DC Randonneurs Tappahannock 200k ride report

Warning: You might be offended by this ride report if you love mean dogs, Oprah, bike helmets, totalitarian regimes, or Yuppie trucks and have no sense of humor.

Yesterday was Valentine's Day. Also the first DC Randonneurs 200k brevet of the year. I didn't pre-register because I was supposed to go couch shopping, but then I didn't get to ride at all last weekend because of other random errands eating up all the precious winter daylight, and decided that two weekends in a row of no fun and no exercise would turn me into one of those sniveling Oprah Nation husbands who just stands around waiting for his wife to tell him what to do and randomly says "yes dear." So I went on the ride. And my wife Tchula has already forgiven me and bought a couch within the agreed budget, so it was a win-win.

The ride started from Ashland, VA, a small college town north of Richmond that bills itself as "The Center of the Universe." That kind of ridiculous self-promotion is obnoxious when someplace like New York or London does it, because it's actually half-true. Here it's just silly: Ashland is barely the center of Hanover County. It was about a two-hour drive down I-95 in the dark with no traffic, which was fine.

I hadn't written down where to park, and most of the parking spots near the start were labeled "3 hour parking" or "parking for customers of X only", so I parked on the street a few blocks away to guarantee that my car would still be there unticketed when I returned. And then took a slightly roundabout half-mile trip from my car to the start, so that I could cross railroad tracks safely. Yay for pre-ride bonus miles. Of course half a mile is nothing at the start, but I would begrudge it later.

The temperature was just below freezing, so I wore thin and thick long-sleeved bike jerseys, thin and thick bike tights, polypropolene long underwear, cotton and wool socks, and my Lake winter boots. All of that stuff stayed on all day, even as temperatures rose into the 50s, because I wasn't that hot and removing an underneath layer takes time. So the only things I changed were headgear and gloves.

For winter biking headgear I have a ridiculously warm heavy wool hat knitted by my sister Amy, a heavy balaclava, a light hat, and a light balaclava. Unfortunately the warm hat and warm balaclava don't fit under my helmet, so I can't wear them on helmet-required brevets. (I would not at all be surprised if those big heavy hats actually provided as much real crash protection as the typical non-Snell-certified CPSC-self-certified 400-vent 9-gram bicycle helmet, but that's flamewar material among cyclists so I'll stop.) And I mistakenly brought my smaller helmet, which meant I couldn't even stack the light hat and light balaclava, so I just wore the balaclava. Brrrr.

I had my heavy mittens that are comfortable (with bicycle wind chill) from about 15F to 30F, and my lobster-claws that are good from about 40F to 55F. Much of the ride was between 30 and 40, so my hands were either too cold or too hot. So I swapped gloves a lot. Before next winter I need to find some in-between gloves, or else some really light ones that I can layer.

Anyway, it got light around 6:40 and we rolled out at 7, so there was no strict need for lights, but most of us erred on the side of caution and had them on anyway. Yay for safety. I ended up near the back of a big herd and happily stayed there until it split. Then I couldn't resist the urge to go faster and jumped up to the next group, and then to the next. I was thinking about jumping up to the leaders (the usual delusions of grandeur that always make me start too fast) when my hands got really cold. I had mistakenly started with the lobster claws instead of the heavy mittens. I stopped to change gloves and almost everyone passed me and I rode solo for most of the day. (This always happens to me. If you want to stay with the group, you can't stop between controls.)

My first official brevet-underway bonus miles came when we crossed highway 301 and the cue sheet said to go straight. But it wasn't quite straight, it was a little jog to the left. I tried going to the right first, went half a mile looking for the road, half a mile back, then went the correct way. In hindsight, the cue sheet says "Two Frogs on a Bike on R", so clearly I had to cut left, but I have a much harder time navigating on a bike than at my desk. I finally passed two riders, who were going much slower than I was and didn't seem to want to speed up to draft my wheel, so I kept soloing.

There had been no open bathroom at the start, and we'd been told that the convenience store that was the first control might not be open when we got there, so I started looking for an IORF. (Improvised Outdoor Restroom Facility.) The first two likely-looking stretches of woods had enough thorn bushes (a.k.a. Organic No Trespassing Signs) that I gave up, but the third one was fine. This excursion probably cost me another ten minutes, though.

