Sunday, March 29, 2009

Rain? Check. Wind? Check. Cold? Check. Let's go for a bike ride!

The weather report for Saturday, March 28, was less than promising:


Vernonia just happened to be the town our 200 K brevet scheduled for the day centered on. And Vernonia is no stranger to torrential rain.

But I am no stranger to rain, either. Regular readers will have noted that I seem to spend a lot of time riding in the rain. Indeed, if riding in lousy weather were truly as character building as they say, I would be a cast of a thousands by now.

Nevertheless, when I ran into my friend Keith Kohan on Friday morning at the Salem Breakfast on Bikes and he told me that if he woke up to rain on Saturday morning he was not going to ride, I was inclined to agree. I did not "need" this 200, after all; the Seattle ride I did last week satisfied both my need for a March 200 for my second R-12 and for a 200 toward a series. Even so, because the 90% chance of rain meant that there was a 10% chance that it WOULDN'T rain, I went ahead and put all my gear together that night, just in case. Into the regular mix of snacks and supplies, I added a pair of waterproof rain pants, two extra pairs of heavy gloves, and two extra pairs of wool socks. I didn't think I'd need the rain pants - in the past I'd done just fine with full-length leg warmers over my wool knickers and Gore-Tex overshoes over my Keen sandals with wool socks (a combination that had worked to keep my feet completely dry and the rest of me damp but warm on the Snooseville Populaire two weeks ago)--but thought I might as well take them, in case of a deluge.

I woke up to my usual 4 AM hormonal alarm (now I know why my Granny was always up at 4 AM - nothing like a searing hot flash to pop a middle-aged woman out of bed in the morning), and listened for the sound of water dropping on the roof. Silence. So far, so good. I geared up, packed the car for the drive out to Forest Grove--it's still too early in the year for me to tack on a 40-mile ride to the start--ate my traditional pre-ride oatmeal, and headed out. As soon as I reached the freeway, rain drops started to hit my windshield. It was too late, I was committed, there was no turning back. I drove on into the gathering storm.

By the time I reached the start, the raindrops had turned into a persistent heavy drizzle. It still wasn't quite a "real" rain, so I decided not to put on the rain pants from the get-go. It's not really a plot spoiler to tell you now that I would later regret that decision. Because it was pretty chilly, I decided to wear my ski gloves for at least the first few hours. They are not waterproof, but they are very warm even when wet, especially when used in combination with the liners I had actually remembered to bring along. I tossed my other two pairs of gloves (the Ibex Climawools and Descente Wombats) in my gear bag, along with the extra socks.

There was quite a crowd of riders gathering, many of whom I had never seen before. As it would turn out, there were a number of riders for whom this would be their first randonneuring experience. Among the riders I did know was Keith.  Apparently he had not heard any rain on his roof when he woke up, either. Waiting for the signal to start, I overheard a group of riders on plastic, fender-free bikes discuss the chances of their finishing the ride in less than 6 or so hours. [editor's note for hypersensitive riders of non-steel bikes- the description of plastic fender-free bikes is a JOKE] .  Personally, I was hoping for an 11-hour finish. Even though the course was relatively easy, the weather was sure to slow me down.

Once we got started, the group quickly spread out. A combination of poorly timed traffic signals through Forest Grove and a very slight uphill grade for the first 10 miles or so helped to sort the riders out by speed group in short order. As usual, I was somewhere in the middle of the hunt. I rode along with Ray Ogilvie all the way up Highway 8 through Gales Creek to Highway 6 and then to the turn off at Timber Road. I stopped at the turn off to strip off my wool arm warmers, as I was starting to heat up despite the steady hard drizzle. Ray kept on going, but he later stopped for a "fluid exchange" and I passed him by on my way to the summit.

I rode the next 24 miles alone. I could tell that I was getting a significant wind assist on the way to Timber Summit, because my speedometer was not only displaying double digits, it was displaying double digits in the upper teens. Trust me - I cannot ride 19 miles per hour on a 2% incline without some help from the elements. Toward the top of the climb, some streamers tied to a tree were blowing horizontally in the direction I was headed. I tried not to think what this might mean for the return trip.

