Testing The Secret Weapon

As regular readers know (and are becoming increasingly bored with hearing about), my feet have been giving me problems this year.  I’m fairly certain this is due to an aggravated nerve under the toes of my right foot, although the left foot has been known to join in the fun as well.  I suspect this is a compensation injury as the left foot takes on most of the load when the right foot simply cannot.

I’ve made progress in the past two weeks,mainly through the use of gel insoles in all of my footwear.  The final piece to this grand design arrived in the mail on Saturday.  Behold, the G-Form Bike Shoe Insole:


The good people at G-Form proudly state that this is the first insole specifically engineered to dampen the vibration between the ball of your foot and the cleat, thus eliminating the “hot spot” on the sole of your foot.


The insoles are purported to be breathable, antimicrobial and built with “Medical Grade” Ortholite Technology.  Sounds impressive.  I’m not sure what other grades of insole there are.  “Weapons Grade” would be interesting.  Still, “Medical Grade” seemed to be more in line with what I was looking for and I gave the insoles a test ride on Monday over a 35 mile course.

As always, click for details

As always, click for details

I decided to check in on the Bristoe Station Battlefield, located near the town of Bristow.  Yes, the spellings are correct.  It seems that somewhere between 1863 and today the people of the area decided that Bristow looked better than the original spelling.  This sort of thing happens around here occasionally.  Another good example is Elys Road, west of Fredericksburg,  which suddenly turns into Eleys Road.  Very mysterious.

I hadn’t been to this small battlefield in over a year and I was curious to see what improvements had been made.  The field is preserved by the developer of a new neighborhood of homes as part of the arrangement for allowing the housing builds.  The park office is a former farm house and the park is modestly appointed with a few historical markers and some trails.  I set off on the loop, knowing the asphalt would soon give way to crushed gravel.

The start

The start

Happily, the gravel was reasonably forgiving.  If I had fatter tires and flat pedals, it would have been a breeze.  Lacking both of those items, I needed to be a little cautious of softer portions of the trail and the occasional washout.  On the whole, it wasn’t too bad.

A pleasant trail with a bench under the tree for contemplation.

A pleasant trail with a bench under the tree for contemplation.

They added a cannon!

They added a cannon!

Not a historical structure.  This is actually still in use.

Not a historical structure. This is actually still in use.

After wandering about the park for 15 minutes, it was time to set off again.  It was quite hot at this time with my Garmin reading 99 degrees.  My next stop was the nearby train station to see the commuters heading home after a day in which they were not furloughed by the government.  Most people are taking Fridays off.  I get Mondays.

I have seen the train station on sleepy weekend mornings but have never seen it in operation.  As expected, the large parking lot which has been empty on my previous trips was packed with cars.  I pulled up to the station and was disappointed by the lack of activity.  I had hoped to see bustling commuters, but settled for this pic instead.


As I was setting off for home, I spotted a train in the distance.  I waited patiently and was treated to a scene I did not expect.  As the commuters disembarked the train, dozens of them began… sprinting!

The Race To The Cars

The Race To The Cars

While smiling broadly at the absurdity of the scene, I pondered why these people were behaving this way.  My best guess is that there is only one way out of the parking lot and there must be a bit of a wait to leave it.  Many people cannot bear the thought of a four or five minute wait and thus run at a flat-out sprint in 99 degree heat while wearing business clothes in order to avoid such a horror.  Fascinating.  If people will do this just to shave a few minutes off their commute, its no wonder why they hurl insults at cyclists who have the gall to ride in the road.

At this point, I really needed to start heading home.  My pace was terrible due to my detours at the battlefield and the train station.  It was stifling hot and my water bottles were getting low.  I would need to conserve fluid on the way back.  It was shortly after this point that I began to suspect my insoles were not completely satisfactory.  About ten miles later, I was certain they weren’t doing the job.  With pain shooting up through my right foot, I pulled over for a few minutes rest.  Its surprising (to me, at least) how quickly the symptoms go away with just a little break.  I was able to make the last seven miles with little issue, but I am now officially concerned about my upcoming century.

This was my first seriously hot ride of the summer and it took a lot out of me.  I sat in the cool of the house for over an hour, drinking cold water until I began to feel normal again.  Here’s hoping the heat wave breaks soon.

Wilderness 200K Brevet (Part 2)

Now, where was I?

Oh yes – just heading back after a lovely sandwich and Mountain Dew at the Spotsylvania 7-11.  Did I mention I had a slight breeze at my back all the way down from Bristow?

It was in my face now.

Nothing serious, mind you.  It was only 5-10 mph and only as annoying as a dripping faucet in the middle of the night – always there, always bugging you, but nothing that you can’t deal with.  Stupid wind.  It would be my companion for the next 60 miles.

I left the 7-11 within a few moments of two other cyclists.  I quickly learned they weren’t together as one dropped the other.  Then the slower one dropped me.  We each made our way over flat roads to Chancellorsville Battlefield and another information control.  As I was about to leave, another group of three riders came up and kindly (if unknowingly) posed for the below picture.

Thousands of men died in this field in May, 1863.

Thousands of men died in this field in May, 1863.

With the sightseeing officially over, all that remained was the ride home.  My first task was to pedal through 13 miles of hilly boredom known as Elys Ford Road.  Or maybe it’s Eleys Ford Road; nobody seems to know for sure what the correct spelling is.  I saw both versions on signposts and I saw an Eleys Baptist Church.  Finally, I saw a gravestone in a cemetery with a large Eleys engraved upon it.  It would seem the Eleys faction has a stronger claim.  This road has almost nothing to see and only the tiny town of Richardsville to pass through for entertainment.  On my previous two trips down this road, the hills and boredom sapped my strength.  I was better prepared this time and paced myself.

One of the few pleasant sites on Eleys Ford Road.  Sadly it occurs only two miles into the journey.

One of the few pleasant sites on Eleys Ford Road. Sadly it occurs only two miles into the journey.

There is a steep descent on this road where I always make great speeds.  In fact, my personal best speed of 46.0 mph was set on this stretch and I once again made a run at the record.  I topped out at 44.7 mph.  Stupid headwind.

