DC Randonneurs Civil War Tour 200km Brevet Ride Report

I tried signing up for the Baltimore Bike Club's Civil War Century last year, but it was full.  I thought of trying again this year, but then DC Randonneurs announced this 200k brevet, with the same theme (ride around Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields and the nice rural Maryland and southern PA roads between them) but 30 more miles of riding, a much smaller crowd, and a lower price.  (At the usual cost of no SAG wagon, no T-shirt, convenience stores instead of staffed rest stops, and more paperwork.)

On my last couple of brevets, I went too fast too early and had food and drink issues.  So my goal for this one was to pace myself early, eat and drink the right amount of the right stuff at the right time, and finish in a reasonable time feeling okay.

I went through my brevet checklist the night before and remembered to pack most of the stuff on it.  (Somehow I forgot my spare tire but didn't need it.)  Highs were predicted to be in the 70s, so there was no need for a CamelBak.  (Lots of riders had one anyway, but I prefer bottles.)  I also drove my car for an errand the night before, since I hadn't driven it in two weeks and wanted to make sure it would start.

I woke up at 5 a.m., ate a very small bowl of cereal for breakfast (eating too much before the ride in an attempt to ward off bonk may have contributed to stomach trouble on previous brevets), and left the house by 6.  The drive up Route 15 to Frederick at 6 a.m. was uneventful, with little traffic.  I didn't get lost, arrived 15 minutes early for the start of the ride, and was preregistered so I just needed to sign the waiver and the emergency contact sheet and grab a map and a backup cue sheet.  I didn't end up needing the map, but I appreciated the overview it gave of the route, and it may have been useful if I got seriously lost like on the 400k.

About 35 riders left together at 7 a.m.  There was an information control right off Urbana Pike, only three tenths of a mile from the start.  I guess that was the "make sure you didn't forget your pen because you'll need it later" control.  There was a monument there saying that this is where the Lee wrote the order to split his forces so that he could both invade Maryland and capture Harpers Ferry simultaneously.  Some Confederate officer (it's not conclusively proven who, though many historians and Civil War buffs have a prime suspect) lost the order (which was not encrypted), some Union troops found it and were smart enough to read it and figure out that it might be important and pass it up the chain of command, and then even McClellan was able to figure out that he should attack half of Lee's army while the other half was away.  Which led to the Battle of Antietam / Sharpsburg.

So after we all wrote down the answer we remounted and proceeded west as the usual large early-brevet group.  A small group of fast riders split off the front and I managed to stick with the plan and avoid chasing them.  By the time we reached Mar-Lu ridge, the steepest climb of the ride (yay for having the steepest climb near the beginning) I was with about 20 riders.  Of course the climb fractured the group.  I'm not a good climber by randonneur standards, and I didn't have my climbing legs that day, and I was supposed to be taking it easy early.  So I went over it nice and slow (7 mph) near the back of the group.  I was pleased to note that my bike stayed in my lowest gear rather than popping out of it like it had last time; my cable adjustment had worked.  Shifting back up to the big ring at the summit took a couple of tries, but I didn't throw the chain off to the outside, then or later in the ride, so the front derailleur high limit adjustment worked too.

On the big fast descent down Mar-Lu the last couple of riders in the group passed me (yep, I'm still a wimpy descender), so I got to ride alone for a while.  I eventually realized that I hadn't eaten anything yet so I ate a Clif Bar.  Approaching Burkittsville I remembered that the descent down Townsend Road is shady and bumpy, so I put my sunglasses away during the climb so I'd be able to see the bumps.  I caught a couple of the riders who had passed me on the descent.  Once again we rode down Burnside Bridge Road and once again I failed to actually see the bridge, but I wasn't looking very hard.

The first control was in Sharpsburg, and there were a bunch of riders still there when I arrived, so I hadn't been too far off the back of the second big group.  I controlled as quickly as possible so that I could leave with people who'd arrived ahead of me.  I bought a 32-oz. Gatorade, drank some of it, ate a Gu packet (Chocolate Outrage, which isn't as yummy as the Vanilla Bean, which is why I had some of it left) and refilled my water bottle with the rest of the Gatorade.  Then I left following Chuck and Crista and Mark, with a whole bunch of others a bit ahead or a bit behind.

We entered Antietam Battlefield Park and immediately hit another info control.  This one was more challenging because there were a whole bunch of statues and plaques and signs in the immediate vicinity so we had to find the right one.  Luckily we had a bunch of riders so it only took a couple of minutes to divide and conquer.  Mark found the right sign and we all wrote down the answer and took off down the pretty battlefield roads.  I found myself at the front of our little group and decided to do my fair share of navigating for the day, while it was flat and I still had energy.  Before we even left the battlefield, there was a secret control, Bill and Keith with a DC Randonneurs sign off to the side of the road.  Because I'd been leading I made it through this bottleneck first, and I kept going rather than waiting for the rest.  So I got to ride my usual too-fast early pace for a while, even though my goal was to avoid that.

I was soon out of the battlefield and onto MD 34 for a long stretch.  Somewhere along there I got caught by Chuck and Crista and Mark and Bennett, so I clearly hadn't been going too ridiculously fast on my little solo escapade.  We all rode together for a while, then Mark fell off the back.  He hadn't said anything about a problem so I figured he was just wanted a slightly slower pace and we'd see him again later.  Eventually we reached Raven Rock Drive, for a 5.8 mile gradual climb on a nice, wide, smooth shoulder.  Thank you Maryland for putting these wonderful shoulders on some of your highways.

