ROMA Seneca Rocks 400km Brevet

I missed the DC Randonneurs 400k this spring (because the forecast said 95 degrees and I was worried about dying of heatstroke), but finished the 600k, so I needed a 400 to finish a Super Randonneur series. I was torn between doing the ROMA September 400 (close to home, but really hilly) or the North Carolina October 400 (farther away, but not as hilly). I eventually decided to do the ROMA ride, since if I failed to finish, I could always do the NC ride later.

I talked to Chris about this ride, since he does a lot of ROMA rides. He said the climb over Lost River State Park was much harder than Edinburg Gap, Wolf Gap, and Mill Gap. Also that the cue sheet was missing a street name near the end, and that it would take close to the 27-hour time limit to do the ride. Ugh.

The only thing I changed on my bike since the previous week's 200 was the bar tape. I'd meant to put on a chain catcher, since I dropped my chain once to the inside during the 200, but forgot. I pumped up the tires and lubed the chain and just threw everything in the car. The forecast said pleasant weather, but I brought some tights and arm warmers and full gloves and a rain jacket anyway, because it can get chilly overnight in the mountains, especially on the descents. I felt kind of silly packing such a heavy bag full of clothes, but it beats freezing.

The ride started at the Super 8 in Front Royal, Virginia. The Super 8 was cheap enough that I got a room for two nights. I always want a room the night after a 400 (unless it's *really* close to home like the Leesburg 400) because I get really sleepy after I ride for 20+ hours then stop, and I don't want to fall asleep at the wheel and kill someone. I don't always get a room the night before, but with the start at 4 a.m. it meant I could wake up at 3:30 instead of 2:30, a pretty big difference.

I set two alarms, woke up at 3:30, put on my bike clothes and reflective gear, and went outside. Ride organizer Matt was there (not riding this time), along with Chris from Maryland and Ed from South Carolina. John from Maryland showed up a bit later. So we had four, a pretty small turnout, until you consider that it's a really hard 400 in September. Chris told everyone about the missing street name on the cue sheet, and we left at 4. It was fairly warm so I had my warm clothes in the bag; my intent was to put them on before the descent down Edinburg Gap.

We rode together through Front Royal and then down Fort Valley Road. There was almost no traffic that early on a Saturday morning, and we made pretty good speed over the rollers, while checking out the stars when the clouds moved aside. Then, out of nowhere, we heard screeching brakes from some hooligan coming way too fast the other way, who must have freaked out when he saw our lights. At least he didn't hit any of us. Some time after that John dropped off the back, so our group was down to 3 riders.

At one point Ed warned me that my taillights were going out. I had checked both of them before the start and they were okay, but I guess the batteries were kind of marginal, because now one was dim and the other was almost out. The sun was coming up by then, though, so I decided to wait until the next time we stopped to change the batteries.

We went up Edinburg Gap, which was no big deal, and then down the other side, which was freezing. Ed's a much faster descender than me, and Chris is a bit faster, so I didn't want to stop to put on more clothes and fall even farther behind. They waited for me at the bottom, and we went into a non-control gas station in Edinburg to resupply. Even though it was just after dawn, there were already a bunch of guys out front socializing. I bought some Gatorade and a Crunch bar and then we headed toward Wolf Gap. We were still pretty fresh, so that climb wasn't a problem either. The descent down the West Virginia side of Wolf Gap is pretty straight so I didn't get dropped as badly, and we regrouped and headed for Mill Gap. That climb wasn't bad either, with fresh legs, and we reached the big highway WV 259 at mile 64.5 a bit before 9 a.m. Not an impressive average speed, but the ride had been all up and down.

We rode a mile down the shoulder of 259 to the Lost River Grill, which has surprisingly good food for an unassuming place in the middle of nowhere. Nobody was hungry enough for a full meal, so we all just got dessert and drinks. The quadruple chocolate cheesecake was really good, and I needed the calories. John came in while we were eating, but the three of us left before he was done.

We had to go about 5 more miles down 259, then turn into Lost River State Park. At first the road was only mildly hilly, but then it got serious. It climbed up and up and up. We took a break at one point while Chris re-affixed a broken bag to his bike, and then he pointed to a house way at the top of the mountain and said we'd be going past it. I'd thought we were done, but it turned out we had at least an hour to go. It was probably the longest climb I've ever done, but at least it wasn't super-steep.