Eventually I reached the turning point of Eleys/Elys Ford Road and began the descent to the Rappahannock River.  I was thinking about how I felt better than I did at this point last year when my leg began to cramp.  Not good.  Not good at all.

I pedaled to the bridge on one leg and dismounted to stretch and grab some energy food.  I’m not sure what caused the cramping.  It is either a nutrition issue or the fact that my longest ride of the year was 37 miles and I was currently at Mile 98.  Perhaps it was both, but I have decided I need to eat a little more at these rest stops.  I see other riders getting by with small sandwiches and fruit, but these riders tend to weigh about 30-50 pounds less than me.  I’m burning more calories than they are and need to take in more to compensate.  Some folks take the time to have a sit down meal at a local restaurant.  I’m thinking that’s the way to go when I tackle the 300K next month.

The bridge over the Rappahannock River with three randonneurs crossing.

The bridge over the Rappahannock River with three randonneurs crossing.

I arrived at the bridge five minutes behind last year’s pace and took another five minutes stretching, eating some shot blocks, and taking photos.  I now needed to travel the remaining 30 miles ten minutes faster than I did last year just to equal my time.  Things were becoming desperate.  But maybe I could keep my cramps under control.  Maybe my lighter weight would help.  Maybe I could shave some time by being quick at the final control point.  Maybe there was still a chance.

So off I went, climbing a steep hill out of the river valley and continuing my ride into the slight breeze.  In ten miles, I reached the final control point of the day – a humble convenience store at a lonely crossroads in Fauquier County.  Ed and Mary were there, enjoying a leisurely break with several other riders.  I learned that they also took a lengthier lunch break at a proper restaurant.  Ed and Mary are extremely experienced randonneurs having completed the legendary 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris ride amongst many other feats.  Maybe I should learn from them.

Enjoying a break at a picnic table outside the final control point.  I probably should have done likewise.

Enjoying a break at a picnic table outside the final control point. I probably should have done likewise.

On this day, I was not in a learning mood and politely declined their friendly invitation to sit and relax with them.  I had less than 80 minutes to complete the final 20 miles.  When fresh, I could easily do that but I will remind you, Dear Reader, that I had logged 108 miles at this point and any “freshness” that I once had was long since gone.  I pushed hard for the first ten miles on a slight downhill but blew a gasket as I turned onto Hazelwood Road.  I could hear the immortal cycling announcer, Phil Liggett, in my mind:

“Oh dear, it certainly looks as if Martin has cracked.  So close for the American, yet so far.”

 Having given up my chase, I sat up and spun my way home.  Amazingly, Ed and Mary’s group reeled me in only a couple of miles later.  Apparently, I wasn’t going nearly as fast as I thought I was.  It was also apparent what a well-rested set of legs can do and the pace a group of cyclists can do that a soloist cannot.  As always, they were very cheerful.  Mary even managed to take an exceedingly rare photo of your author riding a bicycle.  This is how I looked in their rear view mirrors.

Putting on a good face at Mile 122

Putting on a good face at Mile 122

I put forth an honest, if not herculean, effort and made it back to the Carribou Coffee Shop with a final time of 9:49, nine minutes slower than last year.  As always, I was greeted with clapping and offered congratulations by the riders who finished before me.  Pizza, soda, fruit and other goodies were laid out and I was grateful to partake.  I signed my official control sheet and turned it in.  I chatted briefly with the group and decided I needed to be on my way home.

And thus ended 2013’s running of the Wilderness 200k Brevet.  The start at freezing temperatures was the coldest of my humble career but the day turned out to be quite pleasant.  I was disappointed in my finish time and I had plenty to think about on my way home.  I shall share my poignant observations with you in my next post!

Wilderness 200k Brevet (Part 1)

Wilderness Brevet

As is always the case with the DC Randonneurs, check in was a breeze and there were ample supplies of food and drink to help us store up some energy for the day.  I was very pleased to finally meet Mary, local cycling heroine and author of the blog, Chasing Mailboxes.  Mary was running a marathon during last year’s brevet so her husband Ed (a blogger himself and regular contributor to the DC Randonneurs site) rode solo – something unusual for him as he usually rides a tandem with Mary.  I was pleased that Ed remembered me from last year’s trip.  After reading Ed’s trip report, I would learn that this was the eighteenth consecutive year he has rode at least one official brevet and the ninth year he and Mary have ridden one.  Wow.

My streak is now at two.

The Madone making friends before the ride.  Cory (whom you will read about shortly) is on the right.

The Madone making friends before the ride. Cory (whom you will read about shortly) is on the right.

After some brief instructions on the route and potential hazards, we were off.  This began the first phase of the ride, which I shall call:

The Debate

Here is the dilemma I face on most rides:  pacelines are really really good but I generally don’t last very long.  I knew from last year the lead group would probably set a good pace and I wanted to be part of it.  I also knew that they would eventually spit me out the back.  No worries.  The trick for me was to figure out the best time to bail – that point where the faster speed of the paceline was outweighed by the increasingly high amounts of energy I needed to use up to stay with it.  Last year, this point came at Mile 18.  I hoped to last longer this year.

A mistake I often make is to timidly stay at the rear of the group.  This is not a great place to be as the group expands and contracts like an accordion.  This means the riders in the rear spend equal amounts of time hitting their breaks and sprinting to stay in contact with the group.  Also, if there is a break between groups, anyone sitting in the back is forced to stay with the slower group or try to sprint to catch up with the faster group.  This happened to me last year and I tried to sprint the gap.  I failed and was exhausted in the attempt.

Now it is important to point out that randonneuring events are not races.  Time is a factor but you are very much running against an established standard, not each other.  That said, I am pleased to report that I was the lead cyclist for the better part of five miles in the early going.  I’ve never done that sort of thing before and it was exhilarating.  As far as personal performance goes, this was the highlight of the ride.  Everything goes downhill from here.

The lead group about eight miles into things, west of Nokesville

The lead group about eight miles into things, west of Nokesville

You’ve been warned.

We zipped through a sunny morning, exhorting the sun to rise in the sky more quickly.  Steady speeds of 20+ mph were maintained and I happily was holding my own at the spot where I sat up last year.  I managed another seven miles before surrendering.  We had lost several riders already and there were only nine left in the group that pressed on without me, including Ed and Mary on their tandem.  I was happy to have lasted that long and believed I saved about 25 minutes over how long it would have taken me to ride that length solo.

