DC Randonneurs Frederick 400k ride report

My long-ride goal for this year was a 300 km brevet. But due to scheduling conflicts, I missed all three local 300k brevets this spring, so I had to either admit defeat or step up to a 400k. I'm pretty stubborn, so I signed up for a ride almost twice as long as I'd ever done in one day, not really knowing if I could finish it.

The fear of not finishing actually motivated me to prepare for the ride. I bike commute 10 miles each way, almost every day, but experience has proven that being good at 10-mile rides does not translate to being good at long rides. So over the last few weeks I did two half-centuries around the hilly western end of Loudoun County, some mountain biking, and Crista's May Your Pain Be Exquisite century that featured a hill steep enough that two skilled cyclists tipped over backwards. I rotated my handlebars back a bit so that the hoods were a bit closer and easier to use when I got tired. I bought a second Polar water bottle since slightly colder water is good. I bought some Clif Bars and some Gu in case I needed calories between controls. I adjusted my front derailleur's high limit screw to make sure that it wouldn't throw the chain off going up to the big ring. And I packed 3 tubes and a patch kit.

In order to use all available daylight, the ride started at 4 a.m. It takes me about 45 minutes to drive to Frederick with no traffic, and one advantage of a 4 a.m. start is that there's no traffic, so I decided to pack everything the night before, wake up at 2:15, eat a big breakfast and then leave around 2:45, leaving me 30 minutes for tech inspection and registration. But my GPS got confused about the difference between East Patrick St and West Patrick St (or maybe I got it wrong, but I triple-checked it), which cost me about 20 minutes, so as usual I arrived just a couple of minutes before the start and had to scramble to leave with the main group. That was my first mistake of the day. (See Patrick's photo of the whole group ready to leave? I'm the guy in the maroon jersey still getting tech inspected.) Luckily I was pre-registered and the tech inspection (Rudy) and registration (Lynn) were lightning-quick, so I caught the back end of the pack as it pulled out. I didn't have time to put on my helmet light, so I couldn't see the cue sheet, but 30 bikes going the same way can't be wrong.

The pre-dawn ride from Frederick down to Brunswick and then over the bridge into Virginia was fantastic. There's not much traffic on the road that early, and the drivers were pretty patient about passing the big group. Then the route went through Lovettsville and then down Mountain Road toward Hillsboro. I had just ridden most of these roads a couple of weeks ago, so it was fun to actually know where I was for once. (Of course it wouldn't have mattered if I were lost since there were still over 20 bikes in the main group.) The sun came up in time for us to spot a few kamikaze deer jumping back and forth across the road trying to take us out, but we were all awake enough to avoid them without crashing into each other. We took Route 9 west through Hillsboro and then Stony Point / Woodgrove / Airmont (all really the same road, but in Virginia all roads change names every few miles to confuse damnyankee invaders) down through Round Hill to the first control at the Airmont store. The store wasn't open but there was an information control — write down the name of the nice old house or the year it was built or the fraction of its peak value that it's worth now. I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast at home (it was dark, we were going fast, I didn't have my helmet light, and I forgot), so I ate 3 Gu at once to try to catch up. That was my second mistake.

At the control the big group split up, as some people stopped for a few minutes to eat or use the Outdoor Restroom Facility and others took off immediately. But we still had a nice line of riders heading up Snickersville Turnpike. There are fairly evil hills on that road, but it was still early so everyone was at full strength and the climb wasn't that bad. And it led us to Route 7, which is a state road but would pass for an Interstate in many parts of the country. Four lanes, wide median, paved half-shoulders. Snickersville had taken us almost to the top of the Blue Ridge, so we just had a bit more gradual climbing on 7, and then got to bomb down one of the longest and straightest downhills in the area. I'm usually a wussy descender, but even I surpassed 40 mph on this one, and Chuck and Crista's tandem blew by me like I was standing still. Even at that early hour there was traffic on 7, but not too much, and most of them were courteous enough to move over into the left lane to pass us, rather than blowing by at 70 mph 3 feet away. (There were a couple of exceptions.)