Then we got to the top and had to go down the other side, and it was very switchbacked and very steep in places. I don't know how much brake pad material I wore off on that descent. Ed and Chris were long over the horizon while I carefully picked my way around the worst couple of corners. I didn't want to think about riding back up them later. They were waiting at the bottom, and we only needed to do about 35 miles of rollers to the turnaround point.

After that climb we all wanted lunch, so we stopped at a Hardee's in Moorefield. I had a large Swiss-burger (which wasn't that good), along with fries and an Oreo ice cream sandwich (which were excellent). I also remembered to change my taillight batteries, since I'd need them later. We got going again for a 22-mile stretch down freshly paved US 33. There was some traffic but the road was wide enough for everyone (the lack of lines after the recent paving actually helped here), and the rollers were easy compared to the real hills we'd done before. I hit 41 mph on one of the long straight downhills, which was fun.

We finally reached the turnaround point at Yokum's Market. It was filled with swarms of excessively loud motorcycles. I got a Cherry Coke and some Mint M&Ms (which taste just like Andie's Candies) and we turned around and did the same roads in reverse. It was getting late in the afternoon, and our main concern was making it back over the big climb before it got dark. I wasn't too tired yet, but I knew the next climb would be hard.

The western side of Lost River State Park is steeper and windier than the eastern side. My chain started popping off the biggest cog in the back, and I had to think about which barrel adjuster to use and which way to turn it, but I eventually fixed the problem without having to stop. I was doing okay for a while, but then Ed stopped in front of me. I willed myself to keep pedaling for a bit farther, but then I had to stop too. It was about an 18% grade, too steep to get going again from a stop, so Ed and I walked a bit while Chris passed us on the bike. We remounted at the next flattish spot and started riding again, not so quickly. Eventually I ran out of gas and the others pulled away. It took forever (and one more stop) to reach the top, and then I went down the east side very carefully. There was still a bit of light left, but not much.

I caught up with Ed and Chris at a gas station off route 257, about 70 miles from the finish. It was getting chilly so we all put on some warm clothes along with our reflective gear. I worried that I'd get hot again as soon as we started climbing, but at least we were comfortable on the flat part. There was a bit of traffic on the dark highway, so we tried to get it done as fast as possible and get back on nearly-empty side roads. Chris, in the lead, didn't see the turn in time to make it, but he pointed and we waited for him. Then we started up Mill Gap.

Mill Gap starts pretty easy, but there are a couple of very steep bits. Ed and I stopped again and I walked a bit until it was flat enough to get on the bike. I was feeling hot and wasted time stowing some clothes, right before the top, then had to put them on again. My stomach was feeling a bit sour — too much sugar to digest — so I laid off the Gatorade for a while and hoped I wouldn't bonk. And my saddle area was extremely unhappy. Chris and Ed were well ahead of me, but I just kept plodding along, up and over Wolf Gap, then very cautiously down its dark descent. I was surprised to see Ed and Chris at the penultimate control when I finally got there — I figured they'd be farther ahead. But I didn't ask them to wait for me, since I didn't think I'd be able to stick to them over the last climb.

I put on more warm clothes, then rode through Edinburg, then took some of them off before climbing Edinburg Gap, then put everything back on at the top for the last big descent of the day. The descent wasn't too bad, and it was a simple matter of riding 30 miles of rollers. With my sour stomach and dead legs, it took about 2.5 hours, but I didn't miss any turns and got to the hotel around 3:30 a.m. The hotel clerk didn't really want to sign my brevet card, but I eventually talked him into it (I didn't want to go to sleep without proof that I finished within the time limit), and then found Matt a few minutes later. 23.5 hours is a pretty slow time for a normal 400, but for this one I thought it was okay.

Overall it was a good day. We got very nice weather (ranging from about 50 to about 80, with no rain). The drivers were mostly excellent. No serious mechanical problems — I dropped my chain a couple of times (still need that chain catcher), and Chris broke a strap on his bag and had to improvise with zip ties. I didn't quite get the nutrition right — maybe a bit less sugar and a bit more protein would have digested better. Of course the climbing would have gone a lot easier if I'd been lighter, something I'll try to address before the next hilly 400. I was a bit disappointed to have to get off and walk a few times at the end, something I hadn't needed to do in a while, but these were much worse hills than I was used to.