinger the previous evening. I was happy to have the company as we were able to pool our ignorance in navigating the often cryptic cue sheet.

It's always interesting to ride somewhere new where the cue sheets may follow different customs than those at home. Over the first day, I had tuned into the basic difference in format. On our SIR cue sheets, each line says, in effect, "at cumulative distance X, which is Y from the last cue, take the following action." The SBS cue sheet had distances at the end of the line and the syntax was "turn this way, you will possibly pass through these named towns or streets as you ride for distance A to cumulative distance B, at which point look at the next line for your next action."

Knowing the general approach was only part of the battle. I still might have to deal with a bicycle path which diverged from the main road on the cue sheet or which took me through an intersection in such a way that I could not see the signs. Or perhaps the road on which we should continue would take a left or a right at an intersection which was not noted on the cue sheet. I had one extra weapon in my navigation arsenal - my GPS. This might have solved my navigational challenges better but for one fundamental problem. I had programmed a track into the GPS based on a map of the 2005 route, not based on the cue sheet which I didn't have at the time. My track creation skills were less than perfect in the first place and then the route had changed, particularly on the way into some changed overnight control locations. At least, however, I could watch the map on the GPS and slow down to be more careful about navigation when the lines on the screen stopped following our actions on the road. When riding with others, I'd ask them if they were sure about the direction followed. Usually they were.

About 40 kilometers into the day, the line on my GPS made a left turn where the cue sheet was silent. I slowed the other riders enough to allow us to be the beneficiary of a course correction shouted from a porch by a bathrobed fellow who seemed bemused at all the cyclists that had been by in the morning. I found out later that this had been a good save; continuing straight, we could have reconnected with the route, but only after extra distance, some navigational guessing, and a long stretch of gravel road.

Twenty five kilometers later, we found a bakery in Torup and the opportunity for delicious baked goods, for water bottle refilling, and for a little sit and rest. (Also a smoke, but I wasn't tempted yet). Also coffee. Not to seem ungrateful, but frankly most of the coffee I had in Scandinavia was horrible. This cup was no exception, but I was happy to have it nonetheless. As we were preparing to leave, John Evans rode up. Unhappily for him, he had taken the extra distance, extra navigation, gravel road option earlier. Happily for me, John would provide good riding company as we rode more or less together for the next 100miles, both with and without our pack of Danes.

The "Welcome Bikers" sign outside Svenljunga beckoned around lunchtime.
However, it called to cyclists of the motor-assisted sort; we had apparently stumbled on the Sturgis of Sweden. In general, this was no problem. Like virtually all the motorists that I encountered in the three countries of the ride, the bikers were unfailingly courteous of us on bicycles. The bikers did make lunch a bit more complicated than usual. The restaurants were packed, making lunch a slow process. (Foregoing lunch was not even considered). Also, it would appear that Swedish bikers are untrustworthy with credit cards, so the stores and restaurant that I visited all had "no cards" signs out. I had been hoping that I could use my bank card to avoid getting a different currency in each of the three countries of the ride, but now I was reduced to going around to my fellow riders and begging for Swedish crowns.

Thirty kilometers later, completely befuddled by the bike lanes and highways on the way into the town of Borås, John and I stopped near the train station for our second attempt at asking a local for directions. The first had elicited a "yes, I think you could go that way, or perhaps this other way" response that had solved none of our confusion. The second time was a charm, however, as we received some very precise directions out of town to our next destination. Upon our successful execution of these directions, John suggested that we replace the cue sheet with the nice young woman that had provided them. I'm certain that his motivations were entirely navigational and had nothing to do with the striking nordic looks of our guiding angel.

On the way up the hill out of Borås, I stopped for a rest and John disappeared up the road ahead. I was now, to the best of my knowledge, dead last among the riders. The prestige of "lanterne rouge" designation provided small comfort, but the "better DFL than DNF" admonition was sufficiently motivating to keep me going to the convenience store control in Alingsås. Several riders were still there, providing me with connection to the field. The father-daughter Swedish riders provided good directions out of town before leaving.

Despite being last on the road, I felt pretty good. Fifty kilometers later, however, I found myself totally lost. The highway on the route sheet was clearly marked with a "no bicycles" indication. My GPS track was no help on this section where the 2005 and 2009 routes diverged substantially. Following the bike route that I vainly hoped might lead back to the highway, I was soon dodging Saturday night party-goers on the cobbled streets of Trollhattan. And I had not even reached the two ominous sounding cues on the route sheet that both identically read "Y-kryds ved ôre Sjö - ingen kendteskilte/no known signs." Whatever that might mean.