We weren't going all that fast, but long hills tend to separate groups.  Bennett went off the front and then I went off the back and then I re-passed Chuck and Crista when they stopped for a nature break, and then they passed me back when I took my turn to water the local trees.  And then all the randonneurs were out of sight but I caught a local rider and talked to him for a bit.  It's against brevet rules to draft off someone who's not in the ride, but the shoulder was wide enough to ride two abreast, which I figured was okay.  Anyway, the guy said he'd had a heart attack two years before and now rode 30 miles per day to keep his heart healthy.  And we were having this conversation on a 5.8-mile climb, and he was keeping up with my pace despite being at least a couple of decades older and having the aforementioned heart history (though he did have the advantages of being skinnier than me and on a nicer lighter bike with less baggage), so I've got another guy to add to the people I want to be like when I grow up list.

Somewhere near the Pennsylvania border, I started slowing down due to creeping fatigue, and Mark caught me from behind.  I sped up a bit to match his pace, figuring it would be good to have the navigational aid through Gettysburg Battlefield, which features road signs that tend to be pretty rather than usefully placed.  (For example, they don't necessarily put them at intersections.) As we entered the park we got caught up in battlefield tourist traffic, lots of people driving really slowly and trying to see the sights without getting out of their cars.  Scary.  It's weird for me to be on a bike, being held up by cars.  (I guess it's common in city traffic but I mostly ride in the suburbs.)  It's unfortunately not at all unusual to be on a bike, being endangered by cars who are paying attention to something other than the fact that they are driving two-ton machines that can easily kill people.  But here they were doing their stupid dance in slow motion.

While dodging the Sunday drivers on Saturday, we were brought to a stop by a fake World War 2 MPs leading a convoy of WW2-style vehicles.  No tanks, unfortunately, just old motorcycles and old Jeeps, all painted olive drab, with drivers and passengers in WW2 US Army fatigues.  One of the jeeps had a machine gun, probably fake or inoperable.  We're used to seeing reenactors in Gettysburg, but these guys had the wrong war by 80 years.  After we escaped from the parade and finished telling all the obvious jokes, we missed the next turn.  Luckily Mark figured it out pretty quickly so we only got about a quarter of a bonus mile, and then rode out of the park and into the city for the second real control at a 7-11.

I'd been fading so I decided I needed some real food.  Since it was a 7-11 my choices were somewhat limited, but I got a decent-sized Jalapeno turkey wrap (I eat hot food all the time so I didn't think mere Jalapenos would be a problem), some Doritos (because they were free with the wrap, and I needed calories and salt couldn't hurt), a bottle of chocolate milk, and a big jug of water.  It took a while to wolf all that down and rest the legs a bit, and then we were off to re-enter the battlefield and be endangered by more tourists.  (We heard later that Tyler got hit by one of these menaces.  Sounds like it was a low-speed incident and he's okay, but he couldn't finish the ride.)  There was of course another information control on the battlefield. The question was amusing: what's the fine for defacing this statue? George caught up with Mark and me around that control, and the three of us continued together out of the park and back toward Maryland.

We must not have been going that fast, because we got caught from behind first by Roger, and then by a couple of other guys. Maybe they were riding fast and controlling slow. Anyway, adding more riders picked up the pace of the group, and eventually I started falling off the back and fighting to catch back up, and then decided to stop fighting and let the group go. I was tired enough that I was coasting on all the downhills and easing up the climbs, and I was spending most of my time riding on the tops rather than the hoods or the drops for comfort, but my head was clear so I figured it was just fatigue, not dehydration or bonk. So I ate a bit more and drank a bit more just to be sure, and made an extra stop for more Gatorade at 110 miles just to be extra sure I wouldn't run dry before the end, and finished 20 minutes behind Mark and 25 behind George. That's a lot of time to lose in just the last 30 miles, but when you're out of gas you're out of gas. And 9h38m was actually my second-fastest finish for a 200k, so I don't think I did that badly.

All in all, it was a good ride. There were a lot of information controls, which we all joked about, but they needed to be there to avoid shortcuts, and with the exception of the one in an overly sign-infested part of Antietam, they were quick on-offs.

My only real complaint was the amount of traffic in Gettysburg Battlefield, and moreover how incredibly clueless and distracted most of the drivers were. Seriously, it was like a gigantic mall or church or elementary school parking lot that went on for miles. I really think they should close the roads within the park to private vehicle traffic, since most of the drivers seem focused on sightseeing not driving, and a two-ton vehicle with an inattentive driver is deadly. Let them walk or ride bikes or Segways or ride in tour buses driven by someone who's already seen the sights. Anyway, I'm not enthusiastic about riding there again on a nice summer weekend. (I hear it's much less crowded on weekdays or away from tourist season.)

Other random stuff:

I saw 5 dead snakes on this ride. Coincidence, or do a lot of snakes die at the end of the summer? (On a semi-related note, I ran over a live snake on the W&OD trail today on the way to work. Saw it right before I hit it, but had no time to swerve. Third time that's happened to me. I hope it's okay.)

In addition to the ubiquitous split-rail fences, I saw one unmortared stone fence in Gettysburg, like the ones you see in upscale Virginia horse country. I had always assumed that such fences were too labor-intensive to economically build without slave labor, but Pennsylvania was a free state, so maybe not. Or maybe it wasn't economically sound but rather a form of conspicuous consumption, the 18th-century equivalent of a Ferrari or a private jet?