DC Randonneurs Wilderness Campaign 200 km Brevet

Don't quit your bike commute. I think I've told that to 50 people by now.

Last September I got a job offer I couldn't refuse. Full-time telecommute, interesting project, great company. The big drawback was losing my 22-mile bike commute. Sure, I told myself, I could go for a 20-mile ride at lunchtime every day to make up for it. And I really did that, some of the time, when the weather was nice. Not so much in January when it was 36 degrees and raining sideways.

I gained 20 pounds in 3 months and my legs turned from iron into jello. Pretty much what you expect to happen when you go from riding 150 miles per week to 30.

I did a 100 km populaire on an unseasonably warm January day, and finished without problems, but was ridiculously slow from the very first hill (Grant Peterson says you lose 1 mph for each 12 pounds you gain, and this seemed about right) and had dead legs for the whole ride. And 100 km isn't far at all, basically just a long commute. Uh oh.

The first brevet of the season in early February got postponed due to dangerous weather, and I had a conflict that kept me from riding the make-up the next weekend when the weather was merely crummy. So the Wilderness Campaign 200 would be my first long ride in months, and my first since losing all my fitness. Even though it's a pretty easy ride, I was kind of worried about finishing.

We got a few inches of snow the week before the Wilderness Campaign 200, but it melted fast, and we expected the roads to be clear, except maybe in the wooded battlefield parks. The organizers added detours around the parks to the cue sheet, just in case.

We got a big turnout at a Caribou Coffee in Bristow VA. It was below freezing outside, so most of them were huddled in the coffee shop drinking something warm. I figured it made more sense to get used to the cold so I stood outside freezing. I ended up starting the ride wearing almost everything I brought: jersey and shorts, heavy jersey and tights, rain jacket, balaclava, lobster claws, cotton and heavy wool socks, summer shoes. I considered wearing my lined winter helmet, but forecasts said it might warm up to 50 later and visions of sweating my head off deterred me, so I wore a regular summer helmet with the 'clava underneath. Didn't bring my big winter bike boots for the same reason.

It was full light by the 7 a.m. start so there was not a strict need for lights and reflective gear, but many of the riders had them anyway out of habit (or, in my case, fear of not finishing by dark). Better safe than run over. I fell out of the fast front group immediately, then out of the second group, then the third, and was soon riding by myself, slowly. I warmed up quickly with all those clothes on and started unzipping various zippers on the jacket and pulling at the balaclava to get some cool air, but about 10 miles in I stopped and stowed the jacket, not wanting to get sweaty then chilled. The good news was that I wasn't last; while I was stopped a bunch more riders passed me. Without the jacket and with temperatures still around freezing, I got really cold on the next couple of descents, but that sorted itself out pretty quickly and I was okay for the next few hours.

The route went from the exurbs of Bristow to the sod farms of Nokesville then down to Kelly's Ford. Having also gone that way on the hot second day of last year's 600, I was really tired of those roads, though they're honestly very nice. Rolling hills, pretty woods, and not too many cars. I got to the 48-mile control in Locust Grove alone, and was happy to see a bunch of riders still there. I was slow but not completely behind the ride. I went through the control really fast to try to keep it that way despite my slow progress. Way too much 11- and 12-mph riding on very gentle hills where I should be doing 14-15.

My least favorite part of the ride is the shoulder of busy VA 20 heading toward Wilderness Battlefield. It's one of those variable shoulders that's sometimes 5 feet wide and paved and perfect, then immediately turns to gravel without warning (possibly resulting in a rude awakening if you're cruising at high speed without paying attention), then shrinks to 6 inches wide dumping you into high-speed traffic, then widens again. I don't know if shoulders are actually planned to be this awful as a trap for cyclists, or they're just an afterthought built with leftover materials and they sometimes run out.

Luckily there was no snow on the roads in Wilderness Battlefield, though there was still plenty on the grass and trees. I was happy to get off the busy highway and onto empty roads. Of course every DC Randonneurs brevet that visits a battlefield always includes a historical information control — I will totally win on Jeopardy someday with knowledge about muleshoes in 1862. As I approached the info control I saw a group of 5 riders there in front of me. They told me the answer but I refused to write it down without double-checking for myself (not because I didn't trust them but because it felt like cheating), which meant leaving the nice pavement and slogging through melted snow and mud. I decided I was too slow to keep up with them and resumed riding alone out of the battlefield and onto crowded VA 208. (Totally different from VA 20, but with the same joyless feeling.) Luckily we were only on it for a couple of miles until the second control at a 7-11 in Spotsylvania at mile 68, about halfway. I caught the same 5 riders that I'd just seen there, and feeling a lot better after a bit of food and drink and rest, left at the tail of their train.

I felt great for the next few miles, riding and chatting and zooming down the little hills. (The only good thing about gaining weight is that you go downhill faster. This is mostly wasted on me because I feel the need to brake prematurely for every turn, stop sign, and squirrel, but sometimes the hill is straight enough that even I can just fly.) We had another info control at mile 78, and after people spent too much time chatting and I felt my legs getting cold, I took the command decision to start pedaling and get the group back on the road. Surprisingly, they all followed me, and then a few minutes later, they all started to pass me. My post-control burst of energy had worn out and I was back to being slow and tired. We went down Elys Ford Road for 11 miles again, and past Kellys Ford again, and down Sumerduck again, and I was tired of pedaling. It had warmed up to about 50 and felt hotter, but I hadn't brought any sunscreen (couldn't find any; guess my wife threw it all away over the winter), so I decided to keep my arm warmers on and only pull them down when I got really hot climbing, to minimize the sun exposure. That worked well enough — I didn't get too hot and I didn't burn.

By the 100-mile mark I was down to counting miles and figuring what percentage of the ride I had left. This is normal for me on 400+ km rides, but pretty sad on a 200. I had ice cream at the Elk Run control at mile 107, and rejoined Mike and Christian, who had been in the earlier group of 5. (The other guys had broken away.) The three of us rode together to the finish, faster than I would have ridden alone. Mike wanted to at least get his average speed up to 13.5 mph, which sounds really slow but felt pretty fast to me by then. I was able to hang on to the end of the line, though, and we finished in 10:34. For comparison, I did the same ride in 8:57 last year.

So really slow, despite a complete lack of excuses like wrong turns or flat tires. Just out of shape. But I finished before dark, and didn't hurt myself, so it was a successful ride. If I have the time and motivation to do a 200 every weekend, I'll probably be back in shape by May… Yeah, sounds unlikely to me too. It's going to be a hard spring. But even a hard ride can be fun. Okay, mostly after it's over.