I eventually hooked up with another solo rider named Cory, who regaled me with stories about life in Japan (he served in the Navy) and a fascinating cycling tradition in California where a massive number of cyclists take to the road every New Years Day and ride incredibly fast.  Traffic lights, stop signs and trailing police are routinely ignored.  I offered up the Air Force Cycling Classic as a humble, more safe, version of that event and he seemed intrigued.

After crossing the Rappahannock River we lumbered up the hills on the far side and eventually made it to the Locust Grove control at Mile 48. It was beginning to warm a bit and I swapped out my winter gloves for regular full fingered ones.  I stored the winter gloves in my new saddle bag, which received more than a few compliments.  My bike barely drew a glance, but the bag impressed.  Interesting.

Control #1.  The Madone is parked next to Ed and Mary's Co-Motion Tandem.  Ed is near the bike and Mary is wisely standing in the sun.

Control #1. The Madone is parked next to Ed and Mary’s Co-Motion Tandem. Ed is near the bike and Mary is wisely standing in the sun.

I was in good spirits as I left the control.  My energy was high and I was ten minutes ahead of last year’s pace.  I shoved off alone for the Wilderness Battlefield and entered into the next phase of the ride:


On every organized ride I have ever been on, there comes periods where you are by yourself on the road.  I’ve ridden for many miles by myself, often out of sight of another rider.  Sometimes I’ve gone as long as twenty miles like this.  Little did I know at the time, but I was about to ride the next 80 miles alone.  Apart from brief conversations at control points, I would spend the next six and a half hours alone with my thoughts.

Fortunately for me, I am a very interesting person.

I’ve explained these battles in the past and won’t bore you with the details again.  Wilderness Battlefield Park is a narrow strip of land with a road running through it.  Much of the land is forested and occasional markers are placed alongside to describe an important aspect of the fighting.   After four miles, I left the park, pedaled past the site where Confederate General James Longstreet was mistakenly shot by his own men (the Confederates had a habit of mistakenly shooting their better generals) and made for Spotsylvania Battlefield nine miles away.

Wilderness Battlefield

Wilderness Battlefield

The roads were mostly dry and the temperatures had warmed to the point where the early morning ice was no longer an issue.  There was definitely more snow in this area than in Bristow, despite being fifty miles to the south.  The sound of generators running in some of the homes was evidence that power had not yet been restored.

Spotsylvania Battlefield was right where I left it one year ago.  There are a few more roads in this park than the Wilderness.  The major road I was on runs in a loop past several key parts of the battle.  I stopped at an “information control” and answered a question based on one of the historical markers.

Monument to Union General Sedgwick, Spotsylvania Battlefield

Monument to Union General Sedgwick, Spotsylvania Battlefield

Information Control - Spotsylvania Battlefield

Information Control – Spotsylvania Battlefield

After that, it was time for lunch.  I was very hungry and the town of Spotsylvania was only three miles away.  I pulled into a 7-11 and pondered my options.  I eventually settled on a sandwich and the free bottle of Mountain Dew that came with it.  There were a few other cyclists there, grabbing something to eat.  Mostly everyone kept to themselves.

I sat in the sun on a sidewalk and thought about the ride so far.  I was at the halfway point with a pace exactly like last year’s.  The day was becoming quite pleasant but I wasn’t going to take off my winter jacket just yet.  I read cheerful texts of support from my wife, drained my soda, and saddled up for the rest of the trip.  It was beginning to dawn on me that this would be done by myself as no groups of cyclists seemed to present themselves they way they usually do for me.

Beating last year’s time would be challenging, but I believed I had a good shot as I was considerably lighter than last year and presumably in better shape.  Check back here to see if I actually did it.

DC Randonneurs Civil War Tour 200K Brevet (Part 2)

So there I was, zipping through the streets of Fairfield, Pennsylvania, hoping my depleted energy reserves after 69 miles of climbing would be sufficient to help me outrun an approaching thunderstorm.

I’ve outrun storms before.  It’s kind of a cool notion, that you can actually outpace a force of nature while riding a bicycle.  However, this storm seemed to have me in its sights.  The skies darkened and the wind picked up.  As I passed a local fire department, I noted the siren was wailing.  This was troublesome as sirens are often used as a tornado warning.  Even more perplexing was this same fire department was being used as a rest stop for the Civil War Century riders and there were many cyclists leaving the parking lot and continuing their ride.  A fire department that was sounding its siren as a tornado warning surely would not let cyclists leave its parking lot, would they?

Would they?

I certainly hoped they would not and that the siren was for some other inexplicable reason.  Maybe they were cheering on the cyclists.  In any event, I pressed on and quickly left the town for the countryside.

The wind picked up.  I’d guess that gusts were over 40 mph and would occasionally push my bike to the side.  One gust caused some acorns to fly off a nearby tree and pelt me.  That hurt.  After about three miles, the heavens opened and a thunderstorm of epic proportions ensued.  Once again, I was trapped in a large storm while on a ride.  I attempted to use my iPhone to find a weather radar which would tell me how serious a situation this was.  I learned that the touch screen on an iPhone doesn’t work well when torrents of water are flowing onto it.  I put it away in a ziplock bag and pressed on.

It got worse.  Thunder crashed around me and the mid-day sky looked like dusk.  It started to rain sideways.  Winds were steadily over 30 mph and gusts had to be around 50 mph.  This was not good, about as bad as I have ever experienced on a bicycle.  I could only see a few hundred feet in front of me and was looking for shelter more substantial than an oak tree.  After about half a mile of this, I came across a gentleman who was closing up his barn.  The building had a porch and I shouted a question to him over the wind, “Could I please use your barn for shelter?”  He graciously gave me permission and I am in his debt.

So now I had shelter and there was a fairly good chance I was not going to die.  Things were looking up.  Still, I was completely soaked and my fatigue from six hours of mountain cycling had not abated.  I plopped myself down on a plastic chair and enjoyed the view.  Amazingly, I saw five people who cycled past in this deluge.  I never saw their bodies or ruined bicycles, so I presume they made it out of there.  I know this:  they were crazy.