Then I swapped gloves again and plowed ahead at 16 mph to the first control. It had just opened when I got there, so I opted to treat it as a real control (go in, buy something, ask the attendant to sign my brevet card) rather than an info control (write down whatever's on the store's funny sign and go). This cost me another couple of minutes, since I was apparently the first randonneur the clerk had seen so I had to explain the whole brevet card concept, but I did get to drink some yummy new flavor of mixed fruit drink that I hadn't had before. (I should have written it down, because I've already forgotten exactly which fruits and/or artificial fruity flavors it contained. So let's assume it was strawberry kiwi mango watermelon pomegranite MSG disulfate orange and move on.) There were some nice people outside the control who wanted to know about the ride, so I gave them the one-minute no-French-words version. One guy wanted to tell me the optimal roads to get me to Tappahannock faster, and seemed disappointed that I wasn't allowed to waver from the assigned route and take advantage of his local knowledge.

When I flipped my cue sheet, I noticed that the next section featured a "DOG ALERT!!". Scary. But not for a while. The route reversed itself from the control, so I got to wave to one cyclist who was behind me and revel in my not-quite-last status. (I'm a competitive person by nature, but not a very good athlete, so I have to move the goalposts really close to motivate myself to keep trying.) Then I continued along the pretty mostly empty country roads, until I approached the turn from The Trail to Poorhouse Road, thinking about how that was an interesting juxtaposition of a ridiculously pompous golf-course-community-style street name and a almost-too-honest old-timey small-town street name, when I got my unscheduled DOG ALERT for the day.

I love living in Virginia, but I don't like people who let mean dogs run loose, and we have thousands of them in the rural parts of the state. I can't say for sure if this particular dog is actually a biter or just a chaser, because he didn't quite catch me, but he was big and fast and loud and showed a lot of tooth. Cyclists talk about interval training, which means going really hard for a bit, then slow long enough to recover, rather than just medium speed all the time. I hadn't really planned on doing any intervals during this brevet, but thanks to this dog I got to do a couple. He came from my right side and blocked my right turn, so I went straight as fast as I could until he stopped chasing, which was about half a mile. And then I was off course. I had to go back through that doggie's territory again to get back on course. So I proceded at moderate speed but in a high gear, ready to sprint, until I saw him. He was sitting under a tree in his yard a bit to my right, and I needed to go left, so I gunned it so that he'd have to chase me instead of maybe tripping me. And he bolted after me, even faster than before. I was going about 26 and he caught right up, slavering and barking, and I sped up to as fast as I could go, probably 28 or 29 but I was too busy to look, and he stayed with me up to the edge of his territory. But he never actually bit me, so maybe he was just a scary chaser not an actual biter. Or maybe he was waiting until I fell off the bike and presented a softer target before he started biting. I didn't call the cops because it didn't actually bite me so I didn't think they'd actually do anything, and I probably would have lost an hour dealing with them, but if I'd been armed I would have shot that dog.

Anyway, I have even more respect for the pro stage race sprinters who ride a couple of hundred kilometers in a stage race then sprint to 60 kph or whatever crazy speed at the finish. Because what little sprint I have was definitely off just 50 miles into a brevet. And I was definitely motivated. That dog may have a future in coaching. (I shouldn't say things like that. It might give the Chinese Olympic team ideas. So just in case this is somehow readable past the Great Firewall, let me point out that the East Germans already tried this before the 1980 Moscow Olympics and it made their four-year-old future sprinters slower not faster, due to stress. So please stick to steroids and fake IDs and don't sic mean dogs on your child athletes. Thanks.)

Needless to say, when I got to the marked "DOG ALERT!!" spot on the cue sheet a few miles later, I was nervous and jumping at shadows. But the dog wasn't there.