We continued west on 7 for a few miles, and down several hundred feet, before turning north into West Virginia a few miles east of Berryville. Eastern West Virginia is a nice place to ride bikes — pretty countryside, not too many people, not too many cars — except for the uneven road surfaces. One road will be glass-smooth, and the next will make you wish for a mountain bike. I guess even Senator Byrd's record Senate seniority can't fund improving 'em all at once. I rode with Russ and Lisa for a bit, then jumped up to Bill and Roger (I always start too fast, which was my third mistake), and then those groups came together and Ed and Mary's tandem joined us. So we had a big enough group that I didn't have to navigate but a small enough group that I didn't have to worry about crashing into anyone. Perfect.

We got to Shepherdstown around breakfast time. The Shepherdstown Sweet Shop is about the worst place in the world for a diabetic or someone trying to watch their weight, which makes it about the best place in the world for an early morning bike stop. There were so many kinds of yummy sweet stuff that I'd never imagine eating for breakfast except on a bike trip that it took me a couple of minutes to decide on a cheese danish and a piece of raspberry cheesecake. I had bonked on my previous two long rides and had decided that it wouldn't happen again — I'd eat until I threw up rather than bonking. Unfortunately my stomach was already a bit off by that point, because it turns out that the suggestion to eat one Gu per 45 minutes is not just a minimum, but also a maximum. The good thing about pure carbs in a gel form is that it's easy to digest and goes to work as fuel quickly. The bad thing about being easy to digest is that it goes right through you, a bit too quickly, if you know what I mean. Also, I was wearing bib shorts, my fourth mistake. In my opinion bibs are a bit more comfortable than bike shorts with elastic, because there's no elastic digging into your waist. But they require disrobing completely to use the bathroom. So on a brevet, where you want to be efficient in the controls, they're not a great idea. That goes double if some of the controls feature the kind of bathrooms where you really don't want to set anything down. And triple if you're having stomach issues that require more than the usual number of bathroom breaks.

Enough about that. The next stage of the ride from Shepherdstown to Hancock was pretty hard. There aren't a lot of serious hills along the south side of the Potomac, but there are a lot of rollers and they add up. Once again I ended up riding with Roger and Russ and Lisa, and we moved at a good clip without getting lost. But the combination of early-ride optimism and the big breakfast got to me — at one point I was leading the paceline, and then I looked back and realized I'd dropped everyone. So I slowed down until they caught up, and then it happened again. I just can't ride a sustained pace on the front. Always too fast or too slow. Maybe I need to wear a mirror so I notice when I'm accidentally pulling away. Eventually I was unsure about a turn on the cue sheet, so I waited a bit for the group to catch up to make sure, and then I stuck myself at the back of the group to keep out of trouble.

We crossed the bridge back into Maryland around lunchtime, and went to our third control at the C&O Canal Bike Shop in Hancock. That place has everything a control needs — outdoor restroom facilities, cold drinks, spare parts, benches in the shade, recumbant bikes in case your saddle area really hurts and you need to change religions in mid-brevet. Lynn had warned us that it was easy to miss the turn off the Western Maryland Rail Trail up a trail through a parking lot and then the wrong way on an I-70 entrance ramp, so I wanted to make sure I was with a decent navigator when I left the control. Roger had already taken off while I was visiting the porta-potty (the Gu-overdose-induced problem stayed with me all day), but Bill hadn't so I left with him. Anyone who uses both a GPS and a cue sheet in parallel is a good bet to not get you lost. Bill would normally be way ahead of me by this time in a brevet, but he was deliberately going slowly to stay fresh for his 600k checkout ride next week. If any fast riders need someone to slow them down, I'm always happy to help. (I'm also happy to help pull slower riders, but I'm not nearly as good at that, since it requires riding a consistent pace and staying on course.)

There was a non-control at a campground near Mercersburg, PA that the cue sheet said had good milkshakes (and cue sheets never lie), so we stopped. Another part of the no-bonk pledge. The milkshakes were indeed good.