The view from the barn

As I sat there, waiting for the storm to abate and wondering what sort of fool rides through a potential tornado, a funny thing happened:  I started to feel better.  After twenty minutes, the storm had subsided, the skies cleared, and I felt remarkably fresh.  For the first time in about two hours, I believed I might finish this ride in decent shape.  In some odd way, the break enforced by the storm may have been just what I needed to recharge my batteries.  I headed out into a light sprinkle and saw two different groups of cyclists emerging from nearby garages.  It looks like the good people of McGlaughlin Road helped several of us cyclists on this day.

The ride into Gettysburg Battlefield was mostly downhill and in a slight sprinkle.  For me, this would be the highlight of the ride.  I’ve been to Gettysburg many times over the years.  There are many fantastic stories associated with this battle, way too many to share in this space, and the park-like setting is always very inviting for a visitor.  I’ve never been to the battlefield on a bicycle.  When I spied Big Round Top and Little Round Top from about three miles away, I picked up my pace like a horse who smells the barn.

Fought over three days the summer after Antietam, Gettysburg is often described as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.  With Robert E. Lee’s defeat, the South lost their best chance to win the war.  Approximately 50,000 casualties were suffered during three days of combat.  I entered the park from the west and traveled past The Wheatfield, which saw 30% casualties among the 20,000 soldiers who fought there on the battle’s second day.  Some of the wounded managed to crawl to nearby Plum Run and soldiers downstream reported the stream ran red with their blood.  Recalling these stories, I suddenly didn’t feel so bad about my personal condition.

I made my way northward along the Federal lines, passing by monuments I knew very well – regimental markers placed where a particular unit fought, Father William Corby – who blessed the Iron Brigade before it launched its attack in the Wheatfield, and several state monuments including a nice one from my home state of New York.  Of course, the Pennsylvania Monument is the largest and it dominates the Union Center.  Despite the recent storm, there were still a few people sightseeing, though far fewer than one would expect on a typical Saturday.

The Pennsylvania Monument

Just past the Pennsylvania Monument is one of the battlefield’s key points – The Copse of Trees.  This small grouping of trees is what 15,000 Confederates marched toward during the doomed Pickett’s Charge on the battle’s third day.  The attackers suffered 50% casualties, a rate that is almost unimaginable to this career army officer.  The original trees still stand today and are part of a nice display.  Imagine my surprise when I saw what the storm had done.

The Copse of Trees

The large tree limb missed a period artillery piece by inches and the marble statue by a few feet.  The only thing that appeared to be damaged (apart from the tree) was the iron fence which surrounds the trees.  I spoke with the gentleman pictured above and learned he had spent the storm in his car on Little Round Top, about a mile away.  We both grabbed some acorns which were all over the place as a result of the storm.  With a little luck, one of them will sprout and I will have a descendent of these trees growing in my yard.

Rodney at Little Round Top

One can sight-see for only so long on these rides.  While not overly demanding, there is a time limit to arrive at the various controls.  I therefore broke off from monument chasing, pedaled out of the park and headed north into the town of Gettysburg, where I eventually pulled into the next control point – a 7-11 store.  I must have made quite an impression to the people inside, who gathered around me and asked where, exactly, I was during the storm.  I told my story with as much embellishment as I could reasonably get away with and impressed everyone with my report about the downed tree limb at The Copse of Trees.  Outside the store, I met up with another Randonneur named Rodney.  We would end up cycling the remaining 50 miles together.

Rodney is an experienced randonneur raised in Wisconsin and recently moved to Virginia from Illinois.  He has been on brevets and lengthy tours in those states and many others but this was his first event with the DC Randonneurs and his first brevet in some time.  He rode a nifty steel bike custom-made by Seven Cycles out of Massachusetts.  I’d never heard of the company and he happily told me a bit about them.  Apparently, they are big into Titanium and lightweight steel and they custom build almost all their bikes.  Neat.

The rain did not stop the reenactors from impressing sightseers hardy enough to start outside

We rode westward through town and made our way to the Confederate lines, where we discovered the road closed due to more downed trees.  The presence of trees on a road didn’t deter some drivers, who attempted to bypass them and became stuck in the mud.  The presence of Rodney didn’t deter the driver of an RV, who almost ran him over as he gunned his engine to get out of the mud.  We quickly got through the mess and pressed on past the large statue of Robert E. Lee and the Virginia Monument and onward past a statue of James Longstreet, Devil’s Den, and up onto Little Round Top.  Rodney was the first person I cycled with at any of the historical sites and I am afraid he had no choice but to hear my ramblings about the events that transpired at each location.  He was very polite and pretended to be interested.  After a few miles, we exited the battlefield on its Eastern side.

I looked at my Garmin.  40 miles to go.

The rain had stopped by this point but the skies were threatening to the west.  Another band of rain was moving our way.  We made a good pace as the ride was mostly downhill and we repeatedly thanked our good fortune that the winds had subsided with the passing of the cold front.  We were pushing against a modest breeze and not the strong gusts of a few hours ago.  We made decent time but I could feel myself beginning to drain once again.  The excitement of being at Gettysburg had faded and all that remained was the long slog back to Frederick.

At my request, we stopped for a rest in the town of Detour (Mile 108) at a small village store called, sensibly enough, The Village Store.  There, we chatted with an elderly man who was fascinated with our bikes and stated he used to enjoy riding a bit in his youth.  Rodney tried to convince the man that if you are well enough to walk, you are well enough to cycle.  Perhaps he made a convert.  Despite the pleasant conversation and the intake of food/drink, this stop did not have the recuperative effect that the stop during the storm or the one in Gettysburg had.  I believe I had simply reached the end of my endurance and the remaining 26 miles would be a gut check.

I was right.

Toward the end, my camera was performing about as well as I was cycling

The gradual downhill ended and a series of rollers ensued.  Roller after roller and roller.  Normally, these are kinda fun to ride:  you zip down one hill and dance up the next using the momentum created from the descent.  In my current condition, I usually handled them by coasting or pushing slightly and then slamming my into my bottom gear, whereupon I battled to reach the top.  I had been fighting cramps off and on for the past four hours.  Every hill brought on a cramp.  It started to rain again.  Life was hard.