I saw several other loose dogs along the route. A pair were just running around in the road non-threateningly but I slowed down gave them a wide berth to pass, and then some kind of CAFE-loophole vehicle (I honestly can't remember which passenger-moving-vehicles-classified-as-trucks-to-exploit-loopholes-in-the-safety-and-fuel-economy-laws-that-Congress-is-too-stupid-or-corrupt-to-fix are marketed as SUVs and which ones are marketed as crossovers so I just call them all shitboxes) came up behind and completely stopped and honked at them until they got out of the road, then blazed by me a few minutes later. I found that amusing. I can't put the exact reason into words very well, but start with the analogy "dog : bike :: bike : shitbox", but then add in the fact that the shitbox has to also deal directly with the dogs, so you get to put "squared" in there somewhere. (Superscript numbers are funny. I don't know why.)

Another pair of big dogs were standing in their yard like statues (so still that I wasn't sure if they were real dogs until I got closer), and when I reached them they started pacing me, but in their yard rather than in the road, and without barking. No problem; always glad to help well-trained and/or invisibly fenced and/or nice dogs get their exercise. Later there was a collie that also paced me from its yard, and this one barked the whole time like it really wanted to scare me, but it was too small with too high-pitched a bark to be even a bit scary and ended up just being cute. I sped up a bit just to help its self-esteem. Finally, there was one more dog near the Mattaponi river bridge that actually did come into the road to chase me, but it was also pretty small and not that fast so I just sped up a bit with a smile. One you've been threatened by Mike Tyson, Joe Pesci talking smack just isn't the same.

That concludes the extended Animal Planet section of this ride report. I continued to the turnaround point at Tappahannock (a very amusing name, for a town on the Rappahannock River. It's like they wanted to call it Rappahannocktown but decided that was too long and just changed the 'R' to a 'T' instead) with no further drama. Except that I missed two more turns and added about 1/4 of a bonus mile each time. (I'm so used to missing turns that every time I go past an intersection I double check the cue sheet, so I often overshoot by just a bit.) When I got to the turnaround control there were several cyclists eating lunch. I checked to make sure none of them had been bit by the mean dog, but apparently nobody else had even seen it. So maybe it only chases solo cyclists, or cyclists with red helmets, or it was inside watching TV or mauling children until just before I got there. So if I'd been a bit faster I could have avoided all that fun. I asked for a sandwich to go, in hopes of making up some time and maybe catching a group, and the extra-nice super-efficient staff of Java Jack's got me a surprisingly excellent chicken salad sandwich in about 30 seconds. That place doesn't look like much on the outside, but if I'm ever hungry again in the vicinity of Tappahannock I'm definitely going back.

Unforunately I don't think I ate enough lunch, and I'd only brought a bunch of 90-calorie granola bars instead of Clif Bars (fewer calories is good for overweight people snacking when they really shouldn't, less good for someone riding all day and actually burning thousands of calories), because my average speed dropped to about 12 mph and I lacked the will to go much faster. The dreaded bonk, when you've exhaused the glycogen in your muscles and have to burn body fat for energy instead. So I ate all my remaining emergency food, and drank more water than I wanted, and kept plodding along waiting for my digestive system to extract those carbs and let me go faster again.

It's good that the eastern part of Virginia is pretty flat, because if this ride had featured any serious hills I may have quit. Riding with the bonk is no fun. I pass 12 mph cyclists all the time. Most of them are just cruising along enjoying the scenery and not really caring how fast they go, which is great. But it's sad when you pass a guy on a multi-thousand-dollar carbon fiber wonder bike wearing the full Lance Armstrong team uniform (whenever his team switches names they buy new clothes to match, so they've got lots of blue USPS and Discovery in the closet and are now wearing Astana white) looking like he's trying yet going that slowly. I'm a halfway-nice guy so I don't actually scream "poseur" as I pass, but I think it. And now I was going that slow. I'm allowed to be mean to myself so I'll say it: Poseur. (Notes to self: eat a bigger breakfast. Stop longer for lunch. Bring real Clif bars. Maybe even fill the bottles with Gatorade instead of water.)

The penultimate control was a convenience store, with 3 little kids outside asking questions. They have to go to school on President's Day to make up an extra snow day. I'd feel sorry for them if I got President's Day off, but I don't. And they probably had a lot more fun playing in the snow than they would on a regular old not-important-enough-to-not-move-to-Monday-for-convenience holiday, anyway. And they asked lots of perceptive bike questions, like whether it's hard to balance while pulling out your water bottle (depends on how good your balance is and how much you practice, but almost everyone who rides a lot can do it easily), and why I was eating ice cream in February (I'm going for maximum calories and this store doesn't have any Clif Bars), and why 30-some cyclists are in front of me and I'm by myself (I stopped to change gloves and then I got lost and then a dog tried to kill me and then I bonked and now I'm talking to you kids instead of riding).