It had begun to rain a a little harder, and with the wind blowing it the water seemed to be coming up from the road into any opening in my clothes that it could find. My feet began to feel cold, and I could not tell if they were wet or just feeling the wind. My seat (the flesh one, not the bike one) began to feel squishy, and I debated stopping to put on the rain pants. I decided that would be too much of a hassle, and decided to wait until I got to the staffed control in Vernonia to undertake major wardrobe adjustments. And I reminded myself that it could be, and has been, much worse:



I kept repeating to myself, "I'm wet, but I am not cold. I'm wet, but I am not cold." That worked quite well until I began the descent from Timber down to the Highway 26 crossing, at which point my mantra became, "I'm wet, and I am effing freezing. I'm wet, and I am effing freezing." Except, of course, I was not saying "Effing." At the intersection of the Vernonia-Timber Road, I met up with Scott Peterson who had stopped to take care of something but was finishing up just as I came along. He quickly passed me by, however, and I was once again alone. My feet were now quite definitely wet, and my knickers' chamois had developed a really disturbing squishing noise. By the time I reached the contrôle at Anderson Park, I was channeling Mary Jo Kopechne, and it was not a pleasant feeling.

On the Birkie, the Anderson Park contrôle is staffed by volunteers, and for the times I have ridden this course (and last year when I was one of the organizers) there has been an expectation that the organizer will come through with hot drinks and home-baked goods. This year I was pleased to see the tradition continue; Sam and his volunteers provided coffee, hot chocolate, delicious cookies and coffee cake along with the standard bags of chips, nuts and trail mix. There were quite a few riders hanging out in the covered picnic area when I arrived, and more came shortly after. No one seemed in any immense hurry to get back out into the rain.

My primary focus was changing my socks and gloves, and trying to do something about my extremely wet pants. I had not brought an extra pair of shorts, but I stripped off my soaking wet and useless leg warmers, wrung out the knickers and put on the rain pants. I would not be dry, but at least I would be warm. I was so focused on my clothing issues that I almost forgot to get my card signed. If Del had not said something about being available to sign cards, I would have just gone on without it. That would have been bad.

My ski gloves had reached their saturation point, so I pulled out the Clima-Wools and instantly panicked because I simply could NOT get my hands into them. The combination of cold and damp had stripped me of the dexterity I needed just to put on a pair of gloves. Not only that, but my hands appeared to have swollen. Put in pop culture terms, based on those gloves, a jury would have had no choice but to acquit me. Susan France was finally able to help me tug them on, but she questioned what I was going to do if I got a flat tire, or some other problem, that would require me to take them off and put them back on again. "Oh, I said, "if that happens, I'll just kill myself." I was only half-joking. The rain was not showing any signs of letting up, and I knew that if I did get a flat tire or any other mechanical problem, I would be thoroughly miserable.

Once I had adjusted my wardrobe as well as it could be adjusted, I ate a couple more snacks and started off for the next leg up to the Keasey/C. Burns Road info contrôle (same house, same color) and then back to Stoney Point Road to work my way over to the turn-around at the Birkenfeld store. I had company on the way up to the info contrôle and then back to the turnoff onto Stoney Point Road: a woman named Sarah who had never done a brevet before, and another first-timer whose name I never caught. Gary Smith from Richland joined us on that stretch, as well. Gary and I would leapfrog each other off and on as the ride progressed, but he is generally faster than me and so we don't stay together long. As it was, I stopped to take a picture of a curious cow on Stoney Point Road and so was once again alone.

After a few more miles of solo riding (just me, the rain and the sheets of water being flung up at me by passing cars), I came across RB Buschman, who was just about finished fixing a flat tire. He didn't need help, but I stopped to chat and have a snack (any excuse to take a break). RB told me that owner of the house across from which he had stopped to fix the flat had come out to see if he need any help - apparently the guy has a complete bike repair shop in his garage. I made a note of the location for future reference (the bike nailed to his gate was a pretty good landmark). While I was chatting with RB, Joe P. from Seattle rode up. He had been riding alone for so long that he was worried he's taken a wrong turn, so he was happy to see us. Once RB got his wheel centered, the three of us rode on to Birkenfeld together. Did I mention that it was still raining?

There were about 6 or 7 other riders at the Birkenfeld store when we got there, including Ray, who was getting ready to leave. None of us were in any real mood to hang out, so we all quickly took care of basic contrôle business-cards signed, water bottles filled, bathrooms visited--and took off. Ray had waited, so now we were four. Joe was having some energy issues, however, and so he started dropping off behind (entering into his Own Private Idaho, as he out it), so Ray, RB and I pulled ahead of him.

At this point the rain was more of a heavy mist, but there was a lot of standing water on the road, so I was getting a pretty good soaking from below even if what was coming down from above was not so bad. The temperature had started to rise a little, though, so although I was still uncomfortably squishy, I was not cold. We shortly came across Ken Mattina, who was contemplating bailing because he had gotten multiple flats and had run out of tubes. Ray had a tube that would fit Ken's bike, and offered it to him, and then Joe rode up and offered to help him try and discover the source of the punctures (it was also a good excuse to rest and let the calories he's just ingested catch up, he admitted). Between Joe, Ray and RB, Ken seemed to be covered, so I kept plugging along.