Along the way, Rodney lost his cue sheet while attempting to change it on the fly.  This meant he had no choice but to stick with me, which was a pleasant situation for me, at least.  I was responsible for reading and remembering the directions to the next turning, but my memory skills were fading fast.  I could remember the name of the road we were looking for but would usually forget which way we needed to turn.  We would stop at the intersection where I would once again consult the cue sheet, then point out the right way, announce the next street we would turn at, then forget the direction.  This went on for about ten miles.

Finally, we made it to the day’s final challenge:  Ball Road.  Only three miles from the finish, this road features a climb of 200 feet over about 3/4 of a mile.  If you’ve been paying attention, you will know that this is not a significant climb compared to all the others I’d been over this day.  We took a break at the bottom while Rodney got his reflective gear and lights turned on (it was getting dark).  Then we set off.

I’ve been cycling regularly since 2010.  I’ve logged over 7,000 miles.  I have never gotten off my bike for any challenge.  Ever.  But halfway up that hill, with cramps in both legs, I tasted bile in my mouth and gave up.  I walked my bike up about a hundred yards then remounted near the summit.  It was not my greatest moment, but I do believe had I continued I may well have passed out or at the very least vomited while riding my bike.  I didn’t want to do either of those things, so I guess I made a good decision.

The final mile and a half was an easy ride up Urbana Road to the Pizza Hut.  Rodney and I checked in with an official time of twelve hours and three minutes.  That’s well before the maximum time of 13.5 hours but much slower than my previous 200k time of 9:40 on a much flatter course.  I was hoping to finish within 12 hours, so I pretty much hit my mark.  We then sat down inside the restaurant, enjoying some pizza and soda and chatting with other finishers about the ride while trying to not let on that my legs and feet were cramping on and off.  The main topic of conversation was “Where were you when the storm hit?”  The group clapped in congratulations as we arrived and we did likewise for cyclists who finished after us.  It is a nice tradition that separates the DC Randonneurs from other “non-club” organized rides I have been on.  After a few minutes of conversation, I packed up the car and headed home.  It was time to sleep.

Thus concluded the 200k Civil War Brevet.  My Garmin informs me I rode 134. 4 miles, climbed 8,763 feet and burned 5,201 calories: all personal bests.  My top speed was 44.6 mph – my second fastest time on a bike.  Except for the Marine Corps Marathon (which I ran in 1993), this was the hardest physical thing I have ever accomplished.

I’m looking forward to the next challenge.

DC Randonneurs Civil War Tour 200K Brevet (Part 1)

As always, click for details

And so it came to pass that I found myself in Frederick, MD, with 33 serious cyclists for the DC Randonneurs’ 200 km brevet (pronounced Bra-Vaye, for those who haven’t bothered to learn French).  How serious were these cyclists?  As I have discussed elsewhere, a 200 km ride is one of the shortest distances these people cover.  Many ride far longer distances and for a nice report of what a serious randonneur endures, I commend to you this post.  As for myself, I considered the upcoming ride to be my toughest attempt to date.  I had ridden 200k with the Randonneurs last March, but this ride would feature twice as much climbing with strong winds and possible thunderstorms in the forecast.  My goal was a simple one – finish.

A few hundred yards into things – at this point, all was well

After signing in at a local Pizza Hut and receiving a short briefing, we were off toward the first of four battlefields of the day – Monocacy.  It was here in 1862 where Union forces famously found a copy of Robert E. Lee’s Special Order 191, detailing his plan to invade the North.  Using this information, Union General George McClellan exclaimed, “Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”

McClellan intended to march westward toward Sharpsburg, MD,where he expected to meet Lee’s army as it crossed the Potomac River.  Although Sharpsburg is only 30 miles away from Frederick, there are two rather significant terrain features between the two towns – Catoctin and South Mountains.  Our route would take us along one of the roads used by Union forces, who fought their way uphill against a delaying force of Confederates.  In 1862, the men fought in wool uniforms on dirt roads.  I had a bicycle, asphalt roads, and all the liquid and food I could ask for.  And nobody was shooting at me.

Piece of cake.

We pedaled at the rather sedate pace of 17 mph, much slower than the club did in my March ride.  I suspect the more experienced riders at the front were conserving their energy for the climbing to come.  I know I was.  My strategy was not to impress anyone on the climbs.  That was not possible to begin with and to expend energy I would need later while simply trying to make a good showing would be foolhardy, in my view.  I just wanted to survive with as much energy as possible.  The worst of the climbing would be over by Mile 67 and I could then enjoy the rest of my day in relative peace.

A blurry photo at the beginning of Mar-Lu Ridge

At Mile 12, we hit Mar-Lu Ridge and the “sedateness” ceased.  The steepest climb of the day was mercifully the first one.  It was only a little more than a mile, but we climbed 450 feet.  The little pack of riders split up as we struggled to reach the summit.  For the first time that day, I put my bike in its bottom gear and grinded my way to the top.  I would get to know my bottom gear very well before the day was through.  This was also the place where I maxed out my heart rate at 180 bpm – 100% of my capacity, or so the people at Garmin would have me believe.  I think they’re about right.

After gently rising for the next eight miles, I came across our second major climb of the day: Gapland Road.  This was a “mere” 310 feet over two miles from the slumbering town of Burkittsville to Gathland State Park.  I traveled this portion of the ride alone, with most of the group ahead of me and out of sight and a handful trailing behind me, again out of sight.  I was alone in my thoughts, which tended to center on just when would this &^#$%!  climb be over.    At the top of the climb, I found the monument to war correspondents killed in war which Folksnake often mentions.  The site also served as a rest break for the Civil War Century which was being run out of nearby Thurmont.  There were a handful of strong riders there, being part of forefront of a group of 1,000 (or so) riders I would encounter over the day.  There were lots of bugs in the air and I really didn’t enjoy being around food I wasn’t permitted to eat, so I beat a hasty retreat and began the descent into Sharpsburg.