After the milkshake stop came the second big climb of the day. It was long but not that steep, and I was still pretty fresh halfway through the ride, and Bill was still taking it easy, so it wasn't that bad. Eventually our big uphill got rewarded with the corresponding big downhill, and we continued northeast through the cow-farm valley toward Newburg. Later we caught up with Ed and Mary on the tandem (they'd deviously skipped the milkshakes to sneak ahead of us), so I had two bikes to follow (I was feeling okay, but no longer full of early-ride excess energy). Then I dropped a chain (ever since I put a compact double on my bike, it drops the chain off to the outside about every hundredth shift up to the big ring, and none of the adjustments I've made have quite cured this), and had to chase hard to catch up. And then I got paranoid about that happening again and chose to ride in the small ring when I really should have been in the big ring. (I know that spinning at 100 rpm builds character, but I'm not Lance Armstrong, and I can only do that for so long until my legs get tired of it.) And then I didn't stop for water at the "last water for 22 miles" because I still had 1.5 bottles left. That was mistake number five of the day, and probably the worst one. It had warmed up to about 80 degrees F, and we were riding in full sun, and I had a black helmet made back in the 1990s when helmet manufacturers still cared more about protection than ventilation. 1.5 bottles would have been enough earlier in the day, or if nothing went wrong, but it didn't give me much margin for error.

Without warning, my rear tire went flat with a loud "POP!" Definitely a burst tube not just a little hole. I was a bit off the back when it happened and the bikes ahead didn't notice, so I was alone. I pushed my bike into the shade of a nearby silo (shade: good; evidence of cow farming all over the ground near the silo: less good). Turned out I had about a six-inch split in my tube. I had inflated it to about 120 psi that morning (better to prevent pinch flats), which is close to the limit for my tires (I usually use 110 psi in the back, 100 psi in the front), and I didn't think about what would happen during the day as the temperature increased. (We now interrupt this ride report for a high school chemistry refresher. Ideal gas law: pv=nRT. Assuming everything stayed constant during the day except pressure and temperature, T at the start was 55F which is 286K, air temperature in the afternoon was 81F but it had to be at least 90F on the road surface which is 305K, and 120 psi * 305K / 286K = 128 psi. So if 120 psi was near the limit, it's not surprising I burst it. Yep, mistake number six.) I repaired the flat but it took a lot longer than usual, because I was getting tired and maybe a bit dehydrated. I continued down the road solo.

I drank all my water (I think that's the right thing to do if you need it; water in your bottle doesn't help like water in your body) and ate some Gu and slogged on to the next control near Newville. I definitely got a bit dehydrated during this stage; my speed dropped and my mood got surly. (It's a bit hard to tell the difference between dehydration and bonk, since they both have a lot of the same symptoms, but I'd eaten so many calories I was pretty sure it wasn't bonk.)

Next time I'm bringing my Camelbak in addition to two bottles. I'd thought of bringing it, but I don't like having weight on my back for long rides, and the weather forecast had said only 80F so I hadn't thought I'd really need it. (Mistake number seven.) I wish Camelbak would sell a big water bag that fits inside the main triangle of the bike, like this one that Sandiway Fong custom-made.

I'd thought I'd need to go all the way to the next control to get water (I wasn't quite desperate enough to start knocking on doors and begging for water, though perhaps I should have been), but then I saw a Pepsi machine off to the side of the road in Newburg. Luckily I had some $1 bills, and it wasn't empty. It took a few tries (why are soda machines so much less reliable than every other modern machine except fast-food intercoms, Christmas lights, and computers that run Windows?), but eventually I got a 20 oz. Pepsi and a 20 oz. Aquafina for $2.40. Normally I'd consider that a complete rip-off, but I was thirsty enough then that it was a total bargain.

A few minutes after re-hydrating my mood and pedaling speed improved. And since I was no longer trying to stay with a group I was less paranoid about dropping my chain and happier to use the big ring. (I don't think I dropped it again all day.) And I saw some Mennonites in old-timey clothes and funny hats on bikes, which I thought was cool. So I pedaled with renewed vigor toward the next control, and promptly turned the wrong way onto Big Spring Road. (Mistake number eight.)

