Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

If This Blog Were A Brevet, I'd Have A DNF . . .

. . . or, The Longer the Ride, The Longer It Takes Me to Write a Ride Report

A couple of weeks ago I rode the Oregon Randonneurs' "Covered Bridges" 400K. This was the third in a series of increasing long rides that that I must complete to qualify for the Gold Rush Randonnee in July. A number of other riders are also planning on riding in the Gold Rush, and the weather forecast for the day was favorable, so a pretty large group of riders showed up at the start. I had ridden the course last year, but as a workers' pre-ride, and I was hoping to improve on my time. Last year, I took almost 26 hours to finish; this year I hoped to be done well before the 24-hour mark.

Can We Go Yet?

After two weeks of unusually unsettled and wet weather, including a spectacular storm the previous weekend that had forced our pre-riders to abort their mission, the skies were completely clear and, despite the early morning chill, the forecast was for a sunny albeit breezy day. After so many months of rain-soaked brevets and permanents, I was reveling in the fact that I did not have to pack rain gear. For one thing, it meant I had more room for Scooby-snacks.


As I waited for the signal to roll, I surveyed the field of riders. The only other women were my friends Peg and Lesli, a couple of hardcore randonneuses fresh from a stint in Rando Hell. I knew most of the other riders, as well, and knew that they would all set a much faster pace on the course than I. In other words, it was clear to me from the get-go that I would be spending most of the day (if not all) riding alone. I have noticed that, at least in my admittedly limited experience, the longer a brevet course gets, the fewer "slower" riders show up. Even though the time allotment is in theory sufficient for even a plodding rider to complete the course on time, in practice it seems only the fast riders show up for anything longer than a 300K. Well, the fast riders and me. Hence my knowledge that I would be riding alone.

With the group start, I got swept up in the pack. I managed to keep pace with the lead riders for about 6 miles, at which point they dumped me like a bag full of unwanted kittens. The last I saw of them, they were riding off into the morning mist somewhere around Champoeg State Park.

The Climb to Champoeg Road

I poodled along on my own, stopping for a few minutes to visit with some donkeys,


and stopping again to get some more water at the Gervais Market. While I was at the market, three more randos passed by; once I was pedaling again I quickly caught up with them. The four of us would play bicycle leapfrog for the next 12 hours our so, until they would finally leave me behind just south of Coburg.

The Covered Bridge route is billed as relatively flat. "Relatively" being the operative term. Compared to the upcoming 600XTR, the 400's course was flatter than the flattest pancake. But with close to 8000 vertical feet of elevation gain over a distance of just about 250 miles, there was still a decent amount of climbing involved. And some of that climbing was not trivial. 48 miles into the day, we had to tackle Cole School Road--home of one of the most wicked sets of rollers I've ever dealt with. At least this time I did not have to walk my bike the last 200 feet of the second roller (which tops out at an 18% grade). It helped that I was not carrying a ten-pound U-Lock in my pannier like I was the first time I attempted the climb.

As should be obvious from the name of the event, its central feature is a tour of various covered bridges, most of which are in the vicinity of Scio (Sigh-Oh), the "Covered Bridge Capital of the West." Each bridge was an "information" contrôle point, whch meant stopping at each one to answer a question on our brevet cards. Setting up the information contrôles is one of the tasks on the workers' ride, and the time I spent arguing with my friend Andrew about the color and number of zip-ties to use at each bridge was one of the reasons we took so long to complete the ride last year. This year I only had to answer the question, so my time at each bridge contrôle was much shorter. I still took the time to take a picture of each bridge, but they all started to look the same after a while.


Bridge #1

Bridge #2

Bridge #3

Bridge #4

Bridge #4

Bridge #6

After circling around Scio for a while to take in the bridges, our course took us south. Near the Crawfordsville Bridge, I realized that my cue sheet, which I had downloaded from the OrRando website the night before, was missing at least one line. I have noticed in the past that, when printing the Excel files that some of the websites cuesheets are on, lines get dropped at the end of pages. I still have not figured out if the problem is with my printer or the spreadsheet. In any event, I was standing at the intersection of Crawfordsville Dr. and SR-228 trying to figure out why the mileage legs looked funny, when a rider coming from the other direction (not a randonneur, just a guy out for a ride) stopped and asked if I was with "those other riders that took a right turn up on Brush Creek." Ah! Why, yes - yes, I am! Whew. Thus reoriented, I pedalled off, turn right and began the long (7-mile) climb to Marcola Summit and then on to Donna, a town which inevitably brings out the Berger in me . . . . fortunately no one was around to hear me singing on my way up the hill . . .