The Madone pausing by the War Correspondents Arch

On my way down, I contemplated my Garmin, which informed me I had climbed 2,000 feet in 20 miles.  I have never climbed more than 5,000 feet in a single ride and I had almost done half that in a mere 20 miles.  No wonder why I was feeling a bit knackered.  As I came down the mountain, the sky cleared and a beautiful morning developed before me.  I eventually came upon Nick, who I knew as the organizer of the March brevet.  We exchanged pleasantries and were quickly joined by Mike.  Both Nick and Mike are experienced riders who knew the area well.  It was nice to have some company and to learn what to expect up ahead.  We pedaled into Sharpsburg, just on the edge of the Antietam battlefield, and made a mandatory stop to get our control cards signed by a cashier at a convenience store.  I also grabbed some more sports drink, some water, and a cup of mixed fruit.  Yummee.

Nick and Mike left a few minutes before me, so I was once again on my own as I entered Antietam Battlefield.  Fought on September 17, 1862, our brevet ride was almost 150 years to the date of the battle.  There were 23,000 casualties at Antietam, the largest single-day loss in American history.  The carnage shocked the peoples of both sides of the conflict, though clearly not enough to resolve the issue as the war would continue for three more years.  I parked briefly at a corn field where some particularly savage fighting took place and pondered what the scene must have looked like 150 years ago.

The Cornfield, with the New Jersey and Indiana monuments in the distance

A lovely ride through the battlefield park ensued.  In short order I came upon another important spot, The Sunken Road, where Confederates surprised advancing Yankees with devastating effect.  After several assaults, the Federals broke the Confederate line.  There are period pictures of the corpses of Confederate defenders, stacked like cord wood in this road.  Nowadays, the road is preserved with two post and rail fences and an observation tower overlooks the scene.

The Sunken Road, with some of the hills I was about to climb in the distance


The battlefield ride was quickly over and it was once again time to climb over the ridge in order to get to Gettysburg.  The next 35 miles are a bit hazy for me.  Generally, they involve one common characteristic – me going uphill.  There was a long gentle climb through the town of Boonesboro, which seemed to be having some sort of civic event that I couldn’t quite fathom until a passerby flagged me down and asked directions for the reenactment.  Why she thought I would know such a thing is anybody’s guess and I was sorry to disappoint her.  My thoughts quickly returned to roads with names like Mountain Laurel Road and Mount Lena Road.  I have long ago figured out that roads with the word “mountain” in them are always troublesome, and this ride would prove to be no different.  I was grateful for the fact that a stiff breeze would be at my back for most of these ascents.

At this point I found myself intermingled once again with the Civil War Century riders.  Whenever the Randonneurs route veered in a slightly different direction, they would shout to tell me I was “off course.”  In a few miles, our paths would once again converge.  As I huffed and puffed on a particularly steep stretch, a friendly rider passed me by and said, “Halfway there!”  For him, perhaps, but not for me.  When I informed him that I still had 75 miles to go, I don’t think he believed me.  He smiled and said, “Well, have a nice ride!” and was off.

Mike and Nick on Raven Rock Road

At Mile 52, I made my way onto Raven Rock Road and confronted the day’s longest climb – 750 feet over six miles.  The grind was a steady 5-6% grade with almost no pauses.  It was tough work and it sapped my strength.  The sun was shining and temperatures were in the mid-80s when I once again happened upon Nick and Mike, who had paused to put on some sunscreen.  We chatted a bit and both cyclists offered encouraging words to me.  I knew the worst of this would be over in 15 miles and concentrated on somehow reaching that point.  Eventually, me and my bottom gear reached the summit and some descents ensued.

A word about descents is now in order.  Riding downhill is fun; of that there can be no doubt.  But when you’re riding downhill at speeds around 40mph on roads you do not know in a state of near exhaustion, the potential for disaster is always present.  I forced myself to concentrate as I flew along country roads, waiting for loose gravel or potholes that would ruin my day.  Fortunately, I found no such thing and was happy to be nearing the town of Fairfield when I happened upon the final, gut-wrenching climb of the mountains.

It occurred on a road named Sunshine Trail.  Let me just say that to give such a name to a road that inflicts so much suffering is borderline criminal.  This lovely treat, at the end of 65 miles of climbing, features 300 feet of ascent over a mile with two false summits to add to the fun.  There were century riders strewn about the hill, most of them chugging away but a few of them walking their bikes up the rise.  Knowing this was the last major effort of the day and a rest was only a couple of miles beyond, I steeled my resolved and lumbered to the top.

A happy reward on the road into Fairfield

Having finished 69 miles, I pulled into a convenience store at Fairfield and found a small band of Randonnneurs finishing their break.  Among them were Nick and Mike, who stayed a bit and chatted with me while I ate my turkey sandwich.  I was thoroughly wrung out and couldn’t imagine how I would ride another 60 miles.  I felt like I had just finished a century, but sadly had done far less than that.  My legs felt like lead.  As Mike and Nick headed out, I decided to stay for a bit longer to rest, stretch, and somehow find some energy.

Then in the gathering gloom to the west, I heard thunder.  Yikes.

Quickly, I gathered my things and struck out for Gettysburg, about 12 miles to the northeast.  The rest would have to wait.  I needed to see if I could outrun this storm.

Does Steve find the energy to finish the ride?

Does he avoid the thunderstorm?

What other silliness might transpire between here and the end?

Stay tuned for the second and final part of the DC Randonneurs Civil War Tour 200K Brevet!!!


Although I have traveled west of Route 28 on several occasions, it is still a major step for me and I still view it as “the frontier” of my cycling range.   Beyond Route 28 lies Route 29, which I have crossed only once about 13 months ago.  If Route 28 is “The Frontier,” then Route 29 is “The Unknown.”  So it was with a bit of excitement that I headed out this morning for the town of Haymarket, about five miles beyond Route 29.

My first attempt at a shadow self-portrait

To get there, I needed to travel up Bristow Road about 20 miles where it would eventually intersect the dreaded Route 29 (also known as the Lee Highway).  This is a major intersection, dumping thousands of cars each day off the nearby interstate to a sprawling shopping center.  My strategy of leaving at 6:30 AM on a Sunday worked well – when I got to the intersection, there were only a dozen cars there.  And thank goodness for that as I discovered the entire mess is under construction, complete with rutted asphalt, pylons, and tons of gravel.  Moving through there with heavy traffic is precisely the sort of thing that has kept me away for the past two years.