The route doubled back to Vernonia for another contrôle; sadly, not a staffed one this time around. I stopped at the gas station just past the bridge into town and got a hot coco and some snack cracker of some sort. I have to admit that I was making all sorts of poor food decisions this day. My second pair of gloves had reached their saturation point, so I pulled out Pair #3, the Wombats. I had held off on these, because they really suck in the rain - they soak up water like sponges and don;t wring out well. But the rain finally seemed to be tapering off, so I decided to chance it.

Gary Smith and Sarah had arrived while I was faffing around at the cocoa machine, and Joe and a few other riders rolled in just as I was leaving. I did not see Ray or RB anywhere, though. No one else left when I did, so I was again alone. As I rode down Main Street on my way out of town, I saw a rider outside the Black Bear Cafe, but could not tell if he was coming or going. A few minutes later, I saw him in my rear view mirror and figured he'd catch up to me (and pass me) shortly. Instead, he paced me for about three miles, until I stopped to take a picture and he caught up. He explained that he had hoped to catch up, because he had ridden alone most of the day and was really craving some company to fend of despair. We introduced ourselves - his name was Adam, he had recently moved to Portland and this was his first organized brevet. He had done distance rides in the past, and had even tried to create his own brevets to get the hang of it. He was enjoying himself, except for the whole drowning in water and despair parts. I could relate.

Adam and I ended up riding the final 33 or so miles back to Forest Grove together. The pleasant company made up for the fact that the weather took a turn for the truly crappy. We had that headwind I had been anticipating ever since the tailwind blew me up to Timber on the way out, and it had started to rain harder than it had all day. The climb back up to Timber Summit was less than pleasant. I stopped at the top to let Adam catch up, but didn't give him much time to rest once he got there because I was in "Just get this over with mode."

All the way up Timber Road, Adam and I had been looking for other riders to catch up with us. Looking down from the top of the switchbacks, we couldn't see anyone. So imagine our surprise when another rider came roaring up behind us shortly after we turned onto Highway 6. It was Sarah. She had had enough of the rain and had moved into full out "sprint for the finish" mode. The three of us stopped at the Glenwood Shell Station for the last contrôle and commiserated. Adam went for the high-fructose corn syrup cola beverage, and I inhaled a Payday bar. I had been starting to get light-headed from calorie depletion on Highway 6--not something I would recommend to the youngsters out there.

And then we were off on the 11-mile home stretch. Sarah clearly had turned on her booster rockets, because she quickly faded into the distance. We could see her red blinky ahead of us for a while but soon even that was gone. Fortunately, the wind was no longer directly in our face, and the road descended ever so slightly, so we were able to keep a pretty good pace. It continued to rain pretty hard; when we passed David Hill Road, I noticed a veritable river running down its pavement. About 3 miles out, I realized that we were on track for a sub-10 hour finish. I figured that if I was going to be working this hard and putting up with such spectacular crappy weather, I should at least "reward" myself with a fast (for me) time. Despite some uncooperative traffic signals, and a "rain pant in the derailleur" moment of terror, I reached the rear door of the Grand Lodge at 4:58. Hurling my bike to the side, I charged into the Rounder Room and threw my card at Sam to sign. Yes, lame and obsessive, I will freely admit it. But dammit, I'd earned that 9:59, and I was not about to let a little water hold me down:


Velomann said...

I was one of those first-timers. I almost bailed driving to the start, but once I was there and saw all the experienced folks joking and smiling, I got sucked in. My mantra was "skin is waterproof - I just need to stay warm." Coffee and wool seemed to be the ticket.

Kevin said...

Randonneurs are sick I tell you, sick! Rain, cold, Gales Creek Road!
What you folks won't do for fun!

Congratulations on the sub 10

Anonymous said...

Joe P from Seattle here. Thanks for such good company and the nice ride report. I'm going to send it to my friend in NJ who may have thought I exaggerated the bit about the rain.

I heard that the flat fix on Ken's bike held for a while. Do you know if it made it all the way?

Did the bunny stay dry?

Anonymous said...

great story, cecil. there's an article about all you crazy portland bikers in the nytimes today, if you haven't seen it already. rain and cold (and brewpubs) figure prominently in it.

Cecil Anne said...

rain, cold, brewpubs and bicycles - what more could anyone want from a town?

Narayan said...

You actually made me go look up Mary Jo Kopechne. :)

Cecil Anne said...

Narayan, I cannot tell you how old you have made me feel by telling me that you actually had to look up Mary Jo K. :-)

Narayan said...

Uh oh! Is there something I can do to make it up to you?

There is however, a better explanation. I wasn't born here, and I didn't grow up here... :)

Cecil Anne said...

I'll accept that explanation :-)