The southernmost point of the course was the contrôle at the Mohawk Post Store. When I arrived, two of the other three riders with whom I had been leapfrogging all day were there already, and the third arrived shortly after. I was pretty hungry at this point, and so took a little extra time to eat. I also took time to change into fresh shorts. I have learned that no matter how good my shorts are, after about 125 miles I really, really, want a new pair. Fed and refreshed, both nutritionally and dermatologically, I set off once more, but stopped almost immediately to take the aspirin that I had been contemplating taking for the last hour, but managed to forget to take while I was stopped at the store. While I was stopped, one of the three leapfroggers (Ken, I think) passed me. That was the last I saw of him. The other two would pass me in Coburg, when I stopped to use the blue room outside the market there.

After Coburg, I was truly riding alone. I had lost sight of the riders ahead of me and, as far as I knew, there was no one behind me. I would later learn that Peg and Lesli were back there somewhere, but I had assumed all day that they had passed me in the morning when I stopped in Gervais. I was still setting quite a good pace for myself, however. My average speed was near 15 mph, and I was on course for a 20-hour finish. There was a slight headwind, but I knew that it would calm down after the sun set. I also knew, however, that I would slow down as the night progressed. I had no illusions that I would actually finish in 20 hours. But it was a nice fantasy while it lasted.

The stretch between Coburg and Independence was by far the most difficult part of the ride for me. There were some very long and monotonous stretches of road (almost 20 miles on Peoria Road alone), and I was getting sleepy. Once the sun set, my brain went into bedtime mode, and on Buena Vista Road I had to resort to slapping myself in the face to stay awake . Even though I felt like I was still in control, I could see from the way my headlight beams were weaving back and forth that I clearly was not. At that point I had to stop and lie down on the side of the road for a few minutes, just to regain some stability.

Willamette River Sunset

I got my second wind on River Road in Salem, about 40 miles from the finish. I'd stopped at the Plain Pantry, and the clerk told me that another rider had just left about 15 minutes before I arrived. From his description, I knew it was Ray O. I drank some hot cocoa and pushed off for the final leg. I did not think I would actually catch up to Ray, but I figured it was worth a try.

Salem at midnight is, um, interesting. Even though I work there, I don't think I've ever been in town later than 7 PM (not counting the night I slept at the office because I was finishing a brief - I did not leave the building then). Downtown was surprisingly busy, and everyone I saw was drunk. I was more than happy to pass through, and then to pass through Keizer, and get back to the loneliness of River Road.

Shortly after leaving Keizer, I caught up with Ray. We chatted for a while, and then I pulled ahead. A few miles later, I caught up with Steve Davis. He was obviously tired, more tired than I, but still pedalling strongly. He thought I was Peg, and asked how Hell Week had gone. He was the third rider of the day to think I was Peg. All three were Seattle-based riders; you'd think they'd know what Peg looked like by now. Anyway, Steve and I rode together all the way to Newberg, chatting about R-12s and other signs of obsessiveness. Steve is working on what he calls a "Double R-12," which is at least TWO 200K randonnees per month.

At 2:14 AM, Steve and I rolled into the finish at the Travelodge, where Michael Rasmussen was waiting for us. He had just gotten back from driving out to Salem and back to check our progress, and told us that Ray, Peg and Lesli were not far behind. I scarfed down some pretzels, chugged a Diet Coke, took a shower, and headed for home. In retrospect, I probably should have taken a short nap before driving, but I got home safely despite the impairment of sleep deprivation.

Next up, the 600 XTR. Who knows, I may even post a report for that ride sometime before next year.

The rest of my pictures are here.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Double the Cookie, Double the Fun

Last Sunday, April 26,  I drove down (yes, drove - sigh) to Salem for the Salem Bicycle Club's annual "Monster Cookie Metric Century."  The Monster Cookie is the first organized supported ride of the year. In deference to the massive out-of-shapedness of those folks who put their bikes away in September and don't bring them out until April, the course is short (62 miles) and relatively flat. Of course, for a smug, self-satisfied, year-round rider like your humble author, a flat 62 miles is hardly worth putting on padded shorts for. But it's a lovely route, and I have lots of friends who ride it, so for the last few years I have signed up for the ride and simply made it more of a challenge by riding the course twice for a "Double Cookie." This year was no different. Call me a Cookie Monster, if you will.

Digression Alert: I have been riding the Monster Cookie since 1998, missing only a couple of years in the interim. Early on, I encouraged a friend to ride the course with me. She was interested in doing more long-distance cycling, and I told her she would really like this ride. As fate would have it, the weather that day was possibly the worst in Cookie history (and the ride has a rep for bad weather). We're talking monsoon - strong winds, heavy rain, and cold. I think there may even have been hail at one point, but I can't quite recall. A little over halfway through the ride, my friend had had quite enough - we stopped in St. Paul (at that time the course went through that town, it has since changed) so that she could call for a ride home. I was pretty sure she would never want to ride a bike again. But her ability to suppress traumatic memories was stronger than I thought, because not too many years later she was riding her bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles and talking about chamois butter like a pro . . .

