DC Randonneurs Wilderness Campaign 200 km brevet

The 200 km Wilderness Campaign route through some Virginia Civil War battlefields (Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville) had been a popular permanent, but this was the first time it was run as a brevet. 30+ riders showed up, not bad for March. The weather was forecast to be unseasonably nice, which didn't hurt.

I hadn't done a long ride since early December, and I'd been traveling in California last week without a bike, so I didn't even have my usual 125 miles of weekly commuting to build on. So I was a bit worried that I'd show up but my legs wouldn't. Luckily it was only 200 km, so I figured I'd be okay as long as I didn't do anything completely stupid.

The start was at a Caribou Coffee in Bristow VA, a few miles southwest of Manassas. When I was a kid, Bristow was all farms. Now it's an exurb, and there's been so much new construction lately that my older GPS didn't know half the roads and kept getting confused and thinking I was off-roading. I hadn't actually printed out directions or anything, relying on the GPS, so I was a bit worried about missing the start, but I eventually found some roads that were older than my GPS and made it to the start with about 15 minutes to spare. I was pre-registered, so I was ready to go in plenty of time.

It was about 45 F at the start, cold enough that I had tights and a balaclava and a long-sleeve jersey, over the summer clothes I'd need later in the day. (There were a few he-men who wore shorts from the start, but I would rather carry a bag to stuff my tights in than have a lighter bike but frozen knees.) I started off near the front, behind the usual leaders Greg and Andrea. The lack of hills near the start, plus the slower than usual pace of about 18 mph, meant that almost the whole pack stayed together for the first 20 miles. A few cars had a very hard time passing the gigantic group (partly due to people not getting single-file quickly enough, but mostly due to the sheer length of the line combined with twisty roads), and one of them buzzed us unsafely close when he finally got by, so I decided to play safety cop and try to split things up.

I went off the front hard, not actually thinking I could actually stay there for long (not with Greg and Andrea and Chip chasing), but to try to drop the slower half of the pack off the back. I only managed to break away for a little while before Chip caught me, but then we hammered up there together for a couple of miles, until I looked back and there were only about a dozen riders left. Mission accomplished. At that point I was hot and worried my legs wouldn't last much longer, so I dropped back to the newly formed second group to chat. But with the morning rapidly warming, the brief exertion had me sweating hard, and the first control wasn't for over 20 more miles, so I decided to stop and strip.

After taking off the balaclava and heavy jersey, putting my ugly fluorescent green reflective vest back on in honor of St. Patrick's Day, and unwrapping a Clif Bar, I resumed riding, alone and at a much saner pace. I didn't see anyone from the two groups ahead until the first control in Locust Grove at mile 48. I did, however, encounter an old lady in a Suburban, who rolled down her window at a traffic light to tell me that it really wasn't safe to be riding a bike on these roads and that I'd probably be killed. (This was on a road that was fairly low-traffic that was actually signed as a designated bike route.) Sigh.

At the first control I got my card signed, bought a bottle of Gatorade to refill the one I'd finished (the other bottle was still full), ate a vanilla Gu packet, and got right back on the bike, "passing" a bunch of riders who were taking an extended break. (It takes hard work and athletic ability to ride hard, but anyone can go through a control fast, even me.) I rode alone down busy Route 20 (which annoyingly alternated between a decent half-shoulder, an insufficient quarter-shoulder, and no shoulder at all) until the entrance to Spotsylvania Battlefield.

Spotsylvania Battlefield is a very nice place to ride. The roads had a bunch of pedestrians but very few cars. (Unlike, say, Gettysburg, which is swarmed with cars, most of whose drivers are paying more attention to the memorials than the road.) The signage isn't so great, though, so it's a challenge to stay on course. And some of the roads are one-way, so if you do go off course it's a problem. I somehow managed not to make any wrong turns, and came out of the battlefield onto busy VA 208, then made it across two lanes of fast traffic to the left turn lane leading into Spotsylvania at mile 68, a bit more than halfway through the ride.

Spotsylvania was an open control, meaning we could eat wherever we wanted, but I didn't know the town so I just stopped at the 7-11. The cue sheet said "no services for 37 miles" so I bought two big bottles of Gatorade, filled both my bottles to the brim, and forced myself to drink all the rest. I also bought an Italian sub, which was pretty good by 7-11 standards. Once again I "passed" several riders who were resting at the control, as part of my goal to make up for slow riding with fast stops. (It doesn't really matter for a 200, but I'm planning ahead for the 600, where every minute I waste during the day is a minute I don't get to sleep that night.) By then it was downright warm, so I took off my tights and wool socks and vest and was down to just summer bike clothes. (At that point I also should have put on sunblock, but I didn't think of it, since my brain was still in winter mode.)

After leaving Spotsylvania I rode another 10 miles to Chancellorsville Battlefield, paying close attention to my liquid consumption to avoid running dry before the 37 miles were up. Over-drinking at the 7-11 seemed to help, as I wasn't thirsty yet even thought it was getting warm, but I did have to stop to water some trees. There was a nice long stretch on Elys Ford Road, then some less nice bumpy descents, and then I passed the Inn at Kelly's Ford (which is technically services within 37 miles, but since it's a fairly spiffy restaurant it's maybe not appropriate to just run in to grab water), and finally missed the right turn onto 620 despite the cue sheet marking it as easy to miss. Fortunately I realized I'd missed it after only about a tenth of a mile, no big deal.

By mile 100 my arms (not my legs!) were aching. I was switching hand positions constantly but it didn't help much. I'm starting to understand the appeal of R-12 — by forcing yourself to ride a 200 every month, you never need to do a get-back-in-shape 200 where something invariably hurts. I still had half a bottle left, so I was able to skip the first couple of stores and make it to the mile 112 control in Bristerburg. Three riders caught me within sight of the control, and I rode in right behind them. With only 17 miles left, I bought two small bottles of Gatorade to refill my bottles, figuring I probably wouldn't finish them but better safe than sorry. Then I left quickly, with the goal of not being caught again until the end.

The last 17 miles hurt. I was having a hard time maintaining even 16 mph, despite the lack of significant hills or wind. Another cyclist (unaffiliated with our group) and I approached the red light at Route 28 and Fitzwater Road from opposite sides, and signed our displeasure that neither of our bikes set off its sensors. It would have been legal for either of us to treat the defective signal as a stop sign and proceed, but visibility isn't great there and traffic on 28 is sometimes very fast, so we waited for a couple of minutes until a car came up behind me and tripped the sensor. I was sure the three riders who I'd left at the last control would catch me at the light, but they didn't, and I rode the last 5 miles with horse-approaching barn speed (okay, very-tired-old-nag-approaching-barn speed) in an attempt to finish in less than 9 hours and not get caught again. I finished in 8:57, pretty slow for this very easy 200, but good enough.

Lessons learned? Do more long rides in the winter, to keep from losing my endurance before spring brevet season. Break up and/or get out of 20+ rider packs in populated areas earlier, for everyone's safety. Buy some 32-ounce water bottles and bring them the next time there are 37 miles between services. (I have a Camelbak, but I hate riding with one on my back, and it was March so I didn't think I'd need it.) Always bring sunscreen, even in March. (I'm a bit pink today.)