There were many more riders at this year’s Vasaloppet Ride, due primarily to the absence of a torrential downpour. The temperature was in the upper 30s as I pedaled to the Swedish Embassy, colder than recent mornings but in keeping with a ride named after a Swedish cross-country ski race. At the embassy, there were several hundred people milling about and chatting excitedly amongst themselves. I overheard the Race Director say that only 40 people completed last year’s ride (thank you) despite having 600 registrants. The ride was capped at 400 people this year in order to placate the DC Police Department. 140 people were signed up for the “Full Vasa” ride.
Shortly before 8:00 AM, we were directed to the starting line, where the Race Director made some comments over a bull horn, including an admonition to follow the rules of the road. In short order, we were off, whereupon everybody immediately began to disobey the rules of the road. Stop signs were routinely ignored, even with cars waiting to cross at side streets. After a short stretch on the Capital Crescent Trail, we climbed up a cliff to MacArthur Boulevard, where the scofflaws took their art to a new level at red traffic lights. You will be pleased to know Your Humble Author took no part in these shenanigans and even cast reproachful looks at cyclists who pedaled past him while properly stopped. Sadly, the reproachful looks did not seem to have any discernable effect.
After a couple of miles, we cleared most of the traffic lights on MacArthur Boulevard and a nice paceline emerged, thanks in no small part to a man who rode up and down the length of the pack, putting us into line and exhorting us to keep on the wheel of the rider in front of us. I was especially grateful for this paceline because we were heading into the wind and it cut through the resistance quite nicely at a speed of about 20 mph. After eight miles of this, the paceline broke up on a serious ascent at the end of MacArthur Blvd. We may have regrouped, but the first rest stop was waiting for us at the top of the hill and what was left of our hearty band disintegrated.
Incidentally, I wish I knew there was going to be a rest stop. I wouldn’t have filled both my water bottles in advance, which would have reduced my load and also allowed me to partake in some of the free energy water they were passing out. There weren’t any last year so I assumed things would be the same this time. Lesson learned.
With the temperature warming, I pulled off my cold weather gloves and swapped them with normal full finger gloves. I felt very proud of myself for having thought to bring two sets of gloves, which just goes to show that it doesn’t take very much to make me proud of myself. With no large gaggles of people leaving the rest stop when I wanted to go, I departed with a single partner – a gentleman from DC who had the ride cue sheet on his handlebars and exhibited an air which suggested he knew where he was going. We chatted a bit, but mostly kept to ourselves, about 100 feet apart. This gave me the opportunity to survey the palatial estates along Glen Road and South Glens Mill Road. I was still two miles from the turnaround point when I came across the once-proud remnants of the MacArthur Blvd paceline. There were only about six or seven left and they were now four miles ahead of me, meaning they had moved thirteen miles while I had covered only nine. Pacelines are awesome.
I pulled into the halfway point – a convenience store at Mile 26.5 (which, I know, is not quite half way) and purchased a banana for a snack. Sitting at a picnic table, I attempted to memorize the next several directions from my cue sheet:
- Turn right on S. Glenn Rd at Mile 29.7
- Turn right on Falls Rd at Mile 31.4
- Left into the Wegmans parking lot for refreshments at Mile 32.0
- Left on Oaklyn Dr. at Mile 33.0
- Cross Persimmon Tree Rd and Oaklyn turns into Bradley Rd
And so on and so forth. There were a total of 46 separate instructions for this 58 mile course, which is something like 25 instructions per mile (or at least it seemed so at the time).
Having failed miserably at my memorization task, I stowed my cue sheet in my jersey pocket and set out alone for the return trip. I came across a handful of riders along the way, each with a cheery hello as I passed them (or they passed me). Slowly, the traffic increased as I moved from the outskirts of the city into its heart. I reached Bethesda at Mile 42 and this is where everything went wrong.
I need to figure out a system for displaying a cue sheet. Touring cyclists usually have a nifty bag on their front fork with the cue sheet displayed under a plastic screen. Other, less elaborate, systems include placing the sheet in a sandwich bag and clipping said bag to your bike cables and/or handlebar. My system – shoving the sheet in my jersey pocket – was not terribly efficient, especially in a jam like the one I found myself in at Bethesda. The traffic was quite heavy and the instructions were quite intricate – something like, “turn right on Bethesda Road. There, you will see an old man with a dog. Take the first left turn 100 feet beyond the dog dish.”
It wasn’t quite that bad, but it was bad enough to fool myself and another rider (whose cue sheet storage strategy was to fold the sheet into a small square and bite on it). We eventually found ourselves in a flea market and several helpful vendors pointed us in the right direction – back where we came from. We made our way to the Capital Crescent Trail (CCT) and then we were looking for an exit to Jones Mill Road, which was to come after we crossed Connecticut Avenue “with the traffic signal.” Sadly, we did not see a traffic signal nor an exit for Jones Mill Road. When we stopped a passer-by on the trail and asked for help, we learned we had once again overshot our turning point. This event was feeling less like a bike ride and more like a scavenger hunt. My fellow traveler had had enough and opted to take the CCT straight back to the embassy. Not interested in attempting to navigate the streets of Northwest DC by myself, I chose to bail out as well.
Interestingly, this is precisely the same point in last year’s ride when my companions decided they wanted to bail out. I guess a detailed route study of Bethesda is in order if I hope to not become lost next year. Fortunately, my cue sheet was not destroyed by rain this time, so I can study it closely and avoid similar mishap next year.
Back at the embassy, there was a nice after party going, with the embassy staff serving hot blueberry soup while wearing t-shirts which said, “Hug A Swede.” Cute. There were plenty of “war stories” being swapped by the ride participants both inside the embassy and along its steps. It had turned out to be a sunny day and the somewhat warm temperature was welcome.
Coming up short is something I prefer not to do, so I made it my business to knock out the remaining eight miles of distance on my own “unofficial” finish. I pedaled onto the National Mall and took in the sites. I’ve visited many cities, but Washington, DC remains my favorite. I was surprised to see most of the Mall engulfed in a colossal four-mile long construction project. The reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial is being rebuilt while a brand new pool is being constructed at the opposite end near the capital. Something else incredibly large is being done to the grounds near the WWII Memorial behind construction walls that make it impossible to see.
I did a brief experiment on this part of the trip. I attempted to make the ride up to the Capitol on walking paths, rather than compete with city traffic. After two miles of fighting sight seers, joggers, and pedestrians of all types, I could take no more and hit the city street. This was very exhilarating and far less of a hassle. This was tempered with the knowledge that Death stalked my every move, waiting for a mistake. On this day, I was mistake-free and I made it to The Capitol and back to the Lincoln Memorial without incident. A quick spin around Haynes Point got me over the 60-mile mark and I called it a day.
I have mixed feelings about the Vasaloppet. It was fun to get out on an organized ride and start the “official” part of the year. This event serves notice to me that Winter is over and Spring has begun. The volunteers were great and the House of Sweden was an excellent host. Still, attempting to navigate while fighting through city traffic or sharing the CCT with a gazillion pedestrians was less than thrilling. It really isn’t possible to compare the pace of this ride with any other due to the frequent stops due to traffic. Having done this two years in a row, it may be time for me to take a break from it.