Now, where was I? Oh yeah, THIS year's ride. I was hoping for somewhat dry weather, because then I could ride my "fast" bike - i.e., the one without fenders, luggage racks and heavy generator hub. The key to a successful Double Cookie is to ride quickly enough that all the rest stops are still open for the second pass. That requires a rider to maintain an average speed of at least 18 mph for the entire distance, assuming she spends less than 10 minutes at each rest stop. I am still not a strong enough rider to maintain that speed on Li'l HW Jr. for prolonged distances, but on Baby Bianchi I stood a fighting chance, barring any mechanical failures.

Sunday morning dawned gray and cold, but only slightly damp. It was not raining as I packed the car, but it did start to drizzle when I was about half way to Salem. I had not packed a rain jacket, but I had a spare one in my office in Salem, and so I stopped there to pick it up before heading over to the Capitol Mall for the ride start.

Packet distribution was scheduled to begin at 8:00 AM. My plan was to be at the head of the line so that I could get my packet and get out on the road. Past experience had taught me that it is best to get through town and into the more rural areas before the main body of riders gets going. There are quite a few traffic signals and stops signs in the first 6 miles or so, and the mobs starting and stopping (or blowing straight through the stops, as happens far too often) can be tough to negotiate. Monster Cookie brings out a lot of inexperienced riders, and in large groups that can be, um, problematic.

It seemed like everyone else had the same idea, though, so the line for pre-registered riders was quite long by the time I got there at 7:30.

Packet Pick-Up

Consequently, by the time I made it out onto the street just before 8:00, there were a few dozen riders ahead of me, and another couple dozen right behind. I passed most of the riders in front of me fairly quickly, though. My familiarity with Salem's streets helped quite a bit, since I did not need to look at the route sheet and could anticipate the traffic signal changes. About three miles into the ride, I had pulled ahead of most of the other early starters, except for one guy who latched on and sucked my rear wheel for quite a few miles before I was able to shake him. Personally it irritates the hell out of me when someone I don't know from Adam's off ox drafts me without at least saying "Hello," let alone asking if I mind pulling his sorry ass for 8 miles.

The first rest stop was just over 14 miles in, in a parking lot at the Salem Bible College. My friend John Henry was helping out there, as well as one of co-workers, Sharon. Sharon's husband was riding and she was handing out snacks. Because of the layout of the course, this first stop would also be the third, so I told Sharon that she would be seeing me at least two more times, if not three, as I made my way around, and around again.


In addition to chatting with John Henry and Sharon and snacking on grapes and bagels, I took some time at this first stop for wardrobe adjustments. Although it was still gray and chilly, I was riding hard and need to divest myself of at least one layer. Even so, I was still back o the road in less than 10 minutes. Next stop, Champoeg State Park.

I was all alone on the road at this point, and that was fine by me. I enjoy being able to ride my own ride without having to factor for what other riders are doing. I did pass a few other riders, and was surprised to see how grim they all looked. It made me wonder why the heck they were out there. Granted, I have had my share of grim riding moments (the windswept Bickleton Plateau, the Bataan Death Fleche, and 2:00 AM on the Nestucca River Road all come to mind), but how can you not enjoy a short, dry, flat ride through pastoral loveliness past fields filled with new growth plants, blooming flowers and baby animals?

I reached the state park by 9:45 AM. As Lynne has already pointed out in her ride report, it was truly weird to approach the park in daylight. Over the past year, I have ridden the surrounding roads at least a half dozen times, but always at night. There were no baby lambs at the working "historic" farm this time, but lots of chickens. I stopped briefly at the Visitors' Center at the park entrance (larger, cleaner, swankier bathrooms than down in the park proper) and then dropped down to the Oak Grove picnic area where the lunch stop had been set up. At that point there were more volunteers than riders.

I had not ordered a box lunch because I am a cheapskate, plus I knew that I would be getting to the park a little too early be thinking about lunch. Besides, I knew there would be plenty of other snacks available. I grabbed a bagel half, smeared some peanut butter on it, choked down half a banana and a bunch of grapes, spread on some sunscreen, refilled my water bottles, and hit the road by 9:59, after checking with a volunteer to see what time they would be packing up. 2:00 PM, she said. "Hmm," I thought, "I'd better get a move on."

From Champoeg, the route turned southwest on French Prairie Road toward Salem and, I soon discovered, directly into the wind. I had not felt as if I were getting that much of an assist from behind on the way out, but I was certainly having to work harder to maintain my 18 mph average. It did not help that French Prairie Road is not well-paved, has narrow shoulders and can have heavy traffic. All those factors can slow a gal and her stuffed rabbit down.