Just in case you don't regularly follow cycling cue sheets, let me summarize the different kinds of turns and their degrees of difficulty. Examples of hard ones are turns on sharp downhills, unlabeled roads, street signs turned the wrong way, hidden little roads that are easily confused with nearby bigger roads, and non-orthogonal intersections with lots of roads at weird angles. Most people miss those sometimes. If the author of the cue sheet thinks that a turn is easy to miss it may be labeled "ETM", so we tend to pay more attention near those ones and miss others instead. But the really easy ones are labeled "T/SS" which means "T intersection at a stop sign." You cannot miss those, because if you keep going you run out of road and hit rocks or trees or something. Yet somehow the cue sheet said R and I turned L. It was 1.3 miles until the next turn, so I pedaled 1.3 miles, into the town of Newville instead of away from it. Because I was in town there were a whole bunch of streets nearby. None was called Springfield Rd., the expected next turn, but there was a Springfield Ave. But it didn't have the "quick steep uphill" that the cue sheet mentioned. Like many men I consider asking for directions an admission of personal failure, so I lapped Newville a few times (mistake number nine) before I finally gave up and called my wife Tchula. I hadn't brought my GPS on the bike, and the route map didn't have the level of detail I needed, but she had Google Maps. (And she had asked me to call anyway to verify that I wasn't dead yet.) Unfortunately her long distance map-fu was not quite up to the task, so I was just as lost after talking to her as before. So I broke down and asked a local couple walking down the sidewalk for directions, and was lucky enough to find someone both nice enough to help and clueful enough about the local geography to point me the right way. And once I got back on route it was only a short, steep climb to the World's Best Control.

This route featured several really good controls. The Shepherdstown Sweet Shop is right up there due to the quality and variety of the food and drinks. And the C&O bike store features not only provisions but actual bike parts. But the log cabin control run by Ray and Denise and their daughter was off the charts. It had about 10 kinds of excellent food, indoor plumbing (and an entertaining steep twisty stair climb up to it, probably great for the guys who insist on wearing road bike shoes instead of much more walkable mountain bike shoes), and a nice shady yard with a pool. When I told Ray that I'd had a flat he indicated that he also had spare tubes, but I still had two left so I didn't think I'd need one. I spent way too long at this control, ate and drank a ton, and finally headed out toward the day's third and worst major climb.

I followed Jim and George, who were leaving at the same time, but on the first steep downhill I hit a bump and "POP", flat number two of the day. This time in the front tire, so at least it couldn't be something I caused when fixing the previous flat. Again, I found a shady spot, this time against a nice tree in a farm house's front yard, with no unpleasant byproducts of cow farming in sight. By the time I had the tire out, the farmer from across the street had ambled over to talk to me. Really nice older gentleman. I now know a whole lot more about cows and this part of Pennsylvania than I did before. For example, when they built I-81 in 1962 they split his farm in half, but that's okay because Herefords don't really got along with Angus. I finished fixing the flat, and took off the pump, and it took the end of the Presta valve with it and all the air whooshed out. (I was probably too rough with the frame pump. Maybe because I was tired, maybe because I was distracted by the entertaining conversation. Anyway, that's mistake number ten.) So I had to fix the flat twice. Good thing I brought three tubes. Now I had to baby my tires for the rest of the ride, or at least until I caught up with another rider who might have an extra tube. (I did have a patch kit, but patching a flat and waiting for the glue to dry is about the last thing I felt like doing at that point. And not all flats are patchable; one of the two dead tubes I was now carrying had a six-inch gash in it and the other had a failed valve.)

If you look at a map of south central Pennsylvania, you see places where people live like Shippensburg and Harrisburg and Gettysburg, separated by places where not many people live because there are big tall rocks in the way. Unfortunately the direct route from Newville to Gettysburg goes through Pine Grove Furnace State Park, which is a nice place to ride if you have a motorcycle. Not so much on a bicycle with darkness approaching and 180 miles in your legs. PA 233 climbs from 500' up to 800', then descends to 650', then up to 1300', then back down to 900', then up to 1600', then finally plunges down for real. It's not just the amount of climbing that's annoying, but the way it taunts you into thinking you're done, before sticking another big uphill in your face. And they call this climb Big Flat, for another small kick in the ego. By the time I reached the final big descent it was getting dark, so limited light and no more tubes meant I had to ride the brakes all the way down, making sure I didn't hit any potholes. And it got cold, at least with the downhill wind.