Finally I gave up all hope of finding the route and programmed the overnight hotel into the GPS and beseeched it to find me a way there. Which it did. I'm convinced that it found the darkest, hilliest, most deserted route to the overnight stop, but it got me there. After gingerly carrying my bike downstairs to the basement for the second night in a row, I was directed to the room I would share with John Evans. It appeared that he had not preceded me there by too much and I was soon showered and down in the dining area sharing lasagna and beer with the other late arrivals. With only 305km on the second day, it was not even 1AM when I went to bed with the prospect of nearly 5 hours of sleep.

A word about the support on this ride. To my amazement, the entire support crew consisted of organizer Per Rasmussen and his wife and daughter. They would drive the bags to the overnight location and then split duties. The women would care for us on arrival each night, then sleep. Per would sleep first and then care for us at breakfast. The good humor and helpful assistance offered by Betty and her daughter even to the latest arrivals each night cheered me tremendously. Thanks to them.

DAY THREE - Getting Better

With almost 350km to cover, Sunday would be the longest day of the ride. (In prior years the second overnight was further along the route, providing a more normal distribution of distance than the 340/305/346/230 of the 2009 edition). Seventy kilometers after breakfast would be the first control of the day in Ed, which seems like a friendly name for a town and which was the last control in Sweden. I rode some of this stretch with John and the six Danes and some alone. I felt pretty good and was content with my exploration of the better-each-day hypothesis. The camera suggests a somewhat grimmer determination:

After entering Norway, the route ran north for a while along the Iddefjord which separates Norway from Sweden (which, to my modest confusion, is to the west of Norway here). As a cool drizzle settled in and as the route added more hills (short rollers), I could feel my legs coming back. It was a nice sensation to hit the rises pretty hard and feel good doing it. We enjoyed a nice lunch stop in Halden, Norway. We waited a while for one of the Danes, who was not feeling as chipper as the rest of us, but before long we were pushing on to the control in Rakkestad (km 813), which we reached before 4pm.

After Rakkestad, the route headed north east of the Glomma (largest river in Norway) to Askim before turning south and then west to the last ferry of the brevet at Moss. Along the way, I lost track of my riding companions. John rode off ahead and the others stopped somewhere. I also blithely followed the cue sheet on roads clearly not meant for bicycles rather than repeat the bike path misadventures of the previous evening. As a result, I found myself the lone rider on the 7:30 ferry from Moss to Horten across the Oslofjord. A beautiful sky beckoned.

With 100km to go from Horten to the overnight, I was expecting, but not dreading, a long evening of riding. Once off the ferry, I again followed the highway instead of the bike paths for the first part of the route out of town. In the middle of a no-shoulder tunnel, this started to seem like a really bad idea, but I survived. About 15 km or so after the ferry I came upon the father-daughter cyclists having an animated discussion in Swedish. For my benefit, Lasse summarized: "This is shit!" he said, pounding the route sheet. Apparently they had spent at least a half hour lost in the last town. It was also apparently not their first such incident of the day. They had started the day early before breakfast and were clearly not happy to be losing time. I suggested that we pool our navigational resources and ride together, at least to the next control in Larvik. They liked the idea of having a GPS on their side, so off we went.

Happy to say, our navigational misadventures were few and short before we found the lovely, if hilly, road into Sandefjord and the much less scenic road from there to the next control in Larvik. We arrived in Larvik around 11:30 or so to discover that the ferry terminal (for a ferry to Denmark) that was suggested as the control point had long since closed for the day. After much perplexed wandering, we found a gas station / convenience store and proceeded to fritter away time unnecessarily.

The last 35 kilometers of the day seemed much longer. A series of seemingly gratuitous descents and climbs eventually gave way to a long flat stretch into Skien, our overnight control town. A pretty good rain started just as we were wandering around, quite confused and lost, within 100 meters of the control location. It was nearly 3AM when I stumbled into my room for a shower before dinner. They planned to send John in to share it with me when he arrived. (I never saw him, and found out later that it was 8AM before he came through the control, asked for his bag so he could change to dry gloves, and then immediately headed out again.)

DAY FOUR - Feelin' Groovy

After my shortest sleep of the ride, I joined most of the other riders for breakfast, again receiving sympathetic comments for my late arrival. Others had arrived later, however, and even some of the earlier riders had chosen to sleep longer. So with a quick breakfast and an eagerness to "git 'er done," I left at about 6:30 for the 230km push to the finish. The report on the remaining course forecast a hilly, challenging 105km to the control at Treungen and then an easier 125km to the finish. Although a few left before me, I was one of the first riders on the road.