Because of the way the route is designed, there is a stretch of French Prairie/River Road (the name changes) where the faster riders on their way back to Salem cross paths with the slower riders on their way out to Champoeg.

Outbound Cyclists

The Salem Bible College rest stop (Stop #1 and #3) is on this stretch, and on my second visit it was much more crowded with riders headed in both directions. Both Sharon and John Henry were still there, although John Henry had been out to Champoeg and back to deliver more peanut butter and cream cheese to hungry riders there. I recognized a couple of other riders, but at this point most of my friends were somewhere between St. Louis Road and Champoeg. Another bagel half, some pretzels, some more water and I was ready for the last leg of my first loop.

For the next 18 miles I played leapfrog with a few other of the faster or earlier starting riders, as well as with some riders that had only gone as far as the first stop before turning back. I recognized a few of those latter riders, including my friend Mike in his new Danish hat-helmet. He was riding with his daughter, who is still working her way up to longer rides, and so they had opted to put in only 30 miles.

I think that the last 16 miles of the Cookie route are the most difficult. The roads are more rolling than flat, and there is a pissy little 9% grade climb at mile 50.  In addition, the last five miles require some tricky navigating through neighborhoods and the downtown Salem one-way grid. Even so, I reached the Capitol Mall before noon. John Henry was there to meet me. 

After chatting briefly with another couple of riders, neither of whom accepted my invitation to join me for Round Two, I filled my water bottles (again!) and headed back out. I hoped to reach Champoeg by 2:00 PM, but I knew it would be a push. The wind had shifted and was once again in my face, even though I was now headed northeast. I now realized how much of a wind assist I had gotten in the morning, because try as I might I simply could not maintain the same speeds as I had earlier. But I pressed gamely on. My slightly slower speed did allow me to take some pictures in passing of sights I had seen but not recorded on the first pass, like flocks of sheep, horses and trees, dwarf irises, and really, really big hay stacks.


All the Pretty Horses (and Trees)

Schreiner's Iris Gardens

Hay at Hopmere

I reached the Bible College rest stop for Visit #3 at 1:00 PM. This time it was filled with riders on their way back to Salem. I saw rando-buddies Keith and Alex Kohan, Big John from Portland Velo, and Dave E. from Team Bag Balm. I also encountered a few riders who appeared to know me, or at least knew TRFKAF, so I figured they either ride with Velo or read this blog (they most definitely were not randonneurs). I felt badly that I did not know who they were, since they were very friendly. After stuffing an extra bagel in my pocket in case I didn't make it to Champoeg before the food trucks left, I pedaled off, confusing more than one rider by going in the opposite direction than expected.

The wind had died down by this point, and I started to make better time. But then the sun came out again, and I stopped to apply sunscreen. If I had not, I probably would have made it Champoeg by 2:00, but as it was I rolled into the picnic area at 2:06. The food truck was still there, however, and the volunteers let me scavenge for snacks. I liberated some fruit and chips, which I augmented with a packet of Sesame Snaps and a Diet Coke from the Visitors' Center store.

At this point I knew that the Bible College rest stop would be closed before I could reach it for a fourth time. I also knew, however, that French Prairie Gardens, which is near the Bible College, sells pastries and drinks and, more importantly, has very nice restrooms. The nursery is open until 4:00 on Sundays, and I knew I could get there by then.

Baby Bianchi at the 100-mile mark

A much needed rest stop

From the nursery to the Capitol Mall finish line was just under 24 miles. With a pumpkin scone in my belly (along with the accumulated bagels, fruit, peanut butter and chips) and pink lemonade-flavored high fructose corn syrup "juice drink" in my water bottle, I was ready to get down to it and get it done. At this point my average speed had dropped to 17.2 mph, and I was determined not to let it drop under 17. That would be tricky, because, as previously noted, this last stretch was the most difficult part of the route. But as I pedaled along Wheatland Road, who should drive up but John Henry, who helpfully pointed out that there were a couple of riders "a little way ahead" of me and, if I "worked hard" I could catch them. And like Seabiscuit with the competition in the sight of his one good eye, I was off. Yes, this woman can be a little testosterone-poisoned herself sometimes. I blame it on the rabbit.

I never did see the riders that John Henry described, but about one and one-half miles from the end I did catch up with a family group that was just finishing the metric. In the group were two boys that could not have been older than ten. I learned later, when we were chatting at the finish, that the furthest one of the boys had ridden before that day was 15 miles. I was duly impressed. Give him a couple years, and he'll be doing Double Cookies, too.

In the end, I finished the double loop in less than 8.5 hours, with a riding average of 17 mph, and was home by 6:00. A thoroughly excellent day on the bike!

The rest of my pictures are here