Hanging around talking to nice kids was more fun than riding in a bonked state, but slightly slower, so I eventually said goodbye and slowly rode away. After what felt like several hours of plodding along at walking speed, I got to the unpaved part of the route. We took route 54 out of Ashland at 7 a.m., but that's the main drag into town and gets busy later in the day. Plus a loop is better than an out-and-back because it lets you see more scenery. So the organizers gave us 5 unpaved miles. I was a bit worried about riding an unpaved road on 23mm tires, and actually considered bringing my touring bike, but Hickory Hill Road was fine. Half of it was just hard-packed dirt with hardly any gravel, which is about as good as a paved road as long as it's dry. The other half was gravel, which isn't fun on a road bike, but it was shallow enough that there was no real risk of falling. The only bonus fun was when a logging truck came charging down the center of the road in a gigantic cloud of dust, out of the late-afternoon sun toward the southwest. I didn't know if he saw me, so I prepared to bail off-road to the right. But he saw me and slowed down and got on his side, so I didn't have to. Let me compliment the drivers of this part of Virginia: I didn't have a single problem with any of them during this ride. Not one rude honk, screamed dumbass comment, or fast buzz inside the 2-foot legal limit (or even the 3-foot limit from more bike-friendly states). If they'd keep their damn attack dogs inside their yards, I might even think of it as a nice area to retire to someday.

We had an info control to prove we took the dirt road. We were supposed to identify the animal on a farm sign 1 mile past the railroad track. 0.9 miles past the track was a farm sign, so I kept doing. Then about 1.1 miles past the track I realized there were no more farm signs and that was the one, so I dug out my brevet card. But by then I'd forgotten whether it was a cow or a bull, so I rode back. Teats, so definitely a cow. Oops, no pen (it's on the checklist that I made but forgot to check) so I have to remember "cow" all the way to the end. Cow cow cow. See, I can do bonus miles without even taking a wrong turn. It's a gift. Cow cow.

A really nice house appeared on the right, and (coincidentally I'm sure) the road suddenly became paved, and it was clear sailing from there. At the "Ashland Corporate Limit" sign the road quality improved again. Then a mile down US 1 (fast but uncrowded and four lanes so fine) and a few turns through the Randolph Macon college campus (pretty but small) and I was done. Average speed: 14.6 mph. Much slower than I'd been on much hillier brevets. Some of that was the bonk, and some was riding almost the whole thing solo, but probably most was winter unfitness. (I've been commuting through the winter except on snowy or icy days, but there's a big difference between 10-mile rides and 130-mile rides.) So I need to do some more long hard rides before the next brevet.

The ride ended at Ashland Coffee & Tea, which seemed like a really nice college town coffee shop slash restaurant slash poetry reading zone. The kind of ambience that Potbelly's tries hard to imitate but can't quite pull off. (Even the bathroom had hipster decorations featuring the exciting adventures of a wandering coffee mug. Though, frankly, this was trying way too hard because it had me at "indoors.") Unfortunately, the big pile of emergency granola bars that I'd eaten to defeat the bonk had all hit me by this time, so I had absolutely no appetite for actual food. But it looked good and I'll be sure to eat there next time I'm in Ashland.

The drive up I-95 at 5 p.m. is much worse than at 4 a.m. Three lanes, all of them going way faster than the speed limit, with way too little following distance, and with no lane discipline so the yahoos who want to go 90 instead of merely 80 are holeshooting every which way, doing their best to cause a 30-car pileup that would be a minor hit on YouTube if a traffic camera caught it. Luckily none of them succeeded, so I got home okay.

Overall, it was an excellent ride. We got fabulous weather for February. The course was almost flat and easy to navigate. The volunteers did a great job. The dog didn't actually bite me. So most of the grumpyness in this post is directed at myself, for being too disorganized and too out of shape to enjoy a wonderful bike ride as much as I should. Someday I'll figure out how to start with the right clothes and eat and drink the right amounts.