The first 60 kilometers included some of the hilliest and prettiest riding on the brevet leading to the town of Drangedal. (In a sign of my mental decomposition, I found the name of the town hilarious. "Where did the beer go?" "We Drangedal!" This amused me for longer than I care to admit. Then this:

"Phenomenal cycling power. Itty bitty living space." Ha. Ha. Laughter is a sign. Of delirium, perhaps.

To my surprise, I saw only a handful of riders go by along this stretch and I was feeling pretty full of myself when I stopped for a mid-morning snack at a convenience store. A huge pack of riders came in as I was leaving and I vowed to conserve enough energy that I could hang onto at least some of that group when it came by later.

The forty kilometers to Treungen included the most sustained climb of the ride, up 500+ meters to the alpine ski resort of Gautefall. To my further surprise, only one rider came by me on the way up the hill or down the other side. It must be my intensely competitive nature, but this further improved my good mood of the day.

Just before the control, the route sheet said to take a left onto 41 and go 1 km to the control at Treungen. With local knowledge, other riders instead went right a short ways where they could find many control options. Following the route sheet to the left, I found just one, a gas station/convenience store. Once again, however, the quality of the offerings pleasantly surprised me as it had at many a convenience store along the route. A less pleasant surprise was the reaction of the clerk to my request for a stamp. "It is not usual," he said and made it clear that no amount of pleading would yield a stamp. I settled for a receipt and made my way down the road.

In the next stretch I was overtaken by one rider and then swept up by a group of three Danish riders. These included Per and Flemming who were in the group with which I had tried to ride on the first day. I recalled, and was reminded at the next control, that Per was the one who would smoke a pipe at each stop. Apparently this works well for him; he has many 1200s to his credit.

The third rider was Thomas, who wanted to know if I knew Brian Ohlemeier in Seattle. Thomas had ridden part of the way to Brest with Brian at PBP 2007 before dropping off, but still finishing in a fast time. Latching onto these guys was a kick. They were strong and fast, but with few hills remaining (and perhaps a helping of discreet assistance), I could stay with them.

We rode into the penultimate control at a campground. In 2005, there had been a camp store and possibly more. In 2009, we instead found a common room showing signs of a desultory renovation project. The man who greeted us, however, was quite enthusiastic to hear of our ride. Apparently he was also delighted to learn that I had come from the USA and that a rider from Australia was just behind. He reported that it had been over ten years since he had seen an American and that he had never ever seen an Australian. He insisted on making a pot of coffee for us. Thus stoked for the 75 km homestretch, we headed out.

Following the Tovdalselva river to the sea, we zipped along the scenic and flat next section of the course. To my surprise, Thomas called for a food stop in Birkeland, only about 30km from the end. Jan-Erik and Russ rolled up with another rider. I had a soda while some riders waited for real food. Seized by stiffening legs and by a burning desire to finish the ride, I took off alone, figuring I'd see the others soon.

At an intersection less than five kilometers from the finish, I studied the signs, the cue sheet, and the GPS for hints about the route. Finally, I headed off downhill to the right. Before I got far, I heard my name being called and looked around to see Jan-Erik racing down from the intersection after me. He escorted me back up and pointed the correct direction (uphill to the left). Thus saved from much lost wandering, I happily followed him and Russ and the other rider to the finish, where we arrived at 7:20pm, nearly 85 hours after starting this adventure.

Celebratory beer ensued.

But the harder the battle you see
It's the sweeter the victory, now

You can get it if you really want
You can get it if you really want
You can get it if you really want
But you must try, try and try, try and try
You'll succeed at last


gzaborac said...

I'll not soon forget your pull at the end of BMB 2002. Nor Peter's willingness to give you his wheel, and risk DNFing, so you could complete the ride and earn the CanAm award.

Greg Z

Peter McKay said...

Hey Buddy,

Your second theory proved to be correct -- another strong finish! Congratulations!!!

brad said...

I just loved the Norwegian convenience store clerk's comment: "That's just not usual"...... Indeed.

Congratulations on a wonderful ride and report. You rock.

jle said...

To all of us who have felt sub-par the first 400k of a 1200k, your story is inspiring, Mark. And fun to read, too.

Those ferries might drive me crazy, I think, but at least they offer picturesque vistas.

A hearty congratulations to you for your presence of mind and great finish, including beer choice!


Robert H said...

The stories keep getting better!

Rando Rider said...

Nice write-up & ride ... gets me psyched for that next ride :)