While I was putting on my arm warmers and long-fingered gloves and tights, Russ and Lisa went by. I hadn't seen them since lunchtime, and between the flats and the missed turn I'd figured that I was the last rider. So I tried to chase them pretty hard toward Gettysburg. But I didn't have much energy left, so I couldn't catch up. Except that there was a fireworks show at the battlefield, which they stopped to watch, so I caught up there. Never got to watch fireworks on a bike ride before. Fantastic. But I had a near miss with a car after the fireworks show — some lady in a hurry to beat all the other spectators out of the parking area almost backed up into me. I should have stopped and let her back out rather than trusting her to check her mirrors and see me. (Mistake number eleven.) Too many hours in the saddle were definitely affecting my judgment. Luckily I dodged her, but it was close.

The three of us headed into the town of Gettysburg, to the final control at a 7-11. I'd only been to the town a couple of times before as a kid, and thought of it as small and sleepy. Well, downtown Gettysburg these days is one happening place. There were dozens of people wandering around, including a horde of tourists being led on a walking tour by a woman in old-timey clothes with a lantern. Plus plenty of teenagers in stupidly decorated cars with flatulent-sounding exhausts blasting stupid music. Like something out of a bad sequel to American Graffitti. I wonder why their downtown is so much more lively than most small cities' downtowns? Maybe they don't have a big soul-destroying mall yet because all the places they could put it are part of the battlefield park? It was crowded enough that I decided to guard the bikes while Russ and Lisa got coffee. My stomach had reached the point where I decided not to eat anything more, and even water didn't seem that great an idea. We spent a while at the control while Russ switched the batteries in his headlight, and then we left to do the last 40 miles.

40 miles isn't that far, but I'd never ridden a double century before, so it hurt. I was okay until Thurmont, then I started falling off the back and then sprinting to catch back up. About 10 miles from the end I decided to stop trying to catch back up, and just ride in as slowly as possible. With that short a distance I could walk in and still make the 7 a.m. time limit, but I rode instead for pride's sake. Surprisingly, a mile from the end I heard bikes coming up from behind. I figured it was George and Nick and Jan, who had come into the Gettysburg control behind us right before we left, but it was Russ and Lisa again. They'd taken a wrong turn near the end.

After checking in at the end-of-ride control, I pondered getting a room and staying in Frederick, but I was wide awake and preferred to drive home and sleep in my own bed. But driving doesn't keep the adrenaline flowing to keep you awake the same way that riding a bike does, so the fatigue hit me hard halfway home. I was able to keep myself awake by turning up the stereo and tunelessly screaming along, but it wasn't a fun drive. (Even though nothing bad came of it, this counts as mistake number twelve.)

Anyway, I finished, and I didn't hurt myself, so it was a good ride. But the second half was hard and I really was pretty close to not finishing a couple of times. I am so not doing the 600k in two weeks, but I plan to ride the full 200/300/400/600 series next year, and I'll try to make fewer or at least more entertaining mistakes next time.

On a sad note, Keith was hit on this ride, in Frederick about 5 miles from the finish. He doesn't know who or what hit him, and I'll avoid speculating without evidence. Sounds like he'll be okay, because while he was unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was lucky to be knocked into the yard of a nice family who heard the crash and helped him out and called the EMTs. Get well soon Keith.

Thanks as always to the organizers and the volunteers and everyone who rode with me. Also to the people who gave me directions in Newville and the farmer who entertained me with stories while I entertained him by showing the slowest possible way to fix a flat tire (twice). And to the thousands of decent drivers who didn't needlessly buzz us, checked their mirrors before backing up, and didn't have seven or eight beers before driving home. And the deer who pranced across the road far enough ahead of us that we had time to miss them. And especially to the family who helped Keith.