Haymarket is a small town which briefly held a district court in the early 1800s, before Fairfax, Loudon, and Prince William Counties decided to keep their own courts.  Nothing much happened there until 1862, when Federal troops entered the town looking for a sniper.  After entering every house and generally causing a fuss, they failed to find their target, so they decided the best option would be to set fire to the entire place.  Everything burned to the ground, with the exception of St. Paul’s Church and three or four nearby buildings.  History does not record if the Federals found their sniper.

St. Paul’s Episcopal

After pedaling down a flag-lined main street (named Washington Street), I pulled up to St. Paul’s and found it to be in a pleasant grove of large trees, making photography a challenge.  This building was the original courthouse and was sold to the Episcopal Church in 1833.  Although it was only 8:00 AM, it was already quite hot and it promised to be much hotter.  In anticipation of the increased fluid needs, I brought my Camelbak along for the first ride this year.  In the end, I’m glad I did.

The trip home brought me back to Lee Highway, which I pedaled on for a couple of miles.  Even at this early hour, there was plenty of traffic and occasionally very little shoulderto ride on.  My flagging spirits were buoyed, however, when I came upon an old tavern at Buckland.

Buckland Tavern

Nearby signage informed me that the tavern had been in this area since the early 1800s and was a favorite watering hole for people traveling between Alexandria and Warrenton.  Signs also alluded to a nearby cavalry battle in 1863, but offered no other details.  Fortunately, I conducted a quick internet search and am able to inform you that Confederate General Jeb Stuart won a smashing victory over Union General Judson Kilpatrick while protecting a Southern retreat after the Battle of Bristoe (which I passed earlier in my travels today).

Having satisfied my historical urges, I turned south on Vint Hill Road and made my way to Nokesville, a town on the near side of Route 28 that many of my travels seem to take me through.  The rest of the ride was uneventful.  I managed the 54 mile trek in the sedate pace of 14.5 mph, which was fine by me.  My chief purpose (other than seeing something new) was to get at least 3.5 hours in the saddle prior to the USAF Crystal Ride in two weeks.  From here on out, I’ll be working on sprinting, which is what I expect to be doing for the majority that 90 km event.

Vint Hill Road

For those of you in the United States, here’s hoping you enjoyed your Memorial Day.  I include the below photo by Martins Blumbergs in honor of the occasion.

Historical Marker Segment!

This has been a banner week for historical markers.  This one was outside the Tavern at Buckland Mills.  In it, we get a synopsis of the town’s origins and the tavern’s history.  I came across this at about Mile 28 on a hot day.  It would have been very nice if it still served as a “refreshing stop!”

Wilderness Campaign 200K ACP Brevet

click for details

See the fancy title I used for this ride?  I can do this because I am now officially a Randonneur and entitled to use the arcane acronyms of this exclusive club.  Here’s how it happened:

Pre-ride bicycle prep and registration

We gathered at the Caribou Coffee in Bristow to register, pick up our control sheets (more on that later), prep our bikes and grab a bite to eat before setting out.  I do not like coffee – a distinct problem when traveling with the cycling set – but mercifully the store offered juices as well.  I was very pleased to meet so many friendly people who introduced themselves and chatted about the club.  I was pleased to see John pull up with his Surly and I feel it necessary to report to anyone hoping to find him on the street that he is regrowing his beard.  Without his bike, I doubt I would have recognized him.

The Grand Depart

At the appointed hour of 7:00 AM, we gathered in front of the store and were given some pre-race (technically, this was a race) instructions.  There were about forty riders total, which I learned later was a good-sized group.  With the administrative portion dispensed with, we were off into the pre-dawn fog, accompanied by a few shouts of, “Allez!”

I immediately noticed a difference in these cyclists in that they followed the rules of the road.  I was beginning to see the difference between the “open” organized rides I have been on and a club ride.  Firstly, people take an interest in you and welcome you into the group.  Secondly, people are held accountable for following the group’s rules.  Both were positive changes, in my view.

We zipped along on roads I know very well from my weekend jaunts.  We passed through Nokesville and headed southward into Fauquier County.  There was a significant mist to the morning and this was especially troublesome for those who wore glasses.  I chatted with a few riders while the pack moved along at 20 mph.  Eventually, the sun began to peek  through the morning clouds and I could tell it was going to be a very warm day.  For now, though, my vest and arm warmers were very welcome.

Early morning paceline

At Midland Road (Mile 22) I made my first mistake.  Our merry band broke up as a few cyclists peeled off to duck into a convenience store.  I was in a group behind this break and we slowed to make sure nothing unfortunate happened.  Then the four riders I was with decided they didn’t want to try to catch the lead group.  Then I decided to try to bridge the gap by myself.  That was my mistake.

I sprinted very hard and actually closed about half the distance for a brief while, but I never reached the back end of the group.  After two miles of sprinting, the pack had disappeared down the road.  I was now by myself with nothing to show for my rather significant effort.  I learned once again that bad things happen to people at the back of groups and if you really want to stay part of a pack, stick near the front.

After crossing the Rapidan River and entering Culpeper County, I had some hills to climb.  Fortunately, I was aware of this fact in advance and had steeled myself for the chore.  On the whole, this was a very flat ride with “only” 4,400 feet of climbing over 130 miles.  This area was the most challenging of the day and I put my head down and got it over with as best as I could.  Occasionally, I would happen across a rider or get passed by someone, but this 20 mile stretch was largely a solitary affair for me.  My glorious 18.2 mph average pace was now closer to 15 mph.

Puttering south of Rte 3, near the first control

When I reached Route 3 – a busy highway connecting Fredericksburg and Culpeper – the group of four that I left on Midland Road reeled me back in.  One of the riders was a man named Jim, who was riding a recumbent bicycle at a very impressive pace.  I don’t know a great deal about recumbents, but in my experience they don’t zip along for 40 miles at 16+ mph.

At Mile 42, I ate my first bug of the year.

Putting a bag on your carbon is a bit like putting a trailer hitch on your corvette, but it worked for me.

When we pulled into our first “control” at Mile 48, I was ready for a break.  It was warming up and it was time to shed some layers.  I also needed to wipe my sunglasses, which I had stowed on my helmet in the manner of cool roadies everywhere and thus accumulated a great amount of moisture during the morning fog.  At a control, it is also necessary to get the proprietor to sign your “control sheet,” thus proving you actually made it to the designated point within the alloted time.  In return for this favor, it is customary to purchase some items, which I was happy to do.  We took a brief break at some picnic tables, arranging our cue sheets to depict the next leg of the trip, swapped a few stories, and built up some energy.  It was here that I met Ed, the “other half” of Mary’s cycling tandem at Chasing Mailboxes.  Sadly, Mary was not present today and Ed was on a more traditional machine.

Saunders Field - "The regiment melted away like snow. Men disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them."
- Captain Porter Parley, 140th NY Infantry

It was only a few miles from the control to our first battlefield – The Wilderness.  Fought in May, 1864, this was a particularly brutal affair fought mostly in close quarters due to the difficult wooded terrain.  To get to the battle, the Federal Army marched over the old Chancellorsville Battlefield and discovered many skulls and other bones that had been dug up by animals or exposed by erosion.  During the battle, the brush was accidentally set on fire and hundreds of wounded who could not escape were burned alive.  It was nasty stuff, and I felt compelled to stop at several of the markers to learn more.  This did not help my overall time but it did make the ride more enjoyable for me.

Where Longstreet fell

After The Wilderness, it was off to Spotsylvania and the second battlefield of the day.  This battle was fought about a week after the Wilderness, as the Federals tried once again to get between the Confederate Army and Richmond.  Before reaching the battlefield, I stopped at a site commemorating the accidental wounding of James Longstreet by his own men, which occurred at the end of the The Wilderness and almost exactly one year to the day from when Stonewall Jackson was killed by his own troops about 1o miles from this location.

Sedgwick's Monument

While puttering about a monument to the mortal wounding of Union General Sedgwick (Commander, 6th Corps) at Spotsylvania, a rider named Chris pulled up to ask if I was ok.  Chris and I had chatted earlier in the ride and seemed interested in the history I had to relate (or at least he was very polite about my ramblings).  We rode together to the “information control,” a place on the battlefield where we had to answer a question to prove we were there.  Jim joined us on his recumbent and we eventually came across the site – a question about the Mule Shoe Salient which the Federals attacked.  I already knew the answer to the question, but dutifully waited until arriving at the marker in question before filling out my control sheet.

Riding behind Jim into Spotsylvania

Jim, Chris, and I pulled into Spotsylvania a little before noon.  We had covered 69 miles in less than five hours.  Suddenly, finishing the ride in under ten hours seemed very possible.  The day was fantastic  and it felt like summer was in full swing despite it still being officially winter.  Spotsylvania was an “open control,” meaning we could pull in to any store in town and get our sheet signed.  We just needed to keep our receipt to prove we were there.  I carefully placed my receipt in the ziplock bag I was using to store my control sheet and credit card, then sat down to enjoy my convenience store lunch of a chicken sandwich and Gatorade.

The road to Chancellorsville

After lunch, we moved to the third and final battlefield of the day, Chancellorsville.  This was chronologically out of sequence from the first two, but there was nothing to be done about it.  Chancellorsville was fought a year before the other two battles and was the site of Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory.  I rode through the battlefield last September and you can learn more about it here.  We just dipped our figurative toes into this field in order to answer another information control question which I already knew the answer to “Question: What was the battlefield named after?  Answer: The Chancellor family home.”).  Since lunch was only forty minutes ago, this was a short stop and we were once again on the road, heading back to Kelly’s Ford over the Rapidan.

Chancellorsville information control

Hunting Run Reservoir

It was about here, at Mile 80, that things began to lose their luster for me.  I knew this would be the case; the battlefield tours were over and all that remained was getting back to the finish line.  And that was 50 miles away.  I also knew that the road we were on was hilly for the next seven or eight miles with little to catch the eye apart from a lovely drive past Hunting Run Reservoir.  There were five of us at the Chancellorsville Control, but shortly after restarting three of them were off in the distance.  I was left with the companionship of Chris, who happily discussed anything I was interested in talking about as we took on the hills in the increasingly hot day.  I am in Chris’ debt.

Chris at the Rapidan

We stopped for a rest break at the Rapidan Bridge, where I ate some Clif Shot Blocks.  These babies were absolutely key for me.  I ate a packet faithfully every hour – except for when I had already eaten at a control.  Every time I downed a packet, I felt much better for several miles.  It may be psychosomatic, but I don’t care.  It worked.

The Madone at the Rapidan

The final control - Mile 111

Shortly after leaving the bridge, Chris realized he hadn’t flipped his cue sheet and he stopped to do so.  I was going to stop with him, but he insisted I continue, saying he would catch up.  I didn’t like leaving him after he had faithfully stayed with me but he was insistent.  I was fairly certain he would be right back with me in a few miles.  I didn’t see Chris again until the final control at Mile 111 – the Handymart where I regularly stop on weekend rides.

I was pretty well spent at this point, but the level terrain and the fact I knew every nook and cranny of this part of the course greatly aided me.  I knew when to conserve my energy and when I could push things a bit.  I managed 16.2 mph pace on the last 19 miles, which was quite satisfying to me.  In Nokesville, I came across Barry, another cyclist completing his first-ever Brevet.  Barry’s from Frederick, MD, and I’ll most likely be heading up his way for the club’s Gettysburg 200K brevet this September.  Barry informs me that there are many more hills in his neck of the woods, a statement which I now have six months to ruminate on.

After Party

Barry and I pulled into the Caribou Coffee finish together with a finishing time of 9:40.  I never thought I would be able to go so quickly, especially given my dalliances at the battlefields, but the weather was fantastic and the fact I knew many of the roads was very helpful to me.  I signed and turned in my control sheet and enjoyed the nice after party, which consisted of pizza, sodas, cookies, fruit and other goodies.  It was a nice way to finish a great day.

I don’t think I’m ready to take on some of the more ambitious events of the DC Randonneurs, but I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the group and hope to join them again this September when they take on South Mountain and the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam.  Until then